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What is a Structure and Why Do We Name Them So?

I was drawn to the rigid-heddle world because it didn’t have as much formality surrounding it as the shaft-loom world. It seems like this was a loom full of pure potential. Most of the creations were based on how to manipulate the threads regardless of their named interlacements. To me this is more freeing. I recognize when it comes to published material, we live in a shaft-loom world, and in trying to bridge the two, I’ve been drawn back into the culture of naming and defining things in these terms.

What is a Weave Structure?

A weave structure is a unique underlying interlacement of warp and weft. Weaving is based on a binary system—a warp end is either up or it is down.  When a warp end is up, the weft yarn travels under it, when it is down, the weft thread travels over it, determining the look of the fabric. Weave structures exist independently from any specific loom type. Given the binary nature of weaving, there are only so many ways up and down threads can be combined across the width and length of a warp. There are infinite ways to use these interlacements to form cloth when you add color, fiber, density, and layout, to the mix. Weavers have devised tools over history to aid them in these manipulations. Different cultures, and cultures within cultures, may have a bias towards one tool or another.

Handweavers’ organized these unique interlacements into broad categories such as twill, plain weave, lace, doubleweave, overshot, tied weave, etc. Plain weave is formed when every other warp end is up for one pass of the weft and then the configuration is reversed. All other structures are formed when the warp or weft travels over more than one warp or weft end, but is eventually tied down by another end or pick. These floats may or may not be interspersed among plain weave. The fundamental ways they interlace is what distinguishes one structure from another. 

Twills float over at least more than one warp end. In each successive row, the interlacement begins on a different warp end, either to the right or left of the previous pick, although it doesn’t have to be the adjacent warp. This stepping forms diagonal lines and leads to the fabrics excellent drape. Loom-controlled laces are formed when floats are interspersed within plain weave in such a way that once off the loom, the yarns under the floats move together and the plain weave areas stay put, forming uniform gaps or holes. Overshot is a supplementary weft weave where floats are interspersed among a ground warp. Of all the block weaves, it has the smallest end count in each block making is one of the most versatile. It is a stable weave and the threads don’t shift after being taken from the loom. (A block weave is a larger classification of weaves where “blocks” of interlacements can be placed anywhere in the warp and form either a background or background in the overall design.) These interlacement fundamentals are what distinguishes one structure from another.

What’s in a Name?

The nomenclature used to describe various interlacements is simply an attempt to communicate how they work within a specific cultural tradition. There is no official entity that oversees the naming and orgininzation of these variations of structure for handweavers. Like many disciplines, the language evolves over time. Structure is ancient, while many of the names we learn today to describe structure are vintage, some are approaching or have achieved antique status.

Much of the formality surrounding the nomenclature of structure in North America was established in the mid-twentieth century by weavers like Mary Atwater, Mary Black, Irene Emery, and countless others who reignited North American handweaving by publishing books, articles, and newsletters. (I leave out more than I include.) In parallel, was the establishment of the guild system in North America that solidified this language. It is a shared language with a specific viewpoint and cultural environment. Their work is based on the breadcrumbs left by weavers before them—largely written work by European-educated weavers, although some oral traditions made their way in. Publishing has a way of both staking claim and passing on information.

Europe didn’t evolve in a vacuum. Colonialism, migration, and travel created cross-cultural pollination of weaving traditions—some credited, some not. Seminal North American weavers credit their trips to South America with igniting their own weaving interest. Mary Atwater traveled to Peru and other neighboring countries as did Anni Albers. Seeing intact Andean weaving cultures, artwork, and architecture produced a fire in their brains. We owe these continuous weaving cultures a great deal of debt. Weaving is a constant, evolving force in human history.

Some of the specific names we use in this system are derived from the weavers who either made them popular in the nineteenth and twentieth century or the names used to describe them stuck. Summer and Winter is one of many variations of a tied unit weave, but its distinctive summer side and winter side gave it its name. Cat Tracks and Snail Trails is a distinctive overshot pattern, Atwater-Bronson Lace is an old English weave written about by J. and R. Bronson and rediscovered by Mary Atwater who re-popularized it. Harriet Tidball gave it the name Atwater-Bronson. Adding to the confusion is that these names are not always used consistently. Spot Bronson is also known as Barleycorn.

We give great importance to names, because if we name it, we know it, but sometimes names are a bit arbitrary. History is full of re-naming things that were already named by someone else. Weaving is no exception. 

While weavers in the North America handweaving tradition generally agree on a system of nomenclature for the shaft loom world, you will still see hot debates emerge over which interlacement belongs in which bucket, why they are named so, and which new upstart is rocking the apple cart. This can give any author, teacher, or student of the structure pause, particularly when putting things in print—formally or informally.

Loom types also have their own culture and norms. Tapestry, inkle, countermarche, Jacquard, jack, and rigid-heddle looms all create structure, and surrounding each loom are cultural norms and names. When we talk to another weaver who uses a different loom type, their protocols may differ from our own, but that doesn’t make them wrong nor our presumptions correct. Weaving is not a universal language, but it does have shared history with almost every culture throughout time. 

This is what makes “knowing” weaving so elusive and so wonderful. There is a lot of anxiety about trying to figure it all out. Each bit of illumination shows us a bit more of this wider world. Deep breaths are needed to take in all the possibilities and calm our beating hearts. You don’t have to name things to know them, but it can help to build a shared language when we are trying to communicate the passion we feel for how cloth is made.

Heddles Up!


4 thoughts on “What is a Structure and Why Do We Name Them So?”

  1. What a lovely article. As a novice weaver I have experienced confusion as to terminology. The points you make has mproved my confidence. Thanks!

  2. This is very helpful. Thank you for continuing to educate those of us that are “recent “ to the ancient art/skill of weaving!

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