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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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