How To Make a Truly Handmade Scarf
Step One: Sheer a Sheep
Most of the wool that goes into making these handwoven scarves comes from Lily, a merino sheep who lives on a hobby farm in southern Idaho. (She’s the smaller one on the right in the picture.) She spends her days in a grassy field along with two other sheep, four goats, and two mules. At night, she snuggles up with her sheep buddies in a secure barn, with some grain as an evening snack. She isn’t certified, organically or in any other way, but she is loved by Kathy, the woman who owns the little hobby farm, and is treated very very well. Once a year, the shearer (who lives right down the road) come by and hand-shears the sheep after he’s done with his own small herd.
Step Two: Wash the Wool
Lily got her name because her wool is lily white, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that by the color it is when it first gets sheared. When you are a sheep that lives in the desert and you pretty much never take a bath, you get pretty dirty. So the first step after the wool is off her back is several wash/rinse cycles in very hot water. This step has to be done very gently because there’s a risk that the wool will felt if it gets agitated at this stage, which would make it unusable for weaving. Once the wool is completely clean, it has to dry. In the desert, this only takes a day or two, but if I do this step at my home in the humid Pacific Northwest, then it takes a fire in the woodstove and several days to get the wool all the way dry.
Step Three: Dye the Wool
Because I aim to use as little electricity as possible, I do all my dyeing in a pot on top of my woodstove (which I use to heat my house anyway, so no additional energy is used). The dye process involves water, vinegar, dyes, and wool. I dye in a very intuitive way, so each pot of dye is completely one of a kind. Each batch of wool generally runs through the dye process two or three times, in order to create a depth of color that gives the finished scarf a more luminous quality than just a solid color could create.
Step Four: Card the Wool
Sometimes the wool gets carded by a small family mill, but I prefer to do my own carding so that I can blend the fibers and colors exactly the way I want. I have a small drum carder that was gifted to me by a neighbor who had one in her attic she wasn’t using. (I love living in a small town!) About one large handful of fibers goes through the carder at a time, so it takes several batches to card enough fiber for one scarf. When the fiber comes off the carder, it’s like a big fluffy pillow of fiber and it’s called a batt. Sometimes I create the batts so that the finished scarf will have a graduated color change and sometimes I create batts that incorporate as much blending of the tonal colors as possible to create a finished fabric that seems to glow.
Step Five: Spin the Yarn
I spin all the yarn with either a drop spindle or on my Ashford Traveler spinning wheel. The drop spindle is nice because it is very portable. I spin while I’m hiking all summer, while I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, and while I’m out playing Frisbee with the dog. The wheel is faster, but less portable. I’m not the first spinner to note that wheel-spinning is faster by the hour, but spindle-spinning is faster by the week (since you can do it in so many places). Whichever method I use, I stick with that same method for the whole skein of yarn. I like for each finished scarf to be either wholly spindle-spun or wholly wheel-spun. Most of my yarn is wheel-spun, and I like to use a “long draw” technique which creates the loftiest, softest yarn possible. When I’ve spun enough yarn for the scarf I want to create, I first have to “set the twist” so that it doesn’t try to tangle back on itself as I weave. This means soaking it in warm water and then hanging it to dry before I can wind it onto a weaving shuttle.
Step Six: Warp the Loom
While the newly spun yarn is drying, I warp the loom. This is the process where the lengthwise yarn is attached to the loom frame, to provide a structure for weaving on. I generally use a 100% merino laceweight yarn for the warp, so it provides just a hint of color and good stability for the finished fabric. I like to add enough warp for two or three scarves at a time, which means measuring out 16 to 24 feet of yarn times whatever width I want the finished scarves to be. This is where some math comes in. I like to have scarves 10 inches wide, with 8 warp threads per inch. That means 80 warp threads, each 16 to 24 feet long. If it’s not raining, I like to measure this out by tying one end to the open door of my studio and the other end to the potting bench in the side yard. Then I walk back and forth measuring out string 80 times. It means I walk between ¼ and ½ a mile every time I measure out warp!
Step Seven: Weave the Fabric
Finally we get to the weaving part! This is probably my favorite part of the process (although I really like dyeing and spinning too), and it’s also the easiest part. The weft yarn (that’s the yarn that goes back and forth between the warp yarns), gets wound onto a shuttle, which gets passed back and forth between alternating strands of the warp. It’s mesmerizing, and this is the phase when I spend a lot of time meditating on what I want the final scarf to mean to its recipient. Is this a fiery red dragon scarf? Or a seafoam and pastel scarf for pleasing the fairies? In previous steps, I often don’t know for sure how the final fabric will come out. Each step of the process changes the look of the yarn a lot, so it’s not until this weaving stage that I can really see how the final fabric will look and add more specific intentions on the energy I would like it to embody.
Step Eight: Finish the Fabric
After taking the final scarf off the loom, it’s still not quite done. It needs the magic of a little soap and hot water to solidify the fabric. The specifics are customized to each fabric, based on the fiber content and how solid I want the final fabric to be. This step also slightly shrinks the scarf, so I have to account for this in my initial calculations. Although I start with a warp that’s 10 inches wide, the scarves always end up with a narrower finished size. Sometimes, I wash the whole scarf in the washing machine and dry it in the dryer to create a solidly felted scarf that will be very sturdy. For a finer more elegant scarf, I might just gently handwash it and lay it flat to dry. In either case, this final step makes the fabric more stable and also brings out the soft halo of the fiber. This is especially true if there is some mohair or angora fiber in the scarf. You almost won’t see it before this step, and then after the finishing you will see the beautiful bloom of the soft fuzzy fibers. And with that, it’s finally done! I usually like to take a minute to pet it, and imagine how pleased the recipient is going to be to wear it. I think of all the love that has gone into creating this fabric, and how much love will be passed on to each future person who receives it, possibly even for generations.