Learning to Weave on a Rigid Heddle Loom

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Sometime last year I got the notion that I’d like to learn to weave. Really, I was less interested in what I could make by weaving and more in learning what it feels like to create the woven cloth. A big part of fashion design is understanding different fabrics, and what distinguishes a sateen from muslin from velvet is the different methods of weaving each kind of fabric. Even relatively similar looking fabrics, like cotton shirting, have subtle but important differences in the weave. I read and read about the differences, but they were hard to grasp mentally. So I decided to grasp them, manually, by doing some actual weaving.

Not long after I moved to North Carolina my mom and I made a trip to a local yarn store, Warm ‘n Fuzzy. They have an incredible selection of yarns, mostly from small companies, and offer many classes. I saw Beginning Weaving on their upcoming class list; at $85 for about 8 hours of class time, it seemed like an affordable way to learn about weaving without committing too much time or money.

The class teaches weaving using knitting yarn to create a scarf on a portable rigid heddle loom. This fantastic contraption separates the warp threads (the ones running longways) in such a way that you pass the shuttle with the weft thread (the ones running crossways) straight through, rather than doing the over-under-over-under weaving action. It’s a little hard to describe, and this video has a good demo:

For the warp I chose a multicolored wool yarn in a red and orange colorway that I seem to have lost the label for; the weft is Jagger Spun’s Zephyr Wool-Silk in Copper. Most of the first class was spent setting up the yarn on the loom, which means measuring out each warp thread to the right length by wrapping it around a peg placed at a distance from the loom, pulling each thread through the heddle, and tying it to the spindles on either end. (Not necessarily in that order – the exact process escapes me, but don’t worry, I have written instructions.)

The weaving itself was pleasurable in a way similar to knitting: a meditative process that required paying close attention to the performance of the same action over and over again, made pleasant by the sensual qualities of the working material. The different colors and textures came together in a process as slow and delightful as the progression of a sunset; the gradual assembly of a grid from round looping yarn balls gave endless satisfaction to my systematic brain.

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I have to admit, I wasn’t the most fastidious beginning weaver. But then, I’m not the most fastidious anything. When trying something for the first time I like to jump in, get a feel for it the process, and screw up a bit. I can appreciate how things work by seeing them not work. So my selvages (the self-finished edges where the weft wraps around) are a bit sloppy, and the weave is hopelessly uneven. Even so, the result is beautiful: the yarn colors are like a fall-toned rainbow, and the cloth is surprisingly light and drapey. I don’t usually add fringe to scarves when I knit them, but for this scarf I did a twisted fringe, and I love it.

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Finished woven scarf

The experience of weaving had its intended educational outcome: I now have a feel for what it means to weave cloth, even if I’ve only scratched the surface of different weaving patterns and techniques that are possible. I’m pretty swamped with sewing responsibilities right now, so I’m going to hold onto my new weaving skills, if you could call them that, for a later date when I can practice and experiment with materials. I really like the idea of weaving with scrap yarn, fabric strips, or non-traditional materials like used bicycle tubes.

Hello, I am an Imperfect Thing.

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Today I made an imperfect thing.

This seems to be a common occurrence. I rather wish it weren’t. I rather wish the hours I spent and the tools I ran up and down the stairs 30 times to fetch and the giant mess I made had produced an perfectly stitched little bag.

The little bag is a design I created a couple years ago. My sister, who is a fashionista and a physician, asked me to make her a stylish bag in which she could carry her iPhone while she does rounds at the hospital and is wearing clothes without pockets. I made the original out of pieces of an old suede skirt of hers. I made a little suede tassel, added a vintage brass button on the flap closure, and braided a strap out of leather cording I bought at Mood. She liked it so much she asked me to make her another one the next year out of an old leather purse. Last week I stopped by to visit her at her office and was delighted to see her wearing it.

It’s a handy little bag: just big enough for a phone, which sometimes is all you want to carry around. I want to make the bag part of the Sunday Shift mini-line, so this week I set about working on a reproducible version.

First task: finding sustainable materials. A while ago I decided to keep my options open and make one-of-a-kind or limited-edition bags out of mostly upcycled materials, like thrift store leather skirts. But then I also wanted a vegan alternative. If you want to be both vegan and sustainable, leather alternatives are tricky. Most faux leathers are basically plastic textiles, which means they biodegrade about as well as a plastic bottle. And even high-quality vegan leathers wear out much faster than high-quality animal leather (after using is sparsely for 8 years, my beloved vegan Matt & Nat purse started insidiously shedding black faux leather flakes everywhere.)

I hit the upcycled/vegan jackpot a couple weeks ago at The Scrap Exchange in Durham, NC: a pile of faux leather upholstery samples. A nice stack in a variety of colors set me back barely more than $5.  It’s nice quality, too: a pretty realistic leather look, supple, sturdy.

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With the sourcing done, the next step is constructing the thing. This seems basic. But this is tricky for a person used to sewing cotton and silk and the like, because leather and faux leather are different. For one, once a needle pierces leather, the hole is there forever. There’s no ripping out seams and doing it again, unless you have some way of hiding the old stitching line. You can’t pin it. It’s much thicker than apparel fabrics, which means dealing with multiple layers and seam allowances is tricky.

Plus, faux leather has an ugly polyester backing on one side. And somehow this ugliness must be hidden, whereas with real leather you just be all rustic-exposed-raw-edgy.

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On top of all that, I’m not particularly experienced with sewing leather. The fact that the bag I’m making is very small, about 4″ x 6″, makes everything harder. All those thick layers are squished together in the same place. If I were smarter, I’d have started out with a tote bag.

But intrepid (or stupid) me, I went for it anyway. I chose a piece of material in a slightly metallic gold, because it’s fun and didn’t really match with any of the other colors. I picked a scrap piece of some Amy Butler cotton for the lining. The lining poses yet another challenge. How does it attach to the leather outside AND conceal all of the ugly polyester backing?

Without going through my entire process, let us say that the result of all of these challenges and my lack of skill is a somewhat unsatisfactory product. Wonky is a good word for it. Part of the problem is that when I’m working on a design for the first time I get impatient, and I neglect important little steps like marking the center of the bag before attaching the strap. So I’ve got a bag with unfinished seams, a crooked strap, and a snap that is too loose.

It does, however, have a nifty interior pocket just the right size for a driver’s license, credit card, or subway pass. Innovation!

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Tomorrow’s task: improving.

And Then There Was Much Working

Ideas are great, but if you get serious about them, there’s a side effect: lots and lots of work. It’s been a few weeks since my I created first prototype dress, and since then I’ve spent many hours tweaking, testing, redrafting, and re-re-drafting the pattern to try to get it just right.

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The sleeve, in particular, have been driving me nuts. Which is funny, because technically this dress doesn’t even have sleeves—at least not sleeves that need to be attached separately. I’ve chosen to design the dress with a very short kimono-style sleeve, which means the sleeve is cut as part of the shape of the main dress, sort of like a t-shape. I love this style because it drapes nicely on the shoulder, feels loose and roomy on the body, and requires less work in the garment construction.

And all that is well and good, but I have found it surprisingly tricky to finish the sleeves in a way I’m satisfied with, especially since I’m using french seams on most of the dress. (For the uninitiated, this complicates things because every seam gets sewn trice, rather than once, as is typical with a more basic seam finishing.) The sleeve just did not want me to make a nice hem out of its edge. I rolled. I pressed. I basted. I tried a baby hem. I considered doing a bias finish but decided the shape of the armhole – which is sharply angled where it meets the side seam – would make it just as troublesome as the other options.

After cutting and sewing something like six test versions, I settled on a basic 1/4″ hem with a slight change of the overall garment construction: instead of sewing the side and shoulder seams and then finishing the armhole (which is typical), I sew the shoulder seams, hem the sleeve edges, and then sew the side seams. This method fully encloses the raw edges at the bottom of the armhole are make a nice strong seam at a point that takes significant stress from the wearer moving around.

 

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The lesson within all of these details is that this is freaking hard work. Progress feels slow. It’s been a while since I took on a major creative endeavor like this, and I had forgotten that each work in my art portfolio came about after many, many hours in the studio.

Fortunately, I’m loving every minute of it.

First Dyeing Project: Yellow iDye on Flax/Silk Fabric

This week I did my first fabric dyeing. A few years ago my sister and I dyed some alpaca yarn with Kool-Aid (which I later knit into a rather adorable hat), but otherwise I’m a dyeing newbie. I plan to dye, print, or paint the clothing items I’m designing, and this is my first attempt with a flax/silk blend fabric I recently purchased from Organic Cotton Plus.

Hand-dyed yellow flax/silk fabric

Dyed yellow fabric drying in the sun.

For the dye, I used a packet of Jacquard’s iDye in Bright Yellow. I’m actually planning to do most of my dyeing, at least as I start my business, with low-impact fiber reactive dyes, and then hopefully learn to work with natural dyes when I’m done with the initial clothing design and production (for reasons I’ll have to discuss in a future post). I had a couple of packets of iDye on hand, though, and it’s supposed to be relatively low in toxicity and easy to use for immersion dyeing, so that’s what I chose for my first dyeing attempt.

Basically, the process involves heating a giant pot of water, dissolving the dye, adding the fabric, adding salt or vinegar to fix the dye into the textile fibers, and then heating and stirring for 30 minutes. After the dye has set, you rinse the fabric in water and then wash in the washing machine.

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The finished fabric was an incredibly deep, bright yellow with a hint of green in it. I have a trench-style rain jacket in almost the same color, and friends have said they can pick me out in a crowd 150 feet away. Yellow is one of my favorite colors, but this one is unusually bold and stunning.

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Fabric, done dyeing in the pot. The photo looks over-saturated, but I assure you, the yellow is nearly that bright in real life.

However, I found the near-constant stirring over heat and copious amounts of water usage a bit annoying, beside the fact that I’m not too keen on messing around with permanent dyestuffs in my parents’ impeccable kitchen. Fiber reactive dyes (like these from Dharma Trading) apparently don’t require heat and so don’t have to be used in a kitchen, which is just one of the reasons I’m choosing them over something like iDye.

I think I’m going to use the finished yellow fabric to try out a new dress design I’m working on, and then probably keep it for myself. In the meantime, it’s just lovely to look at.

The Dream: Starting My Own Sustainable, Ethical Clothing Line

For a long time, I’ve dreamed of starting my own small business designing and selling clothing and accessories. In the age of Etsy, this is by no means a rare idea or an inconceivable ambition. But I can tell you, dreaming up something and actually trying to make it happen are two different things. It’s scary. Terrifying, even. I know nothing about running a small business and have no formal education in fashion. I wouldn’t even consider myself an expert seamstress; far from it. But I really, really want to do this.

Where the magic happens

Where the magic happens

My idea is a business called Sunday Shift (the name came long before any solid idea of what I’d be making and selling), and the concept is to create handmade clothes that are simple, classic, and sustainable. Last year I took a workshop at NYC’s Fashion Institute of Technology called Ethical Fashion Design that expanded my knowledge of how to create sustainable and ethical fashion design business. Our final project for the class was to create a mission statement for our own business, which you can see in this Prezi.

That was June of last year, and in the ensuing months I managed to fine time in addition to my full-time job and 2.5 hours of daily commuting time to make my first small collection of fiber-based jewelry, which I sold at the 2013 Holiday Sale at Massachusetts College of Art and Design (my MFA alma mater).

A few of my first items for Sunday Shift, sold at the MassArt Made 2013 Holiday Sale in Boston, MA. 

Then I got busy with many other things, and in the next several months I made little progress.

A few weeks ago I relocated to North Carolina from NYC, and found myself with a nice chunk of free time while I’m in between jobs. I decided it was the perfect opportunity to yank my proverbial bootstraps and get Sunday Shift going.

I’ve been working on it for the last week, and yesterday I finished my first prototype dress: a simple, A-line shift dress with front patch pockets. I’ve ordered fabric samples from two sources—Organic Cotton Plus and Hemp Traders—and hope to make select one or two to use for production soon.

I have much to do: tweak the pattern, grade the pattern into different sizes, decide on colors, test dyes and printing inks, develop patterns for a couple other items to complete my line, make fabric labels, get business cards, plus the whole process of incorporating and doing other things to make my business legit. I don’t have a specific time frame yet (add that to the to-do list), but I’d like to launch Sunday Shift on Etsy in September.

I intend to use this blog as a way to report on my experiences starting a craft business. This is in itself scary. What if I fail, and the whole blogosphere gets to watch? What if someone steals my ideas? What if people point out my mistakes? Well, that’s a risk I’ve decided to take. I hope that showing the less-than-perfect tales of an utterly clueless entrepreneur will be interesting and helpful to other people. And of course, if you have thoughts or ideas about what I write, please leave then in the comments.