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Visiting Coral Stephens Handweaving, Sept 2017

The name that says it all.[/caption] Last week saw my second visit to the well established and internationally recognized home of ‘Coral Stephens Handweaving’ in Piggs Peak, northern Swaziland. A little background at this point might be a good idea. Coral Stephens and her husband went to live in the magnificent Northern region of Swaziland shortly after the second World War. He was a forester charged with the task of establishing a forestry industry in Swaziland,  and Coral was essentially a housewife who needed curtains and carpets for her new house. Piggs Peak must have seemed like the last outpost in those days, and Coral’s only real option was to make her own, so she set about learning the rudiments of spinning and weaving herself, before passing the skills on to local women (who quickly became proficient) , and so, ” Coral Stephens Handweaving” was born. Established in 1949, the business grew to become Swazliand’s largest exporter, with an international reputation synonymous with style, elegance, and above all, quality. [caption id="attachment_872" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Sitting on the floor in a sunny spot happily                     carding mohair prior to spinning[/caption] Coral’s fibre of choice was mohair, and it remains so to this day with the majority of carpets, curtains and blankets being made from handspun mohair. The mohair arrives in great bales, and every process, from the basic plucking and separating of the locks to final finishing, is carried out by hand, by a small army of skilled and loyal Swazi women. [caption id="attachment_874" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Spun and dyed mohair ready for use.[/caption] Carding is done by hand, using the normal handcarders with which we are all familiar, and on this trip, I took with me a drum carder for them to try. It was, at first regarded with great suspicion, and the first batt was scrutinized, and analysed and pulled apart before it was accepted as being good enough to pass on to one of the spinners. By the end of the week however, it had been accepted into the routine and was working overtime as everyone had to see how it worked, and how easy it made the whole process! The thick yarn which is used for the carpets is  spun entirely by hand. The ladies painstakingly twist the fibres together with their fingers, winding the yarn around the legs of an upturned bench as they go to hold it in place before it is tied into skeins and taken for dyeing. The finer yarns, such as that used for the curtaining or blankets, is spun on spinning wheels at a speed which made my eyes water, but beautifully spun none the less. [caption id="attachment_878" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Mohair skeins to be wound onto bobbins for weaving yardage for curtains[/caption] [caption id="attachment_900" align="aligncenter" width="300"] The dyehouse and spinning shed surrounding by the majestic trees .[/caption] Dyeing is done in an outhouse where stainless steel vats are heated by wood-fires. The smell of the wood smoke, and the slight haze in the air is ever present, and I find myself missing it on the days when there is no dyeing in process! My main area of interaction is of course with the weavers. Although all the weavers are familiar with each process of the weaving, from making the warps and winding the bobbins, to physically sitting and throwing the shuttle, each women also has her own field of specialty so to speak. Maria is the matriarch, closely shadowed by Sisana and Goodness. They work on huge looms, complete with flying shuttles and produce metres of fabric every day, often working into the evening if they have not managed to complete their quota for the week. There are two ladies who spend their days winding bobbins for the weavers so that the important work of the day can be carried on with minimal interruption. Goodness and Pindile make most of the warps – and they make this potentially backbreaking task look like a walk in the park. Goodness is also the loom expert, being adept at changing tie-ups and trouble shooting problems. Sithekele and Zanele, are of the second rank of weaver’s, focusing on the smaller items and working on the smaller looms. They are also involved with encouraging the three new weavers who are moving up. [caption id="attachment_899" align="aligncenter" width="300"] A magnificent grey and natural carpet panel coming off the loom.[/caption] The ladies who weave the carpets work two to a loom in order to make this physically demanding job a little lighter, and then there is a whole bevy of people who only work on the finishing of the items. Putting a new warp on to the looms is a team effort of note – four ladies hold on to the warp, two wind it on, and one of the senior weavers sits and makes sure that there are no snags on cross sticks or raddle which would lead to breaking threads. I watched in open mouthed amazement as they wound a 30m warp on to the roller in the space of thirty minutes!! The remainder of the day was spent tying the new warp on to the old (1430 ends) and weaving re-commenced at 7.30 the following morning. [caption id="attachment_898" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Winding on a warp Swazi style.[/caption] There is a happy and relaxed atmosphere in the weaving shed, with much laughter. The ladies are aware of how privileged they are to work for Coral Stephens, but they have little idea of how sought after their work is. The fact that this carpet or that curtaining will eventually grace a penthouse in New York or an apartment in London means little to them as such places are so far out of the realm of anything they are likely to experience in their lives. [caption id="attachment_877" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Happiness is a big loom and knowing how to use it![/caption] A poor community with generally only rudimentary education, the Swazi’s are deeply religious. Work begins at 7 am, and when they break for breakfast – or what they call ” Bread time”, they spend the half hour singing hymns, praying and reading the bible. Not wishing to intrude on this time, I like to sit in the garden and listen to the beautiful, uninhibited music that flows from them. The most important things in their lives are their families, their country and their King, but when they leave to go home in the evening, they wear their track suit tops with the Coral Stephens name on with a certain amount of pride, knowing that their skills and services are recognized and appreciated by an employer who truly does have their best interests at heart.

  • Please feel free to visit my gallery page for more photographs from my wonderful week in Piggs Peak.
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Happy Spring!

Brave little flower sticking it’s head through the parched ground as we hope for a Summer of good rain[/caption] ” Spring has sprung” so the saying goes, but not here in the Lowveld where, for the past week or so, we have had a little bit of Winter instead – our first real taste of Winter this year I might add. We have also – astonishingly, had some rain, 21mm to be exact, which, although I feel I should be pleased that our parched bushveld has had some respite from the ongoing drought, I find rather worrying as it is so unseasonal. Unseasonal should probably be something that I am used to. As a weaver who weaves for the love of it, and hopes to sell most of it, I constantly find that I am weaving against the seasons so to speak. When the Summer temperatures soar into the forties, I am sweating in front of my loom making mohair throws and Merino shawls, and conversely, in Winter I do the light cotton wraps and brightly coloured cotton cushion covers. At the moment – for once – I’m actually doing something which suits the ‘ between seasons’ feeling which comes with the first day of Spring. On my ‘Katie’ loom – the MIGHTY Katie – I have enough warp for two silk scarves. I have in my stash, some ultra fine silk thread which I bought many years ago – in fact, before I left Gauteng, and every once in a while I have a flight of fancy and use some of this magnificent yarn for a special project. [caption id="attachment_857" align="alignleft" width="169"] Silk scarf project beginning to get under way, showing the stripes on a Rosepath threading and some of the Basket Weave detail[/caption]   The design for the scarf is a twill and tabby warp stripe, with just a hint of basket weave, because I liked the subtle textural detail of the basket weave separating the Tabby and the Twill stripes. It is an off-shoot of the warp twill stripe fabric that I made a month or two ago as an experiment in the use of Twill stripes in the warp as opposed to the weft. Thank goodness for the experiment, because without it I would have found myself in all sorts of trouble with the current project. Firstly, when attempting something like this it is important to know  that you cannot have both twill and tabby stripes in the same warp on four shafts. You can have alternating bands of twill and basket weave on four shafts, but in order to have alternating twill and tabby stripes you need at least six shafts – four for the twill and two for the tabby. If you think about it, you will realize that on a straight threading with a 2/2 lift plan you cannot lift every alternate warp thread in the tabby sections – you just can’t – it doesn’t work out, hence the need for the extra two shafts. [caption id="attachment_862" align="alignright" width="169"] First Twill stripe project in Mercerised Cotton[/caption] Secondly, when working on alternating twill and tabby stripes in the warp, the twill and tabby sections must be sett at different densities. The reason for this is the number of binding points in each weave structure. A ‘Binding Point’  occurs at every point at which a weft thread crosses over a warp thread or vice-versa. Thus a Tabby weave has more binding points than any of the twills, and has double the number of binding points than a 2/2 twill. If one sleys the warp at the same density throughout without compensating for this, one will find that the twill sections will automatically beat down more than the tabby sections , resulting in an uneven fell as the tabby builds up at a faster rate than the twill. The difference in sett for the tabby and twill sections of a warp made in this way can be as much as 50%! These two vital pieces of information had been languishing in the archives of my weaver’s brain for so long, that I only remembered them when I started weaving the experiment and realized my mistake. I guess that this happens to all of us, and it takes a potential disaster to remind us of what we’ve forgotten! (Or we can sample……. another pet topic of mine, for another blog!). Without the experience of the experiment I would have been in serious bother with the Silk Scarf, but I’m pleased to be able to report that all is running smoothly – if rather slowly as a result of the ridiculously fine thread that I’m using. I threaded the tabby sections on four shafts and the twill on the other four – just felt nicely balanced to do it this way, and the twill sections are sett at 18 e.p.c, while the tabby sections are sett at only 12 e.p.c – quite a difference. And yes, I am talking ‘ ends per centimeter’ here, not ends per inch. [caption id="attachment_859" align="alignleft" width="182"] Ridiculous, I know! Detail of pattern with measure.[/caption] Sitting at about halfway through the first scarf, I’m questioning my sanity in using thread this fine, but then I remember what it is for, and I put on some music (I’m revisiting some of my favourite, big, schmaltzy piano concerti at the moment), find my rhythm, and off I go. The wind can carry on howling as far as I’m concerned, I’m on a journey into the world of extra fine weaving and enjoying every moment of the ride. The challenge now is to finish it in time for the big day. Meanwhile – ” Happy Spring” and wishes for the blessings of good rainfall this Summer.          ]]>

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On the Road again.

London comes to Clarens. Beautiful Merino split shawl in Karoo Moon Yarn.[/caption]   As always, the long drive became a time for thought and contemplation, and also as always, I wondered about the people I would meet, and those who were booked to attend my workshops. I love the teaching part of my life, and the stimulation that comes with it. People look askance when I tell them that I sometimes wonder who learns more – the student or the teacher. [caption id="attachment_745" align="alignright" width="300"] Proposed cushion covers with log Cabin and Houndstooth central panel detail[/caption] In order to explain this comment, let me explain something about myself. I like order and organisation and I like to be in control – which is not always possible in a teaching situation. In fact the biggest learning curve I have had to face is “Learning to tap dance”. Other people refer to it as “becoming Montessori”, or just plain old “Learning to be flexible”. For me, this has not been a particularly easy road, but in retrospect it is a skill well learned. People who attend these workshops are not booking into the local High School and do not want to be treated as such, and many of them come to a class with a fixed idea in their minds of what they would like to achieve. [caption id="attachment_746" align="alignleft" width="300"] Hard at work, discovering the intracies of Double Weave on the Rigid Heddle[/caption] My first approach to teaching Rigid Heddle Weaving was to design a sampler showcasing a variety of colour and weave and textural techniques that could be completed in the space of a day – by a complete beginner. Very disciplined and structured, and in fact I still believe in this concept, but find that the majority of people attending a one day workshop want to go home with more than just a sampler – they want to make something that they can use. Even more challenging is when someone comes a to a workshop with a definite idea of what they think they should be able to make in the space of a day! Then, after teaching for some time,  I started picking up the problem of people who had done the beginners stuff and wanted to do something more advanced. Oh and the ladies who didn’t want to do anything in wool (or cotton) but preferred to work in cotton (or wool). In other words, my pre-conceived idea of how to teach a  weaving workshop was fast disappearing out of the window. Gradually over the last couple of years my tap dancing skills have begun to improve – well I think so anyway. I advertise the classes as I plan them, and then do pretty much what is required by the students. I’ve learnt that it is entirely possible to teach double heddle weaving alongside a beginners colour and weave sampler. I learnt that people doing  two one day workshops sometimes like to take the second day to weave sufficient length to complete a scarf instead of doing the second sampler, and I’ve learnt that free form weaving can happily happen alongside the more conventional. Most importantly though, I have learnt  that it is important to give people what they want so that they enjoy the experience and go home feeling satisfied with what they have accomplished. Secondly, the more there is going on in the classroom, the more it stimulates the imaginations and intellects of the people taking the class. [caption id="attachment_747" align="alignleft" width="195"] Free form with the focus on texture. Blue and white – always clean and fresh[/caption] [caption id="attachment_750" align="alignright" width="300"] Endless possibility on the versatile Rigid Heddle loom.[/caption] I left Clarens having taught workshops which covered, colour and weave, double weave, finger manipulated lace, free form weaving (using the Vari Dent reed), weft faced weaving and even a tiny little bit of very basic tapestry. The variety keeps me on my toes and sometimes I have to dig deep to keep up with the requests of my students. I try and give them as much technical background as I can to go with their explorations and to guide them towards producing textiles of integrety.  When I put my feet up at the end of the day, I  generally feel deeply satisfied (absolutely shattered sometimes, but still satisfied) and I like to think that the students go home with lots of food for thought and a mind abuzz with ideas for many projects yet to come. By the end of the week my mind too, was abuzz with ideas.  For example, I’m thinking that it will be nice to teach some weft faced weaving for a change – perhaps a set of four mug rugs, each showcasing a different aspect of weft faced. Or what about a one ball  wonder scarf using a multicoloured yarn and featuring a few basic pick up techniques…… Maybe Houndstooth is a bit old fashioned these days? What about a thick and thin Log Cabin place mat? [caption id="attachment_748" align="alignright" width="300"] Free form with focus firmly on colour.[/caption] ………And I had a whole long drive all the way back to Hodespruit to think about it and start planning the next one! [caption id="attachment_749" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Maluti Sunrise – looking forward to next year.[/caption]]]>

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Where to next?

Four and eight shafts = endless possibilities.[/caption] I suddenly find myself in the situation where I have two empty looms sitting looking at me with that ‘ You are neglecting me’ look. In the course of the past week, I have completed the two warps that were on my 80cm eight shaft, and my 40cm four shaft  Ashford table looms. One warp was a  serious exploration of the effect of sett on the finished product, and the other was a bit of a flight of fantasy, and the culmination of some fairly in-depth explorations into the much taken for granted, weaver’s fall back – Twill. Weaving is such a vast field, and there are so many techniques and structures to explore that it is a little like being afloat in a vast sea of possibility. I personally have a tendency to lurch from one project to the next, under the often misguided inspiration of something I have seen on Pinterest,  read about in a weaving related publication, or, quite frankly just dreamed up in my own muddle-headed way. There is so much information ‘ out there’ and so many people doing so many different things, that unless I have some point of focus, I tend not to do very much at all. And yes, I am a bit of a ditherer when it comes to making decisions about what to do next. The whole Twill thing happened in a bit of a random fashion. A friend asked me to make her a wrap some months ago which was absolutely plain – same colour warp and weft and no embellishments whatsoever. Very boring prospect I thought, until I started working on the project, and realized how valuable an opportunity it was to take myself right back to basics, and to concentrate on the quality of the weaving, rather than challenging myself with complicated techniques and trying to be smart by thinking out of the box and doing things that nobody else was doing. [caption id="attachment_696" align="alignleft" width="300"] Who said you can’t weave twill on a rigid heddle loom?[/caption] Logically, it seemed to me that the next step must be to go back to Twill basics – only to discover that there is not much that is basic about Twill. Endlessly versatile, I think that this could quite easily become a life study. Bearing in mind of course that on four shafts there are twelve twill treadling possibilities. That doesn’t sound like much until you start to mix and match and manipulate these treadling possibilities and change the threading and turn the draft, and all this before colour has even become a consideration. At some point in my meandering through the myriad of literature that there is available on this, most beloved and versatile of weave structures, I stumbled upon a document entitled “A Twill For All Seasons” by Paul R. O Connor. Well it would have to be a man that went this far……. ! He worked out that on a straight threading over eight harnesses, using only one of the possible tie-ups for an eight shaft twill, there are 40, 320 treadling possibilities!!!! Then he set about eliminating any possible duplicates and came up with 320 possible treadling variations – so, still pretty impressive, but much easier to come to terms with. I have to admit, that this first paragraph of the introduction really made me sit up and think. Sadly the rest of the document ( yes you can find it for yourself  – Google has a lot to answer for), is as dry as a bone. Also, it seems that his calculations were based on balanced twills. In other words, for four shafts he only explored the possibilities of 2/2 twills and neglected the 1/3 and 3/1 variations – although by this stage I was holding my eyes open with matchsticks, so it could well be that I wasn’t reading quite ‘on the diagonal’ so to speak. [caption id="attachment_727" align="alignright" width="300"] Four shafts, two directions, many colours.[/caption] My own twill explorations, were not not so thorough, but I have (and still am) enjoying myself, and some of the results have been interesting and fascinating and have motivated me to get out of my comfort zone and experiment a little more, bend the so-called rules, and just generally have fun. There is nothing in the rules that says that a good old fashioned twill can’t be turned upside-down, or inside out, or round about for that matter. It is indeed a veritable breeding ground for weaving ideas and technical exploration. In fact, I see many, many more twills -straight , fancy, braided, inverted, undulated, blended, shaded – and now I have run out of adjectives – in my weaving future, and I can’t wait to begin the next lot of samples! Important to add of course, that these examples are all on straight threadings – think of the possibilities when the threadings are altered – a whole different way of looking at life in the Twill lane! [caption id="attachment_729" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Twill stripes with tabby separations. Woven on six shafts[/caption]              ]]>

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Starting Over

                                                       A new website and a new blog…

First of all, if you are reading this, then you are visiting my new website, so, in capital letters

WELCOME!

Although I have written a few blog posts in the past – nothing of relevance or importance, and largely as a means of letting off steam, I find that it is now time to start getting serious about this.

As the new website begins to take shape and I contemplate the fact that I will have to change my way of thinking about my little (tiny little) business, the things that most worries me is that I will lose the personal touch, which, I believe is an integral part of the way I like to do things. Technology is wonderful (when it works), but I fear it is also largely responsible for the diminution of the all-important “personal touch”.

I always swore that I would never open an on-line shop, and here I hang my head in shame a little, at the thought that I am about to do what I was strongly opposed to for such a long time. However, it appears that this is probably the sensible things for me to do at this stage. My main concern is that people who visit the online shop, may not be entirely sure of the which product would best suit their needs. It is quite easy to “click and buy”, and I’m quite sure that many of us have had the experience whereby the “click” is all too easy to click, and when our new toy arrives on the doorstep – or the nearby Postnet office – we find that it is not entirely what we had in mind, and doesn’t suit our needs.

Spinning and weaving, most especially weaving are relative newcomers in the world of crafting in South Africa. Our perception of weaving is largely dominated by woolly carpets that smell really bad when they get wet, naive tapestries, and enormous looms that take an entire room to accommodate them. This is certainly no longer the case, and the growth in popularity of Rigid Heddle weaving is a testament to this new and modern approach to an ancient craft. Easy to use and endlessly versatile, these simple looms are a wonderful way for any crafter to begin weaving. For the person who is looking for more complex weaving solutions, then the four and eight shaft table looms are a pleasure to use and like the rigid heddle looms, they fold up into a neat little package for easy storage when they are not in use.

Spinning wheels can be both decorative and functional. A beautiful, traditionally designed spinning wheel standing in the corner of a room is always a good conversation starter, but for the smallholder wanting to process the fleece from a small flock of sheep, the “e-spinner” might be a more practical option. Many people are turning back to the art of spinning on a spindle, and the range of Ashford drop spindles ensures that there is a spindle to suit every spinners needs.

My heartfelt advice to anyone who is starting out in the wonderful world of spinning and weaving is to ask advice. If you are at all unsure of your choice, or have any questions about which piece of equipment would best suit your needs, then please, please, don’t be shy to ask. My father always told me that there is no such thing as a stupid question, because if you knew the answer, then obviously you wouldn’t need to ask the question.

My “answering questions” and my “doing my best to help” are as wide open as they ever were. So are my “let me know how you are getting on” and “send pictures” doors.

My new website is great, and the on-line shop might help to stream-line things a little, but even with all these advances in my technical life, the personal touch still remains, and I look forward to continued contact with all my clients, past, present and future.

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