Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What is Production Handweaving?

I use the word “production” all the time to describe my weaving, but most people don’t really know what that means. I guess I didn’t really know, either. I just knew I wanted to weave a lot and make a living at it. That’s easier said than done, particularly while living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Crafts businesses aren’t generally thought of as extreme money-makers.

Back on topic... First of all, in production everything is measured. That’s true of all weaving to a certain extent, but not always so thoroughly. Every movement needs to be as efficient as possible because it’s going to happen hundreds or thousands of times a day. Today, for instance, I wove over 4,000 picks, about 80 bobbins, 5 pounds of weft. An average day, really.

As I work, I log all of my time into a database. At the end of every day I check the numbers. How long was this day? How much of the day was actually spent working? How many yards per hour did I achieve while weaving? How does yards per hour when I factor in all the other necessary tasks? How much did I earn per hour today? How much in total?

When I finish a set of garments I check the numbers again. Yards per hour while weaving? When factoring in all of the other time? What is the proportion of weaving to other tasks? What can I do to increase it? Does a particular task stand out in the project report? Why is it so big? What can I do to decrease it? Remember, weaving is the goal, and what I get paid for.

I’ve noticed a very rough analog between weaving time and clock time:
Minutes: Bobbins
Hours: Garments
Days: Sets of Garments (10 yards each)
Weeks: Beams (75-190 yards each)
Months: Material swapping trips (2-4 beams at a time plus weft)

So, when I’m planning my next glass of water and stretch, it’s “in 12 bobbins.” My next meal break is “in two garments”. My next day off is “in three sets of garments”. My vacation is “in two beams”. It’s not a 1-to-1 correlation, just a similar way to mark time.

This might all seem a little obsessive. Well, yes! It’s kind of amazing that it’s taken me so many years to realize that my rigid and ritualized way of experiencing the world could be such an asset. I used to do things like sort 10,000 mixed beads into their separate colors and make time-lapse video of it.


One thing that production weaving does is to make my old way of looking at weaving seem very tiny. So, just like in the rest of my life I’m odd-man-out again. I go to weaving guild meetings and hear people say things like, “I did a lot of weaving in the last two months. I’m almost done with 8 yards of warp!” I think to myself, “8 yards? After that, it’s time for lunch!” It’s not judgement, just a radically different perspective. I know that different people are in different places and that most people are not even remotely interested in production weaving, and that’s why their eyes glazed over when I told them that was where I was headed.

Well, I got here, and it’s exactly where I want to be.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Inner Peace Through Handwork

Disclaimer: I live in San Francisco, long associated with futile idealism and wacky thinking. I don’t think I suffer from it, but then, do fish know that they’re wet?

First of all, folks should understand that I view history in longer terms than your average American. I think that the development of the internet is “brand new”, the settlement of California was “pretty recent”, the industrial revolution was “not that long ago”. I think that a lack of historical perspective is one of the biggest problems in our culture today. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it...

For years I worked in software development where my particular focus was back-end management systems used in special effects work. In my late 20’s I started assessing what I was doing with my life. We put in 80-hour work weeks to make movies that were nominated for Academy Awards, not because they were quality cinema, but because the effects were cool. I started to realize that I would never watch those movies if I hadn’t worked on them. And then, what I did at the studio was minimally connected to the film anyhow. I wrote and maintained the software that made it possible for the people in creative departments to do their work more efficiently. I was a step removed from actually participating in a thing that was a step removed from reality and soon forgotten anyhow. I had developed enough dissatisfaction to send me looking for a different way of life.

Between films I decided to spend a few months at a spiritual retreat center in Oregon: The Wolf Creek Sanctuary. There, I happened to learn how to knit, and was amazed at how long it takes to make anything. You sit and do the same thing for hours at a time, seeing very little progress. Time seemed to speed up when I was knitting because I was slowing down, exactly why I went to the retreat center in the first place. And at the end of my crafting time I had something REAL that I could hold in my hands. I can wear it around my neck to keep me warm. I can loan it to a friend when the temperature suddenly drops while we’re hanging out. Over time I’ve come to realize that creative handwork represents a connection to the past and to the divine spirit of creation. It brings me back to a time when most people actually made stuff. Nowadays, in this country at least, there is barely a recognition that stuff is made, much less an understanding of who it is that makes it. There’s an absolute awe at the idea that each of us can make stuff.

Depression. There have been several periods in my life when I’ve struggled with depression. It manifests as a feeling of hopelessness and disconnection from the people and world around me. It’s a sense that the ways I spend my energy don’t really matter; that my life doesn’t really matter. After a week of writing software, is there anything to show for it? I’m not alone in this feeling. Depression is a major illness in many parts of the “developed” world. Most people in this country have no idea where the things they buy come from. They also have no idea what really happens to all the energy they expend every day. They go to work, do what they’re told, come home, engage in passive entertainment, and do it all again tomorrow. I think these things are all related. I used to take pills every day to try and stay satisfied with an unsatisfying life. When I stopped taking the drugs, I stopped being satisfied.

Last year I set out to create my life the way I want it to be, a life that I could be happy with. I wanted to have flexibility in terms of where I live so my new business needed to be fairly portable. I wanted to work with my hands, developing a skill that I could use to make a good living. I wanted to do some form of fibercraft. Twelve business plans later, I found it. Weaving was scalable and could truly support me in the long term.

Now, a year later, I spend my days at the loom. I cut pieces of weaving off the loom, tag them and add them to the growing stack of finished cloth. In the morning there are cones of thread. At the end of the day there is cloth, ready to be cut and sewn into garments for people to wear. I don’t wonder where my energy went. I can see and touch it: stacks and stacks of beautiful fabric that I made with my own two hands.


And the depression has lifted. Sure, I’m not the rambunctious kid that I was, but I’m not a kid anymore, either. Some days I just want to lay in bed, but I’m still working long hours and pushing myself to climb the steep learning curve of production handweaving. After all this hard work, it would be strange if I WASN’T tired.

For now, the actual customers are still one step away from me. I’m hired to weave by the woman who makes and sells the garments, but that won’t be the case forever. Soon, I will be out there myself, an evangelist for a different way of life. When people buy clothing from me, they will be buying a connection to a time that I think needs to come back. People need to make stuff again.


Our current economic mess shows that better than anything else. What happens when we, as a nation, ship our jobs overseas and make our money from highfalutin shell games? Well, there are fewer actual jobs left here. Unemployment is at the highest rate in decades. We’ve let banks mis-manage our money. People are concerned about the environment and global climate change. We could be creating American jobs, reducing our dependence on foreign labor and reducing our impact on the environment if we wore clothing that was locally made from local materials.

Sure, handmade stuff is more expensive than stuff made overseas, but it’s worth it. Cloth used to be precious. Household inventories used to list all of the cloth in the house because it was so valuable. Cloth was an irreplaceable part of the dowry in many cultures. Socks were darned. Clothes were made well and kept mended. When they had seen so much use that they could no longer be worn, they were made into rag rugs or sewn into quilts. Nowadays, clothing is treated as nearly disposable, subject to rapidly changing whims of fashion and replaced every few years. I think it’s a sign of everything that’s wrong with our culture and I’m going to use my energy to work against it. Oh, and I’ll have to wear beautiful handmade clothing in the process. See the sacrifices I make for my idealism?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Flu, blech!

Whew, boy! This week was sure memorable. The news reports have been full of Swine Flu, giving tips and tricks for preventing it. The trains were full of people wearing surgical masks. There was local talk of quarantining people traveling from Mexico. People all over the world WERE quarantined: locked in hotels and detention centers for days. Egypt began slaughtering their pigs in a confused panic.

Meanwhile, I was home with an ordinary flu. I was sick as a dog for two days solid - scheduled to be fulltime weaving days. As excited as I am about weaving, you know it takes complete dizziness and dilirium to keep me away from the loom. And, then there was a day on either end of it where I was only able to work my one job and fall straight into bed afterward. Four days without weaving!? It’s a wonder I survived.

On top of that, work got super-dramatic. An ex-employee decided to whip up a frenzy at the store. It didn’t have the full impact on me because I knew I was leaving in a few days, but it was a little enervating nonetheless. Boundaries, people! Life is so much better when you use them!

And, on my final day, drumroll please... The landlord decided to paint the roof and fill the store with noxious fumes. It was the first day I could really smell again after my flu, and we were all light-headed from the vapors. At least it wasn’t a taxing customer service day because the customers couldn’t take the fumes, either. It kind of felt like the stories I hear of people who go to work high on drugs. We were giddy and dizzy and short on focus, even with our frequent “fresh air” breaks to stand outside and breathe.

Now it’s over, the end of an era for me. That was probably the last chance I’ll have to work in occult retail because it just doesn’t pay enough. To quote an artist friend, Katie Gilmartin, “I’ve been forced to resign myself to a life of delight, abundance, and gusto.” She’s a printmaker who does amazing work and makes a decent living from it. She’s also a fantastic teacher. I found myself making prints I could be proud of after just a few hours in her studio.

Starting today, my time is my own. I can do what I like as long as it involves a lot of weaving. In a few days I’ll be back up to speed and know whether I will need to take a special trip north this month to get more weaving supplies.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Cutting Projects Off The Loom

One of the benefits to having a production loom is that it’s designed to let me weave efficiently. There is one task in particular that took me a lot of time with other looms - removing cloth from the loom and starting to weave again without leaving a mark in the cloth. This is quick and simple with the AVL because the sandpaper breast beam clearly separates the tension on the warp threads from the tension on the finished cloth.

Here, you can see that I’ve finished weaving a set of garments with fringe between them, about 11 yards altogether. They’re ready to come off the loom and be handed off for wet finishing.

To mark the place where I’d cut, I wove in a shot of rug wool. and affixed my measuring string. (I’ll write a whole post about my measuring system later.)

I had already woven far enough into the next set of garments so that I could unroll a bit and take the tension off the cloth beam entirely. This whole cloth cutting operation takes place while the warp threads are still held under tension on the other side of the sandpaper beam. I always put my hand between the scissors and the roll of finished fabric. I only had to accidentally cut my finished cloth once as a beginner for that lesson to be burned into my brain forever.

After I cut along the wool thread, I unroll the beam to remove the finished cloth, ending with about a foot of apron cloth unrolled as well. I then place the cut edge of the cloth on the beam. Notice that I haven’t picked up the finished cloth from the floor. I’m too lazy to stand up until I’m done with what I’m doing down here.

I flip the apron over my cloth, carefully smooth out wrinkles and roll once or twice around the beam with my cloth sandwiched under the apron. (See that awful dag in the selvedge? Nobody else will ever know because I’ll repair it before it leaves my studio to be finished.)

Then I roll it up until it’s ready to put under tension, hang the weight back on the takeup cord and go back to weaving. The cloth is now securely attached to the takeup beam without stitching, knots or tape. It takes very little fuss and doesn’t put stress on the cut cloth edge.

When I’m not photographing the process, it takes about ten minutes to remove a batch of yardage from the takeup beam, reattach the cloth and get back to weaving.

Related Posts:
Measuring String

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Today I Quit My Day Job

That’s right!

I love my bosses. I love the shop. I love the work for the most part. Today, however, I said goodbye to Occult Retail. Sure, I’ll come and fill in if they need a hand so they can take special trips and the like. They’ve been so sweet to me, it’s the least I can do for them.

The store was never a good fit. I travel so far that the minimum wage is lower and I earn less than I would if I worked at McDonald’s in San Francisco. I spend three hours a day on BART or walking to and from the station. And then I pay about $9 a day on my train ticket. When I started there last July, I expected to be there for a few months until I got the funding to start my weaving business. I would work through December as a favor to Storm and Chas since they wouldn’t have time to train a new person in time for the holiday rush. And then in January I would leave.


The best laid schemes of mice and men... It has taken months longer than I expected. When my rent increased May 1st, it was the last straw. I just can’t afford the trek anymore. I never got the funding that would let me develop and market my own line of handwoven goods, and my research shows that the market isn’t very receptive to new product lines right now anyhow. Most boutique owners are lucky to be afloat. There aren’t many who would take chances with a new designer and a new product line.

I have, however, worked exceptionally hard to get a weaving contract. It’s going very well. I’ve just climbed up the steepest learning curve of my life, from purchasing and setting up a daunting professional loom to becoming a production weaver in less than two months, while working enough hours at a minimum wage day job to stay mostly above water.

So the time has come for this little bird to fly the coop. My production level already covers the income that I earn at my day job. I’m becoming faster and more accurate every day. Yesterday we worked out some of the details of material swapping that will keep me weaving steadily through the Summer. We’ve got plans made through Spring 2010, and it’s all looking good.

And so today I signed the contract voluntarily terminating my employment at The Mystic Dream. My last day of regular work is next Wednesday. Ah, Beltaine! The time of new beginnings, indeed.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On Top of the World!

That’s how I feel today. I hardly slept last night because I’m so excited about finishing the first deliverable of my first big weaving contract: 15 yards of full-width fabric. You know how you go to the fabric store and see big rolls of fabric? I just made one - a 17 pound, 5 foot wide roll of beautiful cloth. How cool is that!?


It came off the loom yesterday afternoon. I then spent two hours on the upstairs deck in the bright light repairing problems. I knew the learning curve on this first project was going to be steep. Now, looking back, I can’t believe the mistakes that got past me just last week. From now on I’ll be repairing problems as soon as I spot them so I can correct my actions and prevent them from happening in the first place.

After it was all fixed, I realized that I hadn’t taken any pictures of the process. I snapped one shot of the fabric all folded up and ready to ship.


Doesn’t look like much, does it? Well, after it’s been washed and made into garments, it’ll be much more impressive, I’m sure.

And now, a little musing on the meaning of all this in my life...

Ever since I can remember, I’ve made the most of what I had. Growing up, we didn’t have much money. I don’t think we were “poor”, but nobody thinks that, do they? There’s always someone else who’s worse off. I did, however, get used to making due with whatever we had. Most of my clothes were hand-me-downs from my dad or my uncles. Buying new stuff was never the first option we explored.

Well, I think that made a lasting impression. All my life I’ve made the most of whatever circumstance I’ve found myself in. I never really sat down and said, “If I could create a life from scratch, what would it look like?”

I first played with weaving at about age 7. My grandmother bought me a little tabletop potholder weaving kit. You know, the kind where you put t-shirt loops on a frame and use a hook to pull other loops through them? I moved rapidly from plain weave to 2/2 twill. I would sit for HOURS and weave this way. When I recently asked Grandma about it, she said, “We just got it to keep you busy. It would occupy you all day.”

I remember another incident involving finger-knitting. My great-grandma taught me to knit tubes by looping yarn around my fingers. At some point, someone gave me skein of fuchsia acrylic yarn. I obsessively finger-knitted the entire skein into a skinny lacy tube. Then I finger-knitted that, ending up with a hefty bright purple rope. It became my favorite toy for a while. My dad put an end to it when he caught me lowering one of my younger brothers down the stairs in a cardboard box, using my pretty rope for leverage. Kids don’t really think things through, you see...

Fast forward 20 years. A friend taught me how to knit as a visitor to a spiritual retreat center. He had learned from his Danish grandmother. I was losing another good friend from AIDS and needed something to occupy my mind. My love of fiber and obsessive fibercraft came flooding back to me. Six months later I was moving to that retreat center with a van loaded with fibercraft supplies and a vague idea that I could make some money at it. I was wrong. A successful fibercraft business takes more than “a vague idea.” Sure, I made some beautiful things and a little money, but not even enough to sustain itself.

I moved back to the city, settled down and learned how to run a business from Glenn, the owner of Ancient Ways. I then joined a friend’s landscaping business for a few years. And last Spring I made the choice to leave that and strike out on my own.

At the prompting of Carl, my best friend, I decided to figure out what I want to do with my life, separate from the circumstances that happen into my path. “Near enough to my self-made cage that I can grab at them,” as Carl colorfully put it.

And that’s what this one piece of cloth represents. I’ve done it. For the first time in my life I set out with a ludicrously lofty goal of doing what I truly want - supporting myself with my craftwork. I analyzed my options and made a series of difficult decisions based on the end result I wanted to achieve. I interviewed professional weavers and decided on the perfect loom for my needs. I moved heaven and earth to get it. I set it up and learned how to use it. I searched high and low for someone who needed an entry-level production weaver, and got myself a well-paying contract that depends on this one specific piece of equipment.

And today, the first fruits of this labor went into the mail to be delivered. It’s actually happening, and in perfect alignment with my desires. Eventually I’ll start my own line of handwoven goods and market them myself. For the time being, however, I feel blessed just to be making a living from the craft of my hands.