The Weave Shop

BJ Ryan sits among heaps of wool, cotton, flax and silk, not to mention several looms and a spinning wheel. "These are the natural fibers that were available at that time, and I show people how to card wool and talk about the different fleece from the sheep and how they had to shear them."

She said the carding process gets rid of knots and mats and makes all the fibers go in the same direction, which makes them easier to spin into yarn or thread. The cards look a bit like large flat hair brushes with stubby little bristles, and she uses two of them together in a brushing sort of stroke. The carded wool is called a batt, and looks like that frothy batting material layered into quilts.

The spinning wheel works on a foot-pedal-operated treadle, so her foot is pumping to turn the wheel while her fingers are rolling and manipulating the batt, twisting the strands around each other to keep them together and make them consistent.

"You had to work at this every day," she said. "We have no written records about who actually did what on this plantation, and certainly slaves would have done part of it. I think they would have taught the girls how to spin, because unmarried girls in the household were called spinsters."

Once the fiber is transformed into string or yarn, the spinsters washed it in a big tub of soapy water, usually in preparation for dyeing. Ryan has all the colors available to them hanging on the wall of her shop, labeled with what was used to make the color.

"In the 1960s they invented the first chemical dyes, but in those days it was indigo for blue, and browns were mostly the hulls of nuts, black walnut hulls for the darkest brown and the lighter brown is hickory nut. A lot of things make yellow and gold—goldenrod flowers, marigolds, onion skins—and the pink is cochenille, which is a bug or a beetle that only lives on cactus plants. You'd have to pick thousands of beetles off a cactus plant to make a couple ounces of pink dye, so it was very special to have something pink."

Indigo is not particularly water soluble so they had to break it down with urine or lye. "Then you have what looks like pond scum with an iridescent sheen on the top of it. When you take the yarn out it's pea green, and when the air hits it oxides and turns blue."

Some dyes are more colorfast than others and sometimes they would put the fibers through what is called a mordant bath, either vinegar or salt water. Or they could go to the local chemist and get a chemical form of iron, tin or potassium, and soak the yarn in that first before putting it in the dye bath. The chemical reaction between the mordant and the dye would make it colorfast and sometimes change its colors.

Centuries of continuous experimentation perfected this process. "We have written recipes from the Middle Ages that tell what kind of dyes to use. Levi chose indigo to make blue jeans, a cash crop for some plantations mainly farther south of here, down into South Carolina."

Her horizontal floor loom had a rag rug in process, using scraps of sheets, curtains and clothing to weave a new item out of old stuff. "Putting the warp thread onto the loom is the tedious part of the process. The strings go on one at a time, through an eye in the center and a reed, and through slots that keeps them evenly spaced." There are at least 100 such threads running from one of the loom, through moving parts, and wrapping around a drum at the other end of the loom.

"You have to warp the loom first. You have a certain threading order that you're following. The weaving is the easy, fun part."

All that tricky threading at the beginning was to make every other thread go over the rag and then, with a foot-operated pedal, switch them to go under, holding the rag firmly in place. "This is the simplest weave you can do. Tabbing means you're going over, under, over, under. They made saddle blankets for the horses using up their old worn-out things, rag rugs on this loom, rag placemats, and little mug rug coasters to set your drink on."

Intermediate and advanced spinsters moved on from these rudimentary skills to create intricate patterns and designs, limited only by their imaginations and whatever raw materials they could find.

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The Weave Shop

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