Mark Traxler on The Pleasures and Challenges of Weaving Knotted-Pile Textiles
On March 9, 2013 Mark Traxler,
(Mark and his wife Barb at the TM entrance)
gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program, here at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., on his own experiences as a dyer and weaver of knotted pile rugs.
The Myers Rooms was full.
Mark is a psychologist, who lives near Minneapolis, Minnesota. Mankato, if you know the geography.
He is handy, and said that there is family background, in which his tendencies are rooted. He spent time on a farm, where hands-on practicality is ubiquitous. Early influences include his mother and a shop teacher in school. And, he said, his grandfather, who had only a sixth-grade education, was a skilled barn builder, and built one of the few octagonal barns in Minnesota: a considerable achievement. He said that, through his grandfather’s work, he learned that big projects can be accomplished one step at a time.
He said that he came to weaving with a background of skills and experiences as a woodworker. Turning beautiful wooden bowls such as these, on a lathe,
and in building the cherry table, below, for the family dining room.
He said that old pile weavings, with their their perfect balance of warp and weft, pile, design and color, intrigued him. He’d look at an old pile mat and wonder:
” How did they do that?”
This question was redoubled when he encountered pieces like this Yomut rug,
and realized that it had been woven, seemingly without error, despite its 6 feet by 9 feet size, by nomads using a horizontal loom.
He brought a couple of older Turkman pieces that he owns.
The first was a fragment of Tekke chuval.
There are a lot of things to admire about this piece, but Mark said that one of them is that he is in awe of the spinning abilities of the Turkmen women who fashioned its warps, using drop spindles. They are very fine and regular and spun, without any “slubs” (thick places). Remarkable.
Mark’s geographic situation, with regard to his textile -related interests, is pretty solitary. There are no clubs and few textile collectors within ready reach. He has depended, largely, on the internet, and knew several people in the audience, mostly, as the result of exchanges on the web. He attended ACOR in Seattle in 2004.
Drawing on his woodworking knowledge and this book,
he built a loom, in a vertical, Navajo style. His local contacts for woodworking materials supplied (and milled, when needed) the required wood.
Here is Mark’s loom.
Notice that he used pipe (for strength) as his warp beams top and bottom and turnbuckles at the top to permit him to make and keep warp tension uniform.
His shed sticks are wooden.
Mark also collected some additional tools either needed or useful for weaving.
Starting at the top in the photo above, there are three, copper, “skein rings” Mark has made, for holding bundle of pile wool of a given color conveniently within reach while weaving.
In the center section of the picture, are different types of “combs” or “beaters” used to press down, either picks of weft, after insertion, or a row of pile knots, after these have been tied.
The tool with the blue handle is a pair sharp shears for cutting the pile after weaving, and the small “stick-like” item above them is a spacer bar, permitting the cutting of the pile after tying at a consistent length.
At the bottom are a red-handled, Swiss Army knife and a sharpening strap.
Next, Mark turned to dyeing the wool needed for a pile rug.
Mark said that his natural dyeing bible is this book.
Mark said that he has found that the most difficult thing to find is the kind of undyed wool needed for pile weaving. What is needed is wool that it “long-stapled,” (that is, with fibers more than 2.5 inches long) that is “worsted,” that is, 1) has been combed (fibers all point in one direction) and 2) hard spun (smooth surface; no nap). He said that he finds Navajo wools, that initially seemed a possibility, are “over-processed.”
The next is deciding how much wool of what colors one will need for the pile rug planned. For this Mark selects a design, decides on a size and what colors he will use, then makes a digital cartoon drawing of the rug, indicating knot by knot what color each knot will be.
Note: As you will see in the calculations that follow, Mark also seems to have selected a sett (number of warps per horizontal inch) and wools that will be used for the pile knots, that produce a square knot. One result of this is that a square inch of the completed rug will have the same number of knots both horizontally and vertically (a 1:1 vertical to horizontal knot ratio, seems to be a characteristic of many older rugs, for example, Turkmen Salors; later Tekke pile pieces often have nearly a 2:1 ratio with many more knots vertically than horizontally). A 1:1 ratio also facilitates drawing, since designs “build,” vertically, in the same increment that they move, horizontally.
Next, Mark calculates the total number of knots that will be required to complete the desired piece. To do that:
- Measure the height and width of the rug and multiply them to get the total number of square inches the rug will contain.
- Measure on the cartoon how many knots there will be per inch, both horizontally and vertically (for Mark this is usually 100).
- Multiply the total number of square inches in the rug by the number per square inch to get the total number of knots it will take to complete the rug.
Here is an example:
This is a nearly completed rug that Mark wove. Before starting, he calculated that:
- Finished piece would be 24 inches wide and 16 inches in height.
- 24 x 16 = 384 square inches.
- There were 10 knots per both vertical and horizontal inches for a “knots per square inch” (KPSI) count of 100.
- 100 x 384 = 38,400 total knots in the piece.
Mark said that he allows 1 inch of pile wool for each knot. So he needs a total of 38,400 inches or 3200 feet of pile wool.
This calculation does not remove the need to do some estimating of how much wool you should dye for each color (you could count knots by color on your cartoon, but will find that pretty tedious). Mark said he estimates, and always makes more of each color than he thinks he will need and even adds some more for a possible nice sweater (and he has still, sometimes run out of a given color).
Mark was wearing a sweater his mother knit for him using left over pile wool from one of his rugs. (Caution: Sweaters made from pile wool are VERY warm, unless you live in Minnesota.)
This is its front of Mark’s sweater, which is good, but,
the back is to “dye for.” (Mark approves of this rendition of his dyes.)
As with weaving, there are some supplies and equipment needed for natural dyeing. He didn’t, and we won’t treat them here, except to say that they are listed in any book on natural dyeing you can get access to (I don’t own the Liles book that Mark uses, but have two others, both of which give good supplies and equipment lists. ) Let’s say that you have obtained what is needed.
The next step is to decide what natural substances you will use to produce the colors you want. Mark mentioned madder, indigo, cochineal, walnut husks and Osage orange. Different colors and shades can be produced using each of these natural dye substances.
The possibilities seem infinite. As we will see, Mark has produce a very bright, beautiful green, using osage orange and indigo.
I read once that someone encountered a room in which a natural dyer had arrayed 600 colors and shades, all produced from madder.
So you’ve collected your dyeing supplies and equipment, and have selected and obtained the natural dyestuffs, for producing the color you want.
Mark said that the basic steps in natural dyeing are:
- Cleaning the wool to be dyed (called “scouring”). This (if you are buying already spun wool) is usually just a matter of washing it in water with a mild soap.
- “Mordant” the washed wool [a mordant is a natural substance that makes the wool “sticky” (think of Velcro) so that when dye is added, the dye “sticks” to the wool]. Alum, tin and iron have frequently been used as mordants. Note that the bond between the mordanted wool and the dye is mechanical, not chemical, as is sometimes misunderstood.
We won’t describe mordanting with a specific recipe, but it involves placing the wool in a bath in which a particular amount of the mordant has been added and allowing it to simmer for a specified amount of time. Let’s assume you have mordanted the wool you want to dye with the mordanted yarn you want to use.
The process for each dye is different, and a good “recipe” is essential. Before dying, the dye-bath is prepared in some fashion, usually by simmering the given dye-stuff at a given temperature for a couple hours. Once the dye is extracted from its source, the process of dying begins.
- Place the mordanted wool in a prepared bath of the dye. This is the place where natural dyeing is very like cooking.
- Multiple immersions into the dye-bath are generally helpful, and giving the yarn oxygen is often helpful.
- For the darkest shades of a given color the yarn may have to be dyed on two or three separate occasions.
- Indigo dying is a complex process, is very rewarding, and is rather like “magic,” since the dyebath is amber in color, and the yarn turns blue after it is removed from the dye-bath.
Mark said that dyeing with natural dyes is very much like cooking, including dye specific aroma and feel. He said that, initially, you get and follow a recipe for dyeing with a natural dye for the color you want, but find, after a while, that you can diverge from it for your own purposes and as a result of your own experience. You learn as you go along.
He said that the results you get the first time you dye a color are probably unavoidably serendipitous, but by keeping good records of what he has done: ingredients, amounts, temperatures, times, etc., he has found that he can replicate a given color and shade pretty precisely.
So now you’ve built your loom, collected the needed ancillary weaving supplies. Have selected a size and design, calculated the number of pile knots you will be tying, dyed enough pile wool for each color you will use. You are now ready to weave.
Mark said that he decided that he would use a symmetric knot for his pile.
(Notice that the balanced construction of the symmetric knot contributes to the fact that Mark’s knots have a square shape.)
One more structural decision was how many picks of weft he would insert between each row of pile knots? The structure Mark used on his first weaving [below] was single-wefted (pace Marla Mallett). On subsequent pieces, he used a structure employing two picks of weft, with the weight of the “rigid” weft shot twice the weight of the “sinuous” weft shot. This produced about 45 degrees of warp suppression.
Mark had brought some of the pile pieces he has woven but, as we mentioned above, also two antique pile pieces he has collected. You’ve seen the first Tekke chuval fragment above, let’s look at the second antique piece.
It was the face of a lovely Kizil Ayak torba, found at an antique store among several other “lesser” textiles.
Here is the most comprehensive image I managed of it (taken from one end).
It is also quite fine, with brushy, white warps, and lots of individual fiber definition that seem likely to be goat hair rather than wool.
Mark seems to do fairly well, scrounging around the more “tribal” areas of Minneapolis. The use of two shades of juxtaposed red is very effective in this piece, as with all good Turkman pieces.
Mark now moved to the rugs he has woven himself.
His first effort was, unavoidably, experimental. He described it as his “humble beginning.”
- He used one shot of sinuous weft, between rows of symmetric knots. The pile is Brown Sheep Company, commercially produced/dyed wool.
- Warps were in the same plane (no depression).
- Cotton string for warps.
- LOW warp tension!
- 8 knots per inch, both horizontally and vertically, for a KPSI of 64.
- His design was a composite (he said that he “stole” whatever he liked), with some taken from tribal sources, and some of his own making.
The finished rug looked like this.
Mark’s “mused” that the central medallion is rooted in Zoroastrian spirituality, with emanation of creative energy moving out from the center, but also moving back in.
His own design touches include images of his daughter and his son, each with a family dog.
The kids are wearing their Catholic school uniforms and touching the “spirit” emanating from the medallion.
Mark said that he learned a lot weaving this first rug. One important thing was that he needed to find a way to keep his side selvedges straight and parallel with one another,
without resort to the modern strategy of a “reed,” something village and nomad weavers do not use.
Mark said that his second rug was a version of a “star Ushak” design.
with this rug, he moved several steps forward:
- Three-ply wool warp with high warp tension
- two shots of weft, one rigid, one sinuous
- Some depression of alternate warps.
- Dense weave.
- Did his own dyeing with natural dyes (steep learning curve; for example, the light blue is fading)
- Found that he has selected a poor wool for pile (too heavily processed).
Still, Mark said, he felt that this rug was a real advance.
Mark told me that he has university training in religion and spirituality, and his third piece has a design sourced in Islamic mystical tradition.
It is a chanteh-sized bag, the pile face of which the Islamic “zikr,” which means “remember!”
Spoken in Arabic, this zikr is “La Illaha Ill Allahu.” The English translation: “There is No God but Allah.” That is, God is All…
As we shall see, Mark said some things at the end of his presentation that echo a bit the notions in this chant, suggesting intersections between all crafts, skills, and personal capabilities and aspects of spirituality. The connection is thru the heart, for the good of the community, a la Sufism.
Here are some variations in the scripts in which this zikr can be (has been) written.
Mark selected the version at the top here. It includes all of the punctuation markings.
This is how it appears within a center cartouche on the almost completed pile face of his chanteh.
And this is the entire piece, almost completed.
Mark cited the following things about the weaving of this chanteh.
- 10 knots per inch horizontal and vertical, for a KPSI of 100
- Natural dyework was improved
- Back was woven in a flatweave (experimented a little with sumak)
- The piece is “too heavy”: has the suppleness of an oak club
- Dyework is better
Mark said that he now felt positioned for the dyeing for, and weaving of, a piece in which he would “get it right.”
For his fourth piece he decided to do another bag, this time closer to a small khorjin size.
- Again 10 knots vertical and horizontal for a KPSI of 100.
- Use a two-ply warp, which was lighter
- Used a lot of madder dye
- Pile wool was from Earthues, a firm in Seattle that also sells natural dyes http://www.earthues.com/merchandise/yarn
- 60/40 wool/mohair
- Design on the pile face features one central Turkman gul
- Motif in border is like some Tekke usages, but came from a 18th century Anatolian piece.
This was the result.
Here is the back. (Notice in the photo above that a strip of the flat weave that appears on the back also appears on the bottom of the front.)
Mark’s mother put in a lining for him, using material with a boteh pattern.
Mark’s fifth rug was inspired by a this Caucasian fragment that he encountered at ACOR in Seattle in 2004. He called it his “victory dance” Kuba
Rug 5 Inspiration
He gave these specifics:
- Again a 10 knot by 10 knot count, for a KSPI of 100
- A three-ply wool warp
- 60/40 Wool/mohair undyed pile wool from Earthues in Seattle
- Design is a visceral, visual delight
- In all modesty, the dyework is OMG (orange is from a spent madder; cochineal is from Michelle Wiplinger/Seattle)
- Used Anatolian borders
- Warp weave end finish
Here is what it looked like completed.
Mark said that this rug won a Merit Award ,and one at the State Fair.
More importantly, it is his wife’s favorite.
Mark said that the piece that inspired his sixth rug is in the Vaklifar Museum in Istanbul.
It is attributed to Konya in 1800.
FLASH!!! Since publication, Samy Rabinovic has written to say that this rug is, in fact, in his personal collection on Philadelphia. It was exhibited there in 2006 as part of an exhibition of Anatolian carpets. I put it up on Turkotek, then, as follows:
Pile Rug, 1800-1850, CentralAnatolia, Cappadocia
Collection of Sammy and Sara Rabinovic (ARG7)
This rug has a cochineal purple and its border elements are from an early kilim tradition.
Mark said that, for him, the central medallion and the quadratic elements combine to signal “regeneration.”
- Used 5 pounds of Lincoln wool from Woodland, CA.
- Excellent dyework
- Warp tension is inconsistent
- 8 kpi H and V = KPSI of 64
- Rug is 48″ x 38″. Contains a total of 116,736 knots.
- Took two years to weave (Mark hit a “wall” after one year).
Here is what Mark’s finished rug looks like.
Winner of a Merit Award.
Mark said it is his favorite rug by anyone.
Here are some additional detail images of it.
Mark’s seventh rug emerged over a two-year period. It took that long to “want to weave again,” after the last piece!
He perused rug books, looking for designs that captured his interest, and motifs that were within his drawing abilities.
In the Gantzhorn book, a book with a controversial thesis, but which is full of beautiful images of old rugs,
he encountered a 16th century Anatolian design, with a wonderful green in its field.
For his border systems he chose a Kufic main border and a minor border design that looks Turkmen (and is) but has an older Anatolian origin.
Mark said that most ornate Kufic borders were too big for a small weaving, but the one above was in his weaving “reach.”
He said he considered and planned this rug for two years before he started to weave it. Among other things, it took that long to work up his willpower.
His preparations included:
- undyed wool/mohair yarn from Earthues in Seattle.
- Producing the color cartoon for the designs.
- Scoured” the pile wool to be dyed
- Two-ply wool warp
- Mordanting and dyeing the desired colors
- For one color he used a combination of cochineal and madder with a tin mordant.
- For the green he used orange osage, dyed over an indigo blue.
- For black, he used an undyed Borderlichester wool
Started weaving and the rug began to appear.
Liked the field lattice: not static. Green is wonderful. Kufic border frames effectively. Good color choice for border ground. White enlivens, punctuates.
Almost done. Really liking the visual effects, 3-D effects. Notice Kufic border has some “over-under” usages that create the latter, but the color contrast between the green and the blue does it too. And the red devices “float” on top.
Mark said that he ran out of green and almost stopped with fourth horizontal row of red devices. His daughter, Mary, convinced him that continuing on to a fifth row to complete the rug would look much better.
Despite three attempts to get the “same” green, his luck had run out!
And finally, finished!!! [the poorly matched green is at the bottom…]
Here are some detail images of Rug 7.
So, what’s next? Well, Mark’s been considering alternatives widely.
And he’s not entirely sure. Part of the joy of rug weaving is the anticipation of the next inspiration.
But the “Transylvanian” design below is a strong candidate.
He challenged the audience to “Seize the Day!” with regard to their participation in the textile world, be it in dyeing, weaving, collecting, reading, or even just museum visiting.
Learn the power of one step at a time. Take the first step. Then, take another.
“May your hands always be busy…” B. Dylan
Inspired by his visit to The Textile Museum, Mark ended his talk with a spiritual flourish.
“The Poet John Keats wrote:
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness, but will keep a quiet bower for us, and a sleep full of sweet dreams.”
“We are here because we share a certain joy in objects of beauty. I have shared my own creative endeavors with you, aware that we share a deep appreciation for aesthetics. I am also reminded, and have reflected on, the Spirit of creativity that has given us objects of beauty. I am reminded that JOY is said to be a gift of the Spirit, that joy is a sign of the Spirit’s presence. This notion has been observed in both the Eastern [Hindu] and Western religious traditions.
“In First Corinthians, 12:4-8 Paul the Evangelist writes: “There are many kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different forms of service, but the same Lord; there are different Works, but the same God who produces ALL of them in EVERYONE. To EACH individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”
“Art and Spirit, in forms that embody beauty, elevate our Consciousness. The Textile Museum exists as a means of Consciousness raising, where beauty strikes a chord within us, raising us up, and serving a greater – creative – spirit.”
Mark added, “There is a Chinese proverb: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. He said his is own proverb is that “you can accomplish almost any goal if you take one concrete step every day.”
Mark had brought one of his turned, wooden bowls as a door prize.
The winner was a gentleman who had been squeezed in on the far right side of the first row.
Mark said that his win was appropriate, since he had listened to the entire lecture, continually in danger of bumping his head against the mantle of the Myers Room fireplace.
The session ended and folks came forward to shake Mark’s hand and to examine his pieces more closely.
One member of the audience wanted good photos of Mark’s antique Kizil Ayak piece,
and was willing to pay the physical price of getting all the perspectives on it he wanted.
Mark’s nephew was in the audience.
My thanks to Mark for sharing his experience as a dyer and weaver of pile textiles and for his well-designed presentation. Thanks to him, too, for permitting the creation of this virtual version of his session and for some serious editing of my draft of it.
Thanks, again, to Peggy Jones
for another good set of notes.
I hope you have enjoyed this virtual version of a presentation by a speaker who has, largely on his own, built his own loom, assembled the materials and tools needed, dyed with natural dyes, and who, to date, has woven seven pile rugs. Not just a “talker,” a real “doer.”
R. John Howe