Weaving: introduction

“To care about weaving, to make weavings, is to be in touch with a long human tradition. We people have woven, first baskets and then cloth, for at least ten thousand years.” – Phylis Morrison

What is weaving?

Weaving is a way of making cloth/textiles using spun fibre on some sort of loom (although sometimes unspun fibres can be used – on a peg loom, for example). The vertical threads are called the warp, and the horizontal threads that are woven through them are called the weft. The warp is made on the loom, and tied to it in different ways, depending on the type of loom. The warp is tensioned and threaded through a ‘heddle’. A space (or a ‘shed’) has to be made in the warp to allow the weft through. This is done by raising or lowering the heddle, then the weft is threaded through the shed, either by hand or via a shuttle or bobbin loaded with yarn. Then the next shed is opened, and the weft passed back through for the next layer. This process is repeated until the fabric is the size you require, after which you cut and tie the warp, and you have your finished piece of woven fabric.

plain weave cloth showing warp and weft threads

Plain weave cloth showing warp and weft threads.

There is historical evidence of weaving going back to the stone age, but textiles are biodegradable, and so it’s unusual to find very old preserved pieces. Every traditional culture had or has its own style of weaving.

Here’s a selection of different types of loom.

Peg loom: very simple – you have a board with 9mm holes drilled into it, then 15cm pegs with holes drilled through them are inserted into the board. The warp threads are passed through the holes in the pegs, the weft is woven around the pegs to the top, then the pegs are removed, the item pulled down onto the warp, the pegs replaced – and so on, increasing the size of the item each time. Peg looms can be used to make peg loom rugs, seat mats or bags with unspun fleece.

a Brinkley loom 'warped up'

A Brinkley loom ‘warped up’.

Backstrap loom: used a lot in South America, they are the width of a human. The ends of the warp are tied to a post or a tree, and a strap goes round your back. As you lean back, it tensions the warp, then you use the heddle in front of you and weave the weft with a bobbin. Colourful patterned textiles are made this way in Guatemala and Peru.

Navajo looms are large, usually upright, native American looms.

Inkle looms are narrow, for making belts or thin strips of fabric.

Ashford knitter’s looms (and some others) are based on a rigid heddle and frame.

Brinkley looms have wooden frames with non-rigid heddles. They have a unique way of ‘warping up’, which takes about 10 minutes. This is the great benefit of a Brinkley loom – if anything puts people off taking up weaving, it’s the length of time required to prepare the warp. See here for a warping demo (never mind the chatter, just notice the speed).

Floor/treadle loom: larger looms with different pedals to change the shed – i.e. to lift various threads depending on the kind of pattern you want. Table looms are similar to floor looms, but smaller. Inevitably, handlooms began to be outnumbered by power looms by the mid-19th century, and now most fabrics are produced on an industrial scale in large factories.

There are over a million weavers in Iran producing traditional hand-woven rugs

There are over a million weavers in Iran producing traditional hand-woven rugs.

What are the benefits of weaving?

  • you can produce useful items for yourself, your family and friends
  • your items will be unique
  • you can contribute to your local economy by setting up a cottage industry and selling a few pieces
  • you can control your raw materials, so that only natural, organic fibres and dyes are used
  • it’s an interesting, fun thing to do, and you can gain and pass on useful skills
  • as with all our topics, it’s a small antidote to the bland near-monopoly that large corporations have over the necessities of life
peg loom weaving

Peg loom weaving session.

What can I do?

It’s difficult to explain how to weave with words. Here’s our online course, and here are weaving courses around the UK. ThenĀ  have a go yourself, and keep practicing.

A simple way to practice weaving, or to demonstrate it to children, is to make notches on a piece of cardboard, or use a picture frame with nails at both ends – make the warp on the notches/nails and thread the weft through with a needle.

If you do decide to take up weaving, you can make a huge range of household items – blankets, shawls, scarves, ponchos, cushions, bags, rugs, chair covers etc.

piece made on a Brinkley loom

A piece made on a Brinkley loom.

First choose a loom (see above). A peg loom is simplest, and doesn’t have a heddle. You can make peg loom rugs with unspun fleece. A Brinkley loom is good for speed, but a treadle loom or table loom can make larger fabrics – although Brinkley-made pieces can be sewn together to make larger pieces.

You can also make your own loom. you can make a peg loom easily; or a backstrap loom with a heddle made from lollipop sticks. You can make a Brinkley frame but not the heddle.

Fibres that you can use include wool; flax (for linen); hemp (hemp cloth); cotton; silk; nettle (a lot of nettle fibre spinning and weaving happens in Nepal).

If textiles really interest you, you can provide your own yarn for weaving, by carding your own fleeces (or even shearing your own sheep) or growing and processing natural fibres, then spinning and dyeing them yourself too.

backstrap loom in use

A backstrap loom in use.

You can make a scarf in a day, or a blanket in 3 days. If you account for your time, items will appear quite expensive; but it’s the same for lots of other Lowimpact.org topics. Why grow your own veg, knit your own socks or make your own furniture, when you could work more in paid employment, and buy those things from a supermarket? Alternatively, maybe money shouldn’t be the measure of everything – it’s more about the pleasure of producing useful items yourself.

Patterned fabrics are beautiful, but you need to be quite mathematical and meticulous to make them. They’re not essential though – without patterns, you have more freedom, and it doesn’t have to be done perfectly.

piece made on a peg loom

A piece made on a peg loom.

There are different kinds of weaves. In a plain weave the weft goes over and under each warp thread (and a balanced plain weave has warp and weft threads of the same thickness, making a simple square pattern). In a twill weave the weft covers several warp threads to make a stronger fabric like denim. And in a satin weave, the weft passes over even more warp threads to produce a very smooth fabric. If the weft completely covers the warp, it’s called a tapestry weave. The warp doesn’t affect the colour, and so pictures can be built up more easily.

Another simple and ancient weaving technique is card weaving, for making belts or thin strips of fabric. The card is turned to make different patterns. Completely impossible to describe how to do it in words – you just have to find someone to teach you.

Thanks to Jane Meredith of Plant Dyed Wool for information.

 


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Janet Renouf-Miller runs Create with Fibre, and is a registered teacher with the Association of Weavers Spinners and Dyers and has taught at their renowned Summer School. Janet has also taught courses for many spinning and weaving Guilds, knitting groups, shops and voluntary organisations. She is the author of How to Spin (just about anything).


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