A Day in the Workshop


A wider play of colour

A wider play of colour

Just over a week later I’m back for a day in the Textile Workshop. I’m here to do two things: make a little progress with my ‘organic’ project; put another warp on a loom. With the former I want to move gradually though the colours I have extracted from my studies of ferns and bracken, to try out the different yarns I’ve brought together and experiment with some possible patterns. Practising the latter, being comfortable with winding a warp and dressing a loom, is for me so really vital. I need to be able to do this confidently, on my own, without tears! I’ve negotiated this workshop visit with Graham, the workshop technician, who was so very helpful  during the Autumn Block sessions.

When I arrive I explain my intentions: to wind a short warp, put it on the loom and weave a header during an afternoon. I tell him I reckon I may need to do this several times over several weeks. This week I know I’ll need his help, so we’ve chosen a day when he hasn’t that many other students in the workshop. I plan to document what we do very carefully with photos and blow by blow instructions. If this seems like overkill I must explain: the method of ‘warping’ that the HNC course promotes is the European approach, that is dressing the loom from ‘back to front’. I was taught the American way, that is ‘front to back’. During the autumn course, although I was warned I’d be introduced to a different method, it was not the best time for me to learn it (and absorb it). So this is why I’m here today – to practise warping the European way . . . and then I can make an informed choice as to which might be the best approach for me.

An afternoon warp

An afternoon warp

To anyone reading this who has never done this warping task let me tell you it is the fundamental business of the weaver to learn and master this process. Within it lies the essence of the woven work. It’s like being both an architect and contractor designing the building and then mixing the cement to lay its foundations. One day someone will write a book called Zen and the Art of Dressing a Loom, or the Tao of Warping, even the Inner Game of Weaving, because in the short time I’ve exposed myself to this challenge I recognize it demands things of me that makes learning a guitar concerto or writing a complex computer programme but a walk in the park. I’ve spent many hours lying awake at night running through the minutiae of each move of the warping process. No matter how carefully I read the many (different) published descriptions or study my own notes, drawing and photographs, there is always something I seem to miss, or extra to remember for the next time.

But for now what I want to do is to discuss the differences  between the European and American methods: to share something that (it appears) not that many European weavers seem to know. Suffice to say, I did achieve the objective I set for myself, mainly thanks to Graham’s help and patience. But I’ll be back again next Thursday to do exactly the same task again, aiming this time to be as independent as I possibly can be.

Ready to Sley (Front to Back)

Ready to Sley

So how do you warp from the front? Well, you are going to sley the reed first! Putting your chained warp ready on the loom for this process as you can see in this illustration. It must look so strange to the uninitiated, but let me explain. What the photo doesn’t show is the cross. It’s sitting on top of the reed, but it’s about to be removed and placed ‘in the hand’. There’s no need for cross-sticks (although some US weavers use them) or the raddle. The one drawback I immediately discovered is once the cross is ‘in the hand’ you can’t go off and see to a demanding child, make a pot of tea or answer the door! But it is so very direct, and I discover from Graham that commerical weavers use a variation of this technique, sometimes holding a warp ‘cross’ in each hand . . . but this is quite beyond my imagining. Let’s look next at this ‘cross placed in your hand’. The illustration below I hope gives some idea of what it’s like.

A cross in the hand

A cross in the hand

Here are  the blow by blow instructions to unpicking the cross and sleying the reed from Debbie Chandler’s wonderful Learning to Weave, one of the few books to explain this method. When the cross is in your left hand the threads are literally stacked on top of each other. You open your hand a little to pick off the thread on the top, closing your hand quickly to keep the rest of the threads in place. Then you fold the thread to make a loop at the end and place the loop between your left thumb and index finger. Then with your right hand, insert the sley hook through the chosen dent in the reed. And so on . . . I should say that Chandler does describe BOTH methods and a hybrid one of her own.

Once the reed is sleyed the warp ends are pulled through the heddles from the back of the loom and tied in bunches to the back apron rod or batten. Then you are ready to beam and comb out the warp. of course the front part of the warp is now coming unchained and being pulled through reed and heddles and will eventually need tying on the front apron rod.

Hand on heart I managed to do this mostly by myself after being shown once, though I do have to admit finding the business of getting the cross threads stacked properly in the hand more than a little scary. I had one terrible Sunday afternoon with a chenille warp that went completely and utterly wrong the moment I attempted to put it on the loom . . . and I remember e-mailing my long-suffering teacher in some despair. But after that I haven’t looked back.

Finally, having looked again at the beautiful illustrations of Ethel Mairet’s woven work in Margot Coates book A Weaver’s Life I discover these images come from the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham. The Centre has unique on-line resources for crafts and the applied arts. One such resource enables you to collect together a ‘light-box’ of the images you want to study and bring them together on a single web page. From  this page you can then explore each image in detail, enlarging it and reading the curator’s interpretation. All the images can be downloaded without copyright restrictions for academic presentations and research studies. Highly Recommended! Here is my light-box of images from the Mairet Collection.


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