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Spinning a Story with Hemp

Posted by Emma Baron on

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The Överhogdal Viking Tapestries, made from hemp and linen in the early Middle Ages. 
The Long Form - Weaving hemp into history

Advancing the warp. Balancing the weft. Controlling the dance of heddles and shuttles and treadles. We'd put weaving on the list of advanced craft skills just for the vocabulary lesson alone. Although there aren't many humans weaving on hand-and-foot operated looms these days, it's a skill that we've been honing since the stone age.

Shortly after fire, basic tools, and weapons came pigments, painting, and weaving. Art, craft, and visual storytelling are integral to the human experience, and local handmade goods are essential connections to the roots of a place.

While we were mostly still hunting and foraging as nomadic peoples, weaving was among the first crafts that helped us evolve beyond raw materials. It was the need for clothing that was part of our domestication and placemaking, creating specialized labour and larger windows of time to complete more complex projects. Hemp and flax were some of our first cultivated crops, for both the purpose of food and fibre. The earliest piece of cloth found by archeologists is over 9,000 years old, found in the ancient Palaeolithic city of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, woven with a warp of linen and a weft of hemp fibres.

The first looms consisted of a few sticks to keep the yarn of the warp in place. As use of looms spread across the globe, the design improved and they became easier to use. Weaving evolved from a home craft sold at medieval fairs to an industry with centralized, purpose-built buildings. Eventually large mechanized looms took over, and now robots do most of our weaving.

Have you ever sat down to craft something that requires the patience of weaving by hand? First you have to build your warp, the vertical columns of yarn that will twist around the weft, which are rows of fibre that are shuttled across the loom. Once you have built up your warp, you load it onto the loom, winding it onto a beam that will hold it tight, feeding it through heddles which will allow you to create a pattern and keep the yarn from tangling.
Erin M. Riley's 'Undressing 3", 2014.
Setting up a loom takes hours before you even begin to perform the actual weaving. The upfront investment is high - but imagine the magic of creating your own textiles from scratch and wearing a shawl that was a plant not long ago. We like the idea of digging deeper into these focused activities in September. It's a time of reorganizing and refocusing, and meditative activities like weaving allow us time to think while also producing beautiful results.

Traditional art and craft skills tend to cycle through peaks and valleys of popularity through modern decades, and 2019 has been a good year for hand weaving. Woven textile wall hangings have been seen across the pages of fashion and home styling magazines, artists like Erin M. Riley have reclaimed tapestry as a modern storytelling medium, and there are multiple classes in our city for any kind of weaving you might like to do. Weaver's guilds are still going strong in many parts of Canada - check the listings near you and you're sure to find at least one Gran who would probably love to pass on their skills and/or loom.
The News

New Zealand is getting into the game with a new hemp processing facility in Christchurch. Despite the growing popularity of hemp in textiles for both clothing and homewares,  it's still quite difficult to source the right fabric for the job. Decorticators that break up the hemp stalks into usable fibres are still fairly rare.

There are only a few decorticators in Canada, and even then, you still need to find a weaver who will create the right blend of fibres for your application. The facility in New Zealand will process both wool and hemp fibres, and has a research team dedicated to trialing new innovations in textiles. We're excited to see what they do!
The Social Calendar
Until next week, remember:
Keep your stick on the ice, watch for the signs, paddle your own canoe.

- Emma & Carol
Milkweed website

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