Weaving cloth is a complex process with many different steps. Perhaps the least understood is the final process, which transforms the threads into whole cloth. This happens the very first time they hit the water after weaving. The change may be extreme or subtle, but it will be changed.
After cutting the web from the loom all dry finishing should be done. This includes repairing broken threads, fixing floats and skips, trimming weft tails flush with the surface of the cloth (some people prefer to leave an inch until after wet finishing and then trim), and fringe treatments, such as twisting the ends together.
Wet finishing and washing – what’s the difference?
So why do I call the first time the web hits the water wet finishing and not washing? In some cases the wet finishing in weaving process will be harsher than ordinary washing, especially when it is done for wool that will be fulled.
Wet finishing in weaving consists of 1) scouring, 2) agitation (except for a true worsted cloth) and 3) compression (in most but not all cases).
Scouring is the process of removing added and naturally occurring oils and dirt from the cloth. Many people wonder why they need to scour when their cloth isn’t “dirty.” However the yarn may have spin oils in it added to make the fibers easier to spin. It will have naturally occurring hand oils from handling the yarns during warp winding, dressing the loom, and winding bobbins. These oils will hold dirt.
If the fibers have been dyed before spinning, the added spin oils will give the colors a yellow cast.
Except for a true worsted cloth, which receives no agitation at all, other types of cloth will generally benefit from agitation. When the web enters the water and becomes fully saturated, the threads relax and the tendency will be for them to slip to “areas of least resistance.” In other words, for weave structures that have floats, such as lace weaves, the threads will move toward those areas and the holes characteristic of a lace weave will open up. Waffle weaves will become more three dimensional, honeycomb will develop characteristic undulations in the yarns outlining the “cells,” and so on.
Slight imperfections, such as reed marks, or not quite consistent beating will tend to even out and become less obvious if not disappear entirely.
This cloth developed a wonderful drape after wet finishing
Fulling, sometimes referred to as felting, is the process where wool fibers entangle and enmesh. Stability is increased as is insulation. Fulling can be applied as a spectrum – everything from a little to a lot. Once the cloth has reached its final state, future cleaning will involve little to no agitation, because any further agitation will increase the degree of fulling. If done to excess the fulling can eventually render the cloth inappropriate for its intended use.
Compression can be applied in two main ways – with heat or without. Compression with heat is called a hard press. Compression without heat is called cold mangling.
Compression will provide additional stability as it notches the warp and weft threads into each other, much like the notches at the ends of a log cabin provide stability to the structure. Compression will enhance the sheen of cloth where we value it – linen, silk, rayon, etc.
In some cases, brushing a nap on the cloth is also desirable. Traditionally, brushing a nap was done with fuller’s teasels. These have become very difficult to find nowadays, so a good dog brush can be used instead.
Fuller’s teasel on the right
If you have been hesitant to wet finish your cloth in case you ruin it, you might like to begin conservatively by doing it by hand, using warm instead of hot water and not using a washing machine and/or dryer. If wet finishing will provide additional stability so that your cloth wears better, will hide or disguise problems like reed marks or slightly uneven beating, make linen, silk and rayon gleam, why not give it a try?