Feature: Get Warped. Free weaving tutorial using linen yarn by rigid-heddle loom expert Liz Gipson
Get Warped: Linens
As a yarn collector you are drawn to the lovely sheen and unique drape of linen and its close cousin, hemp, but you aren't always sure what to do with it. A clue is written right into the name. “Linens” is a term used to describe household goods intended for daily use. Weaving is the perfect medium for making square or rectangular flat things and most household objects — towels, placemats, runners, tablecloths, curtains—are square or flat.
What is Linen?
The bast fibers of the flax plant are the base of linen yarn. These fibers are what give the plant's delicate stem its strength and stability. They grow between the skin and core of flax plant's stem. With extremely long staples, measuring anywhere from 5 to 18 inches/12.5-45.5cm, linen wears well, has a unique drape, and a crisp hand. Highly absorbent and cool to the touch, bast fibers are a favorite for summer wear, and their durability and luster make them prized for long-lived linens.
As with all fiber, how it is processed determines the quality of the yarn. This process is used with a wide number of bast fibers such as hemp, ramie, kudzu, nettle, and jute.
To separate the bast fibers from the rest of the plant material, flax goes though the retting process. Flax straw is placed in a wet environment conducive to bacteria growth. The bacteria eat away the pith core of the plant, leaving the fiber cells behind.
Historically linen fiber was dew-retted, by laying it out in a dewy field. This is less resource intensive than water retting, although the process is much more difficult to control. If you have ever picked up an inexpensive ball of linen or hemp twine and noticed a musky smell, it is most likely dew retted. The smell is removed through washing and airing out your linens. Water retting is easier to control and creates a more refined product that decreases the possibility of an odor left behind.
After the fiber is retted, the plant material is dried and crushed to separate the long silky fibers from the rest of the plant material. The fiber is then aligned with hackles that look like wool combs, but with more rows of teeth. This separates out the short fibers and leaves long, well-aligned fibers in a preparation aptly named "line". This is the preparation that most quality linen and hemp yarn manufacturers work with. The yarn is spun while damp, called wet spinning, to keep the fibers pliable and aligned.
A few of my linen swatch doodles from left to right: two heddle patterns in Newport Linen from Halcyon Yarn; a mixed warp of Savanna, a silk linen blend, from Queensland Collection and Organic Cottolin from Louet North America in lace and inlay; a favorite swatch I use as a coaster in Block Island blend, a hemp, cotton, modal slub yarn from Halcyon Yarn. See Every Surface in the House Coasters below for instructions on how to weave this pattern.
Weaving with Linen
Linen's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Its extremely long fiber length and stable nature create a yarn that has almost no elasticity that is prone to wrinkling — with no rebound, creases stay where they are. Its lack of rebound can offer weavers certain challenges.
These tips aren't much different from the advice I give when weaving other fibers, however with linen, not paying attention to these details will show up more in your cloth.
Linen likes tight, even tension. Because it has no rebound, you have less room for error than with other fibers. However linen also tends to tangle less, so it can be easier to wind on.
Take care when warping that you treat the warp as a whole and don't rake the fibers while winding on. Let the rigid heddle do the work to organize the yarns as they wind onto the beam. Tension the yarn as a whole by stopping every few turns, then stand at the front of the loom and take the entire warp in your hand and firmly pull on the warp to take up any slack on the back beam.
This is the one fiber where I recommend using warping sticks instead of paper. Warping sticks are laid between the warp layers as you wind onto the back beam. Unlike paper, they don't give way under the yarn, which can lead to soft spots. This is absolutely not a problem for most other fibers.
Keep an extra eye on the selvedges as crowding can cause them to break. To prevent crowding, keep a consistent weft angle appropriate for your width of fabric. Advance the fabric often, about every 2 inches/5cm, to keep the weaving in the area where the shed angle is low. Weighting the selvedges is also a good idea. I recently wrote a blog post on selvedge management that illustrates many of these points.
Organic Cottolin from Louet North America napkins. Cottolin is a blend of cotton and linen, in this case 60 percent cotton and 40 percent linen. The linen gives the fabric a crisper look and feel than cotton alone.
Don't despair if you develop soft spots in your warp or individual threads become loose. Weight them using an S-hook and add additional weight if necessary. There is no shame in having a dozen hooks hanging off the back of your warp!
When the heddle is in the up position, keep an eye on the bottom part of the shed. The yarns in the slots have a tendency to go slack in this position with all yarns, but it shows up a lot more in linen. This can be particularly problematic if you are weaving structures other than plain weave. You can't see the skips as easily on the face of the cloth. I keep a mirror handy to peek under the loom frequently or you can flip the loom over every once in a while to keep an eye on the back.
Linen fabric fresh off the loom, called “loom state”, can look awful, but it will completely transform in the wash.
Pure linen likes a rough finish, and it can be machine washed on the regular cycle with laundry detergent. The fiber benefits from extra agitation so you can add in other washables such a terrycloth towel or even tennis shoes. Skip the extra agitation if you are using a blend. Machine dry and remove while still damp. Pressing with a hot iron will bring out the shine.
If you are new to linen, start with a small project first, such as the coaster project below, and work your way up to larger project. Blends offer you the benefits of linen with the added properties of the other fibers that may be more forgiving.
In the last column, we tackled warp floats. In this project, we are going to cover weaving weft floats.
Linens don't have to be superfine. This worsted weight allhemp6LUX from Hemp for Knitting works up well in open lace patterns such as this sweet little table runner that you can weave in a day. This yarn has taken an appropriate beating before it is skeined so that you feel the buttery softness of bast fibers while working with it instead of having to wait until after finishing.