Tablet Weaving

Tablet weaving (also known as card weaving) is an ingenious technique for taking long bundles of warp threads and passing them through perforated tablets, then manipulating these to make strong patterned bands.  Historically this was done with either a back strap method or a structured loom.

To weave with this technique, each card is normally threaded with four warps, although it can also be done with sets of cards with two, three or six holes.  The wider the band, the more cards you would need.  Looking at the diagram below, for example, the holes 1 and 2 are up, while 3 and 4 are down.  But after one pass of the weft through this small shed, some or all of the cards can be either flipped over or dialed forward or back.   This will create a new shed with a different combination of warps up and down.  It is a surprisingly creative and flexible method, because unlike a solid loom with fixed heddles, here the weaver has a nearly limitless number of choices for arranging the re-arranging the warp threads in complex patterns.

tablet weaving diagram

http://www.tabletweaving.dk/

Earliest Evidence

For a while in the early 20th century, there was a debate surrounding the ‘discovery’ of tablet weaving dating back to the New Kingdom of Egypt, more than 1000 years BCE.  However, the archaeologists making this claim seem not to have had the chance to examine the famous “Ramses Girdle” themselves, and were working from photographs.  More recently, Peter Collingwood has carried out a detailed analysis of this artefact – for example looking for the tell-tale twists in the warp threads – and he has discounted the earlier view that it was tablet woven (Collingwood 1996).

Archaeologists have found early examples of woven bands dating to the Neolithic period, which, as Elizabeth Barber comments, “could have been woven with cards, but do not have the twisting to prove it” (1992: 119).  The earliest evidence of the weaving tablets themselves being found was in the excavation of the Deibjerg Bog in Denmark, and these date to the 1st century BCE.  However, there appears to have been a long history of expert tablet weaving before this, and it may just be that the tablets themselves have been lost to the archaeological record.

Elite Celtic Burials

These unique woven bands have been found in Europe in a number of graves belonging to Celtic kings and chieftains of the Early Iron Age, and date back to the 8th century BCE.  Some of the most famous of these sites are near the port of Hallstatt in Austria, at Hochdorf in modern Switzerland, and at Apremont in eastern France (Gleba: 2008: 138-139).

All of these early Celtic societies came to be known collectively as the Hallstatt culture, and the wealth of finds within their elite graves included luxury goods, both domestic and imported.  There were gems, furs, elaborate jewellery, metalwork and furnishings, and there were also textiles of extraordinary craftsmanship – even silks imported from the eastern Mediterranean.

This pattern of richly-furnished elite burials continued to be a boon to archaeologists as they uncovered similar sites across Europe from the Late Iron Age and on into the Viking era.  The dead were often wrapped in a multi-coloured cloak edged with intricate tablet-woven borders, and the greatest example of all of these chieftains’ cloaks is known as the Thorsberg mantle.  This was found in a bog in Norway and dates to the second century CE.  It is a masterpiece of construction, with a colourful blue checked textile woven on a warp weighted loom, and a tablet-woven border on all four sides which is so wide it is estimated to have needed a pack of 178 weaving tablets to create (Barber 1992: 119).

There is a common misconception that the culture of pre-Roman Europe was one of rustic simplicity, but the textiles of the Hallstatt graves suggest a high level of skill and artistry.  The Hochdorf Chieftain’s grave dates to the 5th century BCE and has some textiles which are not only designed in a complex patterned weave but are also extraordinarily fine, with up to 25 threads per centimetre (Jorgensen 1992: 55).

Oseberg Ship Burial

One of the most outstanding examples of an elite grave is the Viking ship burial near Oseberg, Norway dating from around 834 CE.  Under a massive burial mound was found an entire ship with two women lying on a raised bed.  Around them were many domestic furnishings such as farm equipment, kitchen equipment, sleds, domestic animals, and personal belongings such as clothes, shoes and combs.  There was also an array of tablet woven bands and even a partially-woven band still on a tablet weaving loom with a long warp threaded through fifty-two cards (Preist-Dorman 1998).

Warp Weighted Looms

The warp weighted loom has been identified in European archaeology dating back to the Neolithic period, more than 4000 years BCE, so it would be fair to say that in Northern Europe and Scandinavia, this has been the dominant weaving technology for 5 of the past 6 millennia.  Except for the period of Roman occupation, when the vertical 2-bar loom was in favour, the warp weighted loom has been by far the most common.  As the name suggests, these large upright looms used clay or stone weights to tension the warp threads, and because of their size they were usually operated by two weavers working side-by-side (Hoffman 1964: 90-91).  A defining feature of cloth woven on such a loom is the tablet-woven ‘header band’ which was used to anchor the warps in place at beginning of weaving.  It stretches  across the top of the loom with long extended wefts (like a very, very long fringe at one side of the band) becoming the warp for the loom.  Historians agree now that whenever cloth is found with this dense header band at one end, it is certain that it has been made on a warp weighted loom  (Hoffman 1964: 151, Geijer 1979: 67).

warp weighted loom 2

(Image altered by author:  original by Walton Rogers 1997:1751)

Roman header for ww loom

(original illustration from Hoffman, M.  1964: 154)

For a wonderful demonstration of how this all works on a real warp weighted loom – with video – have a look at this site.  It is in French, but the images are very clear:

http://fairefildetouspoils.over-blog.com/page-3997362.html

 References

Barber, Elizabeth. 1992.  Prehistoric Textiles. Princeton University Press.

Collingwood, Peter. 1996.  The Techniques of Tablet Weaving.  NZ: Random House.

Geijer, A.  1979.   A History of Textile Art.  London: Parke Bernet.

Gleba, Margarita 2008.  Textile Production in Pre-Roman Italy.  Oxford: Ancient Textiles Series, Vol. 4, Oxbow Books.

Hoffman, M.  1964.  The Warp Weighted Loom.  Oslo: The Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities/NorskFolkemuseum.

Jorgensen, Lise Bender 1992.  North European Textiles until AD 1000.  Denmark: Aarhus University Press.

Priest-Dorman, Carolyn  1998.   “Scutulis Dividere Gallia”: Weaving on Tablets in Western Europe”. DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Textile Society of America Proceedings, 1998.

Walton Rogers, Penelope. 1997.  Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate: The Archaeology of York: The Small Finds.  York: Council for British Archaeology.

 Illustrations

http://www.tabletweaving.dk/

Walton Rogers, Penelope.  1997.  Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate: The Archaeology of York: The Small Finds.  York: Council for British Archaeology.

Hoffman, M.  1964.  The Warp Weighted Loom.  Oslo: The Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities/NorskFolkemuseum.

Great Websites

http://fairefildetouspoils.over-blog.com/page-3997362.html

http://www.midrealm.org/mktag/projects/pelagiaTWintro/content.html

http://www.forest.gen.nz/Medieval/articles/Oseberg/textiles/TEXTILE.HTM

http://www.tabletweaving.dk/

http://www.weavershand.com/

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