Slow cloth, well-travelled

My last post was written in May 2017 sitting at the desk my husband made for me, beside a window looking out on my English garden in an English village (true, but much less quaint than it sounds).

This post is written from what was our kitchen table, repurposed as my temporary work desk, with a window looking out on our new garden on Vancouver Island, Canada. I’ve come home. Almost. ‘Home’ would be Alberta in the 1970s, but southern Vancouver Island is nonetheless a good place to be. Immigrants ourselves, in the summer of 2017 we fled Brexit Britain for our native land, arriving in time to celebrate Canada’s 150th. For nearly 12 months the logistics of our move – selling the house, selling everything we didn’t think worth shipping, packing – and fulfilling my spinning teaching commitments consumed all my time and energy. Only now am I starting to think and plan future textile projects.

But first I have to finish what I started.

Stephenie Gaustad taught me to spin cotton at SOAR in 2009. I fell in love with the banjo charkha, but couldn’t hide it under my sweater to bring it home when class finished so I’ve had to settle for tahklis and bead-whorl spindles, a T-frame charkha, Majacraft Suzie Pro and a Rose. I spun cotton on all of them and my bag of singles skeins grew larger. I learned to weave. One of my first projects on the Baby Wolf was a tiny warp of handspun cotton singles. Success! (Mostly.) Now I knew why I hadn’t plied those skeins, but increasingly I wondered what sort of cloth they’d make. In fact I needed to know, because there’s no point in spinning more cotton for weaving if what I’m spinning won’t make a cloth I like. There was only one way to find out: weave what I had. I’d spun natural shades of cotton from cream, brown and green through to white. I put the whole lot through an indigo vat because I like blue. Plus some handspun silk singles because I had A Plan.

IMG_3109Indigo-dyed handspun cotton singles drying on the rosemary bush by the kitchen door. I miss that bush, and our North Ronaldsay sky-blue doors.

IMG_3111I had to finish drying the yarns on the radiator. Hmm. Clearly I dyed silk fibre, too. I wonder where that is? In one of the many boxes, of course.

IMG_3117The gelatin-sized yarns drying under light tension – those water bottles are not full! – suspended between the hoe and an old rake handle wrapped in clingfilm aka Saran wrap on the clothes tree. The old grey lunchbag contains clothes pegs.

The shorter skeins were hard-spun ( which means with lots of twist) on the tahkli; I put them to one side for use as sewing thread, calculated the remaining yardage and wound a warp. I estimated the set, the number of warp threads per inch from wpi, wraps per inch around a ruler, then beamed the warp and wove a bit.

A digression dealing with the value of my time and the lifespan of the cloth I want to make. Modern fabric is generally soft when you buy it, even before you use it. The yarns are relatively softly spun, the cloth is woven and finished to be soft. Soft yarn, soft cloth doesn’t stand up to wear. It stretches out of shape, fibres pill and pull out of the fabric. This suits our ‘I want it soft and I want it right now’ society and, even better, it makes money for the manufacturers of clothing that will wear out as well as go out of style in under a year. But I invested a lot of time in spinning the yarn for this. Pre-Industrial fabrics, handspun, handwoven and hand-sewn, expensive as reflected the time needed to make them, wore well enough that clothing and bedlinens are often included in wills. I want to make cloth that reflects the time it took to make, that serves me well for years, that wears well. It will be hard to the touch to begin with but soften with wear and age.

Deciding the set for handspun yarn is tricky unless you’ve spun yarn to replicate an existing fabric. Standard set charts may be misleading: you can set your yarn like a commercial yarn of similar grist, but if your handspun is a different fibre and/or more or less tightly twisted, it will behave differently from the commercial yarn when finished and you’ll end up with a different fabric. With handspun I start with wpi, tweak it according to what I think of the cloth on the loom, and keep samples for future reference.

I looked at what I’d woven at 40epi, decided it was sleazy, unwove the inch, re-sleyed, wove a bit. Looked at it, decided it was still too open, unwove the inch, re-sleyed, wove a bit. I may have done this a third time, but kindly time blurs painful memories. Eventually what I’d woven looked enough like the fabric I wanted, warp-dominant to emphasize the stripes, that I cut the woven strip off to see what it looked like after hand washing. The small block shows the set and picks per inch off the loom, the long strip has been washed. The brown and tan cottons have dyed greenish. Other stripes are variations in the cream and white cottons, perhaps the result of variations in twist or in the fibres themselves.

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That doesn’t show how washing affected the density although you can clearly see the that the warp has shrunk (the unwashed sample is taller). With the light behind it the overall shrinkage is more obvious, as are the reed marks, the open lines between the groups of ends (threads) that run in each dent of the reed. They’re almost inevitable given that I had no finer reed, but I’m trying to think of them as a design feature – they can be – and they’re less obvious in the washed strip anyway. Notice also that the warp threads have moved in the washed fabric: hot water revives the twist, but the weave structure locks the threads into position. I may see some tracking in the final fabric.

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On balance that sample was acceptable. It’s 50 epi set in an 8-shaft twill currently woven plain weave according to my Plan. It’s 9″ wide on the loom and I think the warp is about 5m long (the one thing I forgot to write in the book). The washed sample shrank roughly 10% in both warp and weft.

I’d hoped to have this woven and off the loom before we left the UK, but I had no time. When the movers arrived I simply folded the Baby Wolf, roughly wrapped paper around the beams, and left them to pack it. Unlike our more fragile ceramics (yes, I am bitter), the loom arrived undamaged. The warp had shifted somewhat, but less than I feared, and as it wasn’t well-wound or beamed in the first place that’s the lesser problem. I’m getting better at warping, but I need a lot of practice.

IMG_4622I have started weaving some fine yarns with the lease sticks in place. Like back-to-front or front-to-back warping, lease sticks in or out is something weavers seem to choose as habit early in their careers. I didn’t like the lease sticks in when weaving thicker, fuzzy yarns: my impression was that the sticks were encouraging fuzziness and binding of threads in the warp. But feeding firmly sized, finer yarns through the even tension of the lease sticks seems to correct some of my warping issues. 

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The colour is more accurate above. Below, a closer view of the fabric on the loom. The slightly more open weave below my thumb is where I started weaving again in Canada. Below that you can see some annoying imperfections, places where slightly thicker areas of the sized warp threads are stiffer and refuse to conform around the weft when beaten. They become much less obvious after washing and one could argue imperfections are part of the charm of khadi fabric, handspun and handwoven, but I’d prefer perfection. I see no reason to pursue anything less. To me the imperfections in this are a reminder that some of this is my earliest cotton spinning and weaving, because they’re less obvious now after I greatly increased the tension on the warp to pull them straight.

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At any rate my handspun singles stand up to the test. They are weavable, and they are teaching me more about weaving. Time to start spinning more cotton!

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3 thoughts on “Slow cloth, well-travelled

  1. Pingback: This particular Triumph of Perseverance Over Stupidity is complete. | carpe diem!

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