Shuttles do just what their name implies. They shuttle the weft back and forth as you weave your cloth. Here are some ways to think about selecting a shuttle for your rigid-heddle weaving.
Stick shuttles come with most rigid-heddle looms and are available in a wide variety of sizes. I like to pick a shuttle that is a little bit longer than the width of my project. This way, as I’m weaving, I’m unwinding about the right amount of yarn with each pass of the shuttle. If my shuttle is wider than my project, I wind off too much yarn and that can get unwieldy.
Stick shuttles can be used for any project and they require no extra equipment, such as winders. If you utilize the edges as well as the middle, they can hold a lot of yarn. I keep them in jars with leftover project yarn still on them to use as headers for future projects. I keep my eye out for handmade shuttles to add to my collection.
Occasionally, I use a belt shuttle. These shuttles have a beveled edge on one side, and you only wind the warp on one edge to keep the profile of the shuttle as slim as possible. I use this style for warp-faced or highly warp-emphasis weaves and beat with the beveled side only on a closed shed. (See this blog post for more information on closed sheds.)
There are also ski shuttles and rag shuttles designed to hold extremely bulky yarn or fabric. The flat bottom allows the shuttle to skim the surface of the bottom shed of the warp. This style of shuttles are most often used when weaving rags or weft-faced fabric where the sett is more open. They tend to come in long lengths, which as I mentioned above, can lead to winding more yarn or fabric than I need. If I’m weaving with rags, I wind them on a stick shuttle using only the middle of the shuttle, laying the fabric flat.
Boat shuttles are more expensive and require some kind of winder. You can get a proper bobbin winder, or some folks DIY it use a household drill. Having one with a low speed is important, otherwise the process is bound to get away from you. (Ask me how I know.) There are nifty adaptors available that make the process easier to manage. For years, I hand wound my bobbins until I could afford a winder.
Boat shuttles are designed to use on a floor loom that has a race, a wood shelf that sits on the beater. The weaver throws the shuttle across this shelf, rather than the warp itself. The race helps guide the shuttle and keeps it from falling through the bottom of the shed. Floor loom weavers don’t place the yarn the same way a rigid-heddle weaver might. They throw the shuttle with one hand, catch it with another, then beat the yarn into place with their free hand. A rigid-heddle weaver needs to put the shuttle down and beat with two hands, since rigid-heddle looms don’t have a fixed beater and it is hard to get a straight fell line with one hand. (This is one of the key differences between the two looms—rigid-heddle looms aid in efficient warping, and floor looms aid in efficient weaving.)
When using a boat shuttle on a rigid-heddle loom, you are passing the yarn across the warp, not across a piece of wood. Therefore, you want to have really tight tension to support the boat and keep it from slipping through the bottom layer of the shed and crashing. If your tension is tight enough, you can throw a shuttle across the warp, much like a weaver would on a loom with a race.
I turn to boat shuttles when I’m using fine threads, such as 8/2 cotton, fine linens, or lace-weight wools. Fine yarn is easier to manage on a bobbin and the density of the warp supports the boat better. You can also swap out the bobbins easily if you are doing a lot of colorwork.
Boats are available in a variety of heights, lengths, and with open or closed bottoms. For rigid-heddle weavers, I suggest a closed bottom, low profile shuttle, 1 1/8” high or less. This allows the shuttle to easily pass through the relatively narrow shed height of a rigid-heddle loom. Closed-bottom boats glide more easily across the warp and are less likely to snag. Open bottom boats are lighter than closed bottoms, but that weight difference with the style of weaving we are doing isn’t as much of a factor as it is for floor loom weavers.
I have a particular crush on the Leclerc Styrene boat shuttles. I know most weavers prefer wood, but I like the sharp points they have that makes it easy to scoop selvedges, particularly when weaving pick-up or twill.
End delivery or end feed shuttles are also worth mentioning. They use a tapered bobbin called a pirn and they have a tensioning mechanism. This keeps even tension on the yarn while releasing and prevents too much yarn from spilling off the pin. They aid the floor loom weaver in creating even selvedges by putting slight tension on the yarn as it wraps around the last thread. Because of the way we rigid-heddle weavers weave, I haven’t found them as useful, but I’ve also not worked with them that much. Buster Bay makes a closed bottom, end feed shuttle that is sized well for a rigid-heddle weaver although I’ve not tried it personally.
Part of the joy of weaving is slowly gathering all the tools over time. I look at my shuttle collection and remember where I got them, or who gifted them to me, and remember all those (mostly) pleasant hours spent at the loom.