In the August Studio Hours, we were treated to a beautiful conversation between two experts in their respective fields, as Michelle Boyd (Master Spinner and frequent D&T contributor) interviewed Laura Fry (author and Master Weaver) on the occasion of the publication of her newest book, Stories from the Matrix.
Both Michelle and Laura are educators; they have both worked hard to master their crafts and want to pass along their knowledge. Laura has now published three books alongside her extensive blog posts.
When Michelle asked Laura how she got into writing, Laura replied that she’s been writing since childhood, citing her experience with a childhood pen friend. She also was an active participant in the Freenet and Usenet fora of the 1990s, especially in rec.crafts.textiles where she realized she “had an audience.” Through writing, she could educate people if they were looking for help. Her first longer-form piece was her monograph for her Master Weaver certification with the Guild of Canadian Weavers, where she examined the role of wet finishing in determining the final quality of cloth.
Laura gained experience with fabric and cloth through learning to sew as a child and later working in a custom drapery shop. Once she started weaving, she recognized that what she saw coming off the loom was not yet cloth; it needed wet finishing to become a cohesive fabric. Before wet finishing, the threads are not integrated, and if you start to cut that cloth, you’ll find it wants to fall apart. In fact, industry does not refer to the fabric that comes off a loom as cloth yet—it’s referred to as “griege” or “grey cloth” before wet finishing.
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Wet finishing involves water, at a minimum. It also usually includes scouring the fabric to remove any spin oils, lanolin, waxes or resins, and extra dye molecules, all of which will impede fulling. Laura encourages the use of colour catcher sheets (such as the Dr. Beckmann brand) which, when added to wash water, attract loose dye molecules. She uses as many sheets as needed, adding more if she sees them getting saturated. Some dyes are difficult to rinse out! Wet finishing can also include compression, especially if the fabric is to be used for sewing. Good compression makes it easier to sew armholes and lapels where many layers of fabric meet and can also help reduce iron-tracks when pressing garments made with handwoven fabric.
Michelle pointed out that this discussion of wet finishing demonstrated Laura’s years of accumulated knowledge. Learning all the time, Michelle is now revisiting cross-stitch, which she first did as a child. Her experience now is richer as she now sees how the twist in the yarn and the weave structure of the Aida cloth affects the final product. As a teenager, she made her own graduation dress, working to preserve drape, but now she has so much more knowledge of twist and fibre types. Michelle then showed us one of Laura’s recent tea towels, a cotton fabric with exquisite drape, thinness, and detail in the weave structure—and the threads are cohesive, hugging closely together. Laura’s years of experience have enabled her to weave a cohesive cloth that is not stiff and not thick.
Laura chose weaving as a career in 1975, before even using a floor loom, because she could see she would have a lifetime of learning. She says she was “sucked into weaving through the orifice of a spinning wheel.” Her early spinning classes gave her basic knowledge of how fibres are turned into yarn and taught her to recognize good yarn, bad yarn, and bad choices about yarn usage. Her original plan was to weave for twenty-five years, teach for twenty-five years, and then retire. However, she started teaching within a year of starting to weave—that can happen when you know more than the others in the room! Michelle interjected that she started that way too, as she enjoyed working with spindles when her Master Spinner instructor did not.
Laura prides herself on making useful cloth and reminds us that useful can be beautiful. Her cloth is not precious—her husband quips that he has the most beautiful rags, as Laura’s handwoven seconds go into the rag box in the laundry room. She makes fabric that has a job, and she wants it to do the job well. Scarves should feel nice on the neck. Dish towels must be absorbent and thin enough to fit into a water glass. Laura spoke of making beautiful, mundane things and pointed out that she wasn’t being demeaning with her choice of the word mundane. Our ancient ancestors understood the value of beauty in the everyday, as can be seen in intricately carved and decorated, yet well-used tools found as grave goods.
This led to a beautiful meditation on the mundane and prompted one audience member to remind us to use the good silver, don’t leave it in the drawer for “some special time.” Michelle shared a grey and silver tea towel woven by Laura that Michelle uses all the time. She commented that using beautiful things elevates the mundane tasks, making them magic. Kate also brought up the idea that it is these simple tasks of feeding ourselves and others that are some of the most important activities in our lives. Using beautiful things honours these tasks.
Laura also shared another way the humble tea towel can be special. She has accumulated handwoven tea towels from many people over the years and every time she uses one, she remembers the person who gave it to her. She and her husband use tea towels in both the kitchen and as hand towels in their bathrooms, which gives her a double dose each day of connectedness with other weavers.
They spoke of the benefits of their crafts of weaving and spinning, even if the practitioner views it as “just a hobby.” The repetitive actions are soothing and relaxing. Some spinners never use the yarn they create, just as Michelle has a basket of cloth pieces from her weaving hobby. Laura finds the action of weaving is physically valuable, with the endorphins generated from an hour of vigorous weaving helping to alleviate some of the pain from her current ailments. Weaving is also a working meditation, giving an escape from the anxieties around current events.
We had time for one question. A member asked about wet finishing alpaca and both Michelle and Laura weighed in. Alpaca fibres do have similar scales to wool, but they protrude less, which results in alpaca fibres being much more reluctant to full. When wet finishing yarn, wool yarns tend to expand as the natural crimp is reactivated, while alpaca yarns do not. Alpaca is slipperier than wool, so if using alpaca for the warp, it is important to use higher twist, worsted-spun yarns to avoid elongation of warp threads due to abrasion in the reed. Laura encourages weavers to sample their yarns to ensure they’re appropriate for the project. She shared the alpaca sample from her book, Magic in the Water, and highlighted both the reluctance of alpaca to full and the fact that different weave structures will full differently too! Her years of accumulated knowledge, including from mistakes made along the way, give power to her words.
Laura’s books are available at Blurb.ca, she shares her knowledge on her webpage and blog, and she teaches online with the School of Sweet Georgia. In addition, she encouraged us all to reach out to her directly with any specific questions about wet finishing.
Photo courtesy Laura Fry.