Weaving with handspun (part 1)

I have been spinning for about 3 years, and have gradually built up a stash of handspun yarn that is waiting for a suitable project. Like many with a creative mind, my Projects-To-Make list is rather long and grows at a faster rate than I can actually craft, so it’s taken a while for the handspun project ideas to work their way up the queue… After a year of designing easy-to-replicate projects for my workshops I feel the need to focus on something different so my next personal challenge is to play around more with weaving my own handspun yarns.

As a general note – there might be a lot of weaving terminology coming up so if you need a reference I have this handy glossary post here and I’ll include links for further reading where I can.

Firstly, I want to address a concern that pops up sometimes… Can you weave with handspun yarns? OF COURSE YOU CAN. I’m not sure why anyone would say that you cannot!
Weaving has existed for many centuries prior to the invention of modern industrial spinning machines after all – but apparently some people do say such strange things and people get the idea that it is difficult to do. Let’s do away with that concern shall we?

Now, what might be more relevant is to consider the qualities and structure of your handspun – it’s not that different to choosing from commercial yarns as there are plenty of commercial yarns that are not great for weaving (Yarnworker and Kelly Casanova have some good advice on choosing yarns). Bear in mind also that what is useful or desirable in knitting/crochet will be different to what works well or not in weaving, so if you have experience in other crafts don’t let it deter your weaving explorations. For example, having an unbalanced yarn with excess twist could cause nuisance if it imparts an unintended bias to your knitting; a yarn that splits can cause problems with crochet… That is less of a concern with weaving. Rather you may want to watch out for softly-spun sections that may drift or fray under tension in a warp, or fuzzy fibres that may stick to their neighbours or make it hard to unreel your weft off the shuttle.
An advantage with weaving is that you can use different yarns with different qualities in warp and the weft, thereby giving you more opportunity to find a good use for your handspun!

So… I have now woven a few projects using my handspun in the weft which is relatively easy. Next I’m considering weaving something with a handspun warp, working up to weaving something entirely from handspun. I have quite a few big skeins in my handspun stash, I just need to find some that have the right characteristics to use for warp (e.g. strength/stability) as well as enough quantity and then some weft that will co-ordinate. Honestly, getting colours that suit each other will probably be the hardest part since I tend to spin just for the joy of it, and thus most of what I spin is very brightly coloured and variegated because that’s what I like looking at and playing with. So, picking colour combinations that work should be a fun challenge. I shall mull over my options, and come back with an update once I decide (hence the ‘part 1’ in the title of this post).

In the meantime, here is my review of some of my weaving projects (complete and in-progress) using my own handspun yarn for weft, and what I’ve learned thus far.

Rivers scarf

Weaving in progress on a loom (only the top bar of the beater can be seen though). There is a dark grey warp with white stripes along the selvedges. The weft is handspun singles in a thick & thin varied size, a shifting variety of colours (browns, reds, blues and greens). A boat shuttle rests on the warp threads above the fell line.
In-progress on the loom
A folded piece of woven fabric with dark grey warp with white stripes along the selvedges. The weft is handspun singles in a thick & thin varied size, a shifting variety of colours (browns, reds, blues and greens).
Completed scarf

Woven in mostly 2/2 twill, on a four-shaft table loom. The warp is a charcoal grey 2ply wool, with narrow white stripes along each selvedge in a 3ply wool (both from Bendigo Woollen Mills). The majority of the weft (50g of singles) was handspun by me on a Turkish spindle. It was blended up from many different fibres in a ‘Fibre Sandwich’ (click here for an explanation) I got at the HW&SGV Harrietville retreat. They have a theme for the sandwich each year and that year it was ‘Rivers’.

That retreat was where I first tried spinning with a spindle and I was instantly hooked. I bought my own Turkish spindle (like this one) as soon as I could and the fibre sandwich became the 2nd yarn I ever spun. I separated the sandwich out into colours, then bended it all into a series of rolags based on the idea of a cross-section of a river, with earthy banks on either side, then reeds and rushes, then the water in the middle.

a large pile of fluffy tufts of fibre (wool, alpaca, silk, flax etc) in many colours, spread out over a blue tarp and plastic covers, there are lots of chairs & tables in the background.
Fibre Sandwich building up
a series of colourful little rolls of fibre aligned on a black chair
Blended Rolags ready to spin
A timber turkish spindle held in my hand with red-brown fibre wrapped around the shaft, and a mix of brown and green singles wound onto the cross-arms of the spindle. You can see my wedding ring on my finger.
Spinning in progress

When it came to weaving, I wanted to maintain that colour progression in the order that it was spun, but I was also using boat shuttles. I had to wind the yarn onto a bobbin which meant the yarn was going backwards, then wind that bobbin onto a second bobbin to reverse it and the bit I wanted to weave next was now on the outside of the bobbin. If you have enough bobbins you can avoid this issue by winding your whole ball of weft onto bobbins in sequence, then start from the last one and work your way back.

There is a short section of the same charcoal and white wool used in the weft at either end – I was playing around with wavy stick shuttles trying to make patterns but that mostly disappeared during wet-finishing, leaving a very lacy section that was not intentional, but still nice. Initially I planned to cut that section off as a sample but I liked it well enough that I repeated a similar bit at the other end and kept it as part of the scarf.

I love this scarf and wear it often. I think the important part was that I got the sett right (probably coincidence!) and so even though the handspun weft varied quite a lot in thickness the warp is closely spaced enough to keep everything securely held in place. The neutral warp with the geometric aspect of the diagonal twill structure both offsets and highlights the varied weft thickness too.
Thankfully, although the handspun was a random mix of fibre types it was overall nice and soft – but that is certainly something to check before deciding what type of project you want to make if using blended fibre in your spinning.

Novelty scarf

For the 2019 Bairnsdale Show, a new category was added to the handcrafts section called ‘Novelty Scarf’. I decided to make it a pun on the word ‘novel’, and wove a scarf themed around my favourite book series – Discworld by Terry Pratchett. I had spun some small skeins of multi-coloured merino purchased from Liz Green Arts (who is also a fan of Discworld) – she had a series of 19 micron merino tops in colourways named after popular media, characters and books, e.g. Piglet, Wolverine, Slytherin, and from Discworld there was Librarian and Rincewind. I took the Librarian and Rincewind singles I had spun and designed a scarf around the colours, adding in some extra colours of handspun in green merino/silk (to represent Tiffany) and white Polwarth (to represent sheep). For the warp I used Bendigo Woollen Mills 4ply Luxury in mostly grey, but added stripes of red and black on the edges, to represent the wizards and the witches respectively. This was woven in plainweave on a rigid heddle loom. I also found in my yarn stash a bright blue yarn to represent the Nac Mac Feegle, and I wove that in as an inlay, dashing to-and-fro over the surface of the cloth. I also had a few sections of clasped weft for extra interest as I was weaving – basically I wanted to have fun while weaving and just played around as I went.

As this was not an overly long scarf, I decided to add a ‘keyhole’ to tuck the end through to hold the scarf on. This was the most complex part of the weaving as I wanted to make 2 slits, which meant I had 3 sections of separated weft to work on.
So of course I made it even more complex by having multiple stripes and colour changes at the same time, plus the blue inlay, and added some witches’ hats using inlay and on-loom embroidery in the central section where they would be prominent when the scarf was on. I was juggling multiple shuttles, bobbins, yarn tails etc… After I completed that part, the rest of the weaving was easy by comparison!

A timber rigid heddle loom with weaving in progress on it, in the middle section are 4 black witches hat motifs. A  bobbin of black yarn rests on the weaving, a boat shuttle is just in front of the loom and a long thin strip of paper is pinned to the right-hand side of the weaving with notes/ instructions written on it. There's a red rug on the floor in the background, and a tiled hearth in front of a gas fire.
Weaving in progress – the keyhole slitsCropped photo of my torso, wearing a red cotton t-shirt and a scarf, standing outside on the grass in the afternoon sun. The scarf is a mix of greenm red, brown, grey, white, black and blue. My bare arms are very pale :PFinished scarf in use

Most of my handspun in this scarf was singles, I think the white polwarth was a 2ply, but it was close in grist to the other singles so it fit in fine. The singles were all washed and thwacked to settle the twist down so I didn’t have any issues with bias or twist in the finished cloth, although that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for a scarf, as it’s worn bunched around the neck anyway.
As I was mixing several different skeins of handspun in this I needed to vary the picks per inch to suit the thickness of each yarn to get more overall consistency in the finished cloth thickness. E.g. I wanted red stripes at start and finish, and wanted the keyhole slots at a certain point in the length, so I marked those places out on a long thin piece of paper and wove by measuring against that, rather than counting a specific number of picks. I was weaving plainweave so that didn’t affect any patterns in the weaving structure like it would in twill. Also for the clasped weft (with the white 2ply) it was important to try and match the thickness of yarns so that one side didn’t build up faster than the other.

Twill Meterage

I wanted to try the ‘Origami Sweater’ from The Ashford Book of Projects Vol. 1 (pg 20.) but using some bright, thick handspun in the weft instead of the textured feature weft used in the book, as that was no longer available (I think the book is also no longer available to buy, it was published in 2007). The handspun I’d selected was the 2nd yarn I’d ever plied, but it was made up from my first ever spun singles – a vibrant mix of yellow, pink and purple merino, and I spun a matching yellow merino single to ply with it. I only had one ball of this handspun (and it was quite sentimental) so using it as a feature weft to stand out on an otherwise neutral base cloth seemed ideal.

At the end of the Rivers scarf (described above) I had a little more warp to spare and so I wove a small sample to test the sett and the combination of 2 & 3 ply commercial yarns with my handspun. Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to do the exact pick-up pattern from the book on a multi-shaft loom I played with trying to create a similar pattern as well as testing a few other patterns, both using the shafts and just poking the shuttle over or under sections of warp, creating floats to replicate a pick-up stick pattern. It was really good fun and all the patterns looked good – thus I decided I’d rather weave the cloth for the sweater in the same way, a mix of twill and random float patterns on the four-shaft loom.

small piece of weaving laid diagonally on the carpet. Dark grey warp with white weft and random picks of bright handspun yarn in yellow, pink & purple, woven in plainweave, twill and with some large floats.
Sample weave
A cropped photo showing only my torso and arms, wearing a plain white long-sleeved cotton top with diagonal seams running across the body & arms, one hand outstretched holding the camera and hand on my hip.
Mock-up sewn from light-weight fabric

Up to that point I was doing all the good, sensible things – I sampled and tested my ideas, I made sure I had enough supplies. I even sewed a mock-up to test the sizing and get my head around how the strips of fabric are put together and folded around to make the sweater shape.
Then I made a strategic error…

I need 5.2m woven length for the project, but I wound a warp that is approximately 9m long. Cue procrastination and delay! I have turned it into a Big Project and made it seem like much more work than it needs to be…
So, I wound the warp in March 2019. But didn’t get it onto a loom until March 2020 (just before our first Lockdown, it was the impending lockdown that gave me impetus to warp), as I thought this would be a ‘good lockdown project’ (hahaha). Yet it is still on my table loom now! I have woven just over 2.5m worth, chipping away at it inch by inch – occasionally weaving a large section but then leaving it untouched for months at a time (it’s been that sort of year hasn’t it?).

Weaving on a loom in a mix of twill patterns using grey, white thin yarns and a thick variegated handspun yarn in yellow, pink & purple. A long thing roll of paper is attached to one side with bobby pins recording the dates of weaving, it jumps from 10/04/21 to 30/08/21.
Weaving in-progress, with paper roll to keep track of length and when I weave. There are some big gaps in the dates…

I think when I finally get to 5.2m I will cut off what I need to construct the sweater and then reassess what I want to do with the extra warp length. The additional factor here is that I have recently obtained two floor looms that I want to play with but I need the space the table loom is occupying to set up one of the new looms…

Considerations for using handspun weft:

In summary, these are the things I’d think about before starting a project using handspun in the weft. Once I’ve played around with some handspun warp projects I’ll come back to post a ‘part 2’ on this topic.

– The shrinkage may be harder to calculate, especially if you have a mix of fibres in your spinning. To deal with this I usually make something that doesn’t require too specific a width. But you can also weave something to be sewn up – start by weaving a piece slightly wider than needed and then you can hide the excess (and any wonky selvedges!) in the seams.

– The sett can be harder to calculate or predict if your handspun varies in thickness. Slubby or thick/thin yarn is great fun to play with though, and really adds so much character to the cloth. Just be sure you have plenty of leeway in your measurements to finish off the project if you end up needing to beat some picks to a closer sett to get the right thickness/texture where the yarn is thinner.

– Some handspun yarns might not play nice in a boat shuttle – either due to the thickness, or if it’s a particularly fuzzy woollen-spun yarn, in which case a stick shuttle (or even a ski shuttle) might be more suitable so that the weft doesn’t get tangled and sticky.

– Twist in the yarn – if you have an unbalanced yarn, or a singles yarn, excess twist energy could make the yarn curl and tangle when it’s not under some tension, that could be annoying when you try to wind it. I find that giving it a rough wash and ‘thwacking’ it a few times before hanging to dry will make the yarn more robust and less energetic (but be warned it will also make it look more ‘felted’, which is a bit of an unpleasant shock when you started with a very smooth semi-worsted yarn and weren’t expecting that change in texture). Weighting the skein while it dries can also help control some of the twist, but does have the drawback of possibly stretching the yarn out which can throw off your measurements and cause extra shrinkage after you finish your weaving as the yarn returns to a more relaxed state. Of course, you can purposely play with the effects of unbalanced yarn in your weaving, creating interesting effects in the fabric (check out Yarnworker’s Crepe Cowl for ideas) – there’s another idea that is waiting it’s turn on my Projects-To-Make list!

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