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Steel Yarn Macrogauze - part 1

by Peter Collingwood 1922-2008

In 1996, Peter Collingwood, renowned weaver, teacher, and author of numerous books on rug weaving and split-ply braiding, was invited to create an installation for the new Cultural Centre in Kiryu, Japan. Using a fine steel wire originally manufactured for the production of radial tires, he found his patience and inventiveness tested to the extreme when he accepted the challenge of producing a piece using his 'Macrogauze' technique. The following is Peter's personal diary of the entire process, from the initial invitation in February 1996 to the opening on May 11, 1997.

`To know a man you must know his house', this was the old philosopher's saying that Mr. Junichi Arai, probably the worlds greatest weaver, quoted to me when I asked him if he would write a forward for the catalogue of my retrospective exhibition. This request made in February 1996 was not as cheeky as it sounds; Mr. Arai had been part of the amazing Welcome Peter Collingwood Committee that arranged our visit when I had a one-man show in Kyoto and Tokyo in 1985. Like me he is a structuralist; he loves to invent and often does the seemingly impossible in weaving, both by hand and by machine.

So obeying that saying he came to Nayland for a few days last autumn and we had a talk which was meant to be an interview, though I found his non-western questions difficult to answer. One thing he gave me on that occasion was a small quantity of a newly invented yarn made from stainless steel. It was about the size of 2/ply carpet wool and consisted of 6,000 micro filaments of steel made into a 2/ply yarn. Naturally it had the shine of steel but its grey colour surprised me. It looked like silk until you handled it then its weight said metal. As a passing comment I said how I would love to try it in one of my macrogauzes.

Months later Mr Arai said that it had been agreed that I should make a large macrogauze for a new building in his city of Kiryu and would I like to use the steel yarn? Moreover they would like me to come and "view the site". He sent me about two pounds of the yarn, just enough to make two macrogauze samples , one flat, one 3D. The flight to Japan is 9 or more hours long, so I was glad that the sight of my walking stick and pleading face led the check-in girl to upgrade me to first class. I had to unroll the hangings at the x-ray machine and give a short seminar on weaving to the puzzled staff. Wanting to make something for Arai as a gift I spent many of the 9 hours ply-splitting, which interested the cabin staff but was totally ignored by other first class individuals.

Kiryu has a long association with textiles especially silk weaving, so the new building, a Cultural Centre of great size, was inspired by the shape and colour of a silk cocoon. The site for my hanging was against a huge concrete wall bang in the middle of the entrance hall, a wonderful but daunting position. Light came through complex glazing bars in a sloping glass roof and would make any textile look interesting. Looking at this immense flat spread of grey concrete I agreed with Arai a 3D hanging was appropriate.

After a long tour through this building I was taken to the factory which manufactured the steel yarn. Its normal output is the wire for radial car tyres; two men from its New Product Department gave me my first sight of a wire drawing works. I walked for seeming miles by the incredibly long machines which had to be kept going 24 hours a day. The wire was gradually drawn finer and finer, passing through furnaces and chemical baths. Hardly any workers were visible; but an uncanny robotic fork-lift truck went about its mysterious business.

Finally we came to the steel yarn itself and I was excited to see spools in several colours; later, a shade card showed how heat treatment could give a range of really rich deep colours, presumably permanent, to the basic grey yarn. I chose three colours for the hanging, the natural grey, a golden brown and a dark brown with a touch of aubergine in it. The last two would have to be specially produced as at the moment no stock is held. Then another surprise, a few precious metres of a much finer steel thread, the latest development. Mr Arai leapt on this with pleasure and I imagined his mind already working out what he could do with it as he fingered the few inches he had been given.

Back in England I knew I had at least a month's wait for the yarn. I made a mock-up of a section of the proposed hanging, but in linen, just to get the measurements correct. Working seated in my adapted loom was awkward with a very long stretch forward. So I tried standing, bending forward with my head leaning against a padded board I rigged up; this was more comfortable. It had to be; the hanging would entail weaving 9 strips each 32 inches wide and 5 metres long, quite a lot of work.

When weaving macrogauzes with linen I fix the woven-in metal rods with a simple paper glue, poly vynil acrylate, like the Elmer's glue used in US. As this was obviously not suitable for fixing steel warp and weft, I had experimented with superglue while making the two samples. The problem was to find it with the correct viscosity; if it was too runny it "wicked" up and down into the unwoven threads converting them into stiff little wires. I learned to call this glue by its proper name, cyanoacrylate, and so could talk to manufacturers with seeming know-how. One became interested and sent me different types until the glue with correct viscosity was found.

27 January
Yarn arrives from Japan. Three small boxes so I think this must be a partial delivery of the promised 60 kilo. But a failed attempt to lift one box proves otherwise. When opened I see the three colours of stainless steel yarn I had chosen wound on large metal spools each a heavy lift in itself. Packed in extraordinary bubble paper, a string of sausage-sized bubbles which give a pistol crack when stamped on.

Wind yarn from one spool onto 6 wooden bobbins and put these in my rack for warping, but find their dead weight prevents them turning easily and the vertical mill is impossible to revolve. Then try using the metal spools themselves, turned on their sides, with thread coming up through the dents of a reed placed some distance above. This works..just.. but I can see warping is not going to be easy. Did not try winding onto cones thinking the yarn too slippery to stay on.

The steel yarn's overriding obedience is to gravity. If it can possibly slip, slither, or slide down where an ordinary yarn would not, it certainly will. If there is some projection it will snake out to catch it. Luckily its strength means this just stops the mill with a jerk; nothing can break. When on the mill, it began to slip down the vertical uprights until I stuck strips of Velcro onto them. Despite this slipperiness it holds well once it is knotted; against this any slight tangle is immovable until each thread is pulled out separately.

In the macrogauze technique I make a succession of one inch wide warps of 18 ends and wind them onto small flanged bobbins, the yarn running directly from the mill to bobbin. Each warp is then threaded on an inch wide rigid heddle. With my normal linen warp I use a fine hook for this, but for the steel I have to make a little wire loop the hook not being strong enough. It is when threading a rigid heddle that you realise how much the dents bend apart when pulling the hook through a normal reed; the rigid heddle's eye however is fixed in size and it is quite a struggle to pull the steel through.

I only thread a few this first day.

28 January
In bed that night I have the horrible realisation that the design I have worked out, grading my three colours into each other, needs more of one colour than of the other two and I have equal amounts of all three. By the morning I have another idea, weaving each of the nine vertical 3D strips in a solid colour and then arranging these in an asymmetrical way when erected. As the Silk Hall in the Cultural Centre has a lot of horizontals this is probably a better solution.

Trying to draw this out takes some time as all the colours I have are body paints! This settled, I make more warps for this first strip. Doing these, I notice that the yarn varies markedly in colour. I like this effect but imagine it would be a drawback in some circumstances. I was forewarned of this in Japan; for speed in the colouring process they were going to heat-treat two threads at a time and where they touched slightly the colour would be altered.

Today another parcel comes from Metalpha with a small cone of the wonderful finer version of the steel yarn; this is really exciting stuff, more like clothing weight.

29 January
Continue warp making. Have a feeling the spools are emptying too fast so do a length against weight check and find there are around 520 metres to the kilo instead of the 700 I had been led to believe. This means I am 15 kilos short for this job. Much rechecking both with calculator and paper and pencil, then send an urgent fax to Japan stating the position.Knowing it takes time to get these colours from the basic yarn I just hope they can make them quickly.

Today's less serious but infuriating disaster is to discover I have wiped out this diary. Being asked by a little box on screen whether I wanted to "overwrite" my document I had made the wrong reply to this then puzzling question. So the above diary form is spurious all being written today.

30 January
Worrying about this upsetting insufficiency of yarn means I am still awake at 2.0 am in the morning when the answering fax from Metalpha comes through. Thank goodness they say they will send a further 6.5 kilo of each colour and dispatch this amount on 7th February. This means I can go ahead with confidence. I am so relieved that I feel I must celebrate, so sit up in bed drinking a (small) bottle of beer and dipping into `Behold this Dreamer', Walter de la Mere's anthology. Two more faxes arrive in the night explaining how this misunderstanding arose. I now learn that the yarn weighs exactly 1,85 grams per metre, so there are about 540 metres per kilo.

Answer the above faxes then finish making the first warp. Hating the awkward jerky way the yarn comes off the metal spools, I try winding some onto a cone and am surprised to find the yarn makes a solid, heavy, mass without any tendency to slip off the tip. Next warp will be made this way.

31 January
Many discoveries today. Though the yarn is exceedingly strong--I was told three strands would support the weight of a person--its many fine filaments are ready to catch hold on anything and so get pulled out of position. I find this while hanging the warps over the loom's extension bar so put strips of Danger with Care tape along its edge.

The extreme non-elasticity of the yarn becomes apparent as I tighten each one-inch warp to front beam. Though I comb the 18 threads through my fingers before tying as usual there always seems to be one or two which resolutely sag. Hope they get taken up in first few picks of the heading.As I start the latter I find the shed when I push the batten down extremely hard to obtain. In the last inch of the push I am not only slightly lifting the 38 weights but the 38 heavy-loaded bobbins. It is impossible in one movement; have to make first one side then the other engage with the side hooks. Try to rig up a pedal to pull down the batten; eye-splices on end of piece of rope fix it to the batten, rope then goes down to an old floorboard acting as pedal. Almost succeed but the batten has to be free to swing forward when beating; this means repeatedly putting rope on and off batten..impractical.

At last, throw very first pick of hanging itself and surprised how easily shuttle runs across the slick threads. The sheds are not consistently perfect; the steel yarn tending to stick in places. So I hold an old car mirror at the side and look through the shed at a piece of white paper pinned up on wall and can easily spot any misplaced threads and correct them. When the rods are woven in I find applying the cyanoacrylate simple; the accelerator is squirted down a narrow tube so hardly pollutes the air at all.

The first crossover of threads--eight over eight--is horrible. The warp, under tension due to heavy bobbins, really resists this manoeuvre. The rigid heddles slope and foul each other. There are 108 such crossings in the hanging so a solution must be found. All I can think of now is to use, in the next strip, two-inch wide heddles which I know due their size will not behave in this infuriating way.

1 February
Second crossover starts equally badly. Then I pair the heddles with elastic bands, so I am now moving two inches of warp at a time, and it is immediately easier. So the wider heddles for next strip will make a lot of difference.

This made way for the next problem. The weight of the warp bobbins exerts such a tension on the warp that the front stick will not slide over the square section breast beam when I pump the cloth beam lever up and down. (Perhaps it would go over a revolving breast beam). Two people have to wrestle and force the stick over and pump lever at same time. It is almost as difficult to get first woven-in rods over breast beam. There has to be some way of lifting the heavy bobbins up during turning on. Begin to think this steel yarn is not such a turn on! Position is complicated by the fact that the canvas apron is probably 30 years old and to put so much tension on it that it splits would be a real disaster.

A saving grace is that the crossing steel yarns look wonderful; to concentrate on that and not on the number of such crossovers still to be done is the wiser approach.

Later. Glad I found an easy solution to the above problem as I would be so annoyed if someone else had pointed it out to me. I lay a thick pole on woven piece, I.e. between reed and breast beam, and push down hard on it thus slackening the warp beyond, then turn on. Doing this I can turn on successfully a few inches at a time. This puts no strain on apron and, importantly, can be done without assistance.

2 February
Knowing all possible problems are behind me I begin today with confidence and wonder how much can be woven in a hassle-free day. After the first turn on, done as above, I am dismayed to find the mid line of the hanging has shifted at least inch to the left of my mid-breast beam mark. Turn the warp back and repeat the operation, watching the mid line carefully, and inexorably it moves to the left. The front stick is moving correctly but the woven piece shifts leftwards. Can see absolutely no obvious reason for this.

At last I decide it must be because the twist in the 2/ply steel yarn is making it act like a sort of screw and each thread is slewing to the left as it drags over the breast beam. This would only be noticeable with steel yarn because of its extreme solidity. The only way I can think of overcoming this is to make a revolving breast beam. In garden shed I locate a 3 inch thick rod (part of an old Polish loom, now stored in pieces). A friend in Nayland looks in his shed and finds some strips of metal which I bend to make brackets and screw these to the front of present breast beam. The two axles I have fitted into ends of the rod run in holes in these brackets. A few sentences; but all this took hours partly because I am always using wood, screws, nails that have been used at least once before.

I turn on over the roller and miraculously the hanging stays dead centre. Also I discover that I can turn on normally without yesterday's manoeuvre because I have removed the drag over breast beam. Now I make a new wooden piece in front of the roller for me to lean on.

So how much can I weave in a day? Precisely nothing, to judge by today. When I tell myself this was really the last hurdle, a small voice says you might get the same effect when weaving passes over the knee bar. I ignore that voice pro tem.

3 February
Small voice was right. As I turn on, the weaving passing over knee bar shifts noticeably to the right. This is logical direction when you think about it. Obviously another roller is needed. Look around for one and see a aluminium scaffolding pole which the BBC left behind when they filmed the final part of `Craft of Weaver' in my workshop. Plug its ends with pared down bobbin centres, make two more angle brackets, screw them to top of knee bar and fix roller axles in them. Before doing this I pull weaving back off cloth beam; as I rewind it I am relieved to see it goes on straight.

Weave in three rods today. The applying of cyanoacrylate to the few picks either side of these rods is not easy. I try using a 2 cc syringe but the drops come out of the needle unevenly; had a few bad squirts but as I am beginning with top of hanging these over-glued spots will not be seen from floor level. Would be so much easier if it could be put on with a brush, but any brush would set solid in the time it takes me to get from weaving in one rod to the next.

The exposed warp is finished so I unroll bobbins for the next run in. When trying to push a cross along one of these narrow warps, discover that it is only possible if threads are really slack, so just the opposite of what happens with normal threads.

4 February
More or less a whole day's weaving apart from answering letters to America. Start with a new stretch of warp and I end the day with the next stretch ready for tomorrow. So I probably can do about 4 or 5 rods per day which, makes one strip in 3 days. Am running stiff wrapping paper in with the hanging on cloth beam and hope I remember to put in a series of sticks about halfway through. It is winding onto cloth beam with satisfying accuracy though the long rods do bend visibly by the time they reach this beam; I think this happened with others I have made from linen and it did not matter in the end. As I wound on yesterday a single thread broke; it had been caught behind the heddles. Luckily a weaver's knot does not slip with this slippery yarn.

I use a long stick shuttle when weaving in the short rods and a throwing shuttle when weaving in the long ones. But before every pick I slide a specially pointed warp stick into the shed to ensure its clear and leave it there as the weft goes across. The steel yarn is just on the border of being too thick to move easily in the rigid heddle's dents, so the above procedure is necessary to avoid hang threads.

A great relief at end of day to see that warp length was correctly least its not too short and maybe the next one can be adjusted to reduce to minimum the wastage.

5 February
Only a few hours to work, because Asa Haggren, conservator from the Textile History Museum, Boras, Sweden came for the day with a friend and stayed the night. Put in one long rod and was glad of the rest to my back.

6 February
I finish the first strip. There is about 18 inches too much warp so I can make other warps one section of the mill shorter. Remove the excess warp carefully as it is in useable lengths (for samples, tablet weaving, even ply-splitting?). As I pull the hanging off the cloth beam onto a cardboard tube, I realise it is even heavier than I had foreseen. The idea that it would need some weight at the bottom edge to stretch it is obviously false. Leave a long fringe in case I knot the ends though the glued weaving should hold these ends secure. The glue shines a bit, so I may use the back as woven as the front. Want to hang at least one section of it to convince myself it all OK but it is going to need Jason's muscles to hold it up while fixing it to some sky-hook.

Notice earlier in the day that the front stick was very slightly crooked on cloth beam; but this can be corrected by adjusting the length of the stretch rods which make it 3D.

7 February
Buy some angle brackets and fix to handrail of gallery. Tie the hanging to a thick metal rod by its warp ends. Then with J's help put rod on brackets and lower the hanging. Two top sections hang free , the rest is rolled up on floor. Can see loose threads in several places. With difficulty put in 5 mm thick stretch rods to make it 3D; seems OK.

Tie rolled up piece at bottom so it is swinging free; this added weight straightens out most of the looseness. Difficult to imagine the whole thing as this is only one 18th of total area it will cover. Take it down and weigh it; about 9 kilos; so total weight will be 90kg. This of course includes the steel rods and so does not represent the weight of yarn which will be used. Send Mr Arai a fax saying how slowly things are going, to warn him I cannot finish it by the date he gave me.

9 February
(8th missed as giving PS talk to London Guild). I start on warp for second strip and do nearly _ of it in the day. I get so fed up with the way the yarn refuses to come off the metal bobbins that I wind some cones, a procedure which cuts my fingers until I wear thick gardening gloves, then the yarn begins to cut into them too. When I try to use these cones I find the steel wins yet again. Unless the yarn is pulled off at a constant rate (impossible when warping on a mill with the reversing of direction at top and bottom), it tends to slide down the side of the cone in loose loops which then catch under the cone and pull it over. So I decide to go back to using the metal bobbins and the consequential swearing.

I am using two inch wide rigid heddles so two bobbins provide warp for each of these. I make a slightly longer threading loop with finer guitar wire and this makes threading through the eyes a little easier. Try to evolve a method of handling the yarn in which for once the yarn's weight works to my advantage; I make a small loop with left hand and aim it at the loop so it should just fall through...which it occasionally does.

10 February
I finish the warping and threading for strip 2, putting just 6 threads of the silver colour in to see how they showed up. Warping from the metal bobbins becomes increasingly oath-provoking. As the diameter of remaining yarn decreases, the thread sticks and will not pull off vertically. I find I have to hold a long bamboo in one hand and repeatedly poke whichever yarn is jammed, encouraging it to unwind.

Develop a better way of threading than above, so it goes more speedily. As usual scissors get blunt quickly and I have to sharpen them often on a rather feeble electric gadget. This makes them cut the steel yarn but strangely not the linen warp ends which I use for tying up the cross in each small warp.

I try wearing a nose mask as my sick-cow-sounding cough seems to coincide with my being exposed to cut ends of the yarn....and presumably some airborne micro-filaments of steel. The mask steams up my glasses and causes annoyance, but is probably a sensible precaution.

The 20 kilo extra of yarn arrives from Japan without any correspondence with Heathrow or Customs. But I can see what I already have will most likely be enough, so I may be involved in sending this 20 kilos back.

11 February
Due to visit to physiotherapist, I only start work after lunch and manage to weave in three rods. The crossovers are so much easier with the two-inch wide rigid heddles., but they do mean I cannot put the gaps for the stretch rods exactly where I want them. Hope this does not effect the result. Decide that I should use 5mm rods everywhere for safety; up till now have used 4mm for short rods, 5mm for long.

12 February
Only an hour or so at loom because of visit to V and A to see my textiles they have bought over the years and are willing to lend for my exhibition.

13 February
A whole day of weaving produces about 4 rods woven in. Find I need not push batten down to lower notch to get the down shed, which was the really hard thing to do, because I always pass the pointed stick across to verify shed in any case. This discovery immediately takes a lot of the ache out of working.

Go to motorcycle shop and buy anti-misting stuff to rub on glasses; this is so I can use the anti-dust mask which otherwise mists up my glasses in seconds. This is important as I seem to cough so much when handling the yarn.

Fax from Kamasaki saying he is coming with an other person on 22nd February; but is the other person Mr Arai or not? Wants me to arrange hotel for one night. No actual word from Arai himself since the shortage of yarn misunderstanding so I am a bit worried.

Part 2