Partly Sunny with a Chance of Indigo

In a normal year, I begin my outdoor indigo dyeing season in mid-summer, when the days are warm and nights don’t get too cold. This year is anything but normal, with a global pandemic keeping us all at home, every day indistinguishable from another. It’s so incongruous to have news of the infection and death counts rising sharply every day, while here in the Northwest we are having an unusually pleasant early spring. Blooms, green leaves, partly sunny days; it all seems like the perfect staging for a glorious garden party! Instead it is contrasted with dire economic forecasts and scary public health statistics, as well as the by now familiar guidance for social distance, mask-wearing, hand washing, etc.

But since we are in a spate of warm days now and I have a lot of time on my hands, I decided to revive my indigo vat early this year. Having no proper indoor space for the vat and the messy dyeing process, I must leave it outdoors in a spot that will receive a good amount of sunlight and heat. I can control the addition of ingredients like indigo, alkali and oxygen reducer fairly easily, but the vat temperature is the hardest thing to control. Night temperatures are still falling to a range from high 30’s to mid 40’s F, so reheating some of the vat liquid is necessary almost every day. In spite of the extra time required for heating and resting afterward, I wanted to give it a go.

I enjoy waking up a tired and sleepy indigo vat with heat, fresh indigo and chemicals. I’m using lime and fructose so it’s not as Frankenstein as it sounds. The vat bubbles to life with a dark, shiny flower and the aroma of warm, fresh indigo. I love that smell as much as baking bread!

The indigo vat with a healthy flower in a sunny spot outside.

My first dyeing effort was a fold and clamp project on a runner I wove from an interesting stiff ramie yarn. It absorbed the dye beautifully and turned a beautiful blue with just four dips. Then I got out an old T-shirt I had previously dyed with a stitch resist. It has always looked unfinished to me, so I just dunked it in the vat a few times to darken the pattern and lower the contrast. I think I’m ready to wear it now.

As long as our nice warm weather holds, I will continue indigo dyeing. I plan to do a little every day, and hope to update this with more photos.


A Handwoven Chenille Sweater

For quite a while now, I have had a few cones of chenille yarn sitting on my shelf, just waiting for my inspiration to transform them into something warm and wonderful. Earlier this winter I was working in my somewhat chilly basement studio and wished for a warm and attractive garment that I could wear while working and not have to change when I suddenly decide to dash out for a bite of dinner. I thought of the chenille yarn and pondered how to use it.

In my mind’s eye, I am still designing wearables with loom-shaped woven rectangles of fabric. I decided to make a pullover tunic top, or sweater, with primarily rectangular pieces that come straight off the loom, and zero to minimal tailoring. I sketched and planned and decided to use the 3-panel design I wove previously based on a Mexican huipil, although for this one I wanted sleeves and a cozy collar to keep cold drafts from blowing down my neck.

My design was simple enough: I needed approximately 6 yards of narrow 8-inch panels for the body and collar plus a bit extra for who knows what, and 1.5 yards of a wider panel for sleeves and who knows what. It’s always better to have a little too much finished fabric than too little. I decided to make the wider panel 12 inches wide. My chenille yarn is 2,000 yards per pound and I set it at 15 ends per inch so the finished fabric would have integrity and not slide and droop.

I chose the blue yarn, wound my warps and wove the narrow strip first. Six yards is a lot, but I just wove plain weave and it did not take long to complete. I wet-finished and line-dried the fabric, concluding with a final tumble in the dryer with no heat, just to soften it up. When I measured the cloth strip, my 6-yard length was there, but it was only 7 inches wide. I added another half-inch worth of warp to the wider strip and wove that at 12.5 inches wide. After finishing, I had 1.5 yards of 11-inch wide cloth. I decided to forge ahead with my design, resolving to shed a few extra pounds so the garment is not too tight a fit.

I cut the narrow strip into pieces: two 50-inch side front and back panels, one 19-inch center front panel and a 24-inch center back panel. I overlapped the edges slightly and used a decorative stitch to sew them together, but the fancy stitch is invisible in the deep fuzz of the chenille. I cut a 28-inch piece for a Mobius strip (one twist) collar and stitched it in place. That was a little too long for the opening, but I have to get it over my head, so I left a couple of inches to softly drape at the sides of the center front panel.

Now for the sleeves. I cut two 21.5-inch long pieces from the wider cloth strip and attached them to the side panel edges so they would form a square when stitched along the bottom, but this left the sleeves too short and in need of a gusset where they attached to the body. Out of the remaining 11-inch square of the wider cloth, I cut two small 5.5-inch squares for underarm gussets. The remaining piece of narrow cloth was about 40+ inches. I cut that into two pieces to extend the sleeve length, and made an angled seam in the larger sleeve piece so that the sleeve extension fit the sleeve edge.

Hooray! The finished garment fits over my head and around my body and is the soft and warm sweater top I imagined. After cutting and piecing, the project used up all of my woven strips except for a few very small pieces. I’m planning to use the rest of my chenille yarn in a couple of similar projects, perhaps for next winter.


Winter Festival of Light

My holiday rigid heddle weaving project was a scarf woven of shiny rayon, sequins and lurex. I picked up the little hank of space-dyed sequin yarn at our guild’s Weftover sale in November. I wove the sparkly project in the darkest time of winter when we celebrate with various festivals of light, looking forward to the return of sunlight and longer days.

At first I thought I might be able to weave with the sequins in the warp, using a 7.5 dent heddle on my loom. The spaces are wide enough, I thought, to allow the sequins to pass through using only a very gentle pressure with the heddle. Nope! As soon as I tried that, the sequins started popping off.

Sequins, shiny rayon and lurex yarns.

I re-warped the loom with shiny rayon and sparkly lurex yarns set every half-inch, and decided to weave the sequin yarn in the weft every half inch, making a sort of sparkly grid set on a shiny red background. The space-dyed gold, green, turquoise and chocolate brown areas of the sequin yarn made random streaks of color as the red portions of weft matched the red warp yarns. In between my holiday obligations, I wove the scarf when time allowed and finished it some time in January.

Sequins and sparkle scarf.

Even as we have now passed the halfway point of winter (Groundhog Day), and the days are noticeably lengthening ever so slightly, Portland had its fifth annual Winter Light Festival this past weekend in early February. I visited the brilliantly lit installations along our downtown waterfront in between rain showers. What better event at which to shine with a bit of my own winter light?

Everyone, young and old, loved this interactive exhibit which played chords when you touched the light ropes.

Double Weave on a Rigid Heddle Loom, or Not

Weaving double weave, or two separate woven layers, on a rigid heddle loom has been studied, written about in books, and demonstrated extensively in online videos. It need not be very difficult, but it is more time-consuming than executing the same technique on a multi-harness floor loom.

My students have been asking for a class in using double heddles on the rigid heddle loom, which is something I do a lot, to create a double density sett in order to weave with finer yarn. They also want to learn to do double weave on the rigid heddle. This is not something I typically do, since I have floor looms for weaving complicated structures. But I figured I should make a double weave sampler so that I can instruct my students in this technique with some degree of competence. The basic technique requires two heddles and two pick up sticks.

For my sampler I used two 7.5 dent heddles for an overall sett of 15 ends per inch. I warped my rigid heddle loom by tying a red and a blue yarn together and drawing loops of the doubled yarn through the slots of one heddle. I threaded this heddle by moving one of the red yarns from each slot to an adjacent hole. I moved that heddle to the back heddle position, which would weave the red layer on the bottom. I put my second heddle in the front heddle position and threaded one blue yarn in a slot and one blue yarn in a hole of this heddle. The red threads pass through another slot; the next blue yarn goes in the same slot as the red threads, and then a blue yarn goes through the next hole. The blue layer (threaded on the front heddle) is woven on top of the red layer (back heddle).

Each layer requires two sheds: for the lower layer, one is made with the heddle in the down position; the other shed is made by a pick up stick under the back heddle/red slot threads. The upper layer sheds are made with the front heddle in the up position alternating with a pick up stick under the blue slot threads. The two sticks are positioned between different layers of warp, so they can both be shoved to the back of the loom when not in use, and they can move forward independently without interfering with each other.

The heddle sequence is 1) Red pick up stick, 2) back heddle in down position, 3) front heddle in up position, 4) Blue pick up stick. I followed the steps in The Weaver’s Idea Book, p. 203, by Jane Patrick, who surely gives clearer instructions than I am doing here.

My sampler has three sections. The first (lower) section is the two layers woven completely separately and open on both sides.

The next (middle) section is closed on one side and open on the other. One portion of this section is woven with two interlocking wefts, so the front and back are separate colors. Another portion is woven with one (red) weft. A piece woven like this could be opened out like a book, forming a double width fabric.

The final (top) section is closed on both sides and open at the top edge, so it forms a pocket.

The bottom portion of the sampler is open on both right and left sides, so the stick shuttle protrudes from both edges. The middle portion is open on the right side, closed on the left, so a side-opening pocket is formed and holds the bobbins. The top portion is closed on both sides and open at the top, forming a top-opening pocket, and holds a small ball of yarn. I folded over the top edge to form a space for a hanger, in this case, a chopstick. The strips of vertical red and blue stripes are areas where I wove all the layers together with a red weft.

Some time ago I wove a double-width wool and mohair blanket or throw on a 4-shaft floor loom. The width on the loom was 30 inches, so it opened to a 60 inch wide blanket. It was done in plain weave, with one layer woven on shafts 1 and 2; the other layer woven on shafts 3 and 4. All woven in solid black, no pick up sticks were required. It does not photograph well, so just imagine a large and cozy black rectangle. If I wanted to do future double weave projects, this is most likely the way I would go.

Another double weave project that I wove on a floor loom had designs created by picking up lower layer threads with a pick up stick, while 4 shafts wove the ground cloth. To create this on a rigid heddle loom would require at least 2 more pick up sticks: two to work the two layers of ground cloth and the other two to pick up the contrasting design. It was slow work on the floor loom and it should go without saying this would be a very slow process on the rigid heddle.

The double weave hand and turtle were woven (slowly) on a floor loom. While it would be possible to weave it on a rigid heddle loom, it would take a saintly amount of patience.

I realize I am fortunate to be able to choose the right tool for the job, and I believe the multi-harness loom is the better choice for double weave. But for the space- or budget-challenged, a rigid heddle loom can be a workable option. Take advantage of the many books and videos that will help you choose the right job for the tool you have, and keep on weaving!


Dyeing Yarn in a Ball

I have been using a lot of fiber reactive dye on cellulose fibers this summer: tie-dye t-shirts, painting handwoven yardage, shibori samplers, etc. It’s getting cool and damp outside now, where I do my dyeing in summer, so I am wrapping up my projects and putting the dyes and resist tools away. I still have a bit of leftover dye stock and mixed colors in the refrigerator, but not enough to cover a large project. I hate to throw out dye while it is still viable, so I need some small projects to use it up.

To finish off the last of the dye before it goes bad, I loosely wind off balls of cotton, linen or rayon yarn, then put the balls in those plastic mesh bags that some fruit and veg are sold in (cherries, small tomatoes, etc.) The bag keeps the yarn from tangling excessively. I throw the yarn in a soda soak until it is saturated, squeeze out excess liquid, then put it in a clear plastic container (like grated cheese is sold in). I add the dregs of dye stock and water to cover it. I put the lid on and leave it 24 hours in a warmish place. Every so often during the first few hours, I swirl the container around to make sure the yarn is completely submerged and the dye liquid can penetrate to the center of the ball.

The next day I rinse the yarn, starting with cool, then gradually warmer water. Finally I soap it in hot water and rinse again, all while it’s still in the mesh bag. The agitation from washing does unravel the yarn a bit, but not enough to tie itself in knots. I hang the bag on a clothesline to dry, usually over another night.

Winding the dyed, washed and dried yarn back into a ball.

When the yarn is dry, I wind it back into a ball and add it to my collection of colorful yarn remnants, which will eventually wind up in handwoven towels, placemats, scarves, etc. The coloration of the ball is not even, varying in intensity from lighter on the inside of the ball to darker outside. There are also little white, undyed areas where the yarn was touching itself while wound in the ball. Not only do I find this color variation NOT objectionable, I admire and value it. It is another source of delight in seeing unexpected color happen!


Tie-Dye in the Neighborhood

Some time ago, a young neighbor asked if I could make him a tie-dyed shirt with the classic spiral design. I thought a better idea would be to teach him to make his own.

On a recent pleasant summer afternoon, some neighbors came over for a little tie-dye party. They brought t-shirts and handkerchiefs; I mixed up a soda ash solution and fiber reactive dyes in 3 primary colors, plus black. I provided mixing containers and plastic squeeze bottles, and the kids went to town, squirting dye with abandon.

My young neighbor turned out to be a natural at tie-dye; his sister just wanted to do abstract art on her shirt.

The adults produced their own t-shirts of various designs, and after curing, rinsing, washing and drying, we had a show and tell and admired each other’s work.

I have some other dyeing projects in the pipeline, but it might be a couple of weeks before I finish them. Meanwhile I thought I would post this quick story of how to perk up your mood with just a bit of color and messy fun.


Weaving 2/1 Twill on a Rigid Heddle Loom

One of the things I love about my rigid heddle loom is its simplicity. Its primary strength is its ability to make beautiful plain-weave cloth rapidly and easily. Plain, or tabby weave, is when a weft yarn crosses over one warp yarn, under one warp yarn, across the width of the fabric, just as you would do to make a lattice pie crust. If you like to create visual interest in handwovens by varying the order of colors and textures of yarn, and complete a project in less than a day, you can hardly do better than to warp and weave on a rigid heddle loom.

I weave with double heddles for a double-density sett with finer yarns on my loom, but I still am weaving plain weave. Both heddles go up for one shed, both heddles go down for the other shed. But after producing dozens of plain-weave scarves, table runners, pillow covers, etc., the thought comes creeping: “What other structures might I be able to create on this loom?”

My library of weaving books and videos is full of advice on how to make a rigid heddle loom act like a 4-shaft loom, but the process always seems so complicated! Weave with 3 heddles, or use multiple pick-up sticks, or add heddle rods. If I want to do a complicated weave structure, I have floor looms for that. I want an alternate weave structure I can create with just the two heddles I already use.

After poking around on the internet, I found an answer: twill weave, but specifically 2/1 twill. The salient feature of twill is its pronounced diagonal lines created by small floats of yarn crossing over two or three yarns in the web. Having first learned to weave on floor looms with a number of shafts that are multiples of 4, I tend to think of twill as a balanced 2/2 twill or an uneven 3/1 – 1/3 twill. A 2/2 twill means a weft thread goes over two warp yarns, under two warp yarns, with each new row offset by one warp thread. A 2/2 twill looks the same on both sides of the fabric and the diagonal lines form a 45° angle.

Denim, used for blue jeans, is typically woven in a 3/1 twill, whereby a weft thread crosses over 3 warp threads, under one warp thread on one side of the fabric. The other side of the fabric is a 1/3 twill, with the weft crossing under 3 warp threads, over one warp thread. Denim is made with indigo-dyed warp and white weft, so the two sides of the fabric look different. The “right” side shows more indigo warp floats, the “wrong” side shows more white weft floats, and the diagonal lines frequently form a 30° angle.

Now, back to the 2/1 twill that can be woven on the rigid heddle loom with only two heddles and no pick-up sticks or heddle rods. With the help of my internet sources and some mental gymnastics performed during wakeful hours late at night, I realized I could thread the loom at 1.5 times the density of a single heddle in a 2/1 threading. One third of the warp threads go through the holes of one heddle, another third go through the holes of the second heddle, and the final third of warp threads go through the slots of both heddles. Any shed made with this threading is always 2 against one – plain weave is not possible with this threading.

This picture shows the three groups of warp threads. Top layer goes through holes in back heddle, slots in front heddle. Middle layer is threads in slots on both heddles. Lower layer is threads in slots on back heddle, holes in front heddle. Each shed is made by opening one layer away from the other two.

This 2/1 twill is woven in a 3-heddle sequence: 1) one heddle up, the other in neutral, 2) the second heddle up, the first in neutral, 3) both heddles down, making the loom act like a 3-shaft loom. This fabric is weft-dominant on one side and warp dominant on the other, just like the denim fabric, but with the diagonal lines forming a 60° angle.

The top portion is a section of warp-dominant twill, showing more gold warp floats. The bottom portion is a section of weft-dominant twill, showing more teal weft floats. Note the steep angle of diagonal lines.

I wove a scarf with the weft-dominant side facing up on the loom, warp-dominant side facing down for the whole length of the project. The two sides of the fabric appear quite different from each other. Next, I wove a scarf with alternating sections of weft-dominance and warp-dominance. To achieve the alternating pattern, I modified the 3-heddle sequence to 1) one heddle down, the other in neutral, 2) the second heddle down, the first in neutral, 3) both heddles up. I also reversed the sequence to get a zig-zag pattern of diagonal lines.

The scarves pictured above were woven with a straight twill threading, i.e., 1-2-3-1-2-3. I wanted to see if I could thread the warp in a point twill: 1-2-3-2-1. The answer is Yes! I wove the scarf below with one 3-heddle sequence to achieve a pattern of diamonds on the weft-dominant side (blue) and another sequence at the opposite end of the scarf which created little elongated ovals on the warp-dominant side (red).

This scarf is woven with a point twill threading.

The lesson learned is that the versatile rigid heddle loom can do more than one simple weave structure. Let’s hear it for twill!