The Maker’s Hand II : Integrating Your Fiber Community into your Handwoven Scarves – Weaving

by Leslie Whitcomb

Weavers fall in love with looms the way knitters become swept away by an amazing line of yarns or the way spinners need to add just one more spindle or wheel to their collection. There is something simply irresistible about having access to a carefully made resource that is beautiful and functional and supports maximum expression in a fiber craft.

It is a delight to go with the flow of these passions because life is short and pleasure is sweet. But I also understand deep affection for a loom from a technical perspective. As a new weaver – with my first warp on the loom and all fired up to weave, I ran into soft spots across warp stretches and many, many breakages in the warp yarn as I wove. That project became a long, painful slog of retying warp threads. Hours were lost hanging anything I could off the back of the loom to tighten slack warp threads, including the combined body weight of my two toddlers (well, maybe not, but I did consider it as an option).

A more practical remedy for this problem turned out to be finding a loom that wasn’t ancient and completely lacking in joint strength. I also learned to make warp yarn choices that could withstand loom tension.

These days a new weaver has many more options among affordable, portable, and strong rigid heddle looms. This can make learning to weave less tragic. Here are a few aspects to pay attention to while choosing among these looms and using them, especially with handspun, custom designed or fragile yet luscious knitting yarns.

First, in weaving – warp tension is the foundation for peace of mind and a minimum of ‘frogged’ weaving projects. If you have ever knit a sweater and missed your gauge or taken a wrong turn in your shaping and ended up with an object that was warm but could only be worn on the bias by a road sign, then you’ll have some idea of how important it is to respect tension in warping a loom.

Like twist in a yarn, tension in a warp somehow grows a life of its own that cannot be controlled by skill and good tools but can be influenced for the better by skill and good tools. When choosing a loom, look for a loom that supports firm, evenly distributed warp tension.

Ashford and Schacht rigid heddle looms have a solid construction for their side beams and the option of a double ratchet brake system on both sides of the back and front beams of the loom.

Beka looms have a warp carrying and tightening feature that holds really strongly, even while a warp is being woven and beaten.

Plenty of other table looms out there work for weavers of all skill levels. Just look for how a loom deals with these aspects in its design when you are shopping.

When you warp your loom, bear in mind that the design most looms are based on today was evolved throughout years of history when people worked in pairs or in groups to weave. So if you are warping even a small loom on your own, find some way to replace those extra hands.

Bungee cord your loom to a board and clamp that board firmly to a table or bench while you are warping.  Go as slow as you need to in order to lay warp beam paper evenly on the beam as the threads are wound on. And stop every six inches of warp length to clear up uneven tension in the warp threads on the back beam. This unevenness can happen even when you are warping carefully.

Start at the left side of the back warp beam, take two inch sections of warp yarn into your hands at a time while you stand at least a foot away from the front of the loom. Hold these yarns and gently but quite firmly pull them towards you (this is why clamps and bungees are helpful). Do this across the width of the warp until you reach the right hand side of the back beam. Do this even if your warp is only ten inches wide and twenty-four inches long.

Choice of warp yarn is equally important to consider for a first time or experienced weaver to use with handspun wefts.

Before I go into choosing warp yarns to purchase, I’ll explain a bit about how I spin both warp and weft yarns with enough confidence to then use them in a woven project.

As a shepherdess and yarn designer I have evolved this technique over many years to suit both my strengths and challenges as a spinner and weaver. I highly recommend doing a lot of experimenting with a variety of fibers and techniques to find your own comfort level.

What works well for me when I want to weave with my handspun is to spin singles yarn because I like the way singles reflect light and the interplay of colors better than a plied yarn on the loom.

This means I have to work with thick and thin areas in my spinning very carefully because I can’t depend on plying to make sure my yarn doesn’t turn everything I weave into a diagonal.

My Personal Spinning Tips and Techniques:
Generally, I start with top or roving as my base fiber preparation.  (Drafting is not my strong point as a spinner  so I tend to choose fibers prepared with long lengths of smoothly prepared fiber in parallel alignment).  I cherish the handspun of others who are adept with carding, creating rolags and spinning from rolags, but I find, for myself, that particular approach is too time consuming to end up with yarn that is consistently weavable. (This has everything to do with my own skill set and does not reflect on the whether or not this approach would actually work much better for others).

To make a more even singles yarn, I pre-attenuate my top or roving before spinning. This allows me to see any slight neps, fiber chokes or places where the prepared fiber will thin out too much before taking up twist. This also allows me to ease out any areas where the fiber is clumped or gathered in the roving which would block twist and become too loose as compared to the thinner areas.

Spinning for warp and weft is very much about consistency in the yarn over length. The more I pre-attenuate the fiber prior to spinning, the more I can choose to guide thinner areas and thicker areas into smooth, long lengths of yarn.

I treadle slowly, and practice a long draw as I spin, allowing the my hand to slide at least a foot away from the wheel very quickly and allowing the twist to move into the yarn, set and then release tension on the newly twisted area relatively quickly so the yarn winds onto the bobbin without grabbing more twist.

I set the tension on my wheel so that it just grabs the yarn enough to pull it on the bobbin. It almost feels that I am not allowing enough spin into the yarn, but I find that because I am keeping a steady, even tension with the long draw – the yarn holds together well as both warp and weft.

I pay attention to ratios and final yarn weights and WPI but I find evenly treadled, long draw spinning is as important for consistency, regardless of the yarn weight I am attempting to spin.  When I come upon a thin area of roving, I ease off the twist moving up the yarn. If I encounter a more dense area of roving, I allow a touch more twist to enter the yarn.  This skill was painstakingly acquired because the initial instinct is to grab into the thinner areas and let the thicker areas take less twist.

I spin only a bobbin at a time and then wind and soak my yarn to evaluate it as I go. This gives me a chance to correct my approach as I move through a batch of roving.

The warp I used in the sample photo is from Christina Parham, the creative force behind this resource, dyes lovely, subtle colors on strong, soft, highly warpable yarns. Her fingering weight and DK weight yarns have served me well in weaving. Her colors compliment handspun beautifully because they are handpainted or kettle dyed in gradual color shifts. The strength and subtlety of her yarns make a great warp foundation for use with handspun and custom design yarns.

When looking for warp yarns think firm spun or two-ply with a soft hand, and colors that blend with your roving or finished yarn.

This woven sample is a good example of a warp choice that served as a workable foundation for a variety of handspun choices and weaving patterns.

I’ll walk you through the warping and weaving process of this sample.

From the perspective of fiber origins, I really, really wanted to try some Wisdom Yarns’ Poems Silk yarn – in the Ribbon Reef colorway. I had seen this yarn in so many projects on Ravelry and it complimented some Spunky Eclectic Tangerine Dream roving I had spun.

The colors in these two yarns matched so beautifully I could almost hear them sing in two-part harmony.

I liked the idea of using yarn discovered and resourced through Ravelry with a handspun fiber from a supplier in Maine who shares my eco friendly sensibilities. Since I believe a heart’s desire is the best spark for any creative project, I went for it. I gave the Poems Silk the ‘warp test’.

Warp Test
Hold about eight inches of a strand of yarn between your hands and tug hard on the yarn. If it doesn’t break, it is a good candidate for warping, at least on a rigid heddle loom for a scarf or sample.

Poems Silk isn’t really a good candidate for weaving long lengths of yardage on one of my floor looms with the long stretch from back to front beam.  Also, given the cost of the yarn, and the fact that a floor loom takes almost twenty-four inches of warp that never actually gets used in order to accommodate loom lengths, a smaller loom was the way to go.  I used a rigid heddle loom made of red oak, with strong ratchets and side beams. This was an eBay find from several years ago and I rehabilitated it just because the strength of it really supports easy warping.  So I loom tested my warp choice on this loom.

Loom Test
Cut a strand of yarn the length of your scarf or sample, tie it to the back beam of your loom or wrap it around the warp board of your flat loom. Roll it onto the beam while maintaining firm tension. Does it get thinner under tension? Does it feel just a bit elastic? Or does it resist the stretch (as pure silk, linen or some cottons would)? It is ideal if the yarn feels stretchable in your hand, but doesn’t start to weaken when you hold it firm as it wraps on the loom.

Heddle Test
Thread the yarn through a hole or slot in your rigid heddle, run the heddle up and down and rub on the yarn. Does it shed or easily abrade? If so, move up a heddle size or find another choice.

My warp choice passed the winding test but did shed slightly when abraded by the heddle. I liked it enough to keep it, but wound the warp very slowly and then went up from an 8 dent heddle to a five dent heddle to have more space between warp threads and heddles. I knew I would have to beat gently on the warp as I wove.

Weft Choices
What do you love about your warp yarn? What makes you want to weave your weft yarn? What would you like your finished sample or scarf to express for your self or communicate to others? What purpose will your finished object serve? What unique characteristics does your handspun or a custom design yarn have that you want to emphasize?  You can start by considering some aspects of your handspun or custom design yarn.

– yarn with high twist : this makes a yarn shiny and clear in a woven piece. It adds spring and a diagonal pull to a finished piece – so plan for that in final outcomes.

– yarn with low twist : this makes a finished piece soft and easy to pill. It blends beautifully for color and fiber softening.

– ‘art’ yarns, beaded yarns, feathered yarns, high color contrast or highly saturated colors and/or frequent texture shifts : these do really well if they don’t compete with a woven pattern or a warp that calls for attention.

My choices for weft were the wool-silk Spunky Eclectic, spun single ply with low twist; a single ply tencel spun worsted with a firm twist; and, a single ply pure silk spun worsted with a medium twist.

I chose these yarns because I loved them, their color, sheen, softness, glow – all just called to me. I also felt delighted by the way their color toned with the Poems Silk and contrasted to create new colors. The basic structure of these yarns would not bias my cloth or fall apart in use. So the handspun passed my weft test for a luxury scarf.

Beaming the warp
I cut twenty-four strands of the warp yarn, measuring each strand to forty-eight inches, enough for a sample I could turn into a neck warmer if I chose.  I tied each strand to the back beam. I had my paper ready to buffer the layers of warp, the loom was clamped to a bench and I held the strands in one hand, evenly and very firmly, while I slowly turned the back beam. I stopped every six inches to place paper, activate the brake ratchets at the back beam, and to firmly tug the warp back toward me, through the front of the loom, checking for tension.

Threading Heddles
I pulled each warp through a heddle, checking visually to make sure the spacing required  to avoid abrasion between the warp strands would still allow me to weave a cloth that would be tightly woven enough to wear.

I tied the warp onto the front beam, checking each knot to be secure and firm, and began to weave.

Call and Response (see the first part of this article)
The Poems Silk colors called to me for plain weave (one warp strand up, alternating with one down across the warp) when I used the Spunky Eclectic as weft. The colors were so harmonious and I enjoyed the interplay of the silk and wool in the fibers at that sett enough, that I didn’t want to distract with a more dominant pattern.

I began to see definite color stripes in the handspun after about twenty weft rows. That is a drawback of gorgeous handpainted rovings, in my opinion. The color variegations are fabulous in the finished skein, but they can take over a piece in weaving or knitting.

With this in mind, I alternated the Poems Silk as weft with the Spunky Eclectic to gentle out these stripes. To do so, I had to weave each yarn on a separate shuttle and be careful with how my weft yarns wrapped the selvedges. When you are weaving with two wefts, you are missing a selvedge thread on one side or the other and you need to avoid skips or doubles at the edges.

Note: There are tutorials available about this technique on YouTube. I am also available through the email listed at the end of this article for anyone needing step-by-step help with this technique.

The beauty of these color blends and the gradual warming and deepening of the color happened when I added a single-ply pure silk with deeper tones to the mix of wefts.  The result was a joyful expression of texture and yarn radiance.

I usually avoid high contrast in color mixes but the sweetness of the interactions happening with these yarns gave me the courage to try the handspun purple/blue/green tencel as a design element. When weaving this yarn there was a wonderful color play inviting my eye to see new colors in the mix of yarns as they juxtaposed each other.

The weight of the tencel was more toward lace weight, so I opened up placement and left plenty of warp showing. This allowed me to highlight the delicate quality of the yarn. I also wove this yarn in a twill pattern to give it longer pattern floats since it was lighter weight and needed to not get lost in the thicker Poems Silk and handspun.

To weave this twill on a rigid heddle loom, you would use a flat ruler or pick up stick in the following over, under pattern repeat

1 – Place the stick over the first, single warp thread, under the next two together, over the next two together – until you reach the opposite edge of the warp. Turn the stick so it creates a shed, weave your warp through the shed, turn the stick flat and remove from the threads, beat that weft placement to desired proximity with the row before it.

2 – Place the stick under the first two warp threads together, then over the next two together, across the warp. Repeat the shedding, shuttling and beating as above.

3 – Place the stick under the first, single warp thread, over the next two together, and under the next two together.  Repeat the shedding, shuttling and beating as above.

4 – Place the stick over the first two warp threads together, under the next two together, across the warp until the last single warp strand, place the stick over that warp. Repeat the shedding, shuttling and beating as above.

This weaving pattern (a basic twill progression) provided the perfect backdrop for the yarn for a touch of contrast in the scarf. The hand-manipulated technique takes time on the rigid heddle loom, but doesn’t take over the weaving process if it is only used as an accent.

Note:  There are tutorials for this technique on YouTube – just search for ‘twill with a pick up stick’, ‘weaving with two shuttles’, and ‘twill on a rigid heddle loom’.  Again, feel free to contact me with questions.

I was very happy with the texture, color play and patterning in this sample. I really look forward to weaving a whole scarf with these yarns and in this patterning. The time at the loom was pure fun. I hope you enjoy your explorations with simple handweaving techniques and the unique, irreplaceable beauty of your own handspun yarns.

Photo © Leslie Whitcomb.

Leslie Whitcomb,, has been a weaver and spinner for twenty-two years. She has designed and custom dyed yarns for private studios and weavers collectives.  She ran a custom design textile studio for several years and has woven ceremonial cloth for Indigenous folk and celebrational shawls, blankets and table runners to honor the life passages of clients from her community.  Leslie is new to knitting, having just tumbled into a passion for knitting shawls and scarves over the past year. Several frogged projects and numerous design disasters survived while learning to knit, have given her renewed empathy for anyone starting as a beginner in a craft. Writing this article was a way to support fellow knitters in expanding their love of fiber while adding the pleasure of handweaving to their craft choices.

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