Friday, December 05, 2014

Weaving Handspun Yarn: Increasing Fascination, Research Extension

Measuring out 50 yards on the homemade skein winder.
Christopher and I spin together. Now we are weaving together. Months ago we made yarn from Tuesday the alpaca's so-soft-you-bury-your-face-in-it hair. Since his brother has a woolen scarf I knit for him, Christopher has been agitating for one too, and we've agreed to learn to weave it together.

Will it be finished by Christmas? Since we must learn to size the yarn with starch or a milk solution, measure out the warp threads on warping pegs, and then dress a harness loom with them -- a process with 20 pages worth of steps in my big Swedish weaving book -- weave the scarf, and then finish and full the resulting fabric, probably not. Maybe by Easter and lambing time? Who knows? Doesn't matter. It's experimenting with this most ancient and respected craft that is the point right now. Later Christopher can enjoy wearing the piece of heaven that is partly the work of his own 7-year-old self.

From Tuesday's back to Christopher's neck, our hands, using tools so ancient some of their sources are lost in time, will have touched each step. To this day I have never felt such happiness and satisfaction with anything I have ever sewn or produced. This is getting to the source of things.

Christopher unskeins the commercial wool/alpaca yarn from the homemade skein unwinder, while I continue
measuring out a total of 110 yards for the scarf warp (lengthwise) threads.

Here's the loom. It's a Swedish loom, a Glimåkra Pysslingen table loom on legs from the 1970s. Like most Swedish and Finnish looms, it's ingenious and to my eyes, handsome. You'll be seeing it on and off as time passes.

Glimåkra Pysslingen loom, up close, along with skeins of the fluffy, chunky handspun
alpaca Christopher and I have produced.
Little note: you might recall the trim loom. It's in use. It's got cotton warped on it now, and I am about a third of the way through making a petticoat tape. A nifty, handsome machine and good way to begin to understand weaving movements. Plus make trim. But when? Again, who knows. Whenever the path winds there.

You Know Why I Spin, But Why Weave, Not Knit?

First, my knitting is poor. Garter stitch is fine, purling okay, but any combination beyond knit and purl and it's all too easy to get confused. This brain has a hard time with numbers anyway. Dates, sums, prices, equations, they get turned around in my mind so easily, mixed up together in jumbles. Long experience has taught me that all number sequences and calculations must be written down, then checked to make sure they weren't garbled even during their writing. Knitting sequences? Germs of frustration.

Then, weaving has appealed since a high-school-era class in a sunny old room introduced me to the big harness looms and the amazing things they can accomplish. Now is the time to return to that magic, even though it involves hordes of potential calculations and our loom is by no means large. At least those can be written down in logical order. I can avoid patterns made by complicated harness sequences and keep to the simplest weave structures while turning to manual warp-by-warp inlay techniques for figures and patterns beyond stripes and checks.

At the last, like many costumers, trying to find modern equivalents to or substitutes for historical fabrics has led naturally to curiosity about them.
  • What were the fibers like when the original garments were made? 
  • Were the silk worms the same species as raised today? Who raised them? 
  • Who herded the sheep for the wool and what did the sheep look like, smell like, act like? 
  • Where did the fine Indian muslins sold in Europe and the Americas come from? What plants, animals, and minerals were developed into paints and dyes?
  • What tools and machines made the yarns and threads and fabric and who developed them and used them?
  • What is calendaring, and is it true that the "scroop" of late 19th century silk depended on treating the silk yarns to a bath in caustic soda? How is brocade made?
  • What linen thread counts are good for shifts? What weaves look nice in a wool petticoat?
  • How was reeled silk produced in the 18th century? What about the 19th? How about now?
  • If England made American colonists buy so much of their wool, how come spinning wheels from the era are common? Who used them and what for?
  • When was ninon silk invented and why was it apparently named after Ninon l'Enclos?
  • What happened to fabric after it was reduced to rags, and what's the difference between mungo and shoddy?
Questions like these have bedeviled me for years. The answers have a great deal to do with what fabrics and designs were popular and where, and how people constructed and wore clothing, and they impacted fashion designs more than we costumers tend to think about.

So, as I've learned to spin Americas-style with a handspindle and now to weave, bedtime reading matter has been mostly historical accounts of the dawn of sheepherding, of spinning, of weaving among the Egyptians, of the English wool industry, and of revent ideas about how Medieval spinning in Europe may have been accomplished. I've eaten up books about spinning on wheels and spindles, and have read and reread Learning to Weave, a bible among American weavers, and The Big Book of Weaving, another bible recently translated from Swedish and my favorite reference so far, probably because the Swedish and Finnish looms are such clever, elegant structures almost entirely constructed of wood and cord, and capable of producing amazingly fine fabrics.

Booky, bloggy, wiki knowledge hasn't been the only benefit of all the reading and experimentation. When I read letters like those from Anna Briggs' accounts of spinning, weavers, and fabric conservation in American Grit: A Woman's Letters from the Ohio Frontier, her descriptions and concerns have made much, much more visceral sense than they once did. Same for My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams. Books like Rural Pennsylvania Clothing: Being a Study of the Wearing Apparel of the German and English Inhabitants, take on a different feel when I can begin to visualize some of the decisions the makers made when constructing clothing. Concepts become tangible and are tested, the sense of time shifts, resources are appreciated more, and the skills within bone and muscle and empathy in the mind and soul develop, even if just a little bit.

By the way, I am far from alone in this. There are historically minded spinners and weavers all over, in the United States associated with institutions like Colonial Williamsburg, tiny firms and larger companies like Thistle Hill Weavers or Devere Yarns or Pallia Mittelalter Hautnah in the U.K. Reenactor and SCA folks too, many of them in Europe and a number of them sharing their experiences on sites and blogs: Arachne's Blog and In deme jare Christi in Sweden, 15thcenturyspinning in Australia, Medieval Silkwork, in the Netherlands, and Hibernaatiopesäke in Finland, or Odette's Obsessions here in the States.

As Christopher and I make his scarf, and I consider a fun and modern rya-knot-woven pillow for the den, and perhaps a linsey-woolsey petticoat someday, it's good not only to enjoy the process, but to begin to feel and experience physical, mental and emotional movements made generation after generation after generation since people became people, and to begin to glimpse how the arts we are practicing are so closely meshed with with not just fashion, but with so much of the rest of life.

It is such fun getting down into the roots of it all.


Kleidung um 1800 said...

So fascinating to learn and experience more about the beginning of all fashion!
I'm very happy for you that you've ventured into this new field. With your ability to do excellent research, you will probably unearthen lots of amazing details in the future!


Natalie Ferguson said...

Dear Sabine,
Thank you! It is so neat. There are quite a few people in Germany and Scandinavia testing out methods and making fabrics. Very far advanced over what we usually do over here.

Just learned this morning to spin in the Medieval manner. In some remote locations it's still practiced. It results in such fine threads, Sabine. *Thread*...hmmm, where can we go with this? Perhaps you'll be seeing some worsted wool thread in your mailbox sometime, eh?



lissla lissar said...

How do you spin in a Medieval manner? How?!

Natalie Ferguson said...

Dear Lissla,

Good question! I learned how to spin as Cathelina di Alessandri does on her blog 15th Century Spinning, at, and as many of the European women do in Youtube videos to which she has posted links.

Cathelina appears, so far as I can discern, to have some pretty good evidence supporting the method she uses. You have to read her blog and then practice a bit and sure enough, it will come to you. I have a European flax spindle -- no big whorl, and it spins supported on its little tip very easily and because the spindle is usually supported, it can create a find thread. Because the spindle is supported and usually turns pretty slowly, I don't dropping the spindle or breaking the thread, and can spin relaxed. Still have to learn to use a distaff, though. Right now I comb out fiber fresh with viking-style combs into top, predraft it into a fairly thin roving, and then toss most of it over my shoulder so it doesn't get wound in the spindle.

Give it a try and see if it works for you!!

Very best,