Bootstrapping Webs (the fiber kind)

We call the computer inter-network  “The Internet” or “the Web” (short for World Wide Web), so-called for the fact that a computer network, symbolically and in physical realization, consists of logical and physical pathways that are intertwined, interlaced, and interconnected in a structure very like fabric (or a spider’s web).  The terms we use come from one of the oldest of man’s complex tools or machines, the loom, a tool or machine for making a fabric from twisted, intertwined, and interlaced animal or plant fibers.  It is not surprising, then, that the Unix Curmudgeon, who has built, repaired, and assembled computers and computer networks for nearly five decades, should also get involved in the repair, assembly, and even construction of the original artifacts.

The Nice Person who allows the Unix Curmudgeon to share a home with her has been a fabric and fiber artist full time for the last 12 years, since retiring from the nursing and case management professions.  We’ve had sewing machines of various vintages and capabilities for most of our lives, ranging from the foot-powered treadle variety to micro-processor-controlled machines that embroider intricate patterns, needing attention only to change thread colors.  In 2001, we acquired a long-arm quilting machine, which paid for itself, additional sewing machines, and a large stash of fabric and thread, by using it to quilt tops pieced by others.   It also help fund our newest fiber addiction, looms, yarn, and accessories, which have also started paying their own way in sales of handwoven items, only because we buy most of the equipment used.

So, starting with a simple rigid-heddle loom in 2006 or so, which quickly was joined by a partially-finished homebuilt floor loom (which we completed and have since modified and upgraded), we just continued to furnish the house with looms.  A used smaller floor loom followed, then a small tapestry loom and an inkle loom (for making narrow bands), and, finally, a spinning wheel.  After our move from Montana to Washington, we acquired three table looms (a must for weaving classes) after the Curmudgeon graduated from Loom Mechanic to amateur weaver, a couple more floor looms (upgrading from 4-harnesses to eight), and, recently, another tapestry loom with a shedding device.  Somewhere along the way, we gave away one table loom and loaned out the smallest floor loom.

Despite getting most of these looms for bargain-basement prices (we only bought the tapestry looms, spinning wheel, rigid heddle loom, and a couple of warping boards new), this starts becoming a substantial investment.  One of the newer 8-shaft floor looms came with a sectional warp beam, for which we bought an inexpensive third-party tension box, an item needed for winding on warp in sections.  But, we also needed a spool rack, for holding the 12-24 spools of thread needed to wind on a one-inch section.  A new one of these costs nearly as much as we paid for the loom, so we searched the web and found photos and dimensions of one that someone else had made.

spool rack
A 40-bobbin spool rack, for warping a sectional-beam loom.

We ordered a set of cardboard bobbins suitable for the purpose, and, with a few lengths of poplar from Home Depot and steel rod and screws from Ace Hardware, put together a home-made spool rack.  After working out any issues, we might add a set of thread guides to the front and disassemble it to glue the joints and apply a protective finish.  But, it will serve quite well as-is.

Here’s a short clip of how the spool rack is loaded–first, the yarn is measured (on a skein-winder with a turn counter attached) to load lengths for as many sections as needed to get the proper weaving width.  This one needs 24 spools of 110 yards each to make a 21-inch wide cloth 5 yards long. The last section of the clip shows the Nice Person weaving on the rigid heddle loom.  We’ve progressed a ways since we started on that one, but it is still useful, especially with textured fibers that don’t work well on the standard loom.

Loading the Spool Rack from Larye Parkins on Vimeo.

A card loom--simply two pegs to anchor the warp and a spreader to help keep the threads in order
A card loom–simply two pegs to anchor the warp and a spreader to help keep the threads in order

About the same time, the Unix Curmudgeon decided to join a band-weaving study group with one of our weaving guilds, as he had taken a class in card-weaving (or tablet weaving) last year and wanted some incentive to keep working at it.  Tablet weaving doesn’t really need a loom, but only a couple of pegs to hold the warp, and a set of 4-hole cards to create the shed for weaving.  Card weaving has the advantage of being able to weave intricate patterns by rotating the cards together or individually, but does apply a distinctive twist, winding the threads on one card around each other as they rotate.  The inkle loom can also be used as a card loom, threading cards rather than the fixed heddles.

cards in a card loom
The tablets set up for selective rotation to make an intricate pattern without picking.

However, the Nice Person also decided to join the group, which has decided to focus on the inkle loom, and we only had one inkle loom (as unlikely as that may seem).  Since a new inkle loom costs about $75, plus shipping, there not being a weaving supply shop nearby, we found a plan on the Internet ( that was fairly simple and clear, and went back to Home Depot for more wood and to Ace for more screws.

In the hurry to select wood, we didn’t notice that the largest piece picked from the hardwood rack was maple, rather than the more economical poplar, but the total cost still came in at less than $40, with almost enough wood left over to make a second loom to sell. As a bonus, we used some of the waste wood from the lap joints in the loom to make a shuttle/beater for the weft.

inkle loom
A home-built inkle loom, warped and ready to weave.

It isn’t surprising that looms, though they look complex, are fairly simple and inexpensive to build, since they have been made by shepherds and farmers (and later, city folk who purchased raw fiber) since man first discovered wool, flax fiber, and cotton seed pods could be spun into yarn and the yarn interlaced into cloth. When we toured the midwest a few years ago for the Curmudgeon’s 50th school reunion, we learned at a prairie museum that early settlers who immigrated from Scandinavia only brought with them the steel reeds used to space the warp and beat the weft, and built the rest of their looms from local wood, and tied heddles from strong spun fiber, to weave homespun wool and linen.

We also recently learned the Japanese Kumihimo technique of braiding multiple threads into strong and decorative cords. The simplest form uses 7 threads, for which we made eight-sided braiding disks from craft foam purchased at a sewing outlet: a $1 sheet makes about four disks. The traditional form uses up to 16 threads, which uses a 32-slot disk or a marudai (a wooden stand with a round wood disk top). Below is a short video showing the 7-strand technique, moving the third thread anti-clockwise from the empty slot into the empty slot, repeat…

Kumihimo from Larye Parkins on Vimeo.

We’ve also recently made a small tapestry loom from 1/2″ copper plumbing pipe (using our old-house repair skills), and are studying the ancient art of språng, another braiding technique for making fabric, in which the yarn is captive on both ends, making a symmetrical flat cloth pattern, in intricate designs chosen by the interlinking/intertwining methods as well as color selection.  This will require some sort of frame, but no other tools.  Språng is also an ancient technique, “discovered” by archeologists in a 3500-year-old dig, and since found to be practiced yet today in many primitive rural societies all over the world.  Thus we discover that making webs to create nets, clothing, and containers is as natural to humans as it is to spiders, and can be done with everything from hands with opposed thumbs to simple hook tools or sticks, using simple tensioning frames to complex mechanical devices to hold and manipulate the threads.  Of course, knitting and crocheting is very popular, too, but we haven’t had time to do much of that lately, especially since we are still financing our fiber habit in part by weaving webs of the Internet variety.  So, computers and networks aren’t esoteric science, they are just the extension of our natural desire to weave fabrics in interesting and useful patterns: it’s in our DNA.