Sunday, January 31, 2010

Warped Warps

I'm a self-taught weaver, so I probably perform many tasks incorrectly. Somehow, however, I manage to produce satisfactory cloth.

The way I deal with popped warp threads may present an example of my ignorance. I'm not sure how others handle the problem short of tearing the warp off the loom in a mad frenzy, but after a few years of unsuccessfully tying pieces of yarn into the warp which forces bumps and lumps into the finished product, I now merely thread a new warp thread through the heddle and reed, needle-weave it a few picks into the cloth and secure it with the needle or pin. Then I place the full cone of yarn on the floor behind the loom and hang a weight on the thread that mimics the loom's tension mechanism. As I weave, I merely move the weight clip down the thread as it feeds off the cone.

The little weight I own is an amazing tool that I don't believe I've ever seen in a weaving catalog. A few years ago, I bought a used LeClerc loom that had been in storage for many years, and the weight (a pyramid-shaped piece of lead hanging from a roach-style clip) came with it. The gadget stayed in the tray of the loom for more than a year before I put its possible use together in my head one day while wrestling with a nasty warp. It's also possible to weight as many as 4-5 warp threads with the single clip.

While perusing a book about clothing in the Middle Ages, I read about warp-weighted looms excavated at such interesting archaeological sites as Greenland. Each warp thread on the verticle looms was weighted with what look like stones with holes drilled in them, rather than drawn tightly around bars to create the necessary tension.

I sometimes wonder what future archaeologists will dig up from our era and how they will interpret each item. Will our uncovered looms and spinning wheels indicate failure of the mythical Industrial Revolution to clothe certain human outposts; will handweavers be interpreted as quasi-Luddites skeptical of the demons at work in new-fangled factories; or will we merely be interpreted as humans who needed the satisfaction of working with our hands, of creating unique pieces of cloth like no other in the world, passing on to our children the freedom and independence this magical knowledge gives us, magic bred into us through our oral and written tales.

Think about it: If Sleeping Beauty's father outlawed spindles throughout the kingdom after she pricked her finger and fell into that deep sleep, how did the people acquire their clothing? How long did their towels last? Rugs? Blankets? It must have been a pretty shabby kingdom by the time the prince kissed the princess awake.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Before Christmas I went on a "bag" kick and wove a batch of small 5" handbags with long hand-twisted handles. I used a variety of yarns for weft on an all cotton dark warp. Yarns included colored 8/2 cotton, rayon chenille and a blended yarn of linen/cotton/rayon. I also used some colorful cotton thrums to make a couple of "rustic" bags. I used a shiny gold rayon yarn for the handles and twisted the strands using an S hook and my spinning wheel. The method involves overtwisting several strands of yarn; then the twisted strand is folded in half and twists back on itself. Voila!

The greatest pleasure in making the small bags occurred while I sat in bed evenings watching TV hand sewing the bags together. I added beads, some glass, some wooden. For some reason the intricate, small stitches were very satisfying.

My project at hand, as I've said earlier in my blog, is to weave a small blanket from wolf/dog hair. The spinning has been completed. Now I am plying strands together to make a strong warp. I may have to wait until the weekend to finish the plying. I'm having trouble making the time fit into my teaching schedule and domestic responsibilities during the week.

Sometimes, when I'm totally engrossed in a spinning/weaving project, I dream of having my own full-time weaving business. That would be nice, especially if I had a plethora of customers and a real roomy studio instead of my cramped little Pocatello Westside hovel, but my 100-year-old spaces have a certain charm to them. My friends and family don't mind sipping tea or wine amid a chaos of mannequins, looms, cones of yarn, books and grandkid toys.

And if that ever happened, I would probably miss the pleasure of class discussions with my students who keep me grounded in the real world.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sunday at the Spinning Wheel

A basket of handspun wolf/dog hair sits at my feet. The yarn is thick and fluffy, almost like mohair. The fiber appears to be completely bright white, but while spinning, I noticed black hairs evenly interspersed throughout. I've begun plying the balls of yarn together to get a stronger yarn to warp my loom.

Plying goes much faster than spinning, but even after spending 3-4 hours at it Sunday, the basket is stil 2/3 full.

While my modest Ashford wheel spun round and round, my mind was occupied with possible topics for student papers. I found myself creating sample thesis statements on issues I believe are important, but which most of my young students seem to shrug off.

I may be an old woman, a grandmother with a degenerating skeleton, but I am still capable of moral outrage, the same outrage at injustice I felt when I was 20 attending Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War rallies in NYC in the explosive 1960s. I am amazed at the complacency of the young. Has computer technology completely anesthesized them?

What would my younger students do with some of these working theses:

1. If we refuse to torture prisoners, we set a positive example for the world.
2. It's ok to torture prisoners if they aren't US citizens.
3. Waterboarding is/isn't torture.
4. Torture does not fit most Americans' vision of what it means to be American.
5. Historically, torture is Medieval punishment for heretics and witches, not a tool for an Enlightened, progressive culture.
6. Torturing prisoners puts Americans in the same category as Inquisitors and the KGB.
7. Torture rarely reaps desired results and may actually cause more harm than good.
8. They do it to us, so it's ok to do it to them.

Heavy stuff, eh?

Here are some other thesis possibilities:

1. A large portion of personal survival skills (gardening, animal husbandry, spinning/weaving, cooking, pottery, etc.) humans have developed over millennia have been taken over by machines causing the cultural devaluation of their necessity, rendering them as "merely hobbies."
2. When that giant electric plug in the sky is pulled out forever, will we know how to feed and clothe ourselves?
2. Wealth is always achieved on the backs of an (sometimes invisible) underclass.
3. Americans have given up beauty and personal satisfaction for the sake of convenience.
4. Words like "fast," "convenient," "easier," are benefits listed for many electronic products, but perhaps we also give up something important when we use them.

I'd say I had a pretty productive weekend at the wheel.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Straw into Gold

Cross patch
Draw the latch
Sit by the fire and spin.
Take a cup
Drink it up
And call your neighbors in.
--Kate Greenaway

I overheard my young nieces and friends discussing their "spinning" classes one day, and I was flabberghasted. Come to find out, however, "spinning" in present common usage means stationary cycling, not turning straw into gold. I was disappointed.

Yesterday, a day off from teaching, I decided to make headway on a spinning project-- I opened a huge bag of wolf/dog hair a client hired me to turn into a woven blanket/afghan. It's a soft fiber, mostly, fluffy, with some areas of rougher stuff, some fibers so short and slippery, they're difficult to spin alone, but it's workable.

After spinning it all, I will ply all the yarns together to make a warp yarn strong enough to withstand the tension on my loom. I'm beginning to get anxious about how it will all come together, how it will look and smell (wet dog?) after it's washed and fulled.

My two grown sons showed up while I was spinning. Luckily, it's a task easily accomplished while visiting. Although both boys had watched me spin since they were born, they asked me questions about the wheel (it came from New Zealand in the early 1970s). A weaving supply catalog was sitting on my coffee table; they found the same wheel in it for $475. I paid $50 back then, and there were no catalogs of weaving supplies like there are now. I found the New Zealand address for the Ashford Company in the Whole Earth Catalog, a resource designed by Stewart Brand, et al, to help Back-to-the-Landers find useful tools for work and craft.

Son James was fascinated by all the wheel designs in the catalog. He's a woodworker and is in the process of building a kayak. "It would be fun to make one of these, turn all those spindles."

Ever since reading Sleeping Beauty and Rumplestiltskin as a child, I ached to know how to spin "straw into gold." I used to turn my bicycle upside down and throw leaves into it to see if they would somehow magically turn into something else. Nobody I knew, no grownup, had the slightest clue how a spinning wheel worked. The skill had completely died out. The only one or two wheels around were antiques (with important parts missing, I learned much later).

A year or so after moving to Idaho and marrying my cattlerancher, I heard that some "hippies up the crik" had a spinning wheel and Corriedale sheep. I was on their porch knocking at their door almost immediately. I spent an hour or so with Carolyn Bowler, a fiber artist, learning to spin; the great mystery was solved at last, and the order for my Ashford wheel was in the mail.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to give a spinning demonstration in the lobby of one of Pocatello's hotels during an event. Many other artists, mostly painters, set up their work as well. While I was spinning a little girl, about 6-7 years old stopped to watch. She lay on the floor watching the wheel go round and round. Finally, she said, "When does it turn into gold?"

Spinning wheels do magically turn fiber into "gold." Knowing that I can take a lump of hair or wool or cotton or flax and turn it into yarn that I can weave, knit or crochet into cloth gives me a feeling of security, independence, strength and satisfaction.

Son Edward, a physicist, helped me warp my loom one day, noting that spinning wheels, looms and pianos (my prized possessions) are all human-powered. After a time, he said,
"You know, Mom. I know that if there wasn't electricity, you'd figure out how to get along without it."
"Yes, you're probably right," I said.
"While I, I would figure out how to make my own," he said.

But that's another story.

Spinning wheels, looms, fiber, wood, physics, fun conversations -- definitely straw into gold.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Of Wolves in Sheep's Clothing

As one of my brothers pointed out in a Facebook entry, I'm engaged in a contradictory project. I am spinning wolf-dog hair into yarn, a task usually reserved for sheep's wool.

Most of us are familiar with much of the folklore surrounding wolves and sheep. A wicked wolf slips on a sheepskin and worms his way into fooling a mark. A lonely young shepherd cries "wolf" for attention, and then when a real wolf appears and threatens his flock, no one believes him, no one comes to his rescue.

And there's the frightening story in Willa Cather's novel "My Antonia" in which a groom riding home on a sleigh with his bride throws her to a pack of threatening wolves to save his own skin.

But neither are flocks of sheep always regarded as innocent. Western range biologists and cattlemen often refer to sheep as "range maggots" because they gobble up forage and upset the ecosystem. Yet Judeo-Christian Bible stories elevate the animal as an important symbiotic unit for nomadic human survival. Both food (meat, milk and cheese) and cloth (clothing, tents, saddle blankets, etc.) can be derived from the animal. And because sheep stick together, flocks are used metaphorically to symbolize followers of the Way.

So, here I sit in my tiny Pocatello westside hovel spinning wolf-dog hair into yarn. If all goes well, I'll weave it into a piece of cloth that may well become an heirloom, or a future mystery for an archaeologist to dig up in a forgotten pet-lover's tomb long after my fingers, looms and spinning wheel have succombed to the deterioration of time.