Wednesday, 22 April 2020

I Learned Tablet Weaving!

Tablet weaving is a very old craft. It's been known since the Middle Ages, and it's thought to have been around since the Iron Age. That's nearly three thousand years ago! It was a favourite craft of the Vikings, and was quite common throughout Europe, Northern Africa and Western Asia. This great (and short) video shows a demonstration of a traditional pattern being woven at an Iron Age reconstruction farm in Norway.

But what is tablet weaving? It's a form of weaving that uses tablets or cards to weave a narrow band. The finished work is usually used for belts, straps, or decorative edgings for garments. The cards allow for coloured patterns to be created relatively easily, in just about any number of colours. Here's one of the finer examples I've seen; it's a set of bookmarks showing some of the different patterns achievable using the same set-up:

Picture source.

I've known about tablet weaving for years, but when I first saw pictures of the process, it seemed so complicated and intimidating that my brain shut down straight away. I never even gave it a second thought. Then a couple of weeks ago, Youtube recommended a video to me at random, and the comments underneath complimented it as the clearest and easiest-to-understand video on tablet weaving that they'd ever seen, so I thought, there's no harm in watching it. Here's the link. And actually, they were right! The video isn't even in English, and I got it straight away. I was so excited that I thought, I have to try this!

I got out my old embroidery frame and ripped off the sad, stained cross stitch piece that had been on it since I was a teenager, and converted it into a weaving loom. I found some wool in vaguely old-timey colours and went for it!

So, are you ready to see my janky first piece? Here it is!:

Hoo boy, is it janky! But I learned a lot from making this piece. I mean, A LOT. Firstly, don't use acrylic wool! It's too stretchy and fuzzy. You need a yarn that's smooth and shows up the pattern crisply. Also, I must have threaded the cards wrong because it was supposed to be a diamond pattern, not a weird wave and dot pattern. So be extra careful on which colours to put in which holes in the beginning. Also, you need to pull quite tight or it ends up rather cushy. Which is good for something like a blanket or a cushion, but not a bag strap or a belt.

But you know what? I'm really proud of it! It's been probably twenty years since I made something this crap and been so proud of it, not since I was a kid. It was actually quite a good feeling.

This guide was also incredibly useful to get me started. It has some simple patterns, and also diagrams which show how the mechanics of tablet weaving work very clearly. My second one was a bit better:

I started to experiment more with things like different patterns (chequerboard vs stripe), flipping the cards so the stitches slant one way or the other, and added a nice plaited loop to each end. I read somewhere that there has yet to be an example found of a historical tablet-woven piece in which the pattern was consistent throughout the entire length (at least, in the earlier period before it became institutionalised). That is, the maker changed up the pattern as they went along, usually several times. So that made me feel a lot better about experimenting! Here's a close-up:

I also learned that handedness is a thing. Yes, left handers are discriminated against even in weaving! (Sort of.) Basically it means that the cards have to be facing the way (i.e. left or right) that the designer specifies when you're setting the piece up. Which is almost always to the right, of course. In fact, most designers don't even bother to specify it because it's so common. If the cards aren't facing the correct way, the pattern appears underneath, and you're seeing the 'back' of the band as it's facing you. It's not the end of the world, but I have to keep flipping the loom over to check that the pattern is going well. (And to admire my handiwork, if I do say so myself.) I forgot about it for my third band, so again I'm having the same problem.

Here are some photos of it in progress, anyway. Firstly is cutting the threads and threading the cards according to the pattern. This is honestly the most complicated part and takes up a lot of the time in creating a band.

This photo shows the weaving project after I've started to get a good length going. I use the big pin to stop the cards from slipping backwards/forwards or just getting jumbled when I'm not working on the piece. For some reason I'm having a lot more problems with tension than the previous band, even though I set it up on the loom exactly the same.

Note it's slightly wider than the last one, and I added a third colour with a border on each side! Because of the handedness issue I mentioned before, you're seeing the back of the band in the above photo, so here's one with the loom flipped over so you can see the proper pattern:

And here's a close-up because it's just kind of cool. It's not perfect -- the edges are a bit untidy and sometimes there's a kind of double-long stitch where the direction of turning changes and I have no idea why -- but I like it!

I made my tablets out of thin cardboard (from a pasta box), but they don't last for too long unfortunately. They eventually get mashed up from all the handling. The first set was already ruined after only the second band. Yet you don't want to use thicker cardboard because it has to be smooth so the threads don't get caught when you turn them. It's a bit of a catch-22. I want to upgrade to wood once I'm able to order things from overseas again. Here's a good video on how to make your own tablets. I would recommend rounding off the corners -- you can use scissors or a corner punch.

The variety of patterns that can be made is almost endless -- abstract shapes, words, florals, and the typical Viking dragons. Apparently there are double-faced patterns where it's the same on each side so I wouldn't have to worry about handedness, but they're very complicated and I'm not ready for that yet. Perhaps one day!

Now I just have to figure out how to use all of these strips of weaving!

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