On Mastodon Sunday, not one, but TWO articles that mentioned weaving came across my timeline. Weaving is one of the lesser-practiced fiber arts, certainly not discussed as often as knitting or crocheting on social media. Likely because it takes quite a bit of money and some training if you want to weave using a floor loom.
My training in weaving actually came in college. I majored in visuals arts with a concentration in weaving. Anyone with a visual arts degree had to pick an art form to concentrate in, with typical concentrations being drawing, painting, photography, or ceramics. During the time I was attending St. Cloud State University, weaving was a dying concentration, with very few of us choosing it. I think there were maybe 10 of us altogether. When the brilliant and sharp-eyed professor, Merle Sykora, retired from the college several years after I graduated, the weaving concentration and room full of looms were dismantled altogether. Computers for graphic arts replaced them. Quite fittingly, as it turns out.
Periodically, I was questioned about the practicality of my major. Well, it was more like teasing, with people giving me crap about majoring in “underwater basket weaving.” I was reminded of this by one of the articles I ran across Sunday, which was called “In Defense of Studying “Basket Weaving” At College” by Clive Thompson. [https://clivethompson.medium.com/in-defense-of-studying-basket-weaving-at-college-a862792f3a85]
In the article, Thompson discusses how “frivolous” degrees like basket weaving are mocked, and then lists five ways basket weaving is a useful degree.
As weaving major, I heartily agree with his points about baskets being “marvels of engineering” and “examples of amazingly sustainable technology,” along with the other points he made. (Check out the article if you are curious about the rest.)
Similarly, weaving fabric on a floor loom provided me with a number of practical skills:
If you’re going to weave anything substantial on a loom, you’ve got to be able to figure out how much fiber you need for the warp and weft. To do this, you have to determine the length and width of the finished fabric, figure out how many warp threads you’ll have per inch, the amount of loom waste and take-up there will be, and approximately how many weft threads there will be per inch.
I pulled out one of my college weaving books (yep, I still have them!) in order to illustrate this post and I found a sheet of paper I had used to figure out the amount of warp I would need to make a baby blanket.
Patterns & coding
Figuring out weaving patterns feels like deciphering a computer coding language. And, in a way, it is! The second article I saw on weaving Sunday was by Cory Doctorow. It is called, “Gig Work Is the Opposite of Steampunk.” [https://doctorow.medium.com/gig-work-is-the-opposite-of-steampunk-463e2730ef0d]
It discusses how the Luddites were attempting to keep textile work from becoming highly mechanized in factories because they knew working this way would put them out of business and make for miserable work that could be done by children. Doctorow opens his article with, “Despite what you may have heard, the Luddites weren’t technophobes. They were skilled workers, expert high tech machine operators who supplied the world with fine textiles.”
It was loom weaving that inspired the first coding, with the Jacquard loom using the first punch cards. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacquard_machine]
Here’s a photo of two weaving pattern set-ups, showing how to thread the loom, hook up the harnesses, and weave the patterns. Note that there is a lot of data in what looks like a portion of a spreadsheet.
It’s not that big a stretch from understanding how weaving patterns work to understanding how spreadsheets and computers work. See why it was so fitting for the looms at St. Cloud State to be replaced by computers?
I currently work as a legal technologist, which feels like a natural progression from my weaving degree.
Merle Sykora wrote the following in his introduction to Weaving I class syllabus (I found it tucked into the book pictured above):
“The art/craft of handweaving is one of the most technically demanding, meticulously precise, acutely accurate processes you are likely to encounter.”
He was absolutely right! When it comes to winding a warp and threading a loom, a weaver is often dealing with hundreds of threads, which can get quickly get unwieldy. You’ve got to be meticulous to dress a loom properly in order to get the pattern to come out right. When you’re managing multiple harnesses on a floor loom, it’s easy to mis-thread a heddle if you’re not paying attention.
The need to be meticulous leads to ….
More than once, I discovered that I had threaded the loom wrong. The point at which you don’t want to discover this is when you’ve tied the warp threads to the front beam and started weaving. Then you need to unweave and untie everything in order to go back and rethread the heddles.
Much better to check and double-check, and maybe even triple-check, your threading before moving on to the next step, even though warping a loom feels tedious and you can’t wait to get to the actual weaving.
Aside from the weaving itself, my favorite point in the process is seeing all the warp threads nicely tied up to the front beam, lined up and ready to be woven. It’s a nice payoff for that patience.
Yarn for weaving was expensive when I went to college, and it’s gotten more so over the years. You need to plan your projects so you don’t waste materials.
One thing I was careful about when winding the warp for a project was to remove any defective threads, ones that had knots or looked weak. I didn’t want to have them break while I was weaving.
I was so good at this during college that I didn’t have a single warp thread break until I was in my very last weaving class. I had been helping other students with broken warp threads, so I fixed it and moved on. I later told Merle that I had finally broken a warp thread and he said if he had known I hadn’t broken one earlier, he would have come and cut one! The cheekiness!
When finishing a weaving, there is always some warp thread left that you can’t weave because it’s not long enough to reach from the back beam to the front of the loom. This is called thrum. Because of the expense of weaving yarn, I saved the thrum in order to use it on other projects. I still have some of it in my collection of yarn, which speaks to the thriftiness of weavers. Other fibers artists are equally thrifty.
One of the interesting features of handweaving on a loom, as opposed to weaving that comes from a factory loom, is that most of what you produce is going to be a square or rectangle. And the yarn is going to be comparatively large, such that you can’t cut it without the weaving unraveling.
If you’re going to make a piece of clothing or a bag out of handwoven fabric, you often have to think about how to structure things using rectangles that you can’t cut, thus making for zero-waste items. There’s that thrift again.
It’s led me to seek out information on bog coats and make a couple of them. (Do a search for bog coats on this blog and you’ll find my posts on them.) It also has me avidly following Liz Haywood, a fashion designer and pattern maker in Australia who specializes in zero-waste and low-waste designs. (Hi, Liz!) Follow her at The Craft of Clothes, where she has just shared a zero-waste bra pattern. [https://lizhaywood.com.au]
Aside from math, patterns and coding, meticulousness, patience, and thrift, learning to weave in college also taught me how to keep proper tension when working with fiber, how to work in rhythm (rocking back and forth on the bench while throwing the shuttle through the shed), how to create using a mechanical device, and how to maintain that device.
The practicality of my degree has been used in myriad ways over the course of my career, but the most direct use of it was when someone donated a loom – in pieces – to the museum where I used to work. With my background, I was able to put it together for an exhibit. Upon dismantling it for storage, I labeled all the pieces so that it can be put back together in the future.
I’ll close this post on the practicality of a weaving degree with a photo of the second weaving I produced in Merle’s Weaving I course, a blanket sampler.