Weaving: A Technological History

By | 2017-01-03T11:52:34+00:00 Nov 6th, 2013|Categories: Style|Tags: , , |3 Comments

What Is A Weave?

Weaving is the process of interlacing two sets of fibers, or yarn, at right angles to one another, creating fabric.

An Assamese weaver at work.

A weaver from the north eastern Indian state of Assam. Taut warp fibers can clearly be seen stretching out from her hand loom.

Generally, the fibers that run longitudinally (downwards) are called the warp and those that run across are the weft. The directions of the two don’t really matter; fibers running lengthwise can just as easily be the warp as the weft. What’s important is that the warp threads are kept taut, either by a loom or power loom, and the weft threads are then woven over and under the warp threads.

Weaving is distinguished from other forms of fabric production by its restriction to 90° angles.

In knitting, fibers are not held straight across or down, but meander in a series of interlocking loops.

Some fabrics aren’t even woven. Felt is made simply by condensing and pressing fibers together.

Although felt and other unwoven fabrics can be produced without the use of machines, and have been for centuries, woven fabrics are still generally considered more ‘artisanal.’

The Loom: Ancient Technology

Neolithic warp-weighted loom, a reconstruction.

Reconstruction of a Neolithic warp-weighted loom, on view in a Romanian museum.

The earliest looms presented by the archaeological record appear in the Neolithic Period, a time of accelerated technological progress beginning around 10,200 BCE and ending roughly in 4,500 BCE. The Neolithic saw the inception of agriculture, animal husbandry, and animal domestication.

It also saw the birth of weaving as we know it today, with the use of “warp-weighted looms.” These consisted of a simple frame that was leaned against a wall, from which groups of fibers were hung. These fibers, the warp, were attached to weights that held them taut. The weaver would simply walk from side-to-side, threading the weft by hand. Artemidorus, a Greek diviner from the 2nd century CE, who wrote a text on the interpretation of dreams, said that dreaming of a warp-weighted loom was the premonition of an upcoming journey.

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Although the warp-weighted loom was eventually replaced by more mechanized versions, it was still in use in isolated pockets of Norway and Finland as late as 1950.

The (Somewhat) Contemporary Hand Loom: Anatomy And Terminology

Painting of Japanese weaver at ancient loom

A depiction of a Japanese weaver, using a loom with multiple heddles and a foot treadle.

Now, most looms that still require a person to operate them are large, complex contraptions. Their essential components are a series of bars, extending the width of the loom, bearing eyelets called “heddles.” Warp threads are passed through the heddles, which can be raised and lowered, usually with a “treadle,” or footswitch.

For the simplest looms, only two bars are necessary, and warp threads are passed alternately through the heddles in each bar. When the treadle is activated, one bar will be raised while the other remains below, bringing each other warp thread aloft. This creates a tent-like opening, called a “shed,” through which the weft thread can be passed.

The weft thread itself is held in a “shuttle,” a bullet-shaped tool that must be thrown through the shed, and caught on the other side. Then, another bar, called the “beater,” must be pushed forward to secure the weft. In the picture above, the weaver is holding a beater, suspended from overhead.

The Flying Shuttle: Getting Down To Business

This large loom is housed in the Rhineland Museum of Industry, West Germany.

A German loom. Notice the large, bullet-shaped flying shuttle resting against its “race.”

But the innovations introduced by the hand loom alone were not enough to truly industrialize the art of weaving. In 1733, an Englishman named John Kay introduced a new loom design that would revolutionize weaving forever.

In order to weave large textiles on a hand loom, two operators were required: one to throw the shuttle and one to catch it.

Kay’s new “flying shuttle” made this extra operator unnecessary. Kay built a new type of beater, one with a track, called the “race,” along which the shuttle could run smoothly. Both ends of this new beater had small boxes that the shuttle would enter after finishing its journey across the warp. These boxes were equipped with a mechanism that, when a cord was yanked by the loom’s operator, would send the shuttle flying back across the loom.

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Now, large-scale weaving projects could be undertaken by individual weavers. Kay’s flying shuttle increased productivity to such an extent that spinners, who produced the yarn that weavers used, couldn’t keep up with demand. New, powered spinning machines had to be devised, and the textile industry was well on its way to full-scale industrialization.

The Lancashire Loom And Its Descendants: Full Automation

In 1784, Edmund Cartwright, an English clergyman, finished his design for the first power-driven loom. It was essentially the same as Kay’s design, except that now the throwing of the flying shuttle would be initiated by a drive shaft. The design was improved over the next 47 years, by at least 22 different inventors. The final result was dubbed the “Lancashire Loom.” An operator was still necessary, to fill the shuttle with yarn when it ran out. But each operator could usually service six machines simultaneously, so labor costs went through the floor.

In 1900, an engineer from Massachusetts perfected the power loom. The machine could now refill yarn itself. Eventually, even a shuttle was no longer necessary. These highly-automated power looms are still the predominant technology used in weaving today.

Common Weaves For Suiting Fabrics

There are two basic types of weave used in producing suiting fabrics, from flannels to tropical-weight wools: plain and twill.

Plain Weave

A plain weave is as simple as it gets. One thread over, one thread under, repeat. In a balanced plain weave, both warp and weft threads are the same weight, giving the fabric produced a standard checkerboard appearance. In a basketweave, groups of warp and/or weft threads are treated as single fibers, and woven together in a plain weave. This can give the fabric a fuller texture, or accentuate one direction over the other.

Organge and white gingham cloth

An example of gingham, one of the most common fabric patterns.

Although any fiber can be made into fabric using a plain weave, and many, like cotton and worsted wool, commonly are, gingham and madras are defined in part by being plain woven.  Notice that both are patterned fabrics.  Plain woven fabrics are identical front and back, making them a natural choice for patterns meant to appear on the interior and exterior of a garment. Several different visual effects can be achieved through plain weaving. When the warp threads, or ends, are spaced closely together, they can completely cover the weft. This produces a warp-faced textile known as repp piqué that is often used for polo shirts. If the warp is spaced far apart, the weft threads, or picks, can completely cover them. This would be a weft-faced textile.

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Obviously, the spacing of warp and weft has benefits other than stylistic ones. For one, controlling airflow. For example, tropical-weight wool used for summer suits is simply loosely woven plain weave worsted wool. Flannel, ideal for cold weather, is tightly woven to restrict air flow.

Twill Weave

In twill, weft threads are staggered to create a diagonal pattern. A twill fabric is created by staggering warp and weft threads. In a plain weave, each weft passes over exactly one warp, and then passes under exactly one. In twill, weft threads can pass over and under multiple warp threads. By beginning each stretch of warp (which covers multiple weft threads) on the weft higher than the last stitch, twill weave creates a diagonal pattern. This distinct, raised patterning is called a wale. A float is the portion of thread that passes over other threads. Check out the picture on the right to see what I mean.

Twill’s diagonal pattern literally pulls fabric downward. Think of a trouser leg. A twill trouser fabric acts like a spiral staircase, spiraling down to your ankle. For this reason, twill fabrics generally drape better than plain woven ones. Twills are great for pants, where drape is key. In fact, twill is the standard weave used for jeans.

Brown suit fabric in herringbone weave

A textile woven in herringbone, a twill weave pattern commonly used for suit fabrics.

Most ‘interesting’ suiting fabrics, ones with texture or patterning, are twill weave. This includes herringbone, houndstoothserge, and sharkskin.

Tartan fabrics are characterized by crisscrossing bars of different colors. The primary blocks are commonly woven using a plain weave. But where two blocks of color meet, a twill weave is used. This meeting point appears as a crosshatched blending of the two colors. From afar, it looks like the meeting of the primary blocks has created a new color.

Fabric-Specific Weaves: Satin and Pile

Now let’s use some of the knowledge we’ve gained: when silk fibers are plain woven into a warp-faced textile, the resulting fabric is known as satin. This weighting of warp over weft creates a fabric that is glossy on its front, and duller on its back.

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A nap is the raised surface of certain cloths. Originally, ‘nap’ referred to the rough texture of a woven fabric before it had been sheared, before the small, pointy ends of the fiber had been cut down. Now a raised nap is sometimes desirable, especially when the fiber used is particularly soft, like silk. Velvet is created, traditionally from silk, by weaving little loops between plain-woven silk threads, then cutting them to create a nap.

About the Author:

Paul Anthony is the founder and creative director at Bespoke Unit. He has had a life long affair with design, watches, fragrance and clothing. Originally from England, he now lives in the USA splitting time between NYC & Philly. Favoring "British Style", but has an overall eclectic taste.

3 Comments

  1. […] For more information on the history of textile manufacture, see my recent article: Weaving, A Technological History. […]

  2. Great work, Stephen. I hope to be reading more as you further explore the topic.

  3. […] has been knitted, woven, fashioned into shape, and used as clothing or blankets to provide protection against the weather […]

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