This page is an attempt to describe the earliest history of looms, and of weaving in general. I am trying to present an overview of the most primitive loom types, the types of weaves that are found in early history (and why they are associated with the loom types that produce them), and the fibers used in prehistoric weaving (and why they are probably found in the areas where there have been located).
Band looms: No physical remains have been left by these looms, and any representations of them in prehistoric images are rare enough to be nearly nonexistent. The only evidence we have that they must have existed is the bands that have been found — they exist, therefore the looms they were woven on must have existed. They were probably back-strap looms. Probably the oldest type of loom — the next two types derive from it but are completely different solutions to the same problem: weaving a wider piece of cloth than is possible from a band loom.
Back-strap looms: Probably the simplest form of loom: one end of the warp is tied to a tree, post, or some other large object that is not likely to be easily moved, and the other end is tied to the weaver’s waist. Warp tension is controlled by the weaver leaning back on the warp. The width of the fabric that can be produced using this method is limited, though — tying the warp into a bundle at each end forces the weaving into a condensed space, laterally, and having the warp tied to the weaver limits how far the fabric can be woven before adjustments must be made to accommodate the reach of the weaver’s arms. Clearly the warp must be spread wider in order to get any sort of substantial width in the resulting cloth.
Two-beam ground looms: These are simple looms formed by pegging sticks into the ground, placing beams on the outside of the pegs and winding a warp between the two beams. A heddle rod may be used to control the weaving shed of the warp. Again, no physical evidence of the looms exists, except in depictions of weavers on other artifacts. These seem to have developed in the Late Neolithic, in the area of Mesopotamia and Syria, and their use moved southeast from there.
Warp-weighted looms: This is an upright loom, using an upper beam to support the warp, which is divided into the different sheds needed for the cloth being woven, and then stretched taut by weights hung from the warp threads. A lower beam keeps the front and back parts of the warp separated, and heddle rods are used to change the weaving sheds between the sections of warp as needed for the weave chosen by the artisan. Warp-weighted looms are possibly the only type of loom for which there are plentiful artifacts remaining, in the form of loom-weights. Note here that the cloth is woven from the top down, with the weaver beating upward. These, too, seem to have developed in the Late Neolithic, in the area of the Eastern Mediterranean, and then migrated northwest throughout Central and Western Europe.
Two-beam vertical looms: This seems to answer the problem of weaving in a different way than the warp-weighted loom, by using the bottom beam of the loom to hold the warp taut instead of free-hanging loom-weights. This also allows the weaver to beat down on the weaving, instead of beating upward (thus allowing the weaver to sit down while weaving). This loom is believed to have been invented in the Third Millennium BC, in the area of Syria, essentially on the border of the areas that used the horizontal and vertical (warp-weighted) looms. It is also possible that it was developed in the Caucasus, where no information has been preserved of what was used for weaving in prehistoric periods. One drawback, in comparison to the warp- weighted loom, is that the size of the loom and the length of warp possible limit the length of the cloth produced. By contrast, the warp-weighted loom puts little limit on length, as excess warp can be gathered below the loom-weights, and only the length of the cloth beam and the other crossbeams used to build the loom limits the width of the cloth.
Plain/Tabby weave (& Basket weave): This is the simplest form of weave – one thread over, one thread under. In basket weave, the bundles are equal numbers each way. The weave may be even, with both warp and weft showing, or the cloth may be either warp- or weft-faced, depending on which thread predominates. The ground looms are theorized to have been limited to this, due to the difficulty of using multiple heddle bars on a ground loom.
Twill weaves: X threads over/X threads under — with the Xs not necessarily being equal — with a shift of usually one thread laterally with each successive iteration. This produces diagonal lines in the weave structure. If the shift is not one thread, then the twill is usually referred to as a “broken” twill. Warp-weighted looms, and any shafted looms, can weave these, as can any upright loom that can be fitted with multiple heddle rods.
Tapestry: A weft-faced plain weave, using multiple colors, usually used for patterning, as the weft normally goes only for short distances before it turns back on itself. Two-beam vertical looms are most often used for this weave.
Knotted pile weaves: Most commonly, this is a combination of interlacing ground weft and short lengths of tuft-forming weft threads. The ground weft may be inserted with the aid of a shed-forming device on a loom, but the short lengths for the tuft are always hand-inserted with a needle — either by loop wrapping or by knotting, whether symmetrically or asymmetrically. This is also most commonly done on a two-beam vertical loom.
Linen/Bast fibers: Egypt seems to have used linen and other bast fibers predominantly, and used them on the ground loom to the exclusion of any sign of a warp-weighted loom in the region, once it started weaving in the 5th Millennium BC.
Wool: Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, Iran and the Caucasus all seem to have taken up using wool, as well as using linen, in their weaving, and may have done so early, as sheep domestication may have occurred as early as the 7th Millennium BC. Both these fibers spread northwest throughout Europe, along with the warp-weighted loom.
Elizabeth Wayland Barber, in her book Prehistoric Textiles (1991, see pp. 249-253, particularly), ultimately divides the area of Europe, Western Asia and the Middle East/North Africa into four different zones, as far as the development of weaving and textiles is concerned. Her zones, and their criteria are:
(Central and Eastern Europe) Warp-Weighted Loom
Bast and Wool Supplemental-Weft floats
(Egypt and the Nile)
Bast and very little Wool Supplemental-Weft inlay
(Western Asia & Ural Mountains) Felt
Wool and a little Bast Stitchery
(Mesopotamia and the Middle East) Ground Loom
Bast and Wool fibers
Faced weaves, including T apestry
Surprisingly little has been written about loom weights, beyond their identification and locations where they have been found, until recent years. Only within the past decade or two has any analysis been done as to what loom weights can tell us about the cloth being woven on the looms they were associated with — the fineness of the threads being used, the density of warp that is possible, etc. Just as the weight of a spindle whorl controls the fineness of the thread that can be spun on a spindle, so too the weight and shape of a loom weight can control how many threads can be attached to it, and what quality of fabric could have been produced, given a specific quality of thread. Loom weights (and spindle whorls) are finally being looked at as a source of information in their own right, not just as an artifact of domestic life in an area. We should see exciting information from here, soon.
Some Suggested Readings
Barber, E. J. W. Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, with Special Reference to the Aegean. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991. Filled with many sections on warp-weighted looms and weaving, intermingled with other fascinating topics. For being a research monograph, it reads very easily, and Barber explains her theories well.
Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years — Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1994. A more popular, rather than strictly scholarly, book, but better expected. The warp-weighted loom mentions are scattered throughout the book, and it often takes a thorough browse of the indexed area to locate the full context of the discussion.
Broudy, Eric. The Book of Looms: A History of the Handloom from Ancient Times to the Present. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1979. Chapter 2 covers the warp-weighted loom, and is broken into Operation, the Greek loom, the Scandinavian loom, and the Chilkat loom. Overall, a good overview, aimed at the interested newcomer.
Geijer, Agnes. A History of Textile Art: A Selective Account. London: Pasold Research Fund in Association with Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1979. This is a very nice overview of the topic. The section on the warp-weighted loom itself is fairly small, but there are discussions of the loom and its weaving throughout the book.
Hoffmann, Marta. The Warp-Weighted Loom: Studies in the History and Technology of an Ancient Implement. Trans. Harold B. Burnham and Elizabeth Seeberg. Oslo, Norway: The Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities, (1964) 1974. The starting point for any study on the wwloom, though there are places where Hoffmann gets it wrong — for example, she does not see how a wwloom can weave a 2/1 twill, something later researchers figured out quite easily later, esp. when a 2/1 twill woven piece was found.
Mårtensson, Linda, et al. Technical Report Experimental Archaeology Part 3 Loom Weights. Copenhagen: The Danish National Research Foundation’s Centre for Textile Research (CTR) University of Copenhagen, 2007. http://ctr.hum.ku.dk/tools/Technical_report_3__experimental_archaeology.PDF One of the new research projects that are taking a closer look at loom weights and the information that can be gleaned from them. Interesting!
Additional Articles of Interest:
A Warped Version: Manipulating Roman Looms for Metaphorical Effect – Potamius of Lisbon’s Epistula de Substantia 5‑9
(2018) A Warped Version: Manipulating Roman Looms for Metaphorical Effect – Potamius of Lisbon’s Epistula de Substantia 5‑9, Humanitas 71(1), p. 51-70, doi:https://doi.org/10.14195/2183-1718_71_3
Aspects of Gender and Craft Production in Early Anglo-Saxon England, with Particular Reference to the Kingdom of Kent
(2002) Aspects of Gender and Craft Production in Early Anglo-Saxon England, with Particular Reference to the Kingdom of Kent, p. 399 + 144 pp., url
Looms for Linen
(1994) Looms for Linen, Laborativ Arkeologi 7, p. 75-77
Pattern and Loom
(2009) Pattern and Loom Second edi, p. 400, pdf
The Horizontal Loom at Novgorod
(1968) The Horizontal Loom at Novgorod, Medieval Archaeology 12, p. 146-147
When did weaving become a male profession?
Loom Weights & Warp Weighted Looms
Feel free to contact me, if you have any questions!