Learning to Weave: First Lesson

Leave work on time, hop on your bike, cycle six miles to Mountain View to Hannelore’s Weaving Studio (Custom Handweavers), and here I was for my first weaving lesson. Hannelore, her dog Jiji and a bird welcomed me. The studio is one of these long rooms in an industrial building. In the entrance area Hannelore exhibts some work, has a table for finishing work and some wool. The main studio behind has shelves and shelves of yarn on the left side, and an impressive library of weaving books on magazines. The floor is occupied by 10 floor looms of all sizes, the largest one 60 inches wide. Almost each loom has a project on it. Only a narrow walkway remains in the middle. It is colorful, cozy, and very confusing at the same time. I had no idea weavers have all these tools, gadgets, do-hickeys to get their task done! They are mechanically simple, mostly made of wood, but quite ingenious.

We pick the yarn for my project, a nice cranberry red 4-ply cotton carpet warp fitting for the season.  At a sett of 16 threads per inch for a 14 inch wide piece, I will need to create 224 warp threads of seven yards length.  This is my task for today, and it is done on a so-called “peg board”.  Hannelore has already prepared the guide string for the patter on the warp board. I just have to follow it. Using two threads at the same time and doubling back, I get 4 strings per path on the peg board. Every five iterations, I mark of 20 warps with a different colored string. The picture shows the peg board with my second chain on it, the first chain of 112 warp threads lying finished behind it. The peg board sits on the loom I will be using.

Once I get the idea of the peg board, it is actually quite easy. Classical music plays in the background, which sets the rhythm. It feels like a very beautiful dancing motion. A little more than half an hour later, I am done with the first half of threads, and the “chain” can be taken off the peg board. I need only 30 minutes for the second half. This earns me a compliment from Hannelore, apparently I got the hang of this pretty fast. Three decades of knitting and crochet came in handy, I guess.

In any case, there was plenty of time left and so Hannelore showed me how to thread the warp threads through the reed with a hook, one loop at a time. A reed resembles a comb and has basically three functions. It separates the warp yarn as you weave, is used to push the weft yarn in its place, and guides the shuttle. It takes some concentration to get the warp yarn through the reed, especially because it has to be done in order the loops were placed on the peg board to avoid a messy tangle. There is a trick to it using a cross-over of yarn on the peg board and two sticks, but I only figured it out how it works after seeing it happen. Putting it in words is impossible for me.

After the warps was threaded through the reed, it is rolled onto the warp beam at the back of the loom. The warp beam stores the warp before it is used for weaving, and is also used to maintain the tension. For a beginner like me, it is a two-person job. Weaver’s tradition is that the weaver is responsible for maintaining the tension as the warp is rolled. Hannelore operated the crank, and also put cardboard between every few layers of warp to make sure the tension is kept even and the warps don’t tangle on the warp beam.

By the time we got done with all of this, it was 8 pm and a good time to stop. The next step would be to thread the warps through the heddles (I’ll explain in the next post what that means. This is a job best done during daylight. Therefore, Hannelore decided to cancel my Friday lesson, and I will see her again on Saturday for this next step.

All sounds mighty complicated and technical? To my surprise, it is complex, quite a difference from the simple table loom I had in school. This is what it must feel like to a beginner knitter trying to make sense out of a pattern, and I am not even talking Aran cables here. But I am really excited about learning this new skill! Can’t wait until Saturday.

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