Introduction to Tablet Weaving

This page is intended as a basic introduction to tablet (or card) weaving. The class associated with it assumes that you are beginning with a deck of already-warped tablets. The goal is to get everyone comfortable with the act of weaving and with handling tablets.          

Tablet weaving is a method of weaving that produces narrow bands. Tablets with holes in the corner (usually 4 holes, but tablets with cards with 3, 5, 6, or 8 holes are not unknown) are threaded with colored threads, then combined into packs. The tablets are twisted to bring specific threads to the surface, creating patterns on the woven bands. Each card, by twisting around itself, creates a multi-ply rope, with the patterns being created by the colors of the threads as each comes to the surface, or by the shifting patterns of the twisted threads, as they are turned in different directions.

History:  Tablet weaving has been practiced for thousands of years, and has been traced back to 4000 BC in Egypt. It is best known, in medieval times, among Viking cultures, and partly-woven bands have been found in Viking burial sites. Bands have been located throughout western Europe, the Middle East and the Orient, during all periods up through the 16th century. Grave sites and well-preserved ecclesiastical garments have been particularly good places for preserving older bands.

Equipment:  Tablet weaving is one of the least expensive forms of weaving to begin with, since the only equipment absolutely required are the tablets and thread. It is useful to have a shuttle to pass the weft thread back and forth through the weaving, and a loom of some form in order to hold the warp threads at an even tension, but tablet weaving is certainly possible without them.

Tablets:  Tablets come in a variety of shapes and sizes — the ones that have survived from past periods are usually much smaller than the tablets seen today, with many being only slightly more than an inch square. Four-holed tablets are easily the most common, but tablets with three and six holes are also used occasionally. Eight-hole tablets have been found, and for some patterns, four-hole tablets are used, but not all the holes are threaded. For the sake of consistency in modern patterns, the side of the cards with the printing on it is considered to be the face side of the tablet. Cardboard tablets are common today — they are fairly inexpensive and easy to find, both in stores and online. The usual size is a 3 1/2″ square. Some people make their own tablets by taking a deck of playing cards, cutting them down and punching holes in each corner.

When making your own tablets, check that the tablet surfaces and the edges of the holes you punch are as smooth as possible. Ultimately, cardboard tablets are expendable objects — they will get worn, roughed up or bent. As they wear, they will rub on your threads, causing them to fray and break. Plan on cardboard tablets only lasting for a few projects at most.

Thread:  Tablet weaving is a warp-dominant weaving style: the warp threads control the color, the pattern and the weight of the band being produced. Bands have been produced from threads as fine, or finer, as sewing thread, and with yarns thick enough to qualify as rope, with the resulting bands being heavy enough for saddle girths. Whatever size thread is used, look for these qualities:

  • strength – to withstand the hard beating used in cardweaving
  • smoothness ‐‐ to keep threads from catching on each other or card surfaces when the cards are turned,
  • resistant to fraying ‐‐ to stand up to the wear placed on them by the edges of the card holes, and
  • tightly plied ‐‐ so that the twisting of weaving wonʹt unply them completely as the project is woven.

Shuttle:  A shuttle, in its simplest form, is a stick used to pass the weft thread through the body of the weaving. To produce nice, tight weaving, it is handy to have a shuttle with a tapered edge, to beat the weft thread tightly against the woven warp threads. This is not strictly necessary, and the two functions (passing the weft and beating the weft against the warp) can be — and often are — performed separately.

Loom:  A loom is the structure that holds the warp while it is being woven into fabric. Tablet weaving normally produces narrow bands, rarely more than a few inches across, so it is adaptable to a wide variety of looms. The simplest form of loom is a backstrap loom — the “loom” is the warp itself, a strap or rope to attach the warp to a fixed point away from the weaver, and a strap or belt to attach the warp to the weaver or to a fixed point near the weaver. Backstrap weaving is extremely portable and weaving can occur anywhere using this method. It is also a very good way to start tablet weaving with very little investment.

Backstrap weaving can be a challenging way to start weaving, though, and becoming proficient at it takes some work. The main problem beginning weavers encounter is reestablishing an even tension on the warp with each new set-up. Even tension on the warp is needed for a good band — the constant shifting in tension that backstrap weaving involves makes it challenging to get the best results. Once you can get a good feel for the tension you need, however, it’s a very versatile form of weaving. (One hint: while setting your warp up for weaving, run a string through the entire pack of tablets. This will keep the tablets from twisting out of position or — even worse — tumbling out of your pack and getting their order jumbled. You will be glad you did this — trust me!)

Weaving the Band

Once you get past the set-up of the warp, weaving can be quite fun and moves fairly quickly. The first few turns are critical for establishing the width of the band. Until the threads have sorted themselves out to their final location, the band will look jumbled and odd. Don’t panic! Once you make 7 or 8 passes, the band will have established itself, and weaving will become much easier. By the time you finish your first band, you should be able to set up your backstrap “loom” on your own.

Securing the Warp onto the Loom:  If you are able to tie the end of the warp nearest the cards onto your loom/belt/whatever, first, then stretch out the warp full length and tie on the far end, do so. You are far more likely to get the warp “upright” on the first try that way. Otherwise, tie the far end of the warp to an immobile point (doorknob, railing firmly attached to the wall, etc.), pull the warp out straight, and tie the near end to your belt or to a solid, sturdy point next to you. Don’t be at all surprised if it turns out that your far end is “upside down” — go ahead and retie it so that your cards aren’t trying to turn over on you. Try to keep your warp fairly taut, once you get it stretched out. Otherwise, you risk the tablets falling out of order and creating all sorts of chaos. (Run a string through all of the tablets in your pack, tie it and leave it there until you are ready to start weaving.)

Untangling Threads:  Once you have the warp stretched out securely, make sure that the tension on all of the threads is relatively even. To fully untangle your threads, untie the string that is holding your cards together, and run your cards up and down the warp for a short distance. This will do a lot toward straightening out tangled threads.

Opening a Shed:  For the purposes of this explanation, your tablets should be set up with the D-A side on the top edge of the pack. Between the knot holding your warp to your belt and the pack of tablets, you should see a V gap, with half of the threads going up past the D-A line, and the other half going down past the C-B line. This gap is known as the “shed”, and is the area where all of your weaving actually takes place. Make very sure you can tell which threads are supposed to be going through which half — easiest, probably, by passing your finger through the space.

Passing the Weft:  Once you have cleared the the shed in your warp, pass the weft through and leave a tail of thread for the first pass, so that the end of your weft can be secured during your second pass. On the second pass, after the first turn of the tablets, pull the tail of the weft through in the opposite direction from your weft thread. This will secure the start of the weft thread solidly in the weaving, and remove worries of the end raveling out. With each pass of your weft through the warp, plan on beating the warp threads solidly, so that the new weft thread is tight next to the body of weaving. This will produce the solid piece of woven material you want.

Turning the Tablets:  Once the weft is in place, on the first pass, turn the pack of tablets so that the C-D line is at the top of the tablets. Make sure you clear your shed, again, by running your finger through the band and checking that everything is split correctly. This particular pattern is set up to be woven with four turns away from you and four turns back toward your body. You will go from having the D-A line on top, to having the C-D line, then the B-C line, the A-B line and finally the D-A line, again. At this point, you reverse turning direction, bringing the A-B line back to the top, then the B-C, the C-D, and finally the D-A line.  With each quarter turn of the tablets, pass the weft through the open shed, and beat it down into the V formed at the woven edge of the band. Beat each weft pass tightly, to keep your weaving tight. The tighter your weaving, the less your pattern will be stretched. (The pattern you may have drawn on graph paper will inevitably be stretched out — it’s an inevitable effect of this weaving style.)

Miscellaneous Considerations

Keeping the Width Even:  One of the most common problems for beginning tablet weavers is keeping an even width to the band. There are several ways to help preserve the same width to your band as you weave, as well as keeping the band at a certain width, just as there are several ways to guarantee that your edge will be even. To get your band to be a certain width (at least within the range of the width that packet of tablets is capable of weaving), slide a piece of paper with a measured width under the weft thread on your weaving shuttle, and use those marks to check the width of the band. Alternatively, use a small ruler (like a 6″ ruler) as your shuttle, and check the width against it on a regular basis. To just keep your edges smooth, without any specific width, pass your weft with each pass, leaving a small loop of thread hanging out the far edge. Turn the cards, beat your shed open, then give a small tug to pull the last of the weft thread through. You should be able to get the thread tucked in smoothly fairly easily.

Stopping Weaving:  Once you reach a point where you want to stop weaving for a period, put the shuttle into the shed of your band and pull the tablets as close to the shuttle as possible. Then you can secure the tablets, either with a string passed through one of the holes (to stop tablets from turning) or with a rubber band around the entire pack or looped over the ends of a stick (such as a chopstick, perhaps) passed through one of the holes in the tablets. The goal is securing the tablets so that they will not move from their original positions. Once the tablets are secured, you can chain your warp, or otherwise wrap it into a controlled mass, so that it can be safely transported to a new location while minimizing tangling.

I hope this has given you a good feel for how to tablet weave. I will be happy to work with you until you feel secure in your weaving, and I am always happy to answer questions later, either via phone or by e-mail. Enjoy your weaving!

Bibliography of Books and Web Sites

Candace Crockett, Card Weaving, (1991) Loveland, CO: Interweave Press.
A very good book for beginning card weavers. Excellent illustrations, and very good descriptions of basic card weaving. Start with this book, if at all possible.

Peter Collingwood, The Techniques of Tablet Weaving, (1996) McMinnville, OR: Robin & Russ Handweavers.
This book has long been the bible of tablet weaving, going into detail on all aspects of tablet weaving types, with diagrams of thread position and movement for many different techniques. Not for the beginner, but valuable for anyone who has advanced beyond the stage where this much detail might frighten them off.

Maikki Karisto and Mervi Pasanen, (2013) Applesies and Fox Noses: Finnish Tabletwoven Bands, Salakirjat: Tallinn Raamatutrükikoda.
An excellent introductory book for tablet weaving, with plenty of progressively more challenging patterns plotted out, to keep any tablet weaver busy for quite a long time. Finnish/English.

Claudia Wollny, Tablets at Work: The Book of Basic Tablet Weaving Techniques, (2019), Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler; Claudia Wollny Edition.
At 703 pages, this is the new book for anyone looking for every detail they might need to learn about tablet weaving. Very complete and very readable, once you become used to the charting of the patterns. German/English.

Weavers Hand:
An excellent place to start browsing on the web for tablet weaving information. Many useful links here.

Phiala’s String Page:
Another great starting place for tablet weaving information. Good introductory information on many aspects of tablet weaving and several other fiber arts. Allow plenty of time for browsing.

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