Principles of Weaving
Weaving is very simple. You essentially have two sets of threads - one set, pre-wound, called the warp, running vertically and kept under tension, and the other set threaded individually through the vertical threads, usually at right angles, called the weft.
The simplest method is to use your body to tension the warp threads, which allows you to pack up and carry your whole project with you easily. This technique is widely used in nomadic cultures and South America and is called backstrap weaving.
The next simplest method is to have a basic frame - just a rectangle - which can be made out of wood, or any kind of tubing that is sturdy enough to take tension without bending. I have seen the Bedouin weavers in Oman weaving on copper pipe tubing fixed into a rectangle. This frame is then strung with a warp running top to bottom, with the weft threads being laid in by hand. + more ....
This is the easiest introduction to tapestry weaving, and you can build up areas of weave without having to take your weft thread completely from one side of the frame to the other. This is called discontinuous weft. Tapestry weavers use small butterflies of yarn for weft which they interweave raising and lowering the warp threads manually. This is both time-consuming and very versatile, and stunning effects can be created through pictorial detailing and use of a mixture of yarns.
The next adaptation is to fix a means of raising selected threads all at once, rather than picking up individual warp threads by hand. This is done with a continuous string which is looped around a round stick or dowel, then looped underneath the first thread you want to raise. Loop around the dowel again, and then down to the second thread you want to raise.
The simplest form of weaving is plain weave, which is also called tabby in the west. This can be done on any of the methods of weaving I've described so far. The weft goes over the first warp end, but under the second, then over the third, and under the fourth etc, lifting the odd numbered warp threads and going over the even numbered warp threads. After the weft has finished that pass, the return journey is done lifting the even numbered warp threads, and going over the odd numbered warp threads. Then you start all over again.
This is the strongest structure you can use, and also one of the most versatile. It doesn't sound very promising, but with variations in colour and thickness of the threads, and how far apart both the warp and the weft threads are (known as the sett), you can create the most gauzy of nets, attractive window blinds (including using bamboo in the weft), the most practical of handling cloths (think tea-towels), the flimsiest of transparent garments (think very fine saris), and the warmest of winter rugs for your floor, Not bad for a simple weave!
Moving on to more complex equipment, you can use a frame, or shaft, to lift your selected threads. The simplest method for this is with a box-shaped frame, called a rigid heddle loom, which consists of one 'shaft' but with two positions created through a slot and a hole alternating with each other.
You can have a simple mechanical loom starting with 2 shafts, but they usually have 4 or more, going right up to 48 shafts for really complex patterns. A shaft is a simple frame with strings (
) of metal or synthetic suspended between the two horizontal bars of the frame.
The strings have an 'eye' (like that of a needle, but larger), in the middle of each string, through which is threaded an individual warp thread. Each shaft has a mechanism by which it can be raised and lowered which, when used in opposition to other shafts, creates a space (called the
) through which a weft thread can be passed, thereby creating each line in a pattern.
Many patterns can be created through the different arrangements of raising and lowering the shafts. With 2 shafts, you can create plain weave as before. With 3 or more shafts, the permeations become much more varied.
I have a four-shaft loom which I use to teach beginners.
Four shafts give you the ability to create the simple plain weave fabrics, but also to get a lot more patterns. With a 4-shaft loom, the possibilities grow enormously. Firstly, + more ....
you have the chance to vary the order in which you thread your warp. You can thread sequentially going from shaft 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 and repeating. Once you go above 2 shafts, you have more choices. Not only can you vary the order in which you thread the warp, but you can play around with the order of how you raise those shafts.
With 4 shafts, there are a potential 14 lift combinations. You can lift each of the four shafts individually (4 options), or raise any two of them together (6 options), or raise 3 of them all together(4 options). Why are there more options with raising two of them together? Well, you can lift shafts 1 and 2 together, 2 and 3, 3 and 4, 1 and 4, and also the plain weave of 1 and 3, followed by 2 and 4.
Plus you have the colour, thickness and sett variations I mentioned before! So you can see how many more patterns you can create by simply adding just another 2 shafts!
There are many books devoted to the patterns and techniques you can create on a 4-shaft loom, including Marguerite Porter Davison's book, The Handweavers Pattern Book.
I also have an eight-shaft table loom. This allows yet more possibilities. Now the lifting combinations of the 8 shafts have expanded to 256! Of course, you don't have to use all the 8 shafts! Just because they are there doesn't mean you have to use them all. That's the fun of having more shafts - you have the choice!
Alhambra scarves - silk.
I love creating intricate patterns, so when I was offered the opportunity of acquiring a 24 shaft loom, I snapped it up! This loom has a basic computer to assist me in designing, and in lifting the shafts. Because it has so many shafts, I can't lift them the way a normal floor loom requires.
Normally, floor looms have a number of pedals (or treadles) which are connected to the shafts and you press one of the pedals to raise a specific combination of shafts that you have planned by tying those shafts to that pedal. As you can imagine, + more .......
you need to think about the tie-ups quite carefully to give you the results you want, because the greater the number of shafts you have, the more pedals you will need. The size of the loom gives you physical constraints in how many pedals you can fit inside your loom, and when you have lots of shafts, it is easier to have a dobby loom which puts the shaft selection into a box on the side of the loom, and you only need one or two pedals to operate the selection.
So that is what the 24 shaft loom is - a dobby loom. A computer-assisted loom is connected to a laptop (usually) which has weaving software on it. The weaving software is wonderful for speeding up the hand-drafting that used to be required pre-computers. However, it doesn't mean you save time, as designing then becomes compulsive and you just want to try another idea and see what that looks like!
When you have traditional floor-looms with tie-ups and pedals, you can weave from your software, but you still need to tie-up your pedals by hand, and then follow your pattern using your feet as normal. With a dobby loom, though, you can connect your laptop to your computer and have the computer drive the shaft selection so it automatically selects the next shafts as you have designed.
There used to be a hoo-hah about using computers in this way. There were a number of people who believed that this was no longer hand-weaving. However, as you still physically have to prepare your loom to weave, and then design your pattern, then physically sit down to weave, throwing the shuttle by hand, weaving on computer-assisted looms is now regarded as still handweaving. I suppose you can compare the use of computers in hand-weaving as similar to a woodworker using an electric lathe or a potter using an electric wheel. It's machine assistance, but the lathe or the wheel couldn't do the job on its own - the craftsman still needs to know what to do and do it!
On a 24 shaft loom, you can create patterning as I've shown in the scarves above, but you can also create artwork, if you are prepared to spend a little time and do some bits by hand. Here is one of a series of 3 pieces based on the Blue Planet series of natural history programmes narrated by David Attenborough and filmed by the BBC's Natural History unit based in Bristol.
This one is called Corral and shows the whales and dolphins working together to corral the herring into a wonderfully swirling tight ball before swimming up through the ball with mouths agape, catching their herring lunch! I like to combine technical weaving skills with artistic interpretation.
To take this kind of art weaving further, you need to use another kind of loom with a different kind of action. This is the jacquard loom.
The jacquard is the equivalent to playing a sonata on the piano. Each thread is independent within a specified range ie 384 threads. Pictures can be created, but it needs a sophisticated mechanism to operate it, and, in my case, a whole new set of skills had to be learned in order to design effectively (I went to the Lisio Foundation in Florence for 2 1/2 months to study - a wonderful time and great teachers), and then to translate that design into a set of operating instructions for the loom to follow. The closest music-related system is that of the pianola - a player piano - where the operating instructions are encoded on a card roll which has holes cut out where the individual notes are to be played. + more .....
Music boxes have a similar set-up but have raised metal prongs instead of holes.
My particular loom, named Hattie, is a 1930s (we think) power jacquard loom which would have been one of many churning out interiors furnishings, or men's suitings in a mill, probably in the Scottish borders, perhaps in Galashiels (where the woollen counting system of Gala cut originates). It is a Hattersley Standard Model loom, cast in Yorkshire where it could be adapted for either dobby (multi-shaft, often power weaving) or jacquard. The jacquard attachment is a Hardaker, also from Yorkshire. It has 384 individual heddles which allows me a 6" wide design. This design is repeated 6 times across the warp width, so I can create one repeat pattern which connects across the whole 36" width, or 6 individual pictures. There is no limit to the length of the design, only to my patience in cutting cards, as the longer the design, the more cards I have to cut!
In September 2005, I acquired 4 sample jacquard hand-looms with a weaving width of just 13" and different harness set-ups, which means that the same design can be woven with a different proportion on each loom - an invaluable teaching and sampling aid! I don't know the age of these babies (they are only 9' tall and are wooden-framed hand-looms) but I do know they came from Leeds University where they had originally been assembled from new in the weaving studio.
They are a fabulous piece of England's textile heritage, complete with built-in perch-stools and I am delighted to have renovated them so they can be used once more.
Although the babies are hand-looms, Hattie is a power loom, driven by 3 phase electricity and automatically throwing the shuttle and beating the weft according to the design punched on the cards.