How Long Does it Take to Make?
That's probably one of the most often asked questions I get asked: "How long does it take to make?" If I were to answer, 'it depends', that really doesn't often satisfy the individual asking the question. It is a fair question so why do I have such a hard time providing a simple answer?
Let me share with you the process I go through from start to finish when working on a particular project. First, I have to decide what I'm going to make. How wide? How long? What materials am I going to use? What colors? What pattern? Easier said that done, believe me when the choices are seemingly almost endless! Let's take this tea towel as an example:
I decided this tea towel would be made with unbleached cotton along with random drops of olive green cotton stripes for the 'frame' (this is the warp - or the threads that run from front to back on a loom). I wanted this tea towel to be about 22 inches (56 cm) wide and about 36 inches long including the hems, anticipating that there would be some shrinkage from the weaving and finishing process. This would give me a finished towel of about 18 inches (46 cm) x 25 inches (64 cm) after hemming and washing. Perfect!
For the weaving structure, I chose a 'twill' pattern which requires a relatively simple, yet elegant threading. I had also decided that I would use cotton bouclé (pronounced boo-clay), which is a knobby, textured yarn that I believe provides for good absorbency and has a fantastic feel to it. The cotton bouclé yarn is fed from one side of the warp to the other, while lifting up alternating warp threads on each pass to get that under/over/under/over interlacing which creates the fabric. OK - we have a pattern, we have a structure and the end is in site. Sort of.....
OK, now we need to create the warp. Huh? What's a warp? Threads of yarn are applied in two different directions on a loom. The front to back threads that create the frame or structure of the fabric is called the 'warp'; the threads that are interposed from left to right and right to left to create the woven pattern is called the 'weft' (just remember passing threads from 'weft to right', you'll remember which threads are warp and which are weft). The size or diameter of thread or yarn used when weaving this twill pattern for this particular project will require about 18 threads per every inch of fabric in both length and width. So, if I want the towel to be 22 inches wide on the loom, I'd need 18 times that - 18 threads per inch, multiplied by 22 inches or 396 threads - in order to get the number of threads to be able to make that towel the width I wanted. I'm going to want to weave at least 4 tea towels so I'll need to make each warp thread 5 yards long, for a total of 1980 yards (1810.5 m) of cotton thread. I diligently count out the 396 threads using a 'warping board' to measure each thread 5 yards long while keeping the threads neat and tidy - which takes several hours.
Let's take a moment and put this all into perspective. To make 4 tea towels, I need more than 1 mile of thread (one mile equates to 1760 yards - these towels need 1980 yards just to make the warp)! Another way to look at this is 1.811 m or 1.8 km of thread. That's counting out 396 threads and measuring each thread to 5 yards or 4.6m. Just saying...
Each thread needs to be threaded through a reed. The reed resembles a comb and is used to space and separate the threads of warp. It's housed in a frame that helps to push (or beat) the weft threads into place by the weaver during the weaving process. That takes time - approximately 90 minutes or so to 'sley' the reed or to pull each thread through one of the slots in the reed. In the image below, every other slot in the reed is threaded in this case for a wool rug but it does illustrate how the reed works to separate the threads:
Each thread then needs to be threaded (yes, all 396 threads!) into individual 'heddles' (a heddle is one of a set of wires or cords housed in a frame with a hole or 'eye' in the center through which a warp yarn is threaded through). Each heddle is housed in a frame called a shaft. Each shaft moves up or down in a particular pattern to create the finished fabric. This takes about 5 hours to do - any mistake in this process can mean broken threads (yikes!) or several errors in the weaving pattern unless corrected (been there, done that). This isn't the best of images however it does show you what a heddle is:
For this towel, the pattern requires the first thread to go into the 'eye' of a heddle on shaft 4, next thread through a heddle on shaft 3, next thread through a heddle eye on shaft 2 and then the next thread after that on shaft 1 and repeat without crossing threads. These particular heddles are called Texsol Heddles and are flexible; other manufacturers make metal heddles. If you identify an issue in the threading of the heddles (eg. instead of threading 4-3-2-1 you instead thread 4-3-3-1,after the weaving has started, you have to undo all of the weaving to that point, fix the error(s) and start all over again. It's far better to identify issues at the time they are created rather than finding them later when they are not so easy to fix. And this all takes time.
The next thing to do is to take all of those threads and attach them to the back beam or roller that houses the length of the warp threads during the weaving process. Again, this takes time - threads to like to stick together and tangle! Assuming all goes well here, it usually takes me less than half an hour to roll the threads onto the warp beam. Some weavers are faster, others are slower. I have improved significantly since I've started and am getting faster all the time. Even for the fastest weaver, this is still a tedious process.
Now we need to tie the warp threads to the front beam which is another roller that will take up the woven cloth as we weave it. The warp threads are advanced back to front as the cloth develops. The threads all need to be attached with a similar tension across the entire width of the warp - and much more difficult than one might think. This is a critical step - getting a consistent tension across each of the 396 threads will help ensure a consistent fabric texture and ensure that the pattern is also consistent. This is a tedious process and probably my least favorite step. This takes me at least 30 minutes, more if I get frustrated and less if I'm 'one with the loom'.
Let's add up the time so far (and understanding that there will be weavers out there who are faster and slower than me) - designing the tea towel, determining a pattern, identifying the materials is about 60 minutes to two hours or even more depending on the nature of the project - we'll use one hour in our calculation. Creating the 1.8 km long warp takes about 2 hours. Sleying the reed (threading each thread through each space in the reed) is 1.5 hours. Threading the heddles is 5 hours at least. Rolling the warp onto the back or warp beam and tying up the warp threads onto the front beam, and evening the tension across the warp another hour or so. That's a total of about 10 hours so far and we haven't woven anything yet!
Let's say it takes me 2 hours to weave each towel, for a total of 8 hours to weave 4 towels. Once completed, I cut the new material off the front and back of the loom and use a serger to stabilize each end of each tea towel as I cut each towel from the warp material. I'm not concerned about the sides of the towels, only the top and bottom as the sides are protected as part of the weaving process. I also hold up each towel to the light to check for 'skips' or other errors in the cloth. Skips occur if you happen to pick up an unwanted thread or two during the weaving process - a trained eye can pick these out. If I have a skip or two, I'll need to fix it by taking a needle and a length of yarn and weave the missing thread back into the fabric. This does not affect the integrity of the piece nor will the thread come out, but it does make the fabric look the way it was intended. Again more time.
I then double-fold the top and bottom to create each hem, pin the hems, ensure everything is straight and patterns line up, hot press with an iron and then very carefully sew the hems by machine which works out to about 30 minutes or so for each towel (total of 2 hours). We're now at 20 hours and I'm still not done yet.
I still need to 'finish' the towels by washing them in a washing machine. Cotton threads have an oil that is added during the spinning process and I always like to remove as much of that as possible - this is part of the 'finishing' process. When washing fabrics, I always throw in a couple of dye-trapping laundry sheets to prevent color bleeding, and then into the dryer they go once washed. After drying, I iron each towel and fold, say another 30 minutes total. Now I'm done. Well, other than wrapping each towel in tissue paper and corrugated cardboard and tying each bundle with a length of jute.
If you've been doing the math with me, you'll get the same result that I do - 20 hours, give or take, to make 4 tea towels, or just over 5 hours for each towel.
No doubt you'll have realized by now that in order to be more efficient, the best way is to increase the length of the warp and plan to weave 10 tea towels or 20 tea towels or more in a single warp. This is because the steps that take the longest amount of time are counting out the threads to make the warp, sleying the reed and threading the heddles.
So, how long does it take to make? Well, it depends....and that's a completely honest answer.