Sunday, December 22, 2013

Warp-Weighted Loom Update #2: Picking out the Wool

In my last post, I talked about finding some sources for warp-weighted looms. I talked about what archaeologists have managed to dig up, which isn't much, and I touched briefly on some of the problems associated with the technology of determining dyes/mordants/etc. used on prehistoric textiles. I also spent some time discussing how textiles can fit within a wider archaeological context, but because of their rarity, the field of textiles is vastly understudied. Enthusiastic spinners and weavers who wish to reproduce ancient textiles with similar tools and constraints contribute a great deal to the archaeological understanding of how these ancient textiles were made. 

So let's talk about the wool. That's tricky. Most of the professional articles I've read don't list specific wools, mainly because they can't isolate a specific breed. Even if they could, the types of wool that existed a thousand or more years ago just don't exist anymore. Wool has undergone evolution by the hands of their human companions, so the wool of today is often very different than the wool of 100 CE.

Let's take an example of a recent paper I read ("The development of animal husbandry from the Late Iron Age to the end of the Roman period: a case study from South-East Britain") about the intensification of animal husbandry. During the Romano-British period in England (roughly mid first century CE), Romans stationed in "barbaric" territory imported large quantities of goods, and among them, cattle. They were decidedly there for the long haul, so instead of importing beef all of the time, they were going to introduce their cattle (which had already undergone many generations of selective breeding) to the local cattle. In just a few generations, the size of each animial grew significantly.

Similar things were happening with sheep. There was a time when sheep shed their wool naturally, and had two (or more) distinct wool characteristics. There was an outer coat, typically made of coarse hair and kemp fibers, and an inner coat, typically soft and warm fibers. Both coats were shed, but at different times. If you saw a sheep molting their inner coat, you knew it was time to pluck the fine wool while avoiding the coarse hairs. Cashmere goatherds go through a similar process when removing the inner coat from the molting animal.

This inner coat on sheep used to be extremely fine, on the order of cashmere or angora. But with the increased demand for wool, harvesting requirements changed. Collecting wool from animals who might be shedding at different times is labor intensive as it must be done over a longer period of time. In the instance where several sheep are shedding simultaneously and there aren't enough hands to pluck wool, some of the shedded wool will be lost on shrubs, to the birds, and elsewhere. In addition, kemp/coarse hairs needed to be removed prior to processing, and only the inner coat was usable for most of their needs. This equated to a lot of labor for not a lot of reward. Environmental, social, and economic pressures may have lead to the changes we see in modern wool.

Selective breeding took over, and eventually animals were created which had a more uniform fleece (though not as soft as before) and continuous growth without molting. There are so few sheep these days which have a dual fleece of the same qualities that sheep had a thousand years ago, and scientists even argue that the so-called primitive sheep today are still not free of human tampering. Be that as it may, it does tell me that I'll have some trouble finding a fleece exactly like the fleeces available in the Iron Age. Thankfully, there are some papers available which have taken micron counts of fibers used in textiles and furs, so I can use that information to find a suitable substitute.

I've given some thought to my first warp-weighted loom project. I think I should stick with something simple, and something I'll use in the end. Samples are great, and I do a lot of sampling (Facebook fans know that I do a lot of sampling!), but to get a really good idea of what I'm doing and what I'm in for, I need to go all the way and make a completed item. I'm going to start off with a simple woven scarf out of a prime merino fleece I bought last year. You may call me crazy using such a soft fleece for this, but Iron Age people used fine fleeces for their textiles too. The majority of the fleece used was in the 15-25 micron range, so using a 21 micron merino fleece isn't completely nuts. :) For fun, I did a couple of samples, mixing the merino with alpaca and cashmere in 50/50 blends. First up, merino/alpaca:

This is a wonderful combination, but I'm concerned that the alpaca might weaken the strength of the yarn. I think I need to pay more attention to the crimp and twist of my fleece and yarn, so although this is wonderfully soft (and I love the heathered gray), it probably won't be practical for this project. Nevertheless, it's on the backburner and might become some wonderful socks one day (I do have 6 pounds of this fleece, afterall).

This one is decidedly for fun. Here is the merino/cashmere blend:

I was thinking that cashmere might add some extra fineness that was present in fleeces used for Iron Age textiles, but I'm not convinced it's the right type of fineness. It does have crimp, but is it enough to get a strong yarn? I might just hang onto the cashmere and make a knitted lace scarf for the dead of winter which I think is coming, but never comes.

In the next update, I'll talk briefly about what I mean when I say 'Iron Age,' since it matters where I'm talking about geographically. For this project, I am trying to get a general sense of 'Iron Age' technology and materials, so I may be combining information gleaned from Iron Age periods across the UK and the surrounding areas. I've also updated the bibliography, just in case others have a copy elsewhere.

Current Bibliography:
Albarella, U., Johnstone, C., & Vickers, K. (2008). The development of animal husbandry from the Late Iron Age to the end of the Roman period: a case study from South-East Britain. Journal of Archaeological Science, 35(7), 1828-1848.
Andresen, S. T., & Karg, S. (2011). Retting pits for textile fibre plants at Danish prehistoric sites dated between 800 bc and ad 1050. Vegetation history and archaeobotany, 20(6), 517-526.
Degano, I., Ribechini, E., Modugno, F., & Colombini, M. P. (2009). Analytical methods for the characterization of organic dyes in artworks and in historical textiles. Applied Spectroscopy Reviews, 44(5), 363-410.
Joosten, I., van Bommel, M. R., Hofmann-de Keijzer, R., & Reschreiter, H. (2006). Micro analysis on Hallstatt textiles: colour and condition. Microchimica Acta, 155(1-2), 169-174.
Rast-Eicher, A., & Bender Jørgensen, L. (2012). Sheep wool in Bronze Age and Iron Age Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science.
Ryder, M. L. (1987). The evolution of the fleece. Scientific American, 256(1), 112-119.
Strand, E. A., Frei, K. M., Gleba, M., Mannering, U., Nosch, M. L., & Skals, I. (2010). Old Textiles—New Possibilities. European journal of archaeology, 13(2), 149-173.
Vanden Berghe, I., Gleba, M., & Mannering, U. (2009). Towards the identification of dyestuffs in Early Iron Age Scandinavian peat bog textiles. Journal of Archaeological Science, 36(9), 1910-1921.
Viklund, K. (2011). Flax in Sweden: the archaeobotanical, archaeological and historical evidence. Vegetation history and archaeobotany, 20(6), 509-515.