Feathered Thread

22 October 2016

fullsizeoutput_5d5There are many ways to weave with feathers and but study of this 300 year old textile fragment, tlámachtentli de Madeline,  at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca(MTO) revealed that it was woven with a thread spun with down feathers.  Sorry about the quality of the picture, it is from a slide.  The white feathered yarn jumps out at you but there is also red, yellow and blue feathered areas.

Research at the MTO suggests that this is bottom of a panel from a huipil backstrap woven on a striped warp  They found only 6 pieces, all old, all made in Mexico that were woven with this this feathered thread and no one now was doing it. About 10 years ago MTO initiated a project to recover  how to make and weave with this kind of yarn.  The results are now in a current exhibition at the MTO,  Hilar el Viento: Los Tejidos  Mexicanos de Pluma ( To Spin the Wind: Mexican Feathered Cloths).

Current artists have developed 3 kinds of feathered yarn.  All use down feathers from geese or ducks because down feathers are the only feathers pliable enough to twist into a yarn.  Groupo Khadi cards the down into the cotton and then spins it on a driven spindle wheel.


carding down with cotton


spinning the down cotton yarn










Another artist , Román Gutiérrez,  adds the feathers when plying.  He starts with two strands of cotton thread, singles, and as he plies them he catches the down between the two strands.  Lots of twists is added to secure the down.  This yarn is fluffier than the carded yarn.  All done on a medium sized great wheel with two chairs working as a lazy kate.

I did a pre-conference workshop, on dyeing and spinning with down feathers, with Román in Teotilan del Valle and here is my piece of purple feather yarn,


that I did on my drop spindle because I had it with me and access to one wheel was limited.

Others ply this feathered yarn together to get a thicker fluffy yarn, 4-ply cabled yarn, that I saw couched down on the surface of textiles.

Here are a couple of piece from the MTO exhibit just to give you and idea of the impact of feathered yarn.

img_2166 img_2167 img_2169


started in the mid-90’s, finished today

This is my first ever backstrap weaving.  I took a backstrap weaving workshop with Ed Franquemont in the middle 90’s and this is the first warp.  It is Andean Style weaving, complimentary warp.  He gave us the prepared warps with heddles and shed loop made and the first bit woven in the design.


first bit


I now know that first bit  contains all the info required to weave the design, but I sure didn’t get that at the time.  Besides I had all I could do to get the sheds open and not drop all the little swords.  I did manage to weave about half of the warp but I did not focus on this design.



novice's work

novice’s work

I just couldn’t figure out how it worked, it wasn’t like any other design system I knew in weaving.  We did another warp in the workshop with a different design, not the X&O of this one.






The warps got put away because my business was growing,  so no time to indulge in weaving until I retired.  Currently I have been working with  some Antioch College students, last fall we were spinning together.  They came over to see what I brought back from Oaxaca last month and expressed an interest in backstrap weaving.






They started with narrow warps, made with crochet cotton.  The first warps were colored combs: learning to warp, make string heddles, and weave on the backstrap loom.  They are working on their second warp,  weaving a Latin American Paired Float pick up design.


When they were here the last time one on them asked me how close to the end could you weave. I thought I knew the answer but as I was looking at old samples I found this half woven warp and thought it would work to test how close to the end one can weave.  So out came this old warp; with heddles and shed loop intact, ready to weave.  I tied it up and started with the pattern.


current weaving

current weaving





The design was effortless, the width steady and much narrower. Hard to believe same warp, same weaver… looks so different.


So what had happened in the years since I started this warp?


In 2011 I took another workshop in backstrap weaving, this time with Abby Franquemont and have been doing some backstrap weaving since then interspersed with spinning and other fiber arts.    I have made several bands with this design.


crochet cotton with beads, hand spun, hand dyed wool and linen

crochet cotton with beads, hand spun, hand dyed wool and linen

One thing I did learn from is that the perle cotton yarn used for the first warp is too soft and it fuzzes.  The fuzz makes lumps on the heddles that makes opening the shed more difficult.  It also eats away at the warps and you can see that a yellow warp broke close to the end, and then a red one broke.  Time to finish.



Learning backstrap weaving at an advanced age has not been easy.    Starting with Andean style weaving was daunting; much practice on narrow bands just to learn the vocabulary, difficulty finding suitable high twist yarns  lead me off in to the world of spinning.  The second workshop I took was shortly after major back surgery. Weaving in isolation; no one else in this village of 4000 is interested in backstrap weaving.  I had managed to work up to about 4″ wide warp-faced weaving when I went to Oaxaca.

In Oaxaca I learned to weave balanced weave on the backstrap loom.  Even at 8-10″ wide it was so so easy after doing the warp-faced  weaving.  Of course there were some new challenges.  But I have been doing a fair amount to backstrap weaving recently.


So the difference between the beginning and end of this warp is experience.  When I started I had never seen in person any Andean weaving— if you have never seen it how do you know what it is supposed to look or feel like. I have now seen some, and made some. Yet it is hard to explain what it is that experience changes.

Why is it so easy to focus and do all the weaving in the design now?

Oh, and you can weave up to about an inch from the end with out too much trouble.   It takes a little more effort to weave to the very end.

new and the old

new and the old




I’m at an age when I can walk less than I could 20 years ago, I have fewer teeth, I hear less, having something I can do better  than  I did  20 or even 5 years ago is uplifting.


Under construction

5 August 2014

I am starting the quechquemitl from the hand spun merino that I wove on a rigid heddle loom.  The cloth has been washed and is ready.

pulling a thread to mark the cut

pulling a thread to mark the cut

After deciding how long to cut each panel, I pulled a thread out so that I would have a mark to follow at the serger.  Even such a bold line is hard to see when the cloth is bunched up at the serger.

surging and cutting on the line

serging and cutting on the line

It takes two passes through the serger to overcast both sides of the cut.  I am using wooly nylon thread in the loopers to keep the edge soft.

I am making butted seams here.  After steaming the serged edge to make sure that it is not stretched out I pin baste the cloths together with a piece of paper behind.  I use 2″ wide printer tape from a printing calculator because I can get any length I want.  I do this on a flat surface to make sure both pieces of cloth are flat, I don’t want any buckling or puckering.

butted seam pin basted

butted seam pin basted

I am sewing the seam together by hand  with  a stitch called Ancient  or Baseball stitch. This pulls the butted seam together nicely.  I am using cotton sewing thread.

hand sewing the seam

hand sewing the seam

After sewing the seam is smooth, you can’t really feel it but the serged edge is still visible and will need to be covered.  Then steam or press the seam.


3 August 2014

Making some progress here, step by step.  This is the cloth off the loom and mended.  It is starting to relax a bit, you can see some bits of tracking which I like in this piece.

off the loom, mended

off the loom, mended

I started with 14′ of warp and 20″ at the reed.  I beat it as hard as I could with a sword and bubbled the weft.   Off the loom, the cloth part measured 139″ x17.75″. Next step is to wet finish it.  The hand spun single yarn was lightly steamed to calm the twist but I did not want the yarn to bloom before weaving.

My philosophy is finish gently first, you can always do more.  So for this I used room tempture water with a touch of ORVUS paste.  Soaked for several hours, it took a while for it to really get wet.  Then spun out and put in rinse water with vinegar and fabric softener and let soak overnight.  Spun out and dried  draped over a drying rack.

washed, ready for construction

washed, ready for construction

As you can see it closed up mostly in the warp direction.  In fact the width is now 17.25″ but the length  is is 128″.  It looks more solid but still very textural.  No pressing here.

awaiting construction

awaiting construction

Just a note here about shrinkage.  The width started out at 20″ and ended up at 17.25″, which is 26% shrinkage.  Most of this happened on the loom, very little in the washing.  The weaveable length of the warp was 154″ and it ended up 128″ for about a 17% overall shrinkage.  Lengthwise was different,about half of the loss was in take up, off the loom before washing was 139″ and half shrinkage, down to 128″.  I think I need two panels 31″ long to make a quechquemitl so I may have enough to make 2 quechquemitls!

Made it to the end!

30 July 2014

end of warp   As you can see , I made it to the end of the warp. No complications due to a full cloth beam, no slats or too many slats. As you can see here , only about 6″ of the warp is unwoven. This was not an obvious out come as the cloth beam looked very full, see previous post.  When I saw the cloth beam so full I stopped adding in the slats  that came off the warp beam. Winding on the cloth beam with out slats was worrisome to me. As you know, the tension on this loom, and many others, goes from where the warp is attached to the warp beam in the back to the cloth beam where it is tied on. Any irregularities in either beam can cause tension problems.  This is true from the beginning to the end of a warp, not just when you start.  The longer the warp the more chances there are for something to happen to the cloth  on the beam when winding on.  You probably know this instinctively.  When I get one loose section in a warp I can tighten it by padding either the back beam or the cloth beam. I usually do the cloth beam because it is in the front and more accessible and secondly , the padding won’t fall out with the next warp advance.  Padding in the cloth beam just becomes part of the beam and continues to do its function until the end. I use slats in both beams to prevent irregularities that cause tension problems.  Irregularities can be caused by knots, ropes, bars, warp threads cutting down to the lower layers or falling off the edge. BUMPS IN CLOTH

Here you can see a small irregularity caused by mending a broken warp.


Falling off the edge is by far the most problematic and common cause of tension problems.  Warp beams can be, and are often, wound without slats if the edges are supported.  I have flanges on my AVL that do this.  If you are using slats in your beams you want the slats to be stiff enough to stick straight out over the edge of the bundle  and keep the selvage warps the same length as the warps in the center of the beam.  Some people fold over the edges of the paper they roll into warp beams just to increase the stiffness of the edges.  The same falling off the edges can happen when you wind on the woven cloth onto the front beam. If the edges don’t line up precisely as you wind on the selvedges can become wonky.   So I put the slats into the cloth beam as they fall out of the warp beam.  They stick out of the cloth bundle and support the edges even if the edges don’t line up exactly.  In this project I stopped adding in the slats when I thought that the cloth beam might not hold all of the cloth that could be made with this warp. edge of cloth roll

In the photo you can see that the cloth edges do NOT line up precisely.




And after I stopped adding in the slats this can cause tension problems at the selvage.  Luckily this did not happen on this warp, the yarn is quite elastic and compensated for the uneven winding on.           This falling off the edge is more obvious here: These problems become more evident the longer the warp and with warps that have very little elasticity. I do not unwind the cloth beam during weaving because I don’t want to disturb the even tension that I have for weaving.  I have had gaps develop in my web following and unwinding episode.  There are fairly elaborate schemes to keep your tension as you have established it and cut off a portion of the woven cloth. It is true that if you have only woven one scarf at a time on a rigid heddle loom you may not have seen these problems.  But 40 yards of linen warp will test your mettle.   Back to the project at hand, one reason I chose to use a Rigid Heddle loom for this project was to minimize the waste.  Yet 200 ends of hand-spun yarn X 6″ waste on each gives 1200″ or 33 yards of waste! I hemstitched,  to stabilize the weft, before I cut it off the loom. hemstitched I am quite pleased with the look of the cloth while it is still on the loom.  It took a lot of extra effort to weave with the thick and thin singles  and I did get the look I was looking for. web It will close up some just taking it off the loom.  I will finish it gently to keep this look and just meld the threads together.  The yarn was lightly steamed to calm the twist before weaving.  Even so the twist was still active and the weft took extra attention.  The selvages look good now.  I expect they will look worse after washing because of the unevenness of the twist in the yarn.

As I weave on this hand-spun warp the cloth beam is looking full.  I stopped inserting the slats a while ago because the woven cloth might get too big for the space available.  Is does look worrisome, right?

full cloth beamThis warp is 14 feet long, I have done much longer warps on this loom.  But the hand-spun singles  must be making a thick cloth even under tension.  A closer look show a bit of space between the front beam of the loom and the cloth roll.

full cloth beam.detail

I have never had a cloth beam this full.  When will it be a problem? what will be the signs that I can’t go any father?

The real question is will all my warp weave off.  I’m too close to the end to cut off and retie on.

empty warp beam

It looks like I might make it, not much left on the warp beam. We’ll know soon.  I didn’t think I was pushing the limits when I started this warp.


Celebrate the  harvesting the silk cocoons and view a silk reeling demonstration.

cocoons, many colors


Entwinements Studio, 111 Allen

Blend 1 woven

9 July 2014

blend 1 wovenHere is blend 1 woven on a pin loom.  Since the plied yarn had already been finished in hot water with detergent I just soaked the woven piece in room temperature water with a bit of Orvus.  The 8% of hot pink is just as visible, if not more so, as the 28% of olive.


Blend 1

8 July 2014



Blend 1 made from Lanaset dyed alpaca, huacaya, in the FLEECE TO YARN workshop we had here the 1st weekend in July.

  • 64% Cyan
  • 28% Olive green
  • 8% Hot pink.

Carded once into a batt in layers.  Split length-wise into narrow strips, Z-form, then pulled into a roving.  Spun medium size on a wheel then self plied, washed in hot water with detergent.

Soft lofty yarn.  The overall color is still cyan with grains and streaks of green and mostly grains of the hot pink. I’m pleased with how each color kept its identity and added pops of brightness to yarn.

It could maybe use some darker colors but with out a goal it is already a pretty yarn.

Blend 1 wrapped

I love the look of cloth made from hand spun singles.


It is a very special look even  plain weave cloth has a bit of texture, a bit like dupioni silk.  But even more like khadi, the hand spun, hand woven cloth that was part of India’s liberation movement.  Single looking yarn that you buy from mills does not behave the same, probably because it is not really a single.  It is part of what drove me back into spinning.

Anyhow I am working on a piece that is hand spun merino singles and I am pleased with how it looks  so far.  But weaving it requires more mindfulness than most tabby weaving.

I started with a pin loom sample earlier this year:

merino sample


My estimate from this sample is that it is 10 epi by 10 ppi.   I got 2 pounds of pin drafted merino and spun it up in a medium twist, thick and thin singles.  After I skeined it up off the bobbins, I decided I did not want to wash it just yet.  Washing it in the skein would bloom and soften the yarn making it harder to weave.  I would prefer to have the water bloom the yarn and meld the warp and weft together after I have woven it.  But I would like to tame the twist a bit.  So I steamed the skeins.  As the steam penetrated the strand you could see the twist calm in front of your eyes.  It was hard to get the steam to all the stands in the skein equally and I wished I had steamed them while they were spread out on the niddy-noddy. Next time.

2# hand spun merino

2 pounds of hand spun merino singles.

Ready to warp! I chose to use a Rigid Heddle Loom and direct warping because it is easy for me to keep the warp under continuous tension.  The moment these singles are slack they kink up and tangle.  So with an estimate of the total yardage I calculate the length and width of the warp; 20 ” wide, 14 feet long—933 yards for the warp.

I made the mistake of taking the loom and yarn to a public space to warp and with many participants  and distractions the warp was a mess.  So I unwarped it when I got home; a rather tedious process because the singles need to be under tension to keep it from forming one big tangled wad.  That done I at least knew that the yarn was strong enough to be warped and unwarped.  I briefly debated using the virgin yarn to warp the loom but no, I didn’t think that there was quite enough since I always calculate the weft to be less than the warp.

Alone in my studio, with all my tools at hand, the warping went flawlessly.

warping hand spun


Here in this picture  the warp has been removed from the warping peg and attached to my inanimate helper, a cement block in a canvas bag.  This helper never tires and never lets go .  The winding on of the warp also went very smoothly and the warp beam looks good; tight and cylindric.

well wound warp







The weaving started well.   The warp is strong and there haven’t been breaks that cause problems, warping, unwarping or weaving.

begin weaving hs merino











Spinner worry about singles being strong enough for warp, not usually a problem.  The problem with this yarn are the thicker, lower twist areas tend to fuzz up.  This can cause two problems :

  1. the fuzz keeps the shed from opening cleanly
  2. the fuzz builds up in a wad behind/in front of the holes in the heddle and impedes the movement of the heddle.

I have decided to weave with a sword shuttle and use it to beat with instead of beating with the rigid heddle.  It is my impression that the holes, not the slots, of the RH wear on the softly spun area of the warp and bring up the fuzz.

sword shuttle











The sword  works like a stick shuttle but one edge is tapered to a knife edge for beating.  The weft then lies only on the other edge.

Since I have been using the sword to beat  no wads of fuzz have formed around the holes solving that problem.  Getting the sheds to open cleanly requires attention to many small details: tension even and fairly high, keep the fell line as far from the heddle as possible and be very mindful when inserting the sword  that each warp is in its proper position.

The process then is open the shed, carefully insert the sword, making sure no warps are out of place ( caught in fuzz) and beat the last pick in place .  Then remove the shuttle leaving behind a pick loosely in the shed.  Change sheds, and repeat.

The weaving is now going smoothly and I’ve used up a quarter of the weft. Using the sword is no slower than using a stick shuttle.