Saturday, May 7, 2011

Tablet Weaving: An Introduction

Planxty Trelane basic tablet weaving pattern

Tablet weaving is an ancient craft that is practiced today. With only a few very simple tools, weavers can create a wide variety of patterns.

History of tablet weaving

Tablet weaving is a centuries-old technique that Candace Crockett succinctly describes as “an ancient craft in which simple cards, or flat tablets, form the ‘loom’” (Crockett). According to Peter Collingwood, the earliest examples were “found in a fourth century B.C. Spanish grave” (Collingwood).
Collingwood argues that “A distinction has to be drawn between the earliest known fabrics which could have been tablet-woven and those which in all probability were so woven” (Hansen). He places the girdle of Ramses III into the former category, stating that its “exact method [of weaving] still remains a mystery” (Collingwood).

Crockett’s history states that “Card weaving has traditionally been used for making strong, narrow, decorative bands” (Crockett). She cites examples from China, Turkey, northern Africa, Burma, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Iceland and Persia and concludes, “Almost without exception, the bands from the past were narrow, strong and decorative” (Crockett).

According to Egon Hansen, the recent history of tablet weaving begins in 1898 in Berlin, “when Margrethe Lehmann-Filhes arranged an exhibition of textile bands in cooperation with Berlin’s ethnographers” (Hansen).

“The exhibition was a tremendous success,” Hansen relates. “It so inspired people that many visitors went home and made tablets out of their own playing cards and started to weave” (Hansen). He adds, “Lehmann-Filhes continued her work with tablet weaving and in 1901 she founded the written history of tablet weaving with her book Über Brettchenweberei” (Hansen).

Essential materials

As mentioned above, tablets — or cards — serve as the loom in tablet weaving. As Crockett explains, “Yarns are threaded through holes in a set of cards or flat tablets. These cards are rotated to create patterns in the weaving” (Crockett).

Crockett’s statement provides an excellent summary of the basic tools required in tablet weaving, beginning with the tablets themselves. According to Crockett, “Cards have been found made of stone, wood, bone, horn, tortoiseshell, ivory, fish skin, parchment, leather, and even of playing cards. The size, number, and placement of holes, as well as the shape of the cards, vary” (Crockett).

This weaver relies upon commercially-produced, four-cornered cards, a set of which accompany Crockett’s book. This weaver has also purchased cards from commercial suppliers including Glimakra Looms ’n’ Yarns in Petaluma, Calif. and Robin & Russ Handweavers in McMinnville, Ore.

The next essential component in tablet weaving is the thread, strands of which pass through the holes in the card. There is one strand of thread for each hole in each card.

Tablet threading diagram
The diagram above was downloaded from Wikipedia; its use is permitted via Creative Commons licensing.

Crockett recommends the use of weaving yarns because “they have relatively little stretch and are available in a wide range of qualities, colors, materials, and weights” (Crockett). This weaver has also found that mercerized crochet cotton is available in various colors and is easy to use.

As the cards are turned, a new combination of threads rise to the surface and the threads are twisted around each other; weaving patterns incorporate the diagonal effect that this produces to create smooth or broken lines as desired.

Tablet weaving is a “warp-faced” fabric: as explained by Crockett, “The threads that are visible in the completed weaving are the warp (longitudinal) threads that were originally threaded through the card holes” (Crockett).

As each turning creates a new shed, the weaver uses a heddle to pass the weft thread through the shed and to beat the weft into place.

One final tool is optional: this weaver prizes the convenience of threading her cards onto a table-top inkle loom. It consists of a wooden framework supporting dowels in fixed positions and an adjustible tension bar.

The photograph at the beginning of this article depicts tablet weaving that has been strung onto an inkle loom.

Helene Bress recommends inkle looms that are open on one side: either floor or table-top models. “To ready the loom for weaving, warp threads are strung from one dowel to the next” (Bress).

As traditionally practiced, the tablet weaver would affix one end of the weaving to his or her person and the other to a stationary object but by threading the warp onto an inkle loom, this weaver enjoys greater ease in transport and an ability to maintain consistent tension upon the warp.

Like tablet weaving, inkle weaving produces a warp-faced fabric; Bress’s book is an excellent introduction to a craft that is worth pursuing in its
own right.


Tablet weaving begins with the threading of the tablets according to a pattern diagram. With four-sided cards, the four holes in the cards are labeled A, B, C and D clockwise around the card. The diagram will specify what color should be threaded through each hole in the card. This weaver threads her cards so that the printed side faces her left when she weaves.
If a weaver were to look down the length of his or her weaving, the warp thread would pass through the cards either from right-to-left (unprinted to printed side) or from left-to-right (printed to unprinted side). The pattern diagram will indicate which direction the warp threads are to travel.

Threading diagram: Black Star

Shown above is a threading pattern for one of the weaver’s own designs, “Black Star.” It shows the color of thread that corresponds to each hole (D, C, B and A) in cards 1 through 14, as well as which direction the yarn should be threaded through the cards. The blank boxes represent the color white. Other methods of diagramming use letters to designate colors. The pattern above would then be rendered with “W” for white, “R” for red and “B” for black.

When reading a diagram, the weaver always has the option of threading the cards in colors of his or her own choosing.

Once the tablets are threaded, the weaver begins weaving from what is called “home position:” that is, the D and A holes are aligned along the top edge of the card. Every four quarter-turns will bring the cards back to home position.

Beginning at the bottom with “A” and continuing with “B,” “C” and “D,” the diagram above also displays the pattern that will form with four quarter-turns away, followed by four quarter turns toward the weaver (“D, “C,” “B” and back to “A”).

Each time the weaver reverses directions (always when in home position) his or her weaving will create the mirror image of the previous rows.

“Black Star” is an example of a basic weave; all of the cards are turned together four quarter turns toward and away from the weaver. Repeating this technique creates a strip of fabric to the length that is desired.

Intermediate weaves

Sometimes cards are divided into groups and these groups of cards are turned in different directions. This enables a weaver to add greater variety and complexity to the resulting pattern.

Threading diagram: Ram's Horn

Here is this weaver’s diagram for “Ram’s Horn,” a pattern that came from Crockett’s book. Once again, it shows which colors correspond to which holes in cards 1 through 22, as well as the direction of the thread. Here is her explanation for the weave:

Start the weaving by turning continuously toward you for a while and then away, to see the basic pattern and to establish the weaving. End with D-A on the top and bring the weft through. Separate the cards by sliding 3, 4, 5—8, 9, 10—13, 14, 15—18, 19, 20 along the warp away from you. Notice the pattern: two cards near, three away, two near, three away, two near, three away, two near, three away, two near. Turn  the cards near you (the sets of twos) away from your body. Turn the distant cards (the sets of threes) toward your body. After you have turned all the sets,  bring the weft across. Continue in this manner until D-A is back on top (total of four turns of each set). Now turn all the cards (keep groups separate) four turns away. These eight turns create theimage and are repeated over and over in the example shown. To reverse the image do the same actions, but reverse the turning directions. Begin by turning all the cards four turns toward, then separate the cards and turn the sets of twos toward and the sets of threes away (Crockett).

Crockett cautions readers that “It takes awhile to get used to the pattern and to see clearly how the patterns dovetail. In the course of getting the angles right, you will probably come up with some interesting variations.”

Here are three segments of “Ram’s Horn” fabric:

Another intricate pattern, “Kivrim,” is depicted in Collingwood’s book: “An ingenious meander motif involving narrow diagonal stripes in three colors is found on some Anatolian tablet-woven belts … One set of these motifs running down the length of band is called the ‘running dog’ …” (Collingwood).

Collingwood does not give threading or weaving instructions for kivrim, but through examining the diagram and subsequent trial and error, this weaver arrived at the following:

The pattern requires 16 cards; the first eight are threaded left-to-right and the last eight threaded right-to-left.

The weaver should divide the 16 cards into groups of four adjacent cards each: cards 1-4, 5-8, 9-12 and 13-16. Counting from left to right, these groups will be referred to as groups 1, 2, 3 and 4.

• Step 1: Groups 1, 3 and 4 four turns forward; group 2 four turns away.
• Step 2: All groups four turns forward.
• Step 3: Groups 1 and 3 four turns away; groups 2 and 4 four turns forward.
• Step 4: All groups four turns away.
• Step 5: Groups 1, 2 and 4 four turns away, group 3 four turns forward.

As the weaver completes these steps, the meander or “running dog” moves diagonally across the weave from left to right. By counting the groups of four cards from right to left, the weaver can also use these above directions to send the meander back the other way.

Here are some lengths of “kivrim” fabric:

Advanced weaves

There are many other intricate techniques that exceed this weaver’s ability. Hansen’s Tablet Weaving documents reconstruction of fabrics originally unearthed in archaeological finds for exhibition in a museum: some of the weaves include double-faced twill and both surface and embroidered brocade. Hansen concedes:

...[T]he project turned out to be more complicated than first expected. Quit a few of the existing descriptions were incomplete and the methods of fabrication were not always correctly judged as they had been seen in the light of present-day methods, dating only as far back as the turn of the century. Quite often our work has had to be done on the basis of black and white photos, which obviously did not make things easier (Hansen).

Hansen adds, “The reconstructions for the museum were in fact produced, but as for the history of tablet weaving only a very sketchy outline has emerged.”

Tablet weaving today

Tablet weaving continues this day to be taught and practiced; this weaver’s first exposure was at a “collegium” through the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Newspaper accounts of “living history” events include mention of tablet or card weaving. “Medievalists Marking Time” in the Washington Post of 11 Sept. 1992 details the Leif Ericson Celebration, a living history event, and a University of Maryland-based reenactment group that will be the celebration’s centerpiece: “Women will be dressed in long linen tunics, hair tucked under scarves or protected from the fire by caps. They will work on their card weaving, mend clothing using bone needles, dye linen using berries and tend the children, who in turn will work polishing armor and collecting firewood” (Haspel).

The Santa Maria Times, 14 Sept. 2007, includes a notice promoting a living history festival at the Elverhoj Museum; it notes that fiber arts demonstrations will include card weaving.

Tablet weaving is an art that continues to evolve today. The combination of colors, direction of threads and the direction the cards are turned creates an intricate variety of patterning that worth a weaver’s time to explore.

Recommended further reading

In her review of another book for Library Journal,  Margaret Zeps identifies Step-by-Step Tablet Weaving by Marjorie and William Snow as well as Card Weaving by Crockett as good books for beginners that cover the subject in-depth (Zeps).

Margaret H. Bauman offers a favorable impression of Step-By-Step Tablet Weaving in her Library Journal review: “Few books are available on the subject and Snow’s is a useful addition to active craft collections.” Her review credits the book with “covering all aspects of the craft” (Bauman).

Among a sampling of craft books published in 1982, New York Times reviewer Patricia Malarcher credits Collingwood’s The Techniques of Tablet Weaving with being “the last word” on the subject.

This weaver has experience with both Crockett’s and Collingwood’s books and considers them both worthy addtions to the crafter’s library. Purchase Crockett’s book first because it includes a set of cards so the weaver can get started right away. Collingwood’s book will better serve the weaver once weaving basics have been grasped.

Bauman, Margaret H. Rev. of Step-By-Step Tablet Weaving by Marjorie and William Snow. School Library Journal, Feb. 1975: 57. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Cuesta College. Web. 23 April 2011.

Bress, Helene. Inkle Weaving. Rockville: Flower Valley Press (1990). Print.
Collingwood, Peter. The Techniques of Tablet Weaving. McMinnville: Robin & Russ Handweavers (1992). Print.

Crockett, Candace. Card Weaving. Loveland: Interweave Press (1991). Print.

“Elderhoj Museum will hold Living History Festival.” Santa Maria Times 14 Sept. 2007. NewsBank Inc. Cuesta College. Web. 23 April 2011.

Eyrian. Diagram. “Side View of Tablet Weaving.” Wikipedia. Web. 7 May 2011.
Hansen, Egon H. Tablet Weaving: History, Techniques, Colors, Patterns. Hojberg: Hovedland Publishers (1990). Print.
Haspel, Diane E. “Medievalists Marking Time.” The Washington Post. 11 Sept. 1992: 58. ProQuest Newspapers. Cuesta College. Web. 23 April 2011.

Malarcher, Patricia. “Crafts; for Craftsmen, A Growing Library.” Rev. of The Techniques of Tablet Weaving by Peter Collingwood. The New York Times 16 Jan. 1983: A16. ProQuest Newspapers. Cuesta College. Web. 23 April 2011.

Parkhill, Cynthia. Diagram. “Black Star.” Unpublished. Print.

---. Diagram. “Kivrim.” Unpublished. Print.

---. Diagram. “Ram’s Horn.” Unpublished. Print.

---. Image. “Kivrim.” Wikipedia. Web. 7 May 2011.

---. Image. “Ram’s Horn.” Wikipedia. Web. 7 May 2011.

---. Photo. “Basic Tablet Weaving.” Wikipedia. Web. 7 May 2011.

Zeps, Margaret. Rev. of Tablet Weaving by Ann Sutton and Pat Holtom. Library Journal, 15 June 1975: 1206. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Cuesta College. Web. 23 April 2011.

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