Introduction to Tablet Weaving

This class is intended as a basic introduction to tablet (or card) weaving. We will begin with a deck of already-warped tablets, with the goal of getting everyone comfortable with the act of weaving and with handling the 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 and twisted to bring specific threads to the surface, in order to create patterns. Each card, by twisting around itself, creates a multi-ply rope, with the patterns being created by either 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 can be traced back to 4000 BC in Egypt. It is best known, in medieval times, among Viking cultures, and half-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 can actually come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Tablets that have survived from period are usually much smaller than the cards we are used to, 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, the side of the cards with the printing on it is considered to be the face side of the card. The cards I have warped for you are set up with the face side facing toward your right hand. Cardboard tablets are the most common tablets around. 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 cards you need to make sure the edges of the holes you punch are as smooth as possible, as well as the tablet surfaces where the thread rubs. Ultimately, cardboard tablets are expendable objects — they will get worn, roughed up and bent. As they wear, they will begin to rub on threads, causing them to wear and break. Plan on cardboard tablets only lasting for a few projects, at most.

Thread:  Tablet weaving is a warp-dominated weaving style, which means that the warp thread controls the color, the pattern and the weight of the band being produced. I have seen bands produced from threads as fine as sewing thread, or finer. I have also seen bands produced with yarns thick enough to qualify as rope, which produced bands heavy enough to be used as saddle girths for horses. No matter what size thread you choose, look for these qualities: 1) strength — to withstand the hard beating and tight tension used in tablet weaving, 2) smooth surface — to keep threads from catching on each other or on tablet surfaces when the tablets are turned, 3) resistant to fraying — to stand up to the wear placed on them by the edges of the tablet holes, and 4) tightly plied — so that the twisting of weaving won’t unply them completely as the project is woven.

Shuttle:  A shuttle, in its simplest form, is merely 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 up against the woven warp threads. But this is not strictly necessary, and the two functions 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. Backstrap weaving could be thought of as off-loom weaving, in that 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 — all the weaver needs is a point to attach the far end of the warp, and weaving can occur anywhere. It is the lowest-cost loom available, and is a very good way to start tablet weaving with very little investment.

Backstrap weaving is, however, a challenging way to start weaving, and becoming proficient at it takes a fair bit of work. In this case, the main problem often is reestablishing an even tension on the warp, with each new set-up. Even tension on the warp is essential for a good band, so the constant shifting in tension that backstrap weaving involves makes it hard to get the best results. If you can get a good feel for the tension you need, however, it’s a very versatile form of weaving.

Weaving the Band:  Once you get past the set-up of the warp, the actual weaving can be quite fun and moves fairly quickly. We will be using backstrap weaving as the most expeditious way to get everyone weaving today. The first few turns, however, are critical for establishing the width of the band. Until the threads have sorted themselves out to their final location, the band is going to look jumbled and odd. Once you make 7 or 8 passes, however, the band will have established itself, and weaving will become much easier. By the time we finish, 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.

Untangling Threads:  The pack of tablet you are starting with has already been warped for you, saving us the time and irritation of warping the cards in class. However, in tying up the threads for transport, there is inevitably some tangling of the 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 a short way. This will do a lot toward straightening out tangled threads.

Opening a Shed:  Your tablets are 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 warp, pass the weft through it, leaving a tail for the first pass, so that the end can be secured later in the weaving. As you pass the weft, each time, plan on beating the warp threads solidly, so that the new weft you are putting in is tightly next to the body of weaving. The weaving takes place between you and the cards.

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 sort out 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 forward and four turns back toward your body. Thus 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. On the second pass, after the first turn of the tablets, pull the tail of the weft through in the opposite direction your weft thread is passing. This will secure the weft solidly into the weaving, and remove worries of the end raveling out. Beat each weft pass tightly, to keep your weaving tight. The tighter your weaving, the less pattern elongation you will have to deal with.

Miscellaneous Considerations

Keeping the Width Even:  One of the most common items beginning tablet weavers fret about is how to keep the width of the band even. There are several ways to help guarantee both the same width, as well as 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, I find it safest to put my shuttle into the shed of my weaving, then pull my tablets as close to the shuttle as possible. Then I will secure the tablets, either with a string passed through one of the holes, to stop tablets from turning, or with a rubber band, either 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 challenge is to find a way to secure the tablets so that they will not move from their original positions. Once the tablets are secured, then you can chain your warp, or otherwise wrap it up into a controlled mass, so that it can be safely transported to a new location. If possible, do all you can to minimize tangling.

Conclusion:  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.

The bible of tablet weaving, this book goes into great detail on all aspects of tablet weaving, with diagrams of thread position and movement for many different techniques. Not for the beginner, but needed by anyone who has advanced beyond the stage where this much detaill might frighten them off.

Russell E. Groff, Card Weaving, (1969), McMinnville, OR: Robin & Russ Handweavers.

Another nice introductory book on card weaving. This book is filled with lots of simple 4/4 patterns, so it’s excellent for beginning weavers looking for projects.

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. Plan on browsing for quite some time.

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