Category Archives: weaving

A handspun, handwoven, mostly hand sewn jacket. Eventually.

In April 2014 I decided to spin and weave fabric a fabric from singles (unplied yarns) for my first planned garment. I bought black (‘black’ in this context means very dark brown) Shetland for the weft, above top left. It was a bit boring when spun from the top, so I carded bats including some slivers of multi-coloured silk. I thought Black Massam (the other two images) would make a good warp: the offspring of a Teeswater ram put to Dalebred or Swaledale ewes, the fibres should be longer, a bit coarser, and have more sheen than the Shetland. In the event neither of the tops were quite as I expected: the Shetland had a lot of kemp (very coarse flattened hairs) and more hair mixed in with the wool, and the Massam was shorter and very variable in thickness. Nonetheless I persevered. Once spun the warp was steamed to set the twist then sized to make it easier to manage; the weft was steamed (otherwise it can twist into little pigtails after the shuttle is thrown and before it’s locked into place by the changed shed).

30001485335_1bb50924af_c
The sized warp dries under light tension.

I warped and threaded my Baby Wolf loom for an 8-shaft broken diamond twill at 30 epi. The yarns behaved reasonably well on the loom although I had more breakages than I like, mainly where I’d made quick-and-dirty joins while spinning, laying the spun end from the orifice onto the fibre instead of opening up the spun end to join fuzz-to-fuzz. I wasted far more time protecting fraying joins with hair gel than I’d have done making them properly in the first place! The quick joins are fine for yarn to be plied, but they’re disasters waiting to happen if you’re weaving singles.14410873262_a0ab954361_c

I can’t remember how much fabric I had when I finished, but I do remember the wonderful feel of it washed (zig-zag stitch the ends, throw in the washing machine wool wash cycle, remember to clean the filter afterward!) finished (hot iron both sides, no cloth) and the satisfying weight of the roll. But what should I make? Laying out modern pattern pieces on my narrow fabric would be wasteful, and I’m not a tailored jacket sort of person. I decided on a jacket based on Pattern 23, ‘Man’s coat, Afghanistan’ from Dorothy Burnham’s extremely useful Cut My Cote. Never having made anything other than commercial patterns, and never having made anything that actually FIT me, I was a bit unsure of how to start from the sketches of the pattern pieces laid out on the fabric width.

29918301781_0c8a3dee92_c

I enrolled in one of Alison Smith‘s ‘Three Day Own Choice’ workshops and – amazingly – emerged having learned to translate the sketch to paper pattern pieces, use these to make a toile, adjust the pattern, cut my fabric, overlock/serger all the edges, sew the jacket AND insert a mandarin collar into the existing collar band. I can’t recommend Alison too highly! I returned home with a lightweight unlined jacket, on which my exposed selvedges are a decorative detail. (Alison’s suggestion, she liked them. All weavers may now pick up their jaws up from the ground and replace them.)

16000784954_d314845ca9_c

The lack of internal seam finish annoyed me. I decided to weave lengths of inkle band to cover the seam allowances but, several months and about 8m of band later, concluded this was a bad idea: the decorative bands were too bright and, worse, made the seams too stiff. The jacket went into time out (also known as a plastic bag in the closet).

Imagine the flickering calendar pages of time passing…

After seeing one of the reconstructed Herjolfsnes garments at the Ship Museum in Roskilde earlier this year, I started thinking about making some of the dresses for myself, first in a commercial fabric and then in handspun handwoven. Reading about the garments and sewing techniques in Medieval Garments Reconstructed, I remembered the abandoned jacket: I could rip off the inkle bands and practice medieval sewing techniques!

In order to sew, I had to have thread. Handspun thread. Not being able to carefully select the best hairs from my fleeces after washing and shearing my double-coated sheep, I dug through my stash to find the remaining twist of Shetland from the weft. The mix of kemp, hair and wool means it’s far from perfect, but it works.

Top left, singles spun on a light spindle; Below, my plying spindle and mugs;
Right, the final 2-ply thread.

I take pride in my ability to wind fine spun singles into balls without using a core but it is easier to ply from the balls if they don’t bounce around: using a pebble as a core adds weight, and putting each ball into a mug and wrapping the singles around the handle before taking it to the spindle makes it much easier to control. The plied yarn is well within the parameters of those used on the Herjolfsnes originals.

The book mentions the possibility that the threads were finished with something, perhaps beeswax, before sewing. I found quite a lot of information about thread finishes, something that I – a non-sewer – knew nothing about, on the internet. I decided to try running the thread across beeswax before using it, and now I’m a convert, at least for handspun wool thread.

29967316896_06a8b7b467_z

The wax stiffens the thread, making it easier to thread the needle. Being slightly sticky it pulls off some of the fuzz from the thread (see the hairs left in the wax), which makes the thread much easier to work with. And it smells lovely.

Three or four inches at a time, I’m trimming the overlocked finish off the raw edges and binding them down to the garment.

29918300041_dc623a3d3e_c

Pebbles from California on which to wind thread, the snips I use to trim the fabric, and the bowl in which for some reason I’ve kept ALL the edges I’ve so far trimmed off the seam allowances.
I think it’s time I threw that lot away.

Before sewing, the raw edges on the Herjolfsnes garments were stabilised by ‘singling’: a fine thread was sewn to and fro into the thickness of the fabric, in from the edge, not stabbed up and down through the fabric. I haven’t enough raw edge on the seam allowances to do that, so I’m taking pains to run the needle in and out of the fabric for additional stabilising as I sew one way, then I take it back over the fabric to the starting point. A picture is worth a thousand words:

30001260165_7bbd1bb8c1_c29707495680_197ace097b_z

I’m trying to stitch every 2mm or a little less. You can see the waxy whiteness of the beeswax on those recent stitches, but it soon disappears as the garment is handled.

I think the end result looks good, is appropriate for a handspun, handwoven fabric, and will allow me to tell people about the astonishing finds at Herjolfsnes.

29887748732_dc92f20c17_z

Some of the internal seams. The stitches are not generally this visible: I chose the light angle to highlight them.

29373713994_59e0ffcbdb_z

Seams as they appear on the outside of the garment. The stitches pick up a thread or two of the fabric at both ends, so create a subtle and decorative ridge.

Once I finish all the internal seams (as you can see from the pattern, there are more than a few), I will try my hand (and foot) at fut-slyinging, incorporating a foot-tensioned tablet-woven decorative band along the hems. I think all this handspun thread, hand sewn and woven really should outweigh the fact that the garment seams are machine-sewn!

Also, some of those seams were even sewn with an appropriate needle. Bone.

29918308991_84df1accc9_z

A tiny piece of velveteen

In March a friend asked me what I knew about fustian weaves. I’m fascinated by European textiles from the Medieval period through the Middle Ages, so I started talking about fabrics woven from mixed materials. Linsey-woolsey is a well-known example, wool weft on a linen warp, but there were cotton wefts on linen warp and wool weft on cotton warp too. But she was interested in the fustians of the late 19th and early 20th century, by which time it had come to mean a pile fabric.

Pile fabrics are interesting. The pile is created by weaving a fabric with floats: where normally the threads might interlace over-under-over-under-over-under, in a pile fabric either the warp (the threads held on the loom) or the weft (the thread held on a shuttle and passed through the warp threads) will float over several threads before it is locked down again. If warp threads float, the fabric is a velvet; if weft threads float, the fabric is a velveteen. This will make more sense if you read it again, looking at the diagram of a velveteen. Start at the bottom and work up:
PileStructure

Rough diagram of a velveteen, a weft pile fabric. I have completely ignored the structure of the selvedges (the edges of the fabric); these are often different from the main fabric.

Because the pile weft is not structural – it’s not needed to hold the warp threads together because the ground weft does that – the floats can be cut, taking great care not to cut the ground weft or the warp thread. The red arrows mark the most obvious cut lines, straight down the middle of the floats. When the floats are cut, the cut ends rise up to form pile. If all the floats are cut, the entire fabric is covered in velveteen pile. If vertical groups of floats are cut and uncut, there will be ridges of pile alternating with furrows of smooth fabric: corduroy!

My friend and I searched for pattern drafts – diagrams of how to set up the loom and weave the fabric – of fustian weaves from this time, and found H. (‘Harry’) Nisbet’s Grammar of Textile Design, third edition (with 669 illustrations!) published in Bombay, as a PDF on the invaluable cs.arizona.edu weaving archive. Chapter II is Fustians, from Imperial or Swansdown through Corduroy and Corduroy Cutting Machines. Nisbet gives a good if somewhat … Victorian … description of the structures of these and many other fabrics. If you want more information about fustians or are interested in fabric, it’s a decent free book.

On page 141 there’s a velveteen draft/diagram, together with a useful illustration of the way that the cut floats form pile.
Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 09.41.46

I redrew the ‘design for velveteen fabric’ as a modern weaving draft. The bright pink threads mark the centre of the floats.25549370302_66b9bf3e15_o

By now I was entranced by the idea of weaving velveteen. Not a lot of it, as I suspected cutting the pile was going to be very tricky without a fustian cutter’s table and knives, or even full-fledged mechanisation, but still. Worth a try. Handwoven velvety stuff. Cool!

From what I could find about sett (the density of threads on the loom) and the velvets and velveteens I remembered seeing in shops, I thought sewing thread might be a reasonable warp. I assumed there must be a good reason that most silk velvets I looked at online had cotton warp and ground weft, so I bought a bargain bag of variously coloured cotton thread on eBay. I had some odd cones of 20/2 silk in the weaving stash. It occurred to me that the ground weft should not show in the areas of cut pile – the pile expands to conceal it – but would be visible on the back of the fabric, so I chose three (red, orange, gold) that looked good together and wound a 2m warp. The three spools gave me 200 ends; set 60 ends per inch (6/6/6 in a 10-dent reed), that’s only 3″ wide. Still, proof of principle and all that.

This gives some idea of the warp colours and the scale. I used some ugly silk for my first pile weft and purple cotton for the ground weft. Note that there’s a band of plain weave (the ground weft weave, over-under-over-under) before and after the strip of velveteen floats in greyish silk.
velveteen

Cutting the pile floats was indeed tricky. When this sort of thing is woven commercially, the equipment includes long grooved rods to be inserted down the cutting lines. The rods lift the floats and protect the warp and ground weft threads; the grooves guide the cutting blades. I used a medium-fine darning needle and a single-edge razor blade instead. Wearing strongly magnifying reading glasses I ran the needle under a line of floats, then ran the razor blade down the needle. It worked. The finest (Clover) chenille cutter I could find  didn’t work, it was far too coarse for this.velveteen1

As one might expect of something sharp running against steel, the razor blade required regular sharpening. I kept my fine whetstone next to the loom and re-touched the edge after every strip of velveteen.

But it was a phenomenally slow process. Each group of three red or blue velveteen stripes (at left, below) separated by bands of plain weave (the ground weft alone) took 3 hours to weave and cut.
VVteenStrip

The truly horrible uneven selvedges are a result of alternating plain weave (the ground weave stripes) with the velveteen float weave. The silk weft is much thicker than the sewing thread weft of the plain weave stripes, so the velveteen stripes are wider. Note that the shiny uncut pile floats contrast beautifully with the pile, and that the pile can be cut in patterns. Lots of scope for fabric design here.

I was right; the reverse/back of the fabric was beautiful! The stripes are different colours of cotton thread ground weft – purple, yellow, pink – plus the red and turquoise silks I used as a pile weft. The pale vertical line is a repaired warp thread.
VVteenBack

I learned a lot from this.

  • Even weft tension is important, otherwise loose loops of ground weft may be caught by the needle and cut.
  • Contrasting ground weft helps the weaver to spot this.
  • 100% silk velvet is unusual and expensive because slippery silk warp and ground weft wouldn’t grip the silk pile weft as firmly as cotton does. Of course silk is more expensive than cotton, too. Mercerised cotton is shiny enough and works well for warp and ground weft.
  • While inserting something down a line of floats in order to cut them, keep an eye on the adjacent cut edges: if your needle/whatever you’re inserting is too thick, or you lift it too high, you may pull the adjacent cut edge under the locking thread. I found it better to cut long lines of floats in two tranches because one long one required lifting the needle too high.
  • If you want nice, even pile, try hard to run the cutting blade down the middle of the needle. It’s easier to cut down the side of the needle, but this means one side of the cut float is shorter than the other. The uneven pile doesn’t reflect the light as evenly, and the shorter ends are more likely to pull out when you cut the next float.

I now had a tiny gemlike strip of precious fabric, too pretty and too interesting not to be used for something. Obviously it had to be a hussif or housewife, a little needle case that I could use when travelling with embroidery.

While I was sewing it, wearing magnifying glasses and swearing under my breath, A. asked if I honestly enjoyed making tiny things, as I make so many. Why don’t I make bigger things to work out the details? Well, I only had enough fabric to make one of these, and it wasn’t so complicated (except for the scissors-keeper) that I felt I needed to make a tester. The scissors-keeper I made twice to check the details. The final version is sewn from scraps of sari silk; the snap is off-centre to fit neatly inside one of the finger loops of my cherished Bohin scissors. The felt is handmade; the thimbles are sitting on top of their tiny pocket.

And I do like making small things. I enjoy pernickety attention to detail, I do it well, which is why I was a good technical illustrator and a very bad landscape painter (I wanted to show every leaf, accurately). Of course I enjoy making things even more if I know what I’m doing, but it’s fun even when I haven’t a clue and am working it out as I go along.

 

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…