Looms hold lengthwise threads taut while other threads are woven through them crosswise. There are several different types of weaving looms with different features, but at their essence all of them perform this basic task.
Once you understand the weaving process, it's easier to recognize the different types of weaving looms, you need to better understand the weaving process. The threads that are held taut on a loom are called the warp, and the threads that cross the warp are called weft.
Basics of Weaving & Looms
During the weaving process, the weaver lifts or lowers some of the warp threads to form an opening called a shed. The weaver pushes the weft through that opening using a tool called a shuttle. Except for the most basic of looms such as frame looms, all looms have some method for creating sheds. For example on shaft looms, warp threads are lifted or lowered because they are threaded through heddles that hang on frames called harnesses. When the weaver uses treadles or levers to lift or lower the harnesses, the warp threads threaded on those harnesses go up or down and a shed is created. On simpler looms (inkle looms, backstrap looms, and rigid-heddle looms), the heddles are moved up or down manually to create the shed.
A weft-carrying shuttle can be as simple as a stick wrapped with thread or can be a fairly technical flying shuttle that zooms across the weft with the quick flick of a cord. As a shuttle moves through the shed across the warp, it leaves a trail of weft. Each pass through the shed is called a pick. After each pick, the weaver changes the shed by changing which warp threads are lifted or lowered and places the pick using a part of the loom called a reed that resembles a very large comb in a frame. Placing a pick is called beating although except for the case of a heavy rug, placing is a better description.
Along with beating, the reed determines the spacing of the warp threads so that the resulting fabric is evenly woven. Backstrap and inkle looms rely on the natural tendency of threads to move together rather than spacing by a reed, and use the edge of a shuttle to beat. The rigid heddle on a rigid-heddle loom contains both the heddles and reed; it creates the shed, spaces the warp threads, and beats in the warp.
Types of Looms
The backstrap loom is a simple loom developed by ancient civilizations and it's still used in many countries today. The warp is tied around a stationary object on one end and to the weaver at the other. The weight of the weaver keeps the warp taut. A skilled weaver can produce beautiful and complex patterns using a backstrap loom.
Tapestry looms include the simplest of looms, the frame loom. Frame looms do not have any ability to create a shed, and a tapestry you create on a frame loom is constrained to the size of the frame. Some larger types of tapestry looms hold longer warps and offer methods of creating a shed.
Inkle looms are used to weave narrow strips of fabric such as straps and belts. They are portable and while they are a great beginner’s loom, experienced weavers also use them to create complex patterns.
Rigid Heddle Looms
A rigid-heddle loom is a good beginner’s loom. It also offers a lot in terms of patterning to an experienced weaver through hand manipulation of the warp and weft. With one rigid heddle, the can be used for two-shaft weaving using yarns that are generally thicker than those used by shaft looms. By adding another heddle, the weaver can use thinner yarns and weave more intricate patterns using pick-up sticks and hand manipulation techniques. Rigid-heddle looms are portable. They can be used with or without a stand.
Table looms are smaller and more portable than floor looms, but more complex than the other small looms in this list. They are made to be used on top of a table or on a stand. While you can get table loom that has more than 8 shafts, the most common types have either 4 or 8.
These are the largest of the home weaver’s looms. They’re freestanding and made for weaving larger projects. Use a floor loom to produce longer and wider pieces of fabric, home linens, accessories, and rugs. Floor looms generally have either 4 or 8 shafts but they can have more. They can also be electronically controlled by a dobby that lifts and lowers the harnesses to create sheds.
What to Consider When Shopping for a Loom
There are several questions to ask yourself before you buy a loom.
- What's your skill level? Are you an experienced weaver or are you just getting started? If you’re not sure whether or not weaving is going to stick as one of your hobbies, you may want to try a small loom first, such as a rigid-heddle, inkle, or table loom.
- What kind of fabric do you want to make? If you are interested in tapestry, then a frame loom or larger tapestry loom is an obvious choice. If you are interested in creating large pieces, a floor loom is the best choice. If you don’t really care about creating large pieces, than any of the looms will work for you. You can weave most small pieces on large looms. If you want to make elaborate weave patterns, then either a floor loom or table loom with 4 to 8 shafts is your best choice. An inkle loom is the only choice if you want to weave bands and belts.
- How much space do you have for a loom and equipment? A floor loom can have a very large footprint, whereas some of the other looms are quite small and can be put away when not in use. Floor looms and table looms also require other equipment such as warping boards and bobbin winders that the other looms don’t require.
The first consideration you want to make is your weaving skill level. Are you an experienced weaver or are you just getting started? If you’re not sure whether or not weaving is going to stick as one of your hobbies, you may want to try a small loom first. If you already know you love weaving, then you should feel more comfortable investing in a large standing loom or even a more complex table loom.
Another consideration to make is what kind of fabric you’d like to produce on your loom. What size would you like to produce? If you don’t really care about creating large pieces, maybe opt for an inkle loom or a tapestry loom. If you’re trying to create large or elaborate pieces, then you’ll definitely need a four-harness loom or a standing loom.
As a rule of thumb, if you are looking for a bit more functionality than a frame loom, inkle and rigid-heddle looms are great beginner’s looms. They are also good for children. Both looms are easy to master and fun to use. One step up from them are four-shaft table looms. They are more complex but still portable. Finally, the serious weaver should opt for a floor loom if they have the space, or an eight-shaft table loom if they don’t. These looms offer the ability to produce complex weaving patterns.