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What Makes a Rigid Heddle Loom, a Rigid Heddle Loom?

During the latest weave-along, we have been exploring warp-faced colorwork to weave bands on a rigid-heddle loom. This has led to all sorts of exploratory questions about tape and box looms, many of which utilize a rigid-heddle style reed as the shedding device. Every weaving culture has some sort of band technique that expresses their particular space in human history. Once you start looking, band weaving can take you to some extraordinary places.

With band weaving, the weaver is manipulating the warp ends to be tightly packed. Somewhat the opposite of all the things weavers often try to do, which is to maintain even spacing between the warp threads. If you are curious about how this is achieved on a rigid-heddle loom, I posted a very quick demo in my Instgragm stories. While this weave-along is wrapping up, anyone is welcome to register at no cost through the end of 2021. Patrons have access to all previous weave-alongs at no charge.

a rigid-heddle reed with extra slots for patterning made by Harvest Looms
An example of a rigid-heddle styled reed with extra slots to create various patterns from Harvest Looms. (I have not personally purchased any reeds from them, but they do have good reviews on Etsy.)

Thought this lens of band weaving and the loom styles most associated with it, I ponder, what is it that makes a rigid-heddle loom, a rigid-heddle loom? Anni Albers writes of the wondrous rigid heddle in her book On Weaving, “Mention should be made of a cleverly conceived implement that, though not incorporated in the modern inventory of equipment, is interesting as another attempt at producing a shed and countershed by the simplest means. This is the free rigid-heddle”.  I believe what she is referring to is the rigid-heddle itself since the excerpt is lifted from a section talking about the evolution of heddles, not the rigid-heddle loom specifically. She was writing this in 1965. Today, the rigid-heddle is very much a part of the modern inventory of equipment in all sorts of loom styles and I suspect it probably was then, just not as visible as it is today via the marvels of the internet. Loom styles are constantly evolving to be better versions of themselves.

Tape and Box Looms

a laser cut box loom featured in Make Magazine
A laser-cut box loom by Matthijs Witsenburg, styled after an antique box loom, featured in Make Magazine. It has a braking system and warp storage to support a free-floating rigid-heddle reed.

Looms are often generically named by their defining trait. Tape looms can be as simple as a rigid-heddle style reed with some extras, such as a handle to aid in lifting and lowering the heddle, or extra slots and holes to create various patterns. The warp is tied to something to anchor it in the back and the weaver provides the tension in the front.  They are also used in backstrap style setups.

This rigid-heddle style reed, can also be supported in some kind of frame or box to support the work. These kinds of looms were very popular before zippers, clips, and other types of binders were easily available. Bands were used to hold up cloths, secure food stuffs, and bind packages—the term “red tape” comes from official missives from The Crown, often tied in red handwoven tape.

I would not call all the looms I’ve mentioned rigid-heddle looms, but give them their proper due as a backstap, box, or band loom. This is not about asserting one loom is better than another, more of a taxonomy exercise. (I should also mention inkle looms and card weaving are  popular band weaving tools. They don’t utilize a rigid-heddle to create the sheds so I don’t dwell on them here.)

Rigid-Heddle Looms

What makes the rigid-heddle loom different from a box or band loom isn’t  the mere presence of a rigid-heddle. I hypothesize that the rigid-heddle loom, which emerged in the early twentieth century in its modern form, is defined by the ingenious utilization of the rigid-heddle in addition to a frame with a heddle block that supports the heddle(s) in an open up or down shed, a braking system, often in the form of a ratchet and pawl, and warp and cloth storage on the warp and cloth beams. Sometimes they have additional front and back beams.

a rigid-heddle loom set up for band weaving
The defining features of a rigid-heddle loom are the heddle block that supports the heddle in the up and down positions of the rigid-heddle reed, some kind of braking system, and warp and cloth storage.

It is these three elements that make what I think of as a rigid-heddle loom so extraordinarily functional while keeping the loom stripped down to its bare essentials. Add to the mix a pick-up stick or two, and you have a wondrous tool.

Loom Evolution

To quote Albers, quoting Luther Hooper, the author of Hand-Loom Weaving, “Each step toward the mechanical perfection of the loom, in common with all machinery, in its degree, lessons the freedom of the weaver, and his control of the design in working.” You can see through the evolution of looms styles, how weavers strove to make them more mechanized, adding harnesses, treadles, more elaborate breaking systems, and gaining the abilities to manipulate individual threads mechancilly, eventually leading to the advent of the modern computer. These steps are cumulative and while one person may be given credit for this or that invention, we are always building on the work of others. This process can be simultaneously and not singular.

I find that the rigid-heddle loom gives me the freedom of handwork with the perfect amount of mechanical assist. This is a personal preference, and our personal preferences should never be confused with primacy.

Heddles Up!


P.S. If you are new to weaving and would like to dive a little deeper into the various loom styles and why I love the rigid-heddle loom so much, I offer a free class at the Yarnworker School, Why This Loom.

2 thoughts on “What Makes a Rigid Heddle Loom, a Rigid Heddle Loom?”

  1. As a new weaver – I purchased a rigid heddle loom without much prior knowledge – I appreciate this information and history as I figure out what I can do on it.

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