My mission is to pass on know-how that brings ease to your weaving life. I tend to focus a lot on the weaver and less on the loom, however, loom mechanics can play a role in getting the results you want. Lately, I have been fielding a few questions about front and back beams and what functions they serve.
Not all rigid-heddle looms have these additional beams that sit above the warp and cloth beams. Their core function is to assist in maintaining even tension throughout the warping and weaving process, particularly on long warps, and to maintain a consistent shed height. They do this by lifting the yarn above the warp and cloth beams, so that they don’t interfere with the action of the loom.
Shown here is a Schacht Cricket. You can see that the warp is lifted above the cloth beam where the woven fabric is stored creating a large space for the cloth to be wound without interfering with the warp. The same is true of the relationship between the back beam and warp beam, the back beam is lifting the warp up and away from the stored warp.
There are other ways to mitigate these issues, such as having a warp beam that tilts up to create a neutral shed that sits at a slant, rather than being horizontal with the loom. The Knitter’s Loom by Ashford is an example of this type of design. By lifting the warp beam higher than the cloth beam, it allows a little bit more breathing room as the woven cloth grows, making it less likely to cause issues on longer warps. (I forgot to mention when I first wrote this post that Ashford has also developed an additional add-on accessory called the Freedom Roller that allows you to weave longer warps.)
There are weavers who prefer no beams, particularly those who are fond of weaving open-sett warps, using novelty yarns that are woven with a light beat. I weave a lot of open fabrics knowing they are going to rebound after finishing and virtually all the openness will disappear.
These types of fabrics are going to skew a little no matter if you have one beam or two. However, they will skew less with one. It is best to take the tension off the loom and gently roll them on the beam and then re-tension the warp. A bit of misalignment isn’t a problem, it will right itself when released from the tension of the loom and with a good bath. (If you aren’t weaving an open weave on purpose, and your fabric starts to skew a lot, you may want to rethink your sett. This type of fabric is what is called “sleaze”, which is a legit textile term. It refers to a fabric that doesn’t have integrity. It may look great fresh off the loom, but over time it will loose its shape.)
What Is Considered a Long Warp?
Long is a relative term. As I discuss on page 149 of my new book, Handwoven Home, “long” depends on your loom and the size of your yarn. The thicker the yarn the more quickly it grows as it is wrapped around the warp beam and woven off onto the cloth beam. Weavers tend to focus on how much warp they can pack on their warp beam, but an equally important question is how much fabric can you pack on your on your cloth beam, since it will be thicker than the warp alone. (Here is a nifty trick to increasing the amount of cloth you can pack o your front beam.)
Generally speaking, any rigid-heddle loom, with or without these additional beams and regardless of the yarn size, can accommodate a two-and-a-half yard warp without any issues. When you start exceeding a three yard warp on looms without beams, you may start to notice differing tensions on your shed layers. To mitigate this you can slip a shim between the two layers behind the heddle and scootch it to the back on top of the back beam. That will add some extra tension on the warp.
Which Loom Should I Get?
I get asked all the time which loom is the “best”. I have successfully avoided writing a treatise on this because I honestly don’t think there is a best loom. Most of you know, I typically weave on Schacht looms, both because I love them and I’m a creature of habit. In my mind, any of the major brands that have revisited their rigid-heddle looms in the past decade all have something to offer, including Schacht, Ashford, Glimakra, and Kromski. These manufacturers have all made thoughtful, innovative changes to their rigid-heddle looms that make them robust and versatile.
A couple of years ago, Stella8523 compiled a list on Ravelry of all currently manufactured rigid-heddle looms and their features. It’s a great list, and one that may seem overwhelming if you are a new weaver, but you will grow to appreciate as your skills improve. I encourage conversation around these loom features, what purposes they serve, and what your weaving goals are—beams and heddle blocks tend to spark the most interesting conversations. In my experience, features you feel adamant about as being “the best” can have their downsides and vice versa. The loom that fits you best is the loom on which you can weave the cloth you want to weave. As your weaving skills grow, your needs may change, and one loom may fit you better than another. Truth be told, you may find you need more than one loom.
If you are reading this blog, one thing that we can probably agree upon is that we love the rigid-heddle loom regardless of the brand or style.
P.S. I ran this post by my friend and fiber collage Andrea Mielke, of Mielke Fiber Arts, to get her thoughts. She sells a variety of rigid-heddle looms and has an eye for the technical details. She agreed with my core premise, which made me feel like it holds up under peer review.