The final project: waffle weave dishtowels


Waffle weave dishtowels are easy to make and I’ve woven quite a number of them over time. But these towels have two things special about them.

Firstly, most of the threads used in the project are undyed, naturally colored cotton that I spun myself. I used my Bosworth charkha for the singles and then triple-plied them on my Ashford. The white in the warp is commercial 60/2, doubled in order to approximately match the thickness of the handspun. All the colored stripes are handspun, as is 100% of the weft.

Secondly, this will be my final project because my ovarian cancer will soon make an end of me. Finishing these two towels was a priority for me.

But the project was not as easy as it ought to have been. Because the warp stripes represented some of the first cotton I spun and plied last year when I first learned to spin cotton, the threads turned out to be far weaker than the thread I’m currently spinning. I assumed—wrongly—that the doubled 60/2 threads would bear most of the tension, but this was incorrect, as I learned to my sorrow. Almost every time I advanced the woven cloth, the change in tension snapped my delicate handspun. I think I broke almost thirty threads. See the white threads in the largest brown stripe in the photo above? Those were some of the obvious replacement threads, and there were countless others. Each time another couple of threads broke (they tended to break in tandem) I would grit my teeth, say a few inappropriate things, and grimly attach a new thread which had to be threaded through the beater and then through the heddle and then weighted over the back beam. Ugh.

But as I neared the finish line, I realized something. Not only have I learned to perfectly attach new warp threads when needed, but I also realized that the towels are a metaphor for my entire life. I have made plenty of mistakes along the way in both my life and my weaving, but in each case I was able to correct the error. Sometimes the fix was not perfect, as when the white threads interrupt a brown stripe, but in each case the fix got the job done. These towels are my life, warts and all. They’re rough but definitely usable, even beautiful. And I stopped while there were still a few more inches I could have woven, because I was running out of thread….just as I am running out of days that remain.

I look at my weaving, and I look at my life, and I am very happy with the overall effect of both. Thanks, everyone, for reading!


Project: finally finished!


The shot silk project is finally complete and I now have three-plus yards of shimmering iridescent silk: mostly periwinkle blue except where the light catches the violet weft and makes the cloth shimmer. This silk yardage, with 50 threads to the inch, is the most ambitious and most beautiful thing I have ever woven and it completely lives up to my hopes. The cloth has a nice “hand” that’s midway between soft and crisp, and it’s so lightweight that it can be folded repeatedly into a small rectangle that has scarcely any weight, like the Elven-cloaks of Lorien.

I learned several things from this project. First, it is an error to zone out while weaving. Occasionally the shuttle would catch a lone thread and incorrectly pass over or under it, so I needed to be alert. When there are 30 rows of weft in every inch, “reading” each thread from left to right requires extreme in-the-moment mindfulness, which is the opposite of zoning out.


I also learned a lesson about the relationship of the beater to the beaten cloth. There is a “sweet spot” on my Louet Spring loom (and probably on every loom) which is only about an inch deep, and the edge of the fell (the finished cloth) needs to remain centered within this sweet spot whenever the warp is advanced, lest color imperfections immediately become visible. I used to believe that these visual imperfections that appeared each time I advanced the cloth were due to improper tensioning. But instead, it has to do with the angle of the beater as it it smacks against the edge of the fell as I weave. When I learned to advance the fell only one inch at a time, maintaining position within that sweet spot, the color was always consistent. This is not a real problem with coarser woven projects such as scarves or dishtowels, but when weaving with fine silks, color inconsistencies can ruin your project. Because I figured this out as I went along, the last half of the yardage looks neater than the first half.

My original intent was to have a garment tailored from the yardage, but because I have cancer, it makes little sense to make clothing that I might not get to wear much. I am considering all options. One idea is to cut off one yard and use that smaller piece to make a tie and pocket square for my son, who enjoys “suiting up”, along with a number of hemmed handkerchiefs to give as gifts to friends. This would leave a large piece two yards long which could be used as a shawl. But I’m still open to other ideas. I will consider all good suggestions!

The shot silk progress report

The Spring loom minus its front beam, showing the warping in progress.

The Spring loom minus its front beam, showing the warping in progress.

An overly ambitious weaving project is probably not the best idea for someone who has cancer, but I’m fearless (make that “foolish”). This project is shot silk yardage which I hope to tailor into a garment. (For lovely illustrations of shot silk, see my earlier blog). The weaving is 100% silk, 36 inches wide, three yards long, and is set at 50 threads per inch.

Once the weft was in place on the loom, the actual weaving was effortless.

Four inches of warp successfully threaded (on right)…which means only another 32 inches remains to be done (on left).

Putting the warp onto the loom was by far the most tedious part of the job. My Louet Spring loom has eight shafts, so I removed the beater and front beam and sat inside the frame, sticking fine threads through nylon heddles, over and over. Whenever I finished fifty threads, enough to want to get up and take a break, I’d take a look and realize that I’d accomplished only one measly inch, with apparently endless inches still to go. The task was unrewarding and so it languished, with only a few inches of progress made each week, before petering out completely. One day when my cancer symptoms seemed to be getting worse, I looked at the loom and thought “I really don’t want to die with this project left unfinished.” So I shamed myself into sitting down and finishing threading the warp, which took less than ten days when I worked with a will.

The first inch was filled with beautiful iridescence.

The first inch was filled with beautiful iridescence.

Shot silk is a plain weave that requires complementary colors, one for the warp and the other for the weft. By the time I’d woven the first inch, I knew I had a winning combination: a rich periwinkle blue for the warp and a warm violet for the weft. The iridescence is outstanding: the violet highlights move with the viewer as one walks past the loom.

Sighting along the iridescent silk cloth, the near surface is violet while the far end is mostly blue.

Sighting along the iridescent silk cloth, the near surface is violet while the far end is mostly blue.

Even though the weaving is straightforward, I have found that I need to pace myself. Because each inch of woven cloth averages around 30 passes of the shuttle, I have experienced a wrist problem caused by repetitive motion. I therefore limit myself to about half an hour of weaving each day, which results in about three inches or so of finished silk cloth.

When the finished cloth is wrinkled, alternating blue and violet highlights shimmer across it.

When the finished cloth is wrinkled, alternating blue and violet highlights shimmer across it.

I originally intended to make a short-sleeved blouse out of the three yards of cloth that I will get from this project, but the highlights might better be suited to a skirt, or even a shawl. There won’t be enough yardage for a jacket, but there might be enough for a short kimono with three-quarter-length sleeves. Readers, what would YOU do with three yards of iridescent silk fabric?

Fear of washing

Apparently many young men don’t like to wash their clothes. Countless websites have featured urban hipster males who refuse to wash their artisan-made raw denim jeans because they’re searching for the perfect fade, which washing would wreck. Even the CEO of Levis stated that he has gone a year without washing his jeans. Wool & Prince, whose Kickstarter project of woolen business shirts that supposedly resist B.O. even after 100 days of not washing, has also been profiled widely. I get a sense of a lot of grubby young men looking for a justification to not do their laundry.

This photo is courtesy and illustrates a pair of their jeans after "15 months, six washes."
This photo is courtesy and illustrates a pair of their jeans after “15 months, six washes.”

Fellas, I hate to tell you this, but speaking as a woman, you definitely need to wash your clothes more often than one to three times a year. I know we’re all trying to reduce our carbon footprints and save the planet, but throwing out basic hygiene is not a good place to start. Long ago and far away I was an undergraduate with very little money for the laundromat, and I remember vividly that a pair of jeans begins to generate a unique and uninviting smell during its second week of going unwashed. This odor is definitely not a good way to greet your date if you are hoping to get lucky later in the evening.

It’s quite true that Americans probably wash too much. Many of us probably know a neurotic friend who maniacally washes every single garment, every single day. That’s obviously too often. If you haven’t spilled pasta sauce on yourself, and if you don’t have smelly feet, and if you don’t have overactive armpit glands, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t wear your pants, shirts, and socks more than once. But even so, this long-term refusal to wash your jeans and shirts smells to me more like juvenile mud-puppy behavior rather than something that grown men should boast about doing.

Going for months without washing, and ignoring the odor that wafts up out of the groin of your jeans, might prove your authenticity and individuality, but it also means that you’re a scuzzy dog. As per the claims of Wool & Prince, wool fiber will indeed resist B.O. for many days, but dirt is another matter. Your skin’s natural oils (and your zillions of sloughed-off skin flakes) are all soaking into the fabric of your shirt right now, nonstop, day after day. As a hand-knitter who doesn’t like to wash a carefully crafted sweater more often than absolutely necessary, I can vouch from personal experience that a sweater that looks clean to the eye will nevertheless emit an astonishing amount of crud when gently washed in soapy water.

It’s very simple, guys: if you smell bad, you won’t get dates. Don’t feel you need to need to wash everything on a daily basis, but please, for everyone’s sake, do consider a weekly laundering. Your nearest and dearest, and all those strangers who happen to be standing near you in public places, will thank you for doing so.

6 Signs You Should Probably Wash Your Jeans

I Didn’t Wash My Jeans For Seven Months

How To Break In A Pair Of Dry Jeans

Why You Should Never, Ever, Wash Your Jeans (Unless You Really Have To)




Shooting for shot silk

Every since visiting the workshop of Antico Setificio Fiorentino in Florence, Italy, I have wanted to weave my own shot silk.

Shot silk is a plain-weave in which the warp is one color and the weft another. The result is complex new tints and shades wherever the fabric gets folded or creased.

The yardage for this dress probably mingled yellow and brown threads.

This silk was probably a cross of yellow and brown warp and weft.

Shot silk was popular (for those who could afford it!) during the 16oos and 1700s.

I'm guessing white threads mingled with black (or charcoal)?

I’m guessing white threads mingled with black (or charcoal)?

It was certainly fabric for what we would now call “the 1%.” This kind of silk was not something that serving-girls or maids would wear.

Pale and dark blue combined? Or navy with white?

Deep blue and pale blue? Or navy with white?

So how hard will it be to weave shot silk? I have no idea, nor can I find any information online. My overall goal as a weaver is to weave elegant cloth of the proper weight and texture to make good garments. Not long ago I wove a silk sampler at 48 epi that would make a good blouse-weight, and I will use the same weight silk thread (60/2, from Webs), since I have a lot of it left over. Hopefully three yards of shot silk will be sufficient for a sleeveless blouse or tabard.

This soft rose/violet gown looks almost opalescent.

This soft rose/violet gown looks almost opalescent.

It’s a delicate job warping a loom to 48 epi across 35 inches. The silk thread is so delicate that it catches and snags on my rough hands. If I simply draw my hand along the chained warp, static immediately builds up and makes the ends of the threads rise up and hover in the air.

Even men occasionally wore shot silk.

Even men occasionally wore shot silk.

I’m using my Louet Spring loom, which is far better suited to fine fabrics than my old Schacht Mighty Wolf. The Wolf was a perfectly simple and easy-to-use loom, but its metal heddles were not friendly to fine threads. The Louet has TexSolv heddles, which are perfect.

Navy and white warp and weft?

Navy and white warp and weft?

I’m currently spreading the warp across the raddle preparatory to winding onto the back beam. I will post again when the project is complete. Wish me luck in this challenging endeavor! And if you have any experience with shot silk, please send me your tips.

A visit to Antico Setificio Fiorentino

2014-11-24 16.40.58
Because I am a weaver, while in Florence I was eager to visit Antico Setificio Fiorentino, a silk weaving workshop founded in 1786. It produces exquisite fabrics on antique looms using original patterns that have been used for generations. These fabrics include brocades, satins and shot silks. The workshop has been affiliated for some time with the fashion industry, and its textiles are sought today by royalty, by museums, and the very wealthy, all those who seek the finest materials for upholstery, curtains and aspects of couture.

Our guide, Chiara, showed us the machines used in the workshop. The first sensation as you step inside the front doors, naturally, is the loud clatter of flying shuttles and beaters. Most of the looms are hand operated but at least one has a power-assist. The machinery falls silent as the tour approaches and Chiara explains what particular task is going on.

The first machine we viewed is a specialty loom which makes narrow fringed and looped bands for the edges of curtains and pillows. Look carefully at the photo below (click any photo to enlarge) and see the woven tape forming on the left, while on the right the weft is passed around a slender metal rod affixed to the loom. The silk threads along this rod can be cut, resulting in a long fringe.

2014-11-24 16.16.31

The workshop also has a Jacquard band loom capable of weaving four bands simultaneously, in different colors. (Two are shown below.)

2014-11-24 16.30.53

Below is a close view of this pattern.

2014-11-24 16.30.20

The visitor passes by many looms, some of which are in use, some of which are being warped, and others which lie waiting for the next project. Some are Jacquards but others appear to be sophisticated hand-operated drawlooms. The pattern cards for the Jacquard looms make it obvious that this was the origin of the first computer punchcards. Each of these cards lifts a unique set of heddles to form a complex brocade pattern. Each card is a slight variation on the preceding card, all of them harnessed together in a long chain to create the full pattern for the brocade.

2014-11-24 16.33.20

Below an employee is weaving a sturdy upholstery fabric that unlike the others, has a linen warp. A strong arm is necessary to beat this fabric to the desired density.

2014-11-24 16.36.04

And a close-up of that same fabric. (Don’t forget to click to enlarge.)

2014-11-24 16.36.12

The warping is done in a separate room from the weaving, using (in part) a warping reel originally devised by Leonardo da Vinci. Note that a number of threads are being simultaneously passed from the bobbins on the left to the reel. One needs soft, smooth hands to do this successfully!

2014-11-24 16.25.09

Some of the looms incorporate metallic threads as well, imparting a high sheen that catches the light.

2014-11-24 16.37.15

Below is a closeup of some of the metallic threads.

2014-11-24 16.40.21

Notice how in the fabric below, the light strikes the surface differently from left to right. Also notice the white band along the left edge; it appears to be a measuring tape that tells the weaver how much longer the yardage needs to be.

2014-11-24 16.41.27

Here is another view of Jacquard punchcards suspended above a loom:

2014-11-24 16.31.16

The wealth of colors and textures available in the workshop’s showroom is deeply impressive.

2014-11-24 16.45.28

The handwoven textiles are naturally expensive, for they are top-quality and tops in beauty. These fabrics represent the ne plus ultra of weaving. The Kremlin recently commissioned silk velvets for upholstery purposes from Antico Setificio Fiorentino. These fabrics you’re looking at are the same ones used by royalty.

2014-11-24 16.52.16

Here is a long view of the atelier, showing magnificent drapes made on-site.

2014-11-24 16.48.46

And another view through the drapes, directly into “the pillow room.”

2014-11-24 16.55.26

The beauty of shot silks—one color for the warp, and another for the weft—is exactly as you might see in a painting by Fragonard or Boucher.

2014-11-24 16.46.25

As a weaver, I was deeply impressed by the quality of the fabrics that are manufactured at Antico Setificio Fiorentino. I left regretting that my budget did not permit me to purchase any yardage, but I did buy a lovely bagatelle: a sachet made of patterned silk woven on the premises, tied with a silken cord, and packaged in a bright yellow box with a customized ribbon. The scent is marvelous!


Antico Setificio Fiorentina is located in Oltrarno south of the river on Via L. Bartolini, 4, 50124 Firenze. Email for information about how to take your own tour, and to purchase cloth fit for a king.

weaving Narnian fabric

When I was a child I loved the Narnia books. I’d shut myself up in closets, hoping to find a portal to that magical land, and devoured the stories over and over. Almost half a century later, now a weaver and a spinner, I’m doing my best to weave Narnian-grade fabrics. But what are those, some people might ask?

Illustration from C.S. Lewis' "The Last Battle," by Pauline Baynes.

Illustration from C.S. Lewis’ “The Last Battle,” by Pauline Baynes.

“…in Narnia your good clothes were never your uncomfortable ones. They knew how to make things that felt beautiful as well as looking beautiful in Narnia; and there was no such thing as starch or flannel or elastic to be found from one end of the country to the other.” “…she…put on the clothes that had been laid out for her—they were the kind that not only felt nice, but looked nice and smelled nice and made nice sounds when you moved as well…”

The books repeatedly make the case that ordinary clothes of this world are ugly and don’t feel good against the skin. (Of course, in post-war England during the years in which these books were written, that was probably the truth.) C.S. Lewis exercised his imagination in envisioning a place in which clothing is not a burden, with tight collars and neckties and braces and constricting undergarments. And now that I am no longer a child but a weaver, I can ask myself the question: how would I go about making a Narnian-style fabric, suitable of being used for clothing?

24 ends per inch is too loose for a garment, but would work well for a shawl.

24 ends per inch is too loose for a garment, but would work well for a shawl.

Such a fabric would have to exhibit lovely ground patterns and feel wonderful. With that in mind, I’ve made two samplers so far that accomplish both of those goals. One is a supple length of bamboo thread in a six-harness pattern, with wonderful drape and a pattern that shimmers before the eyes, worked in gold and light green [above]. The other is an eight-shaft blouse-weight silk of blue and reddish-violet threads, 48 ends per inch, the finest I have yet attempted.

Blue and violet silk create a pattern that shimmers.

Blue and violet silk create a pattern that shimmers.

I hope I enjoy the chance to weave more yardage suitable of creating garments that are beautiful to look at and lovely to touch.



Spinning the thread of life

About a month ago, from out of the blue, I learned I had cancer. (See my other post at Almost at once I had to undergo abdominal surgery and sign up for chemo treatments, with very little time to ready myself.

My first round of chemo turned out to be painless and attended by very helpful staff. I didn’t know how long I would end up being there or what to expect, but I arrived with reading material, a blanket, and a stuffed plush animal. Because I’m a spinner and weaver, I also brought along a hand spindle — a brass tahkli from India — and several lengths of Sea Island cotton roving to spin. The photo shows me gamely spinning cotton thread while hooked up to the chemo port in my upper chest. [Click to enlarge.]

spinning chemo

Many friends commented positively on the photo when I posted it on Facebook, saying encouraging things like “rock that chemo!” or “spin doctor!” But not a single person made the connection that anyone living two thousand years ago would instantly have made. Our ancestors in ancient pre-Christian Europe believed that the threads of each person’s life were spun, measured and cut by one of three female deities, called variously the Fates, the Norns or the Moirai. The number three and the female gender were so tied to each other that the connection lasted as late as Shakespeare’s three witches in “Macbeth.”

At a time in my life when my very existence is threatened, at a time when the Fates might be preparing to cut my thread of life, I went in to deal with my chemo with spindle in hand, ready to spin my own thread of life and measure it out when I damn well feel like doing so. To use an academic word, I was exerting “agency” over my life by doing so. Should fellow spinsters ever be dealt a blow like mine with their health, I strongly encourage them to consider bringing their spindles along to the chemo ward in order to feel stronger and pluckier and more in control of their destinies.


What the Rebel Weavers mean to me

Handwoven yardage at last week's Rebels gathering.

Handwoven yardage at last week’s Rebels gathering.

I’m a rebel. A Rebel Weaver, that is. The Rebels are a group of craftspeople, young and old, newbies alongside pros, all united in the love of fibers and textiles. We got our name two winters ago when I was talking for the first time to Sarah at the Farmers’ Market, admiring her hand-spun, hand-dyed, hand-woven textiles on display in her booth.

“Do you ever go to the Guild meetings?”

“No, I don’t really.”

“Those meetings are kind of dull, aren’t they? It’s all business meeting stuff all the time, and not enough fun. I wish they’d do more show-and-tell and less business.”

“I agree. There ought to be another group for people who enjoy more hands-on stuff.”

“We should form a group like that. And we should call ourselves the Rebels, because we’d be rebelling against boring meetings!”

At that moment a voice spoke up from behind my shoulder in the crowd at the market. “Can I be a Rebel, too?” It was Susanne. The three of us agreed to meet in my living room the following month and invite all our fiber-friends and see what happened.

Half of the group pauses for a photo-opp while a junior member is shown a spinning technique.

Half of the group pauses for a photo-opp while a junior member is shown a spinning technique.

And awesomeness is what happened. More than a year later, the group still meets once a month in my living room, and the show-and-tell never stops. Someone will bring an exotic fiber to share; someone else will demonstrate a new technique, or answer questions from newbies. Everyone brings a spinning wheel, or drop spindles, or support spindles, or an antique fiber gizmo, and the fun never stops. By the time 4:00 rolls around people begin to reluctantly leave. “I wish this wasn’t just once a month,” they sigh each time we depart. “This group does such a lot for me.”

Admiring a length of Ulla's chenille.

Admiring a length of Ulla’s chenille.

Our most ambitious project to date is what we call “The Challenge.” Inspired by Rebecca Burgess in California, we are each attempting to weave (or knit from handspun yarn) five garments each, and hold a public fashion show and demonstration in the fall. People are bringing in already-completed garments and modeling them for the others. It’s very ambitious, and very inspiring to see the things that the others are coming up with. That’s part of what makes the Rebels such a great experience: when you see what other people are doing, it gives you ideas of your own of how to take that idea and tweak it to suit your own aesthetics. The Rebels group is a cross-fertilization of ideas and expertise, and it’s such a lot of fun!

Fee is drop-spindling some awesome singles.

Fee is drop-spindling some awesome singles.

Last weekend’s meeting ended with me plucking a ripe clementine from the little potted citrus in my window, opening it up and giving everyone a section to savor. People were impressed by how much fresher the fruit tasted when compared with supermarket variety. Well, the Rebels feel the same way to me: fresher, and more alive, than any other fiber group I’ve ever been involved with.


Brooke treadles a rainbow of beautiful singles.

The group has grown to approximately fourteen regulars with more than twenty on the permanent mailing list. If the group keeps growing we might need to relocate when I run out of chairs and elbow-room. When this eventually happens, I hope that the creative and loving vibe of the group travels with it.

A quick-and-easy plying stand for a takhli spindle

There are so few people in America who hand-spin using takhlis that there is no standard procedure regarding how to ply. After spinning fine singles thread, I always ply using my spinning wheel. The singles are so delicate that I do not wish to reel them off onto spinning wheel bobbins. What I do with such fine singles is to Navajo-ply the thread, tripling it over and over again against itself. And to do so I need something to hold the takhli stable on the ground in front of my spinning wheel. At first I tried setting the takhli into a small notched cardboard box, but it turned poorly and tended to jump out of the notches and roll across the floor. The solution I came up with is a wire stand.

I twisted this together in a matter of minutes, using a reel of thick wire in my husband’s workshop. Loops at the top and the bottom hold the takhli at an angle, ideal for spooling from. [Click to enlarge image.]


Version 1.0 sat too low to the ground and the bottom of the takhli would occasionally jump out of the loop it sat in. Version 2.0, pictured here, wraps around the top and bottom of the spindle better.

Another view from behind (with a nice shadow cast on the table):

This takhli is loaded with cotton that I grew in my own back yard. (See previous posts.)

This takhli is loaded with cotton that I grew in my own back yard. (See previous posts.)

Unlike many spinners, I learned to spin using a single-treadle wheel. Even though I now own a double-treadled wheel, I still only use my dominant right foot to treadle with, which leaves my left foot free to hold down the plying holder so it doesn’t shift around while I use it. Those who require two feet to treadle can make the device and then staple it at the bottom to a small piece of plywood or board. But for an inexpensive solution to the problem of how to ply from a takhli, this seems to suit the bill nicely.