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~~*  Black Sheep Newsletter............Issue 109............Fall 2001  *~~


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THE HOMESTEAD: Drought, Weaving with Mohair


Summer brought us drought here in southern Oregon. Having been nestled in these Cascade mountains nine years and counting, Stan and I had never seen our hand dug well go dry before. When late one August eve, while the sun crested low over the mountains and the skies turned pale with golds, vermilion, orange and lavender (can you tell I'm a weaver who loves color?), we heard our pump running as though it had lost its prime. Indeed, it had. There was not enough water in that well to sustain the pump's being able to recover it adequately.splash dot!


the drought of 01

Cracks in the parched Southern Oregon Clay loam

By the next morning we had other problems to deal with (the foot valve on the end of the pipe that was in the 35 foot deep well had somehow dislodged itself from the end of the pipe – making recovery of water impossible.) So, for a few days Stan and I depended on the mercies of our kind neighbors who brought in truckloads of clean, fresh water so that we could go on with living. Another dear friend brought some large containers filled with city water for drinking – bless her heart.splash dot!


Stan and I were old "back to the landers", so we were used to the idea of hauling our water in by the "bucketful" and making do with small quantities throughout the day. The only looming concern I had (and I had sleepless nights thinking about it all) were our animals. On this farm are a number of angora goats, of course, the suffolk cross sheep, and the behemoth oxen – two five-year-old Holstein steers that Stan yokes together to pull heavy loads. There was the burley beef steer, also, progeny of a beloved milk cow of mine who "jumped over the moon"nearly two years ago to the day (I still miss her.) This boy had found a hole in the fence and so he was able to find small pools in the otherwise dry creek bed across the pasture on the other side of the fence. It was the oxen on their side of the fence that I worried about most.splash dot!


(Now, reader, why I would singularly worry about these large Holsteins who would, in my opinion, do me in at any moment in time – should I turn my back for an instant – I shall never understand. But, nonetheless, I worried for their needs.) I don't know how many gallons a day of water that a 2,000 pound ox drinks – but I hazard to say that it is plenty. I quite literally lay awake at night worrying about all the livestock, and especially them.splash dot!


Things were a bit frenzied for about six days, but finally we remedied the foot valve problem and got the pump to working again. With careful water conservancy, the well seemed to miraculously "refill" itself to its former glory. I still am able to do a load of laundry every couple of days, fill all the stock tanks (including the big one that stands in the ox yard) and even take an occasional spit bath!splash dot!


Early Autumn

We seem to be experiencing an early autumn due to the drought. The deciduous trees in the mountains that surround us seem to be rapidly turning bright yellow, and because we have had nearly continual afternoon winds daily, we have been seeing a lot of foilage being spilled to the ground. Our elderly neighbors across the way told me to pick up some windfall apples the other day, which I did gladly. The goats, sheep and even the oxen love those windfalls – always a treat to them. Bright, the big ox who never forgave my husband for slipping a stomach magnet into his gizzard one day while he was being fed apples, still observes each apple as a threat. Stan must wait long intervals for Bright to take his apple in delicate and careful lips that carefully maneuver the fruit round and round, testing it for its genuineness.splash dot!


Some might know already that the drought that has been severe all over the west has particularly affected the Klamath River farmers. National news reports have broadcast the problems that the farmers in the Klamath Valley are experiencing, their water usage to irrigate vast hay fields suddenly cut back to nothing by the State of Oregon. The environmental movement is strong in Oregon, and somehow a lowly fish – a sucker fish – became top priority to biologists. So, the scavenger-like fish are still alive today as I write this.splash dot!


During this siege of drought, Klamath farmers have had to painstakingly watch their hay fields dry brittle. Irrigation rights removed, the usual Klamath alfalfa that these farmers were known for, did not grow.splash dot!


All of this affects us here at the ranch, for the Klamath Valley is where we buy our alfalfa every year. This year we had the good fortune of being able to buy a quantity of good grass hay from a field down the road from us (our goats seem to love that Drew, Oregon hay!)splash dot!


We are assured that our goats need alfalfa in their diet. The usual rich alfalfa from the Klamath, will not be available this year. All we can do here is hope and pray that the rains will someday come again and that next year we'll see things return to normal.splash dot!


For Weavers Only – Warping Looms with Handspun Mohair

It bears repeating. Though I have written a time or two about my choice of fiber on the loom – always mohair – and though I have even mentioned some of the intricacies involved with utilizing handspun mohair as a warp, I'm still inundated with questions in regard to my secret in making it work. A friend of mine (fellow weaver and student of mine that eventually excelled me in weaving skills because she faithfully attended Weaver's Guilds in her area, learning from some of the most notable weavers Montana has seen,) told me recently:splash dot!


"Here in the guild most of the weavers, including the old-timers, say that handspun mohair does not make a good warp."splash dot!


the drought of 01

The antique jack loom

I could agree with them if I were to recall the first blue plaid throw I wove from "reject" mohair yarns in my yarn baskets. After carefully selecting yarn skeins that all had been spun in near identical two-ply fashion, dying each of them in differing shades of blue (from subtle denims to lightning-brilliant turquoise), and asking Stan to design a tartan throw, I was ready to warp the loom. The Scottish bagpipes lilted gaily in the background on the tape deck.splash dot!


I took my sley hook and carefully pulled the yarns through the dents on the reed and then the heddles. I knew that an 8 epi was in order, as a true Scottish tartan must be a perfectly "balanced" weave. Weavers understand what the term "balanced weave" suggests. (If you are interested, may I suggest for beginning weavers a favorite book, "The Weaving, Spinning and Dyeing Book" by Rachel Brown.)splash dot!


Setting to work with the hook in hand, it was not long until the varying shades of blue warp had been tied to the proper loom bars so that the weaving could begin in earnest. The warp, in every shade of blue imaginable, looked wonderful against the gold wood of the maple loom. I took up the shuttle and began to weave.splash dot!


"TWANG, TWANG" resounded two threads simultaneously approximately 4 weft throws into the project. I grimaced, of course, but diligently set about to repairing those yarns by unraveling my weft again and replacing the two broken warp threads entirely. That seemed the best decision since I was not too far along in the project.splash dot!


I continued to weave – but fretfully, for by the time I was halfway through the weaving approximately 20 handspun mohair warp threads had snapped asunder. Indeed, I was beginning to wonder if I would be snapping asunder also, for my nerves were taut. In fact, by the time the 20th warp thread had quaintly torn apart, I made a firm decision that weaving was not for me after all, and that I should take up tatting, knitting, or even crochet hooks – something definitely less stressful – and sell off the loom. At one disastrous moment my husband walked into the room and saw me repairing yet another couple of warp yarns that had broken. Even he had seen enough of this. In an exasperated tone of voice, he admonished: "Just take the whole thing off the loom. Call it quits on that blanket. Those yarns were not meant to be warp."splash dot!


I had used handspun mohair for warp in the past on various weavings, of course and I had never experienced the fury of breakage that I was seeing with the blue tartan throw. Because of that experience that day, Stan and I began to read all we could about utilizing "handspun" (whether mohair or wool) for warp.splash dot!


the drought of 01

The Peacock Plaid Throw

Mohair's Foibles

That project eventually came to a wonderful and long anticipated end. In time all the warp threads that were weak had been replaced carefully by my by-then nerve-bedraggled and shaking hands. The weaving was complete and I took it off the loom. After washing the piece and carefully pressing it, it was as brilliant as lapis lazuli and as subtle in color variation as a midnight sky in summer. I probably had not woven a lovelier garment before.splash dot!


Experience being the great teacher, I learned some lessons through all of this. The reason that mohair (especially handspun mohair) frays and then breaks when used as a warp is because the fiber is not as "smooth" as wool. Those hairs that escape the spin of the yarn's twist will rub against metal – until they have "rubbed themselves raw". An especially big "nub" that was spun a bit larger in diameter than the rest of the yarn will also cause trouble, eventually hanging itself up in a heddle. While the rest of the yarns are smoothly being wound onto the loom, one lone straggler will hang back, caught in its heddle. Oftentimes it will snap before the weaver has a chance to see its retiscence. (Always watch your handspun yarns closely as you roll the weaving forward; especially watch your heddles. Should they begin to arc slightly, it is because a handspun yarn has suddenly wedged itself tightly in the midst of the heddle. Fix that immediately!)splash dot!


Reeds are metal, and your yarns will rub against the metal dents in that reed if sleyed too closely. 8 epi is as close a sett as I like to use when utilizing handspun mohair as a warp. For beginners, a 5 epi or 6 epi sett might be best.splash dot!


Don't forget, of course, that each of your warp threads is usually as taut as the strings on a guitar. Tweaked to their maximum because everyone likes working with a taut warp, you will have no problems if the entire warp is evenly tensioned. However, if one thread for some obscure reason is taking most of the brunt of that tension – it has no choice but to break.splash dot!


The Secret: Sizing

Paula Simmons speaks at length about handspun warps. She's been weaving with handspun for more years than I, and she is a prolific writer and teacher if we will but avail ourselves to some of the books she has written. One of my favorite, an old book purchased more than 20 years ago, SPINNING AND WEAVING WITH WOOL, gave me my first clue. She mentions "sizing" all handspun warp yarns. Of course she deals with wools exclusively. I believe sizing is doubly important if you're thinking of utilizing handspun mohair for a warp.splash dot!


Though there may be sizing specially prepared for the handspinner and sold on the marketplace, I have found that plain old cornstarch works well for me. I prepare it like my mother used to make gravy, sans the meat juices of course. In a large stainless pot that I use as my dye vat and sizing vat, I carefully and slowly simmer cornstarch and water until my mix is as thick as "gravy." I allow it to cool a bit (so that I can safely immerse my hands into its midst.)splash dot!


By then my warp (chained and ready for the loom) is carefully submersed into its sizing bath. I leave it in there only as long as it takes to coat it sufficiently, wring out the excess back into the vat, and then carefully hang the sized chain outside to dry. Make sure you don't tangle all your warp in the process. I've had to learn that lesson the hard way, also. Keep everything as orderly as possible.splash dot!


When the warp dries, your yarn will be a bit stiff. Those hairy ends that escape the twist of the yarn will be smooth with sizing. It's hard to believe, but I've noticed that sizing literally seems to strengthen the fiber, an additional boon.splash dot!


After sizing all the warp threads for the last two projects that have gone onto my loom, I noticed the difference: not a single thread broke on either of those weavings. I must admit that I was astounded as I wove my pieces. I had been so accustomed to working with warp yarns that broke readily that my nerves rarely frazzled anymore during the tedious process of reparation. This new way of weaving was entirely foreign to me, but I liked it!splash dot!


There is another warp on the maple loom today. The warp yarns were sized, of course. They are now ready to be joined into a web by the shuttle that contains the soft mohair weft yarns (you don't have to size weft – there is no need to).splash dot!


I think I'll forego the Scottish medleys today and put on some praise tapes that were given to us a couple weeks back. I can certainly be thankful that I don't have to deal with any more broken warp yarns! And there's still water in that well…splash dot!



Final Note: Paula Simmons is quick to point out that homespun warp, besides having to be sized, should always be spun with a tighter twist than weft yarn.splash dot!


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Alexandra Scribe
Homestead Home


Stanley & Alexandra Petrowski
34620 Tiller Trail Hwy.
Tiller, Oregon 97484