Category Archives: spinning

thoughts on seeing a piece of antique lace

I think I’ve mentioned somewhere that I’m a hand spinner. I use my hands and various tools such as spindles and spinning wheels to make what I’ll loosely term ‘yarn’  from loose fibres by twisting them together. It’s an ancient skill. Yarn and the cloth made from it doesn’t usually survive to be dated (it rots, especially the early yarns made from plant materials), but sometimes the impressions of texture and pattern made by cloth and string in mud or soft soil do survive. Fragments of clay found in the Czech Republic show the pattern of cloth thought to have been woven 27,000 years ago. Some of the ‘Venus’ figures found in Europe dating from 20,000 BC have carefully carved string skirts, some so detailed that they show the skirt string is plied. Left dangling loose, a single strand of twisted fibre rapidly untwists to become loose fibre. Only if two strands – known as singles – are plied, twisted together in the opposite direction, will the dangling string remain string. Given the skills demonstrated by the things that have survived, it’s been suggested that people – probably women, as men are traditionally hunters – have been spinning fibre into string/yarn for over 40,000 years.

That’s a long time.

That’s many, many generations of my female ancestors. Only for the last 300 or so of those 40,000 years have women not needed to spin, at least in western Europe, where I come from. I am descended from a long line of women who could spin, and spin well, because the yarn they spun was needed to cloth their families, to be sold for money to pay the rent or feed their families. In the early days the string they made would have been knotted into nets to catch fish and birds. If my ancestors hadn’t been good, productive spinners, they and their children wouldn’t have survived. I wouldn’t be here.

So, as I’m spinning, I think of my ancestors, spinning. I didn’t gain my skill directly from their hands – my mentors passed on their own skills from their hands to mine – but my hands are doing the same things, going through the same motions, as those of my ancestors. Spinning unites us, hand to hand, across nearly 40,000 years.

Lynn, I search out antique handspun textiles because handling those textiles, learning new skills by examining them, is a direct link with the people who made them. For me, it’s all about the people, not the finished piece. I don’t care if something is tattered, too badly damaged for a ‘serious collector’: the ragged edges and loose threads mean I can see how it was made, whether the yarns are plied or singles, estimate their grist. I can extract individual fibres (of wool) to estimate staple length and fineness of fleece. Knowing these things I can try to replicate the yarn. Spinning it, I remember with respect the person who spun the original.


So. Here is a piece of linen lace in the style of Alençon, in northern France, dated by style and condition to the 18th century (1701–1799). Pre-Industrial Revolution, there’s no doubt the thread used for this was handspun and, for lace, of the finest quality at the time. Because in this condition it is of no value to a collector 48″ of this cost £5, but to me it’s beyond valuation. It’s 48″ of people’s lives: the skills of the flax grower, the processors, the spinners, the lacemakers.


Detail of the lace magnified 20x. The lens circle is 1cm in diameter.



The damage allows me to examine the individual strands of yarn more closely.


Above, a damaged area magnified 20x, showing what seems to be a single thread.

Below, the same area magnified 80x. 


The lustre of the individual threads and the ‘hand’ of the fabric, even after more than 200 years, suggests this is linen. I am awestruck by the fineness of the fibres in the yarn: having done some flax processing myself (this link shows the basic principles), I have some idea of just how tricky it would be to get fibres this fine. Having spun flax, I have some idea of what it takes to spin this fine. At this point I’m not even sure whether this is plied or a singles yarn. I did find a description of the spinning process in Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper, Vol. 4 1865 on Google Books:

“Why, the flax of which the old Brussels and the point d’Alençon were made, was cultivated on purpose; it was chiefly grown in Brabant, Halle, and Courtrai, and had to be spun in underground cellars, because contact with external air made the thread brittle. The thread was so fine as almost to elude the sight; the spinner had to go by the sense of touch, examining every inch as it left the distaff, and at the slightest irregularity stopping the wheel. The room was kept in darkness, except for one single ray of light arranged to fall on the thread, which was thrown up by a background of dark paper … “No wonder,” said Goody, “that fine lace is so costly; why, I have read lately, that at the present moment, hand-spun thread is often sold at £240 sterling for one pound only.”

MeasuringWorth says £240 in 1865 would be between £20,690 and £471,100 in 2015 pounds. I am stunned.

I hold the lace and I respect the people who made it. I remember with respect the people who, generation upon generation, developed the skill to make things like this. They may not be my personal ancestors, but without them we wouldn’t be here.

All that from a piece of old lace.

The wrong fibre in the wrong place at the wrong time

That’s a remarkably vague title, but it’s what unites the two topics of this post. First, some spinning fibre: Cotswold sliver.

It doesn’t look too bad from a distance. Creamy white, reasonably lustrous… feels relatively soft, not harsh. Could be good, but look at it more closely.
There are inconsistencies, curds of shorter, finer fibre. Also, as you can see, sliver is a carded prep, not combed; the fibres are not parallel, they’re interlocked. But this is Cotswold… a long wool. What’s going on?
Above are Cotswold locks, unwashed and washed. Below, fibres pulled from the sliver to check staple length (and therefore more parallel, similar to top, than they were in the sliver itself).
Check the staple length: it is long. (With those embedded tufts of finer, shorter wool just waiting to add … character … to the spun yarn.) I did sample it; I can’t find the sample to show you, but spun with a point-of-contact long draw I assure you it seemed to me a relatively nasty yarn, hard to draft  (the long fibres run through both slubs and twist-locked thinner areas, so the slubs cannot be drafted unless the twist-locked areas are freed). Definitely characterful and not in a good way. The wrong fibre (Cotswold) in the wrong place (a carding machine) at the wrong time (when it was carding).

So. What to do? I could bin it, but 500g = £12 plus postage and I just can’t bring myself to throw the money out. But wait! I don’t have to. Gentlemen, we have the technology. We can rebuild him, er, it. With combs.

The fibres are unsorted, so ignore directionality such as butt and tip. Just lash the sliver on, then comb. In general more passes will give better results, assuming you don’t stress, weaken and snap the fibres. In any fibre prep, watch what you’re doing and if you notice more nepps than when you began, Stop! (And next time, stop before the nepps form.) I don’t think this was wonderful fibre to start with; some of the sliver contains a lot of darker hairs and other areas contain dull, short fibres, so I give it only two passes. I have fleeces more deserving of that processing time.

The photo clearly shows that combing has done a good job of separating the long fibres from the short. Diz off the long fibres and:

there is a nest of roughly-combed top. There are still some nepps in it, but I can live with that. Above the top is the combing waste, composed of second cuts plus shorter, finer fibres from the base of the fleece, plus nepps formed from longer fibres broken in the carding process. In the medieval period combing waste was spun woollen to become weft for relatively low-grade cloth that was finished by fulling and perhaps brushing to raise a nap on the surface. I plan to try that with this waste, but if it’s too nasty, I’ll use some other softer, fullable wool. The top will be the warp yarn for this cloth. It’s not too bad. That sheep was not shorn in vain.

Next, another fibre – or rather, fibres – in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Weaving! Janet Phillips showed me a different way to hold the lease sticks for threading, and I thought I’d share it – and my refinement of it – with you. For my first warps I had the lease sticks on lengths of string running from castle to back beam. I found this awkward, so was pleased to hear about Angel Wings, which attach to the Baby Wolf back beam to hold the lease sticks securely in a fixed position. But I found them awkward, too. The cross was a long way behind the heddles. Janet uses string but ties hers much nearer the castle, bringing the cross much nearer the heddles. I couldn’t find a good, quick way to try her tying method on the Baby Wolf, then realised I didn’t need to: two hooks off the kitchen pot rack would do the job. A loop of thick cord is passed between each end of the lease sticks, then hung from the hook. And, even better, the tube work light I bought for my husband sits across the hooks to shed light on the cross while I’m working. It works really, really well.

(The light is not so ferociously bright as it appears in the photo.) You may notice some strangely yellow heddles in that shot; they’re string heddles, tied to correct a stupid mistake: I miscounted the heddles when setting up to thread. I work from right to left, and the Baby Wolf shafts have a fitting in the middle that prevents heddles sliding across from the left side to the right. I could had pulled all 200-odd threads out, added more heddles, then re-threaded, but why would I want to do that? Far faster to cut some lengths of smooth, shiny mercerised cotton, loop it around the bottom of the shaft, tie two knots to define the heddle eye, then knot the ends loosely around the top of the shaft. Magic! The right fibre (cotton) in the right place (my thrums bag) at the right time (when I need it).

The wrong fibres (remnants of handspun lace yarn in tussah silk, cashmere, camel down) in the wrong place (on a loom) at the wrong time (as an unsized warp). I fear this will end badly, as the soft, blooming ends were catching on each other and causing uneven tension in the warp while I was winding it. I should have sized the warp after winding or, even better, skeined the balls of leftover yarn and sized it before winding the warp. But I was concerned only about the behaviour of the warp while weaving, so planned to size it on the loom. I’ll know better next time. I’ll persevere with this because dealing with the uneven tension will be educational (ha!) and, well. It’s just so pretty…