Reading the Writing on the Weaving

IMG_9458One thing any weaver will tell you is that, with even a tiny bit of weaving experience, you will never look at fabric the same way.

You’ll look at your denim jeans and see the twill.

You’ll look at the packages your sheets come in and really understand what 400-count thread means, especially since your own weaving involves, maybe, 20-count threading.

You’ll look at all those fabrics in museums—the old tartans and the overshot coverlets—and see them differently, in really fundamental ways, because you have a sense of what went into making them and how hard the human hands worked, to create those patterns.

Even if I never planned to weave again (and I do!), I’d still value the insight into textiles and fabrics I’ve gained from learning the basics. With all my day-to-day handing of vintage fabrics, I understand them better than I did before.

Such is the case with a blanket I own.

I purchased a stack of old blankets from a friend having a garage sale. I’ve sold a lot of what I bought—the pretty blankets in good condition.

But I left a few others aside—when I originally looked them over, they struck me as simply tattered old utility blankets.

This one, for instance. Definitely made of wool—the moth holes and nibbles attest to that. The wool is heavy, undoubtedly warm, but rough and scratchy.

IMG_9451I didn’t give this blanket a second thought until last week when I was trying to dig out of my deep, dark pile of less-than-perfect vintage stuff. I took the blanket out to decide whether to try to sell it or donate it or give it to the vet for use in the animal cages.

As I looked it over, my eye, the eye of the fledgling weaver, let me see the blanket differently. I’m pretty sure that what I have is a blanket that was hand woven on a home loom in Canada. So, instead of a ruined old wreck, I’m seeing the blanket now as a fascinating bit of domestic history.

What have I got to go on?

I think it’s Canadian because most of the other blankets I bought were manufactured and had tags identifying them as being made in French Canada. Quebec is maybe 15 miles from my house and the woman from whom I bought the blankets is married into a family of French-Canadian descent.

I think it’s hand woven because of idiosyncrasies that we wouldn’t expect to see in manufactured fabric. The blanket is made of two long, narrow pieces (more on that in a bit) that have been sewn together. The pink and blue stripes on the two pieces simply don’t come close to matching up.

IMG_9453In weaving, there’s a phenomenon called “drawing in.” It happens when the weaver pulls the horizontal weft threads too tight on succeeding passes and the width of the woven piece gradually narrows. I’m guessing that’s what happened to one section the blanket, and it made all the stripes in that section a little narrower.

The overall width of the blanket is about 54 inches but the width comes from two 27-inch-wide panels being sewn together down the length of the blanket. It seems to me that no one would weave a blanket 27 inches wide unless they had to because they were working on a loom that small enough to fit into a small room in an older, rural home.

These are little things, I know—no earth-shaking discoveries that will change anyone’s understanding of textiles in 20th-century North America.**

But looking at the blanket again, and seeing these little clues, delighted me.

It’s still a tattered old utility blanket but now it’s a tattered old utility blanket with human fingerprints all over it.

Now I don’t see the moth holes or feel the scratchiness of the wool. Instead, the blanket conjures a mental image of a woman (although it could easily be a man), weaving wool from the sheep she keeps. She weaves in dim light, on a cold Quebec evening, making a blanket to add some warmth to the bed her children sleep in. She walks away from the loom, to stir the stew and check the rate at which the snow is falling. And then she sits back down again, to weave.

And to write her story.


** I’m also all too aware that I may be reading this all wrong because I am so new to weaving. If any experienced weavers read this and want to provide more or different insight, please do!

**EDITED to add: As my wonderful commenters have pointed out, I confused the warp and weft in the blanket–duh! But, isn’t it neat to see how they can “read” the blanket better than I can because of their advanced skill and experience?!


45 thoughts on “Reading the Writing on the Weaving

  1. The reason the stripes don’t match is because of the beat not because of the weft drawing in.
    Very hard to have a consistent beat through out yardage such as blankets or coverlets. That is something that becomes easier as the weaver is more experienced. Also wool could have shrank differently when she washed it? Unmatched stripes or motifs never bothered me because as you say it shows the hand of the maker. And yes the width is determined by the loom available to the weaver at the time so blankets and coverlets can be two or three widths sewn together to make a larger spread. Nice that you are viewing fabrics/textiles differently now and seeing all the hard work that goes into weaving but also the joy as well.

      • Glad you visited my blog and ordered a Folk School catalog!
        Also the lady below could be right that the weaver of the blanket miscounted their picks in each stripe making them uneven. A good reason to write down what you do! If you are like me then I have to write it down or I lose track/ get interrupted etc.

        • Oh, dear–I hoped that that business of always losing count was just because I’m so inexperienced! I forget everything–where I am in the threading, in the treadling, how many inches I’ve done . . . it’s an adventure!

  2. So glad you saw the details in time to save it! Looking at the unmatched stripes, it could be that she (or he) planned to make stripes of 16 picks of each color, but as she got to the end, she was running out of the red and blue, and just decreased each stripe on that end by 2 – 4 picks. Or maybe she was afraid the stew was burning and forgot how many picks she had in the previous stripes, and didn’t want to unroll the cloth to count. Not that I’ve ever done either of those two things, I’m just imagining! 🙂

    • See?! Your experience gives you so much more to draw from! I’m glad I noticed that the blanket was handwoven but I still don’t know what to do with it. I feel like it belongs in a small Quebecois house museum . . .

      • I have textiles like that too. Right now I take them around with me when I do weaving demonstrations, and let people handle them, because they don’t usually get a chance to do that. Someday I will probably donate them.

  3. I love the analysis that is going on! These acts of discovery, in fields one knows well, are always immensely satisfying. Often, though, I guess we don’t really know whether we’re right or wrong… but the search is so rewarding.

    • You know, it’s funny–in my academic career, I did message analysis/rhetorical criticism. I can’t seem to leave that behind, the desire to better understand what we humans are trying to accomplish through our words and works.

  4. the stripes are in the weft, as the previous comments suggest and draw-in would not affect their width. yes the weaver may have forgotten how many picks of colour she was using in the colour stripes – you can check that by counting the weft threads in each colour. another possibility is that most likely it is handspun yarn and the weight could change considerably over the amount of yarn needed for a blanket – possibly spun at different times. It is lovely that you now have such an appreciation for the simple blanket and all the work that went into the making.

    • I’ve learned as much from reading these comments as I did from looking at the blanket! I wondered if the yarn could be homespun but am completely clueless about how to look for that. It does make sense that it would’ve been.

  5. I learnt to weave back in the late 70’s [have I said that before?] and it gave me an appreciation of thread count too. I haven’t been near a loom since 1984 and doubt I would remember the process of threading the warp or anything really – but the appreciation remains! I am impressed with your detective work too and thank heavens there are always commenters on our blogs to put us on the right track!

    • Thanks, Liz! You know, you don’t don’t have to feel the need to return every comment I make with a comment–I trust you to comment when a post really has a meaning for you!

  6. Lovely, lovely story!! That’s what I mean when I feel connected with (domestic) history when handcrafting, expanding skills. Weaving was a cottage industrie: a loom was set up and all family members could work on it, children and grandparents included. That would give it that charming irregularity, the hands of all those weavers. just another way of making some extra cash…

    • I hadn’t really thought about different people working on the same piece but, you’re right, that would give a piece an extra-special look and meaning. My husband and I have said that we can’t weave on the same piece, because our “touch” is so different, but now I’m thinking we should do it exactly for that reason! Thanks, Johanna!

  7. A wonderful piece of detective work, and how exciting to have a hand-woven blanket. I have hand woven cotton blankets (gabi) which are a delight. You may like to read this which looks at handprints on my bed. I won’t add another link to gabi because that will probably make my comment end up in your spam. That seems to happen to my comments when I add too many links. 😦 My aunt used to have a cunning way of mending sheets; the way your blanket is pieced together reminds me a bit of that. Is it possible that two worn blankets have been cut and pieced together to make a whole?

    • Oh, I love that post! I may “borrow” your idea at some point and link back to you! I think you could be right about two damaged blankets being sewn together but, if that were the case, they might’ve been even more different in pattern and match. Fun to think about such frugality, though!

      • You certainly may borrow. I would love to see what you put together. Yes, frugality was the order of the day, but with a lot of my sheets and blankets and towels, I want to hold on to them, not so much because of frugality but because,after many years of wear, they start to feel exactly right; old, comfortable, cosy friends.

  8. Such a lovely story and fascinating bit of analysis (and I love how the comments added pieces to the puzzle)! So cool! I’ve always loved handmade textiles and naturally dyed fibers … heck, my sixth grade science fair project involved comparing how the same wool fibers reacted to various natural dyestuffs when two different mordants, and no mordant at all, were used. 😉 You’d think I would have learned how to weave by now! Anyhow, great post! Thanks for sharing.

    • That’s a pretty cool project for a sixth grader! I’d encourage you to give weaving a try when you get the time–I didn’t expect to find it as compelling as I do!

  9. Wow, I don’t know anything about weaving, but your skillful observations of this blanket has truly impressed me. What beauty one can see in an old “utility” blanket (or anything for that matter) when we see the human imprint on it. Lovely post!

    • I think you’re right–when we switch focus from the homeliness of the object to the story of how it was made, we see things differently. I have a hard time throwing even really badly damaged things away, if they have a little bit of hand embroidery on them!

  10. We have a bag of old tattered blankets in the attic that we use to pad furniture when one of our children moves from one apartment to another. This post makes me want to dig them out, and look at them to see what I can learn about how they were made.

  11. I love your investigative skills on this! I’d be at a loss to figure out any of that but it really is fascinating that so many other people could determine even more details just from the pictures. If I weaved like I crochet I’m sure all of my blankets would have stripes that didn’t quite match up! =)

    • When you taste a new food, can you identify the ingredients and spices that give it flavor? I think that might be similar to weavers seeing clues in the fabric. When we get to know a subject a little, we become detectives!

  12. I just love the old blankets. I remember snuggling under grandma’s old handspun-handwoven blankets made by her aunt in rural Ontario before the turn of the century and still being used, although getting very thin, in the 1970s. Love your website. I have been weaving since 1981, and hope that my grandchildren will also have some good memories of woven blankets.

    • Maybe your grandmother’s aunt made my blanket!! 🙂 Probably, not, though–I really think it was more likely made in Quebec. I wish I could say I’d been weaving since 1981–I’m so new at it and get frustrated about all I don’t know.

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