Unwoven: A New Undoing

It was a situation that I find myself in quite often, scrambling to get a project on and off the loom with a deadline dangerously close, and feeling like there isn’t enough time. In this case, I had been playing with parallel threading and was very pleased with one design that I felt would be interesting for an upcoming group exhibit that I was a part of. I challenged myself to use colour combinations in the warp threads that would give an effect of shadows, and hoped that the design would look dimensional in the final fabric. I could hardly wait to see this draft on the loom to compare how it looked woven to the paper drawdown.

I wound more than 1000 cotton threads in alternating sequencing of white, black, and brown, and began the slow process of threading onto the loom. The threading was not a nice flowing easy repeat, and it took me some time to finish the dressing of the warp onto the loom, but I finally got it all tied up and ready to weave! Looking at the calendar, I could see the dwindling number of days to complete the project, and I was feeling stressed by this.

I chose a light turquoise cotton weft as the horizontal threads in the fabric, and was excited to begin my one-shuttle weave. I thought that the hardest part had been done (prepping the loom to weave). As I started to weave, the design emerged in the web (cloth), and I grew more excited; it was weaving up beautifully, and the pattern was looking even more dimensional than I had hoped. I continued weaving, and the design emerged as what I would describe as donuts with shadows with some pearls; it sounds odd, and is very different from what I had done before, so I was excited beyond words. I managed to weave about 18 inches, and then called it a day, waiting to resume weaving the next evening after work. I went to sleep satisfied that everything was wonderful (and doable before the deadline).

The next time I sat in front of my loom, I ran my hand over the design to satisfy myself that the weave was in fact flat, even though it looked like it was popping out from the surface of the fabric. It is a great feeling to be so pleased that all the effort of getting to this point was paying off. It was right at that time of feeling success when I picked up my shuttle to resume weaving, that I noticed something that looked a little out of place; something which I had not seen when I wove the last section. There were a couple of threading errors, just right of the center. Oh no! The uplifting satisfaction of yesterday was instantly replaced with a heavy heart of disappointment and panic.

I thought of my options: I could decide to give up and not finish this for the exhibit, but it was looking so good! Or I could unweave the weft, correct the threading, and reweave, so as to not sacrifice a full 18 inches of warp. Leaving the threading mistakes in an exhibit piece was not an option for me. Used to having to undo a few picks sometimes, I opted for the unweaving option. 

Looking again at the calendar, and then the clock, I knew that to unweave the web by reversing the treadling of picks for 18 inches, row by row, would take a lot of effort and time. Looking at my situation, I knew I had a lot of extra weft thread, so I decided to sacrifice some of it, and save the warp threads instead. I cut the woven weft for each pick at one edge, and pulled out the weft from the opposite edge. I tried a few threads, and that approach seemed to work well, and over the course of about an hour I cut and pulled, until every pick was removed and only the warp threads were remaining. I turned off the light over my loom and walked away. I didn’t have the energy or the interest that night to correct the errant design warp threads which caused me so much of a setback.

The next morning before going to work, I sadly passed by my loom, and stopped in my tracks; looking from the side across the warp threads there was a design ‘floating’ across the expanse of the warp! I had never seen anything like this before. Typically, if I unwove some picks to correct a mistake, the warp was as it always is when I was weaving: straight threads with no pattern other than the warp. It typically is only when the weft threads engage with warp threads that the design and structure become evident.

Yet what I saw was astounding: the black, white and brown of the warp had maintained their ‘memory’ of laying over or under the weft thread, even though the weft thread was gone. A design was evident in the unwoven warp threads. I began to think about this and its possibility as a potential design idea. Its structure would be frail at best, and would be lost, surely, as soon as I tightened up the warp. How could I preserve this state of suspended thread design? It was like a ghost of the original design, still showing the ‘donuts’, the shadows, the dimensional aspect, but it introduced new elements that made it look painterly and different. 

I glanced at the clock and knew that I couldn’t take time to dive into this discovery because I had to get to work and I also had to get the threading fixed in order to deliver the finished piece before the exhibit deadline. I increased the tension on the loom to dismiss the yarn take-up of the structure, then eliminated the wonderous ghosts with one movement of the beater and reed, which re-aligned the threads to be straight again. The wonderful pattern and concept of floating unwoven thread design was gone. I left for work with the unwoven haunting me, and the hope that I could someday reproduce it.

At lunch that day, I was talking with a textile friend who dealt in yarns and loved knitting, spinning, and who had done some rigid heddle loom weaving, and I told her of my experience and the unwoven. She immediately asked if I had taken a picture of it, to which I had to admit that I did not have any photographic evidence. In hindsight, that would have been a good idea. There was nothing else to do, I told her, then to do it again; I would have to create an unwoven at another time. I wasn’t completely convinced that I could do it with the same outcome, and her look reflected my lack of conviction that I would be able to do this again.

That evening, sitting at my loom was difficult, not only knowing that I had to fix the errant threads in this challenging threading, but also knowing that I was racing against time to complete the project, and dealing with my deferred exploration of another unwoven. It was in a heavy mood that I got the warp threads fixed and then wove a small header of about an inch before quitting for the night.

In the subsequent days of weaving, my heart lightened as I again saw those funky floating donuts and pearls reveal themselves, and I loved the overall dimensional appearance. Even better, I was able to complete the weaving on time, and was able to enjoy the satisfaction of rolling it off the loom to finish it.

In finishing the fabric, due to shrinkage and take-up, the fabric was not big enough to make the tablecloth that I had hoped would go on our dining table after the exhibit. The piece of donut fabric now became open to new possibilities of what it would be instead. I thought about the unwoven, and wondered about creating one as a piece of art that could be framed, thus preserving the threads from being moved out of place. I had to try. It still had potential to be in the exhibit, and was an opportunity to experiment.

I do not recall the exact amount of time that I sat looking at the fabric and thinking about the process of creating an unwoven from it. I thought about what I had done on the loom, pulling out the weft threads, the bones that bound the warp together. If I pulled out the weft now, how would I get the suspended design from a work surface to a framed piece, without disturbing the threads? This was daunting to me, and I finally thought I would at least try. I got a frame with a mat and a glass insert, dismantled the pieces and laid them out on the work area. The approach that I finally went with was to place the clean glass on the table surface, place the mat face down on the glass, then decide which surface of the fabric I wanted to have appear as ‘the right side’ in the final piece. I cut a piece of the fabric to fit beyond the opening in the mat, then placed the piece ‘face down’ on the mat and glass. I then fastened the top and bottom of the cut fabric to the back of the mat, so that the fabric wouldn’t slip while I unwove it, securing it lightly, similar to how a photograph is taped to fit inside a mat or frame.

I began the process of pulling out the weft threads like I had done on the initial unwoven on the loom, cutting the threads for each pick at one side of the fabric, and I carefully started to pull out threads. I was nervous doing this, feeling the pressure of replicating what I did before, while not losing the integrity of the piece while I was unweaving it.

Deconstructing the fabric was not as easy as I thought it would be. I could see that some warp threads were being shifted out of the design alignment by the pulling of the weft thread. It made sense given the tight proximity of the threads and that adjoining threads would have fibers that would influence or grab other threads as they passed by each other during the pulling out process.

The width of the mat opening was 7.5 inches wide and 9.5 inches high, which meant that there was a substantial length to the warp threads that would be freely hanging in the final piece. I wasn’t sure if threads would maintain their shape and position either initially, or over the course of time and gravity. 

Across the width, I decided to apply pressure of my left hand to hold the warp in place, which worked for half of the design, however I noticed that the other half of the warp was looser, not having any pressure on those warp threads as the weft was pulled through. After removing the weft from half of the fabric, I decided to get books to weigh down and hold the warp threads in place across the span of the piece while I removed the remaining weft threads. When I was done, I felt a huge sense of relief as I carefully lifted the books, to see that the warp threads were in place and still held the memory of the initial weave structure.

I put the back of the frame in place, secured the metal tabs, and carefully flipped it over to see the finished piece. I was amazed. I had successfully created an ‘unwoven’.

Upon closer scrutiny, I felt some disappointment, as I could see a difference in each of the quadrants where I had no support to the warp threads when extracting the weft, versus where I used my hand to avoid threads shifting, versus the area where I used uniform pressure of books. Reflecting on it afterwards, it was a good thing to try a variety of approaches, because each rendered a slightly distinct result in the unwoven, much like how artists use different paints and brushes to vary the effect in their artwork. 

I placed the framed unwoven on the living room mantel and stepped back to take in how intriguing a technique and piece this was. I was sure that people were not going to believe that this was a woven fabric that had the supporting weft threads removed, so I thought it would be good to have the original fabric with warp and weft threads also framed, to compare the results and the evolution from one design phase and outcome to another.

Photo of the original fabric and the unwoven fabric
Original woven fabric (left), and original unwoven fabric with pattern (right)

I was thrilled to have made this discovery (a happy undoing, or mistake), to have something very different for the upcoming exhibit, and to have completed it on time, despite the odds. No one had done this before, to the best of my knowledge: the unwoven as an art form is fresh and new.

The next weekend it was my turn for hosting my weaving study group meeting, and I was excited to surprise them with this latest creation. I hadn’t mentioned this discovery to them, it all happened so quickly, and I was eager for their honest and constructive feedback, and to find out if they would agree to include it in the exhibit.

The first couple of weavers to arrive were quick to spot the framed pieces and were immediately intrigued by not only the design of the Parallel Donuts fabric, but also by the unwoven piece, which I named Parallel Donut Ghosts. Many thought the unwoven piece was painted, before I explained about what it was. More weavers came, and with approval from the group, the pieces were displayed in the exhibit.

Close up of the first Unwoven; warp threads suspended without any weft threads to support them
Close up of the first Unwoven; warp threads suspended without any weft threads to support them

The original Parallel Donut Ghosts unwoven has survived more than 7 years, and still holds its threads as it did initially, despite gravity, and having been transported to different places, and I continue to be intrigued by its appearance. I plan to further explore this area, and work with other weave structures and materials, which I can then deconstruct into an unwoven. Devoré is a deconstruction technique based on using different types of textiles and removing one of the fibres using chemicals to burn out some threads, usually to create designs, but still maintaining a warp and weft in areas of the textile. The method I used in creating my unwoven is like a manual devoré, in that it removes some of the fiber manually. A key difference is that in the unwoven, all of the weft supporting threads were removed, instead of removing only some of the threads. There is potential to remove the warp or weft threads with chemicals for an unwoven, to see what effect would be produced; there is much experimentation to be done for this design method.

The threading for this original fabric was on 24 shafts and had the weft removed, however the final effect could be completed on any number of shafts, or could have had the warp removed instead of the weft. 

For me, creating an unwoven was about discovering how threads intertwine and work to achieve interesting effects in the absence of the expected supporting threads, be they warp threads or weft threads. Unwovens present the opportunity to play and make exciting designs that don’t have the supporting threads of either a warp or a weft. Consideration of weaving with metal or other non-fibrous materials has potential also, for exploring unwoven techniques.

I look forward to seeing what evolves from this discovery, and hope that other weavers explore this technique as they look for interesting aspects of creating an unwoven.

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