by Leslie Whitcomb
There is a creative spark from the maker’s hand that is evident in handspun yarn. This spark can be highlighted in a very unique way through hand-weaving.
As fibers interlace across a warp, the weaver experiences, visually and kinesthetically, the very different way that handweaving creates a woven cloth, as opposed to the types of stitched fabrics created by the loops of knitting or crochet. This difference can enhance design choices using one’s own handspun yarn or the amazing variety of custom designed yarns available to fiber crafters.
This article, part one of two, will focus on three dynamics supporting weaving with handspun yarns connected to the larger fiber community: ‘origins’, ‘call and response’ and ‘synergy’.
The dynamic I understand as ‘origins’ begins with this question : “Where’s the dirt?” In other words, where did the fiber in a yarn or roving come from? This includes not only ecologically but also where it came from in a sense of community – how did this fiber walk to you from person to person and how does this connective network enhance your spinning and finished project choices?
From an ecological sense concerning origins, my experience living on an organic sheep farm for many years provides a good example. Being a blind optimist and a fool for love back then, I helped start a growers’ collective with other farmers.
We found a local spinnery to organically process our fleece into yarn. We learned how to naturally dye this yarn. And we taught each other how to weave blankets, shawls and rugs for sale to support our farms.
While I often chafed at the color constraints of natural dyes or organically-spun yarns available to me at the time, the knowledge that my fiber preserved the farms around me and strengthened the general community far outweighed any frustrations I had concerning a more limited color palette. I also grew to literally feel the difference in the palm of my hand and sense the visual difference in how a handspun skein of yarn catches light, or blooms in softness through a pattern on the loom.
HIGHLIGHTING ORGANIC COLOUR
This scarf expresses this difference for me. The rosy color of the weft came from hours of experimentation with a cochineal dye bath seeking just the right color match for the natural brown warp yarns.
That hard-won color matching gives the scarf a soft blush of rose to balance both the weave structure and the more neutral yarn in the warp. This sense of balanced cloth and the memory of the communal ecology while I spun and wove at that time still gives me warmth and pleasure even twenty years later.
MODERN YARN CYBERSPACE COMMUNITY
The methodology of the yarn-gathering on Ravelry isn’t quite so quixotic and earthy as my organic growers’ collective, but it’s a great example of an embedded yarn community for the current generations. The ribald goodwill that goes back and forth between knitters while they trade yarns, post photos, and share pattern information sparks my own projects on a daily basis. Whenever I need a reason to tink the same row of lace for the gajillionth time in one hour, I check into Ravelry to see what my fellow knitters are creating and I’m good to go.
The resulting scarf (photos left and right) expresses this creative sentiment nicely. I consider it to be a “Ravelry scarf” because the yarns were inspired by and sourced within community networks of Ravelry. Taking the time to sit and weave this scarf grew from reading about the thousands of folks from all over the world who also love fiber to distraction. Their collective creative spark reaches my loom and wheel from the long threads of cyberspace.
CALL AND RESPONSE
The dynamic I understand as ‘call and response’ is all about interlacement.
And this is where handweaving gets really different from knitting.
The significant difference between knitting and handweaving is that, while using a loom, yarns cross over and under each other in a two-dimensional process rather than looping around each other in a gathering process. The weight or ply of a yarn and its color, sheen or matte, are shaped by this structure on the loom.
These factors provide enormous creative potential, as warp yarns are stretched on the loom and weft yarns are woven under and over the lifted and lowered warp threads to form cloth.
The call of a handspun yarn in weaving arises from what that yarn will function as, and a warp or weft pattern expression when woven on the loom. It is similar to the way a yarn seems to call out to be knit in stockinette rather than garter stitch, or whether it will look just right when knit as lace or textured stitches.
USING A HANDSPUN WEFT
This photo shows a woven sample that is weft dominant. Weft dominant means that the handspun yarn (the weft yarn) in the pattern almost covers the warp: the warp yarns are those stretched on the loom from front to back and lifted or lowered by the heddle(s), the weft yarns are woven through the “shed” created when warp yarns are lifted and lowered.
This is a great way to highlight expensive (in terms of spinning time or budget) handspun yarn because the warp yarn can be a simple, less expensive, choice.
This particular woven pattern – a combination of plain weave (similar to stockinette stitch in that it produces a balanced mix of yarn interlacement) and twill weave (similar to a crossed stitch in that it extends yarns across other stitches) shows long stretches of texture and color in the yarn as it moves across the warp. It also shows spots of color combinations created by a different warp and weft placement (plain weave). The glow and matte intensity of color saturation in this handspun called to me to be highlighted in this way, as I worked with the yarns at the loom.
The roving came to me from Patricia Bishop at yummyyarnsuk.com/Etsy, whose bluefaced leicester roving was a joy to spin worsted-style (forward draft) into a single ply. Her choice of coloring in the handpainted roving gave both warmth and depth to the finished yarn. Long stretches of silky color in this yarn called out to be highlighted during weaving. Short bursts of color brightened and gave breathing space visually to balance the color play along the yarns. Also felt was a tug of the simplicity found in the strength and warmth of British wool breeds that Patricia supports. The twill and plain weave, both classic hand-weaving patterns, reflect this heritage.
The ‘response’ of a yarn is what happens when it’s finally woven into a chosen pattern and then finished by soaking and drying.
The feel of the cloth formed by the sample and the way the cloth moves after being finished expresses the sense I want to convey: simple color shifts, which are not overwhelming to the eye, highlighted texture and quality of yarn.
While weaving a scarf, the hand and drape of the sample assures me I can create a scarf or woven yardage for a larger project, such as a vest, and to be able to depend on this weave structure and fiber to become useful in future weaving. When I weave with these yarns and this sample in mind, I will remember this call and response.
In this way my fiber, spinning method, and weave structure choices are each supported by the fiber’s origins and the call and response is eventually inherent in the yarn, as well as finished projects made from these fibres and resulting yarns.
By spinning a basic yarn (worsted single-ply) and choosing a basic weaving structure (twill) , these give me maximum room to allow the yarn to call forth a finished piece.
This creates a fiber ‘synergy’ that draws me back to my wheel or needles or loom, time and time again.
When a fiber’s origin and call and response are strong, synergy draws me into the spinning and weaving or knitting. I am able, sometimes just for a few minutes, to let go and instead allow the synergy to guide me. Yarn color, fiber texture and simple patterning work together.
USING A HANDSPUN WARP
The sample in the photo at right came together in that way. It is a handspun warp designed to hold together on a loom (warp yarns undergo a lot of stress during weaving) but soft enough to still be worn next to the skin.
I played with weft choices – a soft spun, very color-saturated silk, a handspun tencel that complimented the color shifts in the warp, and a commercial mohair that pulled all the colors together and gave a touchable texture to the sample. The silk single was just too rich in color for my sensibilities. The tencel alone was really pretty in its mix of shining color with the matte warp yarns, but it created too much contrast between warp and weft. The mohair yarn had a color and texture that pulled the sample together but didn’t work by itself in the weave.
As I was struggling with these choices, I happened to notice a strand of tencel handspun resting next to a strand of the dusky plum mohair on my shuttle. The interplay of these two fibers was lovely. The differences between the two yarns – a handspun, silky, color shifting yarn – compared to the commercial spun, color saturated, wispy mohair – gave me a patterning idea. Why not weave alternating plain weave and twill, not as border or alternating stripe patterns, but randomly along the warp in a way that emphasizes texture and color flows and contrasts?
By relaxing into the synergy of these yarns, I found movement of color and texture in the sample that would create a variegated and tonal pattern simultaneously.
This synergy will become a scarf that is sparkly, soft, and highlights handspun yarns with touchable, huggable texture. This is a scarf that a beginning weaver could easily create but looks fantastic and luxurious because of the yarn choices
Part Two will provide patterning drafts and spinning stash ideas for how to go about working with ‘origins’, ‘call and response’ and ‘synergy’ of yarn for both first-time and experienced weavers.
Photos © Leslie Whitcomb
Leslie Whitcomb, email@example.com, 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.