An Introduction to Period Tabletweaving

I wrote this article for my local Shire newsletter, so it is of necessity somewhat limited. And looking at it now, there are several points I would like to fix. Some day. When I have time. :)

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This article is not intended as a practical instruction on how to do tabletweaving. Rather, it is a brief description of various methods and whether they can be considered useful for our purposes (i.e. whether they are period).

There is a vast variety of tabletweaving techniques - anyone who has looked at Collingwood's Techniques of Tabletweaving will have noticed that. The technical differences between these methods can be obscure at times, especially for people who do not know much about textile theory (like myself). However, we can divide much of the tabletweaving that is of interest to us into four broad categories: threaded-in patterns, Egyptian diagonals, doubleface, and brocade.

Threaded-in Patterns

This describes the patterns where all cards are turned together as a pack in a regular rhythm. Most commonly this will be something like 4x forwards, then 4 x backwards; at the end of every four turns the cards should be back in their starting position. It is an easy technique to learn, and the probably best one to start off with.

The name is taken from the fact that the pattern is determined by how the cards are threaded, i.e. which colour was threaded into which hole, and whether it was S or Z threaded. This is a vital aspect when designing a pattern and threading the cards - make a mistake, and often no amount of juggling will fix it. The only thing that can be done is to re-thread the offending card (not always easy when you have already started weaving).

More complex threaded-in patterns can be created by having two or more packs. Generally each of these still works in sets of four turns, but not in the same sequence. Thus one pack might turn forwards all the time, while the second pack turns 4 x forward, 4 x backwards (the 'ramshorn' pattern works this way). Even more complicated patterns can be created by having one pack work out of synch, e.g. starting with 2 x forwards, then 4 x backwards, then 2 x forwards again, and with a bit of practice it is possible to create quite intricate designs.

A sequence does not have to be based on four turns, eg it could be 7 x forward, 7 x backwards, or even something like 6 x forwards, 3 x backwards. Whatever the sequence, the central feature is that the pattern will repeat itself after a fixed number of turns.

Asked whether threaded-in patterns are period or not, some people say yes and others say no. Until recently this has been a great source of confusion to me, and I will therefore state my opinion clearly, categorically, and with documentation: YES, threaded-in patterns are period. Contrary to some assertions there are extant pieces, although there are fewer of them than bands woven in other techniques. As an example, Henshall's article on seal tags includes a description of an 8-card wide tag woven by simply turning the cards forwards all the time, forming a pattern of squares and dots. Similarly, Collingwood has some examples of threaded-in pieces, and borders on wider bands were sometimes woven in this way as well.

Unfortunately this is not evidence that a more complex threaded-in pattern such as the popular 'ramshorn' is period (the examples in Collingwood are dated to the 20th century). It does open up the possibility, however, and if someone has any information on period use of the style I would be extremely happy to hear about it.

Anglo-Saxon Threaded-in Patterns
There is a style of Anglo-Saxon weaving that is very similar to the standard threaded-in patterns, and there is minor disagreement over whether it should be classed as a threaded-in pattern or not. The main difference is that while one group of cards is turned, the other group idles (ie is not turned at all). Such idling is not a feature of other threaded-in patterns. An example of the technique can be found on þóra Sharptooth's website, and recently I wove a belt using this method.

Egyptian Diagonals

Egyptian diagonals are so called because a) the patterns consist entirely of diagonal lines, and b) the technique was thought to have originated in Egypt. The cards are threaded with two adjacent light colour and two adjacent dark colours in a staggered pattern:

Usually, the first half of the cards in the band is S-threaded and the second half Z-threaded; this makes the pattern nice and symmetrical. If the cards are turned forwards all the time, a chevron pattern results. By changing the turning direction of specific cards, the direction on the lines can be altered at almost any point in the pattern and bands like the example to the right can be woven.

Although similar to threaded-in patterns in that the threading of the cards is important, the technique is different because the weaving does not take place in fixed sets of turns. Rather, the turning direction of individual cards can be changed once and then remain like that for any number of picks before it is changed again. Another difference is that because all cards are threaded with two light and two dark threads, mistakes in the threading can be fixed quite easily by turning or twisting the card until it is in the right position.

I will not go into details here on how to create Egyptian diagonal patterns; that would require a whole new article. Suffices to say that there are period examples of Egyptian diagonal patterns, so feel free to play around with them. The possible variations on the basic diagonal line pattern can be quite amazing, and if you look here you can find a variant using three colours (although I have not looked for period documentation on that, yet).

Doubleface

Doubleface is so called because the front and the back of the band are reverse images of each other. At least, sort of - more complex doubleface patterns can look rather different on the back! This technique was used extensively in the middle ages; bands woven in this way are very strong and durable and were often used as straps, bridles, fillets etc.

The beauty of doubleface lies in the huge variety of patterns that can be created. Take graph paper, divide it into blocks two or three times as long as they are wide, and anything you can draw by filling in the blocks can be translated into a doubleface band. Well, almost. The 'blocks' of colour on a tabletwoven band are not rectangles but parallelograms, so the pattern won't come out quite the same. However, with a bit of practice this feature can be used to excellent advantage to create intricate patterns.

To weave doubleface, the cards are all threaded in the same way, with two light and two dark threads:

For most patterns, the cards should be alternately S and Z threaded, but there are also many period examples that are entirely S (or entirely Z) threaded. The primary advantage of alternate S and Z threading is that it results in smooth diagonal lines.

Again, I will not go into detail on how to weave doubleface patterns, but in brief: each card is always turned twice in the same direction. Turning all cards 2 x forwards, then 2 x backwards gives a band with a solid colour on each side. Changing the sequence for a card (e.g. 2x forwards, then 2 x forwards again) will swap the colours of the two sides, so you will have a light section followed by a dark section of band. Patterns are formed simply (!) by deciding whether to turn a card twice forwards or twice backwards.

This may sound complicated, and it is if you want to do intricate patterns on the fly. I have never tried it that way; I always work from a pre-designed pattern. Once you have worked out the pattern on paper, the actual weaving is really quite simple. It is quite slow though since after every two picks you have to check the pattern and determine which cards to turn forwards and which to turn backwards; practice improves the speed but it is still vastly slower than a threaded-in pattern.

Here is a very simple example of a double-face pattern:
Block Pattern Front Back Sequence

Although this example is a symmetric shape, doubleface is highly flexible and for that reason ideally suited for weaving heraldic images, letters, pictures etc. For some examples of double-face patterns, look here.

3-Colour Doubleface
From Indonesia comes an interesting variant that uses three colours instead of the usual two. The patterns that can be made this way are quite different; the possibilities are much restricted but there are certain features that are not available in standard doubleface. The technique is as far as I know not period (Collingwood's examples are from the 19th century) and I mention it here only because I have a number of examples on my website.

3/1 Broken Twill

This is a difficult technique, in fact it is often considered to be one of the most complex tabletweaving techniques. Once mastered, however, it gives beautiful results. It was used widely in period, and many of the most well-known pieces were woven this way. It is curious, as Collingwood mentions, that this method, although so complex, is also one of the oldest.

3/1 broken twill is a variation on the basic doubleface. The basic sequence is again 2 x forwards, 2 x backwards, while alterations provide the pattern. However, there are several additional features to broken twill. Firstly, the cards are threaded in a staggered pattern:

The cards should be all S-threaded or all Z-threaded; variations on this are possible but require a bit more care when the pattern is designed. Furthermore, as can be seen from the way the cards are threaded, turning them all together will not give the same result as the basic doubleface. Try to do it that way, and you will get a bizarre zigzag pattern. Each card has its own rhythm which is out of step with the other cards (ok, the basic rhythm is the same for every four cards, but still), and furthermore the sequence can be altered so that a card turns say F, F, B, F instead of the expected F, F, B, B.

Whereas with most other techniques the cards will be back in their starting position after four turns, this is not the case with broken twill. So if you lose track of where you are in the pattern, it can be very hard to undo your mistake or figure out which part comes next. I once spent a full hour undoing three picks to correct a mistake...

The good part about broken twill is that is in many ways even more versatile than basic doubleface, and with a bit of practice it is possible to create very intricate and delicate patterns. Some of which you can find here.

Why is it called 3/1 Broken Twill?
I have been asked this question a number of times, and every time I had to admit that I am no textile expert and that it has something to do with structure and technical stuff. Twill is a generic name for the type of fabric with diagonal wales (lines or ridges in the material); if you weave a piece of twill you can see that these lines can be quite distinctive. 3/1 because each warp thread passes over three wefts and under one. And broken because the twill lines can change direction, usually to highlight the pattern.

Doubleface Properties
Here is a brief comparison of the general properties of the different types of doubleface:
Basic Doubleface 3-Colour DF Broken Twill
Horizontal Lines
(along the warp)
Smooth Not possible Smooth
Vertical Lines
(across the warp)
Slightly jagged Not possible Very jagged
Diagonal Lines Smooth at ▒60║ Smooth at ▒60║ Smooth at ▒45║

You may have noticed that Egyptian diagonals, basic doubleface, and 3/1 broken twill are all threaded with two light and two dark colours. This means that these three techniques can be combined in one band. All that is required is to adjust the card positions at the point where you want to switch from one style to the other, and off you go. One of the masterpieces of tabletweaving, the 10th century maniple of St Ulrich, combines diagonals and 3/1 broken twill in this fashion.

Brocading

The last technique I will deal with is brocading. This was also used very widely in period; it came into fashion once fine silk and linen threads became available which could be combined with highly expensive gold or silver metallic threads. Thicker yarns such as wool could not be used as effectively since they were much wider than the metallic thread and this would cause unsightly gaps in the brocade.

Metallic brocaded bands were used primarily for church vestments and royal clothing; it was too expensive to be widely available to less wealthy people. A wealthy merchant might be able to afford some, but clothes decorated in such a fashion would have been counted amongst their best finery.

What precisely does 'brocaded' mean? Basically, it is a general term applied when a fabric is decorated with an additional interwoven thread which is not necessary for the structural integrity of the material. In other words, the fabric is woven in the normal fashion and extra threads are woven into it purely for decoration. Often these threads were metallic, but brocading with silk thread or ribbon was not uncommon.

In terms of tabletweaving, the theory behind a brocaded band is simple, although the actual weaving does require a lot of care. Most bands are woven in a single colour, and all cards are just turned forwards all the time. This will give a plain, single-colour band. The brocading is done with an additional weft of metallic thread that is treated just like the normal weft, except that in some places it passes over the warp instead of through the shed. At those points it becomes visible, and the pattern is formed by deciding exactly which threads it should pass over.

Simple, really. Anyone who has seen Nancy Spies' Ecclesiastical Pomp & Aristocratic Circumstance will probably have drooled over the patterns and her woven pieces. All it requires is practice, patience, the right materials, and a bloody-minded stubbornness not to give up!

So why don't I have any brocade patterns on my website? Weeeeel, I just can't compete with EPAC. :)

A Brief Glossary

Band Tabletwoven pieces are called bands, not braids. 'Braid' implies that threads lying next to each other are intertwined and cross over; this is not the case with tabletweaving. The threads in one card are not in any way woven into the threads in an adjacent card.
Cord As a card is turned, the four threads in it are twisted around each other to form a single cord. Sometimes this is used to specify the width of a band, e.g. '24 cords'. This is the same as saying you used 24 cards.
Float As the cards are turned each thread rises to the surface for one pick, then descends again. A thread which stays on the surface is called a float, or sometimes a long float. For example, turning a card forwards and then backwards on the next pick will cause the same thread to be on top for two consecutive picks. Floats of two or three, or even four picks are not a problem, but if they become too long the thread will lie loose on top of the band and can catch on something.
Idle Describes cards that are not turned between picks. This weakens the structure slightly because the individual threads are not twisted together into a cord, and usually a card will not idle for more than one pick.
Pick This term is used to mean one pass of the weft through the shed and one turn of the cards. Thus if the cards have been turned forward four times, your band is four picks long.
S/Z threading This indicates the direction in which threads run through a card. When looking at a card from above, threads can either come in through the hole on the left and run out on the right, or vice versa. There are various other names for this, but S and Z are widely used. The direction in which a thread runs through the card affects the pattern that is created.
Shed The shed is the gap between the upper and the lower threads of the warp. The weft must be passed through the shed before the cards are turned, otherwise there is nothing holding the band together.
Turn Cards are turned either forwards or backwards, usually by 90║. Some people say 'quarter turn' instead, to indicate that four of these will return the card to its original position.
Twist Cards can be twisted around their axis to change the colour that will appear next. Twisting a card also changes the threading from S to Z and vice versa. This action is almost always performed in conjunction with a turn, i.e. a card is twisted then turned. It can be used for Egyptian diagonals or doubleface in place of reversing the turning direction.
Twist also refers to the direction in which the cord is twisted together, as in 'a Z-twisted cord'. A S-threaded card turned forwards will create a Z-twisted cord, and vice versa.
Warp The threads that run through the cards and create the pattern. 'Warp' is also used generally to speak of a band in progress, e.g. 'a silk warp of 30 cards'.
Weft The thread that is passed through the shed as weaving progresses. The weft goes back and forth from one side of the band to the other. Structurally, it is all that actually holds the weaving together.

References

Collingwood, P. The Techniques of Tabletweaving. London 1982.
Hansen, E. Brikvæning. H°jbjerg 1990.
Henshall, A. S. Five Tablet Woven Seal Tags. Archaeological Journal, Vol. CXXI. 1964.
Spies, N. Ecclesiastical Pomp & Aristocratic Circumstance. Jarrettsville 2000.
Sutton, A. & Holton, P. Tablet Weaving. Newton Center 1975.
Trotzig, L. & Axelsson, A. Weaving Bands. New York 1974.


Occasionally maintained by Eckhard Gartz.
Last modified 5/5/2004.