Weaving These Isles: The Trickery of Craft and MarketEloïse Sentito
Eloïse Sentito of These Isles travels the Celtic Crescent in a converted motorhome/workshop weaving the landscapes into woollen garments and campaigning for a greener and fairer economics. She blogs for No Serial Number on the challenges of running a sustainable craft business. She’s currently in the Outer Hebrides.
My weaving business, ‘These Isles’, is now in its fourth year. It is my livelihood, but it is still tiny, and 2018 trade has been worryingly slow. (Previously over a third of my customers were American. They have all fallen away suddenly, and I wonder whether that may be because liberal Americans are in a state of shock and horror.)
Last winter I began to sense that These Isles was ready to go up a notch. I’m always considering things I could in principle do to grow it: explore different virtual and physical selling platforms; network more; invest in more advertising; run workshops; employ extra hands; use slightly less primitive technology, and so on.
Some of these I do in small ways all the time, but some of these have big implications for my lifestyle. Because new listings are often what trigger sales, I rented a cottage for a couple of months in early 2018 in order to make use of a bigger working space so that I could set my table loom up on a treadle for faster production. It thought I’d see how it would be to settle in a house again and run from a bigger workshop.
For a couple of months I churned out scarves that I was pretty pleased with (‘churned’ being the very relative term of a rate of about three and a half a week as opposed to two and a half). I found out a few things: 1) that sales did not increase; 2) that working in bigger batches meant I spent more boring days in succession on some of the tiresome (and energy-hungry) finishing processes; 3) that most of the garments I currently make in what has become my style cannot be made any faster because I’d designed them, and already honed them, to suit my kit, workspace and workspeed for maximum efficiency as was (again, relative term).
A constant improviser, I thought of another approach to improving business, especially in the summer months when people aren’t thinking much about warm, woollen garments. Frustrated by the slow and juicy finishing processes involved in making rustic wool softer for our delicate modern tastes, I conceded that my favourite wool is better for other things. I could add another product to my range.
My favourite wool is the British wool gathered in Yorkshire and spun in the mills here in the Outer Hebrides for the Harris Tweed weavers to use. Their designers are second to none in my view, and the best of their yarns are subtly but splendidly flecked with surprising colours that evoke the flash of orchid in bog or gannet in sea or lichen on rock or iron in burn. In their mills they soften the cloth using Victorian or more modern industrial technology.
But the yarn starts out fairly coarse and I’m using very simple hand tools in a limited space, and already regret the use of a steam iron in the finishing process.
When I began weaving I had the undyed, local wools of the 1970s craft revival in mind, because my parents and their friends had made or bought beautiful blankets and rugs in natural, homespun colours. However I found I had to experiment, innovate, do my own thing and find my own way, and have inadvertently made my colour blending my signature.
Then I conceded that much of the wool I love for its rusticity is better for the floor than for the neck. And so after all I got excited about making rugs. Too excited, even, to look at a book, go on Youtube, ask my elders or otherwise study method. ‘I know how to weave!’
I encountered all the problems I’d encountered in my first couple of years when, child in a sweetshop, I experimented with different yarns and sold different products before finding my style, identifying what sold and settling into a fairly comfortable groove of knowing by feel and by heart the particular techniques for handling particular materials and tools.
Half of the wool I was using for these new rugs was the same thin, coarse, super twisty stuff that I’d had so much trouble with at first and had tamed – but that was in a different context.
For continuity of style, and because that’s what I was into, I wanted to make seascape rugs. I had some thick linen and the first two rugs fed my excitement even though I’ve had to advertise them as seconds since I didn’t manage the warp tension well. (A flaw in the one that sold straight away is what confirmed a child’s belief in it as a magic carpet, and its owner loves it right well.)
For the third attempt, I was running out of linen and bought some cotton, and tried to mix the two in the warp. No good: you need an extra bit of kit for mixing warp types, as I’d learned two years before and ignored this time around. I re-realised that again fairly soon and undid and redid without the linen. This took a few hours.
Then I began weaving on the cotton warp. No good, I’d not tensioned it carefully enough. So I undid and redid again.
Then I began weaving again on the retensioned cotton warp. No good, the set (distance between warp threads) must have been wrong. So I undid and redid, which this time meant completely undressing the loom and redressing it (about a day’s work).
Then I began weaving again on the reset cotton warp. No good, so I undid and redid to change the set. (I’m too impatient and live in too small a space to have a sample loom; I just go for it on all 32” of my stalwart loom. I’m rethinking this.)
Then I began weaving again on the reset reset cotton warp. And wove fifteen beautiful inches.
And then found that I’d again not paid enough attention to the tension, and undid the whole damn lot. And then kicked myself when someone enthusiastically pointed out that the beauty of the successful fifteen inches could surely have made something that someone would have loved.
And all the while my hourly wage is falling from a whole £2 to mere pence (I jest not), and, panicked, I’m wondering whether I might have to throw everything in and get a job cleaning loos or something. But even then I’d not be able to agree with my employer if they made me use bleach.
Then (a few weeks have passed by now, and I’ve moved country, put the van through the MOT – yey – and moved country again), I redid the tension meticulously and began weaving again. I used some undyed, rare breeds wool from my stash that I’d been carrying for a few years. It was chunkier, and this and the simplicity of colour meant I could work much faster. Although I was now in the Hebrides, dying to weave the crystal jade waters and the bluest of skies, I found myself weaving seaweed and detritus on white sand, and was satisfied.
And so my fourth rug was successful. Here are the lovely Blacker Yarns doing their thing:
So then I thought I’d got the hang of rug weaving, and was reassured to find that my loom was man enough for it even though a much bigger, stronger floor loom would be more usual. So with the same warp at the same set, I tried for a fifthwith the lovely Hebridean colours.
I wove and wove, really enjoying realising a dramatic seascape of red and rusty kelp and brown, burgundy and purple bladderwrack on white sand; red and rusty kelp and brown, burgundy and purple bladderwrack in turquoise seawater; turquoise seawater breaking in waves on white sand; turquoise seawater darkening to teal seawater; teal seawater darkening to blue seawater; blue seawater darkening to purple seawater; purple seawater illuminated with a rosy rust glow of sunset to balance the rust of the kelp at the first end of the rug…
Over four days I tightly wove and beat an incredibly slow 50 inches. I was making a 45 inch hearth rug but as I wove I was aware of slight tensioning issues that I expected to have to adjust afterwards by pulling warp threads to even the tension throughout, and I knew that this would create some shrinkage. This must be a bodge, and far from master craftsmanship, but I’ve got away with it a number of times before.
So off the loom comes the work of art, and what is usually a pleasant surprise and my favourite moment confirmed that yes, I would have quite a lot of retensioning to do. So I’m pulling strings in a row, and jumping about, and pulling them again in a row, and going to the other end, and pulling from the middle, and easing things through, and tugging gently, and yanking harder – and doing a wretched table-leg job till I’ve two blistered fingers. Ill-fated, my mending fails, and I end up with a beautiful, wriggly, undulated, stiff-in-places weaving that cannot pass as a rug. Ouch.
But at least I remember my earlier admirer’s suggestion, and hope that these colours and textures will enliven somebody’s wall in all its three-dimensionality. I even have a wall in mind to display it on meantime, in what might possibly become my weaving studio here in the Outer Hebrides – where everything is beautiful and brutal.