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Simplify to Complexify (Weaving, Part One)

I have a tendency to over-design things on occasion. Many makers have, I think, experienced this—the impulse to be inventive at the expense of simplicity and ease of use. This is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way several times in the past year as I built and tinkered with a table loom intended to expand our weaving offerings in MAKESHOP.

Weaving starts out simply enough. You take string or yarn, arrange it in parallel lines, pass another flexible material across it, alternating over and under, and boom: weaving. The principle of weaving itself is easy to understand. However, the technique and loom used can get truly complicated depending on your goal.

It’s worth giving a brief description of the basic ingredients of a weaving as a preface. The weaving itself consists of the warp, or the parallel, vertical strings I mentioned earlier, and the weft, or horizontal string, which is typically held in a shuttle. The shuttle passes through an opening called the shed, which can be created by lifting strings either by hand or by using heddles (usually made of string or wire). On mechanical looms the warp strings are also often separated by a reed which keeps them evenly spaced. The reed can also double as a beater, used to drive the weft snugly into place.

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Loom 1.0 harness and reed design sketch.

Loom 1.0 would give me, I hoped, a way to create two different sheds, changing which strings are lifted or lowered at a given time. My mechanism seemed to function well and was satisfying to use—what it didn’t do was hold tension or create wide enough sheds for effective weaving and beating. Discouraged, I set about drafting plans for Loom 2.0, which, I hoped, would not only be more effective but would also allow for the same complex patterns possible on our floor loom in MAKESHOP.

Loom 2.0 without attached heddles.

Loom 2.0 without attached heddles.

On the positive side, my cloth roll and warp roll worked nicely and my apron beams kept the warp stretched flat across the frame of the loom. I actually left my warp strings intact while I set about cutting the harness mechanisms for Loom 2.0. I designed this new setup to sit in the same channels I had cut for the first version.

However, the new harnesses didn’t lift the string high enough and shifted while I wove, creating an uneven shed. The string heddles I tied got tangled. The weaving (pictured) ended up too loose. That was that for Loom 2.0. I put all of the pieces back in our office and left them alone for a week, feeling discouraged.

One of my previous posts was about the importance of sharing resources, and this proved prescient—the idea that finally helped me break through was far simpler than my first two schemes and came from former Teaching Artist Henry. He drew my attention to the ancient technique of tablet weaving.

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Loom 3.0 with tablets.

Tablet weaving uses cards with holes punched in them. Each card has four holes, one in each corner, with a string passed through it. Rotating the cards changes which strings are lifted and lowered, and creates a nice wide shed. Turning them in different configurations creates different patterns on the cloth. The style is warp-faced, meaning you see little of the weft, and positioning the cards differently, as well as winding a warp containing multiple colors, gives you a number of variables not possible on a floor loom. Another benefit: I was able to dress my loom in around an hour and weave a complete strap over the course of a busy workday.

One of our principles of practice in MAKESHOP is Simplify to Complexify, which, in a nutshell, urges starting with the fundamentals in order to scale up (think pouring a foundation before building a house). What I ended up doing was perhaps more akin to Complexify to Simplify to Complexify, but the principle held—paring back my ambitions made me more receptive to feedback and helped me work up to a satisfying outcome.

With the help of the teaching artist team, I’ve woven a total of five straps on my table loom and am working on a sixth. I’m currently working on scaling this form of weaving down for younger visitors. Stay tuned for more!

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(Editor’s Note: Colin has been working in MAKESHOP for just over a year, and began with no knowledge about looms. Everything he’s learned, he’s discovered by reading, watching videos, sharing ideas, and trying new things. For a bit more in-depth explanation of weaving and some history, check out this website and try searching for some of the bolded terms listed in this post!)

  1. Aparna Reply

    Awesome, it feels great when you create something like this using your own hands.

  2. Pingback: MAKESHOP » Seek & Share Resources (Weaving, Part Two)

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