Talking Craft: Shuttle

A good shuttle, while not absolutely required to make cloth, is one of the most important tools for efficient weaving.

From top to bottom: two stick shuttles, a boat shuttle, a rag shuttle, an end-feed mill shuttle, a baby boat shuttle, and a ski shuttle. The small walnut shuttle in the upper left is a belt shuttle, which is a type of small stick shuttle with a sharp tapered edge for beating in the weft of narrow bands.

The operating principle is the same for the simplest stick shuttles and the heaviest industrial flying shuttles: the shuttle carries weft (or woof, or filling) thread back and forth through an arrangement of warp threads.

Original graphic:

When you consider the back-and-forth motion of a shuttle on a conventional loom, it’s easy to see how the word came to be applied to any sort of relayed transportation device.

From Old English scytel (“dart, arrow”), from Proto-Germanic *skutilaz (compare Old Norse skutill (“harpoon”)), from *skut- (“project”) (see shoot). Name for loom weaving instrument, recorded from 1338, is from a sense of being “shot” across the threads. The back-and-forth imagery inspired the extension to “passenger trains” in 1895, aircraft in 1942, and spacecraft in 1969, as well as older terms such as shuttlecock. (Source: Wiktionary)

More obsolete than a stick shuttle?

So the next time you hop on a shuttle bus, wherever you’re going, you can really think of yourself as part of the… fabric… of modern society.

Or something.

Confronting my nemesis with resignation, if not aplomb

I’ve mentioned, probably too often, that I’m not much of a knitter.

My Henslowe is coming along, but it’s not happy about it.

I’ve been fascinated by weaving for as long as I can remember, but didn’t actually teach myself to weave until quite recently. In contrast, I learned to knit many years ago, when my mother taught me to make tiny ski hats. Her knitting didn’t exactly follow a by-the-book approach: more along the lines of “just decrease when it’s time” and “use whichever needles you can find that match”. Not that there’s anything wrong with that– learning to do things by feel gives you a better sense of underlying structure than does following a pattern to the letter, but it’s not the systematic approach that many (brilliant) modern knitters learned.

Accordingly, I’ve often felt a vague sense of inferiority in the knitting realm, not helped by my own lack of dedication. I tend to come down with knitting like a stomach bug: once or twice a year, unpleasant while it lasts, and mostly forgotten once over. When I come back a few months later and pick up the needles again, I’m invariably frustrated that my abilities haven’t magically improved in the interim. (When I mentioned my trouble with Henslowe to chopsticknitter, she was entirely sympathetic, until I showed her the absurdly simple pattern. At which point she observed that considerably less attention was being paid to the shawl on my lap than to, say, our conversation, my tea, and the weather.)

In general, I think I’m a bit disconcerted by textile techniques in which the whole project literally hangs by a single thread. Until the whole project is done, it’s a challenge to relax for fear of making a mistake. (For similar reasons, I’m a much better baker than I am a cook.) With my woefully slow-moving needles, knitting is the most troublesome of such techniques, even though it’s easier to correct mistakes in knitting than in some other single-string techniques. If you’ve ever tried to fix a mistake in tatting once a ring is closed, you will recognize this headache:

I guess you could call these tatting thrums.

But even if you can undo knitted fabric without having to cut it apart (usually), it’s completely unrewarding to rip it out over and over again. Which is what I inevitably wind up doing– or else I decide to live with a mistake and it haunts me forever after. (That said, chopsticknitter also encouraged me not to rip out the lace section of my Henslowe despite the, well, personal touches that found their way into the pattern. Thanks to this helpful advice, I’m nearly finished and think I’ll find it quite wearable.)

Compared to knitting, I find the learning process of weaving much more rewarding, and with every new technique I learn I find that I’m exponentially* more willing to put in the time to study and correct mistakes.

In a welcome moment of peace amidst the knitting wars, I finally got myself an inkle loom (from this shop).

I quickly put on a test warp and am finding inkle weaving to be a pleasant and relaxing experience. I’d never tried this kind of weaving before: my plan for this loom had been to use it for tablet weaving as an alternative to a backstrap, but I’ve also become interested in the idea of pick-up patterning. Though, being freshly burned from the knitting, I thought I’d better master the basic mechanics of this little guy before starting anything fancy.

I guess simple weaving isn’t comparable to complex knitting, but even so– weaving is so much more my thing. I’ll keep struggling my way through the knitting, but I suspect I’ll be much happier if I keep a security blanket (literal or figurative) on the loom.

*Not hyperbole. Only a little, anyway.

Picture of the Week II: A Homemade Turkish Spindle

Very easy to make! The shaft is just a dowel that’s been tapered with sandpaper. Even though I had to get creative with the holes (an awl and a wood-burning tool were involved), you could make this spindle in about five minutes with a real drill. The arms of the little guy above are joined with a simple lap joint carved with a craft knife. However, the spindle is a bit too light for my purposes, so I’ll have to add a bit of extra weight. Either with washers… or some sugru.

Just a quick cop-out post update! Things have been pretty busy over here, so I don’t have a full post for you yet. However, things have been busy on the crafting front.  I’ve been spending too much time around knitters: apparently, these things are contagious! I started a Henslowe of my very own last week, and revived my somewhat stale Ravelry account. There must be something in the air that brings out this interest in spring knitwear. Details are forthcoming.

In other craft news: I’m still plugging away at the experimental warp on my loom, and should be on to more serious projects soon. Spinning is proceeding at its usual leisurely pace. I had hoped to squeeze enough yarn out of the Sweet Georgia roving to manage the Henslowe mentioned above, but no such luck. Finally, the treehouse project and the tapestry continue, although I need a day to sit down at the workbench to make some real progress.

So, enjoy the holiday weekend, and I’ll be back with you soon. Thanks, everyone!

Branching out

We had a gray, cold weekend here, but I’m not complaining: that’s the perfect weather to justify spending time in the studio. Accordingly, there’s some progress on which to update you today.

First of all, I started the treehouse project! At least, I started the tree.

Cold gray weather is not, however, the best for craft photography.

It’s already taken on a bit of a haphazard air. My original plan was to build a wire armature and sculpt around it with air-hardening modeling clay, but the only wire I had around was too fine a gauge and (to be perfectly honest) I couldn’t remember where I’d put the clay. So, Friday night I decided to do a test run in papier-mâché. I built an armature from the aforementioned fine wire, slapped on some soggy newspaper, and was pleasantly surprised with the stability of the resulting structure.

Of course, the next day I located the modeling clay. Since I found that it had only dried out a little since the last time I used it, I decided to coat the tree with a thin layer of clay to simulate a barky texture before painting. Had I thought through the matter properly, this would probably have been an ideal time to add smaller branches to the boughs, or at least to carve out some supports for the eventual treehouse structure. Oh, well. Making it up as you go is half the fun.

In other project news, I’ve decided to try branching out– somewhat less literally– in my spinning. As I’m told is normal for new spinners, my yarn has been getting finer and finer, not by any conscious decision on my part but thanks to the development of muscle memory. While fine yarns are nice to have around, especially for weaving, I’ve been frustrated by my lack of control over the process. I’ve also wanted to learn more about the ergonomics of spinning.

With this in mind, I started reading Respect the Spindle over the weekend. This was cheating a bit—the book was technically assigned to next month’s craft budget*, but the copy I had ordered arrived at my local yarn shop earlier than expected. Much of the material is familiar, but it’s always helpful to see it presented in a new way, and I’ve already picked up some handy tips. With book in hand, I produced a tiny skeinlet of bulky (well, bulkier) yarn. I also used the Navajo plying technique to keep the colors from getting muddled, something I’d learned about but not mastered in my spinning class.

The pencil is for scale. I did not use it to spin.

I also dove into some sugru that showed up in the mailbox last week. As a first experiment, I put it to use as grips for my felting needles. Hopefully this will make needle felting more attractive (and preclude the need to spend money on an unaesthetic and junky-looking pink plastic needle holder). I have so many pieces of fluff left over from spinning– it would be a shame to waste it.

Finally, on the loom, I turned the infamous experimental warp into a doubleweave sample, my first attempt. I’ve only woven a few picks so far—which means about half an inch!—but it is, in fact, two layers of cloth.

Incidentally, the green single you see above is from Brown Sheep. My new goal is to emulate it on the spindle!

So, after a few weeks of slow progress and false starts, the projects are starting to pile up again. Between the fiber arts and the miniature-making, I should be busy enough for weeks of happy crafting. What’s on your spring to-do list, fellow crafters?

*My system for normal months– in which I am not adding to my lap harp collection– is to divide funds more or less evenly between supplies (like yarn, fiber, and glue), tools (like shuttles, spindles, and scissors), and instructional materials (mostly books and the occasional video). Since I started reading this book early, I’ll have to hold off on new reading material until May. That’s where cheating gets you.

Talking Craft: Textile

There’s not much craft progress to report today, but I have some more linguistic trivia for you.

Handwoven scraps and samples.

As you almost certainly know, for most of the industrialized world, handspinning and weaving are specialty crafts and hobbies more than a central part of daily life. But textile production has been a driving force behind human innovation and industrialization for millennia, and that left a mark on our language. Common words like “textile”, “cloth”, and “fabric” come from old, old roots, and have relatives that may surprise you.

For instance, the word “textile” has cousins that we use all the time whether or not we work (or play) with fabric. It can be traced directly to the Latin word texere “to weave”, which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *teks. This root was inherited by the Indo-European languages, where it took on various forms and meanings. Among its older and more obscure descendants, we have Old High German dahs “badger” and Sanskrit taksan “carpenter”. Others that might be more familiar include modern English “text”, “technical”, and “architect”. For my French-speaking readers, this is also the origin of tisser “to weave”.

(In case you’re still curious, the word “cloth” came to English through the Germanic branch from another Indo-European root, *gleit-, which had a meaning along the lines of “to cling to”. Like “textile”, “fabric” came through Latin, but from Indo-European *dʰabʰ “to fashion, to fit”.)

Okay, I got sucked into the Wiktionary web. The word under discussion is supposed to be “textile”, if you’re confused. Anyhow, a few members of its family tree jumped out at me:

  • Latin texere: weave; plait; construct with elaborate care
  • Greek techn: art, craft, practical skill

I like thinking that our crafting terms are related to words with these cheerful connotations. Of course, so are the words “tissue” and “technophobe”, but let’s take what we can get.

Now, it’s back to the workbench. Spring is on its way, and I’ve got two of my favorite things on my mind: trees and miniatures. A tiny treehouse may be in the works. Where’d I put the superglue?

(Sources for this post:,,, Fact-checking is never discouraged.)

Sometimes the magic works…

I am constantly surrounded by a variety of projects in different stages of completion. As much as I try to be conscientious about finishing them, I’m never certain which ones will make it all the way from idea to finished item and which ones never make it past a conceptual stage. The frenzied and involuntary planning mindset that strikes me with a brand new idea is always the same, but sadly, its priorities are often out of sync with what reason would recommend.

A pile of scrapped plans.

When I ordered my nice new kantele, I was planning to construct it a gig bag, a light case to carry it around. Although I had plans and a parts list, this is one of those ideas where time and budget actually made it more practical to purchase a pre-made bag. (For one, I don’t own a sewing machine.) As much as I enjoy creating my own things, I can’t make everything myselfotherwise I’d probably have built the harp, too.

Yeah, I’m all talk.

I console the yearnings of my creative soul by pointing out to it the appealing embroidery on the yoga bag. As far as my dreams of luthiery go, well… I have no consolation, although I did build a plywood lyre for a long-ago Latin class.

Other projects get lost along the way, and find themselves mired in a state of potentially permanent incompletion. I find it a bit distressing to have these lying around my studio and usually find something to do with them, but there are a few that still sit waiting to be put to use. Short, flawed samples of tablet weaving come to mind.

They do make wonderful cable ties!

Another class of projects is that of the almost-finished. The failing here is in discipline more than in craftsmanship.

My first rag rug. One day soon it will be hemmed. Honest!

But there are indeed finished projects, with all of their various levels of success.

I won’t lie: I liked this one.

It’s satisfying to finish a project, but that’s not always why I make things. I love exploring ideas and testing hypotheses, improving my skills and learning as I go. Since the only deadlines and objectives of Crafting Time are my own, I’m able to follow a whim and see what happens. This occasionally means rebelling against the more organized part of my mind that grumbles and demands an orderly step-by-step approach. Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Thus, I’ve abandoned the long-awaited tambour project. Anyone who enjoys this sort of hobby has to be willing to let go of a non-starter. I suppose that in the abstract there’s no shame in letting go. Of course, it’s not really that easy to give up! So instead of cutting the project off the loom, or simply tossing my efforts in the samples bin, I took the warp in a new direction.

When my crafting buddy came over last weekend, we had planned to spend the afternoon spinning away. Instead, we gravitated to the loom, then occupied by some uninspiring white plain weave. My friend was not yet a weaver, so I handed her a shuttle, and the next thing I knew, she was weaving away like a duck in water. (If ducks wove. What a dreadful simile.)

Since we only had a few minutes for an impromptu lesson, I did the hemstitching and finishing, but the rest is chopsticknitter‘s excellent work.

I taught someone to weave! At least a little bit. It was very very exciting, and my friend’s enthusiasm inspired me to make better use of the warp than simply stabbing at it glumly with an embroidery needle. After she left, I quickly wound some of my handspun onto a bobbin and threw it through a plain-weave shed, just to see what would happen.

Nothing fancy. Actually pretty sloppy. But I’ve decided to devote the rest of the warp to experimentation, and I’m back to my usual excitement about weaving. So I’ve learned two things: that teaching someone a craft you love is delightful, and that in certain circumstances, abandoning a project gives you the creative kick in the pants you need. I’ll let you know what comes of it all.

Blank canvases and incremental progress

It’s been another quiet week over here on the crafting front. Actually, I spent most of my crafting hours setting up new projects. On the loom is the plain weave sample for my experiments with tambour embroidery. Even though I’ve been looking forward to this project, now that I’m finally ready to begin, it’s unexpectedly daunting.

What would you do with a blank square and a needle?

I did make a bit of progress on my tapestry. Unfortunately, I’m one of those irritating people who is irritatingly sensitive to the lack of daylight, so I don’t usually get to tapestry in the evenings. This little guy below is proceeding at the rate of a couple of hours a week. I’m not going to worry about calculating how long it’s going to take to finish: the slow pace and the ongoing creative process are what make tapestry weaving so special and meditative. As well as a good exercise in patience.

What is it? I’m hoping that by the time it’s done, you’ll be able to figure it out.

When it comes to spinning, I’m still working on the Sweet Georgia roving. In about half an hour, I’m getting together with a friend for a day of yarn creation, so there should be either progress or hilarious failure to show you soon.

The failures would be more entertaining if the roving weren’t so beautiful! I don’t know if these pictures capture it well enough. The colors practically glow.

A question for you readers: I’m hoping you enjoy these ongoing-project posts, but I’d like to keep branching out. Would you be interested in seeing more language-of-craft posts? In-depth descriptions of particular projects? Maybe even tutorials? This blog has been online for a month now, and while I’m getting a bit more comfortable with the blogging voice, I’d love to hear what kind of content you like best. Thanks for sticking around!

A Miniature Post

I have constructed a mead hall!

Well, half of one. In 1/24 scale.

One foot in model-land is equivalent to half an inch in ours.

Why a mead hall? I’m not actually sure. This is why I need to keep records. I’ve always enjoyed building miniature things, but the Anglo-Saxon idea was hatched last summer when I was on an Old English kick.

Now, I did some preliminary reserach on miniature-making and English history, but when it comes to authenticity, I’ve assigned no particular date to the building, and the construction techniques are based heavily on superglue. If these facts horrify any historians or miniature enthusiasts out there, I sincerely apologize.

Every mead hall needs a nice fire pit.

I started out by making a few artifacts: a fire pit, a two-beam loom, and some long tables and tablecloths. (I don’t think the tablecloths actually appear in any of these photos, but they do exist.) Most of the model itself is made of wood scraps from the hobby store, stained with a mixture of instant coffee and a bit of water and finished with a coat of shellac.

A miniature miniature workshop.

After the skeleton was finished, I acquired a folding table and put together a rough cork base for the model to rest on during construction. Sadly, it quickly outgrew the table.

Next came many hours with the instant coffee, and the addition of more artifacts. I also started adding wall panels. For anyone who might be inspired to take on a similar project, let me tell you that the cosmetic difference between painstakingly crafted wattle-and-daub walls and slapdash craft-painted basswood walls is negligible. Don’t bother.

An assortment of artifacts, with a paperclip for scale.
A closeup of the roof (which was originally a grass mat intended for pet bunnies) and a banner. There were supposed to be more banners, but embroidery at this scale is a pain and I haven’t managed to muster enough willpower for the task yet.
A rather disorganized meal. These things are actually too small and light to move around by hand, so I have to arrange them with tweezers. As you can see, I did not do so before this photo was taken.

Of course, there are plenty of tasks waiting to be done! Among them:

1) A floor, made of… something. According to my reading, timber is actually not the most historically probable. (I don’t have a source handy, but it’s somewhere in a stack of papers in my studio.) However, a dirt floor seems difficult to represent convincingly. I experimented with painting the cork on which the whole miniature building rests, but that was a no go. Other options? I’ve heard about a substance called paperclay, but it’s not available where I live. I do have some straw-like substance that might make convincing rushes, and I’m considering affixing the straw to a solid floor finished with a mix of craft paint and cornstarch.

2) A diorama-style backdrop for the shelf where the as-yet-unnamed hall now rests. As you can see, the current landscape leaves something to be desired.

3) Lamps, specifically cressets (a cresset being “an iron vessel or basket used for holding burning oil, pitchy wood, or other illuminant and mounted as a torch or suspended as a lantern : a fire basket.” Thanks, Merriam-Webster!). I keep trying to make these out of wire, but no success yet.

4) More chairs. Perhaps not the most interesting aspect to a blog reader, but I actually lost one of the seats for the central dais. (A common problem when you’re working with furniture the size of a thumbnail and have an unusually strong tendency to misplace things.)

5) Some Staffordshire Hoard goodies, of course! Have any of you ever worked with metal clay?

Despite these fledgling ideas, this whole project has been stuck in a state of semi-completion for months now. I’m hoping this post will inspire some reader comments to help me get it back on track!

(I’m also looking for suggestions for WordPress editors. I’m about to resort to Notepad out of frustration with this browser-based editor, which appears to be a close relative of the gastropods.)

A Short Post

I’ve always been a multi-crafter more than a specialist in any one technique. Weaving and spinning are rapidly coming to the forefront of my interests, but over the years I’ve also enjoyed metalworking, calligraphy, embroidery, stamp carving, and various mixed media projects.

Blogging, itself, is somewhere between a craft and a hobby. So, it really should have been obvious from the beginning…

… it takes time! I’m working on a more substantial post about my miniatures, but in the meantime, I thought I’d put up a couple of photos of the projects I’ve been talking about on the blog.

No surprises here: just weaving and spinning!

Also in the hobbying realm, I’m deciding how to allocate my craft-and-hobby budget for next month. I’m torn between a small kantele for my music and a miniature inkle loom for my tablet weaving. (You may accurately observe that these are both compact items. Maybe someday I’ll have a dream workshop equipped with a full-sized propane torch, a lathe, a drill press, and similarly delightful implements, but for now, many of my tools and hobbies are miniaturized by practicality. I mean, aside from the enormous floor loom.) I have a large psaltery from Musicmakers and like the idea of augmenting my collection with a more portable instrument, but the inkle loom would probably be more strictly useful. I’m finding backstrap weaving too uncomfortable these days. Thoughts from any weavers out there?

Notes on weaving, historical costuming, and other eccentric pursuits.

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