Sunday, October 13, 2013

Plain Weave Inkle Loom Weaving

Each month I'm presenting a new tutorial on a medieval skill from various types of textile-related crafts. The purpose is two-fold. First, it will allow me to locate, study, and try a variety of new techniques I might otherwise overlook, and second, it's an easy way to get information out there about skills that other people might be looking for or find helpful. This month, I present Plain Weave Inkle Loom Weaving.

I'm not entirely sure how the decision to sit down and learn inkle weaving came about. All I do know is that one moment I didn't know what it was, and the next I was stringing a loom. I also know that it was very easy to figure out, and I really like doing it!

Inkle weaving falls into the same category as card or tablet weaving as a narrow or band weaving technique. Unlike card weaving, however, inkle relies on a more basic principle of weaving and does not involve twisting threads along their paths. It produces a much more defined weave.

There are two categories of inkle weaving techniques. "Plain" inkle weaving involves nothing other than a consistent pattern of warp exchanges with the weft passing through on each exchange. "Pick-up" inkle weaving involves one of two variations of warping the loom with specific pattern and ground colors, and manually creating a pattern by "picking up" individual strands independently of the basic weave. I'm still working on understanding pick-up weaving, so in this month's feature, I'm going to focus only on plain weave. Don't let the name fool you, however. Patterns are still possible in plain weave inkle bands- they rely on patterns of color.

Inkle bands consist of any number of warp threads that are either "open" and moveable, or "heddle" and stationary. The threads always alternate between open and heddle across the width of the band. Pushing the open threads above (up) or below (down) the heddle threads in sequence creates the weave of the band. For most plain weave bands, it doesn't matter if the open threads start up or down, since plain weave inkle bands are only able to produce simple, two-phase repeating patterns.

Heddles are required for inkle weaving. Heddles are extra strings or devices that wrap around or capture warp threads. The most common style of heddles for inkle weaving are strings that secure the heddle threads by pulling them to the static heddle peg. It is also possible to use a rigid heddle for inkle weaving, but I've never tried the technique.

The length of your heddle threads is usually dictated by the particular loom you use, so check your loom's specifications. In general, they will be determined by the specific location of your heddle peg. The heddle peg is simply a stationary piece of the loom positioned relatively near the working area. Looms designed for inkle weaving (the "inkle loom", go figure) have a heddle peg, a tension bar of some variety, and several pegs to wrap the warp threads around for your band's length. I'm using my mom's inkle loom, an Ashford loom that's been through the ringer and had an extra piece attached to keep everything lined up. Here's how I set-up heddles on my loom:

Brown heddle string wrapped around both the top and heddle pegs for sizing. After sizing all my heddles, I pull them off the loom and set them aside for warping.
I start by placing a heddle string on the heddle peg. After positioning my warp thread over the top peg, I pull my heddle up and over it.
Then I secure the other loop of the heddle string on the heddle peg, pulling the heddle thread into position.
The next warp thread is "open", so I simply pass that between the top and heddle pegs to my back peg.
Your loom may be arranged differently, but all plain inkle weaves need to have this same type of basic setup.

You'll also need a shuttle- a special stick that holds your weft threads. Belt shuttles are great for inkle weaving. They have a rounded edge for holding the weft thread as well as a tapered edge to "beat" the weft threads down after you pass them through the shed. Unfortunately, I don't have a belt shuttle, but any type of shuttle will work, as long as it's narrow enough the beat the weft into place effectively.

On the technical level, creating a plain weave is a 4-step process. Pass the weft through the shed (the space between the open and heddle threads), exchange the position of the open threads (if they were down, you pull them up), pass the weft through the shed again from the other direction, exchange the open and heddle threads again. Rinse and repeat along your entire length. So, technically speaking, inkle weaving sounds pretty dull.

To create patterns in your weave, which is the really exciting part, you'll need a pattern. There are two basic types of patterns for plain weave inkle weaving. The first puts both the open and heddle threads on a single row, and the second splits them up into two rows.

Both of the patterns above produce the exact same band- a 22-thread band with blue and gray stripes and wider blue edges. In both cases, each column represents one warp thread. Every other thread will pass through a heddle, while the others will remain open. With Style 1, it's up to you to determine if you will start with a heddle or an open thread. Once you pick one, you alternate between the two until you have all 22 threads. In this case, since we're looking at an even number of threads, half of the threads will be heddle. Note that you will end with the other type from the one you started with. Style 2 helps you out a bit more by detailing which warps are open (O) and which are heddle (H), but it's the same pattern. The white spaces are meant to be ignored. It's really a matter of preference which you like, but since patterns are available using both methods, is a good idea to wrap your brain around both. There's a great site, the Inkle Loom Pattern Generator, which allows you to create patterns using Style 1. The popular book The Weaver's Inkle Pattern Directory by Anne Dixon, utilizes Style 2 (calling the rows Heddled and Unheddled).

The thickness of your threads has a great deal to do with the look of your band. Using the 22-thread pattern above with worsted weight wool yarn will produce a much wider band than working the same pattern with crochet cotton. It's also common to group threads together to bulk them up. Warping 4 strands of crochet cotton together and treating them as one warp will produce a thicker band than just using a single strand alone.

To show you how to inkle weave, I've created the pattern below. I'm using a heather teal wool yarn and a white acrylic yarn.

This pattern uses 15 warp threads and will produce a pseudo-checker pattern. Since I'm working with an uneven number of threads, I will end on the same type I started with. I'll have 8 heddle and 7 open so that my band is capped by two heddles (which is my preference- some people prefer it the other way).

To begin the band, I'll need to warp the loom. Since this is just a tutorial, I'm going to use the shortest band size available on the loom. Wrapping the warps around combinations of pegs produces different lengths, and inkle looms have both minimum and maximum possible lengths.

Begin by securing your beginning thread to the starting peg. Some people use masking tape and tape the end to the loom. I just use a slip knot.
Here is one length around the loom. You can see that my tension pad is not up, but my thread is pulled fairly tight.
Depending on the type of thread you use, you may be able to wrap the threads around the starting peg so you can secure the heddle. If not, a piece of tape will work, or you can even work on setting the heddle with only one hand, so you don't have to let go with the other.
Since I decided that my pattern would start with a heddle, I apply that to the thread I just warped.
The pattern calls for the next thread to be white, so after cutting the teal, I knot the white on.
After getting all 15 warp threads in place, I untie the starting thread and tie it to my ending thread.
When it's all warped, it looks pretty sloppy.
So I straighten my heddles and set my tension. Not sloppy now.
There are a couple different methods for starting the weave, but if I can get away with the simplest one, that's what I prefer. After passing the weft (blue cotton) through the shed twice, I pull it tight and knot it. This helps to also give me a better idea of the width.
The starting position of my open thread falls naturally under the heddle threads, in the down position.
When it's time for the open threads to be up, I manually grab them and hike them up above the heddle threads.
Since that's not normal, I need to slide my shuttle into the shed before releasing them.
Then I slide my shuttle down the shed, and beat the weft thread into place.
Then I manually push the open threads back down, below the heddle threads.
I wait to fully tension the weft until after I've beaten the newly exchanged weave down. This helps with keeping the weft perpendicular across the band.
Here's the band after several passes of the shuttle. You can see that it took a few turns to find the right weft tension (look at the widths of the white areas). I was also surprised to see that my teal yarn is not equal to the white within the weave, and is just small enough that it gets relegated to more of a background than an equal component of the checkered pattern.
After a while, as you work, you may notice that the warp threads shift around. On an open loom like mine, that can be a problem, since, if I'm not diligent, the warp can slide right off the loom. Every so often, push your warps back into place in the middle/ inside of the pegs.

When you get to a point when your shuttle can no longer pass through your shed, you'll need to shift your warp. Here's how I do it:

When you're done with your band, there are a variety of ways to finish it off. The easiest is to cut each warp off two at a time and tie them together. There are much fancier methods, but this simple finish won't inhibit you from doing something else with it once it's off the loom.

I hope that this has been clear and enough information for you to try inkle weaving for yourself. I know I'm hooked!


  1. Thank you for your very clear instructions. I have been researching the idea of inkle looms and I will bookmark your site to come back to later when I have a loom to play with.

    1. I'm glad to help! I found it very easy to learn, and quite addicting :)

  2. I find it's easier to do a continuous warp, rather than cutting the strands & tying them each time you have a color change. What I do is wrap the "old" color around my base, which keeps it under tension until I'm ready to use it again, and tie the new color onto the base then warp as usual. When it's time to switch to the first color, I unwrap it from the base and use it, wrapping the second color around the base until I switch back.

    If you're not careful and accidentally twist the warp colors around each other, it can get a little wonky toward the end of your weaving. But you'll lose some length due to the nature of the beast anyway, and the continuous method means fewer cutting & knotting to be done.

    I enjoy reading your blog! I'm currently warping my first pickup pattern, everything finally made sense after watching your videos a couple times!

    1. I have since started warping that way too. It makes the warping go faster, even just slightly. But I'll take any little bit of help with the warping! Thanks.

    2. I'm going to have to remember this... I just tied over 100 knots on the belt i'm making, this would have been a huge time saver!