The warp weighted loom has been found in European archaeology as far back as the Neolithic period, more than 6000 years ago, so in Northern Europe and Scandinavia this has been the dominant weaving technology for 5 of the past 6 millennia. The distinctive feature of this type of loom is the use of clay or stone weights to tension the warp threads.
It is constructed with two upright posts joined together by two beams, a lower cross-beam for stability and an upper cloth beam. The warp hangs vertically, and can be as much as 4 metres wide, allowing two weavers to walk back and forth as they pass the weft yarn through the hanging warp.
Photo credit: Flickr
Loom weights have been found in many parts of Western Europe dating back to the 8th century BCE, and were first seen in Britain during the Bronze Age (Harrington 2007: 338). By the early Iron Age, there was evidence of loom weights – and consequently of warp-weighted looms – at many sites associated with the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures (Hoffman 1964: 19). The wooden parts of the loom and the cloth itself are very likely to have decomposed in the ground, but loom weights, since they are made of either stone or roughly-fired clay, are durable signs in the archaeology.
As a tensioning device for warp threads on the loom, the most important features of loom weights are their width and their weight. All other qualities of a loom weight such as size, shape, material and decoration are a matter of cultural or design choices. The Mycenaean preference was for teardrop shaped stone weights while the Romans had pyramid shaped. Some embossed lead weights have been found in Classical Greek sites and in Anglo Saxon and Viking Britain they were annular (ring-shaped) clay, as in this illustration.
Sets of loom weights are usually a uniform size, but these sets can vary tremendously. Early medieval weights have been found from .3 kg to as much as 2 kg, and experimental archaeologists have found, not surprisingly, that lighter loom weights are best suited with weaving finer cloth and heavier loom weights with coarser cloth (Martensson et al. 2009).
Tools Associated with the Warp-weighted Loom
Sword beater: Because the warp hangs directly from the cloth beam, each throw of the weft must be snugly beaten upwards to the cloth. The tool for doing this is the sword beater, a length of smooth bone, iron or wood which is pushed upwards. This tool has been found in women’s graves dating from the early Anglo Saxon period, although at times they were mistaken for weapon swords by early archaeologists (Walton Rogers 1997: 1755).
Spear Beater: From the 7th century, the ‘spear-shaped beater’ came into use. This was very like the sword beater except that it was longer and had an elongated handle for using with two hands (Harrington 2007: 339). These spear-shaped beaters are seen not only in Anglo Saxon graves but in Anglo-Scandinavian sites such as York. Again, there areexamples of spears being found in women’s graves which were mistakenly identified as weapons, when in fact theywere weaving beaters (Walton Rogers 1997: 1753).
Double-ended Pin Beater: This is sometimes described as a ‘cigar-shaped’ beater because of its size and shape – wider in the middle and tapered at both ends. This can be used to stroke the warp threads into alignment and untangle or re-position threads as necessary (Hoffmann 1974: 135, 320, 419). This tool has been seen alongside loom weights in the Roman period (Wild 1970: 66, 134, 156) as well as in Anglo-Saxon sites like Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire and Maxey, Northamptonshire (Addyman 1964: 64).
Tablet-woven starting border
Textiles associated with the warp-weighted loom have a distinctive common feature: the tightly woven starting border. This foundation of the warp is woven off the loom itself with a tablet-weaving technique (see page on Tablet Weaving for more on this). It is then mounted on the cloth beam with all the warp threads anchored in line. This is the conventional way of warping a warp-weighted loom, so when it’s seen in the archaeology, it’s a sure sign that the cloth has come from this type of loom (Geijer 1979: 67).
The warp weighted loom continued to be in use in Scandinavia and Iceland well in to the 20th century, and it is thanks to Martha Hoffman’s thorough research that this craft has been so well documented. In her ground-breaking book The Warp Weighted Loom, she not only traces the history of this weaving technology but interviews and photographs weavers in remote Swedish communities who continued to use these looms in the 1960’s.
image from: Hoffman, M. 1964
Addyman, P. V. 1964. A Dark Age settlement at Maxey, Northants.Medieval Archaeology 8: 20-73.
Barber, E. 1991. Prehistoric Textiles. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Geijer, A. 1979. A History of Textile Art, London: ParkeBernet.
Harrington, S. 2007. Stirring Women, Weapons and Weaving. In Hamiton, S., Whitehouse, R. and Wright, K. (ed.) Archaeology and Women: Ancient and Modern Issues, 335-352. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Hoffman, M. 1964. The Warp Weighted Loom. Oslo: The Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities/NorskFolkemuseum.
Martensson, L., Nosch M. and AnderssonStrand, E. 2009. Shape of Things: Understanding a Loom Weight. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 28: 373–398.
Walton Rogers, P. 1997. Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate: The Archaeology of York: The Small Finds. York: Council for British Archaeology.
Wild, J. P. 1970. Textile Manufacture in the Northern Roman Provinces. Cambridge: Cambridge Classical Studies.