Check out our finished piece of handwoven denim. Beautiful blue, naturally dyed indigo yarns, and a luxurious drape that doesn't come from machine-woven denim. While this piece isn't going to necessarily feel like jeans, it sure is gorgeous.
After months of running the shuttle back and forth, we've finally finished our five yards of handwoven denim. Take a look at the results as we take the piece off the loom.
The reed we are using on our table loom is 22 inches across, and with 10/2 yarn we will need about 24 yarn per inch, 528 yarns in total for the warp, with a length of 4.5 yards. Now that the yarn was nicely wound into balls, we could start measuring out the 528 yarns for the warp. Typically, hand weavers will use a warping frame to do this, which is a rigid rectangular wooden structure with pegs to wind the yarns around, creating the heddle cross to keep each yarn separate. However, this tool is particularly tedious to use for such a large quantity of yarn, and even when mounted on the wall, requires a great deal of shoulder and back endurance.
Fortunately, our weaving expert Lisa had a warping mill, which performs the same function as the warping frame except that it is a cylindrical shaped structure that rotates around a horizontal axis, thereby allowing the weaver to stand in one place and use the rotation of the frame to do the winding.
We wound the guide yard around the pegs, measuring out 4.5 yards and before winding the yarn back in the opposite direction. Then we tied on the end of the indigo-dyed yarn that had been neatly wound into a ball into the upper peg, and holding the yarn in my right hand to keep the tension, began turning the barrel of the mill.
Lisa advised us to wind all the warp at once, or at least, not leave any yarn on the mill to be continued the next day. It is important to keep the tension on the yarn consistent as you wind, to prevent length discrepancies. And to leave it on the mill for even a day makes it susceptible to loosening or even changes in your own mood, which might alter the tension.
I stood there for 3 hours turning the mill and winding the warp, with the yarn cutting through my right finger as it slid across. At every 22 yarns, I would tie two counting strings on either side of the cross to keep track of how many yarns I had tied. After the three hours, I had a beautifully long skein of indigo yarns, each strand individually combed. Lisa tied some secure ties at every few inches of the warp to prevent it from coming apart or moving, and then slipped the whole loop off of the mill. She put one end over her wrist and pulled the rest of the loop through, forming a loose chain to keep the yarns manageable, and we put it to the side to be put on the loom the next day.
After suffering through days and nights of wrestling with tangled messes of blue yarn on my lap, breaking fingernails picking apart tight knots, turning my hands indigo and listening to the many well-intentioned but condemning suggestions to "maybe give up and start over", "wouldn't it be faster?", and finally the eye-rolling and "good luuuck" said in that singsong tone of incredulity...a month and a half later after the yarn was revealed to be a hot tangled mess, we finally, finally managed to untangle it.
There were, as with all miserable experiences, some lessons to be learned from this ordeal. The number one being patience. Had I been more patient and double-checked my work when tying the hanks to begin with, they might have remained in the neat, organized loops the hanks were designed for. Had I just been patient and waited to put the yarn on a swift, instead of trying to comb through it with my hands on a table and getting inner loops tangled onto outer loops, we might have been able to prevent the knots that formed. And finally, in untangling the yarn once it's on a swift, one cannot rush it by by tugging on the yarn, which inevitably causes overlapping yarns to tighten on themselves. Nor should one attempt to follow the yarn through loops that are seemingly in the way, as that unintentionally threads a new knot where there wasn't one before.
Because there was no actual knotting occurring in this yarn, at least at the outset. No actual yarn ends crossed over and under each other. Rather, certain looser yarns had fallen over other yarn loops and then been tightened until the yarn at the very bottom couldn't move, though they were all still running parallel. Instead of tugging or dodging a loop whenever the yarn hit a blockage, all one had to do was lightly shake the yarn at the center and lightly loosen the other yarns lying on top to release their hold. Once loosened, the yarn would continue to move along the swift, unwinding as it went along, without causing any disruption in the orientation of the other yarns.
For us, because one of our skeins had gotten hopelessly knotted upon itself, we ultimately had to carefully cut one yarn at a time and wind the loose ends until they hit another roadblock, carefully accounting for all loose ends until finally, one yarn was identified that could go around the rest of the unaffected skein without getting caught up in the knot. Finding this yarn took about a week. Once identified, the winding went more or less smoothly, being careful not to get all the other dangling yarn bundles tangled even more on each other.
With the yarn dyed and fully dry, everything was ready for us to start putting it on a loom. In order to prepare the warp, we needed to first wind the yarn onto a warping frame (also known as a warping board), to measure out consistent lengths in yarn to be tied later onto the loom. As we took our dyed skeins of yarn out to be wound, it became apparent that this was not going to be easy.
I had mistakenly tied the figure eight loops meant to hold the separate skeins together at the wrong places, which means there were yarns from one skein crossing over into another, and when they had been dipped into a dye bath, they had become a whole tangled mess. We tried to salvage it by putting it on a swift. But first we needed to find the ends of the yarn to prevent further entanglement. I had further neglected to tie a different yarn at the ends so that they would be recognizable from a mile away, so needless to say we were looking for a tiny double knot that was dyed, like everything else, blue. Miraculously, after a thirty minute needle-in-haystack search, we managed to find the ends and snipped them open to begin unwinding.
But it was of no use. The yarn had become so tangled upon itself that every pull of the end caused some other part of the hank to tighten, and the only option we were left with was to painstakingly untangle each yarn until we reached what we guessed to be four yards, and then to cut it off and tie it to the warping board. After two hours, I had tied on five warp yarns.
Tomorrow I will try and see if the other hanks are any less tangled than this. If not, we may have no choice but to start over from the beginning.