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Sleying the reed
Originally uploaded by Altivo
I finished threading the new warp on the Norwood this morning and, after a break for breakfast and barn chores, returned to start sleying the reed. That's a second step in threading, in which every warp thread is pulled through one of the slots in a comb-like device that is set into the beater. After each pick of weft is passed across the warp, the beater pulls the reed down against the forming edge of the fabric (the fell) to pack the weft down evenly and keep the warp threads arranged at equal distances. For this particular warp, I'm using a reed with ten slots (or dents) per inch, so exactly one warp thread goes through each slot in the reed.

When I had 60 or so warp ends pulled through the reed, I paused to admire the orderly parallel lie of the warp ends and realized that weaving is really about order. The weaver creates order in a chaotic environment, usually a rigidly enforced and precise order. The strength of fabric depends on that order, as does its ability to hold its shape and resist wear. In fact, sometimes we impose such good order that we have to undo some of it in the end to round the corners and soften the edges, so to speak. Woolen cloth in particular is usually fulled to soften it and make it thicker and warmer. This is done by washing and beating the fabric so that the wool fibers slip out of line a bit and contract, fluffing and thickening in the process. For some woolens, we also brush the surface with stiff brushes to pull out the ends of the fibers and make the surface fuzzy and resilient. Blankets are traditionally treated in this manner. Silks and linens are mangled, a process in which they are deliberately abused in order to bend and soften the fibers.

On the whole, though, weavers are creating order, imposing a rigid structure on threads that would otherwise lie limp and tangled. Knitters do something similar, but by a different means.

Spinners, on the other paw, often work to create chaos or disorder first. This happens not so much in the spinning process itself, which does impose a sort of order that is often resisted by the fibers as they try to unwind themselves again, but in the preparation for spinning. Wool is carded not just to make the fibers lie parallel but to make a certain percentage of them lie in random orientation. This produces a fluffier yarn that holds air and therefore insulates better. The garment feels warmer as a result. Wool and other animal fibers are typically washed once again after spinning with the express intention of both setting the twist (like setting hair with a permanent) and of letting the fibers relax and form a halo of loose fuzzy ends around the core of yarn (chaos again.) When we make felt from wool, we are pushing the chaos farther, deliberately tangling those fibers until they can't be untangled without cutting them.

No wonder, I thought, that the Ancient Greeks associated fate with spinning and weaving. The three Fates (or Moirae) were sisters who controlled the destiny of all humans. Clotho spun the fiber of life on her spindle. Lachesis measured and wove the spun threads into the tapestry of life in an orderly and controlled manner. Atropos (whose name can be translated loosely as "Untwisting" or even "Disorder") cut the threads, or sometimes tore or bit them, bringing life to an end and forcing Clotho ("Spinner") and Lachesis ("Measurer") to repair and reweave with new threads always.

Other thought systems often have similar concepts, expressed frequently in dualities in which one force represents creation and order, while the other is destruction and chaos. As a weaver, I have chosen the side of order, but I occasionally wonder if it isn't essential to balance that with some energy from the other side. It's a direction I've seldom taken, but sometimes it's necessary.

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August 2012

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