One of the most exciting things about this Spring/Summer 2019 production has been making a striped warp. Up until now, all the fabrics have been woven onto plain warps, so all the stripes and patterns have been textural, through rigging the loom, or fed in as contrast weft yarns. This makes for some really interesting textures and allows me to experiment with short lengths of different designs, but there are some things (a check, for example) which can only practically be woven with a striped warp.
The warp in a woven piece of fabric is the yarn which runs along the full length of the cloth (eg in standard denim you have an indigo warp, which goes up and down, and an ecru weft, which runs across). Weaving is the process of filling in the warp with weft, on a loom. The way this work industrially is that you have a big roll of warp yarns, on a 'beam' which looks like a gigantic cotton reel, on one side of the loom. The weft is fed though the warp across the width of the loom, and woven fabric comes out the other side of the loom, back onto another waiting beam. At the start of the process you have a full beam of warp on the back and an empty beam on the front; at the end you have an empty warp beam at the back and a full beam of woven fabric at the front.
Unlike a cotton reel, where you have a single length of thread wrapped round and round and back and forward over the full length of the reel, for a warp beam there are lots of 'ends' (warp strands) of yarn rolled up parallel to each other. If you unwound a warp beam you'd have a set of parallel yarns lying on the floor, right next to each other. They mustn't get twisted or overlap each other, so setting up a warp is a very precise and extremely fiddly process. Here are some pictures:
Yarn arrives from the spinners as 'packages', or cones of yarn, about the size of a mid-sized pumpkin. These get set up, on their sides, on a big frame called a creel:
each one of the packages will get wound onto the warp beam until it runs out, at which point another package will be 'mended' (tied) on and continue to run through.
The yarn is fed through a set of guides all along the length of the creel:
then down through a set of stepped vertical pins called 'sheds':
until you move from a set of stacked packages across multiple frames in the creel, down to a single neatly spaced horizontal plane of ends, ready to wind onto the warp beam:
the beam gets rotated on its axis, winding the yarn through the sheds, until you have a full warp beam, which gets labeled with tailors chalk to mark what yarn count (thickness- this is single twelves, meaning twelve count yarn which has not been plied up):
Now you have a warp beam, which could be woven from right away. But for this particular fabric I wanted to make a striped warp. I had assumed that this would be done from different yarns on the creel, but in fact to make a stripe you take a complete warp beam of each colour and combine them.
A plain indigo warp was made up in the same way as the ecru warp above, then the two warps are set next to each other, at one end of long series of rollers and spacers:
The yarn that will become the finished warp runs flat along the lower level of rollers in the photo above-Â to the left you can see the plain ecru, and to the rightÂ of the indigo beam you can see that the indigo yarn has been laid on top of the ecru, and they're almost mixing together. Note, too, that the ecru and indigo on their own are relatively loosely spaced, while the combined warp to the right of the picture is much more closely spaced. Here's a closeup:
The combined warp yarns are still just raw spun cotton at the moment, quite fluffy and also fairly fragile- you could easily break the yarn with a firm pull. The next step is to starch the yarn, called 'sizing', ready for weaving. This is done to the whole warp, which gets treated as if it was a piece of woven cloth.
The warp is drawn up, under tension, across a series of rollers and into a vat (under the red line):
into which a slurry of hot water and potato starch is poured:
you can see the size really changes the quality of the yarn- coming in steamy but unsized on the right, and leaving the sizing bath all sticky on the left:
The sized yarn passes over a series of heated rollers (the big green drums), which sets the starch and lets all the water in the yarn evaporate:
This next bit I found really difficult to get my head around, but even though the indigo and ecru yarns have gone through the whole sizing process together, one set of yarn (indigo) is still sat on top of the other set (ecru), and they can be split back out easily on the other side of the sizing machine:
These two flat planes of yarn are pulled under tension across another open section (to allow the yarn to cool off the rollers, and thoroughly dry out), and are met at the other end by someone doing one of the fiddliest jobs in the whole process:
Another set of sheds (the zigzag of vertical pins that allow the creel to be arranged onto the original ecru cotton warp beam) is set up above yet another slowly revolving warp beam- this is the beam that will finally hold the finished warp. Every end (thread of warp yarn) is arranged in groups through the sheds, depending on the width of the stripe:
the hardest part of this, of course, is getting the stripe set up in the first place, which these images don't show. At this point, the job is to keep an eye of every single end coming through and spot if anything is broken or tangled. If it is, the whole process is stopped and the yarn is mended (knotted back together). This is one of the reasons you see those nice little bumps in traditionally woven denim.
As the warp finally comes off the end of the process it's nice and even, crisp from the sizing, and all at a consistent tension:
it gets wound onto the final beam, which will then be ready to be driven over to the weaving factory on the back of a lorry, to be filled with a plain ecru cotton weft (Indigo Welsh Stripe) or with alternating sets of ecru and indigo 'picks' (weft yarns) to make Indigo Welsh Check. The fabric names come from traditional Welsh woollen flannel shirt cloths, which were often woven in stripes or checks of quite small equal widths.
The reinforced metal ends of the warp beams are traditionally painted with different colour combinations, to be able to tell the contents of the beams apart from the distance. This, I believe, is basically the same system that selvage denim weavers used to differentiate between different fabric qualities (eg red line selvage for Levi's, yellow for Lee, etc).