By Jeff Smith
As of this August, I’ve now been handweaving for a year. It’s been an enriching experience. Since not everyone knows a lot about weaving, I thought I’d share my experience of becoming a weaver across a few dimensions.
I really like to create things of all sorts. In no particular order: I’ve written non-fiction books, theatrical plays, and chamber music. I’ve made jewelry, sculptures, metalwork, and dog toys. And I’ve founded the occasional tech startup. There’s something really special about going from zero to one that I really love.
As I’ve tried creating many different things I found that certain forms of creation really suited my needs. We all spend too much time on screens, so analog creation is far more recuperative and energizing. That said, I’m not looking to create things that bore me, so I really want to create things which have an arbitrary level of depth and complexity to keep me engaged. I also want to be able to fit creation into the rest of my life, so I wanted to be able to do a lot of creation in my home in ways that didn’t endanger my little dog. Finally, when I create anything, it’s the people that really make creation worthwhile, so I wanted to find a really good creative community.
After a lot of trial and exploration, I really feel like weaving scratches that particular itch for me. The next few sections will give you a picture of what that journey of discovering weaving has been like for me.
I found it really easy to get started with weaving and started creating a wide range of projects. My best inventory of year one’s output is as follows: 4 scarves, 3 rugs, 5 pillows, 1 dog jacket, 2 tote bags, 1 Kindle case, 1 laptop case, 1 belt, 1 vest, 1 dog blanket, 7 placemats, and so, so many samples!
My best-received project has probably been this dog jacket I made out of Norwegian and Faroese wool. Like with a lot of the other things I’ve made, the real magic is having the perfect muse. I also think that this is a good project to demonstrate that even very basic hand sewing skills can really expand your weaving horizons.
Fibers and Yarns
Once you get started with weaving, it can be quite natural to get into the specifics of how different types of fibers behave. My inventory of fibers I’ve worked with so far includes cotton, linen, hemp, ramie, jute, wool, kudzu, nettle, raffia, paper, alpaca, and many different types of wool.
The fun doesn’t stop with fiber content, I’ve also found it to be fascinating to play with the differences between singles and plied yarns as well as handspun versus mill spun yarn.
This lace yardage I made consists of handspun ramie and a cotton-hemp blend, both in singles. It took me quite a few tries to come up with something usable due to the challenges of handspun, singles, and lace. But it was fascinating playing with materials far closer to what humanity used for thousands of years than the current norm.
If you’ve just done the first schoolroom bit of weaving, you probably know the basic over-under pattern of plain weave. One of the really rewarding aspects of weaving is that there is so much more to learn. My first year’s inventory of exploration includes plain weave, basket weave, many different twills, boutonné, corduroy, overshot, (Atwater Bronson and Swedish) lace, soumak, and twining.
This pile of pillows consists of weaving done in plain weave, twills, corduroy, and boutonné. All have passed the nap test and get lots of use.
Perhaps the most imposing part of weaving as a craft is that you don’t just need 2 needles, but you actually need to get a loom and some other gear. I took a very incremental approach to this, starting simple and increasing my toolbox as I learned how it all worked and what I really wanted to work with. In the past year I’ve woven on some home made looms made out of cardboard and old paintings, but most of my time has been spent on a sequence of increasingly more complex commercially made looms including frame looms, tapestry looms, pin looms, weaving sticks, and floor looms.
This picture records my first few looms, two homemade and the far left one from a store.
After getting ever more engaged with the possibilities, I bought a tapestry loom which I used for a lot of hand manipulation work like boutonné.
Finally, I got really, really serious about weaving and bought a floor loom kit, which I sanded, oiled, and assembled into this beauty that I call Jackie Lamm. It’s an 8 shaft, 10 treadle, 36” Harrisville Designs T8. So far, I really love how truly unbounded the world of weaving looks when seated in front of the fell line.
Before I wrap up, I wanted to give a quick rundown on a few resources for learning weaving, in case anyone else wants to join me in exploring weaving.
I expect most people will start with YouTube to learn how to weave, and it’s a great place to learn some simple basics like hand manipulation and working on simple frame looms. But many of the commercial videos and courses are really worth your time. To call out two, I’ve enjoyed studying at the Textile Arts Center in Brooklyn while also supplementing my studies with the courses included in a Handwoven Magazine subscription.
Of course, books are great resources as well, particularly since there are so many useful books written about weaving. That said, they’re not all easy to find, so I strongly recommend joining a local guild to get access to their library.
But regardless, you should totally join a guild if you want to learn handweaving. The average guild meeting I’ve been in has had literally centuries of experience represented in the sum knowledge of the guild members in attendance. If you want to have an enriching first year as a handweaver, I couldn’t recommend any better way to learn.