South of the Border Thunderbolt Towels

18 May 2015

Thunderbolt Towels made on a rigid heddle loom

Thunderbolt Towels made on a rigid heddle loom

I am mesmerized looking at Mesoamerican brocaded textiles such as huipiles or quechquemitls. These glorious cloths are usually woven on backstrap looms by masterful weavers. They weave traditional clothing; sometimes it is a riot of color or other times the height of subdued sophistication such as sheer white gauze with opaque white brocade. These weavers may have started weaving about the age start we to read, which gives them years and years of experience.

I have designed a brocade that can be made on a rigid heddle loom by a weaver who can weave a balanced plain weave. The master weavers working on backstrap loom use fine threads and closer setts than we typically use on rigid heddle looms. This design is adapted for a balanced plain weave with sett achievable with one common rigid heddle, a 10 dent to be exact. I made a sample on another warp, then refined it for this project. I still used finer threads to keep the hand of the cloth supple.

Inlay/overlay design on a beige with white stripes background. When the navy pattern thread is inserted into the shed you see dots of navy creating half-tone areas. When the pattern weft floats on top of the ground cloth you have solid navy areas.

Inlay/overlay design on a beige with white stripes background. When the navy pattern thread is inserted into the shed you see dots of navy creating half-tone areas. When the pattern weft floats on top of the ground cloth you have solid navy areas. Woven with 8/2 cotton at 10 epi.

I worked with 16/2 cotton but you can also use 8/2 cotton. Using four 16/2 strands instead of two 8/2 strands produces a thinner more pliant cloth because the strands lay side by side. This could be called a basket weave but I am calling it a plain weave where each end is composed of multiple strands. You have a choice of making the towels with  un-mercerized cotton 8/2 doubled or 16/2  quadrupled. The quadrupled 16/2 gives a thiner more supple cloth but is a bit more challenging to work with. If this is your first time working with multi-stranded ends, stick with the 8/2 cotton.

Inlay is the simplest of the innumerable brocade techniques especially if the supplementary weft goes from selvage to selvage just like the ground weft. For inlay the ground weft is followed by a pattern weft in the same shed. Since you keep the shed open to insert the supplementary weft you can easily tell which shed is next. Inlay alone produces a dotted line; you see the color of the brocading weft as it goes over every other warp. Just inlay , selvage to selvage, does not have a lot of design possibilities. To extend the design potential inlay can be combined with floats over the surface of the ground cloth, this is called called overlay. In inlay/overlay designs have dotted or half-tone areas and the floats or solid colored areas . The limit of the length of the floats is determined by the function of the cloth. The design challenge is to have a strong visual impact of the overlay area without having the floats too long for the intended use of the cloth.

Since the brocading thread is either in the shed on on top of it the back side of the fabric is smooth and has no floats. You can see an echo of the pattern on the back, when the brocading weft floats over on the front. So the front side has dots and solid areas, the back has dots and no dot areas, both are finished and presentable for uses where you see both sides of the cloth such as towels or scarves.

Front side of brocaded design showing both inlay and overlay.

Front side of brocaded design showing both inlay and overlay.

Back side of the pattern.

Back side of the pattern.

The sections where the brocading weft floats over the ground, the overlay, are selected by the weaver with a pick-up stick. After throwing the ground weft the shed is kept open and a pick up stick is inserted in the same shed pulling down some warps that are in the raised position. The pick-up of one warp end makes a big visual impact producing a float 3 ends long. Because you pull down warp ends from the raised shed with the pick-up stick, maybe this technique should be called pick-down instead of pick-up.

These designs can be graphed on appropriate paper and the location of the ends to be picked out of the shed can be counted out. This might be effective if all you want to do is one project but if you want to develop speed, mastery in brocading one can learn to work visually, as the Meso- American master weavers do. Once you have established the pattern by counting you can look at the previous row and know that this pick-up is the end say to the right of the one below. This eliminates the fastidious counting and keeps one from propagating a counting error across the whole row. When one does the pick-up visually you might be off in one motif and yet all the other motifs in that row are correct. One isolated thread out of place is barely noticeable, a whole row shifted one end to the right is visually jarring. An all pick-up patterns have errors; there are little isolate errors that one must hunt for and there are disruptive errors that interfere with the perception of the overall pattern. Of course, it takes time and experience to see which thread is beside the one in the previous row, I started weaving just triangles to train my eye.

This project of continuous (pattern weft goes from selvage to selvage) inlay/overlay on a few towels woven on a rigid heddle loom is designed to be simple to execute yet be visually impactful; suitable for a first attempt at pick-up brocade. The ground cloth is a balanced plain weave, sett at 10 epi, and the design has the same pattern of floats in every row , they just shift one thread to the right or left. The warp has stripes, these act much like heavier lines on graph paper keeping you from getting lost in a sea of sameness when you are counting ends. It also lends it self to improvisation , you can decide as you weave where and how many times to reverse the direction.

The most challenging aspect of this project may be thread handling. It can be woven with double 8/2 cotton or quadrupled 16/2 cotton. I worked with the 16/2 quadrupled but have done many projects with 8/2 doubled. The 16/2 cotton produces a thinner more supple cloth, both have 10 ends per inch, in one case one end is two 8/2 threads and in the other it is four 2/16 threads.

PROJECT AT A GLACE

Weave structure: balanced plain weave with a supplementary weft band

Equipment

Loom: rigid heddle

Weaving width:16”

Rigid heddle: 10 dents per inch

Shuttles:one for the ground weft, boat or stick, and for the supplementary weft several smaller stick shuttles

Pick-up sticks: two at least 18” long and wide enough to form a shed for your shuttle, 1.5-2” is usually wide enough

Measuring: a cloth or paper tape about 36” long that you can write on

Hemming: hand sewing supplies,sewing machine and 1/4” seam tape OR a serger

Yarns

From Maurice Brassard Fils Inc. They have the same colors available in both sizes.

8/2 cotton comes on ½ lb. tubes of 1680 yd., 16/2 cotton comes on ½ lb. tubes of 3360 yd.

  • Orange, Orange foncé #1315

  • Grey, Gris foncé #271

  • Green, Vert nil #1934

For 8/2 cotton towel warp you will need

  • Grey, 830 yards

  • Orange, 110 yards

  • Green, 100 yards

Weft will use 850 yards of grey.

Total yardage of grey for warp and weft: 1680 or one ½ lb. tube.

OR

For 16/2 cotton towel warp you will need

  • Grey, 1650 yards

  • Orange, 210 yards

  • Green, 190 yards

Weft will use 1700 yards of grey.

Total yardage of grey for warp and weft: 3360 or one ½ lb. tube

Supplementary weft from your local yarn shop: DMC six strand embroidery floss, 8.7 yd. skeins.

The Brocading weft is thick, made of two strands of the embroidery floss.

Towel with orange brocade: 3 skeins bright orange #947

Towel with green brocade: 3 skeins bright green # 166

Towel with graded colored brocade: 1 skeins each of red #666, orange #971, gold #972 and yellow #725.

Warp

Warp length: 116” = 20”loom waste and 3 towels at 32” each

Warp width: 158 ends or 15.8” at the rigid heddle

NOTE THAT EACH END IS MULTIPLE STRANDS, either two 8/2 or four 16/2.

The warp has stripes; 8 ends of grey then 2 of a bright color, ending with 8 grey. The two narrow stripes alternate colors, orange then green. You will have 15 narrow colored stripes, 8 orange and 7 green, and 16 wide grey stripes.

Warp color sequence:

(8 ends grey, 2 orange, 8 grey, 2 green) repeat 7 times total then end 8 grey, 2 orange, 8 grey.

Wind your ground shuttle with multiple strands also, same number as your warp. Ground picks per inch on loom: 9.

Each woven towel on the loom was 14.25′ wide and 29” long, off loom 14.24” wide by 28” long before hemming. The hemmed and machine washed towel is 13.5” wide and 24” long.

WEAVING INSTRUCTIONS

You will be working with multiple strands as an end, two strands of 8/2 cotton equals one end or four strands of 16/2 cotton equals one end. I will describe the process for 8/2 cotton and put in changes for the 16/2. The most important thing about working with multiple strand is to pull them from the same kind of package, and by package I mean cone, tube, spool or bobbin. If you wind your weft shuttle from one cone and one bobbin they will be at different tensions and give you trouble as you weave, where if you pull from two cones or two bobbins the tension will be similar and you will not have as many problems. This may mean a little more yarn handling than usual, winding extra bobbins or spools, but it will reduce the aggravation of working with multi-stranded ends.

To direct warp your rigid heddle loom set it up as normal with the peg placed for a 116” warp length. Place the yarn packages at the back of the loom. You will only need one of 8/2 cotton package for this doubled warp because you can pull a loop, which is composed of two strands through each slot AND each hole. Note the difference here from normal direct warping when you pull loops only through the slots. You will walk twice as far but no further threading will be required. If you are working with 16/2 cotton you will need two identical packages, for all three colors, behind the loom and you will pull a double loop through every hole and slot. Do 8 ends grey, then 2 orange, 8 grey, 2 green, repeat this sequence 7 times total, ending 8 grey, 2 orange and 8 grey. You will have 15 narrow colored stripes, 8 orange and 7 green, and 16 wide grey stripes. Wind onto the warp beam, paying close attention to the selvage warps which tend to drift off the warp bundle. Tie on and spread your warp and you are ready to weave.

This is the stripe pattern you are creating, 8 ends grey, 2 bright color.

This is the stripe pattern you are creating, 8 ends grey, 2 bright color.

Measuring tape for towels with hems and pattern.

Measuring tape for towels with hems and pattern.Prepare a measuring tape for a towel by marking a starting line a few inches up from the end of the tape, then make a line 2” above for the end of the hem, then 3.5” from that line for the start of the brocade design. The distance from the end of one hem to the start of the next is 25” and then 2” more for the last hem. You can pin this to the web on the loom as you weave to know where to weave the hems and the brocade design. I use the same measuring tape for all three towels so that they are the same size with the design in the same place.

Prepare a measuring tape for a towel by marking a starting line a few inches up from the end of the tape, then make a line 2” above for the end of the hem, then 3.5” from that line for the start of the brocade design. The distance from the end of one hem to the start of the next is 25” and then 2” more for the last hem. You can pin this to the web on the loom as you weave to know where to weave the hems and the brocade design. I use the same measuring tape for all three towels so that they are the same size with the design in the same place.

Weave the hems, the first 2” and last 2”, with a thinner weft than you use in the body of the towel to reduce the bulk of the hem. The hem is two and some places 3 layers of cloth and I don’t like it when it looks padded. So for the 8/2 hem weft I use a single strand of the grey and for 16/2 a double strand. I weave for 2” with the thinner weft then change to the heavier weft for the body of the towel. As you weave the body of the towel before the design, count the picks per inch. You should be getting around 9 ppi for a balanced plain weave. You want your beat to be steady before you get to the brocade band where you will be adding more weft into the shed. Ideally you should beat to have 9 ground ppi in the brocade area also.

The standard operating procedure for this brocade:

  1. open shed

  2. throw ground weft and beat

  3. keep same shed open

  4. pick out design by removing (place them under the pick-up stick) ends from the threads that are up

  5. turn pick-up stick on its side to make a pattern shed

  6. throw the supplementary colored weft in the pattern shed

  7. beat the pattern weft on top of the ground weft

  8. change sheds and repeat from 2.

This is is for a continuous (the supplementary weft goes from selvage to selvage), inlay/ overlay brocade. The pick-up ( pick-down is a better description) is done on an open shed meaning that only half of all warps are eligible for pick-up each time.

Here is a graph of the brocade design: it is based on 10epi and 9ppi and your design should come out very close in size to the actual graph.

Graph for South of the Border Thunderbolts. Ends with black horizontal bars are removed from the raised shed by placing them under the pick-up stick. Ends in white are left raised.

Graph for South of the Border Thunderbolts. Ends with black horizontal bars are removed from the raised shed by placing them under the pick-up stick. Ends in white are left raised.

 

Because we are working on an open shed, each row of the graph shows only the ends in the shed that are raised, so only half the warp ends show in each row of the graph. You can think of the white rectangles as the ends that are raised and the black lines as the ends that are down. In each row we only manipulate the raised ends. Each row in the graph has the rectangular blocks offset because the ends in the two sheds are offset; an end in the slot shed sets beside, not exactly above, an end in the hole shed. So this brick graph paper has 5 ends per inch in each row and 9 rows per inch for the picks. ( You can down load this type of paper from the internet from a graph paper generator on the web.) When you are doing your pick-up on an open shed, and it is not possible to get straight vertical line because of the offset position of the threads in the two sheds, you get a wiggly line instead of a straight one. But you can get very nice diagonal lines by moving over one end each row.

Removing one end from the raised shed will result in a float over 3 ends; this may not be obvious at first glance but the two end beside the one that you push down are already down, as they are part of the down shed. Try it and you will understand better. So removing 2 adjacent ends produces a five end float and 3 ends removed, a 7 end float. Now a 7 end float in a 10 epi cloth is 0.7” long, as long as I think we want to go with the floats on these towel. So the longest float in this design is where 3 ends are removed from the raised shed.

Weave a one color brocade bands first. Prepare your brocade weft shuttle by winding it with double strand of embroidery floss, by double stand I mean two 6-stranded threads; you need this large amount of floss to cover the ground. If you have only one skein, find both ends and wind double from both ends with your hand in the center of the skein to prevent tangling. The first row of the brocade pattern will determine the placement of the entire pattern. This first row needs to be counted and checked, counted again and checked. The basic pattern overlay areas ( the part that says repeat 4 times total in the graph) is, from right to left , leave 8, remove 1 end, leave 1, remove 2 ends, leave 2, remove 3. This pattern is repeated 4 times in the center of the warp, the right side starts with a partial pattern and the left side finishes with a partial pattern .

To begin open a shed and throw the ground weft beat , keep the SAME shed open (this can be the hardest step) insert the pick-up stick into the shed from the right side, at this point all the raised ends are on top of the pick-up stick, now with the point of the stick leave the first 2 ends of the right selvage up, then put 3 ends under the stick, skip 8, put 1 ends under the stick then skip 1, pick 2 down, skip 2, pick 3 down– this completes the partial pattern on the right and the first full repeat. Do 3 more full repeats and the left partial following the graph. Be carful not to separate the strands in each end with the pick-up stick, this is a new hazard caused by working with multiple strands for each end. Now bring the pick-up stick down to the fell line and check the gaps you have created in the shed. The gaps will be the floats in the brocade weft.

Checking the pick up on the stick before throwing the shuttle.  Pattern show is pick one down, leave 8, repeat.

Checking the pick up on the stick before throwing the shuttle. Pattern shown is pick one down, leave 8, repeat.

Check again, see their position relative to the stripes is good. When you are convinced that the pick-up is correct then throw the colored weft, beat and change sheds. Throw the ground weft in the new shed, now pause and look carefully for any mistakes in the last pick-up. The best time to see errors in the pick-up is now after you have changed sheds and placed the next ground weft. When you are convinced that it is correct you can proceed to the next pick-up row. This row is the same pattern of floats as the first row, just moved one thread to the left and now should be much quicker to pick-up because you have visual landmarks. This 29 row pattern moves to the left through row 7 then moves to the right through row 25 then it moves to the left again. Watch carefully that you move only one end each time and that you get all the strands of each end.

The colored threads of the brocade may look sparse as you are weaving but off the loom the ground warp will shorten and bring them closer together and un-plied floss will spread out, this is what embroidery floss is designed to do, and cover the ground, when it is washed and pressed.

Overlay looks sparse on the loom but will be fine when finished.

Overlay looks sparse on the loom but will be fine when finished.

 

the same towel after washing and pressing.

the same towel after washing and pressing.

Catching the brocade weft at the selvages requires extra attention, if a row of brocade ends in a float there is nothing to automatically catch the brocading weft at the selvage but you can use the ground weft to lock it in place as shown in the photograph below.

Using the ground weft to catch the brocading weft at the selvage.

Using the ground weft to catch the brocading weft at the selvage.

 To secure the cut end of the brocading weft turn it back into the same shed after catching it on a selvage thread. After you finish the pattern,  weave the plain body of the towel following your prepared measuring tape, changing to the thinner weft for the hem. At the end of the hem weave two picks of scrap yarn to mark the end of one towel and the start of the next.

To do the Thunderbolts in the graded colorway, wind 4 shuttles with a doubled strand embroidery floss with each of the 4 colors; red #66, orange #971, gold #972 and yellow #725. The pattern has 29 rows or picks; do 4 in red, 4 in orange, 4 in gold, 5 in yellow, 4 gold, 4 orange and 4 red. Be sure to tuck in all the ends back in the same shed as you weave.

If you are have trouble with your pick-up and nothing seems to make sense or be in the right place, check to see if you are in the right shed, that is the same one that has the last tabby ground weft. The most common error is to change sheds after beating in the ground weft, it is a habit and it takes concentration to override this normally useful habit. So if you are doing the pick-up and you can’t figure out which is the end beside the one below, or if it just looks wonky, check your shed. When you get the right shed open the pick-up will go more smoothly.

You will make mistakes in your pick-up, and the real question is when will you catch them; the sooner you catch them the easier they are to fix. Ideally you will catch them when you check the pick-up on the stick. Look at the gaps, how do the look compared to the floats in the row below. If you see an error, it is easy to fix using the second pick-up stick. The idea here is to keep all the correct pick-up on the first stick by transferring it to the second stick up to the mistake then pick-up the correct ends with the second stick, and then transfer the rest of the correct pick-up to the second stick. The goal in not to make the whole pick-up again, just fix the mistake.

For example, if I have removed 4 ends from the raised shed instead of 3 at the end of the first full pattern repeat, I would keep the first pick-up stick in place, slide the second in the pattern shed up, from the right, up to the error, now slide the first stick out to the left just enough to let the mistaken ends fall off , use the tip of the second stick to pick-up the correct ends and then push the second stick into the rest of the pattern shed made by the first stick. Once the second stick has the correct ends for the pattern shed you can remove the first stick. Having two pick-up sticks saves you from having to make the whole pick-up over.

Once you change sheds and throw the next ground weft and beat, errors in the previous row can jump out at you. It is still fairly easy to correct at this stage. Take out the ground weft and open the shed that has the error. To take out the brocade weft you must re-establish the erroneous pattern shed. This is fairly easy if you use the brocade weft itself; grab both ends of the weft- the loop from one selvage and the long tail from the other side- in one hand underneath the warp and pull down, then use the other hand to insert a pick-up stick in this shed. Turn the stick on its side and take out that weft.

Mistakes found later are a pain. You have to decide if they are grave enough to warrant the energy and frustration to unweave that much. So go slow and check often; errors found on the pick-up stick are painless to correct, ones found before you do the next pick-up are fairly easy, so keep checking.

These towel are designed with hems. Once off the loom remove the waste yarn and cut the towels apart. Now the ends of the warp must be secured; you can serge the cut edges or you can machine sew the edges to 1/4” seam tape of an appropriate color. I quickly hand baste the edge to the tape then machine stitch it. Watch that you don’t stretch out the edges. Once the edges are secure , turn the edge up and baste in place; make sure the width of the edge is the same as the width of the body of the hem. Steam press to flatten. Then you can machine edge stitch this in place , the extra machine stitching re-secures the warp ends but it also shows on the back side of the towels so some prefer not to machine stitch, your choice. Then fold up the hem to the pick where you started with the heavier weft. You can pin baste this in place making sure that the green and orange stripes line up. Steam press. Then hand sew the hem in place with matching sewing thread, take big bites with the needle into the hem, go below the serged or taped edge, to avoid putting stress on the ends of the warps. Take little bites into the body of the towel so that it doesn’t show on the right side. Also do not pull the sewing thread too tight, it will form dimples on the right side. Check the right side after the first few stitches to see if it looks good, you can still adjust your tension. A nice hem comes straight down from the towel; it is not wider than or narrower than the towel itself and only slightly thicker because of the thinner weft in the hem area.

The hemmed towel can now be washed in the machine and dried as you would dry it in normal use. Steam press for a final finish.

Here is a similar design I found in a shop in Oaxaca, Mexico this year.

A similar brocade motif on a Oaxacan textile 1/15. Here each motif has its own pattern thread and there are spaces between motifs without patterning (discontinuous pattern weft).

A similar brocade motif on a Oaxacan textile 1/15. Here each motif has its own pattern thread and there are spaces between motifs without patterning (discontinuous pattern weft).  The little loops formed where each brocading weft turns are a new feature.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Technique: Shuttle Craft Guild Monograph Twenty-two 1967, BROCADE by Harriet Tidball

LATIN AMERICAN BROCADES; Explorations in Supplementary Weft Techniques with Special weaving Instructions for Rigid Heddle Frame Loom, Backstrap and Floor Loom by Suzanne Baizerman & Karen Searle,1976

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One Response to “South of the Border Thunderbolt Towels”

  1. Devin Says:

    Thank you so much for this post. It is very clear, and I am eager to try this technique!

    Like


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