How does a loom work?

Different looms work a little differently, but here is the basic idea…

The warp threads run from a back beam (warp beam) which is a bar the warp is tied to at the back of the loom, to a front beam (cloth beam) at the front.

A the start of your weaving, most of the warp is wound around the back beam and, as you weave you, roll the back and front beams forward, so the cloth you’re creating wraps around the front beam.

On the way from back to front, each warp thread passes through a heddle and a reed.

The heddles are attached to different shafts/harnesses and these are attached (usually tied) to some type of lever.

Image of a table loom with all the parts indicated
This is an Ashford Katie Loom which is a type of table loom. This one has 8 shafts. You can’t see the shafts in this pic really, but they are behind the levers.

You move a lever with either hand or foot and this lifts a shaft/harness, pulling the attached heddles upward. This lifts the warp thread that runs through those particular heddles and creates the “shed” (sideways-V shaped gap) for you to pass your weft thread through.

Each lever will lift a different shaft/harness and so a different group of warp threads. The more shafts/harnesses you have, the more complex the patterns you can do because you have more variations in lifting different groups of warp threads.

My rigid heddle loom does the same thing, but without the levers, as the reed – with its built-in heddles – acts as two shafts in one. You manually raise or lower the reed to create different sheds.

Don’t worry if that’s not 100% clear. The rigid heddle will get a more detailed post of its own later! In the meantime, YouTube is a great place to find video of different looms in action.

A knitters loom by Ashford

Heddles, reeds and beaters

Loving words comes in handy when there is a bunch of new terms to learn. Weaving is a treasure trove!

I particularly like “heddle” because it’s fun to say. (Also fun is “raddle”, which I’ll talk about another time.) But what is a heddle, and why is my loom a “rigid heddle” loom?

Like the eye of a needle, the heddle is the part of the loom that holds the warp thread. Usually looks a bit like this:

Image of a plastic heddle






Or this:Image of  metal heddles




The heddle is what keeps one warp thread separate from another and, ultimately, what lifts a set of warp threads up to allow you to weave.

As well as passing through the heddle, each warp thread also passes through a comb like thing called a reed. This helps to keep your weaving tidy and – to some extent – image of a metal reedcontrol the density of the cloth. It does this by setting the spacing of the warp threads.

The reed, while a thing in itself, is also a part of the beater that you use to “beat” the weft threads into place. Usually the reed sits inside a frame of sorts so that you can easily pull the reed forward to beat the weft when you need to.

So, why is my loom a “rigid heddle” loom? Well, that’s because in this type of loom the heddle, the reed and the beater bar/frame are all together as one thing. How? Like this:

image of the reed from a rigid heddle loom

You can see the long “slots” are just like in a reed for other looms, but the solid area between each slot is a heddle (“hole”) and it’s altogether used as the beater. Very clever way to combine 3 things into one!

I’ll talk more about this type of reed when I get into the specifics of rigid heddle looms, but it has both benefits and limitations. So far, I’m just loving the benefits.

Weaving patterns #1 – colour

So, I’ve mentioned plain, or tabby, weave before. Don’t let the term “plain” fool you because you can do a lot with plain weave!

A good place to start when messing about with it, is to use colour. You can have multiple colours in your weft. You can have multiple colours in your warp. You can do both!

Depending on the alternation of colours you will get plaids, tartans, stripes, houndstooth and even some funky optical illusions. For example, here is a pattern called log cabin, which is about the coolest thing I’ve seen in plain weave so far:

image of log cabin weave cloth Doesn’t it look textured and ridiculously complex? It’s not.

All this pattern is, is plain weave done with warp and weft threads that alternate between light and dark colours. Really!

(I’m itching to try it.)

But this is one of the amazing things about weaving; the colours of the warp and the weft mix to make new colours, or to make patterns.

So, just using colour, you can do stripes, strips and checker board patterns. You can do streaks, splotches or gradients using variegated yarns (just like in knitting).

image of shot silk, showing how it changes from one colour to another as the light hits itAnd, while this isn’t a pattern, this cloth shows another result of changing thread colours… Just by having a different coloured warp to weft, you can create wonderful effects like you see in shot silk, where the cloth  changes from one colour to another as the light hits it. (This is my favourite fabric.)

Trust me, there will be a lot more to be said about colour  and colour in patterns at a future point!

A tabby, a basket and a balanced plain weave

If you were picturing a cat in a basket on a rug then I apologise, but I do try to limit myself to talking about weaving…  🙂

Which brings us to the interesting fact that tabby, basket and plain weave are actually all the same thing. They all have over, under repeating structures.

Tabby is another name for plain weave, and it goes like this:

drawing of plain weaveAnd basket weave is a simple variation of tabby/plain weave, where a pair of weft threads is passed under and over a pair warp threads so you get a pattern a lot like in a woven basket:

drawing of basket weaveBoth these diagrams show what’s called a balanced plain weave.

The word “balanced” indicates that the warp and weft threads are equally spaced, but they don’t have to be. The spacing of the weft relative to the spacing of the warp, is controlled by how you beat the weft (push it into place – not as violent as it sounds!).

For example, if you have a lot of space between your warp threads, and beat the weft threads so there’s very little space between them, then you get a different kind of cloth than if you beat just enough to get a balanced weave. Same applies if you have your warp threads close together, but beat the weft lightly.

Playing with this to see how much it changes the way the cloth behaves is one project on my to-do list!

My first attempt (or two)

I jumped right into using my loom the first moment I could. This was after watching some YouTube vids of people using looms, and doing plain weave and making patterns, so I basically just tried to replicate what I remembered them doing. Then I played with some thoughts of my own to see what would happen. Sooooo much fun!

Here are the first few minutes of actual weaving:

Image of weaving on my loom

This turned into this sample…

My first weaving sample


And I soon followed it up with this…

image of my second weaving attempt

You can tell I’d discovered some actual patterns by the second attempt, even though I had some warp issues.

I was happy with how both came out. Given I’d just picked random cottons and bamboos from my yarn stash and winged it, I’d expected to hit more problems, but overall it was easy to get going and not too hard to just muck about.

Number 3 is still on the loom, but I was a bit more organised so you can see it is a bit neater:image of my third sample on the loom

How a loom helps us weave

Here is a picture of a loom:

a matchbox loom

Yes, it’s a matchbox.

This was the very first type of loom I ever used, because when you work with seed-beads everything is on a small scale.

But what is the matchbox doing?


Well, it’s holding the warp threads in place and under tension, so that the person in the picture (that’s not my hand) can use a needle to pass the weft thread over and under the warp threads.

This kind of loom is basically a frame for holding the warp.

Of course, most looms do a lot more than this; importantly they allow you to sandwich the weft between two sets of warp threads, rather than manually feeding the weft over and under each one. This makes weaving faster.

The loom achieves this by lifting one group of warp threads to make a gap for you to pass the weft through.

In this image, you can see that the shuttle holding the weft thread is actually sitting in the gap between two sets of warp threads (that gap is called a shed). When that gap closes, the weft thread ends up under the top group of weft and over the bottom group, giving you the over, under structure.

rigid heddle loom with a shuttle in the shed

Another thing the loom does to help out, is to press the weft into place – this is called beating – which keeps the weft tidy and determining how closely the weft threads are packed into the warp.

How the loom achieves all this I’ll cover in another post, but before we finish, take a look at the image above and how the woven cloth wraps around the front of the loom. This is one more helpful thing, because that cloth beam, as it’s sometimes called, stores the cloth and keeps it out of harm’s way while you continue weaving.

Looms, looms, looms!

A post or two from now, I’m going to start talking about looms. There are all kinds of looms out there, but I want to focus on what I’ve found useful as a new weaver, which means I will focus on rigid heddle looms and shaft/harness looms.

As I don’t want to leave the other types of loom weaving out entirely, I thought I’d do a pictorial list. I’m sure I’ll have missed some, but these are the main types I’ve come across.

First up is a frame loom, though this is a small version of what is used for tapestry and sometimes rag rugs.

image of a frame loom

Then there is the pin loom, which makes squares with bobbly edges.

Image of a pin loom

The rigid heddle is the loom I use.

A knitters loom by Ashford

This is a backstrap loom. Makes the most sense when you see it in use!

image of a person using a backstrap loom

This is an inkle loom for making bands.

image of an inkle loom

Here is a tablet loom. Tablets are quite an old way to weave.

tablet weaving loom

Peg looms are a very old type of loom.

Image of a peg loom

A table loom, so called because it sits on a table.

image of a table loom

Floor loom – well, that’s just self explanatory!

image of a Julia Floor Loom

Of warp and weft

As someone who sews, I came to weaving already knowing some basics about the structure of cloth. I knew it had selvedges (the neat edges of the cloth) and that the warp runs the length of the cloth, while the weft runs the width of the cloth between the selvedges (by-the-way that’s selvage if your from the USA).

When we talk about warp and weft, we actually mean warp threads and weft threads. You see when you weave you’re doing this:

diagram showing weft running through warp

The warp threads are held in place by the loom while the weft thread travels over and under the warp threads, first in one direction and then in another.

Warp and weft are at the heart of loom weaving, so it’s good to know how they “work”… And that they work the same way whether you are weaving a tapestry, a rag rug, or a fine silk cloth.

What is cloth?

Well, it’s a bunch of threads that are interlaced (passed around each other) so they can’t escape! I might be oversimplifying here, but really that’s it, and in woven cloth the threads are at right angles to each other in a sort of grid (as I talked about in my post on weaving).

[For a more graceful – and thorough – description of cloth, see the Wikipedia entry for textile. I really like how they put it.]

Depending on the fibres used (think cotton), how densely fibres are packed together (think high thread-count sheets) and how they are interlaced (again think sheets), will give you cloth that’s:

  • smooth/textured
  • stiff/soft
  • warm/cool
  • thick/thin
  • see through/solid

Another way to put it is that, the way the fabric hangs (the drape) and how it feels to touch and handle (the hand) are the result of a particular fibre (or fibres) being woven in a particular way.

In these images you have an ordinary cotton sheet and a cotton scarf.

image of cotton sheet
You can just see the a white envelope under the sheet
image of cotton scarf
Here the corner of the envelope is clearly visible under the scarf

Both are made of fine cotton thread, but one is much denser than the other. Because the scarf is less densely woven it is softer and has a lovely soft drape compared to the sheet. Why? A more open weave allows the threads to move a little.


Both of these cottons have a plain weave structure (simple over, under repeating), and this is one the two most common weaving structures. The other structure is twill, which I’ll come back to another time, but it’s important to understand that each structure gives the cloth certain characteristics.

Because I always start big (and repent later)

Now, if you read the post on how I chose my loom then you might think I’m a bit nuts. As a friend put it:

You wanted to make scarfs – which you already do – and ended up taking up weaving. In the space of a week.

Yes. Okay, so I might be a bit nuts when it comes to crafts. For example, my second knitting project ever was a long-sleeved, calf length knitted coat. It was so big that I used it as a blanket during the latter stages of knitting it. (But Mr Kaffe Fassett does know how to catch a knitter’s eye – see image above from the book Gorgeous Knits.)

So I can’t deny that I like to jump in, boots’n’all and just try everything. Usually all at once.

Though coat example might lead you to wonder why went from a project like that to knitting scarfs.

Simple answer is, I can’t wear animal fibres near my skin. Acrylics are less of a problem but still a problem, and for a long time cotton was hard to get in any colour not meant for children too young to go “yuk” at it.

Bamboo improved things, but tends to split. Ditto silk + expensive.

So, for some time now, I have bought yummy wools and knitted them for other people. This is still fun, but knitting is slooooowwww and, as years passed, I lost the desire to spend so much time on each project. Thus the looking for a faster way to make scarfs. Which led to the loom.

The other thing you’ll realise if you read the blog (assuming fromthiscloth turns out how I hope) is that, I may have only taken a week to decide to start weaving, but that was a week of overdosing on YouTube videos and sites about looms and weaving.

[Part of deciding to blog was realising I needed to order all the info I’d learnt in such a short time. I learn best through explaining things to others = blogging it.]

In case I’m misleading anyone into thinking I have craft learning superpowers (I’m picturing a knitted cape, are you?) I should mention that, I didn’t come to weaving from a place of 100% ignorance. As a sew-er, I know cloth and, as a seed-bead-er, I know (tiny) looms.

That left a mountain of stuff to learn, but it was a start.