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The Weaver Sews: What To Weave, Part 2

Last time we looked at how much to weave, now we need to address the density of the cloth.

The Ever Important Sett

Often, sett (the number of warp threads per inch) is more critical to handwoven cloth than the design.  And the sett you used to weave that beautiful, drapey scarf won't work for yardage.

Here’s why: in creating clothing, yardage will be cut up and sewn back together.  The cloth needs to be firm enough to support these construction details.  It needs to hold its shape, counter humidity, survive cleaning, feel comfortable on the body, and wear well over the long haul.  This usually means a tighter, firmer, sett.  

I see a lot of handwoven yardage come through my workshops.  The number one mistake is weaving yardage that is fluid and drapey.  My most common advice is: “Should have been sett denser.”  (One student even joked this should be written on my tombstone.)

The sett for a particular yarn is often listed as a range of values.  That's because the right sett depends on many factors: the structure (twills are sett denser than plain weave, because of the floats), fiber content, intended usage (upholstery fabrics are sett more densely than yardage), and even the type of loom used (the bigger the loom, the heavier its beater, the more densely it will pack the weft.)

There are several good sett references online.  For example, Schacht Spindle Company has a Sett Chart available on their website.

But if sett charts give you a range of options, how do you pick the right sett?  At this point, most weavers would  say: "This is a good reason to sample."


Thoughts On Sampling

Sharon Alderman, in Episode 46 of WeaveCast, talks about how important it is to sample.  She samples everything. 

I admire those committed to this practice.  Sampling is  critical when a square beat is desired, and for designs that create block patterns.  

I’ve done it.  But weaving a narrow fabric on a small loom can produce a cloth that is quite different than the full-sized cloth woven on a large loom.  

And weaving a four-inch-wide sample on a 45-inch-wide loom won’t give you much in the way of usable information either. Because the beater will pack the weft tighter on a narrow warp than on a wider one where there are more warp threads to provide friction and resistance.

I do sample, but not in the traditional way.  Let’s start at the beginning of my design process and I’ll explain it through step-by-step.


Figuring out the Sett

I start by using my best guestimate—from my years of weaving experience—to determine what I think the sett should be.

I take the cloth's structure into consideration when making my guess, as the more floats a structure has, the closer the warp threads will compress together.  Often I combine structures, plain weave next to twill, so I do my best to figure out what sett will produce the best cloth. Sometimes I use a combination of setts within a given reed. 

A place to begin is by wrapping the warp yarns tightly around a ruler.  Pack in as many as you can.  Wrap for an inch and count the number of wraps.  Dividing that number by two will give you an approximation for the sett needed to weave a square plain weave. 

I may sett my fabric denser by 50% depending on the fiber content.  The 8/2 tencel gown to the left was woven at 36 ends per inch on a 25-inch loom.  And the Bird’s Eye sample on the loom above was woven with 10/2 bamboo sett at 40 ends per inch.



Sett examples

These photos show two identical mixed warps woven in plain weave, mostly rayons and cottons.  The one on the left is sett at 12 ends per inch, with 12 picks per inch in the weft.  The sett is appropriate for a scarf, but the fabric is very loose and too unstable for garments.

The fabric on the right was sett at 15 ends per inch, with a beat of 11 picks per inch.  The fabric is more warp faced, and the hand firmer.  The fabric is structurally more stable could be used for garments.  I might even have tried pushing the sett to 18 epi and used a finer weft.

I tend to design cloth that is slightly warp faced; it hangs better in a garment.  And since I make pretty warps, often dying my own yarns, I want the warp design to be highlighted in the finished cloth.

Also, I love weaving with a single shuttle.  I hate weaving with two or more shuttles.  It breaks my rhythm.  Establishing a weaving rhythm is important over the length of 10 yards of cloth.  It will help you maintain a consistent beat throughout the yardage.  

And I want to weave fast: it's like riding a horse in a fast gallop, feeling the wind rushing through my hair...  (Ok, you get the picture)

How I Sample

When I wind a warp, I make it at least a half-yard longer than I'll need for the finished garment.  Then I play with wefts for that first half-yard of fabric on the loom.  I try thick, thin, dark, light.  I try wools, cottons, textured rayons, and I even try things I wouldn’t ever think of using, just to see what will happen. 

The knowledge gained by this wonderful exercise is worth every throw of the shuttle.  More often than not, what I end up using for weft, is not what I originally thought would work.  As a by-product of this process, I get a marvelous sample for my notebook and a better understanding of yarn interlacement.  When I’ve exhausted all the possibilities, I cut the sample off the loom.


Cutting samples off the loom

Then I take that sample, with all its different wefts, and divide it into three sections.  The first section, untouched, goes into my notebook for reference, with notations on the wefts used.  The other two sections are carefully stitched to prevent unraveling, and then water processed.

Section two is processed minimally, hand-washed in cool water in the bathroom sink.  I use a little shampoo, and agitate gently for a few minutes.  Then I rinse the fabric thoroughly and roll it in a towel to remove excess moisture.  I lay the sample out to dry.  Meanwhile…


The Washer and Dryer can be part of the Design Team

Section three gets tossed in with my regular laundry.  I round up any towels or jeans that need washing, and throw the section three into the washer and dryer with the regular load.  What comes out at the end of that experience is worth the price of admission. 

Wool wefts will have fulled almost to felt, cottons will have fully bloomed.  

What I end up with is the range of possibilities within each weft yarn, under minimal and extreme processing conditions.  

And, the most important thing: if the fabric feels sleazy, with lots of movement, even after being thrown in the dryer, this is a good indication that the sett is too loose and I should re-sley my fabric more densely. 

Often, I can do this simply by re-threading the reed.  If the sett change is drastic, say more than a 3- to 4-inch change in the warp width (depending on the size of the loom), I will need to pull the warp forward and re-beam.  

It's not my favorite thing to do, and it doesn’t happen often, but I’d rather take the time to re-beam 10 yards of gorgeous warp, than end up with a fabric that is too sleazy and unstable for garments.  

Sometimes just changing to a wool weft, with more aggressive washing will help a loosely-sett warp. 

Remember, this is a grand adventure with no particular destination in mind.  Where you end up is largely dependent on the route you take, but ultimately the goal is to have a piece of handwoven cloth that will someday become a garment.

This yardage was featured at the Convergence 2010 Enchanted Yardage Exhibit in Albuquerque.  Now that it is finished at the exhibit, it will be rolled up, go into my stash, and one day become something wonderful… 



Daryl LancasterDaryl Lancaster has been playing with thread for most of her life.  She teaches workshops all over North America and inspires handweavers to cut their cloth.  Daryl was the contributing features editor for Handwoven magazine, and has written articles for a variety of publications (including WeaveZine) as well as authored several monographs on weaving and sewing. To learn more, visit her artist's website or follow her blog.