Weaving is acknowledged as one of the oldest surviving crafts in the world. The tradition of weaving traces back to Neolithic times – approximately 12,000 years ago. Even before the actual process of weaving was discovered, the basic principle of weaving was applied to interlace branches and twigs to create fences, shelters and baskets for protection.
Weaving is one of the primary methods of textile production and it involves interlinking a set of vertical threads with a set of horizontal threads. The set of vertical threads are known as wrap and the set of horizontal threads are known as weft.
Weaving can be done by hand or by using machines. Machines used for weaving are called looms. Loom originated from crude wooden frame and gradually transformed into the modern sophisticated electronic weaving machine. Nowadays weaving has become a mechanized process, though hand weaving is still in practice.
Textile weaving is almost as old as civilization itself, and it is still practiced around the globe. Weaving probably developed as a refinement of mat or basket making, in which the much finer materials needed the support of vertical tension to remain straight. Much of what we know about looms is the product of guesswork, offering few specific dates or inventors.
20,000 – 30,000 years ago early man developed the first string by twisting together plant fibers. Preparing thin bundles of plant material and stretching them out while twisting them together produced a fine string or thread.
The ability to produce string and thread was the starting place for the development of weaving, spinning, and sewing.
Stone Age Man’s early experiments with string and thread lead to the first woven textiles. Threads and strings of different sizes were knotted and laced together to make many useful things.
Finger weaving, lacing and knotting together of threads by hand, is still used today by many weavers.
Evidence in Archeology
While early looms were made of wood, which is not known to last, illustrations of them have been preserved on sturdier artifacts, such as pottery. The oldest depiction of a loom — a horizontal ground-loom design — was found on the side of a bowl unearthed in Badara, Egypt. Textiles, which can provide evidence of the looms that created them, have been preserved under certain conditions that prevent bugs and rot. Egypt’s dry, sand-laden climate allowed for the preservation of quantities of plain linen, most of which were found in pharaohs’ tombs. Frozen tombs uncovered in Central Asia contained ancient loom-woven textiles. Scandinavian bogs sealed entire garments from as early as the Bronze Age.
Horizontal designs follow the way materials would have been laid out on the ground. They were used by a number of ancient cultures, and Bedouin tribes today still favor this style of loom. An innovation on this design was the pit loom, in which the weaver would sit or stand in an actual pit to allow for more comfortable work. This became a more effective tool when pedals were introduced that allowed the weaver to move the warp threads, allowing the shuttle to go through more easily.
Vertical, warp-weighted looms — in which tension is kept by tying weights to bundles of threads — are depicted in ancient Greek arts. By 1900 B.C., Egyptians also had a variation on this design, using a second bar in place of the weights. This style of loom is still used by the Navajo Indians, who picked up weaving from the Pueblo Indians long before the arrival of the Spaniards. One of the most important innovations on the basic vertical loom was the separation of the warps using shed sticks, followed by further separation creating a “counter-shed” using a heddle bar. Vertical looms also came to use foot treadles.
Body-tensioned looms involve a strap and two bars, one attached to the wearer and one to a post, tree or similar object. These looms are portable, allowing the entire project to be rolled up and attached to a different fixed point. Over time, these looms were refined with many of the same innovations as vertical looms, including shed sticks and heddle bars. Body-tensioned looms have been popular in a number of countries, from Japan to India, but today are most commonly seen in Peru and Mexico.
Joseph-Marie Jacquard invented a loom that used a punch card system in 1801. This was the first step toward automating weaving, and also had an effect on other scientists — including those working on computers. This created an intertwining relationship between computers and weaving, allowing for ever-increasing complexity in design and pattern. Today, everything from which warps are moved to weaving speed can be controlled from a laptop computer.
However, there are artisans making cloth on hand looms, in home studios or small weaving businesses, who keep alive the skills and traditions of the early weavers.