Straw weaving

A family tradition dating back to 2005 is attending Wintergrass with my parents and children. We love the variety of musical acts and I love being able to knit for hours and hours at a time while listening to the concerts. This picture taken during one of the set breaks makes me smile from ear to ear. My 7 year old daughter was finger-knitting a mile of yarn. She’s also wearing a fantastic shirt sewn by my mother. I love her style.

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Several years later, at another Wintergrass, a stranger* seated next to me noticed that Sophie wasn’t engaged in her project, and that I had an enormous basket of yarn under my seat. She offered to teach Sophie straw weaving with some coffee stir sticks she pilfered from the coffee stand. It was a huge hit, consuming her attention and her hands for most of that year.

Gathering abandoned craft materials from the various corners of our house recently, I found a box with yards of straps woven that year and piles of cotton yarn. I kept the best pieces as examples and reclaimed the rest of the yarn.

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As we finished up our disc weaving project, some of my students saw a strap-in-progress. They wanted to know more, so I promised to create some sets for the following class.

I threaded several sets of straws with cotton yarn. Using a small hole punch, I punched a hole in the end of a drinking straw cut in half. I measured five 8′ pieces of yarn (the length of my workbench). Each strand is threaded through a straw and folded in half to form the warp (5 pairs of warp threads, each 4′ long). You can start with shorter warps, but my daughter liked really long warps. As she was more interested in process than product, she wanted to be able to weave until the end of time; the extra-long warp threads allowed her to weave without interruption. That’s where my work ended and the students took over.

A strand of yarn (the weft) is wound between the odd number of straws in an infinite pattern. When the weaving fills the straw, scoot it down to compress the weft. At some point, it will have to be scooched off the end of the straws. Be careful not to move too much off, as the weaving will disintegrate. Keeping tension in the woven bits is key. One student commented that at the beginning it looked like a mess that would never hold together but before long it made sense. When the weaving is finished, tie a knot in one end, pull out the straws and knot the other end. The finished product can be used as a belt or strap. Never mind, ask the kids what they think it should be. They will come up with a much better answer than I can imagine.

For more process pictures and shots of a small finished piece, check out this tutorial which describes the process from beginning to end.

*This woman was Mary Gobet, costumer and fiber artist extraordinaire. She had an incredibly intricate purse with her modeled after a Cotswold cottage. Doors and windows opened, half the roof was hinged to open. It made my jaw drop. Lesson leanred: You never know who will sit next to you at a random concert. Screw up your courage and make conversation with a stranger today.

Edit: February 12
A student brought in their finished strap yesterday. He had this piece of advice: don’t focus too carefully on the weaving. When you relax, the strap happens and when you’re trying really hard to make it perfect, the weaving ends up loose and floppy. Just wrap the yarn around the straws and it will come together.

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That seems like a good life lesson to follow.

Stitching Burlap Rafts

To start off our class, I read The Raft by Jim LaMarche. This is a story of a boy who spends a summer with his grandma, exploring the river next to her home from a raft he finds drifting in the reeds on the day after his arrival. He experiences the animals that live in woods and play in the river from the vantage point of the raft, which helps him to gain an appreciation for this special environment.

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The boy’s raft is covered in illustrations of the woodland animals. Together we worked on illustrating rafts of our own.  The day before class, I glued four popsicle stitcks together to form a frame, then glued the four corners to a 6″ square of burlap. Working with blunt large-eyed needles I had pre-threaded with a bulky single-ply wool yarn, the students stitched the burlap to create a design on their raft.

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This student stitched his name, while another student created a trio of balloon/flowers for her brother, writing her birthday wishes around the perimeter of the popsicle stick frame.

Because the needles were already threaded, and the wool was bulky enough that it didn’t slip out of the needles (much), the students were able to work more independently than they have on previous projects. The glue didn’t hold on some of the rafts, but I deliberately used a common white glue so the burlap could be easily removed and another piece attached to the frame. The popsicle sticks made super inexpensive frames, much easier and more affordable than a class set of embroidery hoops.

Should you decide to this project, here’s a great tip for cutting burlap from The Felt Store. You should follow them on Twitter too. They’re full of great ideas and eye candy culled from the Interwebs.

Embroidered Cards

One of the stated aims of this class is to practice handsewing in its varied forms. In an effort to keep my students interested and engaged, I endeavor to find variations on the theme so they can see the many possibilities available. In this project, we stitched cards with a phrase or design.

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For the first sample card, “hello”, I poked small holes in the card using an awl after lightly penciling the letters. The dotted pattern is created with a simple running or basting stitch.

The second  card, “leap”, is embroidered with a backstitch to fill in the space between the holes. This creates a continuous line. The holes were created with a screw hole punch. As the holes were large, I used wool yarn to embroider the letters, expecting they would expand to fill the space.

The third card, “LOVE”, was created by my studio intern. Zelda poked the holes with an embroidery needle. Her advice is to be careful spacing the holes, as her card tore in two spots when she decided to redo a stitch.

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This project can be as elaborate or speedy as the student chooses to make it. We worked for a little less than an hour on these cards. One student who embroidered ‘friend’ on her card was inspired to write a note immediately.

Compact Disc Weaving

Recently my daughter and I spent the afternoon at the Bellevue Arts Museum. Among the many things we enjoyed was The Weaving Project a collaborative art project created by artist and teacher Stephanie Allgood. Two walls of a sunny room were covered by cds woven by students at various schools and visitors to the museum. We spent an hour weaving our own cds and helping a gaggle of young Girl Scouts who weren’t sure when they sat down if we were sewing or knitting. I had to make sure they knew this was neither, but something just as wonderful.

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This project embodies everything I love about teaching and art. By recycling materials that would otherwise become garbage and turning them into something beautiful, we are teaching ourselves to look at the world through a different lens.

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I introduced the project to two classes in the same week: the Handsewing and Fiber Arts 8-18 year old class at the Family Learning Program, and a new series of fiber arts classes running out of Spark Studio. Before class, my able assistant and I wrapped 11 warp strands through the center of cd. The students tied their first weft strand to the center of a warp strand and then started weaving. The pre-warped cds at the Bellevue Arts Museum had 19 warp strands. The key factor is to use an odd number of strands so that each row alternates the over/under pattern. Should there be an even number of warp strands, the warp will appear as a vertical stripe in the finished weaving.

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When the first color reaches the end, tie another piece of yarn to the first then keep weaving. Leave enough slack as you weave to that it doesn’t mound in the center (unless of course you like the volcano look).

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To finish the project, some students attached a finger-crocheted strand to the edge of the warp, thus creating a loop for hanging. As thematic enrichment, I read Woolbur by Leslie Helakoski, the story of a non-conformist sheep who weaves his forelock into the loom. Ultimately, he decides to teach the rest of the flock how to be like him rather than being like everyone else.

Kool-Aid Dyeing Pre-Felt

Teaching classes in my studio allows us to work on messy projects that require more elaborate preparation and/or clean-up. I imagined this project when I first started teaching classes to younger children off-site, but the logistics made it too complicated.

My goal was to take students through the steps to make their own colored felt. Rather than purchasing industrial wool felt for our projects, I wanted to show them how we could create our own. Since young children often struggle with the finesse required to draft fine shingles of roving sliver, starting with needlepunched prefelt allowed us a shortcut while still working with wool we could wet felt.

One type of prefelt is created in an industrial process using many needles. Wool is fed between two vibrating metal plates, one of which contains hundreds of tiny barbed needles. What emerges is a loosely held together fabric which can be cut, layered and wet felted to create sturdy felt fabric. Many feltmakers use prefelt to create custom garments with lots of drape without the weight or rigidity more common with thick felt.

Starting with an 80″ x 60″ sheet of prefelt ordered from Outback Fibers, I cut it in to 12″ x 10″ pieces. The total weight was a little over 8oz, so I purchased 8 packets of Kool-Aid unsweetened powder. Each packet was mixed with approximately 6oz of water in small mason jars. Kool-Aid is an inexpensive and non-toxic way to dye a small amount of wool as it contains citric acid. In order for acid dyes to bond with wool, vinegar or citric acid must be mixed with the dye. Buying the Kool-Aid packets saved me the step of calculating and measuring the correct dye/acid proportions.

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The prefelt was presoaked for 30 minutes in water with a drop or two of dishsoap added to help breakdown the surface tension. Some of the pieces were wrung out so they had very little water left in the wool, while others were sitting in standing water. Varying the amount of water in the prefelt affected the results we achieved.

Recalling my favorite sibling-annoying method of stealing sips, we used straws to pick up a small amount of dye from the jars. Stick the straw in the Kool-Aid, place your finger over the tip and lift. The vacuum created will keep the liquid in the straw. Drip on the prefelt. Leaving the prefelt slightly wet will allow for more of a watercolor effect.

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It wasn’t long before the students decided it was more fun to splatter and flick than to drop a single bead of Kool-Aid on their wool.

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Once the students were done with the wool, we put each piece in a separate ziploc bag. Towards the end, we used the last pieces of prefelt  as sponges to sop up the remaining bits of Kool-Aid in the trays. These pieces, which were various shades of mossy earth, were put together in a single ziploc bag. The ziploc bags were loaded into the two trays of a bamboo steamer sitting over a large pot of simmering water. We steamed the sealed bags for fifteen minutes. After the bags had cooled a little, we rinsed the prefelt sheets one at a time. For the most part, they held their color very well. Some of the prefelt pieces were thoroughly felted, as they had received so much vigorous attention during the dyeing process. If you plan to dip dye the prefelt in the jars, or submerge them in trays, do it with a gentle hand, minimizing agitation as this can lead to inadvertent premature felting.

 

Braiding Tails

Friday marked the beginning of the Family Learning Program’s winter session. We have a bustling class of 12 students this semester. To start, I read Henry The Dog With No Tail by Kate and Jules Feiffer. My daughter noticed that Jules is also the illustrator of the Phantom Tollbooth, and that Henry is based on a real Australian Shepherd, a breed without tails. This was the jumping off point for our project.

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Rug braiding has a venerable tradition dating back to a time when fabric was costly and time consuming to weave. Worn out clothes were torn into strips and braided into rugs. Our project introduced the basic elements of this process. My husband’s grandmother braided the hearth rug in this photo. When we moved from New Hampshire in 2003, I was fortunate to bring with us a tub of wool fabric torn into strips, ready to braid. It has been sitting in storage, waiting for a project like this. I imagine that Cecile would be thrilled to see so many eager hands learning with her fabric.

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The students sewed three pairs of strips, overlapping the ends, using heavy upholstery thread. We were fortunate to have several helpful parents in class to assist with threading needles, stitching and tying off knots. Once they had three long strips, students learned how to braid them together. Working in pairs, they took turns holding or braiding their strips. At the end of the first class, most students had finished sewing the strips of fabric, braiding and tying a ribbon around each end.

We meet for one hour, once a week. Considering our class size and the age of our students, one hour is a very long time and a very short time. It is hard to work on a project for an entire hour, and it is also difficult to help everyone get to the same point within that hour. There were six parents assisting in our class to give an idea of our student/teacher ratio.

When we met the following week, the students sewed several buttons  to a length of ribbon. Parents cut button holes in the ribbon and then helped the students sew their braided tails to the back of the ribbon. Sewing buttons was very challenging for the students. Many were frustrated by the complexity of holding the ribbon and locating the correct hole in the button. We will practice this skill again later in our session.

 

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Despite the frustrations in the moment, the students were thrilled with their new tails. They were swishing and swaying all over the classroom.

To reinforce the idea of re-purposing worn fabric, one of the parents read Something From Nothing by Phoebe Gilman while we stitched. Another version of this story is Joseph Had A Little Overcoat by Simms Taback.

Braiding Wool Trivets

On Friday, our winter session of the Family Learning Program began. I was excited to see so many familiar faces from the fall. This week, the students began a project that will spill over into our second session. In a time when clothing was costly and often handmade, families were very frugal with this precious commodity. When clothes could no longer be mended or refashinoned, the fabric was repurposed into braided rugs. My husband’s grandmother was skilled in this craft and I was fortunate enough to inherit a bin of woven wool, already torn into strips, ready to be braided into a warm floor covering.

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The students selected several strips of fabric, sewed the overlapping ends together to make longer strips, then braided three sets together. When their braid was long enough to suit, they coiled them into a spiral. This was the stopping place for most students. Next week they will pick up their projects where they left off and finish sewing the braid to itself. The finished product can be used a trivet for the dinner table, a coaster for the coffee table or a small carpet for imaginative play.

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I brought a small braided rug from home as a sample. While working on their own pieces, they quickly understood just how long it would take to create something as small as my hearth rug, let alone a large piece to fill a living room.

Needlepoint Looking For A Home

While helping a friend organize her basement, I found some vintage needlepoint projects.

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Two of the projects are nearly complete. Clearly, many hours of careful stitching went into these detailed works.

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The last two projects are essentially a blank slate, though the wreath has a few rows of red just at the top of the canvas.

Somewhere in the hidden recesses of my memory, I recall seeing the work of a fiber artist who completed reclaimed needlepoint she found at Goodwill, not always following the work done by the original owner. Should anyone know any additional details, please share.

These projects are looking for a new home. Are you interested in finishing them? Do you know someone who has an interest in needlepoint? The yarn is included. Shipping is free. Enjoyment guaranteed.