Weaving On My Table Loom

March 28, 2010

I finished my first project on the table loom about a week ago.  It was nothing like weaving on my Bergman.

With the table loom, it made more sense to set the shuttle down between picks than it did to swing the heavy beater and work all the levers with only one hand.  I would throw the shuttle, catch it, and set it on the breast beam while I changed the shed.  I did develop a sort of rhythm for this, but it was all fermatas and full-measure rests!

The loom is too tall to use sitting down, so I wove standing, which is probably better for me anyway.  No strain except from threading (how I missed the Bergman’s removable breast beam!) and from staying on my feet for too long.  Oh.  And my hands got a little achy from the leavers, which require some effort to move.

Why is that?  My 60% cotton / 40% linen warp was part of the problem.  If I kept it tight enough to support the shuttle, I could barely raise the shafts.  If I left it loose enough to raise the shafts easily, the floor of the shed was too loose to take the shuttle very well.  This wasn’t a fault of my loom in particular, it was just how how linen would behave on any short jack loom with ratcheting beams.

The question soon came to me: why are there no sinking shed table looms?  With a jack loom you make the shed by pulling some threads out of the way while leaving others in place.  The ones you’re pulling away from the resting warp will have the greatest tension.  Why not put those higher tension threads on the bottom of the shed, where you need them to support your shuttle?

Then I got Dot’s comment on my last post and had a whole lot more to think about.  Dot explained that one of her table looms was actually designed to have the resting warp angle down through the heddle eyes.  It was a way of making sheds big enough to admit the shuttle on what otherwise would have been too shallow a loom for any but the smallest of sheds.  This sent me to the Mountain Looms website with a terrible suspicion.  Mountain Looms are no longer in production, but you can still look at the pictures, and they are designed the very same way!

I supported the the shafts of my homemade loom on 2 1/8″ blocks to raise the heddle eyes to the same height as the breast and back beams.  At the time I believed I was correcting a crazy mistake of the carpenter, who used a Mountain loom as a model.

Well, he did make a lot of mistakes, but the shaft-height issue is more complicated than I thought.  My loom isn’t particularly shallow for a table loom, and I am still getting quite  spacious sheds after my modification.  The original Mountain looms never left the heddle eyes more than 2 inches lower than the breast and back beams, like mine did.  Before I put blocks under the shafts, this loom was opening a 3 or 4 inch shed, which is larger than anyone needs and which would have caused even more tension discrepancies.  I couldn’t have left it as I found it.  So that’s okay.

But what if the home carpenter hadn’t botched the measurements for the lifting mechanism so badly?  I might have been able to treat this as a a sinking shed loom.  Instead of lifting the shafts up from a resting position on blocks, I could have hung them (if I was very clever) so that the warp was at rest when the shafts were in the up position, and the sheds were formed by releasing the levers so that the shafts fell back down to the bottom of the loom.

This could work as long as the shafts were heavy enough to pull down the threads of the tensioned warp (I think they probably are); but it would be a weird design, because it would depend on having terribly heavy shafts!

Frankly, as someone who likes to weave with fine woolen thread, I don’t even think the original Mountain Loom design is that great.  I can’t like the stress it puts on the warp.  Dot pointed out that there is more abrasion with Texsolv than with smooth metal heddles, but it still rubs me wrong (pun intended) to have to advance the warp under friction.

So far my little researches and thought experiments have all pointed to the same thing–which is that table looms are a compromise.  You already knew that, didn’t you?  Their direct tie-up and hand-operated lift mechanism makes them ideal for weaving small quantities of complex-patterned cloth.  Nobody has ever claimed that they are the best kind of loom for anything else.

The verdict: a table loom is no replacement for a countermarche, but it’s a good loom for right now–maybe the next 4 months.  Despite it’s absurd girth and general lack of refinement, weaving on it was a relief!  I was so surprised what a relief it could be just to put a warp on a loom and weave without the specter of pain, further repetitive strain injury, and the question of whether or not I might have to get rid of my loom hanging over my head. Once my SI joints learned how to act up, putting a warp on the Bergman was like embarking on a dangerous, difficult, possibly never-to-be-completed journey–crossing the Alps on foot, perhaps.  To escape the Nazis.  The worry and the prospect of physical pain were a bigger part of the ordeal than I’d realized.


Last weekend I got my envelope of inspiration for the Pics to Picks challenge that has been created and orchestrated by Meg of Unravelling.  I sent three pictures to a weaver in New Zealand.  Mine came from Linda of StoneLeafMoon in Massachusetts, and here they are!  I got a bonus picture too.  Would that make it a baker’s trio?

To a former duck owner, the fancy fowl (some kind of gamecock?) with the black and white lapped fish-scale pattern in its feathers suggested not only a repeating pattern in high contrast, but also texture and heft.  Something sleek and firm.  The idea of picking up one of our football-shaped runner ducks and tucking it under our arm was always as tempting to Der Mann and me as it was distasteful to the duck.  We never did it.  We liked them in proportion to their indifference.  Some evenings we would each take a glass of wine outside,  sit on the old cement silo foundation in the duck yard, and watch the ducks do duck stuff.  Ducks don’t do much, but they do it with gusto.  It’s better than TV.

I love the pipe-smoking African musicians in their elaborately folded cloth headgear.  The angular folds are a lot like something out of an early Renaissance painting, the kind where the artist was showing off his skill with drapery. On the other hand, the sepia filter and heavy shadows and smoke suggest caves, spirits–spookiness.

The grayish printout is a foggy pasture or lawn with a single tree and a thorny bush.  Trust me, since you won’t see them on your computer screen, but this one has great muted colors.  I like the way the details of the bush in the foreground emerge more sharply out of the mist, and the tree is just a solid presence in the background.  It reminds me of eastern Massachusetts, where I lived for four years.  Of course maybe it isn’t a photo Linda took locally, but there were places Der Mann and I walked with scenes like this.

The fashion photo is the one that completed my inspiration circuit.

That is to say, I had some vague ideas of making something girly and embellished in the back of my head.  Probably since taking a Japanese craft book of crewel embroidery out of the library and unearthing some tatted handkerchiefs when I cleaned out my dresser.  The picture gave me a direction.

There are so many delightful textures and ornamentations.  Just look: the rippling lambs-wool of the jacket, and the thickly layered satin bows on the collar and cuffs studded with satin roses–all in black to make the most of their handle-ability without the distraction of color.  The net gloves–gloves that are both a texture themselves and leave the fingers wearing them able to perceive texture through the net.  And the purse: ruched, satiny, fringed, cinched, buckled, and bowed.  And rose colored.  And pale yellow.  Pretty much every traditionally female costume effect!

What interests me about purses is that they are one of the few accessories that are made to be carried, not worn.  Their femininity is not the same as that of a feminine dress.  The purpose of feminine gown, shoes, or piece of jewelry is to to make a woman feel feminine, and also attract people to her-in-the-dress.  She becomes what she puts on.  It’s a sort of magic cloak.  Sometimes a deception.

A purse is one part of her outfit that a woman can appreciate as separate from herself.  (Until the middle of the 20th century hats did something like this, too.  Sad, sad, sad to be born in a post-hat world.)  A magic cloak doesn’t work its spell on the one who wears it, only the ones who see her in it.  A dress on a hanger can’t inspire the same kind of abstracted admiration that a purse does.  I think, to appreciate a dress fully, you have to imagine it being worn–either by yourself or someone else.  You don’t have to do this with a purse.  A purse is made to attract and please the woman who carries it as much–or more–than anyone else.  It’s sort of her independent sidekick, like one of those annoying talking animals that run around with the heroine in a feature length cartoon.  It is also functional.  When a woman sees a purse, she sees what it can do for her.  What it will hold–or fail to hold in the case of an evening bag.  How much and what kind of things a purse is meant to hold can start a whole story about where she will go and what she will do with it.

I’ve never carried a purse because I like being able to use both hands and not worry about setting something down and losing it.  The exception is special occasions, when I’ve worn nice clothes that don’t have pockets.  To me a purse means a lack of pockets, or pockets too dinky to hold anything–those are the worst.  If you want to push it further, a lack of pockets is a good representation of the inequality of the sexes.  “No pockets for you.  You don’t want to look fat, do you?”  or  “Okay, we’ll give you some pockets.  But just for looks.”  And men, no matter how much they might enjoy them, don’t get to carry handy little decorated bags that are just big enough to hold a few necessities unless they are willing to put up with the stigma of being a guy with a purse.

When I carry a purse it’s always an obscure weight on my mind, a burden.  I can carry what I need in my hip pockets; just my wallet and keys.  Sometimes I also carry a handkerchief, a measuring tape (clips on the outside), a bit of paper, and a small pencil.  If I need more than that, I pack a tote bag and leave it in the car.

I like purses.  I admire them in stores or on women’s arms, though never so far as to want one–for that, I’d have to imagine myself lugging it.  When I was a small child my granny’s purse was like bottomless portable toy box.  From fabric scraps to folding combs to mini tape-measures to face powder and collapsible drinking cups to carefully wrapped half-pieces of Trident chewing gum.  It also weighed about 10 pounds.  Later, she switched to a small front pack to spare her shoulder.

“So you’re going to make a purse.”  Well, no.  At first I thought I might, but not anymore.  My idea so far is one of layers of old-fashioned decoration.  I’m thinking of what occured when women took lots of trouble to make something beautiful with a nod toward utility that was more reflex than anything else.  A secret handshake.  The password would have been something like “guest towel” or “needle book” or “luncheon set” or “bridge pad cover.”  But if, hearing the those words, you simply pictured playing bridge or hosting a luncheon, you would have been missing the point.  A purse doesn’t quite work for me in this context though it is certainly something I would never use.

I love those carefully starched and folded old luncheon sets that have never once seen a table top in 70 years!

Whatever I make, I think there will be flowers or possibly rosettes.  And a net.  And I think the net will be woven.  I’m looking at drafts.

Cat butts: they're everywhere you want to be.

“. . . consign it to the flames.”

-Mary Meigs Atwater on badly made looms

Well, It’s been nearly a year of beady-eyed stares and tooth grinding, but I finally got my table loom working.

I wrote all about this unfortunate home-made loom it after I bought it, and buying it was my weirdest Craigslist adventure ever. Read here, if you’re interested:


Since last May, I have discovered more design mistakes. Susan at Thrums titled a recent post about her kitchen renovations “Making a Silk Purse From a Sow’s Ear.” I might have used that title myself, because it is a pretty good description of what I have been doing.

The thing that really shot me down was the problem of the shafts being too low. (Or the breast and back beams being too high, whichever.) One day I suddenly realized that when the shafts were at rest, the heddle eyes were exactly 2 1/8″ inches lower than the breast and back beams.

The lady who sold me this loom had been trying to weave on a warp that followed a v-shaped path. Whenever the warp was advanced, each separate thread was raked violently through its own heddle eye. I didn’t notice this when I bought the loom. It never occurred to me to look: Who would expect such a glaring design flaw? No wonder the pop-henge lady wanted to sell.

I knew that raising the shafts to the correct height would create slack in the lift cords. The only way to find out whether this was going to cause problems was to try it and see. But, since 2 1/8 inches isn’t a standard width for milled lumber, and we don’t have any power saws, I had to wait until the next time we took a trip to my parents house. My dad used his table saw to cut some oak blocks. They were a little long when I got them home, so I had to sand down the ends to make them fit. Here’s one in the loom:

The next problems to solve were with the path of the lift cords, which caught on and dragged over the sharp nuts and protruding bolt ends, catching and fraying the cord when I worked the levers.

This sent me to a specialty bolt store looking for low-profile cap nuts. I know. With a drill press and a willingness to take the loom completely apart, there would have been better ways to attach the levers to the loom than with regular bolts. I didn’t have either of those things.  Since I didn’t know whether I could get the loom to work at all, a total overhaul seemed premature.

The plain metal cap nuts weren’t an option–they just worked loose. This sent me on a search for locking nylon cap nuts. The nylon nuts protruded too far, especially since I had found it necessary to add nylon washers to cut down on friction between the levers and the lever assembly. I went back to using some of the plain, low-profile locking nuts from the bolt store. Fortunately, with the nylon washers taking up additional space along the bolts, the bolt ends no longer protruded pas the nuts, and the cord no longer scraped against them. I had also tied knots and used pony beads to push the cords out from the ends of the levers a bit.

On the underside of the castle, the lift cords rubbed across each other on their way between the guiding screw eyes, like this:

I fixed the problem by installing a new, smaller screw eye for one cord and fiddling with the heights of the other.  The cords still cross each other a bit, but they travel at different elevations, so they don’t abrade each other any more.

The next repair concerned the shafts. When I raised them the first and last shafts, they would tilt outward and catch on the underside of the top of the castle:

I didn’t want to add a set of permanent guides, because that would mean the only way to remove any shafts would be to untie all of them and lift off the top of the castle. So I used some wooden blind slats to make these little guides. They pivot on a screw and can be flipped out of the way to remove shafts from the front or back of the loom, like so:

I also had to:

  • Raise the beater to accommodate the corrected warp height. Put some little bumpers on it where it hit the castle.
  • File the screw eyes and bolt tops. The chewed metal was fraying the lift cords
  • Put on 600 heddles
  • Sand the rusty, rough metal heddle bars smooth. Polish them like crazy to get rid of the discoloring metal dust.
  • Make new apron rods and figure out how to cord them to the warp and cloth beams, which each had four holes (Joanne Hall’s excellent Tying Up the Countermarche Loom shows various ways to do this).  The old apron rods looked like this:

–Nylon beading cord reinforced with kite string, tied off-center. Now I understand why 10 pound steel rods were lashed to them when I got the loom. Oh, you poor lady…

  • Make an eenie weenie pair of lease sticks out of mini-blind twirlers. (I knew I saved all those parts from the Great Mini-Blind Massacre for a reason!)
  • Wash and trim a lot of grody mini-blind slats for beaming sticks. (Weaving with mini-blind parts is strangely satisfying–like drinking my mead from a cup made of my enemy’s skull.)
  • Figure out how to attach my Glimåkra raddle for beaming: modified ceiling hooks, as it turns out.

And does this hundred pound sow’s ear deserve to be a silk purse, or firewood? I’m still not sure. My trial warp is 2.5 yards of 13 wpi cotton/linen, which I am weaving up quickly into a 4-shaft, warp dominant runner. That is really not enough length to tell whether the possible variations in warp beam circumference are going to mess up tension over the course of the warp. Otherwise, it is doing okay. The slack in the lift cords doesn’t cause them to tangle. My irritations with the floppy floor of the shed are probably just par for the course when you try to weave close-set linen on a shallow jack loom. I’ll try it with all eight shafts, next.

My Le Clerc Warping Reel

March 15, 2010

Have I ever told you about the six years I spent fighting mold in a rented stucco farmhouse between two creeks?  Every spring and fall the water table crept into the cellar.  I became an unofficial expert on the kinds of grey-green mold that grow on furniture and wood floors, and the kinds of mildew that grow on window frames and plaster.  At any rate, I became an expert on how ineradicable they are!  Spores are viable for upward of a decade, and–according to my friend who is a chemist–nothing really kills them but bleach or formaldehyde.  If it is humid enough for them, they will grow.  Truthfully?  Even bleach doesn’t hold back a patch of household mold for long.

Sometimes it’s convenient to be a human mold detector.  I can trust my sense of smell completely.  If there is even a tiny amount of mold on something, my mold-sensitized nose will pick up on it.  On the downside, if I walk into a musty antique store or garage, what to others is just an unpleasant odor gives me itchy eyes and a tight, choking cough that lasts for hours.

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that my new-used Le Clerc warping reel arrived moldy.  I should have known better, since my old no-brand reel was another Ebay disappointment.  That one wasn’t moldy, but it had design problems.

When you have a piece of equipment you don’t like, it teaches you a lot about what you would like.  Actually, there are inherent problems in using any warping reel to achieve a consistently tensioned warp.  With a warping reel, unlike a warping board, individual warp threads accumulate on two different planes, because the pegs are perpendicular to the body of the reel.  Each new thread has a little farther to go than the last thread did to get its place as the top thread on the peg.

Some reel designs magnify the tension problems, others smooth them.  This makes a bad reel a bad bargain.  How do you tell which reels are the best?  Its mostly a matter of how the cross bars that hold the pegs attach to the body of the reel.  But it is hard to see details online, because the product photography is very low resolution.  It’s also hard to find out how much a given warping reel holds. When manufacturers state a reel’s capacity, they are assuming you will pack it tightly and make a lot of small bouts.  I don’t do that.  It’s a big pain, and I’d lose any advantage a warping reel has over a warping board.  Based on my old reel, which resembles a Louet warping reel / yarn blocker, I assume a 16 yard reel will comfortably hold 12 or 14 yards, or even less.  A 20 yard reel will hold 16 or 18.

After peering at a lot of blurry photos I decided that a Woolhouse (rare), Ashford or a Le Clerc would be a good used reel for me.  A Glimåkra would have been my first choice, but they are expensive.  The Le Clerc holds more warp than the Ashford.

Then one day I happened to find an older Le Clerc reel on an ebay auction that was ending in a few minutes for a very good price. There was no time to ask the seller about mold.  Usually, I won’t bid on ANYTHING made of wood without asking the seller where it has been stored.  Old weaving equipment is often banished to damp basements, sheds, and garages.  I also take note of the sellers location.  If they are in a humid area with mild winters, I’m wary.

I bid, I bought, I regretted.  The warping reel arrived from Tennessee smelling faintly of mold.  It was covered with a fine layer of that sitting-in-storage, ground-in, house-dust-of-ages kind of gunge, which always makes it hard to tell visually what is mold growing on the wood itself, what is mold growing on the gunge, and what is just gunge.  The metal axle was rusty.

I let the reel sit in the entry-way for a month.  Should I should try to clean it up, or just get rid of it before the mold could spread?  I decided to risk a cleaning.  Der Mann kindly de-rusted the axle with Naval Jelly.  It wouldn’t have been good to use bleach on the wooden parts–any residue could transfer to the warps and discolor them.  Besides, I am allergic to it  (another legacy of the moldy farmhouse).  On a sunny day I washed everything outside with a rag dampened in sudsy hot water.  I did a lot of rubbing before I rinsed and dried it.

This is never a great way to treat an old piece of varnished wood, but at least the gunge is gone.  As long as I’m careful to store it in a dry place with good air circulation, maybe it will be okay?

I hope so, because I like it!  Here it is with its first warp.

I don’t know if the current Le Clerc warping reels are made as nicely, but I can certainly recommend the older ones.  Judging by the the logo and the opaque brownish-yellow varnish, mine is from the fifties or sixties.  It is a beautifully joined tool.  If you make crosses at both ends of your warp, the circumference is almost exactly 2 yards.  You can move the peg holders anywhere you like for odd-number-yard warps. The design is simple.  Gravity holds the axle slotted into the heavy butcher-block base. The body of the reel slots onto the axle, where it rests on a nylon ring to reduce friction.  If you remove the adjustable peg holders, It folds to about 3″ wide.  The lumber is all top notch: unblemished Canadian maple.