Tapestry versus rigid heddle versus jack looms
Today I was supposed to take all the photographs and write some copy for an upcoming webinar. But, mother nature had a different plan. The sky is a whitish grey filled with rain and absent of any good natural light. I only like to take photos in natural light, which under normal conditions my studio has a plethora of. Not today.
Elena suggested I write a blog post about various kinds of looms versus tapestry looms. Actually, she wanted me to compare dedicated tapestry looms to rigid heddle looms, but I want to go just a tad further and also address jack looms and counter balance looms.
In my Craftsy class I tell people they can use a rigid heddle loom for all the projects (which include affinity bracelets, no warp end bracelets and the tapestry/bead cuff) with reservations and exceptions. Craftsy also sponsors classes in rigid heddle loom weaving and I wanted people who already own this loom and are not ready to invest in a Mirrix Loom to be able to use what they have and get a feel for tapestry. I also showed them how to make a simple frame loom. A simple frame loom does not provide any tension. It’s great for an absolute starter loom but if you really want to weave tapestry, you need to buy a tapestry loom.
To the left is the “rigid” heddle that is used to raise and lower the warps on a rigid heddle loom. Half of the warp threads pass through the slots and the half pass through the holes. The warp threads that pass through the slots in the rigid heddle are under the greatest amount of tension because they are never raised or lowered. The warp threads that pass through holes in the rigid heddle are under less pressure than their neighbors because they must be raised and lowered.
Below and to the right is a full body shot of a rigid heddle loom. You can see how the warp threads that pass through the holes have been raised. The bottom layer of warp threads will always stay in that one position. In order to lower the warp threads that pass through the holes, that rigid heddle is pushed down and hooked under that the two rectangular pieces it is now sitting on top of.
Notice also the tensioning system. It’s a ratchet system. The beams both front and back are adjusted with these ratchets. Notice how they are only on one side of the loom. This is often the case. If you really ramp up the tension to its max for tapestry you will find that there will be some unevenness because the tensioning device is only on one side. But this isn’t really that much of an issue because it is so hard to get really good tension on a loom that is designed to provide decent, but not excessive, tension in order to accommodate cloth weaving.
The heddle system on a rigid heddle loom is just bad for tapestry because one set of warps is held under different tension than the other set. For tapestry, you want the tension to be even. So what did I tell the folks taking my Craftsy class who were using rigid heddle looms? I told them not to use the rigid heddle and to just use the loom as a sort of advanced frame loom.
I wove tapestry on rigid heddle looms for three years. I think I vaguely knew there were big tapestry floor looms out there but I didn’t know about any smaller tapestry looms. That was before the internet where all that information is so easy to find. Portable tapestry looms might have been available but they weren’t available through the outlets where I bought my tools and supplies. And because portable tapestry looms (that actually work) were not readily available and there wasn’t much information about them (or about tapestry period!) the weaving supply stores would push the rigid heddle looms for tapestry. Which is kind of like selling someone a dirt bike to ride on a freeway. There are better choices.
Because it was so difficult to regulate tension on a rigid heddle loom I got really good at weaving. I had to try so hard to get my selvedges to be straight. When I finally encountered my first tapestry loom . . . well, let’s just say it was pretty darn amazing.
I did a search on the internet for my first real tapestry loom. Of course, a photograph of my actual loom in my living room came up! Oh how funny. Here she is (or was since I have since sold her):
That is a 45 inch wide two shaft Leclerc Tissart. She is a counter balance loom. This means that all the warp threads are under the same amount of tension. When one set of warp threads is raised, the other set is lowered. Basically, the two sets of warp threads are pushed away from one another and always remain under the same amount of tension. This loom, which hasn’t been made since I think the 70s, was sort of designed for tapestry but in reality when I read over the literature that came with it the target market was more rag weavers, rug weavers. It had some issues like the fact that the adjustment device for the top beam was a worm gear: a flat piece of metal wrapped around a metal disc. I discovered that if I fold a tiny piece of sandpaper in half and stuck it in the gear, it would hold it under tension. It did take me a few very frustrating months to figure that out. I also had an issue with the cloth on the bottom and top beams. Attached to each of those beams is a heavy cloth that is about two feet long. The bar that you tie the warps to is stuck in a hem at the end of the cloth with spacing. Under tension, that bar would bend. I replaced the hole mess with ropes attached to the beams and a much heavier bar. I also discovered that the top the piece of the loom where the warp passes around would bend under tension. I attached a heavy piece of angle iron to it to stop bending.
All this tinkering probably was the seed that became Mirrix Looms. I gained first hand knowledge of what one needs in a loom to make it really work for tapestry. And although this was supposedly a devoted tapestry loom it really felt like it hadn’t received its necessary due of R & D. Maybe that explains why Leclerc finally gave up making these upright looms.
Lastly, I want to talk about jack looms.
These are the looms you tend to think of when you think of looms. They are designed to make cloth. They can have as few as two shafts (the part of the loom that holds the heddles . . . each shaft provides an additional set of heddles) and as many as . . . I don’t know . . . 24. Each shaft moves independently of one another. This leaves for amazing design opportunities. And these looms are perfect for weaving cloth where extreme tension is not necessary and it’s okay to have the raised warps under different tension from the lowered ones.
Although this is a weird detailed photo of a jack loom (this one is made out of PCV pipe) it was the best close up image I could find of how the warp is held on this loom. When all the warps are in the same plane (none being raised) they are not kept straight, but rather pulled down slightly. See the bottom layer of warp in the above photo. This allows enough play so that when warps are raised they can create a fairly large shed (the space between the raised and lowered warps). A large shed is kind of necessary when throwing a shuttle back and forth. On my Tissart, I could maybe get a 3/4 to one inch shed (like the Mirrix) because I had my warp under so much tension. I at one point did own a jack loom and I tried weaving one tapestry on it before I realized it was NOT a tapestry loom. I could not get enough tension and the tension between the raised and lowered warps was different. When you are weaving discontinuous wefts you are randomly wrapping around warps that will necessarily be under different tension. The rigid heddle loom was actually better than the jack loom for tapestry weaving.
Every loom has her job. People ask me: can I weave on scarf on the Mirrix and I say: the Mirrix is a tapestry and/or bead loom. It can be used for a wide variety of weaving that fits more into those classes including rug weaving, rag weaving, wire weaving, inkle band weaving, etc. But cloth weaving requires a built in beater (unless you are weaving on a back strap loom, but that’s an entirely different subject not to be addressed here) so that every time you weave a pass you slam the beater forward and it will evenly pack down the weft in a straight, perfect line. Otherwise, you would have to use a hand beater which just wouldn’t work as well. Rigide heddle looms are great for weaving scarves!
The job of a tapestry loom is first and foremost to provide excellent even tension. It really helps to have a tapestry loom with some kind of easy to use shedding system to raise every other warp thread. It should be made of sturdy material so it doesn’t warp or bend under tension. The problem with small wooden looms for tapestry is, when you take into consideration the fact that my really big Tissart couldn’t withstand the tension necessary for tapestry, they just aren’t strong enough to hold tension without their beams bowing.
In conclusion: if you want to weave tapestry, buy a tapestry loom. If you also want to weave scarves, by a loom designed to weave cloth. Because rigid heddle looms are relatively inexpensive and available from so many manufacturers (they marketed them as the “knitter’s loom”) you can easily add one to your fleet of looms and have a dedicated tapestry loom.
The trend is to go smaller with this equipment. Few of us have huge rooms in which we can house huge looms. And those huge looms are really expensive (thousands and thousands of dollars). It’s clear that the latest trend is toward multiples of smaller looms devoted to a certain product: tapestry, material, bands, whatever. Those huge looms also take at least a day to warp. That was not something I ever looked forward to. Whereas,I can warp the largest Mirrix Loom (Zeus, 38 inches wide) its entire width in about an hour and a half or less.
What looms have you tried for tapestry and what are your thoughts about those various looms?