Weaving is the interlacing of individual yarn threads at right angles to each other. The warp consists of vertical threads, the quantity of which is determined by the width of the end product and the thinness of the spun yarn. The length of the warp threads is determined by the desired length of the end product, with allowances for shrinkage and fulling (felting) of the fabric once it has been removed from the loom and washed.
On a simple loom the weaver manipulates the individual warp threads manually in order to produce the design of the fabric. The warp threads are separated into two layers, through which the weft thread or yarn passes horizontally and at right angles to the warp. The weft thread is wound onto a bobbin for a boat shuttle or on a flat stick as one long continuous strand of thread.
On more complex looms, the manipulation of the individual warp threads is handled with heddles, which hang from traylike harnesses. Each warp thread is pulled through a central eye on each heddle, and many heddles hang per harness. The complexity of the woven design is determined by the mathematical sequence of threading individual heddles per individual harness.
The woven design becomes visible in the woven cloth as the harnesses are raised and lowered in a specific sequence and various combinations of which harnesses are raised/lowered simultaneously. The harnesses are maneuvered by cords and pulleys that connect to levers or pedals (or treadles). Design patterns range from simple geometric shapes to more complex organic designs, the latter requiring Jacquard and now computer guidance.
The history of making fabric might be as old as the history of man and woman — it started as the plaiting, braiding, and knotting together of several fibrous strands of rushes or pounded tree bark for mats, baskets, and skirts. This knowledge expanded as people explored how to process cotton, flax, and the fleeces of sheep, yaks, and the camel species, into strong thin strands or threads for weaving cloth.
Twisting animal or plant fibers into yarn evolved from what one can do on a flat surface, like on one’s thigh, to using a drop spindle. The drop spindle is quite portable, while the European spinning wheel, which was probably developed in the early 1600’s, requires the spinner to remain seated in one place. The spindle stores a small amount of spun yarn, and this yarn must be removed before more spinning can be done. The bobbin on a spinning wheel can hold 70 – 150 yards or 2 – 4oz (depending upon how thickly the yarn is twisted). Several bobbins need to be filled in order to create 2lbs worth of spun wool for adult size sweater. The wheel allows the spinner to produce more yarn quickly and with consistent thickness than if s/he uses a drop spindle.
The technology and parts of a spinning wheel are quite sophisticated. A foot pedal or treadle directs a shaft or piston to move up and down to rotate the large wheel in a clockwise direction. The large wheel is connected with a cable to the maidenhead structure that supports and holds the bobbin in place on the spindle, thus enabling the bobbin to rotate. The wool enters and is tied onto a lead string on the bobbin through two holes leading into and through the maidenhead structure. As the bobbin and wheel rotate, the processed fibers twist around themselves and are stored on the bobbin.
Processing animal fleeces or plant fibers for spinning includes washing fleeces to eliminate loose fecal and grass/mud clumps, and the naturally occurring lanolin, or removing the plant’s stringy strands and stem covering. Carding or combing , just as you and I comb our hair to remove tangles, open up the fibers and align them together to ease up the spinning process: at this stage the processed animal fibers are called roving.
The carded fibers, or roving, are held in the left hand, while the thumb and forefinger of the right hand further pull out to the desired thinness these fibers. Tension is necessary to maintain a consistent thinness of the spun or twisted fibers; different wheels use speed of treadling, knobs that manage the distance between the wheel and the maidenhead, and how quickly or slowly the spinner pulls out the fibers to be twisted.
Dyeing the fleece can be done before spinning, as raw clean fleece or as roving, or after spinning. Botanical dyeing can include common flowering plants and shrubs in one’s garden and along the roadside, as well as lichens found on tree bark and rocks. Alternative dyeing is from acid dyes; these are chemical powders that require an acid, such as vinegar, to mordant the wool’s ability to absorb the dye. Some mordants are toxic chemicals like lead and chrome.
Tapestries are artworks woven in wool, usually on a linen or cotton warp. Depending upon how close the warp threads are to each other (because of their individual thinness), and how thin the weft threads are to create the design, very detailed artwork can be created. The thicker the weft and warp threads are can lead to a bolder and more colorful design, with minimal detail visible.