Life at the loom

Weaving is not a single process but a collection of many processes, each with its own rhythm and pace.

Having dyed the yarn, my next step is to wind it from skeins into cakes so that it is ready for its future life as warp and weft. I spend a surprising amount of time taking yarn from one format to another: much cranking of handles is involved.

My warps are wound on a large vertical mill; essentially a rotating wooden frame. The chief characteristics of a warp are that (i) all the threads (they are called ends) are the same length and (ii) each thread has a place in the order of things and doesn’t slip from that place. This orderliness enables me to beam the warp; that is, to take it to the loom and wind it onto the warp beam at the back. It will be stored there until I start to weave.

Once this is done, there is about a metre of warp still loose, but under control. It sits between two sticks, called lease sticks, which keep it organised. Working steadily from right to left I take each warp end and thread it through a heddle, which determines its role and position in the structure of the fabric.

My weaving super-power

This is one of my favourite steps and also my super-power. I am not the world’s fastest at threading the loom, but I am fluent and accurate and always have been, since my very first warp. It is a process which is utterly absorbing and timeless. There is also something a little bit magical in the fact that a simple task can plant the seed of a complex design.

After the heddles are threaded, the yarn must go through the reed. The reed is not – any more – made of reed but of stainless steel, and its narrow vertical slots hold the warp at the required density for the weave. Drawing the threads through the dents of the reed is called sleying. It has the virtue of being a lot quicker to accomplish than threading, which contributes to a feeling of acceleration as we get nearer to the moment of truth.

The last part of dressing the loom is to attach the loose end of the warp to a rod at the front, making sure that it is perfectly evenly tensioned. It is a tiny step after all that has gone before, but critical. A poorly tensioned warp is misery for the weaver.

Finally it is time to wind some yarn onto a bobbin (more handle cranking), place the bobbin into a shuttle and start to weave. The first few picks of weft serve to spread the warp out evenly and check that the threading is doing what the weaver expected. This is the moment we have been waiting for: will it look as I had planned that it would look? As my loom has a mechanical dobby, I use a system of wooden lags and plastic pegs to determine which shafts will be lifted for each pick.

The weaving itself is done with hands to throw and catch the shuttle and feet to advance the dobby and open the shed, the space between the warp threads where the shuttle passes through. And the weaver’s brain keeps track of it all… with a little help from pencilled notes and quick snaps taken on my phone.

As I weave I steadily advance the warp so that it unfurls from its storage place on the warp beam at the back, and is re-housed as cloth on the cloth beam at the front. Sometimes the terminology is perfect.

Nobody warned me

When the weaving is complete, another set of processes begins. The woven web is cut from the loom and checked for any skipped threads. These can occur if a shaft happens to stick, or if a woolly warp end catches on its neighbour and doesn’t let go. They can be fixed, however, with spare yarn and a tapestry needle. If I am making scarves then this is the point where I twist the fringes.

Then the fabric must be washed and possibly fulled a little, if that is the desired effect. Fulling is a process of controlled felting of the surface of a wool fabric and gives a lovely finish. Once this is done, and the fabric is just about dry, I trim off any loose ends remaining from weaving and mending.

And finally comes the pressing. When I first learned to weave, nobody warned me that I was signing up to a whole lot of ironing, but it’s too late now. I press every inch of the cloth on both sides.

I wind another warp.