Monday, October 23, 2017

Woven Glory

Two years ago, I started an extended series on Fiber Arts, but never finished it due to health problems. Now that I'm no longer over my head, I intend to finish that series. I've managed to cover the types of fiber, processing it, spinning, and dying it, and today I talk about weaving it into usable form.

Weaving is an art form that is almost as old as civilization itself, and has been practiced since the very beginnings of agriculture (and possibly before that). Every known society throughout history has had some form of woven textile goods that were produced from a variety of source fibers.

As societies grew and gained technological advances (either through study and innovation, or via trade with their near neighbors) the looms they used to produce cloth became more complex, allowing for a much wider range of patterning in the finished product.

In its most basic form, a loom is simply something to hold long threads in place and under tension (called the warp) while other, usually much shorter, threads are passed over and under them in succession (called the weft.)

These days, looms come in a huge variety of sizes and shapes, from lap-held looms that can produce both simple and elaborate trims or strips of fabric, all the way up to looms that require their own rooms for making extensive rolls of fabric, large rugs and carpets, or hanging wall tapestries*. When talking about home or artisan use, there are three different types of  basic looms, which is what I'll describe today, along with a fourth which is mainly a historical curiosity.

None of these looms require power to operate, and all can be made by hand with proper woodworking tools and knowledge, meaning that they are a good investment for a prepper interested in making woven fabric.

*Yes, tapestries are still a thing, though they aren't specifically used for keeping out drafts these days. They're very labor intensive, ornate, and time consuming to produce, sometimes taking upwards of two years to manufacture and costing thousands of dollars. Weaving specialists work hand in hand with draft artists and painters and can turn practically any piece of flat visual art into a one-of-a-kind tapestry to hang for viewing!

Style One: The Inkle Loom
Rhi's inkle
Inkle looms are small, portable, typically lap-held looms that weave very narrow strips of cloth. The width one can handle is determined by the length of the bars that make up most of its form, and is seldom over 3 1/2 inches in total width. The warp threads are wound individually, with every other thread passing through a loop of string which is tied off separately and is referred to as a heddle. The heddle is what allows a weaver to move alternating sets of threads into place (up/down or back/forwards, depending on the type of loom) before a pass is made with the weft (crossing) thread.

Inkle looms are fantastic for beginning weavers. They're inexpensive, easy to learn, and very forgiving of potential mistakes. With the addition of cards (also called tablets), some seriously intricate pattern work can be performed on an inkle loom, giving it a huge amount of versatility for its size and price.

I've seen inkles run between $45 and $150, depending on the quality of the woodworking done during manufacture. My inkle cost about $80, and is made of scrap hardwood from other projects. It will weave 2 1/2 inch wide pieces of fabric, which I primarily use for things like belts, trim on costuming, straps for purses, strips of it sewn together side by side and then into a shoulder bag or pouch, etc. It also doubles as a warping stand for my floor loom, where I use it to measure the lengths of thread to be warped onto the Big Boy (see below).

These are great for kids, beginning weavers, those who don't intend to invest a lot of time and money, and those who are wanting to see whether its a hobby they actually enjoy before making the larger time and money investment required with a tabletop or floor loom. They're also well loved by experienced weavers who make complex ribbons of trim via tablet (or card) weaving on an inkle.

Style 2: The Box or Tabletop Loom
Tabletop loom by
Tumbleweed Woodworks
Offering lightweight portability that still allows for significantly larger pieces of cloth than an inkle, the box or table loom is a good choice for those who don't want the expense (both monetary and floorspace) of a traditional floor loom. 

These guys are little work horses, reliable and easy to learn how to use. Though they're less forgiving of mistakes than an inkle, they're also a lot more versatile in the types of patterns available to the weaver. 

Most of the box or tabletop looms that you'll find are rigid heddle looms. Instead of a piece of string tied around every other thread like the inkle loom, a rigid heddle loom has rows of very thin metal bars with eyelets in them to pass the thread through. In the photo above, you can see the three sets of rigid heddles in the raised areas featured in the center of the "box" frame.

Each thread gets its own heddle instead of only half the threads getting held in position this way. The more heddles a loom (tabletop or floor) has available, the more complex and ornate the pattern can become. Since each thread gets its own means of moving up and down, the shed (current weaving area) is determined by which heddles are up.

These looms are good for slightly more advanced beginners, intermediate weavers, advanced weavers who want something small and portable to relax with while out of the studio, and those who want to dabble and are willing to spend more than what an inkle generally costs. Plan on spending between $250 and $600 if you decide to purchase a good tabletop loom.

Style 3: The Floor Loom
Modern LeClerc Floor Loom
This is the "Big Boy" category of looms; the largest available outside of the strictly commercial cloth production market. Floor looms come in a variety of sizes, measured by the width of the cloth they can produce. They are very large, often larger than a good sized desk and requiring a chair or bench to sit at while working the loom itself.

As you can see from the photo above, this particular style of loom requires a great deal of space to set up and use properly. They are also a significant investment financially, often costing anywhere from $1,500 to $8,000 depending on brand, weaving width, number of heddles (which partly determines how complex a pattern you can produce) and number of sheds available.

I own a 48" weaving width standing jack loom with six heddles and four sheds. It currently resides at Knight's Rest in storage, because I haven't had the space to set it up. Floor looms are not for dabblers, nor are they a good choice for those on a serious budget; I only managed to acquire one because an acquaintance in my RenFaire group had too man, and needed the space, so she gave one away. I was the lucky winner of the "First to say something gets it" lottery.

Style 4: The Warp Weighted Loom

Seldom used by any except the most dedicated historical re-enactors, a warp weighted loom doesn't look much like what people think of when they hear the term "loom." These are usually very tall (in excess of six feet) with a weaving area that ranges from three to eight feet wide. Tension is maintained on the warp threads by the expediency of tying bundles of warp thread to clay weights, which can then be adjusted to allow more thread as the weaving progresses. 

These are easy to build, but can take years of practice to become expert in its use. Due to their size, and how they are warped, some seriously fancy pattern work can be achieved by someone who knows what they're doing on one of these. Sadly, I am not one of those people!

A Final Word
Weaving is both a skill and an art form, much like many of the other obscure skills I've been known to discuss. True proficiency requires a time investment, and definitely has a learning curve involved. I'm far from being an expert in weaving, though I am a devoted hobbyist. Thankfully, I have friends who are truly experts in the field, and I highly recommend the advice of those well versed while learning.

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