Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles #5

Welcome to the fifth installment of ‘Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles’. This month Christina Petty discusses weaving 2/1 (unbalanced) twill weaves on warp-weighted looms: the evidence, the problems and her experimental archaeological approach to the weaving process.

Chris’s passion for textiles started at the age eight. Today she is primarily a weaver, spinner and dyer, but also practices many other textile crafts. She has bachelor’s degrees in History, English and Humanities from the University of Central Oklahoma (US), and a Masters of Philosophy from the University of Manchester (UK). She has woven with a warp-weighted loom since 2000 and is a leading expert with that tool. Current research interests include ‘pin beaters’, the intersection of re-enactors and artisans with academia, deciding how to organize comprehensive studies of the archaeological finds of textile tools she so desperately needed for her thesis, and working out why there is so much textile research out there for ancient Greece but not medieval Europe.

2/1 Twill Weaves and the Warp-Weighted Loom

According to the available literature, a warp-weighted loom, the primary cloth making tool for most of Europe from the Neolithic era to roughly 1100 AD, cannot be used to produce a 2/1 twill weave. Archeological evidence proves that both the loom and the fabric existed at the same time, so there must be some reasonable explanation for this seeming contradiction. This is a complicated issue with a simple solution, so I will explain the academic discussion before moving on to my solution to the problem.

Let’s start with a quick description and history of the warp-weighted loom. The loom is a simple rectangular frame that leans against a wall or other surface. The frame holds a beam to which the thread, called warp, is attached. Then the woven cloth is wound onto the beam as the work progresses. Tension is kept on the warp by tying weights to bundles of the threads. These weights are often made specially for the loom. The archaeological record shows they were often created of local clay, though smooth rocks, bags of sand, or pottery sherds were also used. The loom, usually taller than the weaver, took up little floor space in a room and when not in use, could quickly be dismantled into a pile of poles and stones for storage.

Evidence for the loom is found from Israel through to England (though not in Ireland, oddly) and from Roman-held Northern Africa to the Nordic countries. The archaeology for the loom suggests it is as ancient as the ability to make cloth. No one knows where the idea started, or how long ago, but the warp-weighed loom was used in areas where the climate doesn’t allow for outdoor weaving for the many weeks it takes to weave cloth.

As mentioned above, the loom was used until about 1100 AD, likely longer in some areas, when it was slowly supplanted by the faster technology of the floor loom, which was also the period when weaving as an occupation changed gender roles. The warp-weighted loom belonged primarily in the woman’s sphere of responsibility, while the floor loom became the man’s. As the technology evolved and the work changed hands, guilds and other organizations were created (I have a theory about this, but that’s another paper for another time).

diagram showing weaving at
the most basic level

Weaving, at the most basic level, is the intersection of two threads at ninety degrees. The simplest weave that takes the least amount of thread to make the most cloth is a plain or tabby weave. The weft thread (manipulated by the weaver) goes over and under the warp threads (those attached to the loom):

2/1 twill

In a twill, the next most common type of weave, the weft thread goes under or over several warp threads before going over (or under) one for example, in a 2/1 twill.

As you can see in the diagram, the threads go over two threads before going under one. This holds true for both directions in this example, but it does not have to. The pattern can go over two and under one in one direction, but only under one in the other direction, creating a different effect but still forming a 2/1 twill.

The threads lay closer together because they don’t have to bend around as many cross threads, but this means a twill uses more thread and therefore, more time and resources to weave. The primary advantage of a twill is the attractive pattern, though they can also be warmer than a plain weave.

Basket weave

A third type of weave pattern that will be discussed is a balanced weave. This is a pattern where the same numbers of threads are woven over and under the cross threads. A tabby and basket weave are balanced weaves.

However, the 2/1 twill is not, which is the major argument against the warp-weighted loom as the tool to weave this pattern.

To weave a tabby or other balanced weave pattern, modern weavers experimenting with the warp-weighted loom tie the weights in two sets, one on either side of a spacer bar or shed rod located at the bottom of the loom. This creates what is called a natural shed (in weaving terminology a shed is the triangular space that the weft (horizontal) thread passes through to create the cloth). A heddle rod is used to lift the vertical hanging warp past the warp threads hanging at an angle over the bar. This is much quicker to set up, taking notably fewer hours, because you don’t have to put a loop of thread around each individual warp thread and then tie them individually to the heddle bars. Using a natural shed means some of the warp threads don’t need heddle loops. Clear? This is one of those things it’s easier to show than write, I’m afraid.

Because most of the loom and its products do not survive in archaeological contexts, being made of wood, the weights are our best evidence for how weavers set up and used the loom. Unfortunately for those of us trying to figure out how it all works; loom weights are most often found singly or in small groups and not as they would have been positioned on the loom. Occasionally, archaeologists discover a building that burnt down with looms inside. When this happens, lines of weights discovered in situ allow us to extrapolate things like the width of the cloth, how much mass the loom carried, etc. Also, unfortunately, no comprehensive study of textile tools yet exists, so we have to work with the scattershot of archaeological reports we stumble across. At present Joanna Słomska, at the Institute of Archeology and Ethnology Polish Academy of Sciences, is working on a compilation of early medieval loom weights for the geographical area currently within the boundaries of Poland.

Anglo-Saxon loom weights from Suffolk. Notice two lines of weights, so likely the weaver used a natural shed, and likely this was a tabby or plain weave set up.

Modern research of the warp-weighted loom started in 1956 with a black and white film documenting Finnish weavers. It was made by Marta Hoffmann for her doctoral thesis, published in Norwegian in 1964. She observed three sets of weavers producing heavy blankets for wedding trousseaus; essentially semi-ceremonial textiles in a plain weave.

Here’s the problem. Researchers from that point onwards worked from the assumption that the two lines of weights observed by Hoffmann was the only correct way to set up and use a warp-weighted loom. Hoffmann herself mentions that the six women in question only used the loom for a single purpose, with that purpose and technique handed down for many generations. These ladies had not woven on these looms for more than a decade before being filmed. To be fair to Hoffmann and later researchers, it was the only documented method of weavers with a tradition using of the loom.

Reinforcing the idea of two lines of warp weights, museum looms studied by Hoffmann were set up in this manner by the antiquaries’ seller who had sold them to the museums without any evidence of having consulted weavers. Many, though not all, of the fewer than twenty known drawings of the looms that survive down the ages also show two lines of weights.

The reason the two lines of loom weights is a difficulty for the 2/1 twill, the original question if you recall, is all the known archaeological evidence with two lines of weights shows two lines with similar numbers of weights. To weave a 2/1 twill three sheds, or the lifting of three different sets of threads, are needed. To accomplish this, threads 1, 4, 7, 10, and so on would be tied to one heddle bar. Threads 2, 5, 8, 11 and so on would be tied to a second heddle bar, and 3, 6, 9, 12 to a third heddle bar. If the weaver uses a natural shed as demonstrated above, there would only be two heddle bars, but there would still need to be even tension on all threads, so the same number of threads would need to be tied to a different weight of similar mass. One third of the warp threads hanging in front of the shed bar require one third of the weights to keep tension, leaving two thirds of the weights behind the shed bar or vice versa.

I don’t believe I’ve seen this information about the warp weights used as an explanation for why the loom can’t produce a 2/1 twill. Everything I’ve read states a warp-weighted loom can only produce balanced weaves without going into why. I’ve also not seen two unequal lines of warp weights in published archaeological reports, which is also not expressly mentioned in the literature.

Presumably, this would unbalance the loom, making it difficult to work with. I’ve not read any research or experiments regarding this. I know my loom handles 70-75 pounds of weight, but I’ve never warped it like that, because I have another solution. Having asked other weavers who work with the loom, apparently this is not an issue. The loom is stable enough to deal with the shifting weights even when they are unevenly distributed. At some point I’m going to have to try it out, to see what happens.

I should point out that weavers working with the warp-weighted loom have woven 2/1 twills, to see if it can be done. Therefore, it is possible to weave this pattern on a warp-weighted loom but the question of whether our ancestors did might not be answerable.

Interestingly, the assumed inability of the warp weighted loom to create certain fabrics is the basis for the argument that the two-beamed loom was used during the same time-frame. The argument goes like this: the warp-weighed loom can’t make these fabrics we find in the archaeological record, therefore there must be another type of loom that makes wide fabrics, thus we have two-beamed looms.

We know two-beamed looms existed because the remnants of one was found in the 9th-century Oseberg ship burial. There are also a handful of early medieval line sketches, but little else, as the scant written sources don’t differentiate between loom types. The difficulty with the two-beamed loom as a tool for lengths of cloth is the size of the fabric is limited to the size of the loom. Also, as the cloth is woven, the warp shrinks as it bends to accommodate the weft. Depending on the weave pattern, the warp shrinks as much as 30% of the original length once the cloth is finished. There are other types of weaving that don’t have warp shrinkage, but that is a different rabbit hole for another day (tapestry, tablet-weaving and other warp-faced weaves, in case you were really curious).

Osebergfunnet: Bind IV Tekstilene (2006), pg 84

In order to work with the shortening warp threads, the loom must have ways to hold and control threads longer than the distance between the two beams. Modern floor looms have ratchet systems. No indicators of ratchets for medieval two-beamed vertical looms exist in current archaeology or art from the era. The other option is for the beams to move toward each other so the thread doesn’t snap under the increasing tension. The small loom found in the Oseberg burial shows this option was available during the period that the warp-weighted loom was in use. Holes in the uprights allow the lower beam to be shifted upwards towards the higher beam. This still limits the length of the cloth to the size of the loom, however, making it more difficult to produce the larger textiles documented in trade and tax records, not to mention clothing and sails. I should also point out that this particular loom was likely used for sprang, but it is the most complete known example of any sort of vertical loom from the early middle ages.

Back to the original question of whether a warp-weighted loom can produce a 2/1 twill.  Obviously it can, but how can we make the archaeology and the ability of a weaver match?

My solution involves hanging all the warp threads straight down from the cloth beam, avoiding a natural shed altogether, which creates a single line of weights. When a heddle bar is pulled forward to change a shed, the weights swing forward slightly, but the tension on the warp does not change. With this set up, it doesn’t matter if the weave pattern is unbalanced.

Video of Chris weaving with a single line of weights

I came up with this solution when I first started investigating and weaving on the warp-weighted loom back in 2000. The internet was still in its infancy, so there was little research available through it, especially in the area of medieval textiles. The one book on the warp-weighted loom, by Marta Hoffmann, was difficult to obtain (though I later purchased a used copy). I had to back-engineer the working of the loom from my experience with a floor loom and a few warp-weighted loom diagrams. A single line of weights made the most sense to me at the time. In many ways, a single line of weights acts like a vertical version of a floor loom. The threads stretch slightly as the shed is created, and with the swing of the weights, it actually puts less stress on the yarn.

Granted, I came at the problem backwards, but the more I learnt about the evidence for the warp-weighted loom, the more I was convinced that, while not the only solution or even the most common set up, a single line of warp weights was a reasonable answer to unbalanced weaves. Evidence does exist for a single line of weights being one way for weavers to set up their looms when the warp-weighted loom was a common tool.

The largest set of evidence comes from the smattering of art, primarily Greek art representing the story of Penelope from the Odyssey. As I’m sure you remember, Penelope used the excuse of weaving her father’s burial shroud to keep her suiters at bay for years, while she waited for Odysseus to come back from the Trojan War. Though Homer’s text never specifies that she used the warp-weighted loom, it would have been the most useful tool for the project because you can weave whatever length of fabric you choose, and a burial shroud needs quite a bit of cloth.

Chiusi, Museo Archeologico Nazionale

Images of Penelope are found on red and black figure urns from Classical Greece. Often the loom shows two lines of weights, like this one (right):

Black-figure terracotta lekythos, attributed to the Amasis
Painter, Greek, Attic, c. 550–530 BCE. New York, Metropolitan Museum,
31.11.10. Photo: Sarah Muller.

But then you find examples like this one (left), which shows the weaving of the peplos for the statue of Pallas Athena. It shows an obvious single line of warp weights:

Other images exist, including at least seven looms on the same collection of Neolythic rock art in Italy, but these are the clearest.

On the few occasions we find lines of warp weights in the archaeological record, two lines of weights are the most attested. This is probably because tabby or plain weave takes up so much less time and thread. The fabric produced is also sturdier and more flexible. Even now, with all our mechanization, plain weave comprises most of our woven textiles. Sheets, dress shirts, duvets, curtains, upholstery, printed fabrics, quilts, are all this pattern. Even carpets and towels are modified plain weave. I have not seen Gale Owen-Crocker and Elizabeth Coatsworth’s study of Anglo-Saxon textile fragments, but I would not be surprised to learn plain or tabby weaves comprise a large percentage of the collection.

Single lines of loom weights do exist, though. This diagram of Sunken Featured Building 15 from West Stow Anglo-Saxon village shows at least three: one in the lower right, one in the upper left, and one in the center left.

From Penelope Walton Rogers

Once again, there is no help in literary sources. The best source we have for warp-weighted weaving from the early Middle Ages is the poem Darraðarljóð, found in Njal’s Saga. In this poem ‘wyrd women’ weave the outcome of the Battle of Clontarf, fought in 1014 in Ireland. The description is fantastical, using skulls as weights, spears as beaters, and guts as warp thread.

While some of the descriptions are surprisingly apt – the crash of the weights while weaving is fairly noisy, though not quite as loud as a battle – there is no description of the set-up of the loom or the weave pattern. Although, I rather suspect neither is particularly concerning when magically weaving the fates of men.

I’ll close with some pictures of my loom, currently set up for a 3/1 twill, which would still be an unbalanced weave. Of course, it has the single line of weights. I’ve included several angles of those. All the yarns are hand spun, of course, and naturally dyed with coreopsis, a flower native to the American Great Plains. I did the dyeing as well, from gathering the flowers to the end product.  

I would like to thank Chris for her post, which shows not only the importance of scholarly research but also, that of experimental work, in giving us greater insights into the myriad of technical possibilities for producing textiles. Next month Michèle Hayeur Smith discusses her new book, The Valkyries’s Loom: The Archaeology of Cloth Production and Female Power in the North Atlantic.

Contact: If you would like to contact Chris about her work, please use one of the links below:

Email: cpetty_us@yahoo.com

Twitter: @VerdandiWeaver

Facebook: Christina Petty (the one with the warp-weighted loom in the background)

Discord: DaWife#0051

Bibliography / Further Reading:

Christensen, Arne Emil, and Margareta Nockert, Osebergfunnet IV, Tekstilene (Oslo: Kulturhistorisk Museum, 2006)

FitzGerald, Maria Amelia, ‘Textile Production in Prehistoric and Early Medieval Ireland’, 5 vols., (unpublished doctoral thesis, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2000)

Hoffmann, Marta, The Warp-Weighted Loom: Studies in the History and Technology of an Ancient Implement (Oslo: Robin and Russ Handweavers, 1974)

Clegg Hyer, Maren, and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, ‘Woven works: making and using textiles’, in Maren Clegg Hyer and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, editor(s). The Material Culture of Daily Living in Anglo-Saxon England. Exeter: University of Exeter Press; p. 157-184.

Leahy, Kevin Anglo-Saxon Crafts (Cheltenham: The History Press Ltd, 2003).

Petty, Christina, Warp Weighted Looms: Then and Now; Anglo-Saxon and Viking Archaeological Evidence and Modern Practitioners (unpublished thesis, University of Manchester, 2014)

Walton Rogers, Penelope, ‘The re-appearance of an old Roman loom in medieval England’, in P Walton Rogers, L Bender Jørgensen and A Rast-Eicher, The Roman Textile Industry and its Influence: a Birthday Tribute to John Peter Wild (Oxford: Oxbow, 2001), pp. 158-171.

Wild, John Peter, Textile Manufacture in the Northern Roman Provinces (Cambridge: University Press, 1970)

Useful resources:

Marta Hoffmann’s 1956 film of the process of warp-weighted weaving: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a19lGJGOZWY&list=WL&index=3&t=0s

(there are other similar videos on the Norsk Folkemuseum’s YouTube site)

It Depends: The Artisan Dilemma:

https://exarc.net/issue-2019-4/at/working-artisans-it-depends-dilemma

Link to Chris’ thesis:

https://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/uk-ac-man-scw:229035

Chris’ Publications:

“Working with Artisans; the ‘It Depends’ Dilemna,”EXARC Online Journal, 2019/4

“Ribble Estuary Textiles”, “Viking: Rediscover the Legend” traveling exhibition, a combined museum display put o the the British Museum, York Archaeological Trust and , and North West Heritage, Spring 2018.

“(Re)Defining Spinster”, Ply Magazine, Fall 2017

“The Warp Weighted Loom: Neolithic Through Early Medieval Weaving Technology Revisited.” The Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers 249, 2014

“Top or Bottom Whorl?” Ply Magazine, Spring 2015

“Re-enactment and Clothing Reconstruction.” Encyclopedia of Dress and Textiles in the British Isles c. 450-1450, Koninklijke Brill NV, 2012

Book review: Aspects of Gender Identity and Craft Production in the European Migration Period: Iron Weaving Beaters and Associated Textile Making Tools from England, Norway and Alamannia by Sue Harrington in Medieval Clothing and Textiles 7 (2011)

“Broken Threads – The Choctaw Spinner’s Association 1937-1943”, Chronicles of Oklahoma, 86:4 (2009)

3 thoughts on “Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles #5

Add yours

  1. That’s a very clear explanation, thanks! And I totally agree that single rows of weights (no natural shed) must have been common if not the most common. Am I right in thinking then that Egyptian horizontal looms had no natural shed?

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