Wednesday, March 1, 2017

You take the high warp, I'll take the low warp . . .

If you're a weaver, you know that one sure-fire way to start a spirited discussion is to ask whether warping from the front of the loom or the back is better.  Everyone has a definite opinion on this question, and the truth is that both methods are good, depending on circumstances (type of yarn, type of loom, type of weave structure) and what you're used to.

I'm wondering lately if the same is true for tapestry weavers regarding whether weaving on a vertical loom (high warp) or a horizontal (low warp) loom is better.   The end results are exactly the same: you can't tell by looking at a finished tapestry what type of loom it was woven on.  There are long traditions of excellent work done on each type of loom.

LeClerc Mira, my first love  loom
Lately I've been weaving on both types of loom and learning first-hand about the differences.  I acquired my first loom, a counterbalance 4-shaft LeClerc Mira, in 2008, specifically because I wanted to learn to weave tapestry and I was assured I could do tapestry on this loom.  But I knew nothing about weaving at all, and to learn I took classes from the good folks at the Chattahoochee Handweavers Guild in Atlanta.  I fell in love with weaving cloth, making scarves and shawls and baby blankets and for years that was the weaving I focused on using the Mira.

But meanwhile I searched for a way to learn tapestry.  To my great good fortune, Tommye Scanlin and Pat Williams, two world-class artist-weavers who live right here in Atlanta/north Georgia, offered a weekend workshop.  Finally I learned what I needed to get started.  I learned on a small copper-pipe loom and eventually upgraded to a Mirrix and then a big Varpapuu rug loom--all of which are vertical looms.  Until now that has been the only way I've woven tapestry.

Varpapuu upright loom
I like being able to see what I'm making right in front of me on a vertical loom, much as a painter does at the easel.  Beating in the wefts with the bobbin or fork is easy because you are working with gravity, packing down.  It's fairly simple to attach a cartoon behind the warp to follow as you build your shapes and design.  And while you don't have to use bobbins to hold your wefts with a vertical loom, I think it helps.  And they are such lovely tools, especially the ones made by Milissa Dewey at Bobbin Boy and John and Joy Moss.

M3 (working title) in progress, (c) Molly Elkind 2017.
Faces are distorted as they wind around the beam. 

I am just now weaving my first tapestry on my horizontal floor loom.  My first loom.  That I bought so I could weave tapestry.  And I'm shocked to discover how much I'm liking it.  For one thing, I use different muscles.  Working at the vertical loom stresses my shoulders a good bit, even if I try not to raise my arms too high.  It feels more natural to me to let my arms work more at lap level.  It also seems easier to sew slits on the floor loom.  And if you build the tapestry line by line, pick by pick, evenly across the width of the design, you can use the beater to pack the weft.  I started working that way on this current project, but eventually my preference for building shapes independently took over, so I'm using a lovely Snipes wooden fork to beat.

Mater Dolorosa in progress, (c) Molly Elkind 2017
And sometimes I use this heavy-duty chocolate splitter my friend Terri got for me years ago.  Since there's no way to attach a cartoon to a floor loom, if you want to use the beater at all, you have to transfer the design to the warp by inking it on the individual warp strands.  I thought it would be a huge hassle to have to ink the warp, but I'm finding I don't mind that too much.  It's kind of nice not to have that rattly paper in the way.  And I find it easier and faster to make butterflies for my wefts rather than winding bobbins, though I have been experimenting with that.

Mater Dolorosa in progress, (c) Molly Elkind 2017
No doubt you more experienced tapestry artists out there have additional thoughts (and probably corrections) to offer.  Tell me, which kind of tapestry loom do you prefer, and why?  Or do you use both?


  1. Harrisville rug loom all the way. I love weaving on my horizontal loom. Sure, I do occasionally use my big Leclerc Gobelin loom and I weave a lot on Mirrix looms, but the Harrisville rug loom is the bees knees. I weave much as you describe here Molly. I do often use the beater on the loom (overhead beater on a countermarche loom--so very great and it swings so easily as it is weighted) though often I am building shapes and using a hand beater (Kathe T-H would say to use a grattoir and I keep meaning to order one of hers--I do have a wooden one but like my metal-teeth beaters better.) I like the body position and of course I love the features of my rug loom that don't come on any upright tapestry loom that I know of (warp extender is exquisite for even tension, worm gear, and overhead beater... plus the countermarche action, much like your counterbalance action, is excellent for tapestry as the tension on the warp is even at all times). Thanks for the great blog post!

  2. Thank YOU for your reply, Rebecca. Your Harrisville with its overhead beater does sound great. It's good to know you build shapes as well. Thanks for the reminder about the grattoir. You can't have too many hand tools!