Friday, January 30, 2009

Confessions of a Loomwad**

The course of true love never did run smooth.

William Shakespeare
A Midsummer Night's Dream

Let me begin today's tale with this statement: I am not a Weaver. Oh, I weave. And I'm reasonably proficient on a rigid heddle loom. But I do not Weave with a capital "W". I understand terms like "beaming on" and "Bronson lace" like I understand the term "nuclear fission"--I can use them all correctly in a sentence, but I have never actually executed any of the acts they describe.

Now, let us travel back to August of 2008. Gasoline cost $1.50 a litre, the Beijing Olympics were in their full glory, and Barack Obama was a gleam in the Democratic Party's eye. And I travelled to Gibson's Landing to teach at their Fibre Festival.

I had a wonderful time, and I have blogged about the fabulous festival, scenery and seafood before. But what I haven't revealed until now is that I developed a bit of a secret crush while I was out on the Coast.

I blame Jane Stafford for introducing us. It started as a casual conversation about weaving, but then, I had to meet "the loom". Oh, sure, she's just a little table loom, but she was so pretty. And who could resist the smooth action of those rollers on the pattern shafts. And the fact that she could fold down, even fully dressed, to fit that little spot in my studio between the chair and the fibre storage. And the price! Oh so tempting at an introductory cost of $750.

I had met JP.

I walked away smug in my belief that no one needed a shiny little table loom when they had a sturdy and faithful rigid heddle (aka RH) waiting at home. After all, who needs eight shafts to do plainweave?

But then I started thinking about warps set at 30 epi, or even 50. Fine, hanspun silks making subtle patterns. Linen napkins with a little lace insert. Portability. I dreamed of weaving with a boat shuttle instead of a stick. I felt guilty about these errant thoughts, but I couldn't stop thinking about JP.

Oh, I fought it. For months. Then, at the last minute, I placed my advance order. Jane, the one who was facilitating this sordid affair, assured me that the object of my desire would arrive before Christmas. Oh, how could I wait that long?!?

The days flew by in a frenzy of spinning and knitting. All the while, my faithful rigid heddle stood waiting to be warped for last-minute Christmas tea towels. But I dreamed of multiple shafts and Texsolv heddles and delayed my weaving projects. I needed to spin more cotton, anyway. Really.

As Christmas Day came closer, there were delays. But, just as I was about to abandon all hope, JP arrived the same day we were packing the car to go away for two weeks. I dropped all packing and organizing to release her from her crate. And I sat and stared. I knew I would have to wait a little longer to consummate our relationship, but I am patient. So I delivered her, still not fully assembled to my studio and left her there to get acquainted with the other equipment.

I came down with a cold on my trip, and it seemed like forever before the day came when I had the time and energy to assemble JP But it came. There were difficulties. It turns out that assembling the shafts on a loom is only slightly more complicated than building Ikea furniture. But I persevered. And there she was.

I could hardly wait to weave! But here is where the tale takes an ugly turn.

I do not have a proper warping board, but that's okay because I have a clever little set of warping pegs. Or, at least, I did. I spent the better part of the day tearing the studio, then the living room, then the basement, apart, looking for the cross pegs. Gone. Nowhere to be seen. Apparently swallowed by the same black hole that consumed my 10 mm dpns in early November.

But I had to do SOMETHING! With that lovely little loom sitting there, tempting me, I couldn't wait days, or even weeks to replace the pegs, or to get an actual warping board. I figured I was clever enough to get around this.

So I rigged up an inverted stool, which I weighted with a heavy file box, as my cross end, then attached the remaining lone warping peg to my rigid heddle and wound away. I was not pretty, but it worked.

The only problem was that my cross was at about the 24 inch level from the ground, which required a little bend from the waist each time I made it. After 160 wraps, this did cause a small ache in one's lower back, which will lead one to reconsider the brilliance of this system the next time one decides to make an impromptu warp.

However, a warp was run, 6 yards of cotton at 15 epi for a set of 3 tea towels. (Can you see the optimism in this plan?) Here it is before my first attempt at tying on the warp:

...and here it is after:

Now, let me make it clear that I do not blame JP for this. It was my clumsiness and inexperience that made our first attempt to weave a fiasco. There were tears shed. Where was the wondrous relationship I had dreamed of? I looked longingly toward RH for support. And I was reminded that things did not go smoothly for us at first, either. There are yards and yards of orange 8/2 cotton in the bottom of a bag that are just too tangled to do anything with, but that I still can't bring myself to throw away, to remind me of my first tentative foray into weaving. So, I dried my tears, and set out to wind another awkward warp.

Teagan The Wonder Schnoodle, who had borne witness to all of this madness, began to whimper as I set out to wind the second warp. Knowing that animals can sense impending disaster, I hesitated for a moment. But such was my obsession that I threw caution to the wind and warped on.

Aside from the fact that I had a cat flipping the end of my cross off the stool leg every time I turned my back to run the warp the other direction, this warp went a little faster and smoother. I began to consider the first one a "practice warp". ( Note to self: always buy twice the weaving yarn required so you can "practice" your warp. Or learn to warp?)

And off I set to beam on and thread my loom.

It took a few tries, but I got the warp tied onto the apron and the lease sticks in place. It took a little longer to untangle the warp and feed it through the raddle, but it got done. That was one whole afternoon.

The next afternoon was spent threading heddles --I used four shafts, but threaded for plainweave. Which was confusing enough, thank you. But I have only discovered ONE misthread (so far).

And weaving has begun. Not Weaving, but cloth is being made on a loom by my own two hands. Which is good enough for me. And JP seems content enough, too.

For those of you who may be concerned that my poor RH has been thrust out into the cold, don't be. She has been whispering to me about a tapestry project with all those novelty yarns that I've been spinning lately. And as I type this, Jane is cozied up under RH's stand.

I have, however, noticed that my Schacht wheel is looking a little forlorn with her empty bobbins over there. It's okay, Sweetie, I have lots of love to go around. Let's find that bamboo and
spend some quality time.

**Blame The Simpsons for this word. In one episode, the family goes to the museum to see an exhibit entitled " Looms, Labor and Liberation: A History of Women Weaving" and, before they can get into the museum, the banners change to read "Weapons--Sponsored by Kellogg's". When Lisa and Marge go "aww", the guy hanging the banners says "Sorry, loomwads, there's a new exhibit in town."

This same episode also contains the classic line: "WEAVING?? Homer, you're my father. You're supposed to protect me from things like this!"

Monday, January 19, 2009

Wool 101

I'm sure that, by now, many of you are aware that the UN has declared 2009 The International Year of Natural Fibres. The purpose of this declaration is to raise awareness of natural fibres, their place in a sustainable environment and the natural fibre industry around the world.

For those of us who play with string, natural fibres are keys to the kingdom. While man-made fibres like acrylic and polyester have their uses, those of us who work intimately with fibre know that nothing compares to the warmth of wool, the softness of cotton, or the luxury of cashmere. But I find that a surprising number of fiber crafters know relatively little about the fibres they work with, other than their own personal tastes, or the say-so of a friend. So, to that end, I introduce:

Get To Know Your Natural Fibres

For the next year, I will endeavor to post useful information and useless trivia that will broaden your understanding of the fibres we work with, and some of the more obtuse fibres, as well. This will be, by no means, a comprehensive study, nor will it be conclusive, but rather and overview from my experience and reading over 25 years of knitting, spinning and weaving.

So, without further ado: Chapter One: Wool 101

While many people refer to any yarn as "wool", wool is actually the hair of a sheep. Wool is probably the most commonly used fibre for spinners and knitters in North America, Great Britain, and Europe. This is because it is readily available, easy to spin and knit with. and well-suited to the climates of these areas.

But to say that something is "wool" is like saying something is "blue". There are over 250 recognized breeds of sheep around the world, each with different fleece characteristics. And not all sheep are created equal--while all sheep produce a fleecy coat, not all fleece is suitable for use in textiles, and those that are suitable fit a wide range of uses and techniques. So how do we know what it means when a label says "wool"?

Let's start with the basic structure of a wool fibre. Wool is a protein fibre, comprised of the same molecular structure as human hair. Like human hair, wool grows from a follicle on the skin, with the root end being thicker than the tip end, as there are more cells closer to the follicle.

The structure of an individual strand of wool fibre has three layers, as shown in this cross section:

To save you the eyestrain of trying to read the tiny print, the centre hollow core of the hair is called the medulla, and this is one of the reasons that wool has such good insulating properties. The next layer out is referred to as the cortex and is comprised of tiny, densely packed round cells. The thickness of the cortex will determine the fineness or coarseness of the wool. The outer layer is called the epidermis or cuticle and is made up of tiny scale-like cells that point upward toward the tip of the hair. These little scales are what makes wool feel itchy.

In this photo, you can see that some individual fibre have a medulla and others do not, and on the right, you can see the layers of scales that make up the cuticle. Different breeds of sheep produce different types of cuticles, which makes the fleeces feel itchier or rougher in some breeds.

You can see the differences in these three illustrations. Starting at the left, the drawing with the small, low-laying scales would be from a fine, crimpy wool. The centre drawing, where the scales are broad and flat and appear to spiral up the hair, would be from a lustre longwool. The drawing to the right would be a coarser wool with larger scales that curve outward from the surface of the hair.

All of these different scale structures give the specific fleeces of their breed very distinct characteristics, which I will discuss in another post. However, there are several characteristics that are common to all types of wool.

The best known characteristic of wool, of course, is it's insulating property. Wool will retain warmth while allowing air exchange, which makes wool ideal for warm clothing in northern climates, as well as for quilt battings, insulation for homes and warm floor coverings.

Any knitter can tell you, wool is very elastic. That is, it can be stretched, then return to its shape-up to 30% of its length in some cases! This means that wool garments will be cushy and crushable without creasing, as well as keeping their shape after washing and wearing.

Wool's elasticity will also make a garment very durable. The fact that the fibres are elastic keeps them from breaking under tension or bending. Broken fibres are the source of most wear and tear in garments, including worn spots, pilling and tears.

Wool is also hygroscopic--which means it will hold and conduct moisture. Wool can absorb up to 30% of it's weight in moisture before it feels wet, and moisture will be wicked away from your body if you perspire while wearing a wool garment.

Wool is flame-retardant. It will burn when exposed to directly to flame, but will stop burning once the flame has been removed. The insulating characteristic of wool also makes it useful for smothering a flame by cutting off the oxygen, but I wouldn't recommend trying it because nothing stinks like scorched wool!

Wool takes dyes well, and responds equally well to chemical and natural dyes, giving brilliant colors in most yarns. As well, wool comes in a wide variety of natural shades of brown and grey, giving an almost endless palette of earth-tones.

On the downside, wool is prone to shrinkage under certain conditions. Abrupt changes in wash- water temperature, agitation, and extreme heat will cause the scales on the surface of the fibres to contract and the fabric will become denser and smaller. Fortunately, we know this will happen and can prevent it by gently washing our wool in lukewarm water and hanging it to dry. Or we can take advantage of this characteristic to make felt--which is loose wool compressed into a fabric by abrupt changes in wash-water temperature and agitation!

Wool also has a bad reputation for being scratchy, or even causing allergies. You cannot be allergic to wool, at least, not in the technical, medical sense. Wool is comprised of the same molecular compound as human hair and fingernails-keratine. You can be allergic to other factors in a fleece, such as the lanoline and suint (sheep sweat), or contaminants in the wool, such as straw, dust, or even some of the chemicals used to clean fleeces, but the itch that comes from clean wool is a result of the scales irritating the skin. And in people with sensitive skin, this can lead to hives and rashes, just like an allergy. (I know, I have a daughter will sensitive skin--she breaks into a rash at any coarse fabric, or a new soap. She can still wear my handspun Merino yarns, though! Apparently, she was simply born for a life of luxury.)

So, now you know a little more about wool. And I'm itching to get my hands on some, so I think it's time to stop typing and start spinning...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Who? Me?

I don't have a problem. I really don't. It's just that the rest of the world doesn't understand me, that's all.

It all started out innocently enough. A sweater here or there. The occassional sock. Harmless, social knitting. All in fun, really.

Then the kids came, and layettes were needed. And as the kids grew, new sweaters and mittens and socks had to be knit. After all, kids grow so fast. And since I was knitting for my kids anyway, why not knit for others as well? I mean, I was getting paid for it, so I HAD to do it, right?

When the local yarn shop closed, there were a few rough days. Sure, I started eying the cats and wondering how many brushings it would take to get a sweater...but I didn't actually DO anything.

It was Steve who brought the spinning wheel home and said, "Hey, Honey, try THIS." I see now that that may have been the beginning of the end. As yarn was spun, it had to be knit, and as the yarn got knit up, more had to be spun. It was a vicious circle from which there was no escape.

In order to spin faster and better, I travelled to learn the craft. The more I learned, the more I needed to know. I became a Master Spinner. I learned to weave and dye and felt. But the knitting was always there, waiting. A warm comfort at the end of the day. Something to do in the car or the airport. A quick escape from the pressures of family, work, or school. Something to take the edge off.

Only, recently, I have begun to wonder if I may have developed a dependency.

I mean, keeping a mitten in the bathroom cabinet to knit while I was in the bathtub was really just part of the Christmas knitting subterfuge. I couldn't knit that mitten out in public where Julia might see it. That would ruin the surprise of the gift.

Carrying a sock in my purse to work on in doctor's offices, or while waiting in the car for kids, has always seemed so safe and practical. But a couple of weeks ago, after checking my purse to ensure that I had my keys, my cell phone and my knitting, I set out on a series of errands. And at stop number one, I discovered that I had left my wallet at home. BUT I HAD MY KNITTING! So I knit a couple of rounds to calm down, then I went home to retrieve my wallet. Everything was fine.

And the fact that I have barely left the house since the beginning of the New Year has nothing to do with the fact that I have been spinning cotton for 4 hours every afternoon, or the entrelac sock that I just have to knit one more row of squares on. It's because it's been really, really cold and the road conditions are really bad.

But I've noticed that people are beginning to stare.

We recently travelled to Banff for a family wedding at the Banff Springs Hotel. Steve's family doesn't gather together very often, with so many family members scattered so far apart, so it was a wonderful reunion of his siblings and all of their offspring. The weather was bitterly cold, but the wedding was beautiful and the company was warm and convivial.

With the chill in the air, so many tourists were bundled up in their woolly best. Apparently, though, people don't appreciate you following them down Banff Avenue, staring at their heads, trying to figure out the stitch pattern on their toques.

And there was nothing wrong with stashing a sock in Julia's purse on the way to the wedding ceremony. I didn't knit on it until we were having lunch in the lounge afterwards. Well, I mean, the service was really slow. C'mon! Why were people looking at me like that?

Sure, we went back to our hotel room for a rest before the reception and I finished a button band on my llama cardigan while Steve and Brendan snoozed, but I did go to the reception without my knitting. We were late for cocktails, but that was because it took so long to get a cab, not because I wanted to sew the buttons on before we left.

The woman who stood behind me in the Starbucks on the way home, who looked at my knitting and said (somewhat patronizingly, in my opinion), "Oh, aren't you industrious!" gave me pause, though. Industrious? Is that what people think this is?

The other woman, who was admiring my handspun, handknit scarf at the grocery store last week and asked "Where do you find the time? Don't you have things to do?" also made me stop and think--once I calmed down and got over the urge to gouge her eyes out with my dpns. What do you mean "things to do"? Isn't knitting doing a thing?

So I started to wonder if maybe I did have a problem. Not being able to go out the door without something fuzzy in my purse, but forgetting my wallet. Knitting to calm my nerves in social situations. Stashing knitting in odd spots in order to get in a few rows while no one is looking. Just a few rows to help me relax before bedtime. That sounded like an addiction to me. I started considering a twelve-step program.

Then I remembered that the British Royal Navy actually encouraged sailors to knit to keep them from other, less desirable pursuits. That Ghandi taught the people of India that spinning for two hours every day would lead them to independence. That Victorian ladies believed that knitting was a far more suitable occupation for women of good breeding than housework.

And I remembered that this is my job! People pay me to knit them sweaters and shawls, and to teach them how to spin and knit for themselves. If someone brings their laptop home from the office to finish a report, they are admired for their work ethic. If someone carries their Blackberry in their coat pocket and checks it in the grocery store line-up, they are dedicated to their work. I am simply doing the same thing with my work.

So, I have come to the conclusion that I do not have a problem.

And now that I have that off my chest, I'm going to go work a couple of rows of ribbing to settle my nerves.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Behind the Wheel

January 7 is an auspicious day on many calendars. It is the birthdate of such luminaries as Nicolas Cage and David Caruso. It is the date upon which Harry S. Truman announced the creation of the hydrogen bomb, which would end World War II and plunge the world into a full-blown Cold War. It is the date upon which the HMS Beagle weighed anchor in the Galapagos, where Charles Darwin would develop the theory of evolution.

The Japanese celebrate Nanakusa on January 7th. This is also Christmas Day for those who follow the Julian Calendar, known in Canada as Ukrainian Christmas. (I will be having my peroghies and holubsti when my cold clears up!) This year, Muslims will observe Ashura, a day of remembrance, on January 7th.

And for those of us who spin, January 7th is St. Distaff Day. This is the day that European women traditionally returned to the work of spinning after the Christmas festivities. The men did not return to their work until Plough Monday, which could be as many as 6 days away, which meant that they had a lot of time on their hands to harass the women at their work. This was generally referred to as merriment. I personally think that this was just further proof that men have never grasped the concept that the only thing standing between civilization and them standing naked in a field bashing things withs sticks was a woman and her spindle.

Of course, in the shiny new year of 2009, we have Wal-Mart and The Gap to keep us well attired while we bash things with sticks. So why do we still have spinners? Someone asked me that question lately, and my immediate response was "Because spinning is the basis of all civilization!"

There is much debate regarding how long humans have been twisting plant and animal fibres to make string. Most historians and archaeologists will agree to 10 000 years, but many speculate that spinning goes back further. Neolithic goddess figures, dating back 20 000 years BCE have been found that appear to be wearing skirts of twisted string. These goddess figures have little other detail, but the twists of the spun string on their skirts is clearly represented. Why would cave-dwelling mammoth eaters take the time to carve twists into the string if they had not observed them daily and regarded them as significant?

We know from Egyptian tomb paintings that women spun and wove the fine linens that the mummies were wrapped in. Researchers have found mummy wrappings as fine as 500 threads per inch, just like a set of Ralph Lauren sheets. But handspun.

Greeks and Romans treasured their sheer linens, and many of their goddesses are associated with spinning. Demeter,the goddess of the harvest, was also associated with the hearth and spinning. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was a weaver. The Moirae, who determined the fates of men, were three mystical beings who spun, measured and cut the thread of destiny. The classical mythology of the Greco-Roman period is rife with tales of spinning and weaving, from Jason's pursuit of the Golden Fleece, through Penelope's weaving and unweaving of her wedding veil while she waited faithfully for Odysseus to return to her. And all the string was handspun.

Vikings sailed to the New World with waterproof sails of handspun greasy wool. The ships that Columbus brought to that same New World five-hundred years later likely had sails of hemp or linen, but still handspun. Nations rose to power, and collapsed, according to their textile industries. The pursuit of silk and pepper led to the Crusades; the Spanish Empire grew to rule most of the New World and Europe on the strength of silk stocking and Merino wool. All spun into string by women who were not paid for their labor.

And handspun string was not only reserved for great feats and fine artifacts. Every stitch of clothing worn by prince and pauper in every culture and nation in the world was made from string spun almost exclusively by women. Unpaid women, who squeezed the spinning in between tending the animals and the home garden, raising babies, cooking, and cleaning. Women who spun because they knew that otherwise their families would be naked in a field, bashing things with sticks.

Over the millenia, the simple spindle evolved into the spinning great wheel. Then the great wheel was streamlined to fit into small cottages and a treadle was added to speed the process up. Then , in 1764, James Hargreave invented the Spinning Jenny, which allowed a single operator to spin 8 spindles of string instead of just one. Ten years later, Samuel Crompton attached the Spinning Jenny to a water-driven turbine and the mechanization of spinning began. Suddenly, the home spinner was obsolete. Mass production of muslin made fabric cheap and accessible to all. Factories wove the cheap cotton cloth, chemical dyes were invented to dye cloth more economically, and clothing was mass-produced. The Industrial Revolution came along, and the world has never been the same. Twenty thousand years of handspun string and its crucial role in holding society together disappeared practically overnight.

Spinning had historically never been truly treated with respect. It was often referred to as a feminine pursuit or as a means to occupy idle women to keep them out of mischief. In the same way that other women's work, such as child-rearing and nursing the ill and dying were historically marginalized, so was spinning. In German and the Netherlands, men took a shot at controlling the cottage weaving industry, forming Guilds that granted license to qualified men and making it illegal for women to weave, but they never touched spinning. That was women's work, and thus , beneath them.

Women have continued to spin in developing nations since the Industrial Revolution. Not everyone has access to manufactured goods, or the resources to purchase them. Babies need blankets, husbands need warm hats, young brides need finery, whether there is a Wal-Mart nearby or not. Indigenous spinning traditions thrived in India, Tibet and Peru well into the 1970's and are now being eagerly revived.

Mohandas K. Ghandi promoted spinning as a step toward autonomy from Colonial rule for the eople of India. The wheel in the centre of India's flag is a charkha--the traditional spinning wheel used by Indian women. To many Indian people, that wheel is the symbol of independence and freedom. And with the growing craft revival in North America and Europe, it is becoming an increasingly relevant symbol of individuality.

Modern spinners tie the world to the very roots of civilization. As we begin to discover the environmental, fiscal and social costs of mass-production and our credit-card, fast-food economy, more and more people are turning to the simpler joys of the hand-made. And with the current climate of global economic concern, I suspect that even more will start looking for the independence and freedom that the DIY lifestyle offers. Which is where it all began. With a couple of women sitting in a cave, twisting nettle fibres together while the naked boys were out bashing things with sticks.

It is time for spinners to stand up and claim our heritage. For women and men to come together to appreciate this timeless and gentle craft that connects us to the roots of what makes us human. The unseen craft that raised us from caves to condos, discovered new worlds, preserved ancient cultures, and kept us warm and clothed while we were doing all that stuff.

Spinning is just one way we express our individuality. It is a connection to the past, it is a road to the future. It is women's work, raised to art. Men are spinning. "High art" is being created. The world is a warmer place when there are spinners. We are in control of our destinies. We are behind the wheel, so to speak.

So, on St. Distaff Day, as I sit back down at my wheel after a couple of wonderful weeks of revelry with family and friends, I am going to take a moment to thank all the women who have worked to make the world a warmer, safer place for the ones they loved, and to all the men who have appreciated them and the work that they did.