Your loom’s reed plays an important part in keeping the warp aligned and evenly spaced. It also beats the weft against the fell as you bring the beater forward. Because reeds are interchangeable, I like to think of my reeds as loom accessories. For the variety of projects that I weave, I mostly use an 8-, 10-, or 12-dent reed. On the rare occasion when I have a bulky-weight yarn in the warp, I use a 6-dent reed to avoid abrasion. I rarely use a 15-dent reed with a single end per dent; I’d rather use an 8-dent reed and sett my warp at 16 ends per inch with 2 ends in a dent. For warps sett at 30 or 45 ends per inch, well, then I do turn to a 15-dent reed for its convenience. But mostly I stick with my three favorite sizes.
I would love to have a set of this trio of reed sizes for each of my looms, but that is not the case. I share my reeds between looms if I can, and I will often use a narrow reed in a wider beater if the project allows it. I have even put a wider reed in a loom with a narrower weaving width. For instance, if the beater’s ends are open as on the one in the photo at left, I might use a 45-inch-wide reed in a 36-inch loom. It looks funny, but it works just fine.
Because reeds are expensive, you want to take good care of them. Here are a couple tips that I have found valuable and want to share. First, for long reeds, try to store them horizontally. This will help to keep them straight. If you lean them up against a wall, you risk getting a slight bend in them, although they can be straightened again with a slight push against the bow. I have done this many times when I didn’t have a shelf or flat horizontal spot for storing my long reeds. Shorter reeds don’t pose as much of a problem. I have stored shorter reeds vertically. A reed holder (see photo 3) is a great addition to your studio. It has compartments to separate the different sizes, and there is enough space to hold several reeds of the same dent. It’s very helpful.
If you store your reeds on a shelf, stacked one on top of the other, be careful when choosing the one you want. Don’t slide the reeds across each another because you might damage a reed by bending the teeth as one reed scrapes across another reed, making it useless in that section.
When you purchase a new reed these days, you will notice the stamp “SS” on the side bar. This stands for stainless steel, and it is a great improvement in reeds. Years ago, you had the option of buying either carbon steel reeds at significantly lower prices or more expensive stainless steel reeds. If you live in a humid area, a stainless steel reed is always preferable because it will not rust. Carbon steel reeds develop a patina and discolor, and they can rust in humidity. In the past, many people took the risk and bought the less-expensive option. So now we live with the question: What to do with a rusty reed?
If you have older reeds in your collection and they are simply discolored, this discoloration is not a problem and doesn’t interfere with their function. Rust is another problem though. A little coating of rust on the surface of the reed can usually be taken off by spraying the reed with WD-40 and then wiping the teeth with a nylon scratch pad like the one you may have at your kitchen sink. Wipe in the direction of the teeth, not against them. Spray a little more WD-40 on the area and wipe with a soft cloth. Then slip a length of yarn or a pipe cleaner between the teeth to remove any excess rusty lubricant. If you find you have a little of the lubricant remaining in your reed and it gets onto your weaving, it often will wash out with the first wet-finish. You can also wind an extra yard of warp for the first project you weave after cleaning so that the beginning portion of the fabric can be discarded if the rust comes off on it. It’s a slow process but perhaps worth it to you.
If your reed is badly rusted, as in photo 2, and you notice rust between the teeth, you probably want to just throw the reed away. The pitting between the teeth, where your warp ends travel, will abrade the surface of your warp ends and roughen up that area of your cloth; the pitting can even cut warp ends. This will never get better. I personally never deal with a rusty reed; for me it’s just not worth the time spent trying to fix it. Neglected reeds usually come to me as a result of purchasing an older used loom. I figure the savings of purchasing an older loom allows me to reward myself and my loom with brand-new stainless steel reeds.
Sometimes the paper covering the edges of the reed becomes brittle and comes off. This doesn’t affect the use of the reed, but it does expose the ends of the metal teeth. You can replace this covering with heavy-duty tape such as duct tape. Cut the tape to the length needed and fold it over the reed’s edge. If it seems to be too wide and extends beyond the edge and into the teeth, stick the tape down first onto the reed and then cut off the overhanging tape with a utility knife. Having a second person holding the reed on its edge for you is a great help.
If you are buying a new loom, the manufacturer usually includes a reed with the dent size of your choice. The choice is often either a 10- or 12-dent reed, but you can usually request the size you want. How do you choose the correct size? I tell students to take a moment and consider what they want to weave. I suggest they make a list of a dozen or so projects and think about what dent size they will need for each project. This helps narrow down the choices. But do try to have at least an 8-, 10-, and 12-dent reed in your collection. That should do you well for most projects. There are the rare exceptions, though, so let me give you this food for thought.
Someone once told me that she had purchased a lot of fine silk thread and planned on weaving scarves. She had figured that the sett should be around 90 ends per inch. She planned on sleying three ends per dent in a 30-dent reed and was ready to purchase a 45-inch, 30-dent reed to fit her loom. The cost of that reed was expensive—prohibitively so. I suggested she instead purchase a shorter reed to save on the cost because reeds are sold by the linear inch and not by the dent. If she only wove scarves, the unused end sections of the reed would be a waste of money. Remember, you can always put a narrow reed in a wide loom. This made sense and kept the cost affordable.
I hope these tips help you with some of your reed questions. I have included a picture of an antique bamboo reed (photo 1). While bamboo was used for the teeth, the areas between were tightly wrapped with either linen or hemp thread to create the spacing for the sett. I always wondered about the word “dent.” Then one day it became as clear as the nose on my face. Dent is from dental—like teeth. If there are 12 dents per inch, or 12 spaces, then those spaces are separated by the 12 teeth per inch. Now that makes perfect sense.
Best wishes to you and, as always, happy weaving.