Student Blog: Attending the Weaving Lab

A loom with threads that are the color of the rainbow.

For the second summer in a row, SoHE professor Marianne Fairbanks has taken over the Image Lab at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and transformed it into the Weaving Lab: Plain Cloth Productions. Community members are welcome to come and learn the basics of this ancient art form. As a dedicated member of the SoHE family, a colleague and I venture the block and a half from Nancy Nicholas Hall to try our hands at weaving.

A loom pattern at the Weaving Lab.

Professor Fairbanks and her team have taken full advantage of the relatively small space at the WID. Several looms are set up in a row along the windows facing University Avenue, each with a different learning target. The looms intimidate; my first impression is that the technology appears not to have advanced since its initial model. A half dozen or so wooden pedals with cryptic lettering protrude from the bases of the machines, and the hundreds of fibers threaded through the teeth-like needles make me nervous.

Education

We’re greeted by Emma Conklin, a recent graduate of the Textile and Fashion Design program at SoHE, who assures us that the looms’ barks are worse than their bites. We start at loom number four, focused on education. Here we learn the basic vocabulary used among weavers, such as warp (lengthwise threads that are held in tension on a frame or loom), weft (the thread which is weaved through the warp yarns), shuttle (a tool that carries the weft while you weave it) and shed (the space between the fibers that the weft-carrying shuttle passes through). The pedals at the bottom of the loom simply dictate which warp threads are lifted and which are left down, allowing the weaver to create a variety of different patterns while passing the shuttle back and forth. Emma teaches us how to do a plain, or ‘tabby,’ weave, as well as showing us how more complicated patterns are achieved, such as the twill. My personal favorite part of the process is the aggressive ‘beater’ tool, a bar that spans the width of the loom and is used to forcefully push the weft yarn into place so that your weave stays tight and neat.

Meditation and Time
The author practices weaving under the instructor's watchful eye.

The author practices weaving under Emma’s watchful eye.

After getting the hang of the rhythm of weaving, Emma brings us to the third loom. This loom is set up to create a meditation mat, and is designed to explore the meditative value the act of weaving provides “as an act of creation that combines focus and relaxation.” Because the process of weaving is so repetitive, once a weaver gets the hang of the pattern they’re creating the process can feel very calming. Even as we are taught the basics of the machine, I understand how someone could lose track of time once they’ve settled into a rhythm.

The second loom is set up next to a record player with a sizable collection of vinyls. When community members sign up for this loom, they are asked to choose one of the vinyls to listen to while they weave a tea towel. The lab is interested in exploring the different effects of weaving to a variety of music genres. Both of these looms require folks to sign up for hour long sessions online so that they can be guaranteed the full experience without interruption.

Production

Finally, Emma shows us the first loom in the line. This loom is based around production, and is fitted with locally sourced wool yarn from Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill in Mount Horeb. The goal is to see how many yards of wool cloth can be woven on a floor loom. Emma now explains to us the lengthy process of setting up the loom, and it  sounds about as tedious as one might think. Each thread needs to be wound on the loom and individually threaded through one of the needles. The difficult setup and multitude of supplies required by weaving is one of the primary reasons Professor Fairbanks and her team decided to start the Weaving Lab. It functions to make accessible to the public an otherwise costly and time-consuming activity.

Handheld laser cut tapestry loom.

Portable loom designed by Professor Fairbanks. Photo courtesy of Fairbanks.

As we prepare to leave, Emma draws our attention to the handheld looms that are given to any participating community member as a parting gift. The compact looms immediately intrigue my colleague and I, as Professor Fairbanks has developed the pattern to be as convenient and portable as possible. On a piece of wood the size of an iPhone the loom, needle, and comb beater are laser cut to be easily ‘punched-out’ by a budding weaver. We excitedly pick out small bits of yarn wound on pieces of paper to act as our warp and weft, and look forward to playing with the portable looms upon returning to Nancy Nicholas Hall. As we walk back to the office, I sign up for a full length weaving session on my phone, having officially caught the weaving bug.

The Weaving Lab is open Monday through Friday from 9-4pm and Thursday evenings from 5-7pm until August 21st.


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