Working with Linen

Article for The Journal of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers

by Fran White

Introduction

Being invited to write a ‘fairly light-hearted and interesting’ article about ones work is an immediate challenge.  ‘My work’ - at present weaving with linen - is the result of the many and varied paths that led to my studying Woven Textiles at The Surrey Institute of Art & Design.  The identity of this work is still developing as I write this article 6 months after graduating.  My current theme is surface interest in the form of stripes and texture, resulting in a reversible and /or double-sided fabric.  I use 2 different thicknesses, or more, of natural and bleached, wet spun linen in my warp. The wefts tend to be dyed, this highlights the unbleached linen especially with the satin weave structure I’ve chosen.   The different thicknesses of linen, block threading and the satin/sateen weave are a means of interpreting that by which I am inspired.  The proportions, textures and contradictions found on pebbles, pottery, plants and buildings are closely studied for edges, line, spaces and gaps.  Subtleties of colour and tone are recognised as well.  Once off the loom I soak my fabric length in cold water then, with the fabric still pretty wet, ‘beetle’ it.  This process flattens the yarns, bringing them closer together and thus producing a smooth surface and improving the fibres’ natural lustre. This term derives from the method employed by women when they used to beat the cloth with a wooden club known as a ‘beetle’.  Their cloth was stretched out on a large flat stone by the river, mine is done on a clean wooden work top in the kitchen and - applying full body weight pressure -  I squash the fabric with a wide rolling pin  in the direction of the warp or weft on both sides.  This burnishing is further highlighted by ironing the length dry with a hot and - ideally  - heavy iron, the result is a subtle shine.

The Journey

One can easily trace a ‘common thread’ running through my many careers and experiences.  By a natural progression this passionate and obsessive attraction to textiles eventually led to my business.  In 1980 I opened a Props Shop - Linen Hire - which provided material backgrounds in the form of modern, period, antique, and ethnic textiles for use in Editorial and Advertising photography.  These were selected and hired by photographic stylists, photographers and Art Directors who used them to illustrate cookery books, for locations shoots, and on advertising billboards.  This unusual business gave me the opportunity to handle a huge variety of materials.  My collection included linen damask table cloths, lacy curtains, fringed cushions, a multitude of woven, printed and embroidered household linen as well as a large selection of ethnic fabrics in the form of lengths, wraps, ponchos and shawls.  These I  collected and purchased from home and abroad.  All that was lacking was any technical and historical knowledge about my collection and an over-riding urge to design and manufacture similar articles myself.  Any part-time study I followed proved unsatisfying.  Along the way I did discover an affinity with machine embroidery.  Perhaps this offered too much freedom of expression as I discovered myself welcoming the confines and restrictions that weaving imposes.  This mere fact of restraint helped me concentrate on recognising and exploring my fascination with the actual structure of cloth.

Choosing Linen

College helped me focus this interest and, as a consequence I selected weave rather than print for my main study.  My chosen fibre - linen and the satin/sateen structure developed directly from my enthusiasm for damask.  Although I sold my business I retained a varied selection of white linen damask table-linen.  As yet I haven’t woven with a fully bleached linen warp.  I’m still exploring and uncovering the possibilities present in the unbleached natural yarns.  I experimented with the satin/sateen weave on both a dobby and a 16 shaft countermarch loom.  I further simplified this structure to broken twill which I could weave on an 8 shaft loom. 

Demystifying Linen - Technique

If you truly familiarise yourself with your fibre - that is fully understand and respect it - you can trust it will do its best for you.  A slowly dawning comprehension of the processes involved in the production of flax fibres resulting in linen yarn has undoubtedly helped me when weaving with linen.  I have yet to grow, process and spin my own as I believe this will clarify further my appreciation of this thread.  At first unaware of the true nature of flax fibres and its spinning process which results in a fairly inelastic yarn that crinkles and dislikes friction, I treated my linen warps like wool - disaster!  The reason being that if the yarn rubs up against itself it just wears away and breaks.  The process of experimenting with dobby, table and countermarch looms, developed my understanding of  different shaft actions and their consequent effect on ones warp.  It is a recognised fact that linen prefers the balanced countermarch action.  Nonetheless by making several adjustments I have successfully woven lengths of fabric on my jack loom.  I like the compactness of this folding loom but its rising shaft action is seen as too unbalanced and consequently potentially disastrous for a linen warp. The distance between the rear and front beams is probably shorter than that required by this unforgiving fibre.  However for me its an advantage as I weave with Irish unbleached 40s and bleached 44s linen.  These fine threads can break with some frequency and  I find I can  more easily mend them without moving from the front of the loom too often!   The adjustments I’ve made are adding lengths of handrail, held in place with clamps, to each of my back beams.  I  improved the rounded surface of the handrails by using very fine sandpaper and then applying beeswax with very fine wire wool.  

Proven Methods - Experience

I have found that dedication and full attention is required when making linen warps.  A large floor standing mill is an great advantage.  Meticulous care to keep an even tension as you wind on in addition to a gentle rather than too dramatic a downward angle is vital.  At this stage it is also important to maintain this tautness by tying endless pieces of string not only at both ends of the warp but also all along its length, these are very carefully removed as you beam on.  I find warping in raddle groups of certain numbers of thread an advantage both for keeping the counting in check and also when beaming on.  It helps avoid friction between threads and also separates my 2 warps which are on different back beams. There is also more opportunity for spreading out and separating the yarn across the beams and untangling any twists.  Very careful chaining when taking the warp off the mill avoids uncontrollable tangling.  It’s not only a pleasurable experience but is also very appealing visually.  An added advantage to making good friends with your fibre is to introduce it to your good friends.  Helpful and willing family and friends provide necessary encouragement and support  when it comes to beaming on linen warps.  Space contributes as well - with a recent 8 metre warp we stretched out the whole length  to enable us to keep the tension as even and taut as possible.  If 2 people - or more - are helping to stretch out the warp it is advisable for them to change sides to avoid any unevenness.  I use watercolour paper for warp protection and find it an advantage to let the linen lie upon itself as you reach the cross end of the warp.  Threading is helped by continuing to keep the warp taut, neat and fully stretched.  My present sett is 18 epcm and, by trial and error, I have discovered reeding 3 threads to the dent aids in avoiding any potential further catastrophes!  Before starting to weave I set up a floating selvedge of double thickness of spun silk 2/36s. 

Laundry - Finishing - Technique

Weaving with linen one needs to address all different types of finishing.  So far I ‘beetle’ with a domestic rolling pin on a high work top.  This takes a good hour to ‘finish’ a 3.5m length of fabric and that is before ironing.  I haven’t explored the possibilities of rotary or stone mangles - yet.  Using a rotary iron without first ‘beetling’ does not produce the shine and burnishing effect which is one of my interests in linen.  I am intrigued with the different types of finishing  possible with linen, those proven and those waiting to be discovered.  I am keen to research the ways of improving the wearability of linen without necessarily mixing it with synthetic fibres.  I know we all appear to have less time to give attention to what are considered rather old fashioned approaches of laundering, starching and ironing.  However I believe modern machines can be used to adopt difference approaches to caring for linen.  I’ve recently found a silk shirt, despite warning labels, responds happily to being tumble dried and not ironed.  I’m sure this rather irreverent approach can somehow be applied to linen.  There exists an assumption that linen is a classy fabric and that creasing is an acceptable side of what is regarded as a high status material.  I think there is room for more modern ways of weaving, treating and wearing linen. 

Future Plans

I see my work developing along several different paths which can support each other.  Hand weaving allows me to indulge my need to manipulate different textures and further explore cloth constructurion.  There is also room for experimentation with the final function of my fabric.  The end products could be for household furnishings as well as samples for industry.   To take the industrial route I need to improve my computer skills for designing and even - if they’ll have me - work on the shop floor so I can fully appreciate the processes involved in industrial production.  Being commercial and still able to maintain the flexibility and beauty of hand woven cloth is my aim.  My continuing curiosity for and comprehension of damask is at present satisfied with visiting working mills such as The Braintree Working Silk Museum in Essex and the Tilborg Damask Workshop in The Netherlands.  Eventually I would like to write about damask in this century and its future in the next.  If I want to weave damask it would necessitate purchasing a loom specifically designed for the production of this complex material.  Perhaps something to follow up at a much later stage!    

Conclusion

It cannot be denied that to choose to work with Linen requires a certain determination.  There’s no doubt that it  lures, attracts and even distracts one.  The build up of knowledge, respect and therefore understanding achieved by the continuous use of this luxurious and historical yarn, needs to be balanced with a realistic set of expectations.  All that is required is uncompromising enthusiasm, single-mindedness, patience and passion!

Houzz