from scratch

Sometimes there is nothing better than being a beginner: nothing better than learning something new, completely from scratch.

To explain: back in September, I had the pleasure of spending some time in the studio of weaver Belinda Rose, as part of my residency with Applied Arts Scotland (which involves developing a wonderful project with some talented Mexican collaborators – about which I’ll say more another time). I love woven textiles, but know very little about them. Nor have I never tried to weave, or do I possess anything more than the most basic kind of understanding of the structures or processes of weaving. At the studio, our group were introduced to several kinds of weaving, and countless examples of beautiful woven fabrics (all of which Belinda had designed and created – wow!). While one of our party, Sol, was a weaver by profession, others in the group like me, had little or no practical experience of weaving. It was incredibly interesting to see Sol’s particular perspective on Belinda’s very different tools and techniques, and it was also fascinating to observe how those of us who had very different kinds of expertise in textiles were all having our minds completely blown by beginning to really understand something completely new.

It was an inspiring afternoon. Belinda is hugely talented, very generous, and incredibly open with her expertise. . . I loved the aesthetic of the textiles she was producing, and I also appreciated the spirit of continual experimentation that so clearly informed everything she did. She is just a very vital sort of person, who really enjoys the vast creative potential of textiles of all kinds. So when I discovered, from a flyer in her studio, that Belinda taught workshops, I immediately wondered if I might be able to find some time to return and learn some more from her. So a few weeks ago, I drove back to Banchory to do just that.

Yes, this is Belinda’s studio (and if look closely, you’ll see Belinda). Can you imagine a more inviting space in which to learn to weave?

Since seeing some beautiful examples of tablet weaving in Shetland some years ago, I’ve been intrigued by woven bands. I also felt that, because it would teach me about woven structures and processes on equipment that was both light and portable, that band weaving was a good place for me to start, as a complete beginner. So I signed up for a two-day class.

Over two intense and very focused days I learned an awful lot.
Belinda taught me:
– about the history background and different techniques of making woven bands: from backstrap to inkle looms (like this one which I now own)
– to make thread heddles
– to warp my inkle loom (which, with Belinda’s help, I did 3 times – taking the warp home with me)
– basic band weaving techniques (both inkle and tablet woven bands)
– basic pick-up techniques (warp patterned)
– basic brocade techniques (weft patterned)
– how to visualise and design a draft for inkle weaving

I also learned that weaving was not going to be terribly easy for my body to get used to (at least initially). My left (stroke-affected) hand has much less ‘natural’ dexterity than my right, and a lot less strength as well: when learning something new, or doing something unfamiliar, my left hand struggles, and I have to really take my time – thinking through every movement and telling the hand what it needs to do. Warping an inkle loom is a fiddly kind of task, and there are many different bilateral movements to master when one is actually weaving. These reciprocal actions – in which one’s two hands have to speak to each other or work together – are quite difficult for a slow, stroke-affected hand to grasp straight off – so there were many moments when I definitely felt rather clumsy. And as well as a new set of making rhythms to which to accustom my unbalanced body, there was a whole new vocabulary of things and actions: heddles and beating, sheds and picks and shuttles.

Everything was unfamiliar. I was most definitely a struggling beginner! But I’d started something. I’d begun to weave. And, with Belinda’s help, I was beginning to understand what band weaving was and the different things that it might do.

So I took my loom and warp away – and tried to keep up the momentum of my learning.

This freeform, wonky and maladjusted picked-up band (worked on a warp I made with Belinda) is called “running before you can walk”. But I learned a lot just by playing around with this band – including that it’s hard to make straight edges with an unbalanced warp, and not to use poor-quality random embroidery threads for weft.

With Tom’s help, I warped the loom again, and wove another freeform band – this time in a super-sticky wool yarn that was very hard on the hands and even wonkier around the selvedges. At this point, I became a little less enamoured of informal experimentation and a little more bothered by the possibility of weaving bands neatly. So I wound off some 3/2 cotton and went right back to basics – forgetting about pick-up techniques; focusing on understanding and designing a pattern for a draft, warping the loom efficiently, and trying to weave a band with regular tension and nice straight edges . . .

I started with a pattern in Anne Dixon’s Inkle Pattern Directory – which is an amazing book, but I don’t mind confessing that I found the way it renders charts a little hard to get to grips with as a beginner. So I decided it was important to draw my own charts from which to work. This planning process – just thinking through the logic of a simple warp-faced pattern, visualising the end result, and playing around with a chart – has in itself really helped me think about what the fabric structure is doing and what a finished band will look like (I’ll share the charts I’ve used so far at the end of this post).

So then I wove this band. . . .

and then another

and another . . .

and another

With each band, my technique improved; with each, I solved different problems (a knot! a broken thread! an out-of-order heddle! the horror!); with each I developed a little more knowledge, a little more dexterity and skill. I’m finding the process incredibly satisfying. There’s just so much you can do! And I’ve not even begun considering the potential of pick-up patterns yet.

I am learning all the time.

I’m learning many different things about the processes of weaving and about woven structures, but I’m learning much more than that as well. I’m learning how useful it is to do new things from time to time, because in encountering the limitations of my body, and working my round them, with them, through them, I’m always redeveloping my physical and neurological creative abilities. I’m also finding out that, though I have a certain kind of expertise in one discipline, this might not count for much in another, which requires a completely different set of skills. I’m learning just how useful it can be to really focus on repeating a simple set of actions and to solve basic procedural problems: there’s discernible improvement in each repetition, and with each resolution, you move forward (this process can be particularly helpful when one is in a dark place, mentally, at this, the dark time of the year). I’m learning that encountering one’s own ignorance is always salutary and useful, because it reminds one how much there always is to learn. I’m learning that every attempt, and every outcome (however wonky) has its uses, because something different has always taken shape. I’m learning that it really doesn’t matter if an activity has a set function or specific purpose because the process forms an important end in itself. And I’m learning that there’s a necessary humility to being a beginner, but there’s a particular kind of wisdom in that position too.

Thankyou, Belinda! And thanks too to Applied Arts Scotland and Lynne Mennie for this opportunity and introduction that has resulted in my trying something completely new.

I highly recommend taking a class or series of classes with Belinda, if you are able to do so. And may I also recommend Weft Blown as a great place for all your weaving supplies.

Finally, here are the charts I drew to create these very basic inkle-woven bands, if you are interested.