Weighted in the Past: Warp-weighted Loom Weaving

Give me an inch and I’ll take a mile! I’ve always been a person who has had an insatiable curiosity. I’m not necessarily mechanically inclined, although I can change a tire, troubleshoot a loom issue, or notice when one of my dogs, cats, or ponies is not feeling well. But when it comes to a historic or cultural technique like making linen thread from a flax plant or setting up a traditional warp-weighted loom – well, bring it, as they say! 

The Story of a Coat

words and photos by Rebecca Harkins

The pandemic gave me the perfect opportunity to achieve a lifelong dream to make my own wool shirt. Since I raise sheep and have a lot of fiber available to spin, I decided to use handspun wool. 

The first thing to decide was what the fabric design would be. My dream shirt just had to be plaid. I wanted a simple pattern with larger blocks of color and I wanted to use what I already had. I had a beautiful natural chocolate brown Shetland roving and a large quantity of white roving available. I also had a huge tub of teal dye (when calculating how much dye to order for a project, decimal points really matter). Since I didn’t want the shirt to end up too dark, I decided to also include white in the fabric design. These 3 colors went into the plaid I designed for the shirt. 

Once the colors, fabric design, and fabric pattern were chosen, it was time to figure out how much fiber I would need. This involved much discussion, several napkins and notebooks, several phone calls and emails to friends to check my math, stopping to spin, weave, full asample, and finally adjust my calculations yet again. I do think rocket science would be easier. Nervous, I decided to add an error rate to my calculations so I would spin enough to make some extra fabric. Besides, who wouldn’t like extra custom-made wool fabric?

With calculations done, I prepared all of my fiber and set to spinning on my Kromski Symphony wheel. I chose to ply my yarn to make a stronger yarn for weaving. Over the next two months, the mountain of finished skeins grew and grew. I kept a tally of the yardage of each skein as I completed it so I could track my progress towards my goal. My Symphony is a real workhorse, so each skein took an average of 1 hour 35 minutes to spin. It took an average of 44 minutes to ply and skein each ball. All told I spun 13,095 yards or 7.44 miles of 2-ply yarn. My wraps per inch (WPI) for the plied yarn was 22. 

With the spinning all done, it was time to dye. The brown would stay as it was, but I needed to dye just slightly more than half of the white to teal. My dyepot could hold two skeins of yarn and I had nineteen skeins to do.

The next step was to warp the loom. My loom is a Paxton 4-shaft floor loom. As I was warping, I deliberately mixed up the different dye lots, using one strand of this dye lot and the next strand another dye lot to disguise any dye lot differences. This blending worked astonishingly well and added a beautiful depth to the teal. My loom has a sectional beam allowing me to warp in 1-inch segments, which were then put on the loom. 

Once the cloth was woven, it needed to be fulled. Fulling is the process of felting or partially felting wool fabric to make it more stable. This process wasa lot of work as I chose to do the feltingby hand because I was concerned the machine would felt thefabric into a ball. This process is done by wetting the fabric with soap and water and squishing and rubbing it repeatedly to make it felt. In total the squish and rub process took 5 hours.

Once I thought it was felted sufficiently, I sewed it onto a wooden frame under tension to dry. I had done some research about the historical fabric finishing techniques and found that fabrics were stretched and hooked onto a frame and left to dry. I had a frame made to fit my fabric and stitched the fabric to the frame (instead of hooks) to stretch the fabric while it dried. The frame allowed me to lean the whole piece against the wall, protecting it from accidentally being walked on as it was laid out to dry. This took 2 hours! The whole fullingprocess would have been more fun with friends like the “waulking the wool” parties depicted in Outlander. Darn the pandemic.

When the fabric had dried, I discovered it was thicker than planned. This meant it was much too thick to be made into a shirt. I then had to rethink my project and started looking at different patterns. I decided the heavy fabric would work very nicely for a cozy winter parka, so I found a pattern to use. Before I could cut the fabric, I had to assemble the pattern; it took me 2 hours to tape together the sheets and cut out the pieces. I was then ready to pin the pieces to the fabric. Since the fabric was a plaid, it was necessary to take extra care to make sure the plaid lines all matched up on the different pieces. If the plaid lines were not matched properly, it would be very obvious in the finished jacket. This took extra time as I had to pin the layers of the fabric together, aligning the plaid lines in the separate layers. Then I carefully placed the pattern pieces. Once the outer fabric of the jacket was cut, I pinned and cut out the silk fabric for the lining.

Once all the pattern pieces were ready (both outer fabric and lining), it was time to start assembling the coat. I learned a lot about sewing this project and how to do things I had never done before. The biggest thing I learned how to do was match plaids around the coat. This was a real challenge and required a lot of double checking that I’d done it right. I also learned that lightweight silk fabric is no fun to work with and when in doubt pin more until you run out of pins. My favorite thing I learned was how to do inset pockets correctly. I love that they are completely finished and they are wonderful to use. The coat was hand finished by hemming and sewing on toggle buttons. Once all the machine sewing was completed, the coat was pressed. 

To finish the hood, I wove a faux fur band on an Inkle loom with 100 percent wool yarn. The fur is made from 100 percent Romney wool locks shorn from my flock that were hand knotted into the weaving. This makes a very durable but flexible band that is finished so it can be sewn onto the hood. For washing, this will be removed and washed separately if needed. 

Over the course of this project I kept track of the hours I spent planning, spinning, dyeing, warping, weaving, fulling, and sewing. All together, I put just over 222 hours into this project! I used over 13,000 yards of yarn and made and used 5.25 yards of fabric.

Even though I didn’t end up with what I had planned at the start of my adventure, it was an amazing process. I learned a lot starting the project right from the basic materials. My advice to others;don’t be afraid of big projects. Enjoy the process. Be flexible in your plans; sometimes things just don’t work out as planned. And finally, be excited to stretch yourself and your skills. 

Rebecca  Harkins is a fiber artist and shepherd with more than 15 years experience. She raises Romneys and Merinos and enjoys using their wool in her work. She also enjoys teaching and writing about fiber arts. She dyes, spins, felts, and weaves the wool from her sheep, making beautiful tapestries, afghans, and garments.

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The Power of Creation!

Words and photos by Cat Ellen


The power of creation. The very phrase could conjure up poetic descriptions of galaxies swirling into being or an intimate up-close look at new generations born and raised, whether children or small animals. For others, the word creation evokes the craftroom and the workbench, raw materials, stash, tools, and supplies. It can mean warm kitchens and bubbling hearths, comfort foods, and innovative new ideas.

Those of us who create handmade textiles have a strong sense of what it takes to process a fleece; spin a thread; weave a cloth; create a reliable dye bath from natural materials; hand-stitch, design, and knit a garment; or otherwise keep our families and loved ones in blankets and clothing or protected against the elements. We can recognize a handknit scarf at 20 paces and have probably held long discussions explaining the differences between crochet, knitting, and woven techniques.

If we focus on the word power, for some this means electricity, new gadgets, and space-age technology, manufacturing, and automation. How can I rev up this engine faster? More efficiently? How fast can I cook this meal? How soon can I get this delivered? Or more broadly, can I have power over my bills, my email, my social media, my laundry, my education, my retirement?

Sometimes, I find myself pondering whether every advancement is really worth it. My social media feed is filled with memes asking, “Are you old enough to remember?” featuring pictures of tools for home repair, home production, or manual handiwork. And I have friends dedicated to home sufficiency in gardening, canning, woodworking, and sewing. They joke about the zombie apocalypse and disaster recovery planning, including who needs to be part of any recovery team. The crafty, textiles friends are tagged to help clothe us when we need to rebuild civilization.

Simply creating things with my hands is power. It’s power over the capitalistic, consumer world I live in. Rather than be a passive victim and slave to the current fashion world, instead I make design decisions based on my own artistic preferences. I choose what color is in this season, possibly based on how my friend’s crop of dyestuffs grew in her garden. Or maybe I’m supporting a local dyer I only know over the internet, but we’ve commiserated over bouts with the flu or celebrating who just finished and defended their PhD thesis. All the while, we’re knitting for the holiday season or we’re spinning for a wedding shawl or we’re fermenting an indigo pot out back.

If you’ve been raised in a western textiles tradition, you may have only been taught about tool-based solutions. Which wheel should I buy to spin bulky? Do I need a new flyer to spin for this lace project? Which vendor has the best dyes for my protein fibers? Which loom should I buy, and how many various dents do I need? Can I use this loom for my tablet weaving project, or do I need a different-sized, different-shaped loom? Should I buy a warping board and a niddy noddy and a spinning weasel?

But what if my solutions were process based rather than tool based? Could I learn to spin with simpler tools? Could I weave with nothing much more than a few sticks, dexterity, and quite a bit of practice and memorization?[1]

When you think about weaving at its core, it is simply a matter of wrapping strings around a collection of sticks and then manipulating strings among other strings. If you describe your loom, you’re telling me what shape your sticks have been arranged in: backstrap loom, inkle loom, rigid heddle loom, warp-weighted loom, four-harness – all are just descriptions of the shape of the sticks where you’ll manipulate the strings. I needed to demonstrate this description in a park one time, so I gathered a handful of sticks. I made some string on my drop spindle and proceeded to warp a small sampler. Need some heddles? Make more string. I didn’t need money or a large piece of equipment. I can make fabric with sticks and string.

I am still learning how to manipulate strings – whether described as backstrap weaving or card weaving, the weaving complexity is not defined by how many thousands of dollars I spent on tools nor how large a workshop I need to dedicate to my craft. The power of my creation is limited only by the hours I put into my skill development, the research put into learning from those who have come before me, and the creativity of my own innovation.

Recently, a musician friend passed away. In lieu of a memorial service, we held a Life Celebration event. Dozens of friends showed up to sing, play music, and celebrate our friend’s life. I’d left the house without any spinning, but another friend was destashing art supplies from her home. I arrived at the event, and she handed me 4 ounces of wool. All I needed was a stick, which we found on the grounds of this industrial park. I spent a happy 5 hours twirling a stick and some fluff and making yarn.

Go ahead. Take all my worldly spinning goods. I will bounce back immediately. There’s always another stick somewhere. The power of my creation, of my creativity, is not limited by my possessions. Instead, I find an exciting challenge in taking scraps and creating something new. The problem fleece someone thought was only good for mulch? I can soak it in cold water, pick it clean, spin it by hand, and dye it with cochineal, and you would never know the wool wasn’t originally the best in the stash.

Rather than allowing ourselves to be disappointed at the limit of our budgets or our current collection of tools, we have the power to do more than just be a consumer. We are makers.

That’s the power of creation: making something greater than the sum of its parts.

Cat Ellen has been spinning for about 20 years and prefers a drop spindle over anything else. When not teaching people to make string from sticks and fluff, she can be found teaching American Tribal Style bellydance or copyediting performance material for the Santa community.

[1] I credit Abby Franquemont for teaching me to distinguish between tool-based and process-based solutions at PlyAway 2 in 2017.

Spinning for Something Big

So I’m in the midst of this big project that I brought on myself. I2015-08-02 18.19.05 probably have at least another year of spinning and weaving before I finish the original plan and since I began I’ve thought of new questions and experiments I want to look into.

The thing is there are many smaller projects inside the big project but the smaller projects aren”t even that small. You’ve probably heard that I’m spinning for weaving. I’m weaving yardage for skirts. The original plan has 7 skirts.

There are 4 blog posts about this project on my website starting here

The Schacht Blog followed Jillian and I throough a weaving project. There are 8 total posts there.

Now here’s the thing; each skirt needs a minimum of 5000 yards of 2 ply yarn. That’s 10,000 yards of singles. For the yarns I’m spinning for this skirts each bobbin takes 9 to 10 hours to fill. And I’d actually like to spin the next one a bit finer.

Please don’t misunderstand. I make my share of hats and scarves and cowls. They take a little less planning. But I’ve always like to go big. Big bags, big baskets and big projects.

See the card on top of the wool and bobbins and yarn? That’s my control card. It has singles wrapped around it and a 2 ply and 3 ply sample attached. See how it’s all bent up? By the time of this photo I had spun about 3000 yards of 2 ply plus those 3 bobbins of singles. So the card had been through a lot of handling. That’s how I make the same yarn over a long time.

2015-11-30 07.52.27But that’s not really what I’m here to talk about. Many, many people have asked me how I can spin that much yarn that is the same. Same size, same color, same everything. There’s no real secret. But I’ll tell yoou what I know now that I’ve finished three skirts and I’m spinning for the 4th.

After the first bobbin, the yarn begins to be something I can spin without a lot of thought. I’m not switching back and forth between projects too much so it’s not difficult to get back in the groove from one day to the next. I try to spin every day for at least an hour and usually 2 to 3 hours when I can. Practice makes perfect.

Also, I watch a lot of TV. I DVR plenty of things and there are also several series on Netflix that I watch. Since the yarn gets to be something I don’t have to think about I can watch the TV and spin at the same time. Lou is often amazed at that.

I’m very goal oriented. I like to set goals, and set a date for accomplishing that goal. Sometimes I am a bit late – ask Jacey! But usually I get there.

And finally, I like to spin. Come on, you can’t fool me. You have a favorite yarn size that you spin the most. So here’s what i would recommend if you have the desire to spin for a larger project such as a sweater…or crocheted pants. Begin with your favorite yarn. Once you finish the project, I promise you’ll want to do it all over again.

Want help planning your project? Let me know. Need moral support? I’m a great cheerleader!