The Scott Carpet Saga, Continued: The Carpet Itself

Previous posts on the Scott Carpet Saga, if you’re just joining us:

Now, finally, let’s have a good, close look at this carpet.

The carpet itself is in extraordinarily good condition considering that it was in use on the floor of one of the main rooms of a family home for 97 years. Just imagine what a modern carpet would look like after all that time!

But, of course, it’s not in perfect condition, and actually, that’s not a bad thing. Where the carpet is snagged or worn or frayed, it’s possible to get a much, much better view of the construction of it, compared to where the weaving is intact.

Seams and repairs in the carpet — clockwise, from left: long strands of yarn coming unwoven along one edge; other edges showing wear where they were tacked to the floor; a shot of the reinforcement tape used along the carpet edges; a seam joining two of the (we think) six panels of cloth; more worn edges; a corner becoming frayed. (Click to embiggen — it’s really, really worth it, I promise.)

First of all, look at the photo on the bottom right, above. Since no home loom today or in the past would be big enough to handle an 18′ width, the carpet was woven in sections of approximately 3′. These were then seamed together, very tidily — you can see them up close, but if you were standing on the carpet, the riot of colours would certainly distract you from seeing them at all. The seams are a basic whip-stitch. They’re not perfect, but they do show that the edges of the woven strips were pretty darned even, a feat in itself. (Even thinking about SEAMING that much heavy fabric makes my brain — and my eyes, and my arms — hurt. And, compared to many other knitters I know, I’d say I actually enjoy seaming!)

I can’t tell for sure whether the original seams were done in wool or linen — they certainly match the colour of the lighter panel, in any case.

More shots of the seams between panels. In the top right, a seam that has been repaired with — I think — black linen thread.

The fabric itself is called a “warp-faced” weave. The coloured wool would be strung on the loom (as the warp) and, using the foot pedals on the large loom, alternating sets of warp threads would be raised and lowered, creating a “shed” (wedge of space) through which the bobbin or shuttle of weft yarn (“weft” being to “weave” as “left” is to “leave”) would be passed. Due to the specific arrangement of warp threads, the weft yarn would be almost entirely hidden.

I initially thought, from what Granny was able to tell me about the carpet, that it was “weft-faced” (i.e., the coloured stripes would be the weft, on a plain warp). That would have meant that Ellen would have had to weave each stripe to exactly the same measurements so that the seamed pieces could line up (with the stripes continuing across the seams) — which would have been an extreme feat. As it turns out, the coloured yarn ran the other direction, allowing her to establish the colours while warping the loom, and do all the weaving with one plain weft yarn. Much more sensible, which is clear to me now that I’ve thought about it!

I do wonder whether she was able to wind more than one carpet-length (the 17′, plus a bit of ease for the yarn to cross up and down around the weft) onto the loom when warping it, or if she had to re-warp separately each time. I expect the latter would be the case, meaning she had to re-warp the loom 6 times!

Spreading the carpet out as much as possible…

Anyway, back to the wear and tear on the carpet. The wear patterns themselves, like the wear patterns on shoe soles or stair treads, have lots to say. Unfortunately, we couldn’t spread out the entire carpet to look at it — I had hoped we might be able to see where the furniture in the room might have stood, protecting it from foot traffic and sunlight, but that was just not possible. There were small stains in some areas, but nothing that screamed “food was eaten here!” in the portions we could see.

What was most informative was Dad’s little clip-on macro lens for his iPhone, which he put to excellent use. Instead of trying to look at the whole carpet, he got really up close and personal with it.

Macro shots of the weaving and of the yarns involved. I highly recommend clicking to see this one BIG!

In these shots, you can clearly see how the warp almost covered up the weft… and how the weft is NOT the same kind of yarn as the warp!

It turns out that my friend Erin was absolutely correct in her guess that this carpet would be “linsey-woolsey” rather than pure wool.* On closer inspection, the warp is a 3-ply wool with a fair degree of twist, and the weft is actually linen, not wool at all! The linen is 3-ply as well, but the strands are very loosely plied, so as to be nearly perpendicular to each other. This makes sense, since the linen has a long staple length (the individual fibres are long) and wouldn’t need as much twist to hold them together. The wool yarn is about what I’d call a DK weight (I’m just judging by eye here), and the linen is a lighter sport-weight or so. The point of linsey-woolsey is that wool would stretch over time, and the linen provides stability, so that the carpet doesn’t shift and pull as much.

* Academic question here: some definitions seem to specify that linsey-woolsey has a linen warp and a woollen weft, which is opposite to this carpet, and that it was used primarily for clothing. I’m not 100% clear on whether all wool/linen fabrics where the warp is one fibre and the weft is the other are linsey-woolsey/drugget/wincey, or whether there’s a better name for the whole category that would include clothing-weight fabrics and heavier cloth like this carpet…?

While we couldn’t exactly take snippings of the yarn to do a burn test to establish for sure which fibre was which, there are several good indicators. The wool fibres are more uniform in diameter and colour, whereas the linen ranges from pale beige to almost black in places, and from fine to quite coarse. The ply structure alone is another good clue. Plus, the fact that the wool is dyed (and brilliantly so) while the linen is not (linen doesn’t take dye as willingly as protein fibres like wool) is a strong hint.

What’s interesting is that neither the family lore nor the text in the Museum’s display say ANYTHING about linen. That’s not an insignificant omission! Linen fibre is, if anything, more difficult to prepare for spinning than wool is. It has to be beaten and combed and retted (rotted to a certain point in a creek) and beaten and combed and beaten and combed… It then has to be spun wet (to increase the fibres’ flexibility). I gather that it was still likely to be produced by Ellen and her family, as opposed to bought from a dry goods store or manufacturer — the articles I’ve seen say that people were all to glad to stop producing their own linen yarns when commercially-spun cotton became available. So, there’s a whole story of a whole other element of the carpet that’s more or less untold here. The linen, after all, makes up half of the yarn used, by volume!

Yup, that’s bright!

As for the colours… they sure are brilliant, especially on the underside of the carpet! (The top and middle layers in the shot above show the underside; the layer in the background on the right is the topside.) If Ellen wove the carpet in 1887 — I’m not sure if that’s the winter of 1886-87 or of 1887-88, but that’s kind of moot — then she was likely producing the yarn for it over the course of several years. That plants her very firmly in the post-chemical dye era.

Mauveine, the first of the synthetic dyes, was discovered in 1856, and it was revolutionary. I always thought of mauve as a pale colour, but mauveine actually makes a bright purple that is very likely the purple in this carpet.

Red and purple!

The red in the carpet could be an aniline dye, or it could be cochineal — I honestly have no idea how one would go about figuring that out. Cochineal is quite permanent and fade-resistant, and is widely used in various forms even today. I will say that I like how cleverly Ellen used different batches of red-dyed yarns to create gradations of stripes within the carpet — she couldn’t have dyed all the red yarn at once, and any dyer will tell you that dyelots vary between batches!

The orange could also be a natural OR a chemical dye. Lots of readily-available plant dyes make gold or orange-y colours, which could easily be combined with cochineal or a chemical red dye to make an orange.

The black could be either natural or chemical as well — it’s a colour I really don’t know enough about dyeing to be able to judge!

The turquoise is almost certainly chemical, although I gather you can make a similar colour by overdyeing with indigo and another dye. Any indigo-dyed fibre that I’ve seen, though, seems to have the indigo pigment particles sitting on top of the fibres, as opposed to penetrating them like most other dyes, and this colour really does seem to penetrate the fibres. That said, of all the strong colours, it shows the most fading. You can see the intensity of the colour in protected places, but on the topside of the carpet it fades to a pale grey-blue.

Red, beige, brown, multicolour band, black, turquoise, brown

The beiges and browns in the carpet are, I think, almost certainly natural dyes. They seem the most faded — though the colours aren’t really that much different on the underside vs. the topside of the carpet, or in the areas protected by the supportive tape at the edges. I’d be really fascinated to know if they were always so neutral in tone, or if they used to be stronger yellows or browns. (They’re a little greenish in tone, but green is actually a difficult colour to dye with plants, as far as I know. Also, linen tends to have a greenish cast, which might be coming through a little, especially in the similarly-coloured beige wool.) If the colours have changed, they’ve changed with age more than with exposure.

I have one more post I’m working on in this series, about Granny’s wall-hanging piece of carpet. Stay tuned for that!

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11 Comments

Filed under Adventures, Family, Scott Carpet

11 responses to “The Scott Carpet Saga, Continued: The Carpet Itself

  1. Thanks for sharing this great story! What a wonderful colorful peace of art!

    • Annie Bee

      Thank you so much! I’m guessing from your avatar and your screen-name that you’re a weaver. If you have any insight to share about the weaving process or technique, I’m keen to hear it!

  2. Mark Whitcombe

    Lovely unraveling of the story!

    • Annie Bee

      Thanks, Dad — and thanks for making the trip to the museum happen, and for sharing your pictures!

  3. This has been absolutely fascinating!

    • Annie Bee

      Thanks! There’s one more piece of the story to come — I’ll try to get that posted tomorrow!

  4. The turquoise looks to me a very similar shade to some woad dyed wool I have, although I haven’t examined it closely to have noticed if there is pigment on the surface like you say. As for black, all I know is that in the middle ages it was a corrosive dye and rotted the fabric it was used on over time, which is one reason it was only worn by people rich enough to replace their clothes every year or so! I don’t know how fast they became damaged, it seems a bit pointless to me, but that’s fashion for you! I don’t know if a better black dye came out of the new world which your relative could have used, it seems like an interesting thing to research 🙂

    • Annie Bee

      Oh, interesting! I hadn’t thought about woad — I have no idea if that was available in this part of the world or not.

      And early black dyes — wow, that is some serious corrosion. I would imagine there would have to have been a better black dye at some point, or surely the Puritans would have dressed in drab brown instead of insisting on black? And Queen Victoria’s many years in mourning wouldn’t have set such a fashion in the 19th century if everyone’s clothes were rotting off their bodies, I imagine?

      Goodness, I wonder what wearing clothes with corrosive dyes must have done to people’s skin. ::shudder::

      • Well, they would have worn it over their plain linen undergarments, so I’d hope it wouldn’t have been that bad! And then I remember they used to smear white lead on their faces… they did some crazy stuff in the past 🙂
        I think the monks who wore black habits might have used black sheep, I don’t know about the Puritans. I suspect something better must have been found.

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