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  • Emelie Weber

The Weaving Process

Hello! My name is Emelie. I'm a weaver in Kentucky specializing in wearable art made with natural materials. Weaving on a floor loom is a long process with a deep and winding history in the bluegrass state. I'm proud to have the opportunity to carry on this incredible tradition of using a loom to produce beautiful fabric to be enjoyed for many years. Setting up the loom to weave requires a lot of time and knowledge about loom mechanics and woven structure. It typically takes 6-10 hours of loom set up before I can start the fun part of throwing the shuttle and actually weaving fabric. There are ten essential steps to weaving fabric on a floor loom.

Step one: Materials

I only use natural materials in my handwoven goods. My favorite fibers are Tencel, hemp, organic cotton, linen, alpaca and handspun wools. I never use synthetic fibers, like polyester or nylon. Our products are made to last, but they're also biodegradable!

I choose my colors based on what I think will create a striking color pattern in the woven fabric. I tend to use a lot of earthy oranges and cool blues because I look to nature for inspiration.

Step two: Pattern Design

After I've chosen the fibers and colors I plan to weave with, I start designing a pattern and planning set up. It's important to go into the loom set up with a solid plan of action. The pattern shows which shafts need to be threaded, how the treadles are tied to the shafts and the order the treadles should be pressed to achieve a specific weaving structure.

I like to sketch out a general idea on paper, then plot out the pattern using an app on my phone. I often use a combination of traditional twill structures in my handwoven goods. At this point, I also decide the number of threads per inch and the width of the warp. I typically weave at 15 threads per inch and the width varies depending on what I plan to make with the finished fabric. I typically wind a warp 15-30" wide, but my loom can weave fabric up to 36" wide.

Step three: Winding the warp

I use a warping reel to measure out several yards of threads from cones. I tie the end of a thread to a peg, wind it over and under two more pegs, and rotate the reel while keep tension on the thread. The reel is rotated until I reach a peg on the top of the reel, and I wind in a downward motion. A consistent tension helps reduce loom waste, which we'll talk about later.

The over and under action on the pegs is a very important step. It's called the cross and it keeps my threads in order so they don't tangle winding on the loom.

This part of the process typically takes an hour or two, depending on the number of color changes and how wide the warp is. The reel can comfortably wind 10 yards of warp and can get moving pretty quickly.

After I've wound the number of threads I need to reach a certain width, the warp has to come off the reel. I tie a series of knots to secure my cross and keep the threads tight at one yard intervals. I pull the warp off the top of the reel, and as I wind the reel the opposite way, I grab the warp with the same hand and pull it through the loop. It's called a chain and it's just like giant crochet. It helps keep the threads neat and orderly. I nicely chained warp is shorter and much easier to work with than an unchained warp.

Step four: Sleying the reed

Looms can be dressed front to back or back to front. I dress my loom from front to back. I personally find it easier and faster to use this method with the type of loom I weave on. I start dressing the loom by sleying the reed on the beater bar. The reed helps keep my threads an even distance apart. I typically weave at 15 ends per inch, so my reed has 15 slots in every inch. I suspend my beaters bar with a few scraps threads so it doesn't move around on me too much while I'm sleying the reed.

I use two lease sticks to secure the cross I made while I was winding the warp. The sticks are also suspended and tied to the loom, which makes it easier to grab the threads in the order they were wound.This is part of why the warp threads don't really get tangled. I find the middle of my threads and pull each individual thread through a slot on the reed with a special tool. This part of the process takes 1-2 hours.

Step five: Threading the heddles

After the reed is sleyed, I have to thread each heddle. The heddles are attached to harnesses. The harnesses are what raise and lower when I press my feet on the treadles. Sound good?

I have eight harnesses on my loom. The more harnesses you have, the more complex patterns you can set up. On my loom, if I want to thread for a straight twill structure, I pull the first thread through the heddle on harness one, the second through harness two, the third through harness three, all the way up to eight and repeat.

Each thread has to be going through a heddle in order to be raised. This part of the process is very tedious and requires a lot of focus and patience. The threading pattern has to be 100% correct to capture the full beauty of the woven design. Threading errors stand out and can cause structural issues within the fabric itself. I double check my threading every inch so I don't lose time rethreading errors.

Step six: Winding on

After the heddles are threaded, I tie the threads in groups and attach them to the back beam. I hold onto my warp with one hand to give it tension and use my other hand to wind the back beam, all while pressing on a break when I want the beam to roll. I know, it sounds crazy, and it kind of is. I can only describe it as weaving yoga. If I'm lucky I can rope someone else into winding the back beam while I hold onto the warp. Even tension is important in this step. I hold the yarns as consistently as possible and wind a layer of paper in each rotation of the back beam to keep the layers of warp threads separate. This helps prevent threads from overlapping and stretching out or breaking. Uneven tension in the warp can cause fabric that is loose in some areas, and tight in others. It also makes it more likely for threads to snap, which take time to mend.

Step 7: Final prep

It's almost time to weave! Almost! After the warp is winded on the loom, the threads are tied in groups to a bar attached to the cloth beam. I begin weaving with scrap material to bring the threads together.

At this time, I also tie my treadles to the harnesses and make sure my pattern is correct. I weave an inch or two with a contrasting color, then carefully look to make sure no threads are out of place. It's easier and less time consuming to fix threading errors before the actual weaving begins. After putting in 6-10 hours of work, it's important to me that the pattern reads the way I intended it to. Errors like crossed threads can also cause tension issues and broken threads.

Step 8: Weave!

After many long hours of set up, we're ready to weave! This part of the process is truly enjoyable and can be a very meditative art form. I use my feet to press on the treadles, which raise the harnesses. A group of threads is raised, and I throw a boat shuttle through the opening in the threads. I bring the beater bar to the fell line to beat the yarn into the fabric. While my beater bar is touching the fabric, I press on the next treadle in my pattern sequence and a new set of threads is raised. This helps lock the thread into the woven fabric. I repeat this process in a sequential order thousands of times, until there is no warp left to weave.

How long the actual weaving takes depends on the length of the warp, the number of color changes and how complicated the pattern is. The thickness of the yarn also makes a big difference. Chunky, thick yarn weaves up much faster than a very delicate silk thread.

Operating a loom is a lot like riding a bike. There are a lot of moving parts and it takes a bit of learned coordination to keep it weaving smoothly and efficiently. It can take a while to get used to it, but once you have the mechanics down it becomes muscle memory. Once I get into a rhythm on my loom, it can get moving pretty quickly. I weave an average of 30" an hour. I can go faster, but mindfulness is an important aspect of my process and pushing through too quickly can lead to broken threads and treadling errors. I do my best to avoid these types of errors, because it takes much longer to fix them than it would to just weave at a reasonable pace.