A Brief Guide to Hand Weaving Looms
What is a loom? It is essentially a device enabling lengthways warp yarns to be kept in order, and under tension, while crossways weft yarns are inserted.
Looms come in many shapes and sizes, your choice will depend upon the type of weaving you wish to do, your available space, budget and inclination - a simple style loom does not necessarily preclude complex weaving, and a more complex loom can equally be used for working simple weave structures. However, it is fair to say that certain types of loom lend themselves more readily to different purposes and particular styles of weaving.
- Cardboard looms: unsurprisingly are cut from strong cardboard, they come in several shapes usually with notches or slits cut along opposing edges to hold the warp yarn in place. Weft yarns are normally woven into the warp with a tapestry/weaving needle.
- Peg loom: this is a wooden block with removable pegs that have a hole drilled towards an end, the warp yarn is threaded through this hole. Yarn, fleece or rag strips are guided back and forth around the pegs by hand until a woven section has built up. When the pegs are almost full they are lifted from their hole and the weave slipped down onto the warp threads. The pegs are returned to their positions so that weaving can continue.
- Inkle loom: consisting of an open framework with strong pegs, an inkle loom is designed for weaving narrow braids or trims which are usually warp-faced. Alternate warp threads are captured in string heddles which keep them from moving. Weaving takes place by raising or lowering the un-heddled threads by hand to open a space in front of the heddles for the weft to pass through.
- Tapestry weaving, whether of classic or modern style, is a hand manipulated, artistic and often figurative style of weaving that can be carried out on various styles of loom - from tiny hand held frames through to larger and/or sophisticated frames with tensioning and shedding devices. Warp threads, to be lifted in the area ofweave to be worked on, are usually selected by hand and small amounts of weft are passed through the space created in that section, before being beaten firmly into place with a pointed bobbin or comb.
- Rigid Heddle loom: one of the simplest styles of loom to use and understand. Its key component, the rigid heddle reed, which raises and lowers the warp threads, is also used to beat the weft yarn into place. By default it produces basic plain weave, however with the use of pattern pick-up sticks, or by the use of multiple heddle reeds, many interesting techniques can be woven. As indicated by its name, the placement of the heddles (in this case vertical strips of plastic with a central hole) are fixed/rigid, so warp densities cannot be varied without changing the heddle reed; this is simple to do and a good range of sizes are sold. A rigid heddle loom is very fast to set up using the direct warping method. Once measured out, the long length of warp is neatly wound around a roller at the rear of the loom, and the warp threads arranged to pass through the rigid heddle’s alternate slots and holes. The warp ends are then tied to a stick which is connected to a roller at the front of the loom, where the woven web will be stored as the weaving proceeds.
- In some cultures a rigid heddle reed is used back-strap style, or replaced with a heddle rod/s. Instead of a loom frame the weaver uses their body to tension the warp (by means of a strap that passes around their back). The other end of the warp is secured to a fixed point a distance away from the weaver.
- Shaft looms: Available as table or floor standing versions, they have various styles of mechanism for manipulating the movement of warp threads. The density of the warp threads can be infinitely varied as a shaft loom’s patterning ability and cloth density are controlled by separate parts of the loom.
- Drawlooms in various forms have existed for centuries, and enabled exquisitely complex figured cloth to be woven. Before Drawlooms were ‘improved’ and could be operated by a lone weaver, an assistant known as the draw-boy, sat atop the loom (or at the side) and drew preselected cords to raise the required warps. These looms have two (or more) systems for raising the warps (ground and pattern); one group of shafts weave the ground cloth warp and are most usually operated via a foot pedal by the weaver (like in a normal shaft loom), whereas the second warp, operating in concert with the first, is raised on multiple shafts or in single units. The weaving carried out on these looms show off beautiful yarns and the weaver’s skill. There are some hand weavers today for whom this type of loom holds a fascination and a challenge they cannot resist!
Cloth weaving covers an enormous range of weaving styles. Woven cloth can be patterned, textured, artistic - or a combination of all three; it may be functional or purely decorative. The hand weaving looms used to make cloth form a very large family - they range from basic (a few sticks and string) to complex electronic constructions.
Shafts are the frames within a loom that carry the free moving wire or string heddles (cotton or polyester) - there can be anything between two and forty shafts on a loom, although today many looms come with eight shafts as standard. According to the weaver’s plan, each warp thread is threaded through an ‘eye’ of a heddle on any one of the loom’s shafts.
When shafts are lifted they raise all of the warp threads held captive by the individual heddles on their frame, so enabling the warp threads to be parted so that a weft yarn can be passed through the space (shed) between the separated threads. The beater contains a closed comb-like device known as a reed which, in addition to pushing the wefts into position, maintains the density of warp yarns.
As weaving progresses the long length of unwoven warp, neatly stored on a roller/beam at the rear of the loom, is steadily moved through the heddles, and then the reed, until being stored as woven cloth on a roller at the front of the loom. On table looms levers attached to individual shafts are moved to raise and lower the required shafts. This style of loom is great for sampling as any shaft combination is available to the weaver at any moment, so encourages experimentation.
A four shaft loom has 14 possible shaft combinations, but well over 200 ways of sequencing them to obtain different woven interlacements!! So, just imagine what you can do with an eight (or more) shaft loom.
A floor loom moves the shafts by means of foot pedals/treadles. Each treadle can be connected to a combination of shafts via a series of cords and bars/lams, allowing the weaver to get into a weaving rhythm as they no longer have to put down their shuttle (carrying the weft) to manipulate hand levers. Just one tread of a pedal will open the complete shed!
Floor looms move their shafts in a variety of ways, the most common being jack, counter balance and countermarch/e. Floor looms with lots of shafts tend to use a dobby mechanism.
With a mechanical dobby loom shaft selection is made by pattern bars/lags and pegs. Each bar has a series of holes which correspond to a shaft, pegs are placed in the holes according to the required shaft combination. Bars are sequentially pegged with the weaving plan combinations and connected together. As the chain of pegged bars are rotated, a row of pegs is brought into the selection position (think pianola), and hooks connected to the relevant shaft/s are pushed forward. When the weaver steps on the loom’s treadle a metal bar/knife lifts to catch the hooks, which in turn causes the chosen shafts to rise and form the ‘shed’. After passing the weft through, the shed is closed and the next pegged bar is moved into position to continue the weaving. If accurately pegged the weaving will also be accurate!
Dobby looms also come in electronic versions; here a computer with loom driver software replaces the peg and bar mechanism for shaft selection. Loom manufacturers have come up with various clever ways to achieve this, but the main principle can be described as follows; The weaver designs their cloth interlacement, and inputs it to weave software having the capacity to connect to their loom. With weave mode active, when they tread on the loom’s foot treadle the computer sends the desired shaft combination to the loom. Solenoids push hooks for the chosen shafts forward so the knife can raise the shafts. The shed closes when the weaver releases the treadle and the next combination is lifted when they tread again. If the loom also has an e-lift facility the effort of continually lifting multiple shafts is taken by the loom - a great boon for knees and production hand weavers!
As the industrial revolution progressed the race was on to mechanise complex weaving ability. In the early 1800’s the inventor to come out at the front of the race was Joseph Marie Jacquard, his loom became known as the Jacquard loom. The selection of warps to be lifted was determined by whether a hole was punched in a special card at a specific position (think Pianola) for a corresponding hook to pass through (or not). Hooks passing through the holes were caught and lifted by a knife/metal bar. From the hook cords, more cords fanned out to connect the heddles of individual yarns in repeat across the cloth. By this means, when a hook was lifted all warps connected to it would lift across the cloth.
A card was produced for every single warp lifting sequence! The many cards necessary to produce a woven design were skilfully prepared and sequentially laced together; these were steadily rotated through Jacquard’s mechanism as the weaver progressed from one weft shot to the next by means of a foot operated treadle which advanced the punch card chain. With each heddle weighted individually, and a warp consisting of many fine threads held under considerable tension, a weaver needed strength and stamina to weave for the long hours required by his job (yes, the weavers were mainly male, although lady weavers were not unknown).
The loom cordage setup and card-chain production involved many specialised skills, but the loom could be operated by a single hand weaver!
Few hand weavers today have access to (or the room) to house an old hand Jacquard loom with its tall frame and ancillary items like the essential dedicated card cutter, but for the few that do their looms are not just a historical wonder but a living artistic tool.
Thanks to innovators, today’s hand weavers can access ‘domestic’ size modern electronic versions which are probably better described as Thread Controllers; they enable each warp thread to be individually addressed electronically via loom software, and lifted according to the weaver’s intended desig interlacement. This means that a single design can be woven to full loom width! The warp threading is entered in a ‘straight’ progressive sequence, and any design woven can immediately be followed by something entirely different - both in structural interlacement and design - it is up to the weaver’s imagination to make the most of the opportunities this flexibility offers them - many are creating breath-taking artistic textiles with them.
It is an interesting phenomena that as soon as weavers have access to a loom with more capability they start inventing new ways to stretch that ability… on this basis future weaving will never be boring!