by Amy King
Set your needles aside for a moment and take a look at another way to create with fiber. This new series will introduce you to the basics of weaving and a world of projects from quick-to-make scarves and dishtowels to more labor-intensive wraps and blankets.
Like any any artistic endeavor, weaving requires the right tools, and the tool that's most essential to woven fabrics is a loom. This installment will introduce you to one of the best, easiest, smallest ways to begin your weaving adventures: the rigid heddle loom.
These looms are about as simple as they come, save for maybe the potholder looms of your childhood. The mechanics of it are quite easy and with practice you can have the loom warped and ready to weave within 45 minutes. Pair that with a simple project like a scarf and you can have a new item ready to go in a single afternoon.
So what exactly is a rigid heddle loom? Essentially it’s a frame loom in which the heddle is made from molded plastic pieces with slots and holes that are fixed between wooden supports. Yarn gets threaded through the slots and holes: The yarn in the slots is free to move while the yarn in the holes stays put. Lifting the the rigid heddle lifts the yarns threaded in the holes above the yarns threaded in the slot. Lower the rigid heddle and those same yarns in the holes are pushed below those in the slots.
Part of what makes using rigid heddle looms so easy is that they are dressed (that’s the weaving term for set up) using a technique called direct warping. This is a method of tying on your yarn to the back beam rod, pulling it through the heddle/reed, and looping it over a warping peg. Most looms come with a diagram illustrating how to make this happen. It's a matter of simply placing your loom on a table and your peg on another, clamping them down and trotting back and forth between the two to dress your loom with the yarn that you want.
Dressing the loom is a simple as trotting the yarn back and forth between the peg and the back beam.
Sizing it Up
Rigid heddle looms come in many sizes and one of the hardest decisions to make when starting out is figuring out which one will best suit your needs. Here are few questions to ask yourself to figure that out.
- What will you be weaving? The size of the projects you plan to make is a good guideline to use to choose the width of your loom. Many newbie weavers think, “I’lls buy the widest loom possible so I'll have a loom available for all eventualities,” but this is not the best route to take. If you plan to only make eight-inch wide scarves and purchase aa loom that is 30 inches wide, you”ll be left with 11 inches of empty space on both sides of your project. That's a wide piece of heddle left on each side that you will have to try to bring down evenly when you weave and can be a little ungainly for those new to weaving. If you plan to weave a variety of projects then the 30-inch wide model is a good choice but if your mainstay will be scarves and dishcloths, start with loom that’s 10 to 15 inches wide—it will be much easier to control. If you plan to make the occasional larger piece you can always stitch panels of cloth together. I have made myself a skirt using cloth made on my 15-inch width loom.
- Where do you want to weave? On your lap? On a table? On a dedicated stand? Smaller looms like the 10-inch Cricket from Schacht and the Sample It looms from Ashford are small enough that you can weave on your lap. Once you get into the 15- to 20-inch sizes, a table is required. Any larger than that and you’ll need a dedicated stand for the loom.
- Do you want to travel with your loom? And how do you travel? Ten- and 15-inch looms will easily fit into a suitcase. Some larger looms will fold making them portable. Others are too large to move around easily.
Once you’ve settled on a loom size, you'll need to figure out the reed size to use with it (the reed is the comb-like apparatus that pushes the yarn in place as it’s woven).Think of it like gauge. When you pick up a worsted weight yarn, you need a certain needle size to create a certain type of fabric. Choosing a reed is the same sort of thing. Weavers denote the size they'll weave at by “dent.” Much like needle size dent denotes the “gauge” at which you will be weaving. Ten dent means that there are ten spaces for the yarn to go through in a one-inch space. Below is a guide to different dents and their corresponding yarn types. I generally use the 10 dent most.
5 dent = Aran or bulky weight
7.5/8 dent = Worsted weight
10 dent = Sport weight
12 dent = Fingering to light-fingering weight
You can figure out which dent to use and how to balance your weave by wrapping your yarn around a ruler up to the one-inch mark and counting the number of wraps of yarn this required.
Determine dent size by wrapping the yarn around a ruler.
The example above shows that I wrapped yarn around the ruler 18 times to fill up one inch of space. Divide 18 by 2 and you arrive at 9. To create a balanced weave I'll need to choose the reed/heddle that is closest to that number. So to create a balanced weave with my fictitious yarn, I'd choose a 10-dent reed. Much like knitting though, you can use a smaller or a larger reed to change the fabric. If I wanted an open, airy fabric, I might choose a 5-dent reed, or if I wanted tough fabric for a rug, maybe a 12-dent. All of this may seem a bit confusing in the start but it's good to know that just like in knitting, you can play with your yarn and make whatever you want.
So should you invest in more than one reed? Maybe. I usually advise new weavers to pick out a few yarns to use and start with the reed that works best with them. You can add sizes as you add more yarns to your weaving wish list.
As with knitting there a a few “extras” you can purchase to supplement your loom, but you really don’t need them when starting out. Most new looms come equipped with two stick shuttles and that's usually enough for beginning weavers. I find that I rarely do I need more than two stick shuttles for a project. Again think of it like knitting.If you never knit cables, you’ll never need a cable needle. Likewise, if you never do any fancy weaving with pick-ups, you'll never need a pick-up stick. My advice is to get the basics now and buy the extras as you need them.
In the next issue we’ll start delving into projects with the help of some handy calculations.
Amy King is the owner of Spunky Eclectic, a fiber studio that is both a brick-and-mortar and online store.