Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Somewhere Over the Rainbow 2015: Controlling Colour Placement in Tapestry Using Hand Spun Singles

Yesterday, I discussed how I use my multi-coloured singles weft yarns to build a tapestry design. This style of free form weaving is relaxing and fun - I begin to weave and see where the yarn takes me. Weaving this way is truly "playing with string." Most of the time, though, I have specific designs in mind and I weave with a cartoon behind my warp. This watercolour was the starting point for a piece I wll discuss here, "Study for 'The Garden':"

I've lost the cartoon for this weaving, but my practice is to translate such paintings into line drawing cartoons, like this one:

How do I use my hand spun yarns to build a controlled design? A weaver can work mathematically, planning the colour changes in her spinning based on some calculations in a woven sample. Let's say that she knows that a 10 inch (25 cm) wide x 1 inch (2.5 cm) high block of colour contains 36 picks per inch (PPI) and that she has approximately 10% take up in her weft yarn with each pass. Each weft pass then requires 11 inches (27.5 cm) of yarn. She would multiply 11 x 36 for a total of 396 inches, or approximately 11 yards (10 metres) of yarn per block woven. Working from this, she would then spin 11 yards or 10 metres of each colour she wanted per colour block (or she could be wild and spin 11 inches of a variety of colours 36 times to mix her colours in that same block). There will, of course, still be some variation in colour placement, due to differences in take up, yarn grist, techniques used and the touch of the human hand, but overall, a spinner could make weaving weft this way and be fairly confident as to how the colours would weave in a given section.

Apart from the challenge presented, I have no interest in working this way. Spinning precise colours into my yarns doesn't strike me as an effective use of my time, given that I can use traditional weaving techniques to place my colours where I please. Instead, I use my experience as a dyer and spinner to blend colours in my yarns; my experience with tapestry weaving allows me to decide how best to place the colours. The short version of this is that I work intuitively, but I also pay attention to the shapes in my cartoons and how to build those shapes with my yarns.

In "'The Garden' Study," shown here as woven and turned to show how the final weaving is presented, I built shapes using both discontinuous weft tapestry techniques and the colours in the yarns:

You can see the traditional way that shapes are formed in the small flower at the lower left. The stem and leaves are woven with green yarns in eccentric weft technique and the bud is a separate shape from a different yarn placed between the leaves. The Snake's body and the right side of the large flower are woven with continuous yarns (each from separate balls). The natural striping of the yarn forms the stripes on the Snake. (For some reason, I always think of this image as a "he" and always in capital letters.) That colour way begins with the pink at his underbelly and continues to the tongue, orange stripe and eye, which are woven in separately, then the main yarn continues into his head to the top of his body. The large flower is woven the same way, beginning with light pink for the stem (right side, lower photo), into the purples and fuchsias of the bud. The left side of the stem is woven in the same fashion with a different multi-coloured yarn.

You can see the same effect in this detail of a leaf from "Chakra Roots." This shape was woven from a continuous strand of yarn, the leaf from one end of the ball and the soumak from the other:

Working this way is not an all-or-nothing process. Whether I use a fairly solid colour or a multi-coloured yarn depends on what I believe best suits my design. For example, in "The Garden," the rounded shapes are woven with solid singles, while the background combines various gradient singles combined with slits and eccentric wefts.

Weaving with multi-coloured singles reduces my weaving time by allowing my yarns to mimic some classic tapestry techniques. It can also enhance those same traditional ways of weaving. Working with such yarns extends my design possibilities - I can allow the yarn itself to determine my design, as I did in "Badlands" or I can use that yarn to highlight shapes in my cartoons. Best of all, weaving with my hand spun yarns combines my love of dyeing, spinning and weaving into a single fabric. There is a meditation in this practice as All becomes One.


Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Somewhere Over the Rainbow 2015: Weaving with a Ball of Hand Dyed Singles

We had two days of much needed rain, although we could have done without the high winds which accompanied it. The weather was perfect for weaving, so I thought I would show you what I do with those balls of multi-dyed singles that I spin. I set up one of my small Forsythe frame looms with a commercial cotton seine twine warp, selected a ball of yarn which appealed to me and began to weave, without a cartoon or any plan at all, apart from demonstrating how I work with the range of colours available to me in a single ball of yarn. In this photo, you can see the variety of colours in a single skein, which I wound into a centre pull ball:

I have several options when using this yarn; I can work from the inside or the outside of the ball or I can select random sections by winding off yarn until I get the colours I want. In this case, I decided to work from the outside and the inside of the ball, taking the colours as they came to me. I began with the outside of the ball. Working across the width of the tapestry produces subtle stripes, as shown at the bottom of the sample (tentatively named, "Badlands"):

Once I begin to work over smaller areas, the stripes become more evident, shifting into blocks of colour, depending upon the techniques I use (slits and eccentric wefts here). You can see this happening on the left side of the tapestry. If I want to emphasize a particular section, I use an outlining technique - in this case, soumak.

For the background colour (the blue shown here), I wove using yarn from the centre of the ball. I prefer to have a clean surface on both front and back of my work, but in order to maintain a smooth colour transition in the sky, I floated my yarn behind the hoodoo image at centre right. The colour shifts from blue to light pink, at which point, I began weaving with yarns from the inside and outside of the ball. The inside yarn is on the left; the outside yarn is on the right:

You can see the hatching in the centre of the piece and my use of eccentric weft weaving to suggest movement in the sky. The hatching is barely noticeable, but there is a clear difference between the left side and right.

There are a few things to remember when working with multiple colour transitions:

  • When dyeing fibres, make your colours stronger and brighter than you require in your yarn. Spinning with multiple colours mutes everything. If your colours are too subtle, especially if you spin using complementary colours, your yarns will appear muddy and will become more so in your weaving. Choose your colour sequence wisely.
  • Stripes become more prominent as the weaving width covered by the yarn narrows, eventually becoming blocks of colour. The longer your colour runs, the bigger the blocks, so when spinning your yarns, pay attention to the length and order in which you spin your singles. If you want precise placements and shapes, you will have to measure your fibres as you spin. This defeats my intent to make less work for myself, so I eyeball my colours as I spin. 
  • If you want to maintain continuity in your colour transitions, the end which comes off the ball last is the end that goes through the eye of the needle (or is the first to be wound on your bobbin or butterfly). This ensures that the last end off the ball will also be the last end woven. If you aren't concerned with maintaining the shifts, you don't need to pay attention which end came off the yarn package last. 
  • Sample. Sample a lot, especially if you intend to weave larger pieces or if you want to weave specific shapes. Designing with the colours in the yarn is not a beginner's practice. It's easy to get pleasing colours when weaving random sections in a tapestry, but controlling those colours requires paying attention to how the yarn is spun and how that yarn is used in the fabric. Transitions are affected by warp sett, weaving width, beat and techniques. All these things and more affect the final appearance of your work. 

I hope this gives you some idea of how to work with rainbow dyed colours in tapestry. In case you're wondering: "This is all very well for free form weaving, but can I do this if I'm working with cartoons, specific images and larger pieces?" the answer is, yes, you can and I will have more on that in future posts.


Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Somewhere Over the Rainbow 2015: Spinning Yarns

My last post walked you through one of the dyeing techniques I use for my hand spun tapestry singles yarns. Once I’ve rainbow dyed, washed and dried my Romney fleece, I sort it into locks and more jumbled fibres. Both sets of fibres will be used to spin tapestry yarns, but I treat them differently. Individual locks are divided into colourways for spinning from the lock, either as is or after combing with a dog comb. The rest of the fleece will be carded or combed on wool combs, depending upon its end use.

Spinning from locks retains the beautiful lustre of this Romney fleece and allows me to produce colour gradients, either subtle or distinctive, in my yarns. It is also easier for me to produce yarns which mimic tapestry techniques when I spin from locks. Tapestry woven with lock spun wefts has a smoother surface and higher lustre than tapestry woven with woollen yarns; however, the strength of the yarn and the parallel arrangement of its fibres mean that the wefts don’t pack as well over the warp yarns. As I've mentioned in previous posts, I do a lot of needle weaving and don’t use a shedding device very often, so I sometimes find that worsted singles shred as I weave them over and under the warps, usually when I set up a linen warp. While woollen yarns may pill in the shed, worsted yarns tend to drift apart all at once, so I have to work with short pieces of yarn and overlap my joins well. In most cases, this isn’t a problem – my pieces are small and require only short wefts and experience has taught me to anticipate any yarn drift which I can prevent by rolling the yarn between my fingers in the direction of the twist as I weave.

All of the yarns from this batch of dyeing were spun Z, cut end to tip on a top whorl spindle. This photograph shows Skein #1, spun directly from locks which were opened at the cut end, but which had no other preparation.  This yarn is slightly more textured and fuzzier than the next two larger skeins, which were spun from dog combed locks. Note the PVC niddy noddy – after spinning the yarns, I wind them on these noddies, twist the noddies flat to produce more tension on the yarns, then wash and dry them on the noddies.The locks below are the original colours in this skein. If you are planning a colourway using this technique, remember that the colours are stronger and brighter in the locks. Colours opposite on the colour wheel will blend to produce browns; equal amounts of opposite colours can muddy otherwise clear colours. Experiment a bit before you spin an entire batch to determine which colours work well together and how gradually you want your colours to transition.

This batch of lock spinning produced approximately 475 yards of worsted style weft yarns. You can see the strong colour shifts in the larger skeins. Depending upon the effect I want, I can use these yarns from either end or from the centre to place the colours where I need them. If I decide that I want a gradient shift in my colours without using tapestry techniques – such as winding multiple colours on a bobbin and then dropping or changing out colours as I weave – I spin fewer locks of any one colour and make them into smaller skeins which can be woven as is across the web. (This then begs the question: am I weaving tapestry, i.e., discontinuous weft-faced weave or am I weaving rugs? I’m not a purist and tend to go with whatever works best for me.)

There you have it – step two in the long, but rewarding process of weaving tapestry from hand spun singles.


Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Somewhere Over the Rainbow 2015

Late yesterday afternoon, I dyed some Romney fleece from my favourite local supplier, Meegan Linklater, of Rousay Station. Meegan's Romney is always lovely - clean, bright, long stapled with great lock formation and strong. It has a wide range of uses, from garments to tapestry yarns, Although it's quite heavy with grease, it dyes beautifully, with lustre that highlights the silkiness of the locks. It's perfect for rainbow dyeing.

I rainbow dye most of the fibres I use for tapestry yarns. I like the unpredictability of the colours, the way the hues blend and the fact that the colours in a rainbow pot always go well together. I spin singles for tapestry weft. The colour transitions in the yarns often substitute for traditional weaving techniques; judicious placement of multi-coloured wefts can mimic the nuances of hachure, for example. Working with multi-coloured singles can make my tapestries appear more complex than they are and I'm all for using illusion to my advantage.

Rainbow dyeing involves nothing more than filling a dye pot with a small amount of hot water, several glubs of vinegar (or other acid), then stuffing the pot with raw fleece. (You can rainbow dye with any fibres or even yarns, washed or not, but acid dyeing with raw fleece is my preferred method.) You then sprinkle acid dye powders in several places on the fleece, heat the pot to a simmer and walk away. There's no stirring, no mixing of dye powders, no more than a bit of judicious poking if the powders don't dissolve. Once the fibres and dyes have simmered for approximately 20 minutes (which varies according to the dyes you use), you turn off the heat and allow the pot to cool over night. You then rinse or scour the wool and allow it to dry. I prefer to wash this Romney without a cleaning agent as I prefer the feel of the grease in the wool. That grease is removed when the yarn is washed and set, so it doesn't affect the woven fabric.

Once the fibre is cleaned, I separate it into batches of locks and fibres to be carded, then into colour groups. Here's the current batch ready to be sorted:

Here are the locks sorted into colour groups:

What doesn't sort into locks will be spun as is for textured yarns or carded and spun into colour blends:

Of course, I would not be as successful at all of this were it not for the faithful Morris, who watches over all events in our backyard. (Really, he's hoping we'll turn on the sprinkler so that he can play in it, He's broken so many sprinkler heads that Mr. DD designed one specially for Morris, built from a hockey puck and a piece of plastic plumbing tubing. At least now, when Morrie bites at the sprinkler, he won't hurt his teeth.The old boy turned nine at the beginning of the month, but you'd never know it when he's romping around in the water.) 


Saturday, 11 July 2015

Hot Summer Days: Working With Wool

The smoke from distant fires has cleared here, but we're into hot weather - the past few days have been in the mid 30's C range (up into the 90's F, which is plenty hot for us). We don't have air conditioning, so it's warm inside, too, a bit warm for spinning or weaving or doing much of anything except reading and sipping cold drinks.

A few months ago, my friend, Joan, gave me a book, Sylvia Olsen's Working With Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy & the Cowichan Sweater.  These world renowned garments have a complex and interesting history, as do the women who make them. Coast Salish people once wove heavy blankets of two ply mountain goat and dog hair. These blankets were important, if not the most important, cultural products of the people. The blankets were used in potlatch ceremonies, giveaways and rites of passage; they held great cultural significance. Blankets became trade items as contact with the Spanish and British grew, but colonization and efforts to assimilate indigenous peoples brought an end to their production. Salish women took pride in keeping their hands busy and in working with wool; when the settlers introduced knitting to the West Coast of British Columbia and the United States, Salish women adopted knitting as their own and developed a style of sweater that became known as the Cowichan. These sweaters, made from thick hand spun singles wool, became a way to support their families as government policies drove the peoples further and further into poverty.

Ms. Olsen has a unique perspective on the history of these sweaters: she married into a Coast Salish family, lives among the people and has been active in the production, repair and marketing of the sweaters for decades. The book, published in 2010, is based on her Master's Thesis and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in hand spinning, weaving, knitting or the history of indigenous peoples in Canada. (Salish Indian Sweaters, by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts, is another informative book on the history and making of these sweaters; however, as a member of the Coast Salish community, Ms. Olsen is able to offer insights unavailable to Ms. Gibson-Roberts.)

Coast Salish never received full benefit from their sweaters. Although certain traders were known for their fair payments and respectful treatment of the knitters, many traders took advantage of the knitters' need to support their families. The traders could be abusive and deceitful, offering far less than a sweater was worth, refusing to purchase sweaters made from wool not supplied by the traders or offering barter only. As the popularity of and demand for the sweaters grew, the knitters found themselves further behind. According to Ms. Olsen, what really struck a blow to the making of these sweaters was that same popularity - Salish knitters had to compete with cheaper imitation sweaters. Rather than work with their own designs and traditions, markets demanded homogeneity. Knitters would be required to knit hundreds of sweaters with the same designs, using wool imported from New Zealand and Australia, rather than their own home grown wool. Many of the knitters lost heart; their creativity stifled, they put down their needles and refused to teach their daughters to spin or to knit.

One of the passages which impressed me most in the book occurs when Elizabeth, a knitter, brings a sweater to Ms. Olsen for sale. Ms. Olsen was disconcerted by the "distinctly lop-sided series of snowflakes she had knit as her main design (p. 261)." The exchange that follows is worth quoting in full:

"I know what you're looking at," she [Elizabeth] said. "You think I've made a mistake."
"Yeah," I said. I was uncomfortable criticizing Elizabeth's work. She was a respected elder in the community and a good friend of mine. She laughed. "You see, the thing with you people," she said, referring to my whiteness, "is that you always want everything perfect. Everything has to be buttoned down so there's no place to move. You don't like any muss, any fuss. Any little thing out of place and you start squirming." . . . "You see, in our world," she said, referring to her nativeness, "we purposely leave a coloured stitch knit out of the order of the pattern or something like that. We don't call it a mistake. It's a window. It's where spirits come and go. That's why our sweaters are so comfortable. People can feel it. Our knitting isn't all stuck up and tight. You close things up so tight, so perfect they can't breathe."  (pp. 261-262. Emphasis mine.)

Of all the things which I took from this book, the idea that demand for perfection stifles creativity strikes close to my heart. These days, we allow little margin for error in any aspect of life; in the age of social media, where everything is instant and global, where humans are publicly mocked for mistakes they make precisely because they are human, it would be wise to remember Elizabeth's words. Allowing ourselves and others freedom to be creative and express our artistic visions, especially when we don't agree with them, will not degrade our world. Rather, accepting a multitude of possibilities will expand our horizons and enrich our abilities.

If you're looking for a good read this summer, or any time of year, find yourself a copy of Sylvia Olsen's book. Along with the video below, it offers insight into an ever changing culture and its beautiful work. Enjoy.


Monday, 6 July 2015

Battle Fatigue: A Selfie of a Different Sort and the Question of Design

I’ve been thinking about design these days: what makes good design, where design inspiration materializes, how to choose and work with media and techniques to realize a design. Such things have been rattling about in my brain for a while. I promised myself, when I finished my teaching gig at Fibre Week this year, I would concentrate on tapestry, weaving subjects dear to my heart with materials I produced myself.

After a few days recovering from the excitement of Olds College, I settled in to work on a piece I’ve had warped for a few months. The subject is personal, painful and I’m not sure I’m ready to expose it to the light of day, but it needs to be woven, even if it turns out badly. Mistakes are our best teaching partners and the past week, I’ve been making mistakes, although many of these are turning out to be happy accidents.

The finished piece will be approximately 10.5 inches x 11.25 inches, nearly square, which can be problematic, as the eye is drawn to rectangles. I’m weaving it on a Cactus Loom, which means four selvedges, no hems or fringes. As usual, I’m weaving from the front, but the back will not be clean finished, due to some of the techniques I’m incorporating into the weaving – soumak, lettering (woven in and applied to the surface), a wee bit of embroidery for detail. The warp is 2 ply commercial bleached linen, smooth and silky, but so strong and inelastic that it shreds the weft yarns. Those wefts are hand spun singles. I chose to weave most of the piece, which is primarily white with dark brown lines and bits of red, using a yarn spun from Norwegian top. The weft is strongly spun, to the point where it nearly cuts my hands when I break off a piece, but it’s no match for the linen. Because it’s spun from top, the fibres are aligned; when they unwind, as often happens when passing a singles through the weaving shed, they unwind all at once, unlike a woolen spun yarn where the misalignment of the fibres helps to hold the yarn together. This means that the supposedly strong yarn frays and breaks unexpectedly. It also means that the weft tends to shred; the yarn which appears smooth in the ball is rough in the fabric.

Battle Fatigue: Detail 

The Norwegian singles is a prime example of why I encourage beginning tapestry weavers to learn their techniques using plied commercial warp and wefts. Weaving with this yarn is not an easy go. I could have returned to my tried and true Romney singles which I know will behave better. Why did I choose to stay with the Norwegian worsted for weft? Here’s the thing: the difficulty in using this yarn matches the difficulty of my topic. The rough surface of the fabric reflects the ups and downs inherent with the design and subject. As I weave with this weft, the hairiness of the yarn obscures the images in the weaving, ever so slightly, adding to the texture of the tapestry and reflecting the ambivalence I have towards the topic. In other words, the media become crucial to the design of the tapestry. The strong commercial linen warp, the bones of the piece, holds everything together, but it’s a tough mistress, refusing to bend to the actions of the weft. The weft becomes a physical reminder of the hard subject as it builds the tapestry. This, I think, is critical to producing good design. Not only must the weaver capture an idea in her cartoon and translate the cartoon into cloth, she must choose to work with materials which enhance her ideas and her subject. If she selects images and materials which are easy for her, if she repeats a theme because it is safe and known to work, she risks weaving a facile tapestry, boring to herself and boring to the viewer.

By weaving difficult subjects, using materials which don’t bend easily to the will, the tapestry weaver risks disaster, but she also takes steps towards a clear understanding of her subject and the materials needed to express that subject. In doing so, she may provoke her audience into questioning its perspective. Ideally, tackling a hard subject may provide healing. And so, I weave.