"I call this room my playroom," Laurel Wilson said on a recent Tuesday as about 35 of her students in textile and apparel management smushed into the basement of her Harrisburg home. They were there to learn how to weave, watch an embroidery machine operate and experiment with fabric painting.
"It's an experiential part of my class," Wilson, an MU professor, had explained at a different time, "and it is important for them to understand how looms work and how easy it is. That is one reason why much of this work is done in developing nations. Weaving tends to be low-skill, low-pay and labor-intensive."
The class, history of textile merchandising and trade, focuses on issues affecting the current textile and apparel industry.
A wooden floor loom was set up in one corner of Wilson's basement with a worktable in the center of the room. She dimmed the lights to ease the glare and propped open a patio door to let in the cool air of late summer. Some of the students stood at the loom to weave "mug rugs," little woven coasters. Others watched Wilson at her embroidery machine. The rest went outside to decorate cloth with fabric paint.
"Give it a good start," said Nicole Ottwell, a graduate student in fine-art textiles who helped with the weaving. "You can start a new weave by adjusting the tension on the loom, twisting the crank and pressing the foot release so the warp will come forward."
She told the group she is mainly a weaver. "You need good strength for this," said Ottwell, whose thesis compares the quality of hand weaving with weaving done by machine processing. "There is a lot more detail typically in weaving like this than what you can get at an industrial loom."
Each of the students interwove a long strand of cotton material a little wider than a ribbon through the different colored "warp threads," which were attached to the ash-wood loom. They used their fingers to weave the cloth through the warp in what Wilson called a basic weave - an over-under, over-under pattern.
The students then pulled a beater - a wooden bar on the loom that compresses the cloth and the warp threads - toward them and then pushed on the treadle. This formed the beginning of a basic weave. They repeated this process about 30 times to complete their individual mug rugs.
"Some people lose themselves at the loom," Ottwell said. "They look down and start weaving, and when they look up, it's four hours later."
Allison Vandover, a senior from St. Louis majoring in textile and apparel management, said her favorite part was learning how the loom worked. "It was a lot easier than I thought," she said, "because crafts are not really a gift that I have."
Stephanie Brinson, an interdisciplinary studies major with a focus in textile and apparel management, said she found the left treadle hard to push because it was sticking. "But I'm a bicyclist, so I have strong legs," she said.
Across the basement at the embroidery machine, students watched as Wilson worked on it. The machine's reel spun a navy blue thread, imprinting a quilting pattern onto a cream-colored cotton cloth that had batting attached to the back of it for cushioning. Each student received one of Wilson's embroidered pieces, choosing from one of 30 shapes including flowers, stars, hearts and floral and Celtic designs.
"It's interesting, the course that it takes," Wilson said, referring to the embroidery machine. "It seems logical, but a heavy pattern is really fun to watch because it will jump all over the place."
She explained at a different time that blue fuzz, called linters, comes off the embroideries. In a textile mill, the air is filled with millions of linters, and when breathed in by textile workers can cause a disease called brown lung. To prevent that from happening today, textile workers are required to wear masks.
Wilson said one of the purposes of the class is to see how weaving and embroidering are related. "But unfortunately," she said, "there is a lot of standing around and waiting."
With that in mind, fabric painting was set up on the patio, pungent with the smell of Sharpie markers and Tulips Lick fabric paints being used to decorate white cotton cloths into handkerchiefs. There were foam prints of butterflies and flowers as well as stencils of hearts and stars for the students to use.
Some of the handkerchiefs were painted to be turned into a tie-dye pattern. "Wind the string ties up, so it creates a tie-dye," Wilson said. "Sometimes you can do tiny bits and bigger bits. In America, mostly we see the bigger bits, but in Japan they do tiny amazing patterns that are much more intricate."
Wilson used to teach this session at a craft studio on campus, but it became too difficult to book the space. By the end of four hours, each of the 35 students had an embroidery pattern to take as a souvenir and a mug rug and a handkerchief that would be returned the following class.
"Everybody gets to go home with something," Wilson said, "which is kind of fun for a change, instead of dropping off papers."