A handspun, handwoven, mostly hand sewn jacket. Eventually.

In April 2014 I decided to spin and weave fabric a fabric from singles (unplied yarns) for my first planned garment. I bought black (‘black’ in this context means very dark brown) Shetland for the weft, above top left. It was a bit boring when spun from the top, so I carded bats including some slivers of multi-coloured silk. I thought Black Massam (the other two images) would make a good warp: the offspring of a Teeswater ram put to Dalebred or Swaledale ewes, the fibres should be longer, a bit coarser, and have more sheen than the Shetland. In the event neither of the tops were quite as I expected: the Shetland had a lot of kemp (very coarse flattened hairs) and more hair mixed in with the wool, and the Massam was shorter and very variable in thickness. Nonetheless I persevered. Once spun the warp was steamed to set the twist then sized to make it easier to manage; the weft was steamed (otherwise it can twist into little pigtails after the shuttle is thrown and before it’s locked into place by the changed shed).

The sized warp dries under light tension.

I warped and threaded my Baby Wolf loom for an 8-shaft broken diamond twill at 30 epi. The yarns behaved reasonably well on the loom although I had more breakages than I like, mainly where I’d made quick-and-dirty joins while spinning, laying the spun end from the orifice onto the fibre instead of opening up the spun end to join fuzz-to-fuzz. I wasted far more time protecting fraying joins with hair gel than I’d have done making them properly in the first place! The quick joins are fine for yarn to be plied, but they’re disasters waiting to happen if you’re weaving singles.14410873262_a0ab954361_c

I can’t remember how much fabric I had when I finished, but I do remember the wonderful feel of it washed (zig-zag stitch the ends, throw in the washing machine wool wash cycle, remember to clean the filter afterward!) finished (hot iron both sides, no cloth) and the satisfying weight of the roll. But what should I make? Laying out modern pattern pieces on my narrow fabric would be wasteful, and I’m not a tailored jacket sort of person. I decided on a jacket based on Pattern 23, ‘Man’s coat, Afghanistan’ from Dorothy Burnham’s extremely useful Cut My Cote. Never having made anything other than commercial patterns, and never having made anything that actually FIT me, I was a bit unsure of how to start from the sketches of the pattern pieces laid out on the fabric width.


I enrolled in one of Alison Smith‘s ‘Three Day Own Choice’ workshops and – amazingly – emerged having learned to translate the sketch to paper pattern pieces, use these to make a toile, adjust the pattern, cut my fabric, overlock/serger all the edges, sew the jacket AND insert a mandarin collar into the existing collar band. I can’t recommend Alison too highly! I returned home with a lightweight unlined jacket, on which my exposed selvedges are a decorative detail. (Alison’s suggestion, she liked them. All weavers may now pick up their jaws up from the ground and replace them.)


The lack of internal seam finish annoyed me. I decided to weave lengths of inkle band to cover the seam allowances but, several months and about 8m of band later, concluded this was a bad idea: the decorative bands were too bright and, worse, made the seams too stiff. The jacket went into time out (also known as a plastic bag in the closet).

Imagine the flickering calendar pages of time passing…

After seeing one of the reconstructed Herjolfsnes garments at the Ship Museum in Roskilde earlier this year, I started thinking about making some of the dresses for myself, first in a commercial fabric and then in handspun handwoven. Reading about the garments and sewing techniques in Medieval Garments Reconstructed, I remembered the abandoned jacket: I could rip off the inkle bands and practice medieval sewing techniques!

In order to sew, I had to have thread. Handspun thread. Not being able to carefully select the best hairs from my fleeces after washing and shearing my double-coated sheep, I dug through my stash to find the remaining twist of Shetland from the weft. The mix of kemp, hair and wool means it’s far from perfect, but it works.

Top left, singles spun on a light spindle; Below, my plying spindle and mugs;
Right, the final 2-ply thread.

I take pride in my ability to wind fine spun singles into balls without using a core but it is easier to ply from the balls if they don’t bounce around: using a pebble as a core adds weight, and putting each ball into a mug and wrapping the singles around the handle before taking it to the spindle makes it much easier to control. The plied yarn is well within the parameters of those used on the Herjolfsnes originals.

The book mentions the possibility that the threads were finished with something, perhaps beeswax, before sewing. I found quite a lot of information about thread finishes, something that I – a non-sewer – knew nothing about, on the internet. I decided to try running the thread across beeswax before using it, and now I’m a convert, at least for handspun wool thread.


The wax stiffens the thread, making it easier to thread the needle. Being slightly sticky it pulls off some of the fuzz from the thread (see the hairs left in the wax), which makes the thread much easier to work with. And it smells lovely.

Three or four inches at a time, I’m trimming the overlocked finish off the raw edges and binding them down to the garment.


Pebbles from California on which to wind thread, the snips I use to trim the fabric, and the bowl in which for some reason I’ve kept ALL the edges I’ve so far trimmed off the seam allowances.
I think it’s time I threw that lot away.

Before sewing, the raw edges on the Herjolfsnes garments were stabilised by ‘singling’: a fine thread was sewn to and fro into the thickness of the fabric, in from the edge, not stabbed up and down through the fabric. I haven’t enough raw edge on the seam allowances to do that, so I’m taking pains to run the needle in and out of the fabric for additional stabilising as I sew one way, then I take it back over the fabric to the starting point. A picture is worth a thousand words:


I’m trying to stitch every 2mm or a little less. You can see the waxy whiteness of the beeswax on those recent stitches, but it soon disappears as the garment is handled.

I think the end result looks good, is appropriate for a handspun, handwoven fabric, and will allow me to tell people about the astonishing finds at Herjolfsnes.


Some of the internal seams. The stitches are not generally this visible: I chose the light angle to highlight them.


Seams as they appear on the outside of the garment. The stitches pick up a thread or two of the fabric at both ends, so create a subtle and decorative ridge.

Once I finish all the internal seams (as you can see from the pattern, there are more than a few), I will try my hand (and foot) at fut-slyinging, incorporating a foot-tensioned tablet-woven decorative band along the hems. I think all this handspun thread, hand sewn and woven really should outweigh the fact that the garment seams are machine-sewn!

Also, some of those seams were even sewn with an appropriate needle. Bone.


A tiny piece of velveteen

In March a friend asked me what I knew about fustian weaves. I’m fascinated by European textiles from the Medieval period through the Middle Ages, so I started talking about fabrics woven from mixed materials. Linsey-woolsey is a well-known example, wool weft on a linen warp, but there were cotton wefts on linen warp and wool weft on cotton warp too. But she was interested in the fustians of the late 19th and early 20th century, by which time it had come to mean a pile fabric.

Pile fabrics are interesting. The pile is created by weaving a fabric with floats: where normally the threads might interlace over-under-over-under-over-under, in a pile fabric either the warp (the threads held on the loom) or the weft (the thread held on a shuttle and passed through the warp threads) will float over several threads before it is locked down again. If warp threads float, the fabric is a velvet; if weft threads float, the fabric is a velveteen. This will make more sense if you read it again, looking at the diagram of a velveteen. Start at the bottom and work up:

Rough diagram of a velveteen, a weft pile fabric. I have completely ignored the structure of the selvedges (the edges of the fabric); these are often different from the main fabric.

Because the pile weft is not structural – it’s not needed to hold the warp threads together because the ground weft does that – the floats can be cut, taking great care not to cut the ground weft or the warp thread. The red arrows mark the most obvious cut lines, straight down the middle of the floats. When the floats are cut, the cut ends rise up to form pile. If all the floats are cut, the entire fabric is covered in velveteen pile. If vertical groups of floats are cut and uncut, there will be ridges of pile alternating with furrows of smooth fabric: corduroy!

My friend and I searched for pattern drafts – diagrams of how to set up the loom and weave the fabric – of fustian weaves from this time, and found H. (‘Harry’) Nisbet’s Grammar of Textile Design, third edition (with 669 illustrations!) published in Bombay, as a PDF on the invaluable cs.arizona.edu weaving archive. Chapter II is Fustians, from Imperial or Swansdown through Corduroy and Corduroy Cutting Machines. Nisbet gives a good if somewhat … Victorian … description of the structures of these and many other fabrics. If you want more information about fustians or are interested in fabric, it’s a decent free book.

On page 141 there’s a velveteen draft/diagram, together with a useful illustration of the way that the cut floats form pile.
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I redrew the ‘design for velveteen fabric’ as a modern weaving draft. The bright pink threads mark the centre of the floats.25549370302_66b9bf3e15_o

By now I was entranced by the idea of weaving velveteen. Not a lot of it, as I suspected cutting the pile was going to be very tricky without a fustian cutter’s table and knives, or even full-fledged mechanisation, but still. Worth a try. Handwoven velvety stuff. Cool!

From what I could find about sett (the density of threads on the loom) and the velvets and velveteens I remembered seeing in shops, I thought sewing thread might be a reasonable warp. I assumed there must be a good reason that most silk velvets I looked at online had cotton warp and ground weft, so I bought a bargain bag of variously coloured cotton thread on eBay. I had some odd cones of 20/2 silk in the weaving stash. It occurred to me that the ground weft should not show in the areas of cut pile – the pile expands to conceal it – but would be visible on the back of the fabric, so I chose three (red, orange, gold) that looked good together and wound a 2m warp. The three spools gave me 200 ends; set 60 ends per inch (6/6/6 in a 10-dent reed), that’s only 3″ wide. Still, proof of principle and all that.

This gives some idea of the warp colours and the scale. I used some ugly silk for my first pile weft and purple cotton for the ground weft. Note that there’s a band of plain weave (the ground weft weave, over-under-over-under) before and after the strip of velveteen floats in greyish silk.

Cutting the pile floats was indeed tricky. When this sort of thing is woven commercially, the equipment includes long grooved rods to be inserted down the cutting lines. The rods lift the floats and protect the warp and ground weft threads; the grooves guide the cutting blades. I used a medium-fine darning needle and a single-edge razor blade instead. Wearing strongly magnifying reading glasses I ran the needle under a line of floats, then ran the razor blade down the needle. It worked. The finest (Clover) chenille cutter I could find  didn’t work, it was far too coarse for this.velveteen1

As one might expect of something sharp running against steel, the razor blade required regular sharpening. I kept my fine whetstone next to the loom and re-touched the edge after every strip of velveteen.

But it was a phenomenally slow process. Each group of three red or blue velveteen stripes (at right, below) separated by bands of plain weave (the ground weft alone) took 3 hours to weave and cut.

The truly horrible uneven selvedges are a result of alternating plain weave (the ground weave stripes) with the velveteen float weave. The silk weft is much thicker than the sewing thread weft of the plain weave stripes, so the velveteen stripes are wider. Note that the shiny uncut pile floats contrast beautifully with the pile, and that the pile can be cut in patterns. Lots of scope for fabric design here.

I was right; the reverse/back of the fabric was beautiful! The stripes are different colours of cotton thread ground weft – purple, yellow, pink – plus the red and turquoise silks I used as a pile weft. The pale vertical line is a repaired warp thread.

I learned a lot from this.

  • Even weft tension is important, otherwise loose loops of ground weft may be caught by the needle and cut.
  • Contrasting ground weft helps the weaver to spot this.
  • 100% silk velvet is unusual and expensive because a silk warp and ground weft wouldn’t grip the silk pile weft as firmly as cotton does. Of course silk is more expensive than cotton, too. Mercerised cotton is shiny enough and works well for warp and ground weft.
  • While inserting something down a line of floats in order to cut them, keep an eye on the adjacent cut edges: if your needle/whatever is too thick, or you lift it too high, you may pull the adjacent cut edge under the locking thread. I found it better to cut long lines of floats in two tranches because one long one required lifting the needle too high.
  • If you want nice, even pile, try hard to run the cutting blade down the middle of the needle. It’s easier to cut down the side of the needle, but this means one side of the cut float is shorter than the other. The uneven pile doesn’t reflect the light as evenly, and the shorter ends are more likely to pull out when you cut the next float.

I now had a tiny gemlike strip of precious fabric, too pretty and too interesting not to be used for something. Obviously it had to be a hussif or housewife, a little needle case that I could use when travelling with embroidery.

While I was sewing it, wearing magnifying glasses and swearing under my breath, A. asked if I honestly enjoyed making tiny things, as I make so many. Why don’t I make bigger things to work out the details? Well, I only had enough fabric to make one of these, and it wasn’t so complicated (except for the scissors-keeper) that I felt I needed to make a tester. The scissors-keeper I made twice to check the details. The final version is sewn from scraps of sari silk; the snap is off-centre because it now fits neatly inside one of the finger loops of my cherished Bohin scissors. The felt is handmade; the thimbles are sitting on top of their tiny pocket.

And I do like making small things. I enjoy pernickety attention to detail, I do it well, which is why I was a good technical illustrator and a very bad landscape painter (I wanted to show every leaf, accurately). Of course I enjoy making things even more if I know what I’m doing, but it’s fun even when I haven’t a clue and am working it out as I go along.


Copenhagen drain covers: gotta catch ’em all!

Well, maybe not ALL of them. I noticed some days ago that many of the street access covers are much more attractive than those in London. Like New Orleans’ ‘Crescent City’ water company meter covers, they add interest to the street. Also note that most of the pavements/sidewalks are cobbled. And despite frequent street sweepers, there are lots of cigarette butts: it’s surprising how many people smoke in a city full of organic food shops!

We were puzzled by a frequent but irregular ‘whoosh’ sound outside the flat. It wasn’t the lift bridge, the rumble of car tires over the wide pavement. Nothing was moving, but still there was The Noise. Yesterday morning we worked out what it was:

Nyhavn has so many tourists, so much garbage, that these bins are self-emptying: the whoosh was the vacuum sucking the waste to a central, more accessible collection point.

Another indication of just how many people visit the bars (and drink Copenhagen’s own beer): the beer is delivered by tanker. This one holds 9000 litres.

Copenhagen: last day

I’d seen and done all the things on my ‘A’ list, so we decided to visit the Cisternerne, an unusual attraction that also required a long walk – thus justifying one last smørrebrød at Torvehallerne.

Immigration is an issue here as elsewhere in Europe. This set of billboards seemed to me an honest attempt to bring the problem into the open for discussion.

We walked past Pumpehuset, built in the 19th century to supply Copenhagen with water from the lakes Damhussøen and Sankte Jurgens Sø and now a concert venue.

We walked through areas of housing, past urban schools with what look like innovative, interesting play areas. I didn’t stand on the helicopter landing pad, but I did bounce gently on the nearby trampoline. The playground surface is soft, resilient made from recycled tires.

We walked through the Carlsberg brewery. Copenhagen sits on an area of moraines and other glacial deposits with many sand lenses trapping clean water. The brewery was built here to use the water, although it soon exhausted that supply.

Past the elephants and into the park to find the wide flat lawn and fountain over the Cisternerne. The yellow building is the Frederiksberg Palace. The cisterns were built to supply clean water to the city after a cholera outbreak in 1853. Originally the water was open to the air, a vast ornamental lake in front of the Palace. To prevent contamination the  cisterns were covered in 1891 and the lake was replaced with the lawns and fountain. They remained in use until 1933, and full of water until 1981. When Copenhagen was European Cultural Capital in 1996 the cisterns became an exhibition space. A single large glass panel is a reminder of the glass museum that was located here:

The current exhibition, by Eva Koch, fills the three vast chambers (4.2m high) with echoes of the First World War. Very effective. 

But the cisterns are notable for the stalactites and stalagmites forming rapidly as ground water penetrates cracks in the concrete, dissolving and redepositing the lime.

Back up the stairs into humid heat and we walked to Torvehallerne. I had admired the stair rails the last time we walked this way – there’s much more pre-20th century metalwork here than in London, where it was recycled into materials for WWII.

Torvehallerne! Smørrebrød! Øle! (ale). I met Brianna in the queue, on her way back to the US after a year in Europe; we talked about home vs Home and the fact that after 36 years away Home is now where A. and I are, not the place where we feel it should be.

A leisurely meander back to Papierøoen to sit in the sun and sip beer; a serendipitous shower allowed us to claim deckchairs.Until it was time to find pizza and wine to console us: we leave tomorrow morning.

Copenhagen Day Four: Roskilde and the Vikingeskibsmuseet

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

A long time ago, at a Medieval Textiles conference in London in 2011, I was held spellbound by Anna Nørgård talking about spinning and weaving sails for the reconstructed Viking Age ships at Roskilde. I took copious notes – I still have them on file – and clearly remember purposefully forging through the crowd to handle the samples of yarn and sailcloth, as it came off the loom and after waterproofing with fat from whatever animals had died recently. I promised myself that one day I would go to the Roskilde Vikingeskibsmuseet and see the woollen sails on the ships. 

The timing of this entire holiday was determined about 6 months ago by the availability of evening cruises on the fjord (in reality a large brackish waterbody, no cliffs. This is Denmark, not Norway) in vessels built at the Skibsmuseet, plus A Birthday date. 

The twin pointy things visible over the rooftops are two spires of Roskilde Cathedral.

So at long last on Thursday morning we walked north to Nørreport for the train to Roskilde.There is more to see here:  Roskilde Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first Gothic cathedral in Scandinavia, the first Gothic cathedral built of brick, and the burial place of Danish monarchs since the 15th century. 

It’s impressive. Very impressive. Strangely approachable, almost homely in warm red brick by comparison with the   more usual cold grey stone. Someone was practising on the organ (the oldest parts of which date from 1555).

Medieval wall paintings cover some of the chapels. Those in St Birgitta’s chapel date from the early 1500s.

The main theme, though, is the death of Danish monarchs. There’s a good summary here with photos, albeit not English text.

The chapel containing the monuments to Christian 9 and Louise, Christian 10 and Alexandrine, and Frederik 9 and Ingrid is stunning in its relative simplicity. Tombs of grey granites and marbles and white marble statues (the ‘three sisters of the Little Mermaid’: Grief, Memory and Love. The sculptor Edvard Eriksen’s wife was the model for all four) are bathed in light from the dome, reflecting off the white walls. It’s Northern and beautiful, and too busy for a photo while we were there. 

The chapel of Frederic 5 has a similar feel but the neo-classicist style is more ornate.

I was rather taken by the use of dead blacke velvet to cover some of the coffins. Intending no disrespect to Juliana Maria, my eye was caught by some of the gold trim … It looks very like brocaded tablet weaving.

Christian 1’s chapel is also richly painted with frescoes from the second half of the 1400s.

It’s worth several hours.

Follow the signs, walk down the hill to the harbor, and we’re there.

The café serves good food and information

While we waited for our lunch (it had been a long morning and would be a longer evening), i bounced around the workshops in the yard. Especially this one: the rope maker. He was at lunch, but the materials – and a counter covered with sample ropes were there to be admired. Look closely at the cones of hemp yarn visible at right: that’s the last stock of hemp yarn tight-spun for  ropemaking in the world. If they want more they’ll have to commission it, and the minimum order is enough to rig an entire ship larger than any Roskilde have.

In addition to the ‘Viking’ boats, the ship museum builds and maintains a collection of traditional working boats. They’re building another take of the Gislinge boat, a working boat from c. 1130. She should be ready for the water some time in November 2016.

Early log boats (hollowed trees) were enlarged by adding boards to raise the side, sewn together with fir or spruce roots, or lime bast.

The rope maker was back! We talked about lime bast vs seal hide, and he showed me how to make rope from bast. I’ve studied Youtube to no avail, but now I think i understand.

It’s more wrap than twist, although there is twist. The winder is used to add a little more twist.Starting the loop at one end of the rope. Each piece of bast rope is made to order, a specific length, with the ends finished in a specific way.

I spent ages watching and asking questions before i took my leave and we headed into what is for most people the main event: the building housing the restored original Viking boats.

A 1:10 model of one of the boats, used to work out the principles before planning the full-size replica.

Down the far end, in good light, we saw a warp-weighted loom of linen yarn and someone sewing: Anna making linen ‘summer’ sails for the 2016 Gislinge boat.

We talked about nettle and linen and the Must Farm finds, and then it was time to go and wait for the evening cruise. Not in fact one of the big and rather temperamental Viking boats, but a replica Norwegian working boat – with a hand-woven, hand-sewn greased woollen sail. Not hand-spun: it would take too long for one spinner who also has to weave! Anna spun samples that were sent to the mill. I don’t have many photos: I was a little reluctant to have my phone out while we were on the water. 

Apparently this is an old sail, wearing thin, so the wind goes through it more than it should. It catches more wind when freshly dressed, but people in the boat object to melted grease dripping from the sail in hot weather. 

We rowed out of the harbour (i like rowing, except for the person behind me who couldn’t keep stroke) until we caught the wind and could raise the sail. We sailed out, around the island and back; tacking was required. A. had the tiller for most of the journey back and was told he’d done very well fir someone who’d never sailed before. It’s not easy trying to keep the wind in the sail AND the boat making progress to the harbour. Then we rowed back into the harbour and i still liked it, except for the same person behind me.

And then we walked to the station and caught the train back to Copenhagen. 2300 hours was a long day of fun.

Copenhagen Day Three (most of it, anyway)

For at least the last week our weather app has said this will be the wettest day, so we declared it Museum Day, just in case the app was right. 

So, after breakfast at the Lagkagehuset on Torvegade in Christianshavn – where we ate yesterday, and they remembered me as the English person with the skulls – we walked to the National Museum of Denmark. And then around the block because it wasn’t open yet. A, poor man, was following me, and I had one goal: Danish Pre-history (which is to say Danish history before anyone wrote it in words). 

I have, therefore, A Lot of pictures. Well over 100, in fact. Here are some of the highlights…

The skeleton of an elk that died in a bog nearly 9000 years ago.Probably not of natural causes: the small bone point was amongst the bones, the harpoon and shafts nearby.

A fragment of fish spear stll bound to its shaft with BAST FIBRES(!! my emphasis), 8000 years ago.

The skull of Porsmose man, bone arrow through his face and another through his sternum. It was striking (ha, not funny) how many weapons were on display in the Prehistory section. Admittedly they survive when other organics might not, but still: imbalance.)

This is so amazing I have trouble finding the words to explain its significance: an ard. The first, the earliest plough. Probably pulled by one human, guided by another. An agricultural revolution before the concept existed.

Crops and domesticated animals: a strainer for making cheese.

And then the main event, at least for me. The tour groups clustered  around Egtved Girland her reconstructed garments

but I looked into the hollows where Skrydstrup Woman‘s eyes should be, and was lost.

There were other graves at Skrydstrup, with textiles, but as I looked at her I felt she could be looking back. Are we answers to her unasked questions?

Then I learned new things about sun symbols,and something I’d never heard about before, the Bronze Age concept of the Journey of the Sun across the sky. Their webpage has the diagram, but not the explanation: the sun travels around and across the flat earth. At sunrise a Fish pulls the sun up over the horizon from the Night Ship to the Morning Ship, and is then eaten by a Bird. At noon the Sun Horse takes the sun from the ship -incidentally the stylised ‘s’ of the sun horse(s) looks exactly like other assumed sun symbols in the iconography of Near East rugs and embroidery! In the afternoon the Sun Horse delivers the sun to the deck of the Afternoon Ship. In the evening the Snake passes the extinguished sun to the night ship.Part of the totally engrossing Journey of the Sun display.

Ninth-century BC blankets found with the body of a woman in a bog in Jutland. Think of the woman, but also note that one blanket appears to be thoroughly fulled.Me leaving noseprints on the glass as I peer at said blankets.

As we walked through pre-history I counted spindle whorls and other mentions of ‘women’s work’. It wasn’t difficult: no discussion of spinning, weaving, cooking. (As opposed to weaponry, battles, injuries.) One Bronze Age spindle whorl (shale) and about 5 Viking age (pottery). Ninth-century AD gravegoods from women’s graves in Jutland, including tortoise (shaped like) brooches and spindle whorls.

Finally the display of Viking Age domestic finds from Trelleborg included spindles and loom weights.Huh. No wonder the ‘Viking!’ exhibition at the BM was all about shiny and killing people: it was telling the same story. 

But Skrydstrup Woman has forgotten more than we will ever know.

And then we went to the Glyptotek followed by Groms pizza and wine and ice cream. It’s raining, but tomorrow should be dry.Tomorrow is Roskilde and the Viking Ship Museum.

Copenhagen Day Two, part ii

Across the Indershavnbroen (which opened on the 14th July, only 2 weeks ago), bear left, left again, then follow the crowd to Copenhagen Street FoodMicro-brewery beer, good food, sun, boats. Just as we finished our second plate of food, we inherited two comfy chairs. So we sat and enjoyed another beer while the sun sank behind the Skuespilhuset (Royal Danish Playhouse).

Then we passed our chairs on to the next generation and walked back to the flat. It’s supposed to rain tomorrow.

We really like it here.