Trying Something New
Do you remember the awkward feeling when you started to weave? Having to look up how to do the next step, not been able to figure out why something didn’t look right, or thinking, as one of my student once told me, “I don’t even know what I don’t know.” But there was also the satisfaction of having accomplished something pretty special. “It’s magic”, I tell my students, “we have a bunch of threads and we turn them into cloth.”
The feeling of satisfaction has stayed with me, but I must admit that my awkwardness with weaving has gone, and that’s true for many people who weave regularly once they have woven for a while. “How hard can it be?” seems to be the replacement feeling. And that may be fueled by the general public. When we demonstrate spinning – and we just had our sheep to shawl demonstration earlier this month – people come up to us, see us seamlessly draft our fiber which turns into thread and is wrapped into the bobbin, and ask: “so, all you do is just hold that fiber in your hand, right?” (Here I am spinning while my friend Guild President Gio Chinchar is knitting).
But in teaching, especially beginning weaving, I found that it’s not good not to remember that awkward feeling. I don’t want to think “How hard can it be?” I want to remember what it was like starting out with cones of yarn, a loom, various tools – and a wonderfully patient teacher.
A while back, I realized that I could recapture that awkward feeling by starting something new. I stumbled on the thought when I decided to take a white oak basket weaving class. How hard can it be? I thought, I already know how to weave. Wrong! White oak weavers, as they call them, don’t bend like yarn! I still love baskets, but instead of making them, I support my fellow basket weavers. But the idea was born: every couple of years, I should learn something new – or, rather, I should say, I would attempt to learn something new, just to have that awkward feeling. Most of the activities stop at a class, like the basketry, others lingered a bit longer, like crocheting, until I decided that I would rather knit after all. The topics are not always fiber related, since at work one of my tasks was teaching, so I had the same issue. Sometimes the topics are self-taught, as in the early 1980s when I learned a new-to-me computer language called Pascal for work, and then I used it to write a computer program to do a drawdown.
And then there are the few new skills that stick. In the mid-80s, one of our members was going to teach a spinning class for our Chimneyville Weavers Guild – was I interested? This was going to be a big commitment since she had no extra wheels, so each participant would have to buy one. My husband convinced me that a wheel could be sold if I decided I didn’t like spinning, and anyway I may need it to ply yarns for my weaving. First we tried spindling, not my favorite; then she taught us to card; I saw it as a necessary step to the final goal. But once I started spinning on a wheel, I was hooked. I wasn’t the only one; our guild was eventually renamed the Chimneyville Weavers and Spinners Guild (CWSG).
Now it happened again – this time with kumihimo braids. In January, CWSG member (and HGA 1st Vice President) Kathy Perito presented a mini workshop on braiding. I decided I should participate, although I had seen people at Convergence and Kathy braid, and it seemed impenetrable. How do you know where to move all of those strands of yarn? But soon I found that the step-by-step rhythmic movement of the strands is mesmerizing and addictive.
I prefer a disk, as I love to sit at the end of the day braiding curled up on the coach with a glass of bubbly and a cat. I am slow, and I have only made eight-strand round braids so far – 6 of them – but every time I do one, I learn a little bit more. And isn’t this how we become proficient at our crafts? Here are a few of my braids:
Birds of a Feather Exhibit
At the December meeting of the Chimneyville Weavers and Spinners Guild, the inspiration for our 2017 show was announced: “Birds of a Feather”. Our Guild member (and Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi president) Sharon Williams will mount the exhibit on March 1, so I didn’t have much time to plan and execute a project.
Luckily, birds are very colorful, so it’s not hard to match bird to yarn – or finished product to a bird!
A triangular shawl that I knitted with handspun late last year is going to the show; I had taken all yarns of silk and wools, other animal fibers and bamboo that I had been spinning and knitted them together. I was unsure how large of a piece the yarn I had would make. I could have knitted a sample and made the appropriate measurements, but I chose to improvise. I knew I had enough to make a shawl, I just didn’t know how big. In such cases, I make a triangular shawl, starting at the bottom and knitting up until I run out of yarn.
The needle size should be approximately 3 times the grist of the yarn. To figure it out, then, I take 3 strands of yarn and using a knitting needle gauge, I find the hole into which the 3 strands fit comfortably, not too tight, but not too lose. In the example below, using a commercial yarn, three strands fit into the size 10 needle hole. This is a good place to start.
For this project, there were yarns that were thicker than others. I decided to alternate two rows of the thicker and two rows of the thinner yarns; as I ran out of one yarn, I substituted a similar one. That way the transition in yarn color is pretty gradual. For yarns that were thinner yet, I used two strands together.
To knit, I start with one loop, then I knit in the front and back (Kf&b) of the loop so I have two stitches. For the third row, I knit 1, and Kf&b in the 2nd stitch. Now there are three stitches. From that point on, I knit 1, Kf&b, then knit to the end. Thus I increase one stitch at the beginning of every row to make the triangle.
The combination of the colors in each yarn, the colors of the alternating yarns, the colors of the yarns as they are substituted makes for a very bird-like appearance, I think.
The colors in birds’ feathers are not all pigments, but are structural coloration; that is, there is interference of the wave lengths of light as they bounce off the microscopic structures of the feathers. Did you ever see a rainbow on the surface of an oil patch after a rain? Then you have seen wave interference. You know those colors weren’t in the oil.
Since I knit until I run out of yarn, I have to make sure that I have enough to cast off. Toward the end, I measure a length of yarn that is 4 to 5 times the width of the piece and mark it, and then I make sure that I don’t knit past the marker. That rule of thumb works well for large size needles – I was using 11; for smaller needles, 3 to 4 times the width is sufficient.
Here is the shawl. It will be exhibited at the George Berry Gallery at the Mississippi Craft Center. Does it remind you of a bird?
Handmade Gift Giving
Let’s hope that my sister doesn’t read my blog before Christmas, or her surprise may be spoiled…. She is the lucky recipient of the handwoven scarf shown below, in a twill with a variegated red silk warp from RedFish Dyeworks and a red Blue Heron rayon and metallic weft. The rayon can be a bit heavy, but the silk lightens the scarf up up, so that it has a nice drape; the interplay of the various reds and the gold metallic gives it sparkle and shine. I am tempted to keep it…. But I won’t – but I may make myself one!
My brother-in-law is receiving this hand knit scarf in seed stitch, with handspun of silk and yak; he likes to go winter camping in the Rockies, so this is sure to keep him warm.
I often advise students not to give their handwoven or hand knitted work as a gift to friends who may not appreciate it – and to be very careful in thinking who will truly value it. I believe that people don’t really realize how much thought, work and care goes into our handmade pieces, even those who may practice other fiber crafts may not have a true understanding.
I will never forget this brief encounter: it was the late 70s, and I had been weaving only a couple of years; I entered the elevator with a woman who worked in the next department, whom I often saw in the hallway; she said to me that she heard that I wove, that she cross stitched, and, in fact, she planned to cross stitch afghans for her Mother and Mother-in-Law, 50 squares each, with the birds of the 50 states in one and the flowers in the other. And, she added, “I thought it would be a nice touch if you wove the fabric for me to cross stitch; how much would the materials cost?” After I bit my tongue, I smiled and said that I didn’t weave for others, but I knew weavers who did, that I would be glad to refer her to some, and that she could expect to pay $50-$60 per yard for custom handwoven fabric (remember, this is late 70s). She looked at me as if I was from Mars, I am not sure whether it was because I wouldn’t just weave the fabric for the honor, or whether she couldn’t believe that handwoven fabric would be that expensive. She clearly didn’t have a clue about what it takes to weave fabric.
It’s not unusual for me to overhear buyers surprised by the price when looking at handwoven or hand knit works by my Craftsmen’s Guild colleagues. Fiber, more so than other crafts, it’s undervalues because after all, “my grandma did that.”
Over the years, I have been very wise in my gift giving of handmade pieces. There are only three or four that I regret giving. But those few times have been far outweighed by the joy I have experienced when I have given items to people who truly appreciated them. I clearly remember having spun the yarn from Ronaldsay wool for seven caps; the fiber was of different natural colors, so each cap would be a bit different. Six of us were going to Oban, Scotland to meet our Scottish friend; Scotland was suffering from a heat wave; still, I was knitting the last two caps while going from home to Oban via Edinburgh; my sister thought I was crazy to be knitting wool in that heat. But the weather turned cold and those caps were the hit of our group, and they are still in use, all these many years later. Here Terry and I are sporting ours as we embarked the ferry in Oban.
Happy New Year! It always seems that it takes a bit of time to get back on track after the holidays, especially since I don’t think of the season being over until after Roc Day. In my native Italy, as a child, Epiphany concluded the holidays, so I am grateful that in the Gulf Coast states we celebrate Roc Day, which technically is January 7, the day after Epiphany, when allegedly women returned to their fiber crafts. After Roc Day, I can get back to “normal.”
We usually celebrate Roc Day the first Saturday of January after the New Year weekend, but this year we were lucky that the first Saturday was indeed on January 7th. What we weren’t so lucky about was the weather – snow, yes, snow, in Mississippi and heavy rain, some places freezing, in Mississippi and Louisiana, prevented some from attending the fun. But the Spinners and Weavers of Imperial Calcasieu Guild of Lake Charles, LA, organized a wonderful day at Dry Creek Baptist Camp, Dry Creek, LA, in a remote and peaceful setting.
Now I am back to the big project that I started a year and an half ago: cataloging all of my work, pieces and samples. It seems wasteful of time, but I find it very helpful for my teaching, writing, and for recalling yarns, setts, beats and any problems I may have encountered in the past.
I use this spreadsheet or a modification of it, depending on what I am weaving, for every piece that I make:
The spreadsheet for planning a weaving project (click on this link to download the Excel spreadsheet)
n.b. This file will launch a new window or tab, prompting action on your part.
In Microsoft's Edge, a box will open.
In Mozilla's Firefox, a new window will open.
In Google's Chrome, a tab will appear at the bottom of the browser.
When teaching, we often don’t have access to a computer, so we use a printed form and then we do the calculations by hand:
The form for manually planning a weaving project (a PDF will open in a new window).
In addition to the information in the spreadsheet, I add a drawdown if the structure warrants it. At the end, I add a snapshot of the piece. I print everything and I attach yarns. The reason for printing is that photographing the yarns is not enough, I really need to see them and feel them. Also, should something happen to the computer, at least I would have a printed copy, even though files are backed up electronically daily.
Once all that is done, I add the piece to a database that includes an access number, title, how it was woven, warp and weft yarns and their colors, piece location and any notes that I may want to remember. The few pieces that I have given away don’t appear there, I have a separate listing. This seems laborious, but it’s not, it takes just a few minutes.
The spreadsheet makes it easy to search; for example, if I want to know in which pieces I used 20/2 silk and how I set it for a variety of structures.
The access number was a brain child of my husband, who was frustrated when he had to wait around to photograph pieces, as I fumbled searching for them and then realizing that what I had given him wasn’t what I thought it was. After forty years of weaving, well, there are a lot of pieces named “red silk shawl”.
This is the access number of a scarf I finished this fall:
WV 20160405 20161010 Deflected Doubleweave Scarf
The WV indicates weaving, since I also catalog spinning and knitting; 20160405 is the starting date – year, month, day – meaning when I started planning it, not weaving it. The 20161010 is the ending date, which is the day when the wet finishing was done, snapshots were taken, the spreadsheet was printed, and the piece was entered in the database. The last part of the access is obviously the name.
Here is the front and back of the fabric – these are not my snapshots, they are Terry’s photography.
I have used some form of record keeping, since I started weaving, a suggestion made by my first weaving instructor. So, once I started the database, it was easy enough to go backwards to enter all of the pieces I still have. Or so I thought.
Sometimes in the early 2000 I started using electronic planning sheets, but not rigorously until 2004. Thus it was easy to build the database going backwards, until about 2004. Further back I had to rely on planning sheets filled by hand – which would have been fine, except I realized what an incredible poor record keeper I had been! I am back to the 1990s, and I have yet to find a single complete planning sheet. Dates are missing, yarns are attached but not labelled, and notes are legible but incomprehensible. There are some pieces that I really want to find because they are illustrative and educational, and this has been a very frustrating, long and maddening chore.
My suggestion is: use a planning sheet of some kind, either the one attached or one of your own making; keep careful notes because years down the road, you won’t remember that yarn, you won’t know the sett, and you will have forgotten what your impression of the work was at the time. Did you like it? What would you do differently if you were to repeat it? There is nothing like personal experience and a good way to recall it.
Technology and Crafts
Recently Nancy Perkins, Executive Director of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi (CGM), told me that there has been a discussion in the CGM Board of Directors about the technology in fine crafts and at which point using technology eliminates the individual practitioner’s creativity because the computer software dictates what the individual does – should that craftsperson, then, be granted juried membership in the Guild?
This is by no means a new argument; in the early 1980s, as computers started to become available for home use, I, and several others in the weaving community, wrote programs to do drawdowns; some believed that it was “cheating” – that the computer was doing all the work; in fact, all the computer did was fill in squares where the user told the program a square should be filled, to represent a warp or a weft thread. In the summer 1983 I wrote an article for Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot entitled “Computers Don’t Weave”. Now, over 40 years later, whether one uses drawdown software or not, I think that nobody would consider using it “cheating”, any more than writing with a word processor is.
I can’t speak for the crafts that I don’t practice, but I do use a computerized loom and I think that it allows more creativity not less! I realize that most people reading this blog are weavers and so I am preaching to the proverbial choir. However, feel free to refer people to these explanations when you hear that argument. Also, should you be thinking about a computerized loom, this will give you an idea of the advantages – and disadvantages – of using one. At Convergence™ 2014, I presented a seminar on this topic for people who were considering such a move, so I have thought about this problem for a long time (if you would like a copy of the handout, please click here).
At the core of the argument is creativity, originality and one’s own work.
First, though, we need some definitions since some of those terms are used differently by various crafts. If I say that I wove a scarf with a straight twill, a weaver knows exactly what pattern I am talking about. In weaving, a pattern is usually a particular weaving structure; even if you had to look up a more complicated pattern, for example an “M and W twill”, that says nothing about your creativity, it’s like looking up a word in the dictionary. With the same exact pattern, you could weave a flowing shawl, a well-balanced fabric to use in sewing a garment, a sturdy place mat, and an even sturdier rug. All possible because of your knowledge of fiber, yarn, sett, beat and, yes, creativity.
In contrast, for example, when knitters say “pattern”, they may mean directions that one could obtain from published sources. Depending on how difficult the pattern is – and publications may offer that information – the knitter could buy the recommended yarn and needle size and knit the item from the pattern. There could be tremendous skill in the task, but no creativity. Another knitter may design her own pattern which, in addition to skill, would require creativity as well.
Part of the problem in this discussion, then, is how the word “pattern” is used by different people in different ways – and sometimes by the same person in different ways.
So, for starters, using a pattern does not preclude or include creativity. You have to dig a bit deeper. Although I must admit that the “rule” that I heard that changing somebody else’s work by 20% makes the work original is a bit of a stretch for me. We all “steal like an artist”, but the whole point of creativity is to synthesize those elements in a novel way so that it truly becomes a reflection of us as an individual; that is the essence of Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist, which I highly recommend.
Back to the loom. What does a computerized loom do for me?
First, let’s consider what we can do with the usual four-shaft foot-powered loom; to form a shed where the weft will be placed, we have to have some warp threads down and some threads up; that is, some shafts must be up and at least one shaft must be down or vice versa. It turns out that taking shafts one at a time, or two at a time, or three at a time gives us 14 possibilities, for each shed. Clearly there are a lot of possibilities for weaving, but we are usually limited because we step on treadles on the floor to activate shafts up or down, and usually four-shaft looms have six treadles because of space limitations, so we have to be inventive about how we use the treadles and there are some sequences that are simply not possible.
As we increase the number of shafts, we obtain more pattern options, but the possibilities can become staggering. I have forty shafts, think about what’s available: shaft # 1 vs. the other 39, shaft # 2 vs. the other 39, and so forth until we get to shaft # 40 vs. the other 39. And then we move to shafts 1 & 2 vs. the other 38, and shafts # 1, 2, 3 vs. the other 37, etc. How many treadles could you fit under a 40 shafts loom? That depends on the width and even a 60” wide loom wouldn’t have enough, and it’s hard to weave on anything wider than 60”.
So, the computerized loom, used this way, is a mechanical device. I enter in the computer program what shafts I want lifted – my pattern – and the computer sends a message to a dobby that lifts the shafts I told it to lift. Not only I don’t have enough room for treadles under my loom, but that many shafts together are heavy and it would be difficult to lift them with one leg and move on to the next shed.
Thus, I enter my pattern in the computer; but unlike 4 shafts where I can look up the pattern, there are no pattern dictionaries for forty shafts! I am not only making decisions about what to do with those “words”, but I am inventing the words! I would say that this is pretty creative.
It is true that once the pattern is entered, there can be less of a chance to make a mistake since the directions are identical every time. However, it is very easy to step on the pedal that controls the dobby too fast and so skip a step, which is harder to detect since the pattern is more complicated, and thus the mistake may not be visible… until we take the cloth off the loom! If you buy a computerized loom, you must be careful of this pitfall until you get used to the mechanism and then you must pay attention, looking at your weaving and at your computer screen in turn, to make sure you haven’t made an error.
The other consideration is floats. Floats are our friends and our enemies; on one hand, they make our patterns, deviating in some ways from the “over under” of plain weave. On the other hand, too long of a float means unstable fabric and more possibilities for snagging. We cannot simply take a four-shaft pattern and extend it, our floats will be too long, even with the closest of setts. And there is a drawback: a closer sett means a shorter float, but it also means a less visible pattern. So, when you design with more shafts, you must come up with creative ways to limit the floats while making the pattern large enough to be visible.
In the September blog I showed a drawdown of a plaited twill that I had designed (it’s on the loom right now). In between the plaiting, I needed threads anchored or the floats would be too long. Plain weave is often used with fewer shafts, but with forty, the plain weave areas were too large and unattractive. I think I spent more time filling those areas with motifs that I did plaiting the twill.
So, what does the computerized loom do for me? I still wind the warp, thread the heddles, sley the reed, tie the warp on and throw the shuttle while weaving. But forty shafts give me more design options, the computerized dobby makes possible the lifting of shafts that would be otherwise impossible – physically and logistically. This allows me to do something totally unique, the hallmark of creativity.
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