Here is the link to my latest newsletter, with an update on some of the steps involved in producing our throws, scarves, socks, shawls, and other ideas:
Every once in a while I send out some news about what I’m doing here at Laura’s Loom. I try to include an update on new products, some photos of the lovely place in which I live, and stories about what I’ve been working on. You can find a subscribe link on most of my website pages. I try not to bombard my readers. It’s really just a way to keep in touch and to pitch the odd sale! My newsletter readers are the first to find out about any special offers, such as discounts and free shipping. Often they are the only people to find out about these offers! So why not sign up and read along. Here are links to some of my recent missives:
My newest blankets are woven from a mix of hill and mountain wools, including: Lleyn, Black Welsh Mountain, Castlemilk Moorit, Shetland Moorit, Shetland silver, Shetland white, Hebridean, and Manx Loughtan wools. Some of these are listed as rare by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.
I was very much involved in the making of these blankets and managed to record many, although not quite all, of the processes undertaken to create them.
The story starts at Farfield Mill. At this Arts and Heritage Centre on the outskirts of the Yorkshire Dales market town of Sedbergh, there is a Master Weaver named David and a young trainee weaver named Juliette. Together they spend most weekends wrestling with a warping mill more than a century old, a Dobcross loom which dates back to the 1930s and a somewhat newer Somet loom which is still significantly older than Juliette (although slightly younger than me!) My blankets were woven on the Somet.
There are many steps involved in weaving. Here, for your reading delight, is my account of each of step we took in the weaving of my Mountain Blankets.
Step 1: Splitting Cones
When yarn is wound onto cones it’s not necessarily the right length for the project. If there’s too much yarn on the cone it needs to be split down into smaller cones prior to setting the creel. This sounds like something akin to going fishing for lobster but watch the video to get an idea of what I am talking about.
There is quite a bit of maths involved prior to splitting. First, the cones need to be weighed to work out how much yarn is actually on them. Then we decide how many sections are required to wind the full width of the warp. The next step is to work out how many ends of how many different colours are needed in each section, and then figure out how long a length we need on each cone so that we won’t run out of yarn part way around the warping mill and have to tie a knot, or waste a lot of yarn.
I do like a challenge, but the back breaking and mind-bending process of setting and re-setting the creel ten times, with 80 different individual cones each time, taught me a lesson as to why so many blankets are made up of geometrically repeating patterns. It’s because for those blankets you only need to set the creel ONCE! My Mountain Blanket is definitely not a repeating pattern but that makes it even more special and unique.
Step 2: Winding the warp
After setting the creel, the yarn is pulled from each cone and threaded through an eyelet. The yarn is then drawn through a short reed which allows every other thread to be lifted out of the way to create what is known as a ‘lease’. This keeps the threads in order and assists with threading the heddles on the loom at a later stage.
The entire set of threads is then hooked onto the warping mill and aligned so as to butt up to the previous section but not cover it, measured to ensure the section doesn’t get too wide or too narrow, and winding begins. One full turn around Farfield’s old warping mill equates to 7 yards. In no time at all we had a 77 yard warp section wound and it was back to step one.
Fast forward to three days later………and…
Step 3: Beaming off
Having wound the warp, it’s then time to beam it off. Manhandling the beam into place took longer than winding the warp onto the beam! But once the beam is back on the loom threading can begin in earnest.
Step 4: Threading
This was, by comparison to all that had gone before, a calm and quiet process. Once the steel heddles had been counted and moved into the right sections of the shafts, it was time to wipe oil from the hands, ask Juliette politely if she could climb into the middle of the loom (she was the only one of the three of us slim enough to fit), and begin to thread almost 1000 ends of yarn through the heddle eyes. As Juliette separated each thread in order I passed each one through a heddle. The order of threading determines part of the pattern in the cloth. David finished that process and between them Master Weaver and assistant placed a drop pin onto each thread to stop the loom automatically should a warp end break during weaving. It’s almost but not quite time to weave.
Step 5: Tensioning and Adjusting
The final stage before weaving was to tie on and tension the threads. This is not quite as simple as on a handloom but for those of you reading this who are weavers it is a similar process. Getting the leno and selvedge threads to behave was a bit more challenging.
Then it was time to put the weft into place, test the rapiers to make sure they were picking up the weft correctly, tension the weft, punch the cards for the pattern, insert the pattern cards, and flick the switch to commence weaving.
Making sure the weft picks were correctly spaced was the last thing to test and off we went, clickety clack, clickety clack, clickety, clickety, clickety clack.
Step 6: Weaving
It takes less than twenty minutes to weave a large blanket when things are running smoothly but a handful of pesky knots and lenos gave us a bit more downtime than we would have liked. Breakages need to be fixed as the weaving progresses or they ruin the cloth. The loom is stopped while the warp threads are unknotted and darned back into the cloth, then away we go again, constantly checking that the weft is being correctly placed. Old looms need nursing more than modern ones and when things go wrong it’s not always a straight-forward process to mend them, but David knows his stuff and Juliette is learning fast.
After two weekends of weaving my entire woven web came off the loom and I took it home to check for errors and fix them.
Finally it was time to send the whole piece up to Schofields Finishers in Galashiels. That oily web, rather stiff and rough in its raw state, came back three weeks later looking, feeling and smelling just beautiful. A study in British wool if ever there was one. I hope you will agree.
June 23rd and 24th 2017 will see thousands of wool enthusiasts heading to Cockermouth in west Cumbria for a two day extravaganza of wool. Sheep and other woolly creatures will be on hand to show off their myriad breeds and wool types. Weaving, knitting and dyeing events take place all over the auction mart. Vendors tout their wares and customers eye up what’s new, what’s back in stock, and rue the day they didn’t buy it last year as it’s all gone now!
Laura’s Loom will be on stand D79-80 this year – a double stand with a bit more room for both customers and ‘staff’. My helpers this year will include daughter Caroline and weaving friend Ali. Neither one is entirely sure what they have let themselves in for!
For us the event has begun days in advance, getting stock ready and packed into boxes and bags. The day before we will drive up the motorway to Penrith, turn west to Keswick and arrive at Mitchell’s Auction Mart in Cockermouth ready to set up our stand. It’s an inspiring drive as we head towards the mountains of the Lake District National Park. With a trusty trolley at the ready and willing arms, we tote the bags and boxes from car to stand, set up the tables, attempt to artfully arrange a few cloths, display a few baskets and hey presto…..four hours later……our stand is ready!
The fun part of these events is meeting up with vendors past and present who over the years become friends or at the very least friendly faces. We’re all competing for a slice of the same pie, but the woolly world is a warm world where we can greet each other with a smile and catch up on news from other events, new products, new colours, and how’s the family.
At 10am the doors open and we’re ready to greet our customers as visitors from far and near stream through the doors. Some return year on year, many are new and it’s time to tell our story once again. It never fails to amaze me how many people are interested in wool. That’s great news for the future of the British wool industry. I’ve seen it grow tremendously over the last ten years. Long may it continue.
And now for something totally different. Not all my inspiration comes from natural landscape features. Occasionally I am moved to create from a completely unexpected source and in this case it was penguins – not the birds but the books! The town where I live, Sedbergh, is also known as England’s Book Town. We are a small town with mighty ambitions and for a while we did have lots and lots of bookshops. We still have lots of books but concentrated into fewer shops, one of which – Westwood Books – has been listed by the Guardian as one of the top 10 second-hand bookshops in the country. If you like your books and a good coffee then come on over for some serious browsing, and you can pop in to my workshop at the same time.
But I digress. What was it about the books you might wonder? Well, for quite a few years I was one of several resident artists at another of our town’s attractions – Farfield Mill, an old spinning mill now transformed as an arts and heritage centre. One year we put on a series of exhibitions taking various themes as our starting point. In one case the theme was the book town. Where to start? I didn’t have a clue! But one day, wandering past one of the bookshops I noticed a whole shelf of old Penguin books, the ones with the classic black, white and orange spines. And there it was, my inspiration. I started with those colours but then remembered that Penguin did a whole range of these classic covers using different colours for different genres: orange was for fiction, green was for crime, travel came in pink covers and essays were clad in purple. Those covers are now iconic and instantly recognisable – talk about branding!
So here are my first clutch of Penguin scarves, on display with some classic old books and a contemporary deck chair.
The first lot were woven in lambswool and a couple in silk.
I liked the silk ones best and now that I was getting into my stride I morphed from orange into all the colours of the Penguin rainbow and started to play around with the design.
I was for the first time discovering the power of unbalanced twills and how you can get two sides to one piece of fabric.
Here are three in green, purple and orange:
And finally, a break from books and back to more meditative woodland scenes. I took the same design and started to add more random colours, arriving at this lovely fabric on the right in the process.
I love playing with colours within a structure. I’ve been playing with simple twills for a very long time and never tire of tweaking them. There is so much more to discover and now that I have more shafts to play with I’ll be twilling for some time to come!
The iconic dry stone walls of Yorkshire are a great source of inspiration in my weaving. They criss-cross the landscape of the Dales, dipping into hollows and rising to dizzying heights as they step up the steep fellsides. I am constantly amazed at the places they go and how they have stayed in place for so many years. And at how they rarely fall down.
When I was studying at Bradford College these walls became part of my studies. I had trouble with the artwork until one day, in a fit of pique at my inability to paint them, I went outside armed with a roll of greaseproof paper and a thick piece of charcoal having decided to do a ‘rubbing’ of the wall outside my house. Instantly, I had a result. I got my pencils and did a whole series of rubbings until I ran out of greaseproof. The rubbings captured both the texture and the shapes of the stones. The deep crevices in between sharp edges became the focal point of my weaving – they created lines around the more circular shapes of the stones, which I then attempted to re-create as a woven fabric.
Without knowing what I was doing I discovered the power of differential weaving, combining fibres which react differently to water and heat to create texture in cloth.
I also discovered photoshop and how, with just a tweak here and tweak there, it was possible to see something quite ordinary in a very different way.
The first piece of weaving inspired by these ideas was a mix of cottons, linens and wool. I wove a lot of it on a table loom with a pick up stick trying to figure out how to achieve what was in my mind’s eye.
I tied extra bits in, partly to recreate the mosses and lichens that grow on these lovely walls, and partly because I thought the whole thing might fall apart when I threw it in the washing machine. I had only ever handwashed my woven pieces before. I was learning to let go of rules and just play. I finally stopped worrying about edges and the ‘right’ way to do things and started to do things to just see what might happen next. It was a wonderfully liberating moment!
That first experiment has led on to many similar fabrics, all inspired by stonewalls. Some by the shapes of the stones, some by the colours of the plants which grow on and within them, and yet others by the shapes the walls make in the wider landscape. Here are a few of the scarves and throws and experimental pieces I have woven from this one source of inspiration which continues to be a major contributor to my store of ideas:
It’s been more than a decade already since I studied Handwoven Design at Bradford College. I had gone back to college to get some training in art and design. While there I was pushed a long way outside my comfort zone but in the process I learned to create fabric from all sorts of starting points. Here are two of the fabrics I created for my final project at Bradford, based on the theme of water.
I have always loved looking out over bodies of water, large and small. I grew up next to a big river, the Yorkshire Ouse, spending many a summer afternoon sitting on a little wooden jetty hidden in the reeds above the mudflats, watching and listening to the tidal flow of the river, lost in my own world, usually with a book for company. I find listening to waves lapping a shore calming; hearing them pound against the shore I find superbly invigorating!
For my project I decided to focus on streams and ripples. With the first I wanted to capture the movement of water, how streams dance as they fall over rocks and rush down hillsides. With the other I was more concerned at capturing how almost calm waters reflect the sky yet still have a life of their own, always moving even in the faintest of breezes.
I also challenged myself to do something I rarely choose to do – include man-made fibres in my fabrics. The resulting fabrics were woven in quite similar ways – a basic 2/2 twill with some cramming and spacing in the sett – but using very different fibres. The one fibre they had in common was an over-twisted nylon. In one fabric I used it as the warp and in another as the weft. Getting an over-twisted warp that you can hardly see onto the loom was an adventure and a half. I had never woven with either over-twisted yarn or with nylon. It was worse than untangling a fishing line when I lost control of it, and the first warp went in the bin. But I learned how to tame it in the end and you can see below the final results.
My ribbon dress, ‘Stream’, was woven from organza ribbons, chenille and glitter yarn with an over-twisted nylon weft. The window panels, ‘Ripples’, were woven with the over-twisted nylon in the warp and a weft of paper yarn twisted with silk, and a glitter yarn. I’m happy to say that both fabrics are still in one piece! The panels have survived being hung in my window at home for a decade. I wash them every now and again, in the washing machine. The paper yarn is incredible, very resilient yet pliable, and the panels themselves allow the light to shine in while providing privacy.
The ribbon dress is really just a long length of fabric that can be wound around a body in lots of different ways. I envisaged it as a stream falling from the shoulders of a ‘goddess’ but one of the fashion tutors at the College saw it and dressed a mannequin for me to show me just how good it really could look on a real body. She saw the movement of the ‘stream’ and made it wind around and around the mannequin just as it might wind around the landscape of its inspiration.
When it snowed here in November, I took a few photos that made me think about Andrew Wyeth, an American artist who painted spare, washed out landscapes. He lived in Brandywine, PA, not far from Philadelphia where I went to university in the mid-1980s. I studied Regional Planning there, with a focus on the importance of ecology and landscape in making decisions about where people should live. For the next decade I worked in the field of environmental management, becoming a specialist in computerised cartography (GIS). Those skills led to me living on a tiny island for two years – Block Island, RI – which has a similarly bleak landscape in the winter, almost no trees, lots of stone walls, surrounded by the ocean. A bit different to Yorkshire where I grew up, but not so different really which was why I loved living there. I’m fascinated by the circles of my own life!!
A lot of people think mapping and weaving are quite different, but they have a surprising amount in common: attention to detail, the importance of colour, lines and shapes, technical abilities…… and above all patience. It’s important to get all the ingredients right so that the end result is the one you expect. Weaving, however, doesn’t always need to be quite so accurate. Over the years I’ve learned to let go of some of the rules and just experiment. Not everything works but I learn a lot and at the end of the day that’s what creativity is all about.
I have always felt that I am at my most creative when I’m surrounded by silence. Not a complete shutting out of noise but being in a place where there is no intrusion other than the sound of the wind or water, bird song or leaves rustling in the trees. It’s the sound of nature, one of the most constant sounds of my life and something that I struggle to live without. Letting my mind rest on a landscape, whether it be covered in bleak mid-winter snow or shimmering on a bright summer day, provides me with that much-needed quiet space. It’s good for contemplating ideas, for letting things seep in slowly. These things take time: I often write my ideas – in words or scribbles, I don’t draw much! – and go back to them much much later. Months can go by before I will use any of those fleeting thoughts. I rarely start a new project immediately but once inspiration strikes there’s no stopping me!
All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
William Carlos Williams
Thank you to all my customers and supporters of Laura’s Loom in 2016. I send you my warmest wishes and look forward to seeing you in 2017!
Trees in winter – I took this photo in mid-November 2016 as the first winter snow blanketed the fells between Hawes and Garsdale in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The light was fading and my camera battery with it as I snapped these trees, bare of leaves, standing sentry in the gloaming. A little photoshop magic has added the ethereal glow. It’s a wonderful tool to use when you’re playing with design ideas, a great way to transform colours and see things with a fresh eye.
This is Fledi, a much loved 19 year old cat. He lived in Germany. I never met Fledi but I have grown to love him through a textile I wove to memorialise him. Fledi’s owner contacted me late last year to enquire if I might be able to create a textile based on the colours of the handsome cat’s beautiful blue eyes. I replied that I would certainly give it a go and it has led to one of the most satisfyingly creative exchanges of my weaving career. Here is the story of how we wove Fledi’s eyes into a textured throw.
Where to begin? Colour was the key. I took this photograph and a few others and enlarged them on my printer. From my stash I pulled out all the colours which I could see in those remarkable eyes. The more I looked the more I realised there was an infinity of tones and surprising hints. I sent snippets of all these yarns to Germany. They came back in little packets – use, don’t use, use a little, use a lot more – plus extra thoughts on sparkle and depth and possible highlights. A few colours went out, a few more came in. The yarns were a jumbled collection of cottons and linens, chenilles and silks and glittery metallics, plus wools to hold them all together.
I sampled. The first two samples were not to my liking but perhaps my client might like them so off they went to Germany with a request for feedback even if it was all negative. We needed to start somewhere on design ideas. I had my own ideas but I could tell that this client had some of her own too. The response was more than I could have hoped for. The first response matched my own thoughts – the pattern was too small, the fabric was not sufficiently textured and it felt too dense and heavy when extrapolated out to a throw-sized piece. But most rewarding was the receipt of more photos, this time of some of my client’s favourite fabrics – an old Flemish tapestry and a Japanese kimono of Itchiku Kubota. My imagination was triggered.
The old tapestry was worn in places but retained its vivid colour in others. The kimono showed, in the words of my client, “a fascinating synergy between a choppy area with a calm area”. Both were hinting at what she described as “more anarchistic movement” – in other words she wasn’t after a flat fabric with no life in it! I was reminded of an exhibition I had seen in 2015 at the Dovecot Gallery in Edinburgh of Kwang Young Chun‘s Aggregations alongside the work of Bernat Klein. The work of both artists used vivid colours and highly textured surfaces but the entirety of their works were very carefully and thoughtfully pieced together. Could I produce something along the same lines in a handwoven fabric?
I got to work on another set of samples and off they went to Germany. This time I made two very different samples, using the same warp but two quite different approaches, to create one brighter more textured piece and one calmer, softer piece. Still with the beautiful colours of Fledi’s eyes as the central theme. Yes! was the definitive answer in return, a mix of the two would be wonderful. Now I really had set myself a challenge!
To weave my throws requires about 12m of warp set on my loom at approximately 1.2m in width. I create three panels which are then sewn together before the entire piece is washed as a single entity. The overall shrinkage is around 30% – 40% in both length and width so there is a lot of weaving required in order to reach the desired finished length and width. Where there is a pattern involved this has to be repeated in exactly the same way for each of the three panels, so that when the woven fabric comes off the loom and the three pieces are aligned the pattern will match across the seams. It involves a lot of careful measuring as the weaving progresses.
The next challenge was finding sufficient yarn in the required colours. My throws are an eclectic mix of mill ends and repeatable yarns. I am a certified yarn-aholic and love nothing more than diving into my colourful stash to see what else I can use when I run out of that perfect mill end which now, of course, can’t be found for love nor money. Many of my yarns were a bit too fine so I started winding them on bobbins as two or three strands of different colours and different mixes, such as silk and cotton. In doing this I was able to create new subtle colours which allowed me to blend my weft colours. I have always considered weaving to be a form of painting. When you haven’t got exactly the right colour in your stash blending yarns like this can often provide the answer. It became an interesting exercise to see just how many variations of blue I could create from only six or seven options.
I finally finished the weaving and set to on the sewing. It took hours, stitching up the side seams then hemming along the top and bottom. The whole piece was over 2.4m square before it went into the washing machine. It tumbled off my dining room table in great heaps of fabric. But eventually it became one single entity and the whole piece went into the washing machine followed by the tumble dryer. It’s a heart-in-mouth moment and I always start with the gentlest wash and the shortest amount of time in the dryer. If necessary I can wash it all again but if you overdo it the first time you’ve lost the fabric and the hours of work that went into creating it.
The finished piece is a triumph in my eyes – areas of peace, areas of calm, an agitated tension and above all it rejoices in the colours of Fledi’s eyes. I was delighted. My client was over the moon. And now we’re planning another collaboration, I can’t wait!