Braid Weaving

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There were many ways of weaving narrow fabrics for girdles, leg bindings, borders, and decorative braids. We can say little about the looms, for if their warp was stretched between the weaver's belt and a tree or table leg there would be no archaeological trace.

Two devices can be recognised for opening the shed on a narrow warp: the rigid heddle and weaving tablets. The rigid heddle of bone or wood was a flat frame with alternating slots and slats, with holes in through which the warp threads passed. By raising or depressing the heddle, two different sheds could be opened, one above, the other below the general level of the warp. The first datable rigid heddle is Roman, although its use carried on throughout the Medieval period. However, there are no definite rigid heddles from the Viking Age.

Tablet weaving is one of the oldest European textile techniques, traceable at least to the early Iron Age. The tablets are small flat squares, usually of bone or wood, with a hole in each corner through which a warp thread is passed. The tablets are held in the hand like a pack of cards, parallel to the warp, and turned back or forward by half or quarter turns. This action twists the four warp threads (controlled by each tablet) into a cord that can be locked into position by a weft thread inserted between the turns. By varying the colours of the warp yarn and the direction of the turn of the tablets, intricate warp patterns can be created.

Tablet weaving could be further enhanced by 'brocading'. This brocading was achieved by using a second weft thread, which ran over some of the warp threads, creating a pattern on the surface of the thread. Brocaded tablet-weaves were usually of silk, using gold or silver thread for the brocaded pattern. This type of braid was a very high status item, and was usually used to decorate expensive garments.

Another method by which braids could have been produced is inkle weaving. Although the origin of the word is unknown, an inkle is a coloured tape or braid similar to the braids produced in tablet weaving. Like tablet weaving inkle weaving is restricted to narrow widths, although as it is woven on a loom it is much quicker and easier. Unfortunately the pattern variations are not as numerous as in tablet weaving. On an inkle weaving loom alternate warp threads are leashed to a peg whilst the others are left free - this creates the shed. The shed is opened and closed by raising and lowering the free threads. These narrow braids could also be woven on a small vertical loom similar to those used for weaving wider fabrics. Braids have been found made from wool, linen, and silk. Some have been enhanced by floating (brocaded) gold thread.

(The Webmaster would like to offer some more on the subject of the Inkle loom. Some more recent study has cast doubt in the area of it's use in the 10th century. The first hitch is the age of the name; the name 'Inkle' seems to be from the Middle Ages rather than the Early Middle Ages. The second hitch is that you don't need an Inkle Loom to produce the braids seen above. A Backstrap loom would suffice or any variation upon that to produce complex patterns of band. This would of course leave very little in the way of archaeological finds, and perhaps answer why nothing in the way of looms as described have been found. Ethnographic evidence from the Middle-East prior to WW2 shows ladies weaving bands with backstrap looms made from little more than sticks.

Tablet weaving was a very skilled craft. The bands as they are known in most countries, are often woven with the finest of wools - one of our weavers refers to them as cobweb fine. The result is a very fine piece of work, with woven bands less than 10mm wide common and demonstrating fantastic detail. Other original examples have woven names or messages in the work or rows of animals. The number of patterns possible are almost limitless, with certain patterns probably typical of particular localities. Tablet weaving was one of the few occasions that almost anyone could afford at least some expensively dyed threads that could be included in the work, in an effort to 'jazz' up plainer clothing. The habit today is to use contrasting tablet weave on garments, but this is possibly a modern practice.)

Original article by Sue Levick 1991