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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 usually are basic geometric shapes. More complex and organic designs require Jacquard and computer guided looms, or in the case of tapestries, finger manipulation (see “Tapestries”).
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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. This flexibility enables shepherds to watch their flocks while twisting wool into single strand or 1ply yarn. Mastery of the drop spindle can be a challenge as one’s hands set the spindle spinning clockwise while simultaneously pulling out about 6”-10” fiber strands out from the bundle of cleaned and carded fleece that is wrapped either around a distaff or secured between one’s arm and chest (and you thought this was a long winded, run on sentence!). These several fibers then are twisted around and are stored on the spindle simultaneously as the spindle spins.
The spinning wheel, which was possibly designed and created in China, experienced further technological advancements in Europe during the Renaissance. The spinner must remain in one place. The earlier version is the Walking Wheel, in which the spinner standing up rotates or spins the big wheel by hand clockwise. The later version is a sit down, Treadle Wheel, in which the spinner rotates or spins the big wheel via a pedal and piston operation. In both, the spindle rod or a bobbin pierced by the spindle rod, rotates due to the connecting cable between the big wheel and the spindle/bobbin housing. The bobbin on a treadle wheel can hold 70 – 150 yards or 2 – 4oz (depending upon how thickly the yarn is twisted) of single or 1ply yarn. 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.
The carded fibers, or roving, are held in the left hand, while the thumb and forefinger of the right hand further pull out these fibers to the desired thinness. 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.
Processing animal fleeces or plant fibers for spinning includes washing fleeces to eliminate loose fecal and grass/mud clumps, and the naturally occurring lanolin. The animal’s health and diet also impact the quality of the fleece, and each breed has a distinct soft to coarse feel in its fibers. Merino has the softest feel, while Dorset or Cheviot feels more coarse or itchy. 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. Poorly sheared fleeces, poor health and nutrients, dirt, and age damage the fibers; it is not worth the spinner’s time to struggle to overcome or to compensate for these negatives.
Dyeing the fleece can be done before spinning the raw clean fleece or once the wool is carded into roving or into spun yarn. Botanical dyeing is based in flowering plants and shrubs common to one’s garden and along the roadsides; lichens found on tree bark and rocks; onion skins, and black walnuts. Alternative dyeing is based in dyes, that require an acid, such as vinegar, or minerals, such as alum, iron, or copper, as mordants. Mordants expand the wool’s ability to absorb the dye. Some mordants are toxic minerals. like lead and chrome: these are used in small amounts, and should be done in well ventilated spaces and the dyer should wear a protective nose mask.
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Tapestries are artworks woven in wool, usually on a linen or cotton warp. Very detailed artwork can be woven when thin warp threads lie next to each other, and thin wool or silk weft threads fill in the design areas. Thicker weft and warp threads are used to create bolder and more colorful designs that carry minimal details. The weave pattern or design can be either/both geometric and organic.