Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Warp-weighted loom weights: Their Story and Use

I wrote a research paper on warp-weighted loom weights for entry in the 2018 A&S Pentathlon competition at the Festival of the Passing of the Ice Dragon in the Barony of the Rhydderich Hael, A.S. 52.

Loom weights are the unmistakable evidence for the historic use of warp-weighted looms and their ample archaeological evidence gave the loom its name. This paper gives a brief discussion of the history of loom weights and the wide range of materials, shapes and weights that were found in archaeological excavations. I discuss the many aspects that affect the amount of tension that is needed or desired by each individual weaver and the way the organization of the loom weights affect the weaving.

The full manuscript can be downloaded from:

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Making bone tablet weaving tablets

I love tablet weaving and enjoy studying its use and history in addition to trying out the many different types of tablet weaving itself. Part of this invariably comes down to the question of what tools were used in historic times. Tablet weaving is a very popular technique for weaving narrow bands for belts or trim. It is a weaving technique that requires very little investment beyond the actual thread for the product itself, making it affordable for many of us. The only tools that are required are a set of tablets. You do not even need a loom to get started, your belt and a nearby doorknob or tree are sufficient to start weaving simple patterns. So this project focuses on the key ingredient that gives the technique its name: the tablets.

Historical background

It is hard to say when or where tablet weaving was invented. As Peter Collingwood so aptly says: “a distinction has to be drawn between the earliest known fabrics that could have been tablet woven and those which in all probability were so woven.” In his book, he presents a chronological list of the most important historical finds from the earliest ones in bog burials in modern day Germany dating back as far as the 6th century BC to the year 1000 AD, after which too much material survives to make a brief summary feasible. He also gives a brief history of the most important archaeological finds of tablets. Existing remains of historical tablets show that they were made from a variety of materials, including wood, bone, antler, ivory, bronze and leather. The earliest tablets that were identified as used in tablet weaving come from a cave at El Gigarrelejo in Spain. They were the charred remains of four or five beach wood tablets, 3.0 cm square with four large holes. Nancy Spies (2000) gives a detailed list of existing tablets based on the type of material that they are made of. Figures 1 and 2 give some examples of bone and wooden tablets of various shapes.

Figure 1: Several examples of bone tablets found at Jarlshof in Shetland, at the Broch of Burrian on North Ronaldsay in Orkney, at Harbour Broch at Keiss in Caithness, at Keil Cave in Argyll and at Tain in Ross-shire. They are dated between 200 B.C and 400 A.D. Their sizes range from 3.2 cm for the smaller round tablets to 4.4 x 5.0 cm for the largest triangular tablet.

Figure 2: Wooden tablets from Antinoë, Egypt dated to the 4th to 5th century A.D.

Arguably the most famous example is shown in Figure 3, a linen brocaded band with its warp still threaded to a set of 52 tablets, found in the Oseberg ship burial in Norway and dated to the 9th century A.D.

Figure 3: A set of threaded tablet weaving tablets found in the Oseberg ship burial in Norway.

Material and design

The inspiration for my project was a bone tablet with incised decorations found at Alchester, England. The excessive thread marks in the corner holes suggest that this tablet was mostly used with four threads, one through each corner. The decorations punctured by the holes along the left and right edge of the tablet and the absence of noticeable thread marks there suggest that these two holes were added at a later time.

Figure 4: Bone tablet found at Alchester England; Roman (Asmolean Museum, Oxford).

These types of bone tablets were most likely made from the shoulder blades of domestic or hunted animals. Shoulder bones have a relatively flat and thin central part that is very suitable to making tablets. Since I had deer shoulder blades available to me, I decided to make the tablets from deer bone. As discussed below, I simplified the design a little due to the thinness of the central part of the shoulder bone. I decided to only incise single circles at the same locations as the double circles in the extant piece and to omit the others.

Making the tablets

The first tablet I made was a bit of a learning curve. I wanted to use tools that are as close to period as I can and we recently bought from Deagrad Tools in Sheffield, England, several hand forged ring and dot augers and a hand forged comb makers hacksaw based on the Mästermyr find (Gotland, Sweden, ca. 1000 A.D.). I started out with cutting off the thick piece of the shoulder bone with the hacksaw and that proved to be a mistake. Although the saw is specifically designed to saw through bone and antler, it proved too coarse for the much more delicate shoulder bone. When I was almost through, the thinner flat central part of the shoulder bone fractured due to the stress of the sawing action. There was still enough left to make one small tablet, but since the structure of the remaining part was already severely compromised I finished cutting it to size with a modern band saw.

I do not have period augers or spoon drills, so I experimented a bit with drilling holes in one of the leftover pieces by positioning the sharp point of a knife at the correct location for a hole and rotating the blade clockwise and counter clockwise under slight downward pressure. This proved surprisingly efficient and I had scraped out a nice round hole in no time. The edge and the rounded corners were shaped and smoothed using a modern file as a substitute for a period one (another item still on my tool wish list). The end result was a 3.5 cm square tablet with a hole in each of the corner (see Figure 6 on the right). Although a bit smaller than intended, well within the size range of bone tablets found in Roman Britain between the 1st and 4th century A.D.

Figure 6: The first completed tablet (undecorated).

Having learned from the earlier mistakes, I decided to try and make a second tablet without having to resort to a modern band saw. I cut a triangular slot from a board to support the thick parts of the shoulder blade. I then positioned the shoulder blade over the slot allowing me to cut out the thin flat center piece of bone with a fine dovetail saw (see Figure 7 below).

Figure 7: A saw jig to cut out the thin flat center piece from a shoulder blade.

This proved much more successful and I ended up with a nice thin and relatively flat triangle of bone large enough to cut a 4.2 x 4.2 cm square tablet. I then rounded off the corners, smoothed the edges and drilled the four holes in the same way as for the first tablet.

The final task was adding the incised decorations that drew my eye to the particular tablet found at Alchester, England (Figure 4 above). I first tried carving two concentric circles in a leftover part with two ring augers designed specifically for this task, a small one to carve the inner circle and a larger one for the outer circle. This immediately showed me that the larger auger created a center hole that would easily puncture completely through the thin bone tablet. So I decided to decorate the tablet only with smaller single circles at the same locations as the larger concentric double ones in the extant piece. I furthermore dispensed with the four additional smaller ones on the diagonals. The end result is a nice looking and fully functional bone tablet.

Figure 8: Cutting the tablet to size, rounding the corners and smoothing the edges, drilling the holes, and adding the decorations.

Learning points

Working with bone was an interesting new experience. It is much more fragile than I expected and has to be worked with care when using hand tools. Suitable tools make all the difference and the period hacksaw that we own proved too coarse for the task at hand. A modern, much finer dove tail saw was the solution, so I guess that just got added to my shopping list for period tools.

Find a downloadable version of this post at:


Arwidsson, Greta and Berg, Gosta (1999), The Mästermyr Find: A Viking Age Tool Chest from Gotland, Larson Publishing Company (Lompoc, CA)

Christensen, Arne Emil, and Nockert, Margareta (2006) Osebergfunnet – Bind IV Tekstilene, Museum of Cultural History (Oslo, Norway).

Collingwood, Peter (1982) The Techniques of Tablet Weaving, Echo Points Books & Media (Vermont).

Gillis, Carole, Nosch, Marie-Louise B. (ed.) (2003) Ancient Textiles: Production, Craft and Society. Proceedings of the First International Conference on Ancient Textiles, The Danish National Research Foundation Centre for Textiles, Oxbow Books (Oxford & Philadelphia).

Riley, Dennis (2014) Anglo-Saxon Tools, Anglo-Saxon Books, Lightning Source (Australia, England, USA).

Spies, Nancy (2000) Ecclesiastical Pomp & Aristocratic Circumstance - A Thousand Years of Brocaded Tabletwoven Bands, Arelate Studio (Maryland).

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A 14th century Italian inspired greenbelt

I was asked by a friend within the SCA to weave a greenbelt for her prospective apprentice with a 14th century Italian persona and a research interest in medieval ornithology. So the search for suitable extant pieces from roughly the right time frame and geographic location began. Given her research interest I started looking for tablet woven bands with bird motifs. I found several appealing pieces that could be patterned for brocading and ended up using two of them. One inspired by a band patterned with peacocks and another from an intricately brocaded ribbon fragment with interesting geometrical patterns.

Historical Background

Finding tablet woven examples of extant pieces of band from the right time frame and geographic location proved to be somewhat non-trivial. I was only able to find evidence for a small number of fragments of tablet woven bands that are identified as Italian and dated to the neighborhood of the 14th century AD and none of them with bird motifs. Extending the search to brocaded fabrics with bird motives was more successful and one in particularly caught my attention: a silk fabric fragment in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with bands patterned with a row of peacocks facing each other in pairs (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Fragment with band patterned with peacocks.

The museum describes the medium and technique as “silk with alternating bands of weft patterned plain weave (draps d'areste), samite, and plain weave.” The fragment is classified as Italian or Spanish and dated to the 13th – 14th century AD.

The other piece that captured my eye was a fragment of a brocaded ribbon, classified as Italian and dated to the 13th – 14th century AD (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Fragment of a brocaded ribbon.

Technique, material and design

I decided to weave a brocaded band for three reasons: firstly, the fact that the most suitable fragment of tablet woven band was a brocaded ribbon (Figure 2); secondly, the relative ease of designing and brocading arbitrary motifs makes is possible to pattern the peacocks from the band in Figure 1; and thirdly, I simply enjoy brocading.

The first step in designing the belt was creating a pattern for the peacocks suitable to brocading. The extant piece is described as draps d'areste or cloth of aresta. Sophie Desrosiers et al. discuss a number of characteristics shared by cloths of aresta  among which one is a pattern repeat of two units, one straight and one reverse, and another is the characteristic herringbone pattern so evident in the close-up of the band in (Figure 3) which gives the cloth its name (arista is Latin for an ear of corn, but was also applied to a fish bone).

Figure 3: Close-up of the band with the peacocks.

The close-up of the band with the peacocks was loaded into Photoshop and viewed at varying pixel resolutions to arrive at a good compromise between the quality of the image and the number of pixels across the width of the band. The resulting pixilated image served as the basis for the brocading pattern for the peacocks. The band with the peacocks was woven in silk. The thread used to weave the brocaded ribbon was not specified in the catalogue information, but it is a reasonable assumption that such an intricate ribbon would have been woven in silk. So I decided to weave the belt in silk as well with its high strength and beautiful appearance as a welcome bonus. A previously brocaded belt in 20/2 silk taught me that I should expect a warp count of about 56/cm. With 37 tablets for the pattern and 3 on each side for the stave borders (as drawn in Figure 4) this should result in a width of about 3 cm, which was close to the width desired by my friend. So I settled on 20/2 silk for the warp and a total width of 43 tablets.

Figure 4: Brocading pattern of the peacock.

Next, I created a sequence of geometrical patterns inspired by the extant piece of brocaded ribbon in Figure 2 and used that to define the ends of the belt in a similar fashion as the often used metal end tips on a leather belt. However, the extend piece is only 8 mm wide and woven on 25 tablets for a warp count of 125/cm. Thus not only is the number of tablets almost twice as small as the 43 that was settled on above, the warp count is also a little more than twice that what I would expect for 20/2 silk. Clearly the warp thread in the extend piece is much thinner than what I plan to use for the belt. I therefore scaled the pattern to fit on the same 37 tablets with an additional 3 for the stave borders on each side to match the pattern for the peacock motif.

Figure 5: Brocading pattern for the end tips of the belt.

Weaving the belt

The band was woven on a warp weighted tablet weaving loom that I designed and build for an earlier project. The loom is designed to use on the top of a table, with the warp ends weighted down and dropping freely over the fixed rod at the end of the loom. The other end of the warp is attached to a ratcheted rod, which stores the finished band. The length of the finished band needed to be ca. 80 inch (including fringes). I warped the loom with a 135 inch long warp, allowing for losses at the start and end and for shortening due to twist. This was more than enough to create the required length of band, a sample for future reference and some room for testing. During weaving, the initial surplus length of warp was braided or looped to keep the warp ends suspended freely above the ground.

The warp was created one tablet at the time, threading back and forth twice per tablet. The tablets were warped alternating S and Z (to eliminate fouling of the warp threads during turns), mirrored with respect to the center. After warping the loom, I experimented a bit with warp tension and the thickness of the weft threads to get a roughly square pattern. As is common for brocaded bands, I used a thinner structural weft thread (60/2 silk), which helps in getting a tighter more well defined pattern. After some experimenting, I decided to use three 60/2 silk threads combined (not plied) for the brocading weft instead of the more typical single 20/2 silk thread (the same thread as the warp). I found this to give a smoother more even pattern and a better overall look of the motifs. Note that using multiple thinner threads was commonly used when brocading with silver or gold threads to get more even coverage, so using the same idea in this project has historical merit. I ended up using one individual weight of ca. 31 gram (a little over 1 ounce) tied to the four thread of each tablet, resulting in a tension of ca. 8 gram/thread.

The brocading weft was passed under two of the four threads of the cord creating a smooth and uniform underside. As in the original bands, all cards are collectively rotated forward one quarter turn for each successive passage of the ground and brocading weft. The unfinished warp ends were periodically untwisted to eliminate the build-up twist. The finished band was collected on the ratcheted rod at the near end of the loom. The braids at the end of the warp that stored the surplus warp were periodically unbraided to feed more warp while keeping the weights freely suspended.

A test weave of a brocaded peacock gave me a pattern length in the warp direction of ca. 1¾ inch or a weft count of ca. 22/inch. Assuming the same weft count for the end tip patterns gives an end tip length of ca. 4¾ inch, very similar to the length of a pair of peacocks with about an inch between them. This led me to a design of peacock pairs separated by a space between them that is roughly equal to that of a pair itself, such that they appear evenly spaced along the band. Two additional requirements were a target length without fringes of 75 inch and a design that was symmetric with respect to the middle of the band. These design requirements can be met with seven peacock pairs with 4⅜ inch between each pair and ⅞ inch between the two peacocks within a pair. This design was matched well once weaving was completed. The end tips ended up being a little shorter at about 4½ inch each, but the other elements where very close to the designed values. The total woven length was essentially the same as the target length of 75 inch. I added 3 inch of fringe at each end for a total length of 81 inch.

Find a downloadable version of this post at:


Burchardt, Silvester (2016) Who’s afraid of brocade (class handout)

Collingwood, Peter (1982) The Techniques of Tablet Weaving, Echo Points Books & Media (Vermont)

Desrosiers, Sophie, Vial, Gabriel, and De Jonghe, Daniël (1989) Cloth of Aresta. A Preliminary Study of its Definition, Classification, and Method of Weaving, Textile History, Vol. 20 (2) pp. 199-223.

Spies, Nancy (2000) Ecclesiastical Pomp & Aristocratic Circumstance - A Thousand Years of Brocaded Tabletwoven Bands, Arelate Studio (Maryland).

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Warping my warp-weighted tablet weaving loom

So far I have done all my tablet weaving on a warp-weighted loom that I built myself, where the warp tension is maintained by gravity. The near end of the warp is wound around a horizontal rod, which is locked in place between each readjustment of the warp (in my case by a ratchet at one end of the rod). The far end is hanging freely over a second horizontal rod mounted at the end of a wooden board, suspended by a single weight for each cord (the set of threads through all the holes of a single tablet). This warp-weighted tablet weaving method has several advantages. The warp tension is very nearly constant during weaving and the weaver has a lot of control on the amount of tension by using different weights. Surplus warp can be braided before tying each cord to its weight giving a lot of flexibility in the total warp length. Buildup twist can be removed easily without untying the weights or removing the warp from the loom. This facilitates weaving designs or using techniques that are not twist neutral without the need to change the turning direction of the tablets periodically (which often leads to a discontinuity in the pattern or a visible change in the surface texture). One big downside that I have found so far is that traveling with a warped loom is challenging.

Peter Collingwood (2015) discussed several ways of warping the loom. I picked the one that I think is the easiest to learn. The idea is illustrated for tablets with four holes. Clamp the loom in place on a table on one side along the long direction and clamp two boards with pegs at the other end. Start by going through one of the holes of the first tablet, loop around the horizontal rod near the weaver and go in the opposite direction through the second hole. Keep pulling the thread and wind around as many pegs as needed to get the required warp length. End by tying it to the last peg. Follow the same track around the pegs with the other end and cut and tie it around the last peg as well. Repeat for holes three and four and so on for the remaining tablets.

After completing the warping, surplus warp can be braided such that (after tying on the weights) the ends of the cords hang freely just above the ground.

Complete the warping by rotating the loom such that the warp ends hang freely and tie on the weights, one at the end of each cord.

After weaving for some time and collecting the woven band on the rod nearest to the weaver, the weights will reach the level of the table. That is the time to feed more warp by loosening part of the braid.

The most important part to remember is to always pass all threads through the holes from the same side of the tablet as seen from one end otherwise the tablets will not turn!

In photographs:

The layout of the warping setup with the first three tablets warped. If you need a longer warp, you can go back and forth around more pegs.

The first three tablets, from left to right threaded as “S”, “Z”, and “S”. Clamp the tablets in place after warping is complete.

After braiding the cord such that the end will hang just above the ground (left and center) and after tying on the weights, one at the end of each cord (right).

A completely warped loom.

Find a more detailed class handout about brocading on a warp-weighted loom at:


Collingwood, Peter (1982) The Techniques of Tablet Weaving, Echo Points Books & Media (Vermont)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Tabletwoven laurel leave trim

My wife received her writ for induction into the Order of the Laurel, the perfect excuse to weave something with laurel leaves. She has a Viking under dress that could use trim, so I was thinking of a relatively narrow tablet woven band for the cuffs. I wanted to try tablet weaving with linen and since this is a linen under dress, I thought linen would be more appropriate than silk. The band ended up being about 2 cm wide, a bit wide for cuff trim, so it may end up becoming apron dress trim. Ah well, it was a fun project and an interesting new experience. I found the linen to weave pretty easy and not nearly as stiff as I expected. It is true that there is very little elasticity in the fiber, but that is I think much less relevant when using a warp weighted tablet weaving loom, since uneven tension is almost eliminated by using an individual weight for each tablet.

I wanted to design the pattern myself to make it a unique gift, so I downloaded a nice looking laurel leave from the internet. I loaded it in Photoshop, copied and mirrored it, and played a bit with the width to get a number of pixels that gave what looked like a reasonable resolution and number of tablets combination. I ended up with 29 pixels or tablets.

A single laurel leave (left) and a string of three identical ones (right).

The laurel leaves string after reducing the resolution to a width of 29 pixels.

I took two tablet weaving classes on double faced 3-1 twill at the most recent FFF event: a hands-on class and a pattern designing class. That to me was a good enough reason to give it a try, but what decided it was the technique's ability to create well defined solid areas in a single color with smooth transitions along the diagonals. Given the width of 29 tablets and the pixilated figure of a couple of laurel leaves, I set out to draw a weaving diagram on brick paper. The first attempt had 14 picks along a cord across the leave and 8 between the leaves, but after weaving the first leave it was clear that the pattern was much more elongated than intended. I reduced it to 10 picks along the leave and 6 between them and that looked much more natural. I wanted a design with a branch starting at each end of the band and growing towards the center, so after finding the base repeating pattern satisfactory, I designed the transition in the middle where the two branches from either end meet. A slightly smaller terminal leave completed the design.

The start of the pattern with the repeating section between the two lines in the top border. The same pattern in reversed other is used for the second half of the band.

The transition in the middle of the band.

I use a warp weighted tablet weaving loom that I designed and made myself. I like the level of control of the tension, the flexibility in warp length and the ability to simply take out build-up twist very appealing to warp weighted weaving. The rod at the front of the loom is freely rotating with a ratchet to lock the rotation. The other rod is fixed and the cords simply hang over the end. The warp tension is maintained by weights tied to the end of the cords. If the warp is too long, the cords are braided and the weight is tied to the braid.

My tablet weaving loom.

The loom was warped with a total of 33 tablets, two selvage tablets on either side with brown threads in all four holes and 29 tables for the pattern section with two yellow and two green threads per tablet. The same brown was also used as weft. Single ply 16/1 Bokens linen was used for all threads. All cards were S-threaded, except the rightmost two selvage cards, which were Z-threaded. Constant tension was maintained by hanging weights at the end of the warp, a single 25 gram weight per cord. The selvage cards were always turned forward and the build-up twist was periodically removed. I used the one-pack method for 3-1 twill as described by Peter Collingwood. Two bands were woven, one of 17 inch and one of 12 inch.

The first inch (top), halfway (middle) and the finished bands.

After completing the bands I found Guntram's Tabletweaving Thingy and learned just enough to reproduce the pattern in GTT. Hopefully that makes for a more suitable medium to share the pattern with others. Anyone interested please feel free to ask!

The design pattern (top) and the weaving image (bottom) from GTT.

The linen was bought online  from Vävstuga:


Collingwood, Peter (1982) “The Techniques of Tablet Weaving”, Echo Points Books & Media (Vermont).

Monday, November 27, 2017

Weaving linen fabric to create a tunic based on the 11th century Viborg Shirt

The first full weaving project on my warp-weighted loom is finished: a Viking age apron dress for my wife. I figured that the second project should be something that I can wear myself. The apron dress was woven with wool, so I decided to give linen a try to advance my weaving skill on the warp-weighed loom in a different direction. A further practical reason for linen is my intolerance to wearing wool garments. With our Viking personas in mind, I researched the literature for archeological evidence of a male Viking tunic. The most striking extant piece that closely represents our personas’ time frame and location is an 11th century linen tunic found near the town of Viborg in the center of Jutland, Denmark. So I decided to start weaving linen fabric for a reproduction of this piece.

Historic background

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.

Most of our hands-on knowledge of Viking age fabrics and garments derives from textile fragments found in graves. There are very few well preserved remains of tunics from the Viking age. The two most extraordinary exceptions are of a whole tunic found at the edge of the recently retreated Landbreen glacier in Oppland County, Norway and the greater part of tunic found near the town of Viborg in the center of Jutland in Denmark. The first one was found in 2011 by archaeologists from Oppland’s Glacier Archaeology Rescue Program. They discovered a crumbled-up piece of textile approximately 0.58 by 0.29m in size in a pit at the upper edge of the ice patch exposed by the thawing of the glacier (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Lendbreen tunic in situ.

Closer examination revealed a whole tunic made from wool and woven in diamond twill. The fabric is partly bleached where exposed to the sun and wind (Figure 2). Radiocarbon dating shows that the tunic was made between AD 230 and 390. The tunic is relatively short and constructed from a simple cut. The chest girth measures approximately 1.08m. By modern size standards, the tunic would thus fit a slender man, 1.7–1.76m in height.

Figure 2: The front of the Lendbreen tunic. Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo.

The second one was found during the Viborg stiftsmuseum’s excavation near the town of Viborg in the center of Jutland in Denmark in 1984/85. The excavation site was located on the shore of Søndersø, which was inhabited from about 1000 until about 1300 AD. The fabric fragments (Figure 3) were found in a pit that most likely was a post hole. They were dated to the 11th century by stratigraphical analysis of the pit. The damp conditions at the Søndersø site favored preservation of organic materials and although the linen shirt is not preserved in one piece, it was still an extraordinary find.

Figure 3: The preserved parts of the front (left) and the back (right) of the shirt.

Fiber and weaving analysis shows that the Viborg shirt was made of single ply Z/Z-spun natural linen thread, woven in tabby weave with a density of about 20/12 per cm. The warp thread is a little thicker and somewhat more tightly spun than the weft thread . Analyses of the fabric fragments and the seams lead to the following reconstruction (Figure 4): A rather slim-fit poncho without seams on top of the shoulders, a skirt that is open on both sides and a neck lining that is continued into two ribbons for tying. The upper part of the shirt has a band, which is radially stitched to the outer garment. It is presumed that the shirt had long sleeves.

Figure 4: Reconstruction of the Viborg shirt.

Recreating the Viborg shirt

The fact that the Viborg shirt was woven from linen fabric and dated more closely to my persona’s time frame tipped the balance in favor of recreating this shirt rather than the Lendbreen tunic. I started setting up my warp-weighted loom to weave fabric enough for a shirt that will fit me based on the pattern reconstruction as presented by Mytte Fentz (Figure 5). Given my chest size of 23 inch and the maximum weaving width of my loom of about 3 feet, I decided to warp the loom for a width of the widest piece of the pattern. Allowing for seams, shrinkage after washing and possible narrowing of the warp during weaving, I created a warp with a width of 28 inch. I then compensated for the need of the remaining pieces by creating a longer warp.

I bought unbleached natural single ply z-spun linen thread in two thicknesses, 12/1 for the warp and a slightly thinner 20/1 for the weft. A small sample test weave resulted in a warp count of 17 threads per cm and a weft count of 8 threads per cm, reasonably close to the 20/12 per cm in the extant piece.

Figure 5: The reconstructed pattern for the Viborg shirt.

Warping the Warp Weighted Loom

I created a tablet woven starter band on ten tablets. The warp of the starter band was the same 12/1 linen thread as used for the warp of the fabric. At each turn of the tablets, I passed a loop of the 12/1 linen thread through the shed. The weft of the started band becomes the warp 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 does not have to pass through the shed. Instead a loop is pulled from the cone of yarn and passed through the shed and around a series of pegs, while the cone 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 25 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 the same direction for each pick. So after cutting the loops, the two bundles split naturally into the two parts that form the natural shed of the warp.

Warping setup (left) and half completed starter band (right).

Next, I transferred and secured the finished starting border to the cloth beam. First, I tied the band firmly in place by threading a 12/1 linen 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.

The starter band secured to the cloth beam.

After transferring the warp to the loom I knitted the heddles for tabby weave. 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 and knitted the heddles by looping around each thread of the back warp around the heddle rod and the helper rod, making sure to pass each end of the loop between the same two threads of the front warp.

Knitting the heddles.

Finally, I attached the loom weights to the warp and created the spacing cords. The loom weights were made from unfired clay. They are about 320 gram each with minimal weight variation. I started out with 25 warp threads tied to each loom weight, but found the tension in the warp threads to be a bit low for a good shed. So I reduced the number to 20 threads per loom weight. Since the total warp length is significantly longer than the height of the loom, the surplus warp was braided. To make tying and untying to feed more warp after weaving a bit more efficient, the braids are not knotted directly to the loom weights directly, but instead each one is secured by a loop, which is in turn attached to the loom weight. 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. Each time the cloth is rolled onto the cloth beam, the spacing cord will slide down along the warp threads to just below the shed rod.

Attaching the weights.

Knitting the crochet spacing cord.


With the loom warped it was time to start weaving. The tricky part is figuring out how much weft to give in each pick to prevent the weave getting narrower and narrower as you go along. I loosely looped the weft at each pick instead of pulling it tight. Too loose and you get loops in the weave, too tight and the fabric narrows. Right now the selvages are straight and the width is constant, but I have not woven enough to see if tightening becomes an issue. The selvages are straight so far. The other tricky part is how hard to beat the weft after each pick. Right now I beat it as tight as I feel comfortable doing resulting in a weft thread count that is just slightly lower than that in the extent piece.

The natural shed (left) and the counter shed (right).

The first two inches of fabric.

To be continued after weaving is complete 😀


Ejstrud, Bo (Editor) (2011) “From Flax to Linen - Experiments with flax at Ribe Viking Centre” Maritime Archaeology Programme, University of Southern Denmark.

Fentz, Mytte (1993) “Vikingeskjorten fra Viborg”, Viborg Stiftsmuseum

Fentz, Mytte (1987) “An 11th century linen shirt from Viborg”, translated by Maggie Mulvaney. This article appeared as "En hørskjorte fra 1000-årenes Viborg" in KUML 1987; Årbog for Jysk Arkælogisk Selskab.

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 (1997) “Viking Tunic Construction”
http://www.cs.vassar.edu/~capriest/viktunic.html (last updated 04/17/97).

Priest-Dorman, Carolyn (2001) “Weaving on the Warp-Weighted Loom: Some Source Materials” http://www.cs.vassar.edu/~capriest/wwloom.html (last updated 06/17/02).

Uusitalo, Ulla-Mari (last accessed at 10/25/17) “Male linen shirt of 11th century, from Viborg, Denmark”

Vedeler, Marianne and Bender Jørgensen, Lise (2013) “Out of the Norwegian Glaciers: Lendbreen – a tunic from the early first millennium AD”, Antiquity, Vol. 87 No. 337 pp. 788–801.

Verberg, Susan (2016) “A fencing tunic based on the 11th century Viborg Shirt”

Friday, November 10, 2017

Apron dress trim inspired by the Birka bands; 800-975 CE Sweden

I really enjoy tablet weaving and after completing my greenbelt I was looking for another project to practice and grow my tablet weaving skill. The Aethelmearc Wardrobe Project was the perfect excuse. I loved the idea of working together with a group of people to make a complete outfit, so I volunteered to weave trim for the top of the apron dress for Her Majesty, Queen Juliana Delamere.

The partially completed band on the loom.

Weaving in progress

Historical background

Archeological research conducted by Hjalmar Stolpe in the years 1871 to 1881 showed with all certainty that the Viking settlement Birka on the island of Björkö in the Lake of Mälar in present-day Sweden was the commercial center of Sweden during the Viking Age. For almost two centuries, from about 800 to 975 CE, Birka served as an important trading center between Viking age Scandinavia and Western Europe and with the Orient through the trade routes in Russia. Die Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien commissioned Holger Arbman in 1931 to catalogue the enormous wealth of artifacts found in the Birka archeological sites. Agnes Geijer republished an extensive survey of the textile fragments from the Birka graves. This publication contains a complete chapter on the Birka bands (see Figure 1 for examples of some of these bands).

Technique, material and design

Virtually all the Birka bands are woven on tablets with four holes. A large variation of designs can be created by using differently colored threats in the different holes and turning the cards in a specific order, backward or forward, as individual cards or in groups. An alternative, and for me a more attractive, way of creating a pattern is by brocading with a contrasting color or with gold or silver thread. The bands that inspired this project are of the latter type. They consist of: (a) the basic ground weft that binds the warp threads together, hidden by them in the usual way, and (b) a second, brocading weft of double drawn silver wire, creating the actual pattern or design. The brocading weft consists of a pattern of floats and hidden sections by passing the weft underneath one or more warp threads of one or more cards.

Most of the Birka bands show a mix of repeating patterns, like diamonds, stars, swastikas or geometric patterns of diagonals lines (Figure 2). Giving the nature of the project I wanted to combine a typical Birka pattern with the Aethelmearc escarbuncle. I started out creating a pattern for the escarbuncle. The number of tablets determines the resolution of the pattern and to capture the details of the escarbuncle I decided that 75 cards were needed. I then searched for patterns that would make a pleasing match with the escarbuncle and that could be modified to fit on 75 cards. I initially gravitated towards a combination of diagonal lines and crosses as seen on several Birka bands and an intricate pattern found on the B22 band (Figure 3, top). The downside of this combination was that it would result in only three escarbuncles over a length of 17 in, two of them likely partially covered by the shoulder band broaches. I therefore decided to skip the B22 band pattern in favor of a combination of only the diagonal lines with crosses and the escarbuncle (Figure 3, bottom).

Using 75 cards for the band is about three times more than used for the typical Birka bands, so I used a finer silk thread to partially compensate for the number of cards and keep the final width of the band somewhat closer to the extant pieces. Both the warp and the structural and brocading weft are store bought 60/2 silk, which resulted in a width of about 30 mm and a warp count of 100/cm. The warp tension was approximately 10g/thread resulted in a weft count of 32/cm. The final woven length of band was 17 in.

Figure 1: Examples from several bands: Left: (1) B6-7, grave 965, (2) B21, grave 943, and (3)-(4) B19, grave 965; Right: (1) B17, grave 735, (2) B22, grave 824, (3) B11, grave 943, (4) B14, grave 845, and (5) B10, grave 1076.

Figure 2: Examples of several patterns: Left: (1) B5, (b) B9, (c) B14, (d) B16, (e) B17, (f) B2, (g) B7, (h) B13, and (i) B12; Right: (a) B6, (b) B22, (c) B20, (d) B19, and (e) B21.

Figure 3: The initial design (top) and the actually used pattern (bottom).

Weaving the belt

The band was woven on a warp weighted tablet weaving loom that I designed and build for an earlier project. The loom is designed to use on the top of a table, with the warp ends weighted down and dropping freely over the fixed rod at the end of the loom (Figure 4, left). The other end of the warp is attached to a ratcheted rod, which stores the finished band. The initial warp length was about 80 in, enough to create the required length of band for the current project as well as an additional piece that I want to weave based on the first design. Any surplus length of warp has to be braided or looped to keep the warp ends suspended freely above the ground. With the initial warp length I could avoid this by using the loom in the long direction of our kitchen table as shown on the right in Figure 4. Hence, I started weaving in this fashion and switched to the usual setup on the left in Figure 4 after the unwoven part of the warp was short enough to hang freely.

Figure 4: Loom setup used as intended (left) and as initially used for this project to accommodate a longer warp (right).

The warp was created one card at the time, threading back and forth twice per card. The cards were warped alternating S and Z (to eliminate fouling of the warp threads during turns). The brocading weft passed under two of the four threads of the cord creating a smooth and uniform underside. As in the original bands, all cards are collectively rotated forward one quarter turn for each successive passage of the ground and brocading weft. The unfinished warp ends were periodically untwisted to eliminate the build-up twist.

Figure 5: A test weave to check the pattern dimensions and the tension in the warp.

Figure 6: The finished trim, the test strip, and the loom setup for the second band.

Figure 7: The completed second band.

Figure 8: Closeup of the finished second band.

Learning points

The correct tension in the warp is crucial for the final weft count and the “look” of the brocaded pattern. The initial setup and tension created a pattern that was slightly elongated in the warp direction. A thinner structural warp thread would likely have reduced this elongation, but since that was not available to me and the distortion was modest, I decided to move on with the current setup. After completing about 13 in of
finished band I changed the weaving setup from the initial setup (Figure 4, right) to the one for which the loom was designed (Figure 4, left). To my surprise, this increased the tension sufficiently to narrow the band from about 30 mm to about 26 mm. This was clearly not intended and serves as a good lesson to stick with a setup for the duration of a project or to carefully monitor the tension and width and adjust the weights if needed.

Find a downloadable version of this post at:


Arbman, Holger (1940) “Birka I: Die Gräbern”, Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien (Uppsala).

Burchardt, Silvester (2016) “Who’s afraid of brocade” (class handout)

Collingwood, Peter (1982) “The Techniques of Tablet Weaving”, Echo Points Books & Media (Vermont)

Geijer, Agnes (1938) “Birka III: Die Textilfunde aus then Gräbern”, Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien (Uppsala).

Stolpe, Hjalmar (1878, 1880) “Meddelanden frän Björkö”, Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitetsak-ademiens Mänadsblad.

Warp-weighted loom weights: Their Story and Use

I wrote a research paper on warp-weighted loom weights for entry in the 2018 A&S Pentathlon competition at the Festival of the Passin...