Know the qualities and drawbacks of different floor and table looms.
By Stacey Harvey-Brown
How to choose the best loom for your needs
There are a bewildering choice of looms in the market – both new and second-hand. How do you know what sort of loom suits you and your weaving? “Is one sort of loom better suited to rugs?” “Can I weave things other than rugs on it?” “If I want to weave tapestries, will a shaft loom be useful?”
These are a few of the questions I’ve been asked over the years, and there’s a lot of confusion about the different types of looms and what they do. As a teacher and practising weaver for 18 years, I’m often asked for advice on choosing a loom. Over the years, I’ve come across a number of different looms and have gained a lot of experience - in 2008, I set up a weaving workshop for 60 weavers in Oman for the Omani government, including putting together many different makes and models of looms. So I’ve written this guide to help clear up the confusion and point you in the right direction to find the loom for the weaving you want to do. The guide contains the following : 1. The 4 generic types of looms that you are most likely to come across – rigid heddle, tapestry, table and floor looms. 2. More specific descriptions of the different types of floor looms. 3.
How do you choose between them?
1. The 4 generic types of looms that you are most likely to come across. i)
Rigid heddle loom
iii) Table loom iv)
This is a description of each of these 4 generic types of loom.
Rigid heddle loom.
Ashford Knitter’s Loom shown with heddle in the raised position
A rigid heddle loom is a frame loom with one shaft/reed which has alternate slots and holes where you thread your warp. It will give you plain weave structure (threads in the holes rise for one weft insertion, and the threads in the slots are raised for the other weft insertion) when you raise and lower the rigid heddle, so called because there are no individual heddles to be manipulated separately.
Ashford tapestry loom with heddle bar and string heddles.
This can be: a) a simple wooden, metal or plastic frame with pins or nails or slots inserted on top and bottom edges which hold the strung single warp thread in place; b) it can be a more sophisticated frame for multiple warp threads with two heddle bars or rods to lift alternate warp threads and with a system for moving the warp and woven fabric around the frame; c) it can be a 2-shaft loom, looking very similar to a traditional 4-shaft loom, with a warp beam and a cloth beam.
For tapestry weaving, you need to be able to create a shed for weaving plain weave, or sometimes twill. Many tapestry weavers don’t require any mechanical assistance at all, as they weave discontinuous weft, which they put in place by hand-selecting just the areas of warp they wish to weave. The looms are generally horizontal looms – used in a similar way to shaft looms, vertical looms – used in an upright position, or lap looms – mobile and used without any particular orientation, quite often propped on the weaver’s legs and leaning against a table.
iii) Table loom.
Four-shaft table loom with side levers (Leclerc Dorothy)
Table looms are shaft looms that sit on a horizontal surface such as a table, workbench or stand. Each shaft operates individually and contains individual heddles, and the shafts can be used on their own or in combination with the other shafts. The loom has a warp beam with a brake system to store and tension the warp threads at the back of the loom. It also has a cloth beam at the front of the loom, with a ratchet brake, to wind on and hold the woven cloth. The warp yarn passes from the cylindrical warp beam over the back beam, through the individual heddles and then the reed, over the breast beam and onto the cylindrical cloth beam at the front of the loom.
The essential differences between the table loom and the floor loom are the table loom’s smaller size and that it is totally operated by hand. There are models of table loom that have an optional treadle facility, but you cannot then use them on the table, so they then fall into the floor loom category. Some table looms can be folded for easier storage and transportation.
Eight-shaft table loom with front levers (Ashford)
Whilst table looms predominantly have 4 shafts, they can also have 8, 12 or 16 shafts. The more shafts, the heavier the loom and the less easily transported. Sometimes, you will also find that looms with more shafts have two warp beams, and two back beams. This allows different yarns to be used in the warp which have different shrinkage rates. The different yarns can be tensioned separately, one on each warp beam. The levers to operate the shafts are usually found either across the front of the castle, facing the weaver, or along the sides of the top of the castle, either on one or both sides. The action varies from a simple pivot lever which you depress to raise the shaft (found more usually on side-action looms), through a pull cord with a knot or bell-pull knob
(like a light cord) where you physically raise the shaft directly, and then lock the pull cord into a slot to keep the shaft raised (found on both side-, centre- and front-action looms), to a magnetised lever which is very similar to the pull cord but locks through the use of magnets (found usually on front-action looms). The magnetised lever is the modern version of the pull cord. The beaters on table looms can vary from underslung (which means they pivot from the bottom of the loom frame), overhung (which means they are attached to the top of the castle), or sliding (which means they slide along grooves like a drawer closing or opening).
8-shaft table loom
(Louet Jane) with stand and folded
A floor loom is a larger version of the table loom but uses treadles (pedals) which are foot operated to control the shafts. The weaver quite often sits on a bench built within the frame of the loom. The number of treadles restricts the combinations of shafts that can be lifted in one tie-up. In order to change this combination, the weaver is generally required to get underneath the loom to alter the connections between the treadles and the shafts. Some floor looms have a different system which does not include climbing under the loom and that is explained in the next section. Floor loom beaters, which hold the reed and are used to beat the reed against the fell of the fabric, can be underslung or overhung like table looms. Underslung beaters are pivoted at the base of the loom, usually at the bottom edge of the breast beam frame, or along the bottom side pieces of the main frame. They rest close to the front shafts, or against the breast beam. Overhung beaters are suspended from the castle and hang freely.
2. More specific descriptions of the different types of floor looms. Here’s where it gets a bit more involved and the confusion arises. Basically, there are 4 different types of floor loom: i)
iii) Jack iv)
Each sort of loom suits different people and different weaving styles. Each have good points and drawbacks. I will give you the basic descriptions of all four types of looms and then will go into the attributes and drawbacks between the different looms.
i) Counterbalance – this is usually a 4-shaft loom (although you can get 8-shaft versions but they are rare), where each shaft is connected to the other three through a roller system (think pulleys) or a horse system (think balance scales).
For a 4-shaft counterbalance loom you will generally have 6 treadles. The action is that as you depress a treadle (say that it is tied to shafts 1 and 2), it will lower those shafts to which it is attached. At the same time, the pulley/horse action raises the other two shafts, so creating a shed. The advantage to this system is that only a small movement is required to open the shed to a good size and the action is balanced. The disadvantage is that the shed is not so good when you are using 1/3 or 3/1 twill, although if the shed is still wide enough to pass your shuttles through, this is not a problem.
4-shaft counterbalance with a roller system (Leclerc Fanny)
ii) Countermarche – this system can be used on any number of shafts as each treadle is attached to every shaft. There are two sets of lamms, the upper set is attached to the bottom of the shafts, and the lower set attached to the top of the shafts through a pulley system. When you tie up the treadles, you attach the treadle to the upper set of lamms for the shafts you wish to lower. You then tie up the remaining shafts to the lower set of lamms so that those shafts are raised. For a full tie-up, you do this for each treadle. The advantage is that the shed is very clear. The disadvantage is that you are moving all the shafts all the time, which can be physically quite taxing. On 4-shaft looms this is not usually a problem (the same happens on the counterbalance). However, on looms with 12 or more shafts, especially with metal heddles, this can be very tiring.
8 shaft countermarched loom (Louet Spring). Every shaft is attached to every treadle via the horizontal lamms beneath the loom.
You also have an option to tie each treadle to just the upper lamms or just the lower lamms and only use the shafts you want
to use. This gives you a split shed if some of the treadles are tied to upper lamms and some are tied to lower lamms. The split shed can then be used to create some unusual weaving, but this is usually not tackled until the weaver has some experience.
iii) Jack – the jack loom uses shafts in a similar way to table looms. The shaft is generally raised to create the shed, although there are jack looms where the shaft is lowered to open the shed. This makes it easy to tie-up, but puts considerable tension onto the warp as the moving shafts are doing all the work and moving the full distance to create the shed unlike the counterbalance and countermarche systems where all shafts move and only move half as much. Jack looms are also more likely to have folding beams for storage and ease of mobility.
(Leclerc Colonial V2).
12-shaft jack loom with 14 treadles The jacks can be seen at the top of the castle.
iv) Dobby – dobby looms are essentially multi-shaft jack looms but with only one or two treadles. They usually have 12 or more shafts, and have a dobby box attached to the side of the loom in place of treadles and tie-up. The action is similar to a table loom, and the dobby box, either mechanical or computer-driven, selects the shafts pre-programmed into the
system. The mechanical system works on pegs and lags, where lags are small bars with holes in according to the total number of shafts on your loom. Pegs are inserted into the holes of a lag to denote which shafts you want raised for that particular pick. Each lag denotes one passage of a weft. Lags are joined together in the order you choose with chains or ties to create the pegplan, and each one is advanced through the selecting mechanism on the box with the use of a treadle. The pegs push forward the raising mechanism on each shaft selected which connect into a sweep arm which pulls the selected shafts up as the arm is moved down by the direct action of the treadle. Where you have two treadles, only one is used at a time - one lifts, then the other is used to advance the lags. Where you have one treadle, the treadle lifts the shafts, and the dobby box has an automatic advancing mechanism to move onto the next lag.
32-shaft mechanical dobby loom (Louet Megado) showing the bars and pegs which determine the shafts to be lifted.
The computer system works through a computer which is attached to the loom. A simple binary code tells the dobby box whether
the shaft is to be on or off. If it is on, a little solenoid pushes forward to engage the raising mechanism on each shaft selected, similar to the peg on the lag. The sweep arm is pulled down with the pressing of the treadle which engages the raising mechanism and raises the selected shafts. As before, where you have two treadles, one lifts, and the other cancels the lift and advances the programme to the next lift.
AVL V-series dobby loom
Computer system for a dobby loom (Louet Megado)
The main advantage of the dobby system is that you have the ability to change from one lifting plan to another without having to clamber under your loom to change the tie-up. On older dobby looms, the main disadvantage is the wear and tear on your right leg, knee and hip, especially if you have many shafts and use lots of them together, as your right leg, knee and hip are lifting all the shafts you have selected. More modern versions have electronic assistance or compressed air assistance so you press a button either with your foot or your hand, and the power system you’ve bought operates the lifting of the shafts. Some dobby looms, especially ones built in the early 1900 – 1980s, have one treadle and are very tall. The treadle is
attached to a rope that goes right to the top of the loom – about 8 – 9 feet – and gives you the leverage to raise large numbers of shafts under tension with just your body weight. If you come across a George Wood dobby, that is what you will find. Quite often the preference of an overhung beater or an underslung beater can make a difference to which loom you buy. Ideally, you need to try out both versions to see which you prefer.
How do you choose between them?
You can see from the descriptions above that each loom has attributes and each loom has drawbacks. Depending on what you want to do, those play a smaller or larger part in selecting which loom you would like for your weaving. For ease of changing lifting combinations, the table loom and the dobby loom have the upper hand. However, the table loom is slow, so if you want to weave lots of lengths, then the table loom is probably not for you. If you want the ease of changing lifting combinations quickly and weaving lots, the dobby loom is the ideal loom for you. If you are trying out a set of samples so that you can see what things will look like before going on to another loom to weave the length, then the table loom is ideal. The counterbalance and countermarche looms are good for weaving lengths or weaving projects that are related through the same tie-up. The counterbalance is much easier to set up, and quicker if you want to change the tie-up. However, it is usually limited to 4 shafts. If you have a solid, heavy counterbalance loom, it is ideal for weaving rugs, and yet is equally at home with lighter weight fabrics. The countermarche loom requires more time and effort in arranging the tie-ups, and is not the loom to use if you want to change tie-ups on a regular basis. Both counterbalance and countermarche looms require that you get under the loom to change the tie-up and this is not such an easy task if you have mobility or joint problems. However, the countermarche is a great loom for weaving projects that require 8 or more shafts and a cheaper loom than the dobby. If you want to
weave linen (which does not have elasticity), the counterbalance and countermarche looms are a better choice than jack or dobby or table looms because the action of the shafts gives all the warp yarns the same tension regardless of what combination of shafts you are using. The jack loom is a useful loom if you like to weave with some changes of tie-up. Although you most often have to climb under the loom to change the tie-up, it is a very simple action, like the counterbalance loom. However, this loom is not so good for rugs or linen, as the action of the shafts imposes a high tension on the warp yarns. Also, if it is a folding jack loom, the strength of the loom will not generally be sufficient for weaving rugs. Jack looms are also usually fairly compact and can take up considerably less floor space than counterbalance, countermarche and dobby looms. This can be a very important factor. If it is a folding jack loom, this is a great loom to have in an apartment or small property.
As you can see there is no wonderloom! Each has its own attributes, and its own drawbacks. If the loom is sturdy enough, it can weave items that require a heavy beat, but you need to think about the kinds of items that you would like to weave before you buy your loom. If you are a rug weaver, avoid table, jack and dobby looms. If you prefer soft furnishing fabrics, and change the tie-up often, then jack looms or dobby looms would be better suited to your needs. If you prefer to weave as many different patterns from one tie-up as you can, the countermarche could be your loom. If you are a linen person, look to counterbalance and countermarche looms. Price-wise there is a consideration too. The table loom will usually be the cheaper option. Fixed floor looms take up more floor space and are less moveable than folding looms, so you may find a price variation there. However, folding looms are not as sturdy as fixed floor looms, so that might be a consideration. Dobby looms are generally more expensive than the other types of floor looms. Older dobby looms may also require considerable ceiling height to clear the loom’s height. Check
that if you are considering a dobby loom, especially a mechanical one. Counterbalance looms are usually 4-shaft, so you will probably find them to be a bit cheaper than countermarche looms. However, it all depends where you are looking – whether you are scouring the second-hand market or buying new. Do try out your loom before you agree to purchase, just to ensure that it is the right loom for you and your needs.
To help you Know what to look for when buying your loom second-hand, or How to set up your loom when you get it home, and for How to avoid the 10 most common pitfalls in preparing your warp, you can download guides to cover these topics on my website – www.theloomroom.co.uk/
I hope this has given you an understanding of the different categories of loom and that you will be better equipped to select the right loom for you and your needs.
Happy Weaving!! Stacey Harvey-Brown www.theloomroom.co.uk
Phone 01538 723000 Louet :