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The Joy of Handweaving
By Osma Gallinger Tod
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1964 Osma Gallinger Tod
All rights reserved.
The Story of Thread
THREAD is a filament made by twisting fine fibers together. Man learned how to weave before he acquired the art of making thread. At first, his sole means of clothing himself had been animal furs and leaves of trees. Because this covering was ill-fitting and not fully serviceable, and because of his desire to better his means of living, he soon learned to weave grasses and split bark together for improved covering. Such covering still was uncomfortable. So, it was the advent of thread, and with it a fuller development of weaving, that helped man produce more satisfactory clothing. Today's comfortable, useful, and attractive clothing and accessories are results of perfection in use of thread and weaving during the last centuries.
For a full appreciation of the joy to be found in weaving, special attention must be paid to the basic material which makes the craft possible. At the close of this book there is a bibliography which details many sources for full information regarding particular phases in the craft of weaving. However, it is well to include here a brief coverage of history and fundamentals in the production of various fibers from which thread is made.
Take a piece of thread, untwist it, and examine what you find. Note the minute bits of hair-like substance, called Fibers. Pull one out and see how weak it is. As a matter of fact, you probably will need a magnifying glass to see it clearly. But, weak as one fiber is, the twisting of many of them results in a strong thread which one can put to many uses. The heavy hawser used to bring a giant ocean liner to its dock is a perfect example of strong thread, being made up of many small parts twisted together. Then there is the tiny cord used for tatting, in which many fibers are twisted together to make a thread that is strong, yet dainty and attractive when knotted into lace.
Kinds of Thread
A further tracing of the phenomenon of thread will reveal not only that there are varied uses for it but also that there are many kinds, such as wool, silk, cotton, linen, asbestos, and glass. Both Wool and Silk come from animals, and hence are designated as "Animal Fibers." Wool, which is sheared from the backs of sheep, is short, kinky, and soft. Silk is a long fiber taken from the mouth of the silkworm.
Cotton is a fiber found in the fluffy seed pods of the cotton plant; and Linen is made from tough flax fibers taken from the stem of the flax plant. These are classified as "Plant Fibers." Other plant fibers are those from ramie, pineapple, and jute plants and hemp, coir, and kapok.
Strange as it may seem, some fibers are taken right out of the earth. For example, fireproof Asbestos occurs naturally; and Glass is made by melting minerals together. Accordingly, asbestos and glass are classed as "Mineral Fibers."
As a result of man's ingenuity, there are still other textile fibers, which are made from a variety of materials and are termed "Synthetic Fibers" because synthetic means "put together." Fibers in this class are scientifically made, and have quick-drying, non-flammable, pleat-retaining, and wrinkle-repellent properties. These new fibers arc used alone or in combination with natural fibers to contribute some of their assets. The result is a great variety of new and reasonable fabrics, such as rayon, acetate, orlon, nylon, and dacron, described under The New Man-Made Threads.
The quality of the woven cloth depends on the kind of thread chosen, its size and structure, and the design of the weaver. One can add to the pleasure and skill of weaving by knowing important facts about the threads used.
Each year at springtime thousands of sheep raised in such countries as Australia, England, Argentina, and the United States have their wool sheared from their backs. The soft, kinky hair is sheared close to the skin, and is then sent in bags to market to be thoroughly washed and dried. It is then untangled by the "carding" process and lastly is made into thread or yarn through a procedure called "spinning."
The cleaned fibers of wool are very small, but each one has still smaller barbs or scales along its sides. When these fibers are twisted together to make yarn, the little hooks or scales of one fiber cling to the scales of the next. Dyeing the yarn may make it still firmer because the heat needed for producing many colored dyes causes the fibers to shrink.
Wool today is often blended with other fibers—with linen to add lustre, with silk to add resiliency, with cotton to give a more washable texture.
Wool is not only fleece from sheep or goats; it may include the following fibers.
Cashmere is a rare fiber, soft and silky, taken from the Cashmere goat of China and India. It is used most widely in blends with man-made fibers or with wool.
Vicuna is the very softest, finest, and rarest of the wools. It is a natural tan in color, and comes from wild llamas of the Andes.
There are two kinds of camel's-hair wool which come from the back of the camel. The first is the long, wiry hair that shows on the outside of the animal's skin. This is used for blankets and carpets. The other is the short, downy hair growing close to the camel's skin. This is the means of making a soft yarn, although it is expensive. It is either a pretty brown color or black, because it cannot be changed to lighter colors like some wools. Incidentally, imitation camel's-hair wool is made from sheep's wool and other suitable fibers.
Both the Angora goat from Asia and the Alpaca from Peru in South America have fine silky hair which can be spun like wool into yam. The hair of the Angora goat is called Mohair. The cloth made from it is fine and fluffy and has a hairy surface. Although it is expensive, it is also very durable. Imitation mohair is made from wool and synthetic fibers.
The hair of the Angora rabbit may also be spun like wool into rabbit's-hair yarn. It makes fluffy warm articles. The wool is soft, elastic, and strong. In warm weather it absorbs moisture, and in cold weather it insulates the body.
The name "worsted" is given to articles made from yarns spun of long, parallel fibers. They are smooth, compact, and wear well. "Woolens" are made of yarns from shorter fibers which are not so carefully combed. They are soft, loosely spun, and textural.
Of all the natural fibers, silk is regarded by many persons as the most beautiful. It already is made up into a very fine thread when found in the cocoon of the silkworm, which lives on the leaves from the mulberry tree.
The silkworm changes the substances of the mulberry leaves into a gum that turns into thread as it comes out of the small animal's mouth. There are two tiny corkscrews, called "spinnerets," on the worm's lower lip, and two lines of the silk gum pass over these organs. The lines are thus twisted together and made into thread which the worm wraps around and around about itself in a cocoon. The worm then goes to sleep inside the cocoon. When the silk is unwrapped from the cocoon, it comes off in a long strand which is so very fine that ten or more strands from as many cocoons are needed to make a silk thread strong enough for use.
Long ago, silk was raised only in China. It was discovered by a child empress, Si Ling Chi, known as the "silkworm goddess." For thousands of years, the Chinese zealously guarded this secret until a young princess left China to marry a prince in Persia. The story goes that she hid some silkworms in her hair so that she could start raising silk in her new home.
Silk is now popular around the world because of its many advantages. It has a glossy, lustrous texture, drapes well, and does not soil readily nor wrinkle easily.
The best flax for making linen is grown in Belgium, Russia, and Ireland, although a very good product is grown in the United States in Oregon, Michigan, Washington, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The slender graceful flax plant with its blue flowers has strong, smooth, shiny fibers; and the linen cloth which is made from thread produced from these fibers is admired and used everywhere. Linen goods grow softer and more beautiful each time they are washed, and they last a long time. They become snowy white, are clean and cool looking, and are particularly serviceable for table linens as well as for cool summer clothes.
The fibers are taken from the stem of the flax plant but, as is so often the case, there are other parts of the stem that cannot be used. To separate the good fibers from the waste materials, the flax is first soaked in water for several weeks. The useless parts become soft and decay. These are combed away, and the fibers that are left are twisted into smooth, glossy linen thread. It is interesting to note that flax was among the first of the useful plants grown by the Pilgrim fathers.
Linen is a very durable fiber. It is pliable, drapes well, and has a soft lustre which improves with age and washing. Its absorbency makes it a cool fabric for warm climates.
Cotton is called "the crop that clothes the world" because it provides more clothing than any other fiber. It is grown in China, Japan, India, Africa, many of the South Sea Islands, and in most of the Southern States in the United States. The plant grows from 2 to 6 feet high. It has spreading branches about 2 feet long around its lower part, and the branches gradually become shorter toward the top. The flowers look something like hollyhock blossoms, being white the first day and pink the second. Soon the flowers wither and drop off, and in their places come green bolls.
The boll is the seed pod of the cotton plant. It is small and almost round at first, and grows to become about the size of a walnut. In it are many dark seeds wrapped closely in a mass of cotton fibers which are fastened firmly to these seeds. When the bolls are full grown, they turn brown and then open slowly. The cotton fibers come out in the sunshine, making fluffy white puffs which look like snowballs.
Because rain is likely to injure this new cotton, workers pick it as fast as it ripens in the fields. New methods have been invented for picking cotton by machinery, and less hand labor is now required.
The cotton gin was invented by Eli Whitney in 1793. The cotton is carried up into the gin through a huge sheet-iron tube. It first enters a machine which combs out the seeds, and is then passed to another machine where it is put into layers and compressed into bales, which are sold to the textile mills. Here the cotton is spun into threads which are wound on spools or into skeins ready to be used for weaving.
Cotton is an easy thread for the weaver to handle. It is strong, has life and elasticity, takes dye readily, and is easily washed. It also absorbs moisture and is therefore a cool fabric for summer wear. Mercerized cottons are polished to a lustre which enhances the beauty of their colors. Cotton yarns range from fine sheer threads to heavy rug fillers.
Ramie is a tall plant whose fibers are perhaps longer than any other natural plant used for thread. While some plant fibers are hardly visible to the naked eye, a single ramie fiber is several feet long. (It is cut into shorter lengths for easier handling.) The soft fibers lie underneath an outer stem often bearing spikes or nettles. Ramie is grown in China, India, Japan, and the East Indies. It has also been grown successfully in Florida.
Ramie fibers are mixed with cotton and wool to add strength to the finished yarn, and ramie is also used alone as a linen substitute for luncheon sets, rugs, mats, carpets, and upholstery.
Pineapple leaves from the Far East and the Philippine Islands are split into very fine and shiny fibers to make thread for Pina Cloth. The natives of these areas dye the woven cloth in gay colors. Pina a cloth makes filmy tablecloths and napkins so thin that the air can blow through them. The cloth appears to be starched and since it stands away from the body, is comfortable in hot weather.
Burlap bags and gunny sacks are made from fibers taken from the Jute plant, which grows as high as 15 feet in the swamps of India. Natives, standing waist-high in dirty water, prepare jute for thread by beating the bark away from the fibers. Jute is a cheap fiber used for bags and the backs of rugs and linoleum.
Hemp, first discovered by the Chinese, has always been an important plant. Its fibers arc used for cloth, its seed for food, its oil, flowers, and leaves for drugs, and its stalks for fuel. It is used for the strongest ropes and cables, wrapping cord, stair carpets, boat sails, fishing lines, shoestrings, heavy belting, packing materials, and even heavy clothing. While the best hemp grows in the Philippines, it also grows well in many states of the United States. It is good for the soil and destroys weeds. Hemp lasts longer and is stronger than jute.
The tough, stringy husks of the coconut fruit, which grows in the tropics, contain a fiber called Coir. This material is seen mostly in the familiar brown doormats. The fibers of coir are stiff and form sturdy bristles.
Kapok, like cotton, is a soft, silky fiber which comes from the seed pods of the Ceiba tree. It is used to stuff pillows and mattresses and sometimes to make cloth. Kapok fiber usually is found in the tropics, much of it coming from West Africa.
Asbestos is found in the form of a solid fibrous rock. It is pulled apart into long delicate fibers of whitish, green-gray color, and twisted into thread for weaving cloth. The fibers are also pressed into flat, stiff asbestos pads which are placed under hot irons or behind hot stoves or pipes. Important because of its safety characteristics, asbestos padding is used in fireproof buildings. When it gets soiled, it is simply heated in a fire which burns off the dirt but does not damage the material. It is said that Charlemagne owned an asbestos tablecloth which he threw into the fireplace for cleaning after a meal—a novel and rapid means of laundering!
The poet Dante said: "All things may be woven, even the sands of the sea." Sand is a component part in glass manufacture. It is now possible to draw out melted glass into a fine long thread, one-tenth the size of a human hair and as light in weight as eider down. Glass fibers are impervious to decay and moths. They are also fireproof and do not settle down in a flat mat as cotton does. The fine, light fibers make beautiful thread that can be used by the handweaver for gossamer stoles or draperies.
THE NEW MAN-MADE THREADS
Nothing is more exciting than man's discovery of how to make thread fibers by machinery, thus adding to those spun from the natural animal, plant, and mineral sources. This discovery has revolutionized the world of textiles, giving an unlimited range of synthetic yarns for the making of new cloth products, both commercially and by the handweaver.
About 200 years ago, a Frenchman named Chardonnet developed the process of making Rayon. Chardonnet copied the methods used by the silkworm, observing how silk was really only fine hardened gum made from the vegetable substance in mulberry leaves. He made gum out of the same kind of vegetable pulp, called Cellulose. It was run through tiny tubes and came out as a filament much like silk in its softness and fineness. The thread was called rayon, which means "ray of light." The discovery has brought just this to people everywhere who can now enjoy soft garments of synthetic silk, wool, or even velvet, luxuries that were once prohibitive in price when made only of natural fibers.
Excerpted from The Joy of Handweaving by Osma Gallinger Tod. Copyright © 1964 Osma Gallinger Tod. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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