Friday, July 31, 2009

Handling A Whole Slack Section

You know how there are times when something goes wrong, despite the best preparation? Well, I'm dealing with one of those times right now.

The beam I'm weaving was warped with 187 yards of mostly 8/2 cotton about 20 EPI. The twill sections require a tighter sett and looser tension. In beaming them, something fishy happened with the tension in one of the sections. As I wove, threads would go slack to the tune of one inch every yard. After trying to weight the threads individually, I finally noticed that the problem was really with the whole section and devised a way to work around it.

I grab the whole section using a cheap carabiner intended to be used as a keychain. It's smooth and able to be easily snapped over all of the offending threads and onto the rug wool I'm using for my weight. My original plan was to orient it with the flat side holding the threads parallel, but I couldn't figure out a way to do that.

The rug wool then passes over a hook that I've screwed into my DIY storage shelf above the loom...

...and down to a 1.25 pound weight from an arm-training set. These weights come in handy!

[In this photo, you'll notice another little trick. When I lose a thread in the warp, I put a cone of matching thread onto the rod and feed it over the beam, joining the rest of the threads in the web. There's enough friction from passing over the beam that the tension is just fine with no other weights. Unlike film canisters which need to be moved every yard or so, this system lets me just keep weaving until the lost thread reappears. If it has been many yards and there's a noticeable buildup of the lost thread left on the beam, I'll unwind some of it. Otherwise, it'll just be waiting there on the beam when I finish weaving.]

At every "cut line" in my weaving, about 10 yards, I gather up the slack that has been held by the weight system and pull it all the way to the fell line. There, it's tied tightly to be cut off later.

Notice the rug wool again. This time it marks the cut line between two sets of garments. This is a perfect place to create a gap in the weaving because it can just be cut off when the garments are made.

And here's how it looks after weaving a couple of inches. Notice that it's only 3-4 picks that are compromised. Of course, I won't cut the cloth until it reaches the cloth take-up beam at the back of the loom.

So there you have it. A deep, dark secret from the production world: beams aren't always perfect. There are lots of little tricks that have to be invented and employed to make up for mistakes in another part of the setup.

Related Posts:
Cutting Projects Off The Loom

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Depression and Meditation

I have the photos taken for a series of weaving-related blog entries, but it'll be a few days before I can allocate the time to write and post them.

I haven't written for a couple weeks because I've been frantically weaving to catch up and recover from a calculation error. I thought I had become fast enough that I could work short days and still fulfill my production commitment, so I did that for a while. Well, a double check of the numbers showed me that this isn't the case. Sure, I'm pretty fast, but the monetary results aren't as high as I had thought. Now I have to make up for lost time and then keep caught up.

This is a hard time of year for me anyhow. The cold and fog tell my body it's time to hibernate. The days are getting noticably shorter.

It's no secret that I deal with depression. Lots of people do. For years I took psychiatric medications. I have nothing against them, but found them to be problematic for the long term. The effects wear off over time so they continually need to be adjusted and monitored. Every time I start a new one, there are at least a few weeks of watching for results and side effects. "Frank phychotic manifestation"? None for me, thanks. I don't need a mood problem turning into a personality problem.

Apart from light, the other biggest depression trigger for me is financial stress. By heaping money stress on top of the grey weather, I created the perfect incubation conditions for severe depression.

But today, I feel like I'm out of the woods. I've been waking up earlier and earlier so that I can enjoy my morning meditation. I brew a pot of oolong tea and head up to Dolores Park. I get to wake up super slowly, allowing my eyes plenty of time to take in the bright sky and remember that daytime means being awake.

I've stopped drinking coffee. Sure, it gives me energy, but it also makes me feel crazy and frantic. The addiction crept up on me again: a cup a day had turned into a pot a day with cream. Expensive, and not a good long term wellness strategy.

And here's the funny thing... My phone, a two-year old first generation iPhone, is integral to the whole wellness experience. I use a series of apps every morning as part of my meditation:

- Daylite: this business and task management app helps me keep track of all my projects. I always know where I stand, what actions are next, and what tasks need to be done. I don't always get them done, but at least I know.

- Habit Factor: this app is based on a simple idea - bad habits are broken by replacing them with good habits. I have set up goals and daily habits that will assist me in reaching them.

- Live Happy: this app helps break the cycle of depression by making happiness and the habits that encourage it part of daily life. It actually spurs me to action, keeping in touch with friends, setting positive goals, savoring memories of happy times, etc. It's based on a book called "The How of Happiness." Of course, I'll be reading that book when I have spare cash to buy it.

And these strategies seem to be working. Healthy food, bright light, fresh air, positive thinking, and exercise. Weaving full-width on the 60" AVL is kind of like walking on a treadmill for 6-8 hours a day.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Record Keeping

Keeping good records is a boon to any weaver. With production weaving, however, it's an absolute necessity.

Ten years ago I tried for the first time to set up a crafts business. I would wash, dye, card, spin, and knit beautiful one-of-a-kind wool hats. I had no infrastructure for keeping records and hence no way to assess my business' functioning. I can tell you how many dollars went out and came in, but that's about all I know.

The big mistake that many beginning craftspeople make is in setting a fair price for their work. The thinking often goes like this: "The materials cost $10, so if I charge $30 I'm doing great!" What's missing from this equation? Time. Many people who do account for time don't account for all of it. "I can weave a yard an hour, so I only need to charge $20/yd for my time." This is neglecting to consider all of the setup time. I've been guilty of these mistakes and more.

Trying to learn from my past, I decided to set up a database for my weaving production. Here is what I wanted out of it:
1. Project details: How was the loom set up? How much warp thread did I use? How long did it take?
2. Piece details: What weft did I use? How much of it? What was the total material cost? How long did it take to weave? How much setup time does this piece need to pay for?
3. Trends over time: How many hours a day do I actually spend working? How is that time spent? How much time is spent *not* working? Why?
4. Wage: How much do I really earn per hour?
5. Equipment decisions: If I spend money on a new tool, would it really speed up the production? Is the task actually big enough to warrant a new tool? And the big question: how long before the tool pays for itself and I see a return on my investment?

As much of a Luddite as I may seem, choosing a mechanical loom, etc., I love my technology. I chose my database platform for features, ease of use, flexibility, and portability. I decided on a two-tier database approach. The main Filemaker database resides on my computer. This is where all the heavy lifting takes place: complex calculations and reports. I realized early on that walking to the computer for data entry would not be feasible if I wanted to collect fine-grained information. I chose Filemaker because there is a bridge app called FMTouch which lets me do the actual data entry on my iPhone.

This means I can be at the loom and away from electricity all day, effortlessly keeping my production records up to date. I sync those records wirelessly, usually once or twice a day, whenever I want to see updated stats on that day's productivity.

The software is fairly expensive, but well worth the investment. With a little ingenuity, this investment in infrastructure will pay off handsomely by allowing me to spot errors in production logic, make accurate capacity predictions, and set my prices fairly.

Now, on to the database itself...

Each project (beam) has a full set of data stored in a format that makes it easy to use.

Each piece within a project contains its data, too.

Every morning I create a new Day record to hold notes about that day and to give daily productivity statistics a place to be calculated.

The moment-to-moment use of this database is simple. Time is entered into a series of Timecards, which link it to the correct Piece and Task. Whenever I start a new task, I duplicate the previous Timecard (so I don't have to re-enter the Piece and Date) and enter a new start time. When I stop, I enter the end time and any notes. (Like which section on the beam lost a thread, for instance.) The data entry takes 5-10 seconds per record.

And from the simple habit of fastidiously collecting Timecards, I have access to an unbelievable amount of data that spans all apects of production. First, you can see a synopsis of my weaving speed and wage at the bottom of the timecard screen. (I'm blanking my wage out because I need *some* level of privacy!) This lets me hone my habits on the fly.

At the end of the day, I generate a daily report to show me a better picture of how my time was spent.

And, when I finish a piece, I have a complete record of what went into producing it. This report was designed so that my boss/mentor can gauge how much time is going into each task and help me spot problems in the workflow.

Every piece that is cut off the loom gets a tag so we can correlate problems that appear in the final cloth with the records of what was happening during production.

I have yet to design the reports that will show me trends over time, but the data is all there waiting for me to create them. You'll notice by the word DEMO splashed across my reports that I also have yet to pay for the graphing software, XMChart. Soon I'll have that money, but for now I just look past the watermark.

I'll be continuing to work on this database as time goes on. It's far from finished. If you already have Filemaker installed and you'd like to play around with a copy of the database, drop me a note and I'll strip my data from it and send it on. Of course, there is no manual to document the features. It's definitely not for the feint of heart.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Vision of a Crafts Monastery

A while ago, I published a document written in 2001, detailing my monastery vision at that point. CLICK HERE TO SEE THAT POST. This is a rewrite of that vision, incorporating many of the things I've learned by studying, starting, and running businesses since then.

Many of these ideas were hatched out of my experience at the Wolf Creek Sanctuary, a spiritual retreat center in southern Oregon. One of the primary difficulties within that community is the fact that there is no infrastructure to provide financial support for the people who care for the land. They need to arrive with their own money, leave the land to work, or exist on nothing but public assistance.

Historically, monasteries often engaged in business. They made paper, brewed beer, distilled liqueurs and more. The monastic lifestyle can be a slow and contemplative one, but it can also be very productive. The monks are supported by the work of their hands.

Many spiritual systems teach that people are separate from the animals because we were "made in the image of the creator". Whatever name or shape is given to that creator, this is the entity credited with creating all that we know and is also generally responsible for controlling our destinies. Well, if we were made in the image of a creator, doesn't it stand to reason that we can strengthen our connection by engaging in the act of creation? That we can influence our own destinies by tapping into the part of ourselves that was made in the likeness of a divine creator?

These ideas might be familiar to anyone who has engaged in craftwork:
"I lost track of myself for a while. I sat down and the work just flowed out of me."
"I can't believe this came from *my* hands."
"It feels like the beauty of my craftwork came from someone else."

It's my belief that these fleeting experiences can be deepened by making creation a steady part of one's life. And by creating items that can be sold to the world at large, we can support ourselves and expand the awareness of gentle spiritual pursuit as a way of life.

Modern life moves fast. Many people find themselves willing participants in a rat race where they work hard to afford their lifestyle. My time in occult retail has shown me that people from all walks of life are interested in experiencing a slower, more balanced lifestyle, even tangentially and fleetingly.

A Tangent: Customers Want Authenticity

Video Lecture - TED Talks: Joseph Pine on What Consumers Want

Below is a synopsis of this lecture, which has profoundly impacted my understanding of the modern consumer mindset.

In the development of our current economy, there are several distinct stages:
Agrarian: Resources are used or sold directly.
Industrial: Resources are converted to goods and sold.
Customization: Goods are customized. The service of customizing is sold.
Experience: The services themselves are customized and sold.

"Authenticity of Experience" is the new consumer sensibility.

It's my vision that we can provide an authentic experience for people. When they are purchasing the items that we make, they are not purchasing things that they can buy anywhere else. They are purchasing a beautiful memento of their experience meeting "those monks who live a simple life of creation." They are purchasing a piece of a dream for themselves. And nowadays, dreams fetch a good price if you can figure out how to sell them.

Currently, people are beginning to wake up from the world of mass commerce and realize that they aren't happy. They are realizing that the way the world has been working is not sustainable. Things have become productized, cheap, and worthless. Banks are collapsing and we are facing the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression. These realizations are causing many people to seek a different way of being. We can stand as an example to them by creating beautiful craftwork using old-fashioned techniques.

What would a day in the life of this monastery look like?
I envision a place that's pretty similar to Wolf Creek Sanctuary in its daily life. People have projects that they are working on. They're helping each other out. They're doing the chores to keep the place running. They're relaxing enjoying their time together when the work is finished.

The financial support that we need would come from selling our wares: at craft shows, in stores and galleries, and on the web. If we build our "brand identity" collectively, individual artists are free to move within the collective, learning and doing different crafts as their whims dictate. I think this is key to properly serving our particular community. We seem to be a people who thrive on flexibility and change.

This monastery would be a place where people can visit and easily find a place to fit in. There would always be plenty to do, and people to help new visitors learn the ropes. Every form of craftwork has some task that can be taught quickly, ensuring that people can be truly productive from the start, refining their skills and moving on in an organic way.

The big difference between "sanctuary" and "monastery" in my mind is the focus. At a sanctuary, at least the Wolf Creek version of it, visitors have the option of staying for a while with very little expected of them. Some visitors never do figure out how to pitch in and help with the work that needs to be done. This is a perpetual source of tension.

In a monastery, everybody works. It's the concept of "playbor" taught by Wolf Creek's first caretaker, Oskrr. It's work that's engaging and fun. The work is central to the spiritual pursuit. If you want to engage in the way that others are engaging, you pick up a task and do it. I'd like to see this awareness become central to the culture of the monastery.

I see this place growing organically as well. It would begin with one or two crafts. We would work hard, sell our wares and save our money to build additional studios, expanding our craftwork horizons.

It would be a place of learning, too. When people want to learn a craft, they can come and learn by doing it. It's a retreat center and a crafts college rolled up in one!

And when it's time for a visitor or resident to strike out on their own, we could help them acquire the equipment and find the sales venues to make it work. If we do things right, perhaps we could buy the work that they're producing and give them the income bridge that they need to make it on their own.

I know that this seems like a lofty vision, but I don't think it is. I am already doing it. My current livelihood comes from weaving full time for a small weaving company. Soon I'll be selling my own work and looking for people to help me weave it. My boss/mentor is doing for me what I hope this monastery can do for others: buying my cloth and showing me the ropes until I can make it alone.

I'm moving to Wolf Creek for a few months this fall to work on this vision, and to craft a proposal for a one-year stay. At the end of that year, I hope to have met others who are on the same path and ready to create this monastery for real.

If you've got inklings in this direction, get in touch with me. I'd love to talk about your ideas and explore a shared vision for the future.

Blossom Merz
Handwoven Heirloom Textiles

Sunday, July 5, 2009

More on Production

There are lots of little procedures and techniques that distinguish ordinary handweaving from production. A weaver friend was asking me about some specific aspects of production handweaving, and I thought I'd share the answers here...

1. Who does the design?
Right now, my mentor/boss does all of the design. She buys the yarn, warps the beam, and designs the weft thread combinations. I ply the weft according to her instructions and do the weaving. My cloth goes to the seamstress who makes the garments and gives them back to the owner to sell.

2. How long does it take to set up the loom to weave.
It's pretty quick. Usually, there is a set of harnesses and reed prethreaded for each pattern. I tie the beam threads on, pull them through the heddles and reed, attach to the cloth take-up apron and weave. In theory, there are a fixed number of patterns with a set of harnesses and dobby bars for each one. Our goal is that I should never have to thread and sley, though it doesn't always work out quite like that just yet. We are still finding our way around this relationship.

3. Why don't you design and sell your own stuff? You'd make more money, wouldn't you?
Yes, I would, and it is my long term goal. There are just a lot of things that stand between me and that goal. They aren't insurmountable, but they aren't trivial, either:
- Finding my own market and making sure that my sales volume could support me in that market.
- Designing the products that will sell in that market.
- Purchasing the raw materials. Material startup costs are more cash than I have right now.
- Marketing. I need to get my, as yet mythical, products in front of customers.
- If I decide that shows are the way to go, I'll need a booth. I'll also need to find shows where I'm not competing with my current boss.

So, I'm very happy with the arrangement that I have right now. I've got my eye on the future, but for now there is much to learn and much to be gained by simply fulfilling my weaving contract for at least a year.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Measuring String

A while ago I mentioned a little device that I use to assist in my production work. It's a string that carries masking tape flags and helps me keep track of where I am. Production is all about efficiency. Anything I can do to save time makes a big difference, especially if it reduces an action that happens dozens or hundreds of times a day.

Before I start weaving, I measure out a length of string and stick little masking tape flags at measured intervals. For yardage, it's just 1 marker every yard with a number. For garments it gets trickier. These involve different lengths of weaving with differing lengths of fringe between them. The flags are labelled SH1 EH1 SR1 ER1 SR2 ER2, etc. This means Start Hood 1, End Hood 1, Start Ruana 1, and so on.


This string gets wrapped, end first, onto a bobbin that fits a shuttle I've taped to the back of my loom. (Notice the string riding on top of the finished cloth below.)


I feed the string between the heddles, but laying far beneath the shed. After I've woven a couple of inches, I pin the string to the beginning of my project. Notice the single shot of wool that serves as a cut line between projects.


The AVL's sandpaper beam is crucial to the success of this system. It pulls the measuring string over the beam at the same rate as the advancing cloth. I just keep an eye on that string and watch for flags. I follow the instruction written on the flag, advancing past fringe sections, and keep on weaving.

I know that weaving can be trance-inducing, and sometimes it's a hour before my next flag arrives, so there's one more trick I've learned to make sure I don't miss it. For the first set of weaving with a new weft thread, I keep track of how many bobbins are used per garment. Then I wind that many bobbins plus 2 (fudge factor) and lay them out in a box. When I see 4 bobbins left (plus and minus my fudge factor), I know it's time to check for a flag on my string. After a few projects with a weft thread, the fudge factor goes down almost to zero. The flag appears right when I finish weaving the last bobbin in the box.

Now, when it's all done, I don't worry about removing the string yet. I've got several copies of each pattern string so I just put on the next string and weave until the cut mark goes all the way to the back of the loom and wraps a little around the cloth beam. See
THIS POST for a quick method of cutting garments off the loom.

When it's cut off, I carefully pull the string from my bolt of cloth and wrap it onto a bobbin, pin and all, for later use.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Yurt Dreaming

Last year when I was looking for my new and lasting vocation, I chose weaving for a specific reason - it can be moved. When it came time to choose a loom, people were encouraging me to get a computer controlled dobby. With a passion and aptitude for computers, and over 25 years' programming experience, it made sense. When looking at my long term goals, however, it made no sense at all. I want to go off the grid.

Throughout the entire visioning process, one image has been in my head consistently: me and my loom set up in a yurt in the woods. This vision had its genesis several years ago while spending a few nights in the yurt of my dear friend, Cobb.

The yurt is a beautiful structure, consisting of a few simple parts. The outside is a flexible lattice turned in a circle and attached to a door. It is made rigid by a strong band that wraps around to hold the tension. The structure is supported by the balance between gravity pulling the lattice down/out and the band holding it in.

The roof is in a similar balance. The center ring has holes all around, into which are fitted the rafters, forming a cone. The other end of each rafter connects to the top of the lattice. Again, it's the weight of the roof held in balance by the lattice and the tension band that provides the stability. Most yurts of moderate size contain no internal support structure.

The time has come for me to begin the process of designing one of these for myself. I began, like much research nowadays, with Google. With the amount of information I found, I doubt that any more research will be necessary.

If you're interested, you can see all of the sites I discovered by visiting my Evernote notebook:

One site stands out as a real gem, containing a series of web-based calculators for every aspect of yurt design:

There are quite a few steps between me and my dream home in the forest, but if I use my loom as an example, it'll be done before I know it!