Understanding Fibres, Yarns and Fabrics – Commentary
This is a short commentary on how I’ve responded to the formal studies of textile fibres since the initial series of lectures on this subject back in October. It makes up the second part of my report / essay for submission 12 December 2008
AIM: The development of an understanding of the range of textile fibres available, the types of yarns and fabric structures used and also the relevant manufacturing systems . . .
As the blog of 4 October 2008 illustrates I come to this whole subject as an almost complete novice. In six months experience in handweaving yarn has been first presented to me as something to work with, of an interesting colour and texture, as suitable for warp or weft. What its intrinsic qualities are have not been a first concern, but a by-product to the activity and practice of weaving. In the two months since I was formally introduced to the technology of the materials used in woven design my whole perception has changed. Each encounter with the materials I work with now starts a chain reaction of questions, recording and analysis. But how best to respond in a way that builds and assembles the knowledge and experience needed to make informed and sensible decisions when it comes to the day to day selection, handling and treatment of material?
The idea of reviewing and assembling the facts surrounding the whole culture of manipulated yarn – as a ‘unit of textile construction’ – separately from the context of my own work or experience with it I have decided to reject. For me, demonstrating an understanding of major fibre types has to be linked to my gathering encounters with material and my ability to analyze, collect, record, and then research and investigate further. Thus, for example, during each weekly visit to the Bradford College I make time to walk around the looms holding work in progress and take photographs of warp and weft, gradually building up a checklist of questions that invariably turn on and turn to the nature of the yarns used. The question ‘why a project uses a certain yarn or yarn mix?’ seems more and more crucial.
Formal knowledge required to develop the kind of understanding required to design woven textiles clearly does need a basis from which to start any personal practice in this area. The designer / weaver needs not only to be able to make a clear distinction between the natural and the manufactured, but increasingly how these types can be (and frequently are) mixed to serve economic conditions of production. Use, aesthetic quality, ability to take dye, cost and ease, strength and flexibility, and suitability for particular weaves are all considerations that a designer has to way up in making preliminary decisions about choice of fibre.
Flowing from this choice of fibre type is the selection of yarn type, the yarn being the manufactured result of taking a particular process to the fabric structure. In both natural and manufactured fibres the process of spinning appears central. I recognized during the first lecture in Unit 7 that I actually had very little conception of how the spinning process worked. I think it now imperative that I get my hands on this process and experience it for myself – I have a kind offer of an introduction to this skill and process from a class member (which I shall take up!). I’ve also made a date to spend a day with Jan Hicks, a Cumbrian weaver, dyer, breeder of rare breed sheep (including Angora) and former chemist. In the meantime I’ve found a fine introduction to this craft in chapters three and four of Penny Walsh’s The Yarn Book (A & C Black 2008). These chapters, beautifully illustrated with drawings and photographs, cover Yarn Spinning Mechanisms and Spinning Techniques.
So it’s with this kind of approach that my knowledge and understanding in this material world is being acquired. The recording of day-to-day experiences, encounters and opportunities I bring together as a step towards developing understanding. This is all about learning to explain my own knowledge (gained from observation, questioning and research) using the correct descriptive terminology. It’s from this that my understanding will (hopefully) ensue. Such recording is threaded through my notes book and (importantly and significantly) through the virtual pages of my blog, https://nigelweaving.wordpress.com where hyperlinks to existing on-line information and reference are an invaluable resource, The blog is further supported by my on-line gallery of photographs at http://gallery.me.com/tonalitysystems
I’d like to demonstrate just one example of how my understanding and knowledge is developing using this less than formal approach.
In the past month I’ve had three significant encounters with linen. One is entirely of my own making in the creating of a warp that brought together a linen dyed dark blue (Glanary Waxed S twist) and a white linen and cotton mix (White Herdmans softened S twist). Despite a number of difficulties with handling the linen at the picking off the cross and threading stage (I learnt that my difficulties could have been solved if I’d sprayed the linen with a fine mist of water) the unevenness of the yarn (a kind of natural slub) had wonderful qualities on the loom and in simple weave structures like ribs. Fresh from a little success here I spent an afternoon with a group of weavers at Farfield Mill in Cumbria, two of whom were working on linen projects. They had acquired cones and cheeses of fine and medium white linen,
untouched for 60 years, in a sale at a Lancashire mill (Ashworths), They had been experimenting dyeing an écru (unbleached) linen different shades of indigo (using a cold water dye) and demonstrated some very different approaches to weaving with the yarn – linen takes dye quite differently from wool. They also shared with me their own personal experience of using linen mixes: linen and viscose, linen and cotton, linen and wool, cotton and linen boucle, high-twist linen (Dublin variety), wool and linen gimp. The third encounter came via attending a conference connected to the Cloth & Culture NOW! exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester University. Here I met Alison Morton. Alison is one of the foremost designer weavers of her generation and works now almost exclusively in linen. She kindly sent me a series of beautiful photographs of her most varied work and a short essay about her ‘discovery’ of linen and how she works with it. Here’s an extract:
I was introduced to linen by a speaker at my local guild of weavers and dyers, who encouraged us to grow and process our own. From the start I was interested in the fibre on many levels: being able to grow the fibre and take it from seed to finished cloth; the long history of its use in Northern Europe alongside wool; the beautiful qualities that can be achieved by finishing the cloth in different ways. I was interested in using linen in its traditional role but with a contemporary interpretation, developing the natural colour of the fibre with a flash of dyed colours in the detail to liven it up. Two different methods of finishing the cloth are used to bring out the fibre’s unique characteristics. The first method is to boil the cloth after weaving and put it out on the grass for at least two weeks to start the bleaching process – after further washing and steam pressing the cloth has a beautiful grey softness. I use this method for handtowels. The second method, for table linen, involves beating the cloth with a mallet, while still damp, after the initial wash. Known as ‘beatling’, this squashes the fibres and brings out the beautiful sheen associated with damask. The yarn I use comes from Northern Ireland, from flax grown in Belgium.
It’s this kind of unexpected gift of personal experience with a natural cellulosic fibre that I’m recording, archiving and learning from. It has encouraged me to research – to look at how other designers use linen and the different types of linen commercially available. The historical angle of a fibre can also be a fascinating area, linking as it does with Historical and Contextual Studies component of the HNC course. Googling the term ‘beatling’ from Alison Morton’s essay produced a lively on-line article about the origins and processes of linen production in Ireland in the Journal of the Craigavon Historical Society Vol.7. No.1. Seeing different types of linen at different stages of the making process and in conjunction with other fibre types has helped to emphasize and explain its structural nature. I have been able to assess at first hand technical details in dyeing, weaving and finishing of this fibre – all of which begin to develop a personal understanding and knowledge.