Notes From the Fell: Weaving With Novelty Yarns

What comes to your mind when I say novelty yarn? I think of textured yarns with slubs and bumps or a loopy bouclé. Novelty yarns are very familiar to knitters, but not something you find in a hard-core weaving shop. Why is this? I think it’s because knitters have a much easier time working fancy yarns into their projects.

Putting novelty yarns in the wrong reed will have as much success as squeezing Tom through a pet door. (And the dogs of the weaving school at Red Stone Glen didn't appreciate Tom blocking the door!) Photo by Anita Osterhaug.

Putting novelty yarns in the wrong reed will have as much success as squeezing Tom through a pet door. (And the dogs of the weaving school at Red Stone Glen didn’t appreciate Tom blocking the door!) Photo by Anita Osterhaug.

A word of caution about novelty yarns: a little goes a long way. In the early 1980s, I wove scarf after scarf for holiday gifts using a very pricey yarn, a loopy, variegated, wool-blend bouclé, as both warp and weft. They washed up so soft it felt like you were holding a kitten, but I could have easily combined that yarn with another, less expensive one and had just as nice a scarf. A wise person once told me to treat fancy threads like spices in your cooking. If the recipe calls for two cups of baby spinach leaves and you don’t have baby spinach, don’t substitute fresh sage. Yes, they’re both green, but the result will be vastly different.

When I travel, I love to visit knit shops to see the latest textured yarns and threads. (Like you, I have plenty of thread at home. But who could resist buying just a little more?) When I find a yarn I think I can’t live without, I do a little test. I carefully unwind 18 to 24 inches from the cone or ball and gently pull on it to test its strength and elasticity. If it gives a bit under pressure, it will be fine for weft, but you don’t want a stretchy yarn in your warp. If I just can’t help myself and the yarn is perfect except for the elasticity, I will combine it with a strong thread such as 8/2 Tencel or cotton to provide stability, sleying and threading them as a single warp end. Cloth mills do this all the time, so why not do the same at home?

I also consider the texture of the yarn. If the slubs or loops are really big, they might catch on the reed or heddles and tear the thread, so these extreme textures are best suited for weft. I also consider what reed I would use for this novelty yarn. Let’s say, for example, that a wrap test says the yarn should be sett at 6 ends per inch (epi). Then you need to actually have a 6-dent reed. Don’t rely on the sett chart that says you can use a 12-dent reed and sley every other dent, because putting that chunky yarn through those dents will be about as successful as me trying to crawl through a pet door. The yarn will just tear as you weave.

Before you invest a lot of money in fancy yarn, weave a sample. I know what you’re thinking, but this is not a waste. If your sample is a failure, then you can make the proper adjustments to achieve a winning project. And you can crochet a very purposeful-looking finish all around the edge of the original sample and give it as a fashionable dust cloth to one of your fussy friends.

Here’s a story to convince you about sampling: I had a phone call one day from a very frustrated weaver who just couldn’t get a shed on her table loom. Not just a bad shed. No shed. She had bought some lovely brushed mohair at a fiber festival. When she wrapped this fluffy thread on her ruler, she made sure the center nylon cores of the wraps were lying side by side. She counted the wraps, and divided, and came up with a sett of 15 epi based on that core thread in the middle of all that fluff. At that close setting, the fluff basically felted together right on the loom and—presto!— no shed. A sett of 5 or 6 epi would have been about right for that yarn. While this weaver’s project turned out to be a disappointment the first time through, she made adjustments and eventually ended up with the fabric she wanted.

A HUCK SCARF WITH NOVELTY YARNS

A huck scarf with novelty yarns.

A huck scarf with novelty yarns.

Besides weaving rugs, designing unconventional fabric from conventional structures is a favorite pastime of mine. I just love looking at a weave structure such as huck lace, getting to know it intimately, then pushing it to its limits by using threads that aren’t normally used in huck. The resulting fabric may not be even recognizable as huck lace. I get a vision, pick the threads, and then begin designing a warp to sample and see if my hunch was correct. Scarves are a great way to sample and satisfy my curiosity. Now I must admit that I can still be smitten by a beautifully woven piece of huck lace in fine silk or linen threads. How can you argue with a tradition that has spanned centuries? I know that huck lace woven with fine threads is a classic that will endure long after my little experimentations. But I am still having the time of my life weaving these scarves, and you can, too.

In the case of huck lace, you need two shafts for the ground cloth and the rest are your pattern shafts. So if you have a 4-shaft loom, you have two pattern blocks, and with an 8-shaft loom you can have six pattern blocks. I have also been weaving color-and-weave arrangements for years on huck threadings. I try to stay humble and not show too much excitement when I weave something that is totally awesome. There is nothing less appealing than a middle-aged man clapping his hands and jumping on one leg and then the other. There are the times, though, when my visions produce an unattractive color combination and I sit there on the loom bench, humbled. (Oh, sigh! I guess I have woven another dust cloth.) Lately I have had the urge to be a little more edgy and add novelty yarns to my huck threadings. With the addition of textured yarns on the pattern harness, a huck fabric takes on a whole new look. The warpwise floats associated with huck are accentuated by the textures of these marvelous novelty threads. This is a great way to showcase the yarn without burying it in, let’s say, plain weave, which might be the first choice that comes to mind. Why not try this pattern at first and as you weave, let your mind muse about other novelty yarns to try? I know you will love it as much as I do.

For the complete instructions, please see Handwoven January/February 2017, page 20.

Enjoy your scarf!

—Tom


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One Comment

  1. Doreen M at 12:15 pm April 12, 2017

    Thank you for writing about, and doing a video, on using novelty yarn in weaving. I would love some weaving projects with ribbon yarn. I have knit tops with ribbon yarn and it is HEAVY. But I think it would work in a scarf. I have a 4dpi reed for my smallest looms (22-inch Harrisville A-model floor), but I am an very left-brained engineer who loves to follow recipes and hates to design (I’ve tried, broke down in tears, got nothing done but a few journal entries). Please consider doing a ribbon Novelty Yarn Project for “Handwoven.”

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