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Holding Space for Rigid Heddles and Shafts

A few weeks ago, a member of the school’s Patreon community posted this question:

“I’m excited about the latest study group. At the same time, I’m learning about shaft looms, and I’m wondering how your brain works, knowing both systems. Do you think about rigid heddle and shaft looms in separate compartments, like the way knitting and crochet are in my head, or do all the weaving ideas interact together in your thinking?” —Rebecca C.

It is a lovely question. Our brains are mysterious things and I get blindsided by mine all the time—the way it grasps information, then tosses it about. I seem to live in this perpetual world of, “I got it! I don’t got it. I got it!” I grew up as a floor loom weaver and all my weaving knowledge was based in that world. I first looked at the rigid-heddle as a floor loom weaver would. This has changed over the years as the rigid-heddle loom became my loom of choice.

I was attracted to the rigid-heddle because of its accessibility, portability, and seductively simple setup. This still holds true when diving into the world of multiple heddles, but it is more cerebral and yes, the setup is a little less seductively simple. It is not where my brainpower naturally excels, but I’m also a lot like many of you, very curious about how things work. I think of this way of weaving as I do working mind puzzles or reading a who-done-it. The goal isn’t to have something at the end, it is to solve the mystery. This way of weaving lends itself to small warps and lots of repeats. It is okay to have the world’s largest selection of coasters!

Rigid-Heddle and Shaft Loom Systems

Unlike knitting and crochet, shaft looms and rigid heddles have more in common, they produce the same interlacements, while knitting and crochet create different interlacements. The biggest difference between the two loom system is that the rigid-heddle’s sett and threading functions is all-in-one and the floor loom has these functions broken apart.

On the left is a shaft loom reed and free-floating heddles. The heddles are held in harnesses that sit behind the reed. The reed determines the sett and the heddles determine the threading sequences. This unit of harness and heddles, along with mechanisms for lifting or lowering them, are called shafts. On the right is the ingenious rigid-heddle, which integrates the reed and heddle function into one sleek package.

In the rigid-heddle world, the reed, which spaces the yarn and determines sett, and the spaces (slots and holes), which allow you to achieve various threading orders, are in one integrated system. Ends are threaded in slots created by the spaces between the “rigid heddles”, allowing them to move freely, and holes, which fixes their position. The free-floating end in the slots allows the rigid-heddle weaver to manipulate those ends in interesting ways, particularly in a two-heddle setup. You can weave interesting block weaves that would normally take many harnesses filled with lot of heddles. This integrated system allows us to access the super speedy direct warping method, which even with its downsides, is pretty powerful. It doesn’t work in all threading, but it does work in a lot of them.

In the shaft loom world, the reed which determines the sett, and the heddles which determine the threading sequence, are held on separate planes, allowing you to determine your sett by threading the reed, then threading the heddle (or vice versa depending on your warping method), to determine your threading sequence. However, once the yarns are threaded in a shaft-loom world they are fixed—you can’t change their order.

When you add multiple heddles, you can no longer work in an aligned system, where the yarns travel in the same parallel path from the front to the back. This is what trips up weavers the most when they work from one system to another. You have to do some fancy thread work to get the sequences you want by cramming slots or skipping holes and slots. This cramming and spacing affects sett options.

At left, the standard two-heddle threading allows the weaver to manipulate the two slotted ends—those not threaded in a hole—in interesting ways. In the middle, a straight draw threading on a shaft loom with one end thread in a heddle on each successive harness. Notice how the yarns travel in a straight line from the front to the back. At right is a three-heddle standard threading with only one freely moving slotted end. This threading provides a more parallel threading universe between it and four shafts, but it can’t be changed up in as many ways as a two-heddle threading.

The aligned system of the shaft loom makes it a more straight forward to visualize what needs to happen when setting up the loom and weaving your cloth. The multi-heddle world of the rigid-heddle is a bit more mind, and yarn, bending.

There are advantages to the rigid-heddle system, beside all the things we love about the rigid-heddle. With the standard two-heddle threadings, the weaver has the ability to change up the two slotted ends, the ones not threaded in holes, to create a wide variety of threading sequences in certain structures—namely pick-up lace and Summer and Winter, allowing them to weave patterns that can require more than a dozen shafts and many treadles, making it more versatile than a straight draw on a shaft loom.

The three-heddle system is much more shaft-loom like in its end sequencing than the two-heddle, although it is still not an aligned system. There is only one slot in the three heddle setup to play around with, but to those who are grounded in a numbered-sequenced world, the translation is fairly straightforward as long as you don’t violate the multi-heddle threading principles—never thread an end in more than one hole, and don’t cross the ends between heddles.

This is the kind of circuitous conversation we are having this summer along with weaving a few small project to put theory into practice. It gives me a chance to take some of the writing and weaving I’ve been doing out for a test drive.  Anyone is welcome to join Yarnworker’s Patreon community and join in on the latest study group. Less formal than a class and more theoretical than a weave-along, this summer study session will have you on your way to tackling multiple heddles in the rigid-heddle landscape or at least bending your mind in that direction.

Heddles Up!


5 thoughts on “Holding Space for Rigid Heddles and Shafts”

  1. this is a really good explanation of the differences between shaft and shed. I am bending my brain to comprehend this next level of RH weaving. thanks Liz.

  2. Hi, Liz,
    I’m actually the person who asked the question above. Your answer is really helpful.

    • Whoops, how embarrassing. Fixed! I should never trust my memory or rather trust, but verify. Thanks for letting me know.

  3. Excellent explanation Liz!. I just finished a 3 heddle twill project and was able to vary the basic 3 shaft twill pattern into a multiple of other patterns. What a fun experience.

  4. Liz, this study group and the test drive with the theory and application, is mind bending, but in a good way. I come from having both been a long time floor loom weaver, and passionate about it. I came back to Rigid Heddle as I wanted the up close and more direct way to influence the weaving. I did the color and weave 2 heddle in winter 2022, and that about burnt my brain, but darnit I had to figure it out! I am excited to try these structures I have only done on floor looms with 2 heddle RH. I am not going down the 3 heddle path but will be cheering on those who do. Thank you for patiently leading us on this summer of discovery!

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