Saturday, 22 March 2014

Norwegian warp-weighted loom weavers

I'm re-visiting the ancient (as in thousands of years old) craft of warp-weighted loom weaving in order to share some links to film made in the 1940s and 1950s in Norway. I'm sure many who are interested in weaving will be glad the films are still in existence. Last November I described the process in a post about Warp-weighted loom weaving and flax processing after attending a workshop in Wales. Since then one of our group, Roy Cameron of the Scottish Crannog Centre, emailed me with a link to this particular film (below).

I clicked on the link and was fascinated straight away. Two women were carrying out the process that we at the workshop, with our 'Learner Driver' plates on, were fumbling our way through - all fingers and thumbs. In remote parts of Norway it was a part of their everyday lives, so they could probably almost sleep-walk their way through it, judging by the ease with which they tied on the stones to weight the warp (all of a suitable weight), tied the leash threads, twined a thread to space the warps and started weaving. I know the film is speeded up, but you still get a sense of the seamlessness and rhythm of the work.

The date is 1947. Lovers of vintage clothes may like the quintessentially WWII (or thereafter) clothes of the two weavers. At the end of the film there are links to similar films, several of warp-weighted weaving held by the Norsk Folkmuseum. In one of the films, the same weaver seen in the film above walks along a beach, picking up stones one after the other, that would nicely weight the warps on her loom. Borne out of practice, she has an expert eye. I'm sure my attempts would be much slower!

Thank you Roy for sending the link. I know he has been working hard on building a loom which will feature in an exhibition about the weaving process. The centre is due to open in April, so if you fancy a trip to Perthshire in Scotland, here are some of the specific Special Events.

My attempts in this direction lately have got as far as laying down some more home-grown flax to dew ret on the ground, which I will process and hopefully will be weaving with, in time.
Retting flax
Dew retting flax
I may even be weaving on a warp-weighted loom at an Anglo-Saxon event at Bishops Wood Environmental Centre near Stourport in Worcestershire on 26th April. It's uncertain at the moment whether the loom will be available and which activities I will be involved in, but I will be there. Do come along if you are within striking distance.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Spinning and watching the water levels fall

We've had a wet time of it lately. If you're in the UK you'll know as it has dominated the news. Here, wind and rain has swept up from the south-west over wet and soaking Somerset (the wettest part of the country) and rain landing on the Welsh hills has flowed down the River Severn and and graced the floodplains of Worcestershire. The Jet Stream has been up to its tricks again, flooding us over here and freezing everyone in the northern US and Canada. Knitters of North America - you must have appreciated your handmade knits (at least you can weather the freeze in style!).

In my post about The case of the disappearing dyer's rocket, last year, I debated whether my site for picking dyer's rocket had been knocked back by the shallow and minuscule 2012 floods. I said that I would have had to have snorkled to get to my allotment shed that winter- two weeks ago I would definitely have had to swim. This is the allotment site when the flood levels were on the rise, well before they hit their peak, and when I could still reach the allotment gate. Judging by 2007 levels (the last big flood) the water level will have got to at least half way up the green shed in the distance (mine).

Still, at least it isn't my house. My sympathies to those in Somerset and Berkshire (and elsewhere) who are still mopping up. Another watery view:

Worcester in flood 2014, from Peregrine Falcons in Worcester Facebook page
Throughout the wet weather (which has now mostly blown away) I was spinning my way through as much cleaned and carded fleece as I could, wandering to the window every now and again, spindle in hand, to see if the rain had stopped. Cleaning (scouring) and spinning my large stock of Ryeland fleece is an ongoing activity, particularly as it is now starting smell a little sheepy! For the white fleece, I've been trying to find the balance between very clean, white fleece and 'just about' clean, creamy coloured fleece.

To begin with I was trying to tease out every last bit of dirt (by teasing out the ends floating under water), but it takes some time. Then I came to accept that, to a degree, some dirt falls out by chance when carding, and then a final wash of the spun yarn whitens the yarn a little further. Not washing out every last bit of dirt also keeps some of the oil in and the yarn a little softer. I've experimented with hot scouring and cold scouring. It's all a process of learning what suits. What about you - have you found a balance that always works, or does it change depending on the project?

I've been alternating between spinning grey and white fleece. Grey for a crochet poncho (double knit/light worsted weight) and white at approximately 4 ply or sport weight  for a lacy knit vintage top and eventually an heirloom shawl. I'm taking the long view here: I know it's going to take some time.

Handspun Ryeland yarn

I have a new lightweight 20g top whorl spindle for the finer yarn. 

Handspun Ryeland yarn

I'm mainly a spindle spinner.  Like most, when I decided to take up spinning  (because of my love of wool and all things woolly) I started on a drop spindle but then stayed with it, as my only means of spinning for quite a while before I tried a wheel. I could say that it was because it took a while before finding a spinning wheel to buy, but I don't think that was entirely true. There is something about a simple tool that produces something so incredibly useful and becoming.

I started spinning by teasing out fleece and twisting it on a crochet hook. I already had some fleece - huge quantities of the stuff, and so I fiddled around with it while waiting to attend a beginners spinning course.  I didn't want to buy a drop spindle until I'd found out more about them. I easily adapted to the drop spindle at the workshop (hand-eye co-ordination having been trained to a degree) but came a cropper when it came to the spinning wheel. Hand-eye-foot co-ordination foxed me that day. Since then I have bought a second-hand wheel, and with the help of a spinning friend (that you Christine) I have actually learnt to use it. It is a flax wheel though (I think) and not the easiest wheel for spinning wool.

I also have limited working space at the moment, so there I am, with my bag of spindles. I am a fan of two books -Respect the Spindle  by Abby Franquemont and Spinning in the old way by Priscilla A Gibson-Roberts and agree with many of the pro-spindle sentiments. I can walk around with them, spin standing or sitting, propped up against a radiator on a cold day - keeping an eye on a pot simmering on the cooker. I often go and stir the simmering pot, make a cup of tea one-handed with the spindle in hand. I can adjust degree of twist and thickness easily. I've also taken them away with me, and have even sat spinning on the forecourt of Birmingham New Street station late at night, waiting for a train.

With more space (in the future) I may take to the spinning wheel more, but the spindle is undeniably a most versatile, miniature, portable tool and will always have its place.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

2013 unravelled, 2014 cast on

Looking back over 2013, it's been a year for hopping about. I've delved into some knitting design (Elizabeth Zimmermann inspired), lots of scouring, or washing of my large stock of Ryeland fleece prior to spinning it, attempts at using up small quantities of hand-dyed and handspun yarn using crochet, an experiment in growing and processing flax, and even cross-stitch and kantha stitching entering into the fray.

There have been some surprises as I never expected to find myself pulling out the needles and thread to start on some home furnishings and accessories.

Call it being easily swayed, but it was partly turning a corner to the last leg of the long house renovation project mentioned on blog posts before (it's so much part of our lives) that made me think of furnishing the home with some home-made home style. Before that, when faced with the vision of walls taken back to brick, incomplete floors and dismantled sash windows, I couldn't contemplate knitting, crocheting or sewing for a space that looked like a building site.

Nevertheless, after coming across a book called 'The Gentle Art of Stitching' by Jane Brocket I found myself cross-stitching an alphabet sampler (destination - the new living room walls?) and working some Kantha stitching into making a pair of large-scale patchwork curtains. I never thought I would be doing either cross-stitch or embroidery. It's made me think that there are so many avenues to be explored, if you love all things fibre and textile related, and getting diverted is all too easy. How easily are you diverted? Do you have strategies for keeping yourself on track? Or, do you say 'hang it, I'm doing this now'.

Still, there are projects a-plenty to finish and other ambitions lurk. There is so much to explore in the world of knitting, like Fair Isle, Shetland lace and Scandinavian knitting. I'm drawn by the rich culture, evoking wind-swept remote places. I don't live anywhere like this, so is this armchair travel by knitting? The fiddliness involved might try my patience though. Start small with these, that's my tack. Swatching might be all that I can manage for now.

Coloured Ryeland sheep
I hanker after knitting with natural fibre yarns, as much as possible: that's been there for a while, but it's also a natural follow-on from learning to spin, and appeals to the conservationist in me. Those pure breed sheep/alpacas/angora goats need our business, or rather the farmer does, of course. It looks like artisan and pure breed yarns are on the up, or so it seems from perusing blogs and twitter. For instance, if you wonder 'shall I knit with pure wool - isn't it rather expensive?', for woolly inspiration try reading Campaign for wool and Wovember. I'm sure you'll be drawn in. I've not seen campaigns on quite the same scale for other fibres, but here's one to help alpaca artisans in Peru.

Then there's the art of the small knitting project, so handy for using up the yarn stash. The yarn/fabric stash is something that has been sitting upstairs in the loft and squeezed into drawers around the place, niggling at my conscience. Coming across an article in the paper about The family who bought nothing new for a year brings 'the stash' into focus again. Just when I think 'maybe I'll get some yarn and knit up that jumper pattern I like', the voice of reason says 'but you've got enough unused yarn and fabric to make a whole new wardrobe of clothes and accessories, for you, Mr L and friends, no problem! I've come across the call to Buy nothing new  for a year before, and marvel at everyone who achieves it. I'm not sure I could commit to buying nothing new this year, but I could seriously challenge myself to use what I have and delve again into that stash.

Added to that, I've developed an obsession for making something from scratch. From the fleece on the back of sheep in the field to a finished woolly (knitted or crocheted), from a flax crop in a field to a piece of linen cloth. Where does the desire for the complete process come from? All the washing, carding, spinning, dyeing, harvesting, bashing, (breaking), heckling ....I really don't know. Perhaps it is the delving into a lifestyle; one that has shrunk from being a central part of daily life to being, mostly, a hobby for a few (at least in this part of the world).

Blogs - I have had so much entertainment, and learnt so much. I could spend hours at any one time. And then there are podcasts. I have recently discovered Electric Sheep from Hoxton Handmade, which to me, has the soothing, relaxed feel of Radio 4. I'm awaiting the next one. Last, but not least, I have been on Pinterest. It started with sorting out some ideas for the house and has grown. Find me on Pinterest as Liz at In Stitches Daily. Here's to 2014....

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Mix it up

Carding waste - I nearly threw it on the compost heap. I'd been spinning some hand-dyed fleece and was left with the shorter fibres, the little matted blobs and generally unhelpful stuff that was making spinning frustrating. I didn't quite know what to do with it, but kept it for a while and hovered over the compost heap with it one day, but couldn't quite throw it in. I'm not good at throwing anything textile-related away and I'm an ardent recycler. It occurred to me that perhaps I could mix it in with some other carded fleece, but hadn't got around to trying it. Then I came across some blog posts over at Local and Bespoke which showed some rather becoming trash batts which use carding waste (and a second go at diverting waste from the rubbish bin or compost heap), so I thought I would give it a go.

Carding waste
Carding waste rolag
It has taken me some time to get round to it, but it is an activity that fits nicely in to small slots of time (which is all I have had lately) - as usual spun on a drop spindle. I have a spinning wheel, a flax wheel, but I have limited space in which to use it at the moment, and it isn't ideal for spinning wool, so I migrate back to the trusty little spindles that live in a bag, always next to my favourite chair. Larger projects (like curtains) have been somewhat on and off as well.

I was aiming for a tweedy grey, using the grey Ryeland fleece that I have in copious quantity. The results were more variegated than tweedy, but still, I would happily knit it up. The colour comes from a blue woad dyed fleece and a rusty orange, dyed [I think] with onion skin on copper mordant. Labelling up your dye samples comes in handy; in this case the label had dropped off.
Grey Ryeland tweed yarn

I decided to knit the yarn into a beret, with single line stripes of the rusty orange. I made the pattern up myself, rather than rifle through all the patterns I have to find one that would fit the wool gauge - although this is approximately dk or worsted thickness.

I was aiming for something a little larger and floppier, so perhaps I was knitting a little tight, but here it is. It might end up with a pom pom on the top....

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Warp-weighted weaving and flax processing, Part 2

The journey from flax crop in the field to finished linen cloth (even before washing and bleaching) has many steps.
Linen cloth
Linen fabric (unbleached)
And, the transformation from this........

Retted flax
to this............

Flax fibres
is remarkable. From scratchy and straw-like, to floppy and silky. I'm a fan of wool, but it's quite a transformation, nevertheless. The fibres can be hard to handle, which is, I guess, why flax has traditionally been artfully attached to and spun from a stick (distaff), at least in this part of the world.

I have spun flax from a hank of fibres and managed fine, but the fibres easily get matted in the hand. The hank of fibres in the photo above has been handed round school groups as part of only three 'outreach' events for work so far, and it is already looking a little roughed up. Like wool, the fibres need to be organised and teased apart. So, over to Shirley to show us how.

Preparing fibres from the distaff
Dressing a distaff
Dressing the distaff

The fibres need to be secured at one end then fanned out, and there's a knack to it. With our distaffs 'dressed', when stood up, they looked like white witches on sticks.

Flax on the distaff
Flax on the distaff

Then we could spin the fibres from the distaff:

Spinning flax
Spinning flax from the distaff

I would like to say 'and then with our yards of hand-spun yarn we turned to weaving', but no, our novice attempts would never have produced enough yarn for a piece of cloth in that time. The warp-weighed loom takes a lot of yarn.

From decorated pots and vases of Bronze Age Greece we know that they have been around for a long time, and we know what they looked like. They looked more or less like this, although rather than free-standing like this loom (made for transporting round to workshops), the posts would have been set into the ground.

Warp-weighted loom

Judging by loom weights surviving in the murky depths of lake sites in Switzerland, associated with Neolithic lakeside villages, we know that the warp-weighted loom has been around elsewhere for even longer (that's over 3000 years BC). Fragments of linen cloth have been dredged up from the lake silts, soggy and dark brown, but revealing quite complex weaving techniques. We've been that clever for that long.

So here we were: a bunch of people (workshop attendees) with nowhere near the skill and knowledge of those Swiss lakeside people living thousands of years ago....making lumpy flax yarn and being clueless as to how to set this loom up.

We began by measuring out the warps on a warping board.

Removing warp from a warping board

Then we hung the warp on the loom, onto which loom weights were attached. We were using hand-made replicas of Minoan loom weights, made by Shirley.

Minoan style loom weights

This pyramidal style of loom weight has been found all over Europe during the prehistoric period, and locally we have found a similar pyramidal style (amongst other shapes) from a Late Bronze Age settlement at Huntsman's Quarry, Kemerton, Worcestershire.

Loom weights
Loom weights from Huntsman's Quarry, Kemerton, Worcestershire. Photo by Neil Woolford; courtesy of Worcestershire Archaeology

Tying on the weights and leash strings to a heddle bar was a fiddly job, but finally we got there. We had practised weaving on a loom set up the previous day, and now had our second loom set up, having learnt the steps along the way. And, here's some of our weaving - a little wonky at the edges, but not bad for a first group effort:

Linen on a warp-weighted loom
Linen weaving on the warp-weighted loom

It seemed to take some work to set up the loom, but I suppose once you have the warp set up, half the work is completed. Weaving in the weft completes the job. I think it is quite an attractive piece of equipment. A rustic piece, like the loom above, should be fairly simple to make from small poles of wood. I'm waiting to have the space to set one up, and, meanwhile, am eyeing up a scrubby, abandoned plot next to the Young Archaeologist's allotment for materials. Hmmm, that tree there could be pruned to make a heddle bar and a cloth beam. The willow is getting a bit out of control. Surely a prune wouldn't go amiss?

After a wet weekend, I woke on the Monday morning to a bright sunny day at Old Chapel Farm, and took the scenic route home.

Old Chapel Farm, Llanidloes, Wales: Home of Cambrian Archaeological Projects

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Warp-weighted linen weaving and flax processing, Part 1

Retted flax bundle
Retted flax
In recent months I've been growing flax as part of a work-related project, and having successfully raised our first crop, I'm now having to learn how to process it to produce the flax fibre from which we can produce linen cloth (and linen rope). If you are interested in the project, see my update on Flax processing on the Worcestershire Young Archaeologists Allotment.

Having tried spinning of flax to make linen yarn some time ago, whilst learning to spin with wool, I've also become curious about weaving and the ancient craft of weaving on a warp-weighted loom. It is the tradition from which all weaving developments have sprung in the British Isles and much of Europe, the loom having not changed much until the medieval period. It's also an ideal activity for the Young Archaeologists to try with their new flax product. How convenient then that I should come across a workshop which covers warp-weighted weaving and flax processing. So, off I went, a couple of weeks ago to Llanidloes in mid-Wales. The workshop was hosted by Cambrian Archaeological Projects, and the tutor was Shirley Elwell of Slender Thread Workshop.

It's a time-consuming and involved process just to produce this......

Flax fibres

First the crop needs to be harvested and dried.

Drying flax in the allotment shed

Then it needs to be retted, which means rotting so that the outer part of the stems disintegrate, exposing the fibres. We are dew retting our flax which means leaving it to rot on the ground for several weeks.

At the workshop we started with retted flax. It is surprising how quickly the following stage (breaking) transforms something that looks very definitely plant like to something reminiscent of fibre or even hair, rather like a pony tail from a pony that has been dragged through a hedge. After all, it still needs some refining. Although it might not seem so from the photographs, it's a very dusty job, as we soon found out. We confined ourselves indoors to a barn to do this, to flee the wet weather outdoors, and donned the dust masks for the first stage.

Breaking flax
With our floppy 'pony tail' in tow, we 'scutched', using a flat wooden beater to swipe away some of the outer plant stem (boon).
With the coarse boon removed, a first stage of heckling involved brushing it through a pad of nails in a board to remove more boon and any short brittle fibres called the tow. The tow is used to make make rope, which is where the phrase 'towing the line' comes from.
Coarse heckling
With more heckling, using combs attached to a board, our fibres became gradually more silky and flaxen hair like.
Heckling with combs

Some enthusiastic heckling from Roy.....

Heckling with combs

With some final combing with fine combs our sample of flax was processed and ready to prepare for spinning. In the process we lost some of our flax on the way, a necessary part of the process. It ended up in the tow box. We had flax from different crops to work with and we had chosen a batch that proved to have been slightly over-retted, so that some of the fibres had become brittle, leaving short lengths (more than expected), good for nothing more than making tow rope. I should have taken pictures of our group holding up their samples of flax, some with crest-fallen faces. It just goes to show how critical the retting process is to the final product - the judgement of the point at which the crop is sufficiently retted.

At the weekend, based on what I've learnt at the workshop, I judged our retting flax to be at the right stage for processing (I hope I'm right) and stood some up to dry in the shed with the intention of testing some by 'breaking'. There is more to come on spinning flax and the warp-weighted weaving. For now though I'm scooting off to the allotment to check on progress with drying the retted flax.


Saturday, 9 November 2013

Five thrifty ways to make curtains

Curtains finish a room as well as having the obvious practical advantages of keeping the drafts out and closing you off from the outside world, but you need to be thrifty if you want plush curtains for a reasonable price. I've been thinking through ways of making mine on a budget. Following my large-scale patchwork curtain experiment, here are five more thrifty ideas:
  • Look out for end of roll bargains or remnants for sale - mix fabrics if necessary by adding a deep border to the main fabric, or create broad stripes of complimentary fabrics
  • For linings and inter-linings, if you need to make several curtains check out eBay for whole rolls at knock-down prices
  • Check out charity shops and vintage shops for curtains as a source of fabric. Don't like the fabrics? How about re-using a perfectly good lining?
  • Try Freecycle or similar for a free source of material
  • Take a plain fabric and add your own embellishment with embroidery, machine stitching or stencilling etc
How much you can get your lovely looking curtains on a budget, or even if you're lucky for free, all depends on how much time you are prepared to spend sourcing materials (be that online or trotting round the shops), or using some crafty know-how to make the best of the materials you have to hand.
If winters are cold then lined and inter-lined curtains could pay dividends, and making your own is surely one way of keeping the cost down. Not only that, but you could be saving ££££s, $$$$s, euros etc on your heating bills rather than unintentionally heating your garden (and keeping the birds warm). We still have the original single-glazed sash windows at the front of our 1901 house, and as I didn't want to replace them or even add double glazing I had to think of ways of keeping the draughts out and the heat in.

This summer we renovated our downstairs bay window, replacing more rotten wood that we expected and replacing old beading with draft-excluding beading. It was a big job but worth the investment in time and effort, and here is the result:

Add to that some thick lined and inter-lined curtains, and the heat from our woodburner will hopefully stay inside where we want it to be. For the back room I've gone for large-scale patchwork curtains, perhaps not to everyone's taste, but I'd be happy with some homespun style here. For this window I want something more straight forward. It's a big window, but by bidding on eBay for whole rolls of fabric I think I now have the means to make some nice looking curtains for half the price of ready-made ones.

Curtain fabric and lining bought by the roll

Patchwork curtains in progress
Vintage fabrics are making a come back, so you might find a little vintage fabric makes your windows look special. Try eBay, flea markets and vintage fairs. Charity shops often have curtains, and if you can't find quite the right fabric you could try using the linings or going for a fairly plain fabric and adding some embellishment. Raid the haberdashery shop, add fringes, edging or borders. Get creative - stencilling, machine stitching or even hand stitching over smaller areas could transform an ordinary fabric. There are many good ideas for stencilled curtains on Pinterest.

I'm working on some Kantha stitching on curtain lining to add into my patchwork curtains. There's always something new to learn......

Kantha stitching on curtain lining fabric