Meet the Maker – Irene: Spinner & Weaver

So here goes with my first ‘Meet the Maker’.  Just a little idea I had to indulge myself in all things crafty, to get to take lovely photos and then get to share it with all of you.

I’ve always been fascinated by crafts  and crafts people.  I used to own a wrought Iron hook made at a farm show when I was about 6.  I was transfixed by the Blacksmith, taking a rod of Iron and turning it into beautifully crafted items.  I think the purchased hook was a way of getting me to leave the stand so that the rest of my family (not quite so enamoured by a sweaty man beating a piece of metal with a hammer could do something more interesting.  I don’t have the hook anymore, it must have been lost during some move or another in my life, but the memory remains.  It takes great skill and understanding  of the materials you are using to be a great craftsperson but you shouldn’t let that be a barrier to learning something new, we all start somewhere and very few of us ever become skilled to such a high level.  For me it’s the learning and the actual doing from which I gain the most satisfaction!  The physical action of taking a material (whether that be clay, wool, wood or paper) and turning it into something else, something useful or just beautiful is ingrained in my being.  I feel like a bit of a prat when I say ‘I can’t not make’ but its so true.  My first thought is always how can I make that rather than where can I buy that.  Maybe in part this is because I’m a bit of a skinflint or at least never earnt huge amounts of money that means I can buy the things I might like to surround myself with.  Or maybe it’s just because I like the individual nature of handmade things, that fact that you can choose exactly what colour it will be and what size and what buttons you’ll put on it.  There in theory is no compromise as it’s up to you what you decide to create.

So with this in mind, a nice shiny new blog to share scrumptious pictures on and a desire to get out and photograph more personal work I decided to start a series on ‘Makers’.  There are no specific requirements other than, it interests me, gotta be selfish sometimes and I am particularly interested in people who have a strong care for the environment (in other words they make a conscious effort for their craft not to negatively impact on the environment) or people who recycle, reuse or repurpose.  I’m not bothered if it’s your profession or your hobby, all that matters is that you’re passionate about it and fancy sharing some of that passion and possibly some knowledge in an attempt to encourage others to have a go.

Our first maker is Irene.  I met Irene through Rache at Green & Gorgeous where I go to photograph flowers and teach flower photography course.  She used to work there so has been the (fairly) willing subject of my photography before.  One of the lovely things about working somewhere like Green & Gorgeous is that like generally attracts like so I’ve been lucky enough to meet lots of wonderful people.

Rachel, Irene and I went to ‘Unravel‘  to ogle all things woolly and I discovered just how much Irene loves wool. (We of course all left that day clutching something to take home and make! No great surprise there)

So we set a date and I arrived to photograph the process she goes through from an unwashed fleece to her weaving loom.  It was fascinating.  I’ve tried spinning and carding  (explained later) years ago when I was about 12 I guess.  I collected a load of wool of a barbed wire fence and a friend of the family showed me how to brush the wool and then attempt to spin it.  I certainly didn’t get hooked back then but I would have needed a load of kit and definitely didn’t have the money at 12!   Fast forward a few years and I went home buzzing, had the most amazing dream about a smiling yellow sheep that I bought and turned into a jumper. Anyway I digress that’s another post!

Walking into Irene’s home there are lovely handmade things everywhere, so many beautifully woven things and evidence of her experiments with Indigo dying and many other things!  What follows is not an hugely in depth description of every part of the process it’s a taster to pique your interest.  Please ask any questions if you’re interested though and I will do my best to get you an answer.

I asked Irene to say a few words on what got her started with weaving so here are a few words from the lovely lady herself.

“For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed making things.Over the years I have tried several crafts, including pottery and stained glass making, but didn’t stick with them.  However, I have always loved wool, but have never really got on with knitting, and about ten years ago decided I would like to try weaving. I started by having lessons with a local weaver, then went and did a couple of courses with Janet Phillips, a very talented weaver who has also written a couple of books.  I just love weaving! The fact that it is a very ancient craft, the planning of a project, winding a warp,putting the warp on the loom, setting it up then weaving. There is such a huge variety of things you can make with weaving and then theres spinning and dyeing, I found one thing leads to another….the possibilities are endless! I joined the Oxford Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers where you can meet like minded people and learn from them.”

This is a fleece, the coat of a sheep 🙂  and as you can see from the photo below you can get a good quality fleece for not a lot of money.  At this stage the fleece has literally just been shorn from the sheep, so it will still be grubby and have bits of grass or whatever said sheep might have dragged itself through.  There are many different types of sheep so many different types of fleece available each with their own unique qualities and colours lock length and crimp (those are terms I have a lot to learn about, all I know at the moment is that the length is the actual length of the fibre, longer fibers are generally easier to spin and can be spun finer.  The ‘crimp’ is how frizzy or curly it is, other than that it’s a mystery to me!)

If your fleece is in a good clean condition it may well be possible to spin it without first washing and carding (brushing all the fibres into the same direction).  If however it’s quite dirty, the locks are too stuck together and it’s full of knots of lumps of grass and other detritus then it’s best to clean it up first.

We only worked on a small amount of fleece for the purposes of demonstrating the process.   Irene separated a quantity of the wool that would fit in her sink and still have room to move freely when it was full of water.  A good squirt of washing up liquid was added to warm running water to make sure that it was well mixed in before the wool was added.  Warm water can be used ,and is better for cleaning the fleece, however, the fleece should be rinsed in water of the same temperature,and should not be agitated otherwise the fleece could felt.

Drain then  gently squeeze the wool to get the majority of the water out.  Lay it on an old towel and then roll up and twist to get as much water out as possible.  Then you can lay it out to dry.

The next step is to ‘Card’ the wool.  This can be done in either a machine (which you still have to rotate manually) or with hand carders. (in the basket below).  To use the hand carders you place the wool on the left hand card, with all the locks of wool facing the same way then you pull the right hand card over, dragging the fibres in the same direction.  then you pull the fibres off one card and replace on the other and repeat.  It’s more complicated than that and I found this great video to teach me, there’s so much more technique involved than you’d initially think!!! How to Card wool

I will post more about this as this is how I’m going to process my fleece (Did I mention Irene gave me a fleece?  I know, like I don’t have enough to do! but you know after the yellow sheep dream it seemed like fate!) and I’m already learning that it’s great for arm muscles and takes a lot of practice!  Good fun though.

Irene usually uses an Ashford Drum Carder.  The fleece still needs to be separated into staples and those staples teased out to make the carding easier but these bits of fleece are placed on the ‘Licker’ and gently pushed so that the first smaller roller collects them and transfers them onto the larger roller.  The idea is to not put too much on the licker in one go but you can do a few lickers full before the large drum needs to have the wool removed.

When the wool is removed from the drum it’s called a Batt and then when it’s rolled up it’s called a Rollag.  The Rollag helps when spinning as all the fibres are now laying in the same direction and can be pulled easily from each other.  Using a drum machine for longer fibers should give you a better result when spinning, particularly fine wools, as with the drum there’s more chance that more fibres will be laying neatly in the same direction than with hand carders.  Now on to the spinning!

Irene’s spinning wheel was a little different to what I was expecting.  It’s an Ashford Joy 2 Single Treadle wheel that flat packs into a bag so you can pack it up and take it with you!  You start by threading a piece of yarn called the leader,through the ‘orifice and onto the bobbin so that you have a starting point.  Pull a small amount of fibre from your rolag and twist the leader yarn and the fibre together, lightly applying pressure to the treadle so that bobbin starts to spin, as it spins the fibre starts to twist.   As the yarn is created it is wrapped around the bobbin.  Now the trick is to pull the fibre from the rolag at a nice consistent speed so that your new yarn is created even.  Here in lies the skill and where the practice is needed.  (I’m imagining my first yarn to be more than a little lumpy, but that has it’s own charm right!)  You can change the thickness of the new yarn by drawing more or less yarn from the rolag.

Because you are basically just twisting the yarn the only thing stopping it from coming undone is the fact that it’s being wound onto the bobbin.  This can cause problems later is the yarn will twist back on itself as soon as the tension is removed.  You can solve this by plying the yarn, twisting two single ply yarns together so that they twist on themselves creating a 2 ply yarn.  This is done on the spinning wheel.  Fill two bobbins with your single ply yarn, then ply onto a third bobbin on the wheel, spinning anti clockwise.

In order to further wash and dye your yarn it needs to be wound into a skein.  The skein stops the wool from getting tangled whilst at the same time allowing water and dye to move all around all the yarn, making sure of even coverage.

To make a skein you need a Niddy Noddy (I know! what a great name, I’d like one just so I can say ‘Can someone please hand me my Niddy Noddy’).  Once the yarn is wound on it’s tied, loosely, at 4 points and can then be taken off.

We’re not going to touch on dyeing in this post, way too much info!  After you’ve dyed or washed the wool in a skein you can then wind it into a ball.  The manual way of doing this is with a Nostepinne.  A Nostepinne is a turned piece of wood, slightly tapered so you can easily slide your ball of wool off.  by twisting the Nostepinne slowly and evenly as you wind the wool you can create lovely looking balls of wool.  Take care not to pull the yarn tight as this can stretch it and also flatten the yarn meaning that it will lose some of it’s original texture if it’s left wound for too long.

The alternative to hand winding your yarn into a ball is to use an Umbrella Swift.  You can see Irene her loading the umbrella swift with a skein of wool she’d purchased from Unravel.  The swift can be opened to fit different sized skeins.  It’s an elegant looking thing isn’t it!  Bit fiddly to set up, but once you have it so that the skein is pulled tight enough to sit in the middle of the swift but not pulled taught you can undo the bits of wool used to hold the skein together.  Lastly untie the ends so that you can start to wind the wool off.

Next is the Ball Winder (nice simple one to rememeber ha-ha).  Attach the wool, wind the handle and you’re off. Next thing you know you have a beautifully evenly wound ball of wool. Ta-da!

Weaving!  This is going to be the briefest of introductions, there’s so much involved, but hopefully it will go someway to demystifying it a little.  Irene has quite a big loom, as in it really needs it’s own room.  You do not need a loom this big, you can get little table top ones, hand held ones, hanging ones.  Something to suit everyone and every space

Irene had very kindly set up her loom with all the warp threads in place and had a started a piece of weaving so that I could see how moving the foot pedals helps her create the pattern in the finished fabric.

The Warp is the set of threads that run from the back to the front of the loom.  Irene’s loom is a 4 shaft loom, which has 6 foot pedals, each pedal is tied up to a combination of the 4 shafts, depending on the pattern being woven.  The warp threads are individually threaded through the heddles. These are long thin pieces of wire each with a small loop through which the warp threads are passed.The order in which the warp threads are threaded through the heddles helps determine the finished pattern.  Once the heddles are all threaded, the pedals are used to change the shafts.  So all heddles on shaft  4 will move when pedal 4 is pressed.  In this way ,by pressing the pedals and changing shafts in different orders a myriad of patterns can be woven.

You can of course create your own patterns, but if like me you’re already a little befuddled by the whole thing I think the above book looks like a bloody good place to start!  Like Irene said to me, there are enough patterns in this book to keep her going for years!!!

Irene writes out the patterns (Lifting Plans) from the books so that she knows which pedals to press on which rows to create her chosen pattern.

Next step: The Weft.  This is the thread that goes from side to side and is the working thread.  The wool is wound onto a smaller bobbin, the bobbin fits inside a shuttle.  The shuttle is then thrown from side to side, through the weft and beaten down by the beater.

I love the fact that there are so many possibilities with weaving.  In all honestly until I went through this process with Irene I’d always thought weaving was a bit restrictive but now I can see that thats not the case at all.  If you want every single warp thread could be a different colour and you can vary the thickness and type of thread used and the patterns and….. like I said the possibilities are endless!

Below are a whole range of different items that Irene has made.  I’m particularly liking the rug and blankets and thinking this might be a good direction to go in with my ‘I dreamed of a yellow sheep’ project.

I want to extend the hugest of thank you’s to Irene for sharing with me her passion and enthusiasm for all things wooly! I left totally inspired and with the desire to learn new skills and the promise to return to experiment with some natural dying.  I hope this has given you a little insight into how much work goes into producing something as simple as a cushion cover but also how much fun it can be!

Stay tuned for updates on my personal journey with my fleece, there’ll be a blog on Stage 1 coming soon.

2 thoughts on “Meet the Maker – Irene: Spinner & Weaver”

  • These are beautiful photo’s with a fascinating text to go with them Clare. I knew my sister was clever but now I think she’s amazing! Strangely looking at this made me cry – maybe because I am ashamed that I have not (yet) spent a day watching her at work and seeing the whole process myself.
    I hope you find lots more willing crafty folk to photograph.

    • Hi Denise, what a lovely, lovely comment! She is a clever bunny isn’t she 🙂 For me it was so fascinating seeing the colour combinations in the woven fabric as much as the other skills involved. I love colour, it kinda rules my world but I find it hard to visualise the colour combinations possible in weaving as the threads are so intertwined and every time they cross something else magical happens. I think that’s as much an intuition as a skill, I’m just a little envious! 🙂

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