Four-Shaft Weaving with Laura Fry

This past week, I spent with Laura Fry at her studio in British Columbia, weaving and learning.  She and her husband Doug generously hosted me and Kai and we had an absolute blast.  (Yes, I got to bring Kai with me on my weaving adventure.  He and Doug did fun things during the day while Laura and I wove.  How cool is that?)

The things I learned were subtle.  Small refinements like: wear thin slippers while weaving to protect your feet from strain, how to wind weft onto a bobbin without leaving a tail you’ll have to cut off later, etc.  No single lesson was life-changing; but there were so many little tweaks and improvements, that overall my weaving has taken a leap forward.

One of the most surprising things I learned this past week, was just how satisfying and lovely four-shaft projects can be.  In my race to learn all that I can about weaving, I quickly jumped from four shafts, to eight shafts, to sixteen shafts.

So I was a bit disappointed when the first loom Laura sat me down to weave was on a four-shaft LeClerc Fanny counterbalance loom.  I’d heard that counterbalance looms were limited to balanced weave structures only, and the pulleys on top looked terribly antiquated and old-school.  Laura is known for her wicked-fast weaving on an electronic 16-shaft loom.  Why the heck was she starting me with this?


LeClerc Fanny

But once I sat down and started weaving (and after the awkwardness of the new finesse  Laura added to my weaving motions wore off) I fell in love with four-shaft weaving all over again.  The Fanny performed flawlessly, with big sheds and solid and easily adjustable tension.  I—a confirmed computer-assisted loom enthusiast—enjoyed the mental exercise of teaching my feet new treadling patterns for each tea towel.  By the end of the week, I was day dreaming about whether I had room for a counterbalance loom anywhere in my house.  (Verdict: I don’t.)

Kai was with me, and I had a WeaveZine deadline to hit, so I wasn’t able to get to all the various projects Laura had planned.  But perhaps that was meant to be.  Perhaps I needed to learn that four-shaft weaving was just as lovely and wonderful as it had been when I first started to weave.  That even if you can weave more complicated things, you don’t have to.  That even simple structures can be satisfying and fulfilling.  I’d known that about plain weave and rigid-heddle weaving, why hadn’t I realized it about four-shaft weaving?

Other lessons learned

  • The loom is a tool.  If it’s not working perfectly, change it.  (Doug is a wonderful loom mechanic and showed me many of his inventions and enhancements to Laura’s textile gear.)
  • Industry pirn winders are very cool.  Imagine loading a bunch of pirns into a cartridge and coming back a while later to find them all perfectly wound.  Wowsa.
  • British Columbia is a stunningly beautiful province to drive through.

Beautiful British Columbia

  • Kai is a superb car traveler.  Fifteen hours in one go with no whining.  Few adults could rival that.  We listened to The Hobbit audiobook (twice) which helped.
  • Weavers, spinners and felters in B.C. are friendly and serve up a killer potluck.
  • Tim Hortons is really as good as Canadians say.
  • Many little weaving and warping efficiencies, right down to “hold your hand this way, not that, it’s more comfortable and faster.” The kind of coaching you just can’t get from a book or video.  Having a live teacher really makes a difference.


Weaving on Laura's Big LoomAnd it wasn’t all four-shaft weaving.  Laura did let me have a go on the big loom, in all its air-assist, four-fly shuttle, glory.

I’d forgotten that I was wearing my oh-so-lovely big yellow hearing protection when she snapped the photo.  But it’s a great opportunity to talk about the importance of protecting your hearing on a noisy loom.  Flyshuttles are noisy, so is the air assist on Laura’s loom.  Hearing protection, especially one with a high-impact filter, is the smart thing to do.  This headset has a built-in MP3 player, so I can even listen to tunes and podcasts while I weave.

A wonderful week, indeed.  Getting to spend time with Laura and Doug was every bit as fun as learning to weave.

I came home all fired up about weaving and have already woven off one warp, and beamed on a second.  For me, it’s as much about the peace and meditation of weaving as it is about creating textiles.


The biggest lesson I got from Laura and the hours I spent in her studio: I’m a better, happier, less stressed person when I weave.

JMM: Day Two

This blog post could be subtitled: String Heddles Kick My Butt.

The day started off well.  I settled down to weave on my knotted-pile project.  Of course, before I could begin, I needed to weave a header in plain weave, and to make that easier I needed to tie some string heddles for the loom, so I didn’t have to hand-pick the sheds.

Easy-peasy, right?  I mean, this is basic inkle-loom weaving stuff.  You find a spot on the loom that’s the right size and you tie thread in circles.

The first challenge was finding a thread thin enough for the heddles so that it wouldn’t interfere with the closely sett warp.  I picked up a mill end Judith had brought that I thought was 20/2 cotton.

not your friend

First lesson learned: know your yarn.

The yarn turned out to be a slippery rayon, and no matter what knot I used (square knot, surgeon’s knot, etc.) it slipped right out.  The second issue, it started breaking.  Judith also said something about the yarn probably being reverse-twist and that was also complicating matters.

So back to the drawing board.  We both looked around for a strong 20/2 cotton (all the ones there broke easily) or a 60/2 silk, but couldn’t find either.

Second lesson learned: bring the right supplies

So, there being no way to materialize 60/2 silk out of the air (I did try, mind you, several times) I hopped in my car and spend an hour running home and back to the retreat.

At home I grabbed up some wonderful yarn I got “somewhere” (I get a lot of my yarn from weaver’s garage sales and such like) which is a super-fine nylon string.  I’ve used it for woven shibori, and previous string heddles.  It’s great: slick, strong, and thin.  The cone it was on was unlabeled, and I have no idea where to get more.  If you know of a source, please leave a note in the comments.

So I get back to the retreat, eat a wonderful and healthy lunch.  (Good food I didn’t have to cook and all-day weaving with friends, it just doesn’t get much better than this!)

tie 102 onBolstered by gazpacho and pita pockets, I headed back to the loom and begin tying the 102 string heddles I need for the project.

Third lesson learned: that’s a lot of string heddles

The nylon was slippery, and even with surgeon’s knots kept wanting to come undone, so I had to tie multiple knots, which slowed things down.  Plus I was running out of the nylon, so I was trying to tie the knots with very little waste, which also made things trickier.

It was a bit frustrating, but then I had to laugh at myself.  If I wasn’t up for tying a few knots, then what the heck was I doing warping up this kind of project, anyway?  Because once I start weaving, I’ll have to tie nearly 100 knots in every row!

That bit of perspective got my mind right, and I settled into enjoying the conversation around me and the mindless repetition of tying knots.

Finally, I got all the heddles tied and on the loom.

Then I noticed the twining error I’d made in the warp.  I’d gone up-down-down-up in one place instead of up-down-up-down.


The only fix was to take out the twining and redo it.  Happily, the error was only a few ends from the edge, so that was a snap!

Fourth lesson learned: if you persist with a happy and willing heart, sometimes the weaving gods give you a break.


At one point during today’s retreat, Judith brought out a collection of shuttles to show the various designs and styles.  Included in the mix was one of her personal shuttles that’s she’s woven with for a long time.

How cool is that?!?  You know you’re good when your shuttle tell you so!


I ended the day with the heddles all on, and the twining fixed.  Tomorrow, I’m gonna weave something!

JMM: Day One

If you’ve listened to the early episodes of WeaveCast, you’ll have heard the story of how I learned to weave at a five-day weaving retreat with Judith MacKenzie McCuin.  It takes place every year not 30 minutes from where I live.  (Which is practically a miracle, because I live in the boonies.)

Since then, I’ve attended most years, when finances and schedule allowed.  This is one of the years I get to go.  Most years the same people come back and take the retreat, so it’s become over the years like a gathering of old friends.  It’s fun to see how everyone’s weaving is progressing from year-to-year.


This year, continuing in the theme of “summer of slow weaving” that started with me taking tapestry classes at ANWG, I’ve decided to learn cut-pile weaving from Judith.  The kind practiced in the Middle East, where each knot is individually hand tied.

The first warp I tried was gorgeous, charcoal-colored, worsted-spun wool that Judith had in her class supplies, sett at 12 ends per inch.  Unfortunately, after I’d warped it up I realized my hands were swelling a bit.  It might have had some alpaca in it, and over the years I’ve come to realize that I’m allergic to alpaca.  Weaving with that and throwing bits up in the air to breathe would not have been good (as I found out the last time I tried to spin alpaca, alas.)

But no worries, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of weaving silk pile (ala the multi-talented Sara Lamb) for a while now, so this presented the perfect opportunity.  I hopped in my car and brought back all the silk yarns I could find in my stash that might work.  I ended up warping with a light-copper colored 20/2 silk sett at…are you sitting down?  Twenty-four ends per inch.

Now I know that there are rugs woven in Iran that are a staggering 120 knots to the inch, but this is my first rug I’m working on here!  Fortunately, it’s based on a design 8-1/2 inches by 11 inches, so at least it’s not too big.

I’m not sure if I’m in denial about just how many knots this sampler rug is going to take, but I was happy as a clam warping it up.  It took some experimenting to find a twining thread thin enough that I could use it to space out the threads properly.  I ended up using a 20/2 cotton.  Isn’t it pretty?


In a happy moment of serendipity, I discovered that one of my impulse purchases from ANWG is going to be just the thing for helping me weave this piece.  It’s a teensy weensy beater produced by Northwest Looms. 


When I saw it, I knew immediately that I needed it; I just wasn’t sure what for.  A week later, it’s the perfect beater for a project that arose out of necessity.  Intuition is like that, I guess.  You get a flash of “do this” that makes no sense at all…until later, when it all comes together.

I had to leave class early to go pick up Kai from school and be a mom.  I’m really looking forward to tomorrow and getting started weaving!

ANWG: Day Four

Ow.  My brain hurts…but in a good way.

sleyingToday was the first day of the Koehler workshop on tapestry basics.  We started off the day by warping our looms.  One of the wonderful things about taking a workshop from a good teacher is that you get all these wonderful little tweaks and efficiencies that aren’t in any of the books.  Ironically, two of the gems of information I got in today’s tapestry class were tips on how to warp a floor loom.  (James weaves his tapestries on Macomber floor looms.)  First of all, you can use a credit card (that you don’t mind scratching up, not your main Visa) to thread a reed.  Wrap the thread over the end of the credit card and then pass it through the reed.

The second refinement is a way to tension warps with one hand while winding on with the other.  You tie onto the back beam, then take the warp under the front beam, over the top of the entire loom, and hold it in one hand under tension while you crank on with the other.

warping finesse

Once the looms were threaded, we started weaving.  First we wove a header to spread the warp and to build a base to beat our tapestry against.  James showed us how to bubble the warp.  I finally understood what he meant by seeing sine waves in front of him all day in his studio (mentioned in the interview I taped with him yesterday.)  I thought he was referring to his harmonic oscillation series, but he wasn’t.  He was talking about the sinuous way he bubbles the warp before he beats it in place.  Watching his hands wove was mesmerizing, the movements were so fluid and efficient.  There was absolutely no wasted motion.

I spent a lot of time back at the loom watching what my hands did, and the resulting cloth they made.  I worked on perfecting the technique, weaving more header than was strictly necessary.  My hands aren’t  fluid, and my sine waves often look more like hills, but every once in a while it would all come together.  And as the day progressed my bubbling got less awkward and more fluid.  At one point I cried out: “I’ve got sine waves!”  (Which, given my name, seemed only fair.)

sine waves

After the header was woven, James showed us how to do twining and a hem woven with the warp yarn as weft.  Then we were ready to start weaving.  We started with two colors weaving in the same direction and practiced splicing and slits.

That doesn’t sound like a lot for an all-day class, does it?  Let me assure you, it was.  Because this isn’t just a “how to weave tapestry” class.  It’s a “how to weave excellent tapestry” class.  Each technique was shown with all of James’ personal finesses explained, and it often took several demos to wrap your head around a given technique.

A tough class, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Tapestry is sloooow.  If you’re going to weave something that takes this long, it should look perfect.

That night, a surprise.  I walked down to the supermarket to buy some shampoo (I’d run out early in the conference, and bar soap just wasn’t cutting it.)  While there, I ran into Joann, one of the other tapestry students.  It had gotten dark while I was shopping and Joann offered me a ride home in her car.  Instead of taking me straight home, she took me on something I call “Joann’s Magical Mystery Tour.” She showed me several wondrous sites in downtown Spokane (who knew it was such a cool city?) which were even more magical at night.  We got close to the raw power of the waterfall, toured the vintage steam-punk glory of the steam house (now converted into a restaurant and fancy offices, but retaining all the orginal equipment that used to supply steam power and heat to the whole city, and drove along the cliff overlooking Spokane (yes, the city is not all flat.)

It was all the spontaneous fun that I used to have with friends when I was in college.  We’d pile into a car and just drive, making our own adventure.  A reminder that adventure is not just for the young.  As I close in on 40, it’s worth noting.