During my third year of studying textile design, I had a brief introduction to handlooms. At the time, they didn’t really pique my interest, as I was focused mainly on designing printed textiles.
After completing my degree, the textile industry suffered a massive slump. Most of the mills in South Africa closed down, and I was forced to seek alternative methods to express my passion for textile design. After working my way through a couple of weaving mills, I landed up at Mungo.
At the time, I had a fair bit of experience with woven textiles, but this was mostly on weaving machines. Seeing the antique looms at Mungo set my curiosity alight, and spurred me to explore and understand the textile weaving process and its origins. Stuart, with his passion for weaving and vast knowledge of textiles also helped me realise something – that I wanted to be more than just a designer sitting behind a screen designing from computer-aided software. This is where my search for a hand weaving loom began.
Last December, I took a chance and searched for secondhand looms on Gumtree. Very poorly taken images of a handloom appeared on my cellphone screen. Umming and aahing over whether to buy it, I decided to go and have a look at the loom.
After driving a couple of hours to Bathurst (about two hours outside of Port Elizabeth), I met up with a wonderful lady called Colleen Skinner, who had been weaving for several years. Her whole house was decorated with wonderful woven rugs, and her weaving loom was full of table looms, spinning wheels, bobbins of yarn and warping frames.
Colleen told me the history of the loom:
I bought the handloom from a retired doctor in 2001 (a Dr Steyn, if I remember correctly). At the time, she was living in Onrus, and her loom had been advertised by the Cape Guild of Weavers. She was originally from Pretoria, and sometime during the ’50s – ’70s used to operate it from her weaving studio. She had converted the loom to a counterbalance – although she had kept all the fittings for a countermarch system. I believe the story was that she had purchased the loom from someone who came to South Africa from Eastern Europe in the 1920s. That is as much as I know. I restored the loom back to a countermarch system, and replaced the string and chains with a Texsolv system.
Seeing the loom literally took my breath away. It is an amazing work of art, made out of very strong and sturdy wood, and I decided to buy it immediately. My next point of call was how to get it to my house… Luckily Mungo offered to help with transporting it.
Once home, we immediately set to assembling the loom. As we got stuck in, I started to panic about how it all was going to work. For a couple of months, it was just standing in my flat because I was so overwhelmed and intimidated by it! But eventually I decided that I had to try something… and with the help of several Youtube tutorials, started putting together the warp. My anxiety soon turned to joy as the warp came together – and in seeing the colours I had picked come to life. Making a warp can be a long, monotonous process that requires a sharp eye – you have to keep track of how many threads you have warped, otherwise you will have problems with the length of the warp, and the patterns you have selected.
Stuart came to help me with ‘dressing the loom’ (a term used to describe the process of putting on the warp / threading the heddles and sleying the reed). Before we started, Stuart and myself were scratching our heads as to how this countermarch weaving loom works. It was quite funny to see a Master Weaver on the floor reading the manual! But we finally figured it out and started with the dressing process.
I have been weaving the fabric for the last month. It has taken me longer than I thought it would. It is a meticulous process, as when you weave on a handloom, you have to keep track as to where you are in the pattern. The pattern consists of numbers. For this particular fabric, I used six shafts – meaning the pattern I am weaving has six numbers that I need to treadle (a term used to describe when you want to lift the warp by using foot pedals.) It requires a lot of concentration.
I had a lot of fun playing with the weft colours and used some of the yarn made by our Charleston friend and fibre wizz, Rachel.
I am extremely please with the outcome. In fact, I posted my creation onto a weaving group on Facebook and even received 271 likes for it! We’ve also decided to hang the fabric in our Plettenberg Bay shop for the upcoming festive season. Thereafter I’ll take it down and make some cushion covers with it.
My next project is going to be a blanket. I want to weave the samples on my handloom and then transfer it to our dobby machines. I think it’s going to be an amazing project, and I look forward to showing our customers.