Sunday, 5 April 2009

Storytime: Why I am a weaver - and colours for rugs

I had no knowledge of handweaving until 2005. It didn't exist in my world. I suppose I'd heard of it, I think I'd seen an odd loom in a museum, and I have a vague memory of visiting a village of artisans in France on a french exchange trip as a schoolchild where a handweaver sat at a loom weaving a rug.

I'd also only once seen a spinning wheel, in a museum at Ironbridge but what I remember most of that was that the lady in Welsh costume got up from her spinning wheel and gave us hot Welsh cakes to taste, straight from the griddle. Oh, so tasty!

Then in 2005 I was unexpectedly unemployed at then end of a University course. As I left University (first time) in a recession in the late 1980's I have previous experience of unemployment. The most remarkable thing about being unemployed is finding out how many hours there are in a day and in a week and then understanding that with no routine anymore you have to find your own way to organise your life. Looking for work and collecting unemployment benefit takes up a some of the hours. There are enough hours left to go out of your mind with boredom and anxiety - if you want to. I knew from the past that I needed to create some sort of structure and purpose for days / weeks in order to stay sane.

Then came an opportunity. We went to the Manifold Show - one of the traditional country / farming shows there are every summer in rural England. It poured with rain, everything was sodden, everyone wet through. Typical English summer. I remember admiring a few sheep in pens, admiring prize winning chickens and a slow tractor race. The rain came down in sheets. As it was being announced that the afternoon's show events were to be cancelled and the rain got heavier, we nipped into the nearest marquee. The rain thundered on to the canvas and wind whipped at the tent edges. Shelter from the weather was most welcome. We were wondering whether to go home. But in the farmost corner of the tent three very cheerful ladies were busy at spinning wheels. We wandered over. They had a display that taught me that these spinning wheels did not just look pretty, they produced yarn. The yarn could be dyed (yellow, from onion skins) and knitted into garments. O.K., you read this and it's just logical because you know about these things. I did not know about these things. I was virtually speechless with amazement.

I sat at a spinning wheel but was too nervous to try spinning the wool offered. I learnt that the spinners were members of a "Guild".

We went home. When I was warm and dry again I looked on the internet to find out about spinning and Guilds and spinning wheels. This was a Saturday evening. I found Chris's Spinndizzy resources page, and then the Loom Exchange. There were wheels advertised that looked like the one's we'd seen, it was called "Ashford Traditional". There was a wheel advertised that had the same phone code as us. That means it was within about 10 miles, and the next day, Sunday, was my birthday. What did I want for my birthday? That spinning wheel. We collected it next day. £90 for a wheel, handcarders, and a small bag of washed fleece.

The handcarders had a label on them saying "Wingham Woolworks" and a phone number. On Monday I phoned up and said, who are you, what do you do? They sold wool for spinners, and were just the other side of the Pennine hills, shop open Sundays and Mondays. The next Sunday I was there, in a barn full of amazing sights - all kinds of wool and other fibres, spinning wheels, etc. I bought some Jacob's wool and a booklet "Essentials of Handspinning" by Mabel Ross.

I had a useful talk with Ruth Gough (proprietor) who gave me some basic instruction and signed up to come back the next Tuesday for a day's lesson. This was the point where weaving came into my life. We were talking about uses for spun yarn. I hadn't knitted for years, obviously I needed to re-learn to use my yarn - but Ruth mentioned weaving. Being in South Yorkshire, which has a strong textile trade and tradition, she had learnt spinning and weaving at school. She picked up a copy of Marguerite Porter Davison's "A Handweaver's Pattern Book" and flicked through, saying you could weave these on a loom - and here's the one I wove for my A Level (a complicated overshot design). Again, I was amazed, too much to take in.

I went home and practiced starting and stopping the wheel for a few days, to the puzzlement of my boyfriend who thought the purpose was producing yarn. Then I got my Jacob's wool and Mabel Ross's instructions, and after several false starts produced some thick grey yarn. By the end of a day's lesson with Ruth, I had plied yarns in all sorts of wools and colours and a big glow of satisfaction. They said I was "a natural" and I was hooked. I was soon spending several hours a day at the wheel. I span every type of wool I could find, and put together a sample book with fleece and yarn and notes about the wool type and possible uses.

Weaving came a few months later. The nearest Guild to where I live was over an hour's drive away, that may not seem far if you are in the U.S., but the roads are narrow, hilly, and very twisty here and an hour's drive is hard work. At some times of year ice, wind and rain make the evening travel more difficult and even dangerous. Instead, I found the Online Guild of Weavers Spinners and Dyers, and after thinking about it for a few weeks, signed up. Oh happy day - I was among friends. They taught me to spin other fibres (cotton and silk) and gave lots of advice and encouragement. I tentatively asked for advice about getting a loom. I fancied one of those little rigid heddle looms, or a table loom. Boyfriend advised I'd soon be bored and should think bigger. I asked the Guild, they agreed with him, and so it was that my first loom was to be a 2nd hand 8 shaft, 10 treadle Toika Norjanna.

And - yes, pictures at last - here is my very first piece of weaving:

The warp was kindly prepared ready to go on the loom by it's previous owner, who also gave me a plan for tying up the treadles and threading the heddles. I was using plain weave, diagonal 2-2 twill and 3-1, 1-3 blocks. The coloured rug wools came from Texere Yarns at Bradford, mill ends from the carpet industry, 80% wool and 20% nylon.

The sample was on the loom a few weeks, as I wove a bit, thought a bit, selected different colours.

This is the finish of it, I show if here just below the start so you can see how much I'd learnt about controlling the weaving, it's so very tidy at this end, compared to the start.

Here's some shots of the bits in between. I had a lot of fun mixing colours in alternate rows, or three row repeats, to make speckled or graduated effects.

Colour influences? Below strawberries, raseberries, billberries, water, sky...

Moorland and grassland...

Random "what if?" stuff...

My mother came to stay, and I showed her, and she asked "so what is it for?" That's a good question, it's an odd sort of rug, six feet long and about 14" wide. It's my sampler. I roll it up and unroll it. I look at it in different places in different lights. I fold it in different places, to put different sections next to each other and see how they work or compare different effects. It is a design tool. And, rolled up, it's very comfortable to sit on on the stone steps at the front of our house, when the spring sunshine is warm but the stone slabs cold.


Life Looms Large said...

That's a great story!! I love how coincidental it is that you stopped into a marquee with spinners...and from there to weaving.

Our guild is an hour away - and even on smooth, fast, US highways - it still seems like a far drive!

Our weaving guild often recruits people to demonstrate at different events, and I've always wondered if that helps raise the profile of weaving in the community. Your story says that it does!

Thanks for sharing the rug! Some great colors together!!


Barbara Blundell said...

Hi Dorothy,
What a fascinating post and haven't you come far ? Love the photos

deborahbee said...

I presume that all the weavers whose blogs I read regularly have been weaving for years. I identified with the serendipity nature of your spinning and weaving discovery. It was heartening to read about how you started. I envy you your first loom. I would really love something wider but in a way my 24" controls my wilder imaginings.

Theresa said...

Beautiful story and such a meaningful piece of weaving.
I too unroll my first weaving on occasion and enjoy it.

Alice said...

I will just bet you are very happy when you sit on your rug! That is what it is for.

SpinningLizzy said...

I love your story, and what super work on a first project! I think I would do a lot more weaving if I didn't worry about what I'm making it for. It's just so beautiful to look at the colour combinations and changes.

Trapunto said...

I am relishing your use of the past tense "span"! Wonderful story; it was in the cards for you, wasn't it? I would have been distracted by the hot welsh cake too.

Laritza said...

I read your entry this morning and was very interested by the process. Each one of us goes through different steps to get into weaving. A knitter since 5 yo I have become entranced with weaving. I still knit a lot but weaving has its own magic. Love your samples.

Helen said...

I loved this story. I first came across spinning as spindle spinning a craft fair and this started me off on my creative journey.I haven't demonstrated like that for years now but reading your story and remembering mine I see the point of all the hours demonstrating spinning at a local affairs even if 90% of the population don't appear to know the difference between spinning and weaving! " Come at look at this lady weaving" -as you sit spinning!

Thanks Helen

Janet said...

Hi Dot - I loved reading this entry in particular.

Best wishes from Janet, currently in Seattle and going to see my 7th grandchild, born this a.m.

Meg in Nelson said...

So, five years and a little bit of spinning, Dot? Fantastic! You should line up all your wheels and take a group picture.

I'm glad I started with a rigid heddle - an 8-shaft from the start would have done my head in.