Weaves with horsehair - fabrics I have met
In 1994 I was asked to weave horsehair fabric for 21 chairs in Skansen, the open-air museum in Stockholm. I accepted the challenge, but I had really no idea as to how do it efficiently. I also got curious about horsehair fabric as a topic: when was it fashionable, how did the old fabrics look, what kind of weaves were used, etc., etc. I went to the library, but how does one search? Horsehair, furniture history - all words I could think of yielded nothing. Here and there horsehair was mentioned, but always without details. The only book I found with information about how to handle horsehair for weaving was a French textile encyclopedia from 1859 ("Dictionnaire general des tissus anciens et modernes", tome I, Lyon 1859). Then I went to the museums. Searching them was almost as hard: most furniture is catalogued by style and/or by wood type. Most museums were not willing to let me into their magazines, but in a few places I found a "mahogany Empire-style chair" or a "mid- 19th century dining room chair" with horsehair fabric.
All in all I have managed to see maybe 50 old upholstery fabrics with horsehair as weft. Most of these are very hard to date with a reasonable security, but the oldest was probably from early 19th century. Generally it can be said that: horsehair fabrics have a relatively coarse warp of cotton, maybe 2/12, and the warp has a relatively open sett, maybe 11 ends per cm (27- 28 epi); unpatterned horsehair fabrics has a satin structure and about 60 picks per cm; striped horsehair fabrics are either weft twill with a herringbone treadling, or have stripes of satin or weft dominant broken twill alternating with stripes of weft rep and have about 40-50 picks per cm; patterned horsehair fabrics are woven in Bronson lace, often with multiple blocks and very long floats. All patterned horsehair fabrics I have seen are in this weave, most with one fibre per pick, some with two fibres per pattern pick, one fibre per tabby pick.
Weaving with horsehair - tips and tricks
As I had to weave a 16-meter warp. I just had to figure out some efficient methods of handling the horsehair. First, I needed a container of some sort - after a few tries I settled for a piece of plastic sewer pipe. One extra plus with them is, there are plugs available that fit, and fit tight! This I tied to the loom, and "stood" a horse-tail in it, "horse-end" down. If the pipe is about as long as the weave is wide, this means all fibres long enough to reach the whole width protrude over the top of the pipe, while all shorter fibres stay nicely organized inside, ready to collect and tie for safekeeping (or for a narrower weave, or for spinning, or whatever).
Next, I needed something to use as a shuttle. Obviously, a normal shuttle was not the best tool. I tried using a pick-up stick with double- sided sticky tape, but decided I wanted something more shuttle-like. I started thinking "clothes-pin", but all kinds of clips I could find had far too hard springs. I did not want to end up with a strained thumb! In the end I built a horsehair shuttle from an old open-bottomed shuttle: sawed through in one end, it had a nice easy spring to it, and completed with a couple of bent key-rings and some soft rubber pads it holds the fibre in a light grip.
And I was ready to weave!
I found it very difficult to beat as hard as required. The fibres were too stiff to do the "over and under"-thing easily, no matter what tension I had on the warp. I also found that the fibers break easily if the weft is bubbled, and that I had to figure out a way to handle the selveges. A year later, I found one way of making the beating easier. To avoid bubbling the weft was no problem - and for the selvedges, I tried two methods. One was to hemstitch the sides as I wove, but what I finally decided to do was to make a fibre turn around the edge thread(s), go back in the shed a cm or so, and then go out on the reverse side.
After the adventure of the 21 chairs was over, I finally stumbled on the above mentioned textile encyclopedia. It gives three (or maybe four) important tips:
- Weave with moist fibres.
- Beat first in an open shed, beat again after changing sheds.
- Turn the fibres so that root and tip end alternates.
- Use a helper (actually, the book says "use a child") to deliver one fibre at a time.
"Ah-ha", thought I - moist fibres! Went home and tried my plastic pipes with water added. Suddenly the beating was not a problem! It still has to be beaten hard, but at least the fibres stay in place. (Update: The current "tail" needs to be completely wet as breaks are occurring at the water line.)
- Use a relatively open sett (otherwise the fibres break easily).
- Use moist fibres.
- Do not bubble.
- Make sure root and tip ends alternate.
- Beat hard!!!
- Have patience - I can weave maybe 7-8 cms per hour.