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How To Weave A Woollen Underblanket

John Adams
Wednesday, 1st March 2006

John Adams explains how a rag rug technique can be adapted to make really wonderful underblankets and woollen rugs using a simple home made peg loom.

Jacob fleece underblanket.

Jacob fleece underblanket.

I first encountered peg loomed woollen rugs when I slept on one in Ben Law's old caravan. It made for a surprisingly warm and comfortable night's sleep. I was struck by its simplicity, decorative qualities and obvious durability and wished I had one of my own. I asked Ben how they were made and he showed me a simple peg loom in his workshop and outlined the technique. The information wasn't quite full enough for me to feel confident I could make one myself and so I forgot about it. A few months later I met a woman demonstrating rag rug weaving using a small peg loom and realised this was the same basic technique.

Loom1: Pegs, beam and cordage.Loom1: Pegs, beam and cordage.Having been taught how to make a rag rug I took the idea home and scaled it up by making a 1.5m (59in) sized peg loom for use with sheep's wool. In this case I made the loom the width required plus a few inches either end, but shorter looms can be used if the strips are joined together afterwards. To make the peg loom drill 15mm (0.6in) diameter holes to an equal depth at 32mm (1.25in) centres along your chosen beam. I used planed timber but roundwood would be just as good. Cut as many pegs as you have holes, these need to be about 150mm (6in) long and a good enough fit not to fall out of the holes, but not so tight a fit that they can't be pulled out fairly easily. I used 14mm (0.55in) pine dowel for this job. 

Loom2: Cords tied off on battenLoom2: Cords tied off on batten

Each peg has a threading hole drilled in it close to one end, this obviously needs to be big enough to accommodate the thickest cord you envisage using. I prefer fairly thick cordage as it is less likely to cut through the wool. This is particularly important if you intend to use the finished item on a floor. By now you will have 47 pegs and keeping track of them when in use can become frustrating. 

To save time I numbered all the pegs and all the holes. I suggest you do the same as it may well save your sanity when they inevitably come adrift in the middle of the job. The cords used were natural jute which seems to be durable while being reasonably soft and pliant. It is also fairly easy to come by - I bought mine from B&Q. 

Loom3: Peg loom setup on a tressle with washed fleece in the foreground.Loom3: Peg loom setup on a tressle with washed fleece in the foreground.

You need double the length of the finished item plus about 90cm (3 ft) for each peg. Pass it through the peg and knot the two free ends together, then slide the peg to the opposite end of the loop. Repea

t for each peg. Place the pegs in their correct holes in the beam with the cords downwards. You now have a neat peg loom ready to go and a huge mess of cordage all over the floor. 

To get over this I tied all the knotted ends in the correct order to a long batten. This allowed me to roll up all the excess and bring some order to the set up process. Later on also proved invaluable for rolling up the woven rug as it grew.

I am calling it a rug because that essentially is what was being made even though I always intended to sleep on it and made it at double bed width. Because of this excessive width I needed some way to support the weight so I clamped the beam in the jaws of a Workmate. This worked well and added some portability to what was becoming an unwieldy piece of equipment. If you use a short loom it can be done on your lap. All you need now is the wool. I was lucky enough to get some Jacob sheep fleeces from my mother who has a small flock in Devon but as the bottom has dropped out of the market for fleeces it shouldn't be a problem to buy some for next to nothing from your local farmer. 

Weaving 1: Starting weavingWeaving 1: Starting weaving

The advantage of Jacob fleeces is the variation of colour which produces a very attractive pattern in the final rug, though it does entail extra work as you have to be careful not to either use too much wool of one colour or to run out of a colour before the whole thing is finished. The raw fleece will be dirty and saturated with lanolin.Most people tell you to hand wash the fleece in the bath with mild soap or soda crystals. Having tried this once and dripped the sodden fleece ail over the house getting it outside to dry, I resorted to putting them in the washing machine. To do this, first put the fleece (or part of a fleece depending on the washing machines capacity) in an old pillowcase and fasten the end with a nappy pin. 

Washing: Machine washing a fleece.Washing: Machine washing a fleece.

Wash on the gentlest cycle possible (wool) with something like Ecover laundry liquid. Don't let the machine spin more than the minimum required to shed excess water, otherwise you may end up with felt. Air dry outside preferably on some kind of improvised rack. You can dry them inside but they do make the house stink of wet sheep. When dry sort into colours and put back into the pillow cases or bin liners until needed.

To use the fleece look at it carefully and you will see it has natural separation lines along its length. Starting with a loose bit from one end carefully detach a strip about two inches wide and tease it out a little trying not to break it. Take the free end and having twisted it a little weave it in between the last four pegs at one end of the beam, go round the end peg twist a bit more and weave back over what you have just done. Continue on to the other end of the beam, round the last peg and work back again.

Rug on batten: Woven rug rolled on battenRug on batten: Woven rug rolled on batten

Try to keep the wool coming from the fleece without breaking for as long as possible. Sooner or later it will break of course and you will need it to anyway because if you have been gently twisting the wool as you weaved it the fleece end will now be getting rather twisted up. To join lengths together either twist two pieces together and weave on or start a new piece by overlap weaving for a few pegs. 

When the pegs are full, pull them out of the beam a few at a time and ease the wool off the pegs and onto the strings. 

Replace the pegs making sure they are in the right holes and slide the woven material down the strings. Continue until the item is complete. 

Then roll it up using the batten, remove the pegs and take it somewhere to be laid out. When it is unrolled on a flat surface untie the batten and ease the cords until the rug is square and lays fiat easily. 

Knotting: Finishing the ends.Knotting: Finishing the ends.

If the weave isn't tight enough it can be compacted at this stage by easing it gently but firmly from either end. If the piece is now too short it can be returned to the loom for a bit more wool to be added. Making sure you have at least 15cm (6in) or more of string at the peg end, cut the pegs free.

The cord ends then need to be finished off. I knotted each pair to its neighbour and then knotted the result in groups but any other rug finishing technique will be just as good. Your completed rug will now have odd ragged pieces of wool sticking out all over the place. If you are going to walk or sleep on your rug you probably won't worry about it but if you do want a neater result just throw it over a sofa and wait. 

Rug: Used as a hearth rug.Rug: Used as a hearth rug.

Everybody that sits on it will fiddle, tucking in bits here and pulling off bits there, in no time at all it will be perfect.My rugs have been a great success, we have one between the mattress and the bottom sheet on our bed in winter. As we have no heating upstairs my wife used to insist on having an electric blanket but I have had no complaints about cold beds since introducing the sheep's wool rug and we both sleep better. In the summer it gets used as an attractive throw on the sofa bed and we always take it to sleep on if we go camping. So for a better night's sleep, get weaving. 

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