The ins and outs of weaving

Kaitlin Mazzei says that when she sat down at the loom in her classroom, she didn't think weaving would be that interesting. She reached into the basket beside the loom and chose some green yarn that the students had spun and dyed themselves. Over, under, over, under. Kaitlin drew the yarn across the "warp" - the threads strung from the top to the bottom of the loom. Under, over, under, over. Kaitlin began to like it, but she had no idea how this class project would end.

Kaitlin, a fifth-grader from Loma Rica, Calif., was doing what some of her ancestors had done, hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Weaving - making cloth by interlacing threads on a loom - is an ancient art. Egyptian mummies 5,000 years old have been found wrapped in woven linen. And a scrap of linen cloth more than 9,000 years old was discovered in what is now southern Turkey. Cotton was woven in India and silk in China beginning about 2700 BC. (Can you imagine weaving silk by hand? The threads are so thin!) Some native American tribes were weaving with cotton well over a thousand years ago.

During the Middle Ages, skilled European weavers made colorful and detailed tapestries, or cloth pictures, to cover the stone walls of castles. Think of all the fairy tales that involve spinning and weaving. You've probably heard such familiar ones as "The Emperor's New Clothes" and "Rumpelstiltskin." Other cultures have weaving tales as well. "The Silk Brocade" is a Chinese tale; "The Cloth of the Serpent Pembe Mirui" is a Swahili tale from Africa; and "The Feather Cloak" is Hawaiian.

By the 1760s, when Joseph-Marie Jacquard was a boy in France, weaving cloth was becoming big business. Jacquard's father was a poor silk weaver. He made cloth with beautiful flower designs woven into it - not just printed on top.

The young Jacquard hated the work. For long hours he served as a "drawboy." He sat inside a loom to lift or move the threads at the direction of his father in order to create the pattern in the cloth. It was difficult and boring work. So when he grew up, Jacquard devoted himself to inventing a loom that would weave complex patterns automatically.

A revolutionary French invention

His "jacquard loom," in which punched cards guided the pattern threads, was first exhibited in 1801. It became a big success. Napoleon was so excited about the business the loom brought to France that he gave Jacquard a pension, an income for life, and a small royalty on every loom.

You can tell how important France was in the development of textiles by noting the names of different kinds of cloth. Can you guess what kind of fabric was first made in Nimes, France? (Hint: the fabric was said to be "de Nimes," meaning "of or from Nimes." Give up? The answer is at the end of this story.) Corduroy, or "cord of the king" (roi in French) was worn by the outdoor servants of the Kings Louis. Terry cloth, which is what towels are made of, comes from the French word tirer. It means "to pull out," which describes how the threads are pulled out from the cloth in loops. And if you know how fuzzy chenille fabric is, you can see why it got its name from the French word for "caterpillar."

The English were not to be outdone by the French. Two English inventions - Edmund Cartright's power loom (1785) and Samuel Crompton's spinning mule (1779) - helped to fully mechanize the making of cloth. Eventually weaving became a high-speed, factory operation. Today there are looms in which a jet of water or air carries the weft, or filling (the crosswise threads) through the warp up to 1,000 times per minute!

How many 'weaves' can you find?

All this machinery has made cloth cheaply available. Look around your house and see how many examples of woven fabric you can find. Then look at the differences among them. Your sofa might be upholstered with a brocade - a raised design. Look at the underside of the armrest covers and you can see how the design has been woven into the cloth.

Do you have a checked tablecloth or dish towel? See how the design is made by intersecting stripes. The sheets on your bed and the neckties in your dad's closet are probably so finely woven you'll need a magnifying glass to see the threads. Some of the rugs in your house might also be woven. Oriental rugs are, but the pile - the part that sticks up - comes from yarns knotted to the warp between rows of weft.

Check out the curtains in your house. Are any of them loosely woven gauze? That helps to let more light through. Do you have any thermal blankets? Look at them closely. Can you see the thin, widely spaced warp threads and bulky weft? That leaves holes that trap air between the layers of bedding and so provide insulation to trap heat and keep you warm.

A prize-winning fifth-grade tapestry

So if all these things can be made fast and cheaply by machines, why are some people still weaving by hand? Maybe you'll find the answer in what happened as Kaitlin and her classmates continued their work. After a few green stripes had been laid at the bottom of the frame, a bump appeared in the design.

"That looks like it could be the beginning of a mountain," their teacher suggested. So the students let the lump build up. They made other mountains, too. As the tapestry took on the look of a landscape, the children got more and more excited about it. One boy made a river between green rice fields, like the fields that surround the school. Another added some brown sheep's fleece for oak trees.

The hardest part was weaving blue yarn to make the sky between the mountains, because the spaces were so small. Kaitlin worked on that part. She had to draw the yarn through with a large needle. (The students had been using shuttles - wooden sticks with yarn wound around them.) By now Kaitlin was having so much fun she didn't want to give anyone else a turn!

The tapestry turned out so beautifully, the teacher entered it in the county fair. When some of the children went to the fair to see it, there was a "Best of Show" ribbon hanging on it! The tapestry went on to be displayed at the California State Fair in Sacramento. Kaitlin was as proud of her class as she was surprised.

"I think it's pretty cool that a bunch of fifth-grade kids could make something that beautiful," she says. Kaitlin still isn't quite sure why, but she says that making the tapestry "was really, really fun."

(Answer: Fabric 'de nimes' is denim.)

Note to parents and teachers: Molly Racowsky was the teacher of the fifth-grade class mentioned in this article. She says hand weaving is a good way for children to learn about life in America before the Industrial Revolution. The loom she uses can accommodate four children at once, so the activity also promotes cooperation. 'The Friendly Tapestry Loom' she brought to class is available (cost: about $200) from Harrisville Designs, Harrisville, N.H. (

Build this simple hand loom and create a tapestry of nature

You can do some weaving yourself with this easy-to-make loom.

Make the loom

You will need:

Two pairs of wooden stretcher strips, 14 and 18 in. long. (These are used to make frames for artist's canvases and are available at art-supply stores)

Small finishing nails, about 40 of them. (Finishing nails are the headless ones.)

Thin string. (Kite string will do.)

Bamboo skewer, stick, or dowel 9 to 12 inches long.

You'll also need a hammer, comb, scissors - and an adult's permission!

1. Fit the stretcher strips into a frame by gently tapping the corners together with a hammer.

2. Hammer the nails partway into the frame along the top and bottom edges as shown. Space the nails about half an inch apart.

3. Tie one end of the string to one of the outermost nails. Run the string from one end of the frame to the other in a zigzag fashion, hooking the string around each nail. The string should be fairly tight, but remember that you need to be able to fit your fingers between the threads.

4. When you get to the last nail, wind the string around and around it to keep it from loosening. Tie a knot in it just to be sure.

Your warp is in place!

Weave a wall hanging

For your weft (the stuff that will go between the warp threads), gather sticks and stems from your back yard or garden: Tall grasses and weeds, blades from day-lilies or cat-tails, stiff stems from flowers, or thin twigs from weeping willow trees.

Begin weaving:

1. Starting at the bottom of the loom, take a stem and put it over the first thread, under the second, over the third, under the fourth, and so on, across the row.

2. Weave another stem near the first. This time go under the first thread, over the second, etc.

3. Each time you complete a row, carefully push down the stem with the comb. Work your way from the bottom to the top of the loom. Stop weaving a few inches from the top.

4. Cut the threads next to the nails at the bottom of the frame. Tie each pair of threads together near the first stem you wove. This makes a nice fringe.

5. Carefully slip the top edge of the weaving off the nails at the top of the frame. Slide a stick, a skinny dowel, or a bamboo skewer through the loops at the top. It's ready to hang!

You can use your loom over and over again. Try mixing in some yarn or other materials. (See photo below. We liked using sweet-smelling lavender stems, too.) To push yarn through the warp, tape the end of the yarn to a short pencil. You can also use a large needle or make a whole wall-hanging with yarn. Try making a picture like the kids in the story.

Lots of choices, but only three methods

Weaving has countless creative possibilities, depending on the material used, the thickness and spacing of the warp and weft, and the many patterns and colors. But all weaves come in three basic types:

The plain weave(left) has weft threads that go "under one, over one, under one, over one," and so on. It's the weave you use when you make a pot holder on a pot holder loom. It's also the method Kaitlin's class used for their tapestry. (See main story.) You see it in sheets and shirts a lot.

In the twill weave (right, top), the horizontal threads (weft) go over and under different numbers of threads: "over one, under two, over one, under two" is one such sequence. This creates a diagonal pattern in the cloth. Look at your blue jeans. Can you see a diagonal pattern in the twill fabric? Twill is dense and durable, so it's used a lot in work clothes. Take another look at your jeans. Note that the warp threads are indigo (blue) and the weft threads are white.

Fabrics made with the satin weave(right, bottom) are very smooth because the weft threads "float" across as many as 12 warp threads at a time. Satin fabric is just one fabric that uses the satin weave. Dimity, crepe, mohair, and sateen fabric also use this weave. Can you see a satin weave in a silk necktie? Try using a hand lens.

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