I make a mean cream cheese-and-crab wonton; high school Home Ec did that much for me. The sewing was another matter. It took only one dress in which the waistline crossed my torso some three inches above my bellybutton to make me lose heart. I never finished the calico shirt. I've tried to put the textile life behind me, but it seems that one or another of my sisters-in-law is forever showing off a new Easter dress or hand-knit sweater for some lucky daughter. I decided to escalate the war; if they could sew and knit, I would take up weaving. Christmas was still seven months away; enough time, I hoped, to learn to produce something beautiful.Northward I journeyed, to the UCSD Crafts Center (858-534-2021; www.crafts.ucsd.edu), there to meet with instructor Christie Dunning, a 20-year veteran of the San Diego Weavers Guild. "We start the beginners out by showing them the parts of the loom," explained Dunning. Then I show them the warping board -- the warp is the yarn that is actually tied on to the loom -- which helps you measure out how long you want your warp to be. If you were weaving a scarf, you would use the warping board to calculate its length."
I discovered that weaving involved a dizzying number of peculiar terms; how I would delight in trotting them out in front of my mystified sisters-in-law. Once students get things measured on the warping board, "we teach them how to warp the loom. That means slipping the thread through the heddles (essentially, eye-hooks) on certain harnesses in the loom in a certain order to achieve a certain pattern." The harnesses are rectangular frames contained by the major frame of the loom. "The project I like to start people off with is the twill sampler, because it teaches you so much: how to measure the arms of the warp, how to wind the warp, tie the warp, thread it onto the loom, and sley the reed."
To explain "sleying the reed," Dunning backed up. "So you've got your warp thread, which is vertical on the loom. Then you have the weft thread, which goes through horizontally, and that's what you weave through the warp. The bobbin of the weft will be wound on a shuttle, either a boat shuttle or a stick shuttle -- that makes it easier to manipulate than if you just held the thread in your fingers. In a plain weave, the weft goes over the warp, under the warp, over the warp, under the warp -- remember the pot holders you made as a kid?" After you've run your shuttle through the warp, there is the matter of packing the horizontal threads together so that you get a solid piece of cloth and not a lattice of threads. This is done by the beater, which beats the weft into the warp (each run of the weft is called a pick). Inside the beater is a metal frame -- the reed -- that allows you to determine the distance between each thread of the warp. Sleying the reed simply means running the warp through it. (Phew!)
So much for the basics; we weren't making potholders here. "In different patterns like the twills, the weft floats over and under more than one warp. To get these different patterns, you treadle. That means pressing different levers on the side of the loom that lift and lower the various harnesses through which you've run your warp. That creates the pattern. For example, to weave a 2/2 balanced twill, you would pull levers one and four, beat, pull levers three and four, beat, pull levers two and three, beat, and pull levers one and two and beat. Then repeat." Dunning has students run a plain weave between twills on the sampler, so that they may be easily distinguished from one another.
"For this class," she continued, "we use a four harness -- and so, four-lever -- or eight-harness table loom. Beginners start with the four-harness, but then move on to different levels of complexity. The eight-harness increases your opportunity for structure and complexity; you can push two different shuttles through. People do amazing things: honeycomb weaves, lace weaves."
I was beginning to get nervous; there seemed so many opportunities for error. Dunning laughed when I asked which were most common. "We all make errors. You can make a treadling error, or weave too wide, maybe thread the wrong way. Sometimes the selvedge thread, the thread at the edge of the fabric, will break, because it's been worn too much. That comes from not advancing the warp enough. One aspect of a good weave is a straight selvedge -- but I think that if the woven fabric holds up for its intended use, that's a good weave."
Sometimes, Dunning has students dye yarn for their projects, "sometimes with a cool palate, sometimes with a warm palate. Everyone mixes their own colors, and we get completely different effects."
Her next weaving classes run Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., July 9 through 30. Cost is $76 for a student, $111 for faculty and instructors, and $137 for the general public -- plus an additional $30 material fee and $20 loom rental fee. Pre-registration is available now; call the Craft Center for more information. For those not ready to commit to a full session of classes, Dunning also teaches a one-day weaving class at the Oceanside Museum School of Art. "I bring a loom that's already warped, and then a person can spend the day weaving on that loom. If they like the process, they can come to the craft center for more" ($70 plus $33 materials fee. Call 858-459-3545 or check www.oma-online.org for more information).