One of the things that I love about weaving is the feeling of connection is gives me to weavers from long ago. I love knowing that my American 'Macomber' loom has been used by many different weavers over the decades, travelling the world in the process, yet is still being an amazing workhorse for me And I was fascinated to read in a book I borrowed from the British Library that weavers back in Anglo-Saxon times used pretty much the same processes as I do today to hand weave every piece of cloth that they used. So when an email arrived some months ago from Hanne Dahl at Trowbridge Museum asking me if I would be interested to take part in this years WEFT, I didn't hesitate to say 'yes' :
I met with Hanne one day back at the beginning of summer and spent a lovely afternoon learning about Trowbridge weavers like George Charmbury and Pat Whitehead, looking at original samples from the museum collection and taking photos of ones that caught my eye:
The common theme of the first 3 is the lovely boucle texture while the last photo has less texture but shows a range of samples in the same colours that reminded me of the clasped weft technique that I am very fond of and is often used in modern Saori weaving...
In case you don't already know, Saori weaving is a relatively new style/philosophy of weaving, originated in Japan by a weaver called Misao Jo (read more about her here) and apparently her favourite colour was red. Even though I am completely out of my comfort zone with red, an idea was coming together for my weave, a way to weave together the history of cloth production with some modern innovations and inspirations.
To test my idea, I used my little Louet Erica loom to weave a sample for the project using some red, black and white yarns on a back warp. The black yarn was a Scottish lambswool that I had bought a while ago and the red and whites were my own handspun and handdyed Cotswold and Teeswater yarns. I wasn't sure about the sample as it felt quite heavy and a little stiff but, to my delight, once washed, it bloomed into the most gorgeously soft, warm and comforting length of fabric :)
Now that I knew (roughly) what I wanted to weave, I moved over onto my Japanese Saori loom to start on the main piece. One of the useful benefits of a Saori loom is the pre-wound warps that are available so I bought a 30m black wool warp and set it onto the loom. I gathered my weft yarns, some used in the sample and some additional ones from my collection, that spoke to my mood and, in true Saori style, started to weave, letting the cloth take me where it would...
Thinking about Pat Whitehead and the cloth that she had designed and woven for Mary Quant many decades ago, my intention had been to simply weave a length (maybe lengths of) cloth that could be used to make clothing in the future. Weaving can be a very meditative process though and, as I worked, I was thinking more and more about ideas around why we weave cloth, about the sorts of clothing that meet our most basic of needs (for protection, warmth and comfort) and how very soft and warm and comforting was that sample piece of fabric I had made...
Ponchos! Warm, comforting clothing, I LOVE a good poncho. My cloth would become a simple, enveloping poncho. I settled into my routine and the cloth grew and grew...
Weave and meditate, weave and meditate....
We don't just weave textiles for function though - even the Anglo Saxon weavers added decoration to some of their clothing weaves - and nowadays we have access to an ever-increasing range of yarns and techniques for embellishment.
In my own weaving and spinning practice, I focus on using recycled and upcycled textiles, and spinning my own yarn using local fleece and other sustainable and ethically-sourced materials. Amongst this, one of my trademark yarns that I love to create is tailspun yarn. These yarns are definitely much more decorative than functional and are another example of how a traditional skill (spinning) has developed with modern innovations and techniques.
I went back to my yarn stash and found some of my tailspun Teeswater and Wensleydale yarns, some of which I had already dyed some of it red - it had obviously been waiting for just this project...
In the end, I wove 3 lengths of fabric and made 2 into ponchos (the heaviest weight and the medium weight fabrics) and left one (the lightest weight) as a wrap. The original length of cloth was the heaviest, with it's wide block stripes. To this length, I added the original sample length of cloth, sewing it onto the larger piece as a collar, fastened with a vintage kilt pin.
In the second length I then started to make the block stripes narrower and less regular, interspersed with more of the black yarn, and I also introduced the clasped weft technique and the tailspun yarns, sometimes laying them into the warp to create more extreme textures, sometimes allowing their tails to hang loose. I cut this fabric into 2 length and handsewed it into shape with blanket stitch, chosen to echo the enveloping nature of the poncho.
In the third and final length of fabric, I used the tailspun yarns almost exclusively, with just very small section of the block stripes and a lot of clasped weft, focusing on the white tailspun and one side of the weave and just occasionally shot through with a little red tailspun. I left this length as a soft and light wrap, to be dramatically thrown over the shoulder so that the the tails would be allowed to fly.
Unlike George Chambury, Pat Whitehead and the other weavers of Trowbridge, I don't need to keep detailed records of my weaves as I am not intending for them to be replicated on an industrial scale, indeed that would be the very antithesis of the Saori weaving philosophy. So instead, the only record I have of my process is here, in this blog post that lives only on the modern Internet. I wonder how the museums of the future will store all this digital information and how they will choose what to keep from all this the modern mass media?
These clothes will be available to see at WEFT in September 2019. I will also be teaching a workshop during WEFT - details of that are here.
With thanks and respect to George Chambury, Pat Whitehead, Misao Jo and all the other giants, who continue to inform and inspire innovation.