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Weaving on a wooden loom

Although the process of weaving has been modified and adapted to every technological advancement known to humanity, including that of computers, when one watches a contemporary weaver working at a loom in the early 2000s, what is being observed is essentially a process, and equipment, that goes back thousands of years. The loom was invented as a means to hold one set of elements, the warp (yarns extended lengthwise on the loom), under tension so that the second set of elements, the weft (yarns running crosswise), could be inserted and interlaced with the warp, to form cloth. The loom that most contemporary weavers use is called a floor loom (or a treadle loom, a shaft loom, or a harness loom). There are numerous companies making these looms in the early twenty-first century, each with its own modifications, but the essentials of the shaft looms are the same.

Elements of a Shaft Loom

The essential parts of a shaft loom are illustrated in the given diagram. The loom has a frame with both a front beam and a back beam. Below the back beam lie one or two warp beams, which hold the warp or warps threads. Each warp beam will have a crank attached to it that is used to turn the beam as the warp is wound on to it. Below the front beam is the cloth beam, which holds the finished cloth as it is woven. The warp is tensioned between the back and cloth beams; the tensioning of these threads is one of the essential reasons for having a loom.

The castle is in the middle of the loom; it can be high or low, depending on the manufacturer, and the shafts (sometimes called harnesses by weavers in the United States) are seated within it. The shafts can be suspended from chains or ropes attached to levers or pulleys, or they may be riding in slots at the side of the castle.

Floor Loom

Floor looms are generally built with anywhere from 2 to 24 shafts, though the majority of looms are 4-, or 8-, or 16-shaft looms. Shafts are movable frames that hold heddles. Heddles have eyes (holes) in their center through which individual warp ends are threaded. In the space between the shafts and the front beam, a loom has a beater, which may be suspended from a high castle or pivoting from the bottom of the loom. The beater has a furrow in its frame in which a reed is placed. Reeds are flat metal or steel combs, with evenly spaced teeth. The spaces of a reed are called dents, and these are manufactured with different specifications. A weaver will usually have a number of different reeds (perhaps one with 8 dents per inch; one with 12 dents per inch; maybe one with 20 dents per inch). Depending on the sett (the density) of their warp, the weaver will insert the appropriate reed into the beater. When the beater is brought forward during weaving, the reed passes smoothly between the warp ends that are threaded in it, and then pushes the weft into the web of the cloth. More than one warp end can pass through a dent of the reed, as long as they are adjacent ends. The front of the beater usually extends a bit under the threads, and is called the shuttle race. When the shuttle (the device that holds a bobbin wound with the weft yarn) is thrown from edge to edge, it slides smoothly along the shuttle race.

Floor looms have treadles (pedals) that are attached to the shafts, so when a treadle is depressed the shaft will raise or lower. Lamms are the horizontal levers that reside between the treadle and the shaft and they help with the mechanics of the lifting of the shafts. Looms are usually equipped with the same number of treadles as shafts, plus two; but some four-harness looms have only four pedals. Since a weaver needs to change which shafts are tied to a pedal fairly often, the ease of changing the connection (the tie-up) is very important. Some manufacturers use string devices to make the tie-up; others use metal hooks.

At the front side of the loom, usually the right side, is another pedal, called the brake pedal. When the weaver depresses the brake pedal, it releases the ratchet that is holding the cloth beam tight, and allows the warp to be moved forward. There is a lever attached to the front ratchet, which is attached to the cloth beam, and the weaver can move this ratchet to roll the cloth forward onto the cloth beam. A weaver needs the ratchet on the warp beam to fall back into place as soon as the brake pedal is released, so she can use the front ratchet and tension the warp so weaving can proceed.

Most looms also have cloth aprons attached to both the warp beam and cloth beam. They act as extensions for the warp so there won’t be too much yarn wastage at the beginning and end of the weaving. Strings can be used instead of cloth aprons.

When a loom is “dressed” with a warp, the warp is wound evenly on the warp beam, passes over the back beam, through the eyes of the heddles on the shafts, through the dents of the reed in the beater, over the front beam, and then is tied to the cloth beam. Each individual warp end passes through a different heddle, and its path should be straight from back to front. The reed not only acts as a comb to beat the weft into the cloth, it also acts to keep the warp threads in order and spaced out to their required width.

Jack-Type Looms

Card weaving, also known as tablet weaving, is a very ancient process. Here square cards have holes near each corner, and a warp end is threaded through each hole. When the weaver puts tension on the threaded warp, a shed forms between the ends on the two top holes and those in the bottom holes. After a weft is inserted, the cards are turned, either forward or backward, and a new shed is created. Amazingly intricate narrow bands have been woven with tablets (sometimes they are triangular or hexagonal), including Buddhist prayer bands that were woven in Burma until the early twentieth century. Card weaving can also be done using an inkle loom (band loom, a small loom that allows for a tubular warp that can be moved as weaving proceeds), or just tensioning the warp between two stationary posts or C-clamps.

Horizontal Ground-Loom

A dobby loom is a modified shaft loom, which uses a sequence of pegged bars to make the lifts for weaving. When the textile industry embraced the industrial revolution, electrical dobby looms and cam looms wove most of the simple fabric. These looms have now given way to computerized versions of them that can weave more than 750 picks per minute. Many handweavers also use computerized dobby looms for their weaving.

See also Jacquard Weave; Weaving; Weaving Machinery.


The Book of Looms
The Book of Looms

Barber, E. J. W. Prehistoric Textiles. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Broudy, Eric. The Book of Looms. Hanover, N.H: Brown University Press: 1979.

Chandler, Deborah. Learning to Weave. Loveland, Colo.: Interweave Press, Inc., 1984.

Fannin, Allen A. Handloom Weaving Technology. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1979.

Hecht, Ann. The Art of the Loom. New York: Rizzoli, 1989.

Roth, H. Ling. Studies in Primitive Looms. McMinnville, Ore.: Robin and Russ Handweavers, 1981. Reprint of original edition published in 1918.

Ziek de Rodriguez, Judith, and Nona M. Ziek. Weaving on a Backstrap Loom. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1978.

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