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Book Review: The Warp-Weighted Loom

book-coverThe Warp-Weighted Loom, by Hildur Hákonardóttir, Elizabeth Johnston, Marta Kløve Juuhl, Edited by Randi Andersen and Atle Ove Martinussen

(This book can be purchased through the bookstore of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.)

By Wendy Sundquist

I love books that turn out to be more than what you originally expected them to be.  The Warp-Weighted Loom is one of those books.  Over the years I have seen exquisitely fine fabric that Elizabeth Johnston has woven on the standing loom at Old Scatness in Shetland.  I was able to handle the vararfeldur that Marta Kløve Juulh had in her possession on the Vesterheim Textile Tour in 2011.  It was remarkably soft and lightweight, fitting into a cloth shopping bag.  After these experiences, I was really looking forward to this new book.

This interdisciplinary book is a product of the main three authors’ research and weaving in collaboration with the Osterøy Museum and The Museum Center in Hordaland and others. It serves in part as a way to transfer and preserve the skills and knowledge within this traditional craft, which are truly our intangible cultural heritage.

book-spineThe Warp-Weighted Loom is bound in a manner that is reminiscent of a bound book from the Middle Ages, with thick cardboard covers and no spine.  The section-sewn binding makes this book incredibly accessible for reading and as a tool for instruction at the loom.

The book is written primarily in English and is divided into 3 sections.  Part 1 is an introduction to the 1000 year history of the warp-weighted loom told by Hákonardóttir, Johnston and Kløve Juuhl from their individual country’s perspectives of Iceland, Shetland and Norway.  Part 2 is a practical handbook that includes how to make, operate and weave on a standing loom.  This section includes detailed photos, and step-by-step instructions that are written in English, Icelandic and Norwegian.  It also covers some of the textiles traditionally produced on these looms, how to reproduce them, and an overview of spinning.  Part 3 is dedicated to research on a broad range of topics by several different authors.  Topics include The Loom in the Grave, Icelandic Textiles, Finishing Cloth in the Sea, Taatit Rugs, Weaving in the Dark, Safeguarding an Intangible Cultural Heritage and more.

The Warp-Weighted Loom is a remarkable book on so many levels.  It undertakes the preservation of women’s history as it relates to weaving and wadmal production within the North Atlantic cultural heritage.  But more importantly, it recognizes and addresses that the “knowledge of old crafts will be lost, if not maintained; the only way to do so is to conserve them, promote them and teach them.” (Sigridur Sigurdardottir p. 267)

This book is a must have for any serious weaver or student of Nordic textiles.  It is a joy!

Wendy Sundquist is a knitter, spinner, natural dyer, and weaver with a life-long passion for Scandinavian textiles.  She currently shepherds a geriatric flock of Shetland sheep on Whidbey Island in Washington state.

Diamond Twill Woven on a Warp-weighted Loom

Editor’s note:   Marta Kløve Juuhl wrote this article for the Østeroy museum blog, and for readers of the Norwegian Textile Letter,  after receiving many inquiries about their investigation of diamond twill weave on the warp-weighted loom.  If you would rather read the original Norwegian text, it is found here.  The English translation below is thanks to Edi Thorstonsson.

After having given many classes in weaving on the vertical loom, including at Østerøy Museum, where I work, and at Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum, in Decorah, Iowa, I had Elizabeth Johnston from the Shetland Islands and Hildur Håkonardottir from Iceland as students in a class at Østerøy Museum in the summer of 2010. After the course, we discovered that we had so much in common that we wanted to continue our work together. We hope that our combined efforts will result in a published book. Others have become aware of our work, and we have received some inquiries about weaving particular textiles using this technique.

Up to the present, what has been the most exciting—and demanding—for us has been to weave fabric in broken lozenge twill, also known as diamond twill.

A few years ago, objects including a tunic were found at the edge of a glacier, Lendbreen, in Lomsfjella (Gudbrandsdalen). This tunic was in amazingly good condition. It was eventually conserved by the Kulturhistorisk Museum (Museum of Cultural History) in Oslo and described as being 1,700 years old. Information regarding the find was placed on the Internet.

Last spring (2013), the director of the Norsk Fjellmuseum i Lom (Norwegian Mountain Museum, Lom) called us at the Østerøy Museum to tell us that this tunic would be exhibited during the summer of 2013. They would like to borrow a warp-weighted loom from us, therefore, for the purpose of demonstrating the kinds of equipment used to produce cloth. Lise Bender, textile historian and specialist in the study of Iron Age textiles, had determined that the fabric had been woven on a vertical warp-weighted loom. We were pleased to lend our loom to the Fjellmuseum, which promptly came to pick it up.

Then, a couple of weeks later, the museum director called again and asked whether we might consider weaving fabric in diamond twill on the warp-weighted loom that could remain on the loom through the summer. To this we answered yes, with a bit more hesitation. I don’t believe that the people at the Mountain Museum quite knew what they were asking for…

Weaving diamond twill on a horizontal loom is a simple matter, as it is on a vertical loom as well, if one knows how.   But the first time requires a lot of thought.

  • What kind of yarn should we use?
  • How many threads per centimeter should there be?
  • How large should the “diamonds” be?
  • How heavy should the warp weights be?

We could not find the answers to such matters, because the conservation report on the tunic could not be made public before it had been published in a national professional journal. Besides, not all answers to our questions would likely be found there.

But there were good images of the tunic on the Internet, and we knew that the material was made of wool yarn. It so happened that we had arranged earlier for Elizabeth to be at the museum with us during this week in May, which was incredibly good timing.

We ordered yarn from Hoelfeldt-Lund Norsk Kunstvevgarn (Helfeldt-Lund Norwegian Fine Handweaving Yarns), single ply spelsau yarn number 4.5, gray for the warp, brown for the weft. This yarn is suited for 10 warp ends per centimeter and somewhat fewer in the weft. We then calculated that our fabric would be slightly courser than the original, without being sure. We later learned that our calculation was correct.

diamantkypert+smallUsing the photographs on the Internet, we were able to determine how many threads there were in each “diamond” or repeat. The photographs were so good, in fact, that we could count the threads. Therefore, we counted the repeat using a close-up of one of the sleeves.

We decided to wind a warp 60 centimeters wide in the reed, that is, 600 warp ends, and use a heading cord along the beam edge, as is done in weaving åkler (coverlets) in the West Norwegian tradition.   Of course, we knew nothing as to what method was used in setting up the original textile, but we knew how to carry out this method and that it would work well. Besides, since we had so little information about the original, ours could not be an exact copy.

We started out cautiously with light loom weights, 50 grams per warp end. This worked.

So far, so good. The biggest problem were the heddles. For diamond twill, one needs four sheds: 3 heddle rods and a 4th natural shed. The warp is threaded so that points appear in the woven fabric. These points result when one threads two or one warp ends in their heddles on a particular order. With the help of Marta Hoffmann’s The Warp Weighted Loom, we figured out the procedure, which we modified for “our” cloth. Elizabeth and I worked together to thread the heddles. I stood behind the loom and picked out the threads that she, who stood in front of the loom, then knitted the heddles around. We threaded the second and fourth heddle rods (counted from the top) at the same time, and lastly the first heddle rod at the top. The natural shed corresponded to rod number three and remained between rods two and four during the weaving. In order to make sure that we wouldn’t skip any threads on rods two and four, we followed a rule that we repeated aloud every time: single, double, double, double, double, double, single times 2. This was one repeat. Each repeat, therefore, had 24 threads in both the warp and weft.

marta-warp-loom-smallThis process was the most time-consuming. All else was quite easy. After three days’ worth of fairly intensive work, the loom was ready. We wove enough to see that our technique was correct.

Then, Elizabeth returned home to the Shetland Islands, and Randi Andersen, director of our museum, and I removed the fabric from the loom, with the heddle rods still in place, and drove to Lom. When the Norwegian Mountain Museum opened for the summer, our cloth was on the loom, alongside the glass case with the tunic inside. I stood weaving on the opening day, and everyone saw the similarity between our cloth and that of the tunic.

Hildur was not physically part of this process, since she was back home in Iceland. Just the same, we all agree that all three of us can take equal credit for what we succeeded in doing.

Marta Kløve Juuhl taught weaving in the Norwegian Husflidsskole system for many years.  She now works part-time at Østerøy museum, primarily with textiles, and also in her private studio. Her current commissions include bands for bunads and wall hangings for churches.

Warp-Weighted Loom Classes at Vesterheim, July 2013

By Melba Granlund

The Warp-weighted Loom

Based on finds in ancient burial sites in the Palestine city of Jericho, it has been estimated that the warp-weighted loom dates back 9,000 years – or to the seventh millennium BC.  As such, it is the oldest type of loom and, remarkably, remains in use even today.   No one has ascertained the exact location where the warp-weighted loom was first developed, but evidence of its use is widespread across Europe, Asia Minor, and Scandinavia, as far north as the Arctic Circle.

LoomSketch copy

Sketch by Kay Larson

It’s my guess that the simplicity of the loom construction, and the ease with which it can be moved from place to place, are the reasons why it has survived so long.  The warp-weighted loom consists of two vertical uprights, a horizontal warp beam, a shed rod, a heddle rod and weights.  Warp threads are held parallel under tension by being tied in small bundles to weights made from either stone, round rings of fired clay, or metal.  In Norway, soapstone was often used.  A spacing cord is used to keep the threads in order, half of which are positioned through string heddles attached to the heddle rod, enabling the weaver to create two sheds for the weaving process.  More complex patterns and weave structures such as krokbragd, rosepath, boundweave, and twill are also possible with the use of additional heddles or by finger-picking additional sheds.

Because of my love for all things old, I have long wanted to try my hand at using one of these looms.   My opportunity came this summer at Vesterheim. Vesterheim staff invited Marta Kløve Juuhl to come from Norway and teach two warp-weighted loom classes, held during the two weeks prior to the annual Nordic Fest.  The first class wove a Sami grene (blanket) using handspun wool in natural colors.  In the second class, students chose between two weaving techniques – one, a western Norwegian åkle using traditional colors of ryegarn, and the other, a rya, “the Viking way.”   As it turned out, I was able to be a student in both classes.   In the second class I chose the western Norwegian åkle.

Marta taught classes twice before at Vesterheim.   Among other projects, Marta currently teaches warp-weighted loom weaving at the Østerøy Museum in Norway.  She describes her life as that which revolves around weaving, as that is all she does.   Her dedication to, and knowledge of, weaving was obvious from the start.   Marta’s easy-going and caring nature made the experience a joy for everyone.  She could trouble-shoot any problem and anticipated when you were going to have a problem even before it happened.   If you made an error, she showed you how to correct it and did so in a nurturing manner.   She is one of those teachers you will always remember with fondness and gratitude.

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Marta Kløve Juuhl winding a header (Photo: Robbie LaFleur)

Sami Grene

Instruction in the first class began by learning about the Sami tradition of grene weaving, which is still being practiced today by women in Finnmark, the northernmost region of Norway.   Those familiar with Sami band weaving and  Sami folk dress may think that all Sami clothing is adorned with brilliant colors of red, yellow, and blue.   Not so.  We learned the Sami people are currently wearing more clothing in natural colors, and not as many multi-colored garments as in the past.  This was also true of the grene, where only natural colored wool is used.  Marta’s sample grene piece was made from luxurious Norwegian sheep wool, handspun by a Sami woman from Finnmark. The wool was not from the Norwegian Spelsau sheep, but from a Norwegian ”white” sheep, which according to Marta is now more common in Norway.   Marta arranged for us to order this same lovely handspun wool, and she brought over 70 skeins for the class.  The grene incorporates three separate qualities or weights of wool – a different weight each for the header, the warp yarn and the weft yarn – each spun in a different technique, either for strength or loft.   The yarn is truly distinctive, and is not available at any Husflid in Norway (trust me, I know, because I tried to find it).  While some class members chose to bring their own handspun, we all used wool in the natural colors of the sheep:  white, grey, or natural black. One student even brought her own loom to the grene class, homemade following a picture she had seen in a children’s book.

grenes

A variety of natural sheep colors in the student pieces (Photo: Melba Granlund)

The Sami grene begins with a header or narrow band woven in a checkerboard pattern using a small heddle.  Extensions of the weft threads from the header are used for the warp threads.  The header band with lengthy warp threads is lashed onto the top warp beam, and then the warp threads are arranged to create two sheds using a series of string heddles and a finger-crocheted spacing chain to keep them in order.

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Sami grene header (Photo: Melba Granlund)

The header is lashed to the loom (Photo: Melba Granlund)

The header is lashed to the loom (Photo: Melba Granlund)

Typical Sami pattern designs were depicted for us in the sample piece Marta had woven for the class and in the references provided in the Østerøy Museum booklet, Oppstadveven.   In addition, we viewed a Sami grene on display in the Sami collection at the Vesterheim Museum.

Vesterheim-grene

Grene owned by Vesterheim (Photo: Vesterheim staff)

Weft yarn for the grene was made up into large butterflies called “udoos.”  As you can imagine, there were a lot of jokes flying about using, and abusing, that term.  As weaving progressed, the weft threads were eased into place by grasping and pulling apart the loose warp threads below,  snapping the weft threads upward into position.

Image 5

Western Norway Åklæ

We began the åkle with a twisted cord as the header, made from four strands of the same yarn to be used in the åkle (red, blue, green, gold).   The twisted cord is lashed to the top beam of the loom.  Warp threads are then inserted through the header at so many threads per centimeter, attached to weights, arranged in string heddles, and finally connected by a spacing chain to keep them in order, similar to that done for the grene.  Weft yarns were bundled up in “udoos” the same as for the grene, and as weaving progressed, rows of weft threads were beaten into position using a weaving sword made of wood or bone.  As an alternative, you could pull apart the warp threads to snap the weft yarn into place, as we did with the grene. At the edges, we used the western Norway technique of carrying the yarn at the selvedge rather than cutting the yarn with each color change. This creates a thicker edge, different from other weaving.

Students chose their own weaving patterns. My inspiration came from an åkle in the Vesterheim collection which is depicted in Kay Larsen’s book, The Woven Coverlets of Norway.  I decided to incorporate as many krokbragd patterns as I could find depicting crosses, as well as tapestry techniques including rutevev and Vestfoldmett. As an experimental color study, two other students decided to weave the same band patterns, but using different colors.

IMG_5139

Curator Laurann Gilbertson inspired students with coverlets from the Vesterheim collection.

Five students wove ryas. One rya weaver, who brought her own loom and planned to weave fabric to use in Viking reenactments, chose to weave a twill requiring four sheds.    She explained that twill fabric has been found dating back to the late Bronze Age in Denmark.

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For use as a Viking-era shawl, Elizabeth Christianson wove a rya with a twill base. (Photo: Melba Granlund)

Lessons Learned

Much to my surprise, while I thought I would not be able to tolerate standing all day at the loom, it came easy — I found it easier than sitting at a floor loom all day long.   Another thing that became apparent to me is that I spend a lot of time trying to make a decision about which patterns to choose, as there are so many beautiful ones from which to pick.

Probably the most important thing I discovered, however, was that when using a warp-weighted loom, be sure you have enough rocks!  It became obvious about halfway through my first project that my grene was doomed to fail due to the lack of enough rocks and the inconsistency in their sizes.  There weren’t enough rocks for everyone in the class, and the stones varied in weight widely. The inconsistent/inadequate warp string bundles caused my piece to draw in severely toward the center, as there was more weight there than on the outside warp threads.  I considered repositioning the heavy rocks to the outside, but decided that that might just have caused warp thread draw-in at a different area, or cause the piece to be tweaked or stretched to one side and make it more difficult to keep an even beat and straight lines.  So I left them as they were, which was probably a mistake.   I tried to compensate by leaving 3-4 inches of extra weft thread at each selvedge in each row, which was then needled into position towards the middle, trying to force the warp threads further apart.  While that helped, it was not sufficient to solve the problem completely.  Oh, well, it’s just a practice piece, I told myself.  Next time, I will devote more attention to this part of the set up.  Thankfully, I did not have this problem in the second class as more weights were found for all the looms, including weights in the form of water bottles.  In retrospect, I probably should have done something similar for my grene.

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Even, successful distribution of rocks in the second class (Photo: Melba Granlund)

At the end of these classes, many of us had fallen in love with this type of loom, and if we didn’t already have one, we wanted one and were looking for ways to acquire one, either by outright purchase or having one built.  I’m still working on that part, as my åkle isn’t done and needs to get back on a loom to be finished.  Even if my piece were done, I know that I will definitely be doing more weaving on this “way-back machine” called a warp-weighted loom.

REFERENCES

  • By og Bygd 1983, Norsk Folkemuseums Årbok:  Paper by Elsa E. Gudjonson, “Nogle Bemærkninger om den Islandske Wægtvev, vestadur.”
  • Hansen, Egon H.  Opstadvæv Før og Nu. København, Denmark: Teamcos forlag,  (1978)
  • Hoffman, Marta.  Fra Fiber til Tøy. Oslo, Norway: Landbruksforlaget A/S, 1991.
  • Hoffman, Marta.  The Warp-Weighted Loom. Robin and Russ Handweavers, 1964.
  • Kåstad, Anna Østerbø.  Oppstadveven. Østeroy Museum, 2000.
  • Sundt, Eilert.  Om Husfliden i Norge. Oslo, Norway:  Gyldendal, 1975.

By Melba Granlund

melba.granlund (at) gmail.com