Devin Helmen says, “I have always been a spinner, first and foremost—only afterwards a knitter and later a weaver.” Devin’s weaving journey has always been handspun focused. In the Summer 2019 issue of Spin Off, Devin asked three weavers about their own handspun, handwoven work. ~Kate
“When you spin yarn for a weaving project, it has a different quality than machine-spun yarn. It is an outward display of every moment you spend spinning, every breath, including all the flaws and inconsistencies of being human. When you are in a state of enthusiasm or peaceful joy as you work, that energy flows into the finished item, and others will sense that subtle energy and be drawn to it, whether they are aware of it or not. A machine-spun yarn cannot replicate [yarn made by] a human being in that state of awareness. There is also the wonderful satisfaction of making something from scratch, understanding something so primitive and applying those skills.
“For weavers who wish to work with cotton, especially singles, there are a few tips that can smooth your path. I find that cotton is better approached with a sense of faith and patience. It may take longer to learn to spin cotton and to weave with the singles. Most of us learn to spin wool first, and when we begin to spin cotton, we are frustrated, and must let go of preconceived ideas of how a fiber should feel when spun.
“The first requirement is a willingness to allow the cotton to teach you, to guide you to spin it the way it wants to be spun. Like meditation, in the beginning it requires all of your attention and will not tolerate distraction, but eventually it becomes effortless; this is the goal. You must be vigilant, and each moment the forming cotton thread reflects your state of awareness. A lapse in attention or a lack of trust in the fiber will create a slub or thin spot, each detrimental in its own way. The goal is not to make the yarn look like machine-spun yarn, but to have a yarn that is balanced and stable enough to survive the weaving process with all its human qualities intact.
“My advice is to spin a lot of singles on different spindles and wheels to discover which works best for the yarn you want to make. Put more twist in the singles than you think [you need], but use your intuition as you spin. Try plying some of your singles yarn into two-, three-, and four-ply yarns and examine them. Then try all the finishing methods you can: boil it, steam it over a kettle, or do nothing with it. Knit and weave some small samples and throw them in the wash; see how they look and respond. Adjust the twist amount in the singles or the ply as needed; spend time exploring your yarns.
“A consistently stable singles is just as important if you intend to ply, although the more plies you have, the more forgiving the yarn tends to be. As long as there are no obvious slubs, you should not have to size a plied warp. A singles cotton warp should be sized. There are many sizing materials to choose from, and I suggest you experiment and find the one that works for you. You can add the sizing in the skein or with a brush while the warp is stretched out under tension, the method common in India. Regardless of the method you choose, you will have to be patient while separating the drying singles. You can also size the weft, which will decrease your draw-in and wear at the edges and eliminate potential pigtails in the cloth. In India, it is common to use a temple while weaving khadi (cotton singles).
“A slightly lower-twist singles will create a fabric that is softer with a bit of a flannel feel, but it will not wear as well. A hard-twist singles will need more space for the extra energy to move, or else the cloth will be too rigid. A slightly wider sett will create a lovely, hard-wearing, crêpe-textured textile that becomes softer over time. Each has its own unique look and feel.”