Looms! Looms! Looms!

Loom: A device/set-up that holds threads (a warp) under tension, allowing other threads (a weft) to be woven through the tensioned thread. This results in a web. [“Textiles: A Classification of Techniques” by Annemarie Seiler-Baldinger]

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 group derives from the band loom, and are completely different solutions to the same problem: weaving a narrow band of cloth using a loom structure than is possible with a band loom.

Other types of Looms that can also produce a Band:

Stretcher loom

Box loom

Oseberg loom

Inkle loom

Tablet weaving cards

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, tying beams to the pegs and winding a warp between the two beams. A heddle rod may be used to control the weaving shed of the warp. No physical evidence of the looms from antiquity exists, except in depictions of weavers on other artifacts. These looms seem to have developed in the Late Neolithic, in the area of Mesopotamia and Syria. They are still used in present day by nomads, due to their portability. Sheds are made by a shed stick inserted through the shed, with lease sticks producing the countershed.

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. The last known native users were in Scandinavia, where their use is of great interest to tourists. They are now the subject of study by experimental archaeologists, with a number of experiments being done on them.

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.

Warped in figure-eight around warp beams

Warped in a continuous loop around beams

Warp wrapped around upper beam, cloth wrapped around lower beam.

Navajo loom

Tapestry loom
Frame loom (potholder loom)

Horizontal loom: It seems that turning the vertical loom on its side provided many more advantages than just allowing the weaver to sit down while weaving. It also opened up a wide array of ways for the weaver to manipulate the warp, and through that to create a wide array of different weaving patterns and designs. It allowed the addition of various attachments to the loom to aid in manipulating the warp threads in ways that created different patterns of threads being lifted at any one time: harnesses that hold heddles, which in turn each hold an individual thread; foot treadles or hand levers, to more easily control the movement up and down of the harnesses, so that the hands can more easily throw the shuttle carrying the weft thread through the warp to make the web which ultimately (when finished) produces the cloth or fabric (or ribbon or band). In the extreme form, cords control individual heddles, and an assistant lifts groups of previously-united cords to produce elaborate patterns of interlacements.

Pit loom

Multi-harness treadle loom

Jacquard loom

Rigid heddle loom

A Short Bibliography

Textiles: A Classification of Techniques by Annemarie Seiler-Baldinger, 1994; Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press – concise descriptions and very clear line drawings of all different types of looms, arranged in classified order, simple to complex. Classified references: pp. 156-172; Bibliography: pp. 173-236; Index (separated by language): 237-256.

The Book of Looms: A History of the Handloom from Ancient Times to the Present by Eric Broudy, 1979; Hanover, NH: University Press of New England – many people’s “go-to” book for loom history for a long time; extensive discussion of looms of all types through history. Good diagrams and photographs of many different looms.

Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, with Special Reference to the Aegean by E.J.W. Barber, 1991; Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press – Loom history is covered very thoroughly in chapters 3 and 11; Elizabeth Barber’s ability to pull everything together is what started me looking at the history of the spread of different types of looms. Strictly prehistoric up through ancient Greece, but this is the foundations of textiles and weaving that medieval practices are built on.

The Techniques of Rug Weaving by Peter Collingwood, 1968; New York: Watson-Guptill Publications – Collingwood starts his discussion of equipment for rug weaving (on page 41! – before that, everything is table of contents, plates and text figures) with a nice, concise description of basic loom types, starting with the ground loom, and including nice diagrams. A wonderful source when all you want is a simple explanation.

L’Encyclopédie Diderot & d’Alembert: Art de la Soie, 2002 – large, clear images of all types and parts of different weaving equipment.

Loom History

A Warped Version: Manipulating Roman Looms for Metaphorical Effect – Potamius of Lisbon’s Epistula de Substantia 5‑9

Magdalena Ohrman (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

Susan Kay Harrington (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

Gertrud Grenander Nyberg (1994) Looms for Linen, Laborativ Arkeologi 7, p. 75-77

Pattern and Loom

John Becker, Donald Wagner (2009) Pattern and Loom Second edi, p. 400, pdf

The Horizontal Loom at Novgorod

M. W. Thompson (1968) The Horizontal Loom at Novgorod, Medieval Archaeology 12, p. 146-147

When did weaving become a male profession?

Ingvild Øye (2016) When did weaving become a male profession?, Danish Journal of Archaeology 5(1-2), p. 34-51, Routledge, url, doi:10.1080/21662282.2016.1245970

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