July Speaker’s Report– Bedouin Weaving and Braiding

Our speaker for July was the acknowledged expert on this topic; Rhona Crichton.  Thanks to Mary Carbert for this report.

After graduating with a 1st Class Honours degree in Industrial Design Technology from the Scottish College of Textiles Rhona began her career by working on designs for Harris Tweed.  Her next move was to become self employed as a designer and weaver making items to sell with her main market  being Japan.

When her husband was made redundant and got a new job in Kuwait she was hugely disappointed. She had a new baby and found the 50° C heat, the isolation from her home in Scotland, and her lack of purpose as no longer self employed really depressing.  After a while she overcame this by asking the Museum of Textiles and the University run by the government in the city if she could do any research.  They set her on to study the Bedouin Weaving of the country which she thoroughly enjoyed for 10 years. She also wrote a book  Al Sadu The Techniques of Bedouin Weaving.

After her return to the UK she went to Leeds University before becoming a teacher at a large senior school in Barnsley for over 20 years. Now retired from full time teaching she gives talks and weaves.

shill share picTo illustrate the talk Jo was dressed in a full Kuwait dress with head and face covered. It was very hot to wear and meant the female face is never seen in public. The only men allowed to see a woman’s face are close family members in the home.

Rhona had brought many examples of weaving which were circulated as she spoke about the customs and culture of Kuwait from the 1960s to 2000. The fibre used was goat and camel with wool, both local and from Australia.

It was not sorted or washed but spun straight from the fleece on a long shafted top whorl spindle.  The yarn was then washed, and if required dyed, before weaving.  Colours and designs were very traditional, handed down within the family. Almost everything was the natural black and white of fleece with a strong element of red for which commercial dyes were imported and highlights of natural camel to show wealth. The woven geometric and figurative patterns and symbols reflect the traditional tribal lifestyle and the weavers’ creative expression. Patterns were not written down but handed down the generations.

The items made were all for practical purposes. The nomadic Bedouin would weave their tents in strips from handspun goat hair, which swells in rain to become water-shedding and opens when dry to allow air to circulate,  with intricately designed and woven ‘room dividers‘ used to divide the tent into different areas, also large oblong camel bags for transporting things on camel backs which doubled as cushions for sitting on the floor. The most decorative piece we saw was a camel decoration covered in cowrie shells. This would have indicated wealth. Now 99% of the population live in houses and weaving is done in the back yard.

Rhona had brought a traditionally made cushion cover and also one bought in a bazaar- which had been sold as ‘traditional’ but it looked and felt a pale imitation. Today the cost of handmade items is very high and because many people will not pay the price there is a large market for cheaply machine made fake items.

shill share picLooms are very simple and consist of corner posts hammered into the ground, a wooden bar to hold the heddle strings, a wooden beater and a piece of horn is also used for beating. The warping is done on the loom, working in a figure of eight with alternate ends going over and under the lease rod with no front and back rollers it is as long as required for the piece being woven. The maximum width of the piece is dictated by the length of the weaver’s forearm as you have to be able to reach through the shed to bring the weft ‘butterfly’ through. As the weaving progresses so the weaver, sitting on the woven cloth, moves forward up the loom, creating the tension, pushing the heddle bar and lease rod in front of her rather than the work progressing towards the weaver as in more conventional systems.

If the pattern to be woven requires more than one colour to appear in any one end, then that end is warped with up to 3 colours of yarn (the colours not required on the face float on the back unsecured). All the warp threads that pass under the lease rod are threaded through eyes on the heddle, all that pass over the heddle pass straight through. Remember the weft only acts as a binder and does not form any part of the design.

Rhona had brought a loom with a wooden base (made by her husband) which enabled her to demonstrate without the need to hammer posts in the floor.

We were invited to have a go and creating the shed proved quite hard work as on the first pick all the yarns passing over the lease rod are lifted in sections to allow the weaver to work her other arm through the forming shed, hence the limit on width, the beater stick is then inserted to allow weft insertion and is used to beat up the inserted pick. The stick is then removed to allow shed creation for the second pick, this is achieved by pushed down in sections of the warp with the heel of one hand, this allows the warp yarns running through the heddle to be held up forming the shed to push the other arm through. Repeat for a couple of months to complete the piece. The yarn used was strong, thick and hairy which made the end product long lasting. The completed pieces are finished by washing on the ground with hot soapy water and bleach (!) before rinsing and hanging to dry.

shill share picWe were also invited to have a go at making ‘elephants tail’ braids for which Rhona had brought four ready prepared lengths of yarn knotted in a loop for everyone. The loop was to put over a big toe which allowed us to create a tension for the braiding. Some were more successful than others!

Rhona told us that after the Gulf war she had been invited to return to Kuwait to re-assess the state of Bedouin weaving. Sadly much of the collection held by the Kuwait museum had been destroyed, but the Bedouin still weave, training weavers and producing fabrics for upmarket gift-wear such as i-pad covers and the like.

May Speakers Report: Fabulous Flax with Riitta Sinkkonen Davies

RitaGiven Riitta Sinkkonen Davies’s reputation as one of the UK’s foremost experts on the preparation and weaving of flax, this presentation was eagerly anticipated and it was noticeable that, despite competition from minor events further south, there was good turnout at Murton to hear it.

Riitta’s interest in textiles and especially flax began with holidays spent with her grandparents in rural Finland, where there was a great tradition of home spinning and weaving. This interest led to formal qualifications in Textile Design. This base has been subsequently expanded by years of practical experience and world travel. The net result is the Riitta is now the ‘go-to’ person for decorative fabrics in flax  along and with other fibres.

In most years Riitta grows her own flax, and processes the flax plants into fibre using the traditional techniques of retting, breaking, scutching and hackling. The flax plants are pulled up while still slightly green and are then dried. Fibre separation begins with retting (corruption of rotting?) either by laying out on the ground to be wetted with dew, or by soaking in tanks of water. Her preferred method is to hold the dry plants until the following summer and use tank retting, when sunny days warm the water and speed the process.

riitta2Once the hard part of the plant stalks start to break down it is dried again before being put through the flax break. This process breaks up the woody core of the stem, but does not break the fibres. It is thought that the reference to spinning straw into gold in the folk tale Rumpelstiltskin originates.

After breaking the flax is pulled through the scutcher –  overlapping metal blades – to start stripping out the woody waste and then through pin hackles of increasing fineness to finish combing out the waste, leaving clean long fibres ready for spinning.

The time and conditions of the rett greatly influence the colour of the fibre, quick warm retting in summer produces light colours.

Having established her reputation as a first rank designer and producer of flax fabrics, Riitta now receives commissions from many sources, particularly where the client is trying to accurately recreate period clothing or other fabrics. The Jorvik centre wanted historically accurate cloths for their re-creators, with hand spun, hand woven cloths bleached in the old way by alkali boiling and laying out in the sun. Sadly tight deadlines and a requirement to produce the cloths in the depths of a Welsh winter meant that commercially spun yarns had to be used and resort was made to chemical bleaching, carefully moderated to avoid a ‘bright’ white, had to be used. For a later part of the order there was a requirement for a yellow dyed with weld; not an easy task on flax, using only alum mordant as tannic acid would have resulted in staining of the cloth. An initial intense yellow was washed back to the required primrose shade.

In a similar vein is the project to recreate Shakespeare’s bedspread for his Stratford house; all the ground yarn had to be handspun on her grandmothers wheel – 26 100g bobbins at around 9 hours per bobbin! Sadly Riitta was unable to weave this piece as she did not have a drawloom (or draw loom if preferred) to produce the intricate weft surfaced patterns. Ironically this historically accurate reproduction ended up being woven on a modern Jacquard loom.

Further commissions included the linen elements of the enthronement robes for Dr Rown Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury when the usual maker of ecclesiastical vestments declined to go anywhere near weaving flax. This was a job much plagued by indecision and delay, only being saved by private benefactors when the Welsh Assembly declined to fund it.

Further jobs included a backing for a church altar in Oxford to hide a large radiator. Wall hangings to complement a bare stone wall in a restaurant, part of a barn restoration holiday complex, woven on the now acquired draw loom which allows the creation of complex patterns by lifting small groups of ends separate to the ground yarn. The design idea was to create a forest over a winter sunset, using graded colours in the ground weft.

Next we head to Llandeilo South Wales and the National Trust’s Dinefwr Castle, where the old billiard room was being converted to a restaurant but it needed acoustic boards to help kill the echoes of the big high room. These were not aesthetically pleasing so Riitta got the call. Sessions photographing the estate produced a design of six different species of tree found on the estate, each with it’s name, in welsh, incorporated in the weave.

riitta

As with all of Riitta’s major designs she works with a full size ‘cartoon’ of the required image behind the cloth she s weaving. These are hand drawn; not and easy task for a 3m high hanging. Again woven on the draw loom using a thick textured wool yarn for the design to help absorb sound.

Riitta does produce table cloths and settings to order; it being not unknown for rooms to be re-decorated to match. Typically table settings are woven in relatively thick yarns to give the appropriate weight and drape.

She also produces small pieces for framing, using many sources of inspiration, but especially one particular beach that she drives past 100’s of time a year and she noticed it looked different every time. Many photographs later pieces began to emerge as distillations rather than exact copies of a single image.

Being a true Finn, she admits to an obsession with white as a result of long winters full of snow and ice. A fix which she renews annually with a midwinter trip to her home land. Inspiration flowed from pieces of leaf trapped in ice. The base cloth is woven with slits in it, through which are threaded strip of paper – made from flax fibre of course – and embroidered with the aforesaid leaf shapes.

Recently she has teamed up with a ceramic artist to produce pieces by soaking woven and other materials in liquid clay, once dried the piece is fired to burn out the flax and to fuse the clay into a ceramic. Some pieces are shown as a before and after pair.

Riitta confessed during questions that she  only hand spins what she has to because she cannot source it anywhere else.  Most of the yarn she uses is commercially produced. Trying to hand spin everything would be too time consuming and would seriously hamper here weaving programme.

She uses Procion col water reactive dyes for similar reasons and I suspect to get the fullness of shade she uses in much of her work.

January Speakers Report: Teesdale Alpacas with Doug Steen

Our January speaker, Doug Steen from Teesdale Alpacas, showed us some beautiful pictures of alpacas and was very informative. His unassuming manner, undeniable enthusiasm and care for his animals made for a hugely enjoyable and entertaining talk.

Alpacas (1)

Doug and his wife Samantha bought their first alpacas in 2008. Doug explained the British Alpaca Society was an organisation that is dedicated to supporting anyone who keeps alpaca, either existing owners or those new to the animals, and developing guidelines for good practice, for example although alpaca are not regulated for movement of stock, the Alpaca Society require owners registration for disease control and bio-security, etc.

Originally Doug and Samantha thought they would buy three alpacas. When they visited to look at them, they saw two others and bought them too. When they went to collect their now five ‘boys’ they saw two more and bought those as well, bringing their initial herd to seven boys. They now have fifty boys and girls, as Doug calls them. The oldest, Atacama or “Atty”, is nearly seventeen and the youngest “Eddy” is just five months old. He explained the alpaca names were originally decided by a theme, although this didn’t always work as inspiration. He told us the RAF flew low over their fields, and showed us picture of Lightening, Tornado, Hercules, and told us they had a girl called Chinook. They are expecting four babies this year which will all need names too.

Alpaca facts are fascinating. Doug gave us a list regarding everything from lifespan to the time they give birth. There are two types of alpaca, the Huacaya, the “cuddly teddy bear” looking animal, and the rarer Suri, which looks like it has long dread locks. Doug and Samantha have Huacaya. Alpacas have a life span of about twenty to twenty-five years. Baby alpacas are called crias. They are born after a gestation period of eleven and a half months, usually between ten o’clock and two o’clock on a nice day. Doug told us they keep a ‘birthing bucket’ with all the equipment they may need. Though usually the birth is trouble free, they occasionally have to call a vet. Females become sexually active at about twelve to fourteen months, and males at about eighteen to thirty-six months. The females ovulate every twelve to fourteen days, and can be mated again twelve days after the Cria is born. They also have the ability to suspend their pregnancy if conditions are not conducive to producing babies.

Alpacas are herd animals and don’t like to be kept singly. They are sometimes kept with sheep to protect them from foxes, as the alpaca will make an alarm call or chase down the fox. Individual alpaca fleeces can come in one or more of sixteen colours, varying from white to fawn to grey to dark brown and everything in between. However, breeding for a specific colour is not always successful. Coloured fleece was originally frowned upon by breeders, who wanted their alpaca to be white, but now different colours are encouraged. In their native high mountains, the air is thinner and alpaca can synthesise their own vitamin D. In our lower light levels they can be subject to a deficiency, which is solved with giving a supplement. Alpaca fibre is stronger and warmer than merino, softer and lighter than cashmere, very hard wearing and, if well spun, doesn’t readily ‘pill’. Alpacas have a number of ways to vocalise. They can ‘hum’, scream and have a very loud alarm call. Doug explained that they were quite intelligent and curious animals, and would come when he called, but not by individual name and, unlike sheep, had a great desire to stay alive! Alpaca are now beginning to be used as therapy animals.

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Alpacas are Camelids, originating in Peru, Bolivia and Chile, having been domesticated for thousands of years. They were originally kept for food and clothing. When the Spanish invaded South America in the seventeenth century, they killed the alpaca and replaced them with sheep. This drove what remained of the alpaca herds high up into the mountains, and destroyed centuries of breeding for high quality fine fibre achieved by the Inca, who regarded it as the ‘fibre of the gods’. Modern breeders are still trying to perfect the standard of fibre possessed by the Incas. Doug suggested modern breeders bred for weight rather than fineness, although things are now changing as the luxury market for fine alpaca fabric has grown.

In 1800 Titus Salt worked out a way to spin and weave alpaca, and at Saltaire he made a fortune from his discovery. In the 1980’s alpaca began to be imported to UK, Europe and Australia where the herds are now: UK 45,000, Europe 25,000 and Australia 300,000. Moving up to date, Italy is producing high quality yarn. Japan combines alpaca yarn with silk in weaving. UK mills are currently increasing production for the domestic and international markets.

Doug told us how difficult it has proved to have small amounts of fibre processed at large mills. Alpaca yarn does not have the same cachet with the public as mohair or cashmere, hence it makes appropriate pricing more difficult. Not many commercial weavers will weave alpaca, and those that do require 100 kilos minimum weight. Spinning mills want the fibre to be scoured and a minimum weight of 250 kilos. He went on to explain when you are a small business, it is a gamble to have fibre spun and woven if you cannot guarantee a market for your product. Having said that, the sample scarves, wraps, hats etc., Doug brought with him were extremely high quality and beautifully made. One difficulty he has experienced is most commercial mills spin worsted or semi-worsted. He sends Teesdale yarn to a tweed weaver in the Scottish Borders who will only process woollen spun, but he has found a mill in Lincolnshire that will spin it for him.

It is very important to Doug and Samantha to keep their production local if possible and within the UK. Making a success, Doug told us, is about identifying a niche market, e.g. Merrythorpe Bears, est. 1930, who have produced some short runs of beautiful teddies in alpaca fabric. They have a friend who does ‘Textiledermy’ (producing soft toys). Nothing is wasted. The weavers and other makers send back any off cuts to Doug, who turns them into scarves for the bears or covered buttons, etc. Doug purchased a sample carding machine, the “Amelia” circa 1900, to work on processing some of the fleece at home. The name Doug and Samantha trade under, myAmelia, is named after this machine. At twelve inches wide, it was originally made to produce samples of blends for large mills, before a full run was made. Doug hopes to produce carded batts for sale on it. He has also looking into felting and Nuno felting in the future. The couple have also developed trekking with alpacas that are trained to walk in a head collar.

Shearing alpaca is an annual event. Doug said the alpaca don’t enjoy the process of being tied to restrain them so they cannot injure themselves, and being shorn. Whist they are tied he also checks their feet. They have large soft pads with two toe nails, which are then clipped, if necessary. Their teeth are also checked to ensure they are healthy and do not need any attention. Doug was quite definite that he would not shear an alpaca that was near to producing a baby. He would call the shearer back rather than risk any problems.

The poorer quality fibre is used for pillow and duvet stuffing, whilst the top quality fibre is sorted and assessed for processing. Cria are shorn for the first time at about nine months. This fibre will be exceptionally soft and sought after. Sometimes, Doug explained, they take the tips off the babies fleece early to stop them picking up excess vegetable matter. This can increase the quality of the full fleece when the cria is shorn. When asked if you could brush the alpaca to help with getting rid of unwanted debris, Doug told us it was not practical, and destroys the structure of the fleece. The judges particularly dislike if the alpacas are shown.

Speaking to Doug after the meeting, he suggested when he can produce batts, using his Amelia, if any of the guild would like some samples to play with and give him feedback, he would be grateful. He would also be willing to post us some batts for sale if there is any interest. Perhaps we can discuss this at the next guild meeting.

Note: all alpaca photos courtesy of Doug Steen of Teesdale Alpacas.