Sprang is an intricate form of plaiting which is made with threads which are stretched in tension and secured at both ends. Sometimes called twined plaiting, it is a technique in which the lengthways threads are twisted in such a way that a net-like textile is produced. The elasticity of this method of plaiting becomes apparent when the tension of the threads is released and the fabric can be stretched across it's width.
The word 'sprang' is in fact a Scandinavian word meaning an open work textile, and has come to be used as a general descriptive term for this type of plaiting. The technique is an ancient one, and textile fragments have been excavated from Norwegian and Danish peat bogs, dating from as early as 1500-1100 B.C. and these appear to be caps, hairnets and stockings. Fragments have also been found from Ancient Peru dated at about 500 B.C. and from the Coptic weavers in Egypt about C4-5 A.D. Evidence has also been found of pieces made in Norway, Denmark and Sweden from the Viking period onwards. A stocking from Mickelgate Bar in York was also excavated, although the find is of uncertain date.
It is not known where sprang originated. Evidence of an early version of sprang was located in excavations of an ancient culture in Peru. Paintings on early Greek vases depict women making a fabric very similar in appearance to sprang. In our own times, sprang has been in common use in Czechoslovakia, in Mexico, where it is used for shopping bags and hammocks, and among the Winnebago Indians of Wisconsin, who use it to make woollen scarves. At various times sprang has been used in Syria, Persia, Tunisia, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Military sashes in a diagonal sprang pattern were very popular around the end of the C18 and beginning of C19 in Denmark, Germany and France, and had to be imported into Canada after the French arrival.
As in weaving the threads are first placed on a loom, then, starting from the bottom of the loom, rows of twists are made. What is unique about sprang is that each row of twists made at the bottom of the frame is also automatically formed at the top. The top mirrors the bottom piece, with the two halves meeting in the centre.
There is no weft in sprang, the structure consists entirely of an interlinking of the lengthways, or warp threads, worked from either end towards the centre, where a central locking thread holds them in place.
The technique of sprang differs from other kinds of plaiting in that the threads are held in tension between two fixed points. There are various ways in which this can be done but the two most common are on a portable frame or on a backstrap loom. The back strap loom is one of the oldest traditional methods of weaving narrow strips of cloth. The warp is stretched between two sticks, one is attached to a fixed point and the other to the waist of the weaver who controls the tension of the warp by sitting or standing upright.
In both cases the tension of the threads needs to be adjustable as the warp threads inevitably tighten and contract as the interlinking between the threads progresses. This is achieved on the frame by the use of warp rods slung between the top and the bottom of the loom. The two rods are held in position by strong cord with adjustable knots, allowing the tension to be adjusted.
Warping procedure is the same for both types of loom, but with the back strap loom, warping takes place on a warping board and is then transferred to the warp rods. To warp the loom, the thread is tied to the bottom rod at the left-hand corner and is passed round the rods in a figure-of-eight manner. This is continued, keeping the tension as even as possible and threads evenly spaced and parallel to one another until the desired number of threads is achieved. The warp is then tied temporarily to the right hand end of the bottom warping rod. Once the tension has been adjusted through-out the ends can be tied permanently to the bottom warp rod.
Nine very thin sticks are also needed for sprang, these are inserted into the most recent rows as the interlacing progresses. The finer the thread, the thinner the sticks need to be.
Take one stick and insert it over and under each thread in turn. Start at the right and pass it over the first thread and under the second, continuing in this way across the warp. This stick organises the threads in their correct order, so, from the right, the odd numbered threads are behind the stick and are the back threads and the even numbered threads are in front of the stick and are known as the front threads.
There are a number of different methods of interlinking the threads in sprang. The basic technique is interlinking the threads in a single twist. The interlinking takes place at the bottom half of the warp and is made with a technique which consists of two rows, worked alternately, with the start of each row always on the right. Each row is worked by picking up the back threads in the correct order with the stick held in the right hand, and dropping off the front threads of the left hand. As each interlinking row is made at the bottom of the warp, a simultaneous row appears at the top edge. Rows 1 and 2 are worked progressively towards the centre of the warp.
Row 1 - Put your left hand into the shed in the warp so that the front threads are held in front of your fingers. With a stick in the right hand, pick up the first two back threads and hold them on the stick. Drop the first front thread from your left hand and slip it behind the stick. Pull the threads apart so that you can see them clearly. Continue across the row, picking up each back thread and dropping each front thread so that it falls behind the stick. Finish by dropping the last two front threads.
Insert a second stick into the shed of the same row and slide the upper one to the top of the warp and the lower one to the bottom. Push sticks firmly against the threads to hold the interlinked rows made so far.
Row 2 - Put your left hand into the shed and with the third stick in your left hand pick up the first back thread and drop the first front thread so that it lies behind the stick. Continue in this way across the row and finish by dropping the last front thread.
Insert a fourth stick into the shed of the same row and slide the top one to the top of the warp and the lower one to the bottom as before. These two basic rows are repeated alternately to form the sprang. On the fifth row the first two sticks you inserted withdrawn from the warp and reused in successive rows, and soon, always taking the sticks from the extreme top and bottom of the warp.
The sticks serve a two-fold purpose, enabling the threads to be beaten up and down after each successive row thereby maintaining the tension, and allowing mistakes to be rectified by undoing the rows - to do this remove all sticks from the current shed and undo by sliding the sticks from the previous row towards the centre which will undo the interlinking. Continue back to the mistake and re-warp.
As the rows of interlinking build up and gradually move towards the centre of the warp, it becomes progressively more difficult to pick up the centre threads. You can work with two sticks near the centre, one to hold the let threads and the other to pick up and keep the threads on the right as before. Alternatively you might find it easier to use a crochet hook to pick up and hold the threads on the right. You may also need to remove the sticks holding the last few rows and insert safety threads in their place to hold the completed rows (this is best done using a needle and thread before the stick is removed).
The simplest method of securing the threads at the meeting point is to stop when you are about 4 cm from the centre of the warp and weave one thread through the warp to secure the interlinking, or it will all unravel. Alternatively, three threads can be woven in, each one weaving over and under the warp threads in opposite rows with the ends tied in overhand knots, which will still allow the sprang a degree of widthways stretch. To hold warp threads closely, weave three rows with a single thread and darn ends along the selvedge. Single threads must also be worked in at the top and the bottom of the work where the warp rods were. Remove the sticks when the threads are secured and lightly press the sprang.
Sprang, due to it's elasticity, served useful, everyday purposes for clothing, much as knitted fabrics do today. The technique was commonly used for different kinds of headgear, such as caps, hoods, bonnets, hairnets and snoods, as well as for stockings, mittens, collars and sashes. Other analysis of fragments shows that capes, drawstring bags and lacy woollen pieces that may have been scarves have been made in a method that is similar to modern sprang, with the delicate patterns of slits, looped closings and changed directions of twists are evident.
Due to the nature of fibres being susceptible to disintegration, few pieces of ancient textiles have survived the ravages of time compared with other archaeological finds such as pottery, metal work, jewellery etc., except where they have been left buried in ideal conditions. The technique of sprang, with a few surviving examples, has been discovered only fairly recently, probably because it was mainly used for everyday articles and, unlike luxury fabrics, the pieces were not treasured, but worn out and thrown away. Because it is a rediscovered technique, a number of textiles in museums which were formerly thought to be knitted or lace are now being re-evaluated as sprang.
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