The Wonders of Wet-Finishing

Laura Fry is a longtime contributor to Handwoven, a master weaver, and an expert and dedicated researcher into the science of wet-finishing of fabric. She is the author of the definitive work on wet-finishing, Magic in the Water. Here she is to tell you why wet-finishing really is a magical step in the weaver's process. ––Anita

  Wool Boots
  These cute boots by Anne Sneary from the
January/February 1996 Handwoven are
made by felting colorful wool. 

Turning threads into cloth is magical. As weavers, we begin with little three-dimensional rods (threads), put them into the loom one by one and then interlace the weft to make fabric. Once that part of the process is complete there is one more thing required—wet-finishing.

People often ask why I use the term wet-finishing rather than just saying that I wash my webs. I use the term to distinguish between that wondrous first time the threads hit the water and transform from individuals into whole cloth and routine laundering.

Quite often the wet-finishing process will use temperatures or agitation much more vigorous than that recommended for ongoing cleaning. Wet-finishing consists of using soap or detergent to scour dirt or other impurities out of the cloth (spin oil, hand oil, naturally occurring waxes), agitation, and in some cases compression.

During wet-finishing, any fugitive dye can be dealt with, threads will slide to areas of least resistance so that weave structures such as waffle weave and lace weave will develop to their full potential, woolens can be fulled, and small inconsistencies in the cloth due to reed marks or irregular beating will be reduced or eliminated altogether. (If you want to learn more about wet-finishing wool, there’s a complete guide in the January/February 1996 issue of Handwoven, now available as part of the Handwoven1996 CD Collection.)

Compression will flatten the threads, making textiles that should shine (silk, rayon) and adding a little more stability by notching the perpendicular threads down into each other, much like a log house is notched at the ends of the logs.

Some special effects are built into the cloth to occur during wet finishing, such as shrinkage differential for fabrics that go “bump.”

When I learned how to weave in 1975, I realized that I could study the construction of cloth for the rest of my life and not learn it all. Some 38+ years later, I am still learning, still exploring, still getting excited by how many different ways a weaver can interlace threads, wet finish them, and create unique textiles.

—Laura

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