For an introduction to what goes on in this column, click here.
I don’t want for a moment to give the impression that the idea I started messing with last time–painting a pattern on a warp-dominant fabric–is original to me.
There are many forms of weaving that paint or dye the warp to create a pattern in the finished cloth.
My inspiration was a fabric, not terribly well known these days, called chiné. Now, chiné (shee-NAY) is not the same as crèpe de chine or China silk. The name means “Chinese” and it may well have originated in China; though the examples of it that inspired me are not, in fact, Chinese, but French. Are you with me so far?
Chiné probably hit its all-time peak of popularity in France in the latter part of the 18th century. There is a tradition (not terribly well founded) that Madame de Pompadour liked to wear it, so on occasion you’ll find it called “Pompadour Taffeta.”
It’s expensive to produce. Christian Dior used it in the heyday of the New Look; and more recently designer Raf Simons (the now-former Creative Director of Dior) put it into his first collection for the house.
The fundamental aspect of chiné is the pattern painted upon the stretched warp threads before weaving–just as I painted my lotuses. The pattern persists in the finished fabric.
Here is a spectacular example from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: a silk and linen evening overdress from the tail end of the eighteenth century. (For full details, see the dossier on the Met’s Web site.)
That repeating sprig motif is woven right into the fabric. You can see it clearly in this view of the back.
The hallmark of chiné, which you either like or you don’t, is patterns that have lost their hard edges and become either dreamy as watercolor (if you like them); or blurry and out-of-focus (if you don’t).
I like them.
The softness is in part a result of painting upon those parallel strands of warp. During the painting process, they’re close together and held in place at both ends. They can support motifs with a fair amount of detail, like (or so I hoped) my lotus:
When the warp is wound onto the loom so weaving can begin, those painted parallel strands will inevitably shift a bit vertically in relation to one another. This result is a visual shimmer, sort of like this.
Re-Enter the Bunny of Better Judgment
You remember this fellow from last week? The Bunny of my Better Judgment?
Direct-warping a rigid heddle loom like my Schacht Cricket isn’t difficult or terribly time-consuming. I can usually put a plain warp on in an hour or less.
But this warp, because it was going to be painted, couldn’t be done in the comfort of my dining room. No, I had to work in the unheated cellar of the Chicago Victorian in which I live–in November. It’s dark and chilly down there, and it kinda smells like the fall of the house of Usher.
The stretched, nine-foot warp had to be stenciled. I’d never done that before. It took ages to finish each motif, especially before I got a feel for the process about halfway through.
By the time all the paint had dried to the touch, it was late and getting dark (or maybe my vision was going black). My feet hurt and my neck hurt and my knees hurt and my toes were numb and Rosamund needed to go for a walk and I was hungry and…
Yes. It would have been perfectly reasonable to call a halt, run around the neighborhood with Rosamund, and enjoy a celebratory fizzy water.
Instead, I decided to rush forward and wind on the warp. It would feel so good, I thought, to know I could start cranking out fabric the next morning.
How Not to Wind on Your Warp
I have never had trouble winding on a warp before. Not once. Not even though I am still a rank novice of a weaver.
I clipped the peg-end of the strands and started to crank, and immediately had issues at both ends of the process.
At the peg end, I had done nothing to keep the threads under tension. They began to shift, and continued to shift, and never stopped shifting until they were tied on. If you can’t guess that happened because of that, you’ll see in a moment.
At the loom end, I decided to use the roll of freezer paper (the paper I’d used to make my stencil) as a warp separator.
You can’t just crank your unwoven warp onto the naked back beam. You need to separate the layers, as they build up on the beam, with something sturdy–stout paper, slats of wood, slats from a window blind. Otherwise the yarns sink into one another and your tension is uneven. When your tension is uneven, your finished fabric is correspondingly uneven.
I had always used sliced-up brown paper bags to separate my warp, and I reuse the same paper repeatedly. But my brown paper stash was insufficient for this project–it wasn’t long enough and it wasn’t wide enough. The freezer paper was wider than the beam, but I figured I could just fold it up and stuff it in.
I should have measured it carefully and sliced precisely it to make a single layer of paper just wide enough. I didn’t.
I just rolled and folded. Usually my folding wasn’t very good. The paper shifted and bunched. I just kinda scrunched it down and kept winding.
At length, the warp was wound, and so was my bobbin of quite gorgeous HiKoo Alpaca Lace Light.
I don’t even have time this week to tell you about everything that went wrong with the weaving–I’m saving some of that for the next column.
I’ll tell you this. The devil-may-care folding and scrunching of the separating paper caused the tension of my warp threads to vary so widely that every shot of weft was an adventure. Would it pack in? Would it not? Heck, would the shed even open for me?
At great length, and only with much swearing and sweating and salty tears of frustration, I had woven a whopping five inches of fabric in the amount of time it would usually take to weave fifteen. This warp was, may I remind you, nine feet long.
A sane person would have declared the warp a “dog” (weaving slang for a warp that just won’t work), cut it off, and thrown it out. I was tempted.
I was at least going to need to re-wind it with proper tension and a proper spacer. I decided to think it over, and meanwhile cut off the five woven inches and wet finish them.
This is what came out.
I wish you could feel it. It’s dreamy. Weightless. Soft as Rosamund’s tummy. Drapes like mad.
I have to admit that I even like the way the uneven weft (the result of the lousy winding job) wiggles back and forth, spreading in some places and bunching in others. Thanks in part to the sticky alpaca and llama fibers, no part of the fabric is unstable.
Mind you there’s no pattern at all. Nothing but now-random scatters of paint. It’s pretty, but it’s not the lotus I drew. That part of the experiment is a complete flop–this time. I will try it again.
The fabric, though…I loved the sample fabric. I had to see how it would turn out. I had to keep going.
See you in two weeks.
Tools and Materials Appearing in This Issue
Schacht Cricket Rigid Heddle Loom (15-inch version shown)
Schacht Cricket 12-Dent Reed (for 15-inch loom)
Delilah Undyed DK Yarn (100% Baby Llama, De-Haired)
HiKoo Alpaca Lace Light (shown in 1006 Smoke, 100% Baby Alpaca, 1540 yards per 100 gram hank)
Createx Acrylics Fabric Paint
Designer, teacher, author and illustrator Franklin Habit is the author of It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave Press, 2008). His newest book, I Dream of Yarn: A Knit and Crochet Coloring Book was brought out by Soho Publishing in May 2016 and is in its second printing.
He travels constantly to teach knitters at shops and guilds across the country and internationally; and has been a popular member of the faculties of such festivals as Vogue Knitting Live!, STITCHES Events, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, Squam Arts Workshops, the Taos Wool Festival, Sock Summit, and the Madrona Fiber Arts Winter Retreat.
Franklin’s varied experience in the fiber world includes contributions of writing and design to Vogue Knitting, Yarn Market News, Interweave Knits, Interweave Crochet, PieceWork, Twist Collective; and a regular columns and cartoons for Mason-Dixon Knitting, PLY Magazine, Lion Brand Yarns, and Skacel Collection/Makers’ Mercantile. Many of his independently published designs are available via Ravelry.com.
He is the longtime proprietor of The Panopticon, one of the most popular knitting blogs on the Internet (presently on hiatus).
Franklin lives in Chicago, Illinois, cohabiting shamelessly with 15,000 books, a Schacht spinning wheel, four looms, and a colony of yarn that multiplies whenever his back is turned.