The finished apron dress.
Weaving wool or linen for clothing on a warp-weighted loom has a very long history. The first comprehensive study of this type of loom from archeological evidence and literature available to her at that time was given by Marta Hoffmann in 1964. Since then many other researchers have contributed to a further understanding in the use, history, products, and living history of this ancient loom. I particularly like a recent publication by Hildur Hákonardóttir, Elizabeth Johnston and Marta Kløve Juuhl that tells the story of three women who through six years of work and research contributed an extensive first hand knowledge of weaving on a warp-weighted loom. It also serves well as a reference to research that has been published since Marta Hoffmann’s book.
Unfortunately, as of yet, no remains are found of an actual complete warp-weighted loom from prehistoric times. All looms currently on display in museums are made at a much later date, mostly in the late 18th and 19th century. There is however ample pictorial evidence of its existence in historic times. Furthermore, there is indirect evidence from archeological finds of loom weights and from the existence of woven borders on many textile fragments of a type that is characteristic for fabric that is woven on a warp-weighted loom.
The burial finds from over 1100 graves alone in Birka, the commercial center of Sweden in the Viking age, account for thousands of samples of textile fragments. They include examples of plain or tabby weave, plain 2/2 twill and of several more complicated types of twill. Examples relevant to this documentation are of a specific type of twill, typically called lozenge of (broken) diamond twill (Figure 1). Agnes Geijer was the first to point out that all lozenge and chevron twills from prehistoric times are broken and asymmetrical and linked this observation to the specific way of warping and weaving on a warp-weighted loom. It is for this characteristic link between a type of weave and weaving on a warp-weighted loom that I chose to weave broken diamond twill for this project.
Figure 1: Examples of textile fragments of herringbone twill (top right) and broken diamond twill (top left and bottom) from the graves of Birka.
Warping the loom
I warped my loom for broken diamond twill using a diagram by Martha Hoffmann based on an extend piece from an excavation in Kaupang from the 9th century A.D. (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Textile fragment of broken diamond twill from Kaupang, Vestfold (top) and its diagram (in reverse, bottom).
Creating the header band
The first step was creating the header band, which formed the starting edge of the warp, the side that was secured to the cloth beam. There is historical evidence for two types of starting edges associated with the warp-weighted loom: a woven border and corded edge. It is the first type that is so characteristic for the warp-weighted loom. It is the oldest type of starting edge dating back to prehistoric times and still in use by Sami weavers.
Because of the unique relation between woven starting borders and weaving on a warp-weighted loom, I decided to warp my loom with one as well. I created a tablet woven starter band on ten tablets with two different warp colors (the same wool as for the loom warp), setup and turned to create a diamond pattern with the same period as the pattern in the fabric. At each turn of the tablets, I passed two threads through the shed that became the warp threads for the loom. One advantage of having two threads in each shed in the starting border is a closer warp. Another is that the ball of yarn that forms the weft of the starting border (and later the warp of the fabric) does not have to pass through the shed. Instead a loop is pulled from the ball of yarn and passed through the shed and around a peg, while the ball itself remains where it is. Each loop is wound around pegs to a length equal to the desired length of fabric plus a margin for the loom waste and shrinkage after washing.
I turned the cards in sets of twenty picks. After each set, I cut the loops of the threads at the last peg and split them in two bundles. I made sure to wind the threads around the last peg in such a direction that I ended up with alternating threads in each bundle. So after cutting the loops, the two bundles split naturally into the two parts that form the natural shed of the warp.
Securing the header band to the cloth beam
The next step was transferring and securing the finished starting border to the cloth beam. First, I tied the band firmly in place by threading a strong cord through the selvage side of the band and the holes in the cloth beam. Next, I tied additional loops at a closer spacing to prevent sagging of the header band due to the fairly high tension in the warp threads once the weights were attached.
Attaching the weights
The next step was attaching the loom weights to the warp. I made my loom weights from unfired clay. They are about 400 gram each with minimal weight variation. I started out with twenty warp threads tied to each loom weight, but found the tension in the warp threads to be too low for a good shed. So after weaving about two feet of fabric, I reduced the number to ten threads per loom weight. Since the total warp length was significantly longer than the height of the loom, the surplus warp was braided. Each time after weaving about two feet, the finished fabric was rolled onto the cloth beam, the loom weights were untied, the braids were adjusted to the correct length and the loom weights were retied. To make this process more efficient, the braids were not knotted directly to the loom weights, but instead each one was secured by a loop, which was in turn attached to the loom weight.
Creating the spacing cords
After the weights were tied to the bundles, the warp was split into the natural shed. I tied a crochet chain across the back threads and after that a similar one across the front threads. This so-called spacing cord helps to distribute the individual warp threads evenly over the full width of the weave. It also greatly helps during the knitting of the heddles by keeping the order of the threads in the warp near the heddle rods the same as in the header band. Each time the cloth was rolled onto the cloth beam, the spacing cord was slid down along the warp threads to just below the shed rod.
Knitting the heddles
The last phase in warping the loom was the knitting of the heddles. You can tie each heddle individually, but it is more convenient to knit continuous heddles. I placed a helper rod behind the warp to ensure equal length heddles (the heddles are knitted by looping around the heddle rod and the helper rod). I started with the second/middle heddle rod, followed by the first/top one and at last the third/bottom one. Figure 3 shows the diagram that I used to knit the heddles, derived from the extent textile fragment and its diagram in Figure 2.
Figure 3: Diagram for knitting the heddles for broken diamond twill.
Knitting the heddles is tricky work as the order of the threads must be the same as in the header band. I enlisted the help of my wife to stand on the back of the loom and hand me each successive thread, while I paid attention to the order of the heddles in the diagrams. To aid the knitting of the heddles, I drew simplified diagrams for the heddles for each heddle rod (see Figures 4 to 6 below).
Figure 4: Heddles diagram for the upper or “1” rod.
Figure 5: Heddles diagram for the middle or “2” rod (the opposite of the natural shed).
Figure 6: Heddles diagram for the lower or “3” rod.
Look for movies of each step in the warping process elsewhere on this blog.
Weaving the fabric
With the knitting of the heddles completed I could start the actual process of weaving of the fabric. I started with all the heddle bars resting against the uprights. This creates an open space between the two parts that make up the warp (between the front and the back threads, separated by the shed rod). This open space is typically called the natural shed. Next I passed the weft through the open shed. Instead of pulling the weft threat tight, I formed a triangle and loosely looped the weft thread to give the thread room to wrap around the warp threads. If you do not give some extra room, the weave will gradually narrow once you start weaving. The extra room (the size of the triangle) required to keep a uniform width depends on the width itself, the tension on the warp threads and thickness of the warp and weft threads and has to be known by experience or found experimentally.
Figure 7: The four sheds required to weave twill: “N” (top left), “1” (top right), “2” (bottom left) and “3” (bottom right).
After starting with the natural shed, I pulled the bottom or “3” rod forward to rest against the ends of its heddle rod holders, leaving the other two heddle rods resting against the uprights, thus creating a new shed. I inserted the beater to beat the warp upward after which I passed the weft in the opposite direction for the next pick. After that I continued with either the natural shed or one of three sheds formed by pulling any single heddle bars forward to rest against the ends of its respective heddle rod holders, followed by beating and passing the weft for the next pick.
To reproduce the broken diamond twill pattern of the extent fabric fragment in Figure 2, the order of the heddle rods is a sequence of ten sheds: N-3-2-N-1-2-3-N-2-1, where “N” designates the natural shed and “1”, “2” and “3” the shed created by pulling forward the respective top, middle or bottom heddle rod (see Figure 7 above).
Look for a movie of the weaving of broken diamond twill on a warp-weighted loom elsewhere on this blog.
Creating the apron dress
The apron dress is a tube like dress worn by Viking women together with the characteristic brooches. This was my first full size weaving project, so I decided to keep the fabric width as narrow as I could, minimizing the length of the header band, the number of heddles and the total combined weight of the loom weights. With this in mind, I used a six piece pattern cut from four equal sized rectangles from a single long piece of fabric (Figure 8). Two pieces form the front (including the start of the fabric with the header band intact) and the back of the dress. The remaining two pieces are cut in two wedges each to form the sides of the apron dress (two wedges together on each side). This pattern is very economic, wasting nothing of the fabric with the exception of the loom waste (and with the smaller width, the latter is also minimal).
Figure 8: The four piece pattern used to make the apron dress.
The size of the fabric was dictated by the required chest size (E) of 38 inch, height (D) of 40 inches and bottom hem size (F) of around 60 inches. With half inch wide seam allowances (S) and a width (W) of 14 inch, this translates into A=13 inch, B=3 inch and C=9 inch. Allowing for shrinkage and loom waste, I decided to setup the weave for a width of 15 inch and a length of 20 feet. It turned out to be quite difficult to keep a constant fabric width at the start of weaving, but after the first feet or so, I was able to maintain an almost constant width of about 14 inch.
I took the fabric off the loom after completing about 17 feet of fabric. I then washed the fabric gently in lukewarm water to set the weave. After washing, the width of the weave was about 14 inch at the top and about 13 inch wide along the remaining length, so I could use dimensions close to those listed above. I cut the fabric into four panels, the first (front) panel with the header band attached to a length of 42 inch, the remaining three to a length of 44 inch each. I then cut the four wedges that form the sides of the dress from two of the panels.
After cutting the fabric into the six panels, I turned the long edges of each panel once (both the selvage sides and the raw edges of the wedges along the bias) and secured them with whip stitch. I then joined each seam with whip stitch (Figure 9).
Figure 9: Seam with the edges folded once and secured with whip stitch, then joined together with whip stitch.
The bottom and the top hem, with the exception of the front panel with the attached tablet woven starter border, were folded once and secured with herringbone stitch (Figure 10) to allow for extra stretch while dressing. The hems were folded to get a total dress length (D) of 40 inch.
Figure 10: Hem with the edge folded once and secured with herringbone stitch.
The last part was weaving the shoulder straps. I wove a one inch by eight feet plain tabby band from the same wool as the dress itself. After weaving was completed, the band was folded twice and whip stitched into a tubular band. The band was cut into three pieces and sewn to the dress. Two short pieces on the front and one long one to form both shoulder bands.
Find a downloadable and extended version of this post with its companion photo journal at:
Ejstrud, Bo (Editor) (2011) “From Flax to Linen - Experiments with flax at Ribe Viking Centre” Maritime Archaeology Programme, University of Southern Denmark.
Geijer, Agnes (1938) “Birka III: Die Textilfunde aus then Gräbern”, Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien (Uppsala).
Geijer, Agnes (1983) “The Textile Finds from Birka”, Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe: Essays in Memory of Professor E.M. Carus-Wilson, ed. N.B. Harte and K.G. Ponting, Studies in Textile History 2, London: Heinemann Educational Books, pp. 80-99.
Hägg, Inga (1984) “Die Textilfunde aus dem Hafen von Haithabu”, Beright 20, Berichte über die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu, Karl Wachholtz Verlag, Neumuster.
Johnson, Jennifer (2015) “Viking Stitchery”, SCA class handout by Hefðharkona Reyni-Hrefna.
Hoffman, Marta (1974) “The Warp-Weighted Loom: Studies in History and Technology of an Ancient Implement”, Robin and Russ Handweavers.
Hákonardóttir, Hildur, Johnston, Elizabeth, and Kløve Juuhl, Marta (2016) “The Warp-Weighted Loom”, Randi Andersen and Atle Ove Martinussen (Editors).
Petty, Christina (2014) “Warp Weighted Looms: Then and Now Anglo-Saxon and Viking Archaeological Evidence and Modern Practitioners”, Ph.D. thesis, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK
Plunkett, Steven J. (1999) “The Anglo-Saxon Loom from Pakenham, Suffolk” Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, Volume XXXIX Part 3.
Priest-Dorman, Carolyn (2001) “Weaving on the Warp-Weighted Loom: Some Source Materials” http://www.cs.vassar.edu/~capriest/wwloom.html (last accessed 09/08/17).
Verberg, Susan (2016) “Women’s set of Viking winter clothes based on 10th century Haithabu garment finds”
A reconstruction of the Hammerum Girl's dress (English) https://vimeo.com/146693682 (last accessed 09/08/17).