Making the Ghost Masks

I talked back here about making Ghost Masks for my ancestor altar, to represent all those ancestors I never knew. Today is Samhain, and I might even manage to finish the second one before I go to bed. Here's the project post for the first one, though.

I spun about 70 yards of hairy white wool, stuff I'd had sitting around in a box for years because I hadn't liked it the first time I'd tried it. It was less awful this time, but it wasn't much fun.

It's drying on a niddynoddy here.

I warped my travel loom, 33 doubled threads at 4 (double) ends per inch. Weavers will look at that number and raise an eyebrow, because normally you weave with an even number of warp threads. The book Zati: Weaving a Life is designed around this loom, though, and that style has its own odd little traditions, including an odd number of threads, and the center thread being red (so you can see it easily, mostly, because you count from it for shapes like the mask, but I think it's got other associations, too). I'm using cotton rug warp, as I usually do on this loom, and fat single-ply wool.

The Zati book describes a spiritual journey, explored through what it calls keyforms, individual projects that have specific meanings within the context of the journey. The seven keyforms are the Amulet, the Bowl, the Doll, the Belt of Power, the Mask, the Bundle, and the Shawl. The Shawl is the only one that requires multiple separate weavings sewn together. The Belt is not actually woven, but twisted, and the weaving is a sheath that hangs from it instead. So far, I've done the Bowl, Doll and Mask, not in any particular order, a few times each. I do mean to weaving myself an amulet one of these days, though probably not quite the way the book suggests. I might also use the sheath pattern as a basis for a sheath for my athame, eventually. I don't necessarily have a lot of use for the other keyforms, though, and even less for the journey they describe. I have a journey of my own, and it doesn't have much to do with this one. But some of the techniques the book describes are very nifty indeed.

Weft-wedging is the very niftiest of those, leaving spaces of unwoven warp threads and then pushing the woven web around them together to create a three-dimensional shape. I don't know where she got this technique or if she made it up, but it's really cool. And it's what makes the Mask and Bowl possible.

I'm not going to go very in-depth on the creation of the mask, because I don't want to piss off the people at Weaving a Life. I like them. They're very nice. They sent me a batten, for free, because I'd lost mine and wanted to take my loom to a pagan festival to weave offerings while on-site. (I always lose my batten. I'm currently missing both of them, and using a long stick shuttle as both pick-up stick and beater. It gets the job done, but it's not as nice.) If you want to contact me privately, we can maybe discuss it more in-depth, but I really recommend buying the book, which has an ebook edition as well as a physical one.

Onto the project!

What the hell is that?

You're looking at the first half or so. A little less, actually. It's sideways, with the forehead on the left. That slit is an eye, and the diagonal line marks the edge of the nose. Slits are created but turning the weft back around an inside warp and weaving in chunks, then doing the same from the other direction on the next thread over, and is a very old tapestry technique. The diagonal was created using the same processes, but moving up one thread after every couple of picks, so that there's a very tiny slit between each pair of warp threads. Those slits make up the line you see. At the bottom of the nose is the right nostril.

Here you can really see the face emerging. The other side of the nose, the mouth and chin, and the lower lid of the eye have all been added. You can see the warp spaces left at the bottom, where it will make the rounded side of the face, and at the chin, where it will narrow the bottom of the mask and let the chin jut out a bit.

And there's the whole face woven. If the triangle at the top looks wider than the one at the bottom, that's because it is. An accident -- two picks turned on each warp instead of one as they did at the bottom -- but it worked out well on the finished mask.

Turned around the right way, so you can really see it. Doesn't look too happy, does he? Cranky ghost mask is cranky, and will get even crankier.

I love cutting a project off the loom. It's an exciting and magical moment. It's never quite finished at this point, and the mask more so than other projects, but the weaving it over, and you can finally see what you've really done. This is when a project really comes to life, wakes up to what it is.

Initial pulling of the warp threads to bring the weft sections together. Ancestor looks even crankier. Now the shape of the mask is starting to show. It can be hard to see exactly what it looks like on the loom, as just the broad shape of it shows. At this stage, though, you can really start to see what you have to work with. There's lots of subtlety I can still add, tightening and loosening warps, but this is the basic frame I have to work with. I'm not very good at the subtleties yet, because I haven't done very man masks, but I'm improving.

Done shaping, but the ghost still does not look happy. At all. Better figure out what he wants.

So I hunted around for something to mount the mask on, and eventually lit upon some spherical paper lanterns I had hanging around for craft projects. I weighted the bottom with dried beans, wrapped it loosely in a shroud of unbleached muslin, laid the mask on, and continued to wrap the shroud around it, hiding the trailing warps (I really need to cut those off) and holding the mask loosely to the mount.

Now Ancestor looks much much happier. (And a little Hensonesque.) Must be finished!

So he's sitting upstairs, waiting for my ancestress mask to be finished, sometime tonight, to join him. I'm making both sides fuller, the way the second side was on this one, but the nose and mouth narrower. Next mask I do, I'll have to work out how to make the mouth wide and the nose narrow. Not difficult, but difficult to keep track of when to do. For me anyway. I can't tell you how many times I had to unweave a shape because I'd done it wrong on these two masks.

I'll put up pictures of the ancestress mask tomorrow or the next day, and possibly a picture of my ancestor altar as well, although it won't look like much.