The Loom Development

A loom is the framework across which threads are stretched for the weaving of cloth.

 

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Since the warp functions as the backbone of the weaving structure, choosing a warp requires knowledge of the nature of fibers, in that warp yarns workbest if they have certain characteristics. The warps should be fairly smooth and should not have too many slubs or bumps. The warps should be plied yarns with adequate tensile strength, strong enough to withstand a certain amount of weight. Types of warp yarns used in historic times varied depending upon what plants or animals were native to a particular region. Cotton, wool, linen, and silk were favorite warp yarns of our ancestors and are still some of the most popular choices of contemporary weavers. Today's fiber artists use the same general principles as people during primitive times, for the fundamental aspects of handweaving have remained unchanged. Since many loom types have evolved over the centuries, we will discuss a selection of looms, starting with the simple and progressing to the more complex.

Warp-weighted Loom

It is thought that the first looms, called warp-weighted looms, were vertical structures. The weaver would suspend fibers from a tree branch, which was parallel to the ground, or he might fashion a vertical loom using tree limbs and branches. Below is an image of a warp-weighted loom depicted on a terra cotta Greek vase. The picture gives us clear information about early loom construction, tools used, and weaving processes.

Warp ends were tied over the top branch and were then placed under tension with stones or weights made of baked clay. Initially, weaving was accomplished by walking back and forth in front of the loom, lifting one warp thread at a time, and passing the weft under and over the warps from side-to-side. Working against gravity, wefts were pushed up into place with the weaver's hands or with a crude comb. Since every warp thread had to be lifted by hand, the process was slow and tedious. In time, a large tapered stick was introduced and was used to carry the weft across the warp and to push, or beat, the threads up into place. Early on, this stick resembled an over-sized needle, but ultimately, it became the shuttle, a tapered device on which weft yarn is wound and which passes between warp threads.

One of the most useful discoveries during the evolution of weaving was the realization of the shed, an opening in the warp through which the weft thread travels, resulting in a web. Initially, weavers had to raise every warp thread by hand and then pass the weft thread through bit by bit, but in time, weavers found ways to create sheds. One such way involved the insertion of a rod under every other warp thread. The rod, called the shed stick, could then be lifted or turned on its side, revealing a clear passage for the weft. The creation of the shed hastened weaving time, but the weaver still had to continually use one hand to hold up the rod in order to pass the shuttle through the shed.

Horizontal Ground Loom

The horizontal ground loom, probably a spin-off of the warp-weighted loom, was another primitive weaving tool. Equally spaced sticks or pegs were driven fairly deep into the ground in two parallel lines. The lines were spaced several feet apart, depending upon the desired length of the fabric to be made. The distance between the pegs varied according to the type of weaving desired, and the width of the two rows also played a part in the size of the fabric. Winding the warp began by tying the warp yarn onto the outside peg in one row and then crossing over to and wrapping around the corresponding peg in the opposite row, and then back to row one, peg two, and so on. Constant tension in winding the warp was imperative for a successful weaving. Using a shed stick and one or more shuttles, the weaver would bend over the tensioned warp and weave from the one end to the other.

Pit Loom

Since the horizontal ground loom required the weaver to lean over to accomplish his task, this made for a very uncomfortable exercise. Eventually, the ground loom evolved into the pit loom, so named because the loom was placed over a pit which was dug into the ground. The weaver could now sit comfortably on the edge of the pit with legs dangling in the hole and be on the same plane as the loom. Click here to view a drawing of a pit loom.

 Frame Loom

With the development of the frame loom, the weaver was had a portable tool, one that was easily constructed and could be used almost anywhere. The loom was built using four sticks, attached at right angles, making it necessary for opposite sides to be equal lengths. The warp was wound by tying a warp thread to the top stick and moving down to the bottom stick, wrapping around it, and moving back to the top, and repeating this process until the desired width was achieved. The weaving could be done by holding the loom in one's lap or by placing the loom on a table. A shed stick could be installed to lift warps as needed. Click here to view a twentieth-century example of a frame loom.

 Backstrap Loom

 Eventually the backstrap loom was developed, and not only was it easy to transport, it was simple to construct. One end of the loom was attached to a fixed point, like a tree trunk, and the other was attached to a rod, which was held in place with a cord that passed around the waist of the weaver. By leaning back against the waist cord, the weaver could put tension on the warp threads and adjust tautness at will. Click here to view a diagram of a backstrap loom.

Not only could the loom have shed sticks, it could also be fashioned with the slot-and-eye heddle system, a significant step in loom evolution. This tool not only gives two clear sheds, it also acts as the beater, pushing weft threads into place. Clearly, the heddle system was used on looms types other than the backstrap, but once again, we have no way of knowing exactly when this tool was used for the first time.

The backstrap loom is still used today by Native Americans in the southwestern part of the United States and by people in Central America and Mexico. The loom is limited in complexity only by the skill of the weaver, and the entire loom with the weaving in progress can be rolled up at any time and carried from place to place.

 

Foot-treadle Loom or Floor Loom

 The foot-treadle loom came about after many years of development and exploration. This loom employed a pulley and lever system and the slot-and-eye heddle system giving a clear shed and freeing up the weaver's hands. Generally, weavers today prefer floor looms containing foot treadles, which can rise and lower warp threads at will. With the creation of the floor loom, the shuttle carrying the weft threads could now be passed back and forth across the warp without interruption.

 

Computer-driven Loom

Contemporary looms include several different types of floor looms, but the most progressive to date is the computerized loom for the individual weaver. A great deal of the weaving process involves numbers: thread count, length and width dimensions, harnesses used, numbers of treadles used, sequence repetition to create patterns, and so on. A loom is naturally a mathematical instrument, so it can easily be coupled with our world of computer-driven technology. Looms fashioned with computer systems can offer today's weavers limitless possibilities of techniques.

Summary

 The journey through the history of weaving from the discovery of the warp-weighted loom to the present computer-driven loom is an interesting one. The world's civilizations have progressively developed the tools used in weaving from the tree-branch loom to machine driven multi-harnessed devices, and yet, the essence of the weaving process remains exactly the same, a very humbling and comforting thought.

 


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