Sarah Jane Wilson is a textiles designer-maker creating unique hand-woven products under her label Fearlessweaver. Her unique designs are woven on a traditional countermarch floor loom in her studio in Wellington. Originally from the UK, Sarah exhibited with the prestigious Society of Designer-Craftsmen in the Mall Galleries and OXO Tower Gallery in London. Her designs are inspired by the landscape and scenery in the environments she has travelled to, and use 100% natural fibres.
What do you make?
I make hand-woven textiles such as scarves, cushions, throws, shawls, ponchos and bags on a traditional countermarch floor loom, all from natural fibres and sometimes using yarns that I have hand dyed with natural dyes. My focus is on colour combinations and textures in weaving.
How did you get into your craft?
I loved drawing and painting as a child and through school and college developed this interest further. I went to Art College in Bournemouth in the UK to study Foundation Level Art and Design. This was a two year course that allowed us to try out all the disciplines to find out which area you would then specialise in at degree level. I thought at that point I might go into graphic design or illustration, I never thought I would end up in textiles as I couldn’t knit, was pretty hopeless with a sewing machine and just had never really considered it.
However, when I got to the textiles part of the course it didn’t actually involve much knitting or sewing at all. It was more about surface pattern and textures which I loved exploring. We had a visiting tutor that came for a couple of days a week called Harriet Wallace, she was a weaver in the early stages of her career as a designer. I found her woven designs fascinating and wanted to learn more about weave structures, so she brought in a small table loom, I had a go and have been hooked ever since. Harriet is now one half of the very successful designer label Wallace and Sewell based in the UK. I am still inspired by their work today.
Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
Yes, following the Foundation Studies I went on to study Fine Art and Textiles at Bath Spa University College. I studied there for two years and left with a Diploma in Higher Education after deciding I wanted to focus purely on weaving. I then went to The Surrey Institute of Art & Design in Farnham to study for two more years and get my BA(Hons) Degree in Woven Textile Design.
Merino wool is my favourite, I use that most of the time. It is such a beautiful fibre to work with and produces lovely soft fabrics that are not scratchy at all.
Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
I love my loom, it is a Swedish countermarch floor loom and it weaves beautifully. It has up to sixteen shafts and two warp beams which means I can produce an amazing variety of designs on it. It was built in the 1970s and I have owned it since I graduated in 1999. It is BIG and it has travelled with me up and down the length of the UK over the years and then four years ago I shipped it over to New Zealand. I can’t imagine parting with it ever. I have used many different looms over the years and each have their own quirks to get used to. I also have a very old Harris table loom, built in the early 1900s. I have owned it since around 2001. It is very heavy, has sixteen shafts and two warp beams also. I use it to try out designs on, for producing small scarf commissions and for taking to fairs to give weaving demonstrations.
My favourite yarn to work with is wool. I love exploring how the fibres react to different weave structures during the finishing process. Something that can look quite flat when it’s woven on the loom can turn into a highly textured piece once it has been milled due to the way the wool will shrink in the warm soapy water. Especially a very high twist wool, this will produce a crepe look to a fabric. Merino wool is my favourite, I use that most of the time. It is such a beautiful fibre to work with and produces lovely soft fabrics that are not scratchy at all.
Tell us about some of the the techniques involved in producing a piece of weaving
Setting up the loom to weave cloth is a process which requires careful planning, concentration and plenty of time. It can take a whole day to set up the loom to weave scarves, up to two days to set up for cushions and more to set up for cloth that is the whole weaving width of the loom. It can take around eight to ten hours in total to complete one scarf.
Once the design and structure of the cloth has been worked out, the shafts, lams and peddles have to be tied up in the correct way in order to achieve that particular weave structure. Every time the structure is changed the set-up must be changed too.
The warp is made on a warping mill. Up to fifteen metres can be made at one time on my warping mill, this is enough to make six scarves. The warp threads, or “ends” lay next to each other in a cross at the beginning and end of the warp. This keeps the order so that it can then be transferred onto the loom.
The warp ends are then spaced into groups in a raddle. The raddle will help to keep the warp at the correct width when it is wound onto the warp beam. Winding the warp onto the warp beam is another slow process. In order to get an even tension across all of the warp ends requires careful stroking and pulling of the warp and a certain amount of weight applied whilst winding.
Threading up is the longest part of the setting up process. Every end is individually threaded through a heddle which hangs on a shaft. A wide blanket in merino wool may have well over 1000 ends to thread. Ends are then threaded through the reed. The reed determines the sett of the cloth, this is the number of ends per inch/cm. Reeds have a certain number of spaces per inch/cm, called dents, through which the ends are threaded. The reed will act as a beater to pack down the weft as it is swung back after each throw of the shuttle.
The warp is finally tied in small groups onto the front warp beam and is ready to weave. As the cloth is woven the tension is let off the warp on the back beam and the cloth is wound forwards onto the front beam. A strong, even tension is required in order to achieve a good shed, the gap that the shuttle is thrown through. The weft yarn is wound onto a bobbin to put into the shuttle. The peddles are depressed with the feet, this raises and lowers the shafts in the desired order. The shuttle is thrown through the shed leaving the weft lying across the warp. The beater is swung to beat back the weft and then the next peddle is depressed raising the next shafts in the sequence and so on gradually building up the cloth one weft thread at a time.
When the cloth is woven and cut off the loom it then has to be inspected for any loose ends to darn in, tassels are made by hand for scarves, or fringes for cushions and throws and then the cloth is put through a milling process. This involves applying a solution of hot soapy water and pummelling the cloth in order for the fibres to soften and full, holding the structure of the cloth in place. Different finishes can be achieved depending on how long the cloth is milled for and how the cloth is handled during the process. It is then thoroughly rinsed and pinned out to dry. This is called tentering and is where the phrase “waiting on tenter-hooks” originates.
What inspires you?
My work is inspired by colours and textures in the world around me. I take lots of photographs and reference these when wanting to create new ideas. I have enjoyed travelling around New Zealand since emigrating here, the scenery here is just so inspiring.
Is there a philosophy behind your work?
Just to keep to natural fibres and locally sourced if possible.
Threading up is the longest part of the setting up process. Every end is individually threaded through a heddle which hangs on a shaft. A wide blanket in merino wool may have well over 1000 ends to thread.
Describe your creative process:
I get ideas from the many photographs I take. Sometimes I do small paintings or sketchbook drawings and then create an item around that. Other times I simply group together different colour yarn cones and leave them around for a few days, change one here or there until I am happy with the choice. Then I will do some card windings to decide on colour proportions in the warp.
Once a warp is set up the ideas for the colours to weave into the weft will often just grow along with the weaving. I think of it as painting with yarn. I will decide to change colour or change the texture or the lift pattern as I go, always keeping in mind the overall look of the piece, as you only actually have about 20-30cm of the cloth in front of you at any one time.
Describe your workspace:
I rent a studio in Courtenay Place, Wellington. Its one of six studios, the other spaces are occupied by artists. It’s a lovely light space and I really like seeing the other work going on around me. It’s great being so central, I enjoy the buzz of the city. I have worked from home in the past but the loom takes up so much space and I find I work much better away from the distractions of home.
Your favourite feedback from a customer:
I get lots of lovely feedback from customers but the biggest compliment is when they come back and buy from me again.
What are you currently listening to:
I have been listening to C Duncan – Architect whilst driving around the Wellington coastline most days lately.
Recommend an album:
Laura Marling – Semper Femina or anything from her really, she’s a great songwriter.
What’s your favourite childhood book and why?
The Wizard of Oz – I had a version that was beautifully illustrated by Michael Hague that I would look at over and over again. I still have the book now.
What are you reading now?
I have recently started to read Under the Skin by Michael Faber. It’s about a female driver called Isserley who cruises the Scottish Highlands picking up hitchhikers…
If you were a crafty superhero, what would your name and superpower be?
Fearlessweaver sounds a bit superheroish! I could shoot weaving from my wrists like Spiderman and make instant blankets for the homeless!
What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?
Just to be brave and put yourself out there.
What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
A beautiful handmade necklace by Fiona Christeller, I loved it’s simplicity and the delicate nature of the piece.
What’s in store for 2018?
I have day two of the Martinborough Fair coming up on the 3rd March then the main focus will be to find some new outlets. I am slowly finding my market in New Zealand and now I am no longer working in full time employment I can put more time into this – along with lots more weaving!
Sarah is offering an awesome 20% off all her beautiful woven clothing, accessories, and homewares in her Felt shop, until the end of March! To receive this great discount, just enter the code “MTMFEB18” in the voucher code field during checkout (and don’t forget to tell us what you love about Sarah’s story and creations in the comments).