Thursday, January 21, 2010

Rigid Heddle weaving with handspun linen

Linen is not the easiest yarn to weave with. It lacks elasticity, is sensitive to room humidity, and doesn't have any memory. It is also very absorbent and a plant fiber that we can grow in Canada (no way will cotton grow here, outside of some very tender care and a green house). So its worth learning some easy special techniques to deal with linen's idiosyncrasies.

First spinning linen isn't too difficult. Some tips to remember:
It has a longer staple length than most other fibers so you need to keep your hands farther apart when spinning -- that may mean 15 to 20 inches or more.

Linen should be wet spun for a smooth yarn. I have a small 2 inch pottery vase that hangs on my Ashford Joy wheel's threading hook, suspended by a crocheted linen bag. Its easy to slip my fingers into the top of the vase to moisten them while spinning.

Linen can be controlled without using a distaff by wrapping the bundle of combed fiber in a towel and taking only a few fibers at a time into the drafting triangle.

You will use a different draw than when spinning wool, feeding in only a few plant fibers at a time for a fine yarn. Keep the twist out of the fiber supply, dampen your fingers and smooth the twist into the fibers. The twist will grab more fibers from the fiber supply as you go and the yarn will stay even. If it seems too thick, take less fibers into the drafting triangle. Linen needs less twist than wool to hold it together but twist gives the thread body and strength.

Don't try to break your handspun linen yarn with your hands. Cut it with scissors. You will be surprised at how very strong it is.

Traditionally linen singles were spun counter clockwise to take advantage of the way the plant grows naturally. But if you've started spinning clockwise it won't matter. Different affects can be achieved by combining z and s spun yarns in the finished cloth.

Linen traditionally was woven as a singles in both warp and weft. You can ply it though, if you feel more secure using a plied yarn. Yarn intended for knitting should be plied.

After spinning it is important to thoroughly wash the thread to get rid of any left over pectins and then dry it thoroughly before warping your loom. I abused my handspun linen yarn by wacking the yarn against a table many times while it was drying. This softens it up considerably and make it easier to work with.

I don't have much experience weaving with linen so I am learning as I go. I am weaving my linen into washcloths on the Ashford knitters loom. I warped the loom with 2ply handspun linen (17 wpi) for 6 feet of warp, 8 inches wide, using the 7.5 heddle. You can use a finer heddle if you want a thicker washcloth or if your yarn is finer.

The linen was a bit finicky to work with.

The tension was difficult to maintain when the shed was open. The bottom threads would get very loose while the top threads were tight. A spritz over the warp, with a spray of warm water had a miraculous effect in keeping the tension just right.

To add interest and a bit more bulk to the washcloth I picked up loops with a knitting needle every 6th pick, making a loopy texture on the surface of the cloth. The loops tend to drop through to the other side, too, putting the texture on both sides.

The rigid heddle is a bit abrasive on the warp threads, so if you want to try this with a singles yarn you may want to treat the warp with flax jelly before you weave. Threads that begin to abraid can be reinforced with flax jelly, as well.

Flax jelly: 2 tbsp whole flax seed and 1 cup of boiling water, boil together until mixture is thick. Strain and allow to cool before brushing on your warp. Allow to dry before weaving.

The last step is washing the cloth to wet finish it and then pressing with an iron on the smooth side. Mine is still on the loom so I'll let you know how it worked when its finished.

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