Thursday, February 12, 2009

How I Got Here

In a comment on an earlier post, Sherrie said "I have been following your blog and have been fascinated with the patterning. I have done 4 harness weaving and bought an eight harness table loom to experiment. Your work inspires me to want to go even further. How did you start and where did you learn how to do some of these wonderful things?"

Since the answer isn't brief enough to put into a comment, I thought it deserved a post of its own.

I've been interested in textiles all my life. My grandmother and her sister lived next door while I was growing up, and they were of a generation that had a horror of idle hands. They had also been deeply affected by the Great Depression, so they did handwork to avoid having to purchase finished goods and to recycle old/used goods. They knew crochet, knitting, sewing, needlepoint, cross-stitch, you name it. And because they were the after-school day-care for me and my sister, we were taught to do all that needlework, if only to keep us busy and out of trouble.

My mother was a single mom, and she sewed most of my clothes until I was old enough to learn to sew myself. I'm tall, so store-bought clothing wouldn't fit, even if we could have afforded to indulge. So from mid elementary school until adulthood, I sewed my clothing. At one point, I wanted a tailored jacket, and had a very specific fabric in mind. Bad idea, because of course the fabric store didn't have that fabric in mind. I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be nice to be able to make my own cloth - that way I'd always find what I wanted!"

[Note: the supreme irony is that since I've been weaving, I rarely sew any more. Okay, I sew the hems on dishtowels, but that's about it. I can, I just don't have time - I'd rather be weaving!]

Fast forward to the 1990s, when DH was transferred to London by his employers. Whoopee! It was the first time since college that I wasn't working full time (although I did consult occasionally for the British distributor of my US employer's products), so I had time to explore things I wouldn't otherwise have had time for. We went to what was then called the Chelsea Craft Show, the equivalent of the American Craft Council shows here.

There were some wonderful handwovens at the show. One booth had some wonderful woven pleated scarves, and when I asked how the pleats were woven in, the booth-sitter wouldn't get specific about technique, just as well, because I didn't have the weaving terminology to understand it. I realized years later it was the work of Ann Richards, who pioneered the collapse weave techniques many weavers use now. Another booth had wonderful rugs, and a young man named Jason was minding the booth. Of course, it was years again before I found out his last name, and that he was Peter Collingwood's son.

In any case, at each handweaving booth, I asked "Where can I learn to weave?" Finally, somebody I spoke to referred me to the Handweaver's Studio in north London. I contacted them and signed up for classes.

After finishing the beginner's weaving course, I bought a rigid heddle loom. I didn't want to make a big investment in case it turned out weaving wasn't for me. However as it turned out, I was hooked, completely. I then bought a 4-shaft Glimakra, which came with all the bits and pieces to add 4 more shafts. It was a second- or third-hand loom, but in good condition.

The Glimakra came back to the States as "household goods" and I wove on that loom until 1997, first on 4 shafts and after a year or so on 8. I joined the local guild and took every class available locally, as well as at Convergence. In '97, shaft envy (and back problems that meant the usual method of countermarche tie-ups would be difficult if not impossible) encouraged me to buy a 24-shaft AVL. I worked in high tech, so the notion of digital design was a very rapid transition. If there's anything that makes creating your own weaving drafts easy, it's weaving software.

I've been selling my work since the late 1990s, and the AVL is the main reason I can weave as much as I do. It's a great production tool, making the job easier physically and more efficient. You don't need lots of shafts to weave beautiful cloth, or complex cloth. However, if you want to do it quickly and efficiently, it's hard to beat an AVL, with all its mechanical subsystems designed specifically for production weaving.

My best advice for other weavers is:

1. Never be afraid of trying something new. What's the worst that can happen? You will learn as much (or more) from mistakes than from successes. And after all, it's only yarn, right?

2. Keep an open mind about technique. A particular method might be perfect for someone else, but still not work well for you. Be willing to try new methods, and evaluate them in terms of your weaving life. There's no one single right way to do anything. In my own life, hearing "Oh, you can't do that!" is the best possible excuse for trying it out. I can't tell you how many things I was told were impossible turned out to be the most exciting successes I've had.

3. Don't keep weaving the same thing warp after warp. Stretching yourself will keep your interest level up, and give you much more satisfaction than doing the safe things you can do in your sleep.

4. Take advantage of every learning opportunity that comes along, whether it's classes or workshops sponsored by local guilds, trying out projects from weaving magazines that push you beyond your comfort zone, attending Convergence and Complex Weavers, because not only will you be surrounded by people who speak the same language of fiber, but you are guaranteed to find some inspiration in what you see and experience there.

5. Learn to make the most of what you have. If a 4-shaft loom is all you can afford, don't fret. My first weaving teacher, at the Handweaver's Studio in London, told me I could spend a lifetime and not exhaust all the possibilities of 4-shaft weaving. Not that shaft envy is bad, but it's not necessary. On the other hand, if you weave on 4 shafts, and have an opportunity to try out a loom with more shafts, consider it a chance to stretch your weaving experience. It's not a bad idea to learn about 8- and more-shaft structures, even if you only have 4 shafts. I've made drafts for 40 shafts, even though the most I have is 24, just to better understand the design possibilities.

6.Gather up a library of weaving references that will help give you a sound understanding of weave structure. Sharon Alderman, Madeline van der Hoogt, Bonnie Inouye, and Alice Schlein have all written structure-related books. There are many more, but those are the essential tomes in my library. If your local guild has a library, borrow from it!

7. Relax! Enjoy it! Don't take weaving too seriously! Have fun!


Valerie said...

What a nice post, Sandra! Thank you.

Sherrie said...

I appreciate your thoughts on the matter. I do try take classes here and there but it isn't always easy to find classes nearby. I really find the internet helpful to learn from but it isn't the same as actually being around other weavers. Keep up the good work and happy weaving.

neki desu said...

delightful post!
weaver's delight :)

neki desu