Following Ralph Watson

Guest post by Max Mosscrop, artist & weaver.

This short film records the making of a linen cloth from instructions in the 18th century manuscript The Weaver’s Guide: Linen Designs by Ralph Watson of Aiskew (Z.371). The film shows how the cloth is formed a thread at a time, and how the emerging pattern is mirrored in the patterns of movement of the weaver’s body and the loom. (Copyright Max Mosscrop 2021)

Many thanks to the North Yorkshire County Record Office for inviting me to contribute this guest post.

Learning from the past

I trained as a painter, but I’ve spent the last few years teaching myself about the history and techniques of weaving. A handful of manuals from the early 19th century, before the advent of the power-loom, have been especially useful. I haven’t found any practical guides published in Britain before 1800, but two manuscripts by 18th century English linen weavers have survived and provide valuable insight into pre-industrial techniques. Both are from North Yorkshire. One is the Thomas Jackson Record, now in the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York ¹. The other is The Weaver’s Guide: Linen Designs by Ralph Watson of Aiskew in the North Yorkshire County Record Office.

Z.371 Block Patterns from “The Weaver’s Guide: Linen Designs by Ralph Watson of Aiskew”

Block patterns and weaver’s drafts

The Ralph Watson manuscript contains two kinds of designs – block patterns and weavers’ drafts. The vast majority are block patterns with evocative names such as “The Keel Man’s Frolic” or “The Deep Wounds of Calder”. They are intended for a technique called diaper weaving, which relies on a contrast between rectangular blocks of weft-faced and warp-faced satin. A special diaper loom with two harnesses is needed to weave all but the simplest of these patterns.

I’m interested in the technology of weaving as well as the finished product. I designed and built my own loom a couple of years ago. It’s my pride and joy, but it doesn’t have the double harness needed for complex diaper weaving, so Ralph Watson’s diaper patterns are out of reach for now.

Z.371 “The Weaver’s Guide: Linen Designs by Ralph Watson of Aiskew”: Detail of page 144, showing weaver’s drafts

Instead, my attention was drawn to a page near the back of the book, with a handful of designs for hapings, flowered wounce, huckaback, damask twill and birds’ eye. These designs are presented not as drawn patterns but as weaver’s drafts that remind me of musical scores.  Each draft is an instruction that concisely describes a different method for setting up the loom, threading a warp and weaving a cloth: thousands of small repetitive operations taking days or weeks to complete.

In January of this year I decided to follow Watson’s instructions for the first hapings draft. It’s now April and I’m still working on it.

‘Hapings’

Z.371 “The Weaver’s Guide: Linen Designs by Ralph Watson of Aiskew”: Detail of page 144

The Oxford English Dictionary defines happings as a northern English or Scottish word for a covering, such as a shawl or coverlet. The term is used in both the Ralph Watson manuscript and the Thomas Jackson book (sometimes with one ‘p’ and sometimes with two) for fancy twills in fine linen, cloths that seem more suitable for tablecloths or napkins rather than clothing or bedspreads.

On the draft, the eight horizontal rows represent the eight shafts of the loom. The left half of the draft (called the tie-up) shows how to connect the shafts to the eight treadles, determining which shafts will be raised or lowered when a treadle is pressed. The wiggly lines on the right show how to thread the warp through the heddles (the theading or entering). In practice this is several days of tying, winding and threading before weaving can start.

Treadling

The treadling order – the sequence in which the eight treadles are pressed for weaving – mirrors the threading order. It can be represented as a sequence of 140 numbers, as follows:

1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1
8,7,6,5,6,7,8,7,6,5,6,7,8
1,2,3,4,3,2,1,2,3,4,3,2,1
8,7,6,5,6,7,8,7,6,5,6,7,8
1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1
8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1,2,3,4,5,6,7
8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1,2,3,4,5,6,7
8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1,2,3,4,5,6,7
8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1,2,3,4,5,6,7
8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8

As you might imagine, I found this sequence hard to follow. I hung charts in front of my loom while I worked, with the sequence broken down into chunks. Even so, the first few feet of woven cloth are riddled with mistakes.

Good weaving requires rhythm. It took several days of weaving before I had learnt the treadling sequence well enough to follow it without pausing for thought, as if playing a tune on an instrument.

Ralph Watson must have learnt the same pattern two hundred years ago – we now have this in common.

Woven fabric winding on to the cloth beam of the loom.
(Image copyright Max Mosscrop 2021)

For more information please visit: www.maxmosscrop.com

  1. The Thomas Jackson Record is catalogued in the Cooper Hewitt Museum as: Weaver’s Thesis Book (England), 17th–18th century. The museum also holds a collection of samples woven from drafts in the manuscript, such as Woven Example After Jackson (USA); 1968-14-1-b.

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