Even in this world of fast-moving cars and computers and careers, there are pockets of stillness where people find themselves in the gradual act of making.
The wool enters the studio in big hanks of fluff. Giant boxes contain fibers sheered from specifically-selected sheep breeds. It finds its way into the excited hands of students, where practiced hands caress the soft layers. Each student learns to comb and clean the wool into smooth rows, aligning fibers.
Seated at the spinning wheel, tea in hand and a basket of prepared fiber, the cozy group begins to turn their wool into yarn. They insert the tip of the wool through the orifice of the wheel and on to the bobbin, akin to threading a giant sewing machine. They pump with their foot pedals to spin the wheel, which transfers the spin into the fibers of the wool they feed. Deftly and rhythmically, they continue the dance until their bobbins are filled with yarn and their pile of fiber is depleted.
Now the naturally-toned yarn is wound into a loose skein, made ready to receive colour. The students bring all of their hard earned knowledge of colour harmony to bear. First, they learned the theory of colour in the Foundation Visual Arts program, then the science of dyes in the Textile Design Diploma itself – this is their third year at the New Brunswick College of Craft & Design. They dig out their self-assembled binder, filled with samples, dyed naturally. They select colours that will complement one another and meet their unique artistic needs.
On the stove, pots of aromatic liquids cook down. Contained within are the skins of onions, the flowers of marigold, and even a pot of strange insects. As the natural materials simmer, they release their powerful dyes to the water. Meanwhile, the yarn is dipped in a mordant solution, often alum, copper, or other metal, to improve absorption of the dye into the fiber. Strained, the liquor of plant matter is ready to accept the yarn. The outcome is uncertain – despite careful sampling, with natural dyes there is always some variation in outcome.
The following morning, the students of Textile Design retrieve their waiting skein. Decadent colours emerge in greens and yellows and browns. They prepare their completed yarns for the waiting loom.
Threaded through umpteen tiny eyes like those on a needle, from back to front, the warp, or vertical threads, are given to the loom. When all the yarn is wound on the back beam and evenly tensioned, the loom is ready for the act of weaving. Each thread is precisely placed to dictate the pattern of the cloth. With each press of a foot pedal, certain threads are raised while others remain grounded. A shuttle, like a smooth wooden boat, is passed along between the rows of up and down threads, bearing yarn as it goes. Each row of yarn is one pass of the shuttle.
Again, like a dancer, the weaver presses the foot pedals in sequence, to create complex variations in the pattern of the new cloth. The pattern executed has been designed by the student, developed by marking out graphed versions on paper or with the help of a computer program, and then intensive woven sampling. The cloth that blooms from the reed and wraps around the front beam is original in every sense of the word.
Complete, after so many passes of the shuttle and so many bobbins of handspun yarn, the woven creation is released from the loom, cut and finished, and loose ends sewn in. No longer under tension, it becomes softer, more elastic, and drapes like new skin in the hands of the maker. Those hands, also softened by effort, gently clean their woven cloth like a loving parent.
The blanket, so many days of effort, so many months of practice, so many years of learning, so many decades of experience in their mentors before them – is complete. Hanging brilliantly in the gallery, it catches the eye of its intended owner. Functional art has an appeal that crosses barriers, to find homes both modest and ornate. These hands of the buyer caress the cloth, perhaps imagining the skill of the maker, the blooming of the dye plants, the growth of the sheep for its fiber. They take in the value of textile, this supreme spinning of straw into gold, which began as nothing but disparate bits, and, much later, became something of utter beauty and substance.
The creation of cloth.
Words by Allison Green, Photos by Bang-On Photography.
Pictured: (from top) Melissa McMichael dressing loom, Natural Dyes, Eliza Claire Casey & Tina Sharapova in dye kitchen,
Hand-dyed yarn by Erin Colwell (Oh Sassafras), Melissa McMichael dressing loom, Emily Blair weaving on CAD loom,
Eliza Claire Casey feet on treddles, Melissa McMichael with completed weaving, Shawl by Emily Blair worn by Danika Vautour.