Sunday, January 31, 2016

Looming Badassery

   I will admit it: I have a lot of faults. I'm lazy, I occasionally have a bit too much to drink, I like sweets and snack foods far too much, and I nearly always put fun before what I should be doing. I am also, at times, like former president Jimmy Carter: I have lust in my heart for a bright, shiny, very fancy...loom.
   For most of history, looms were pretty much looms. They had treadles, heddles, beams, and weaving on them was pretty straight-forward: once warped, it was up to the weaver to make the magic of cloth happen. Everything relied on the weaver's skill in stepping on the treadles in the right order, throwing the shuttle, and beating the weft at just the right time with just the right amount of force to put the weft into place and change to the next shed for the next pass of the shuttle. That's how weaving was--yes, there were fancy drawlooms for weaving brocades, and eventually jacquard and dobby looms, and fly shuttles for weaving wider cloths, but to most weavers, "loom" meant the beast with four or eight (or more) shafts, treadles, and a beater. The biggest advance came in the 1930s, when E.E. Gilmore and L.W. Macomber independently came up with designs for rising shed "jack" looms.
The AVL A-Series Loom. 
   This began to change in the 1980s with the advent of computerized, more automated, looms. In late 1981, Ahrens & Violette Looms changed their name to AVL and introduced the first of their mechanical dobby looms. It was a marvel: 16 shafts, dobby chains that could be pegged up with any treadling sequence (no more treadling errors), automatic warp tensioning, and a fly shuttle for weaving really wide cloth really fast. AVL's ads claimed that their loom "enables you to produce beautiful professional quality fabrics as much as 8 to 10 times faster than on a conventional loom..." AVL struck gold, and they've never looked back. These days, big, fancy, AVL looms are ubiquitious in production weavers' studios, and it's easy to understand why--it's pretty nice to design a complex piece of fabric, then sit down and let the loom do all the "hard" work of weaving, including raising the shafts and throwing the shuttles.
   It's tempting. It's especially tempting on those days when I'm having to crawl into the loom for the third or fourth time to change a tie-up, or weaving a long warp when my various little aches and pains are bugging me.
Mongo--my 16S/23T Macomber B-4
   Mongo (my beloved floor loom) is big, old, and completely manual. It's a relic from the last great age of weaving (the 1960s and '70s): Mongo was built by Macomber Looms in 1970 as a 56", 16-shaft, 22-treadle, jack loom with double warp beams, and is still mostly in the original configuration: I swapped out the plain friction-brake warp beam for a sectional warp beam, added an extra treadle (long story short, I miscounted the treadles when I was putting the loom back together after moving), and installed LED strip-lighting on the castle to better see what I'm doing.
   There's a certain amount of badassery that goes along with weaving on a really big, completely manual loom. First, there's the feeling of power that comes with operating a big, heavy, piece of equipment. It's like operating power tools or a big piece of construction equipment (such as a back-hoe): you are in charge of this monster, and it's up to you to keep yourself safe and the job on task.
The AVL Industrial Dobby Loom.
Warp it up, turn it on, and go get a coffee
while it does all the work. 
   There is also the issue of what constitutes "handweaving." There's no question that weaving on a completely manual loom is handweaving. I'm down with that: when I'm really in the weaving zone, my feet dance across the treadles, the shuttle zips along the race, and flawless cloth magically appears in front of me. But is it still "handweaving" when the computer is telling the loom what shafts go up or down next? Or when all the weaver has to do is pull the fly shuttle cord and the beater to create cloth? Everyone has a different answer for those questions, but my answer tends toward "no": that arcane knowledge that is part of the magic of turning yarn into cloth isn't really necessary if the loom is so automated that it almost doesn't need a human.
   So I stick with my Mongo. There are some things I simply can't do on a loom this big: I can't weave more than about 46" in the reed; and I can't lift more than five shafts on one treadle. But when I sit down and throw a shuttle at Mongo, I really feel like I'm weaving, and connecting with all those past weavers who liked good cloth and straight selvedges.

On the looms: Nothing! I cut off a set of samples for upholstery fabric, then wove off the rest as a 2-color bumberet.

On the needles: Just a pair of socks out of Paton Kroy FX. Instead of knitting, I've been covering a brick with needlepoint--it will serve as both a doorstop and a heel rest for my electric bobbin winder's foot pedal.