When, if ever, do I need a floor loom?

Rigid-heddle weavers regularly ask me this question or a variation on this theme, essentially wanting to know if they will reach a limit with their rigid-heddle loom. All looms have constraints. Syne Mitchell, a dedicated multi-shaft loom weaver and author of Inventive Weaving on a Little Loom, talks beautifully about the concept of constraints throughout her work. Constraints exist in all systems and they don’t necessarily create a barrier; they are a fixed state within which you must work. For many of us, constraints are defined not just by our loom type, but by our budget, time, space, weaving desires, and personal predilections.

There is a quick answer and one that takes more time to unpack. The quick answer is that you don’t ever have to get a floor loom to weave what you want. Speaking in broad brushstrokes, there is almost no structure or project you can’t weave on your rigid-heddle loom. It all depends on how you want to approach the work.

The Weaver’s Continuum

The question may not be, “What do I want to weave?” but, “How do I want to weave?” or where do you lie on the mechanical/handwork continuum. Mechanical folks are intrigued by digging deep into weave structures that require complex threadings and weaving sequences and tend to be happy working with a handful of yarn choices. Handwork folks are more interested in simple set-ups, hands-on warp manipulations, and put their focus on the materials they use to weave with. The mechanical folks want the tool to do most of the work and the handwork folks are perfectly happy with a manual approach. Some enjoy the entire continuum, some lean towards one end or the other, and others have their feet firmly planted on a pole.

Both styles exist in the rigid-heddle community, throughout the weaving world, and are not loom dependent. All weavers learn the same techniques of project planning, yarn selection, loom set-up, warp manipulation, shuttle management, and finishing. (This continuum was first introduced to me by Madelyn van der Hoogt as pattern/structure vs. color/texture and has existed in the weaving conversation in some variation for a long time.)

Is My Loom Enough?

my loom, my wayThere is a tendency to think that somehow looms with shafts are superior because they can create more structures. There are almost no structures that can’t be created on a rigid-heddle loom and there are multiple ways to create the same structure. For instance, I can create a 1/3 twill by picking up the pattern in front of the heddle, using one heddle and three heddle rods, two heddles and two pick-up sticks, or three heddles.* I can pick-up any structure, no matter how many shafts, on any loom. My handwork is no more or less than a floor loom weaver’s footwork. I say this not with a chip on my shoulder, but a song in my heart. No loom is better than another; the power lies with the weaver.

Many note that weaving is more efficient on a floor loom than smaller looms. Perhaps this is true, but you have to factor in the time it takes to set up the loom and if the loom is able to go where you go. It is similar to the spindle/spinning wheel analogy—one is faster by the hour, but slower by the day. There is value in simplicity and mobility and in complexity and speed.

Weavers often tell me they get shade from other weavers about their loom choice. I think that says more about the weaver making the comment than it does about the loom. I am curious about how all cloth is made. I believe curiosity is the hallmark of a good artisan.

We Live In a Floor Loom World

There appear to be more projects, magazines, books, and guilds that cater to floor looms, specifically Jack looms, and by default the table loom, than there are for weavers who work on other styles and types of looms—tapestry, rigid-heddle, inkle, backstop, frame, Jacquard, drawloom, dobby, and countermarche. The rigid-heddle loom has fared better than most, often being included in the publishing mix and aided by many loom manufacturers improving their rigid-heddle loom designs, making them better versions of themselves.**

Most magazines and books that cater to all, tend to appeal to few, so publishers tend to focus on one area of a craft. Manufacturers make what sells, often collaborating with content makers to improve their sales. In weaving’s case, this focus in North America has been on the floor loom. This isn’t their fault, it’s their job and often their passion. It has fed the perception that a floor loom is the best tool for a weaver to use. It is an analog algorithm.

There are historical breadcrumbs that lead to this focus on floor looms. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, many handweavers throughout the world wove for income. Efficiency and width were important, two things a floor loom, and its cousin, the pit loom, deliver particularly well if you are weaving the same thing over and over again. (I’m thinking of a floor loom as any loom that has multiple shafts—two or more—that are lifted or lowered by treadles.)

Other portable loom styles were used to create cloth for sale or trade by more mobile cultures. However, the early publishing, loom building, yarn stockist, and weaving guild pioneers of the 1940s and 50s in North America, Europe, and New Zealand were pulling largely from European-influenced weaving traditions preserved by an economic imperative that still existed in rural areas and, for the most part, these weavers were using floor looms. The arts community developed a bit differently as the focus is on the product and not so heavily on the tool.

The Times They Are a-Changin’

In the 21st Century, digitally driven world, many weavers weave for pleasure and they want to weave a wide variety of projects on varying budgets with varying amounts of leisure time. It is important to note that throughout the ages, weavers have woven to maintain their cultural identity, an important part of today’s global weaving community.

The internet creates an opportunity for a more diverse approach to weaving. The web provides an easy way to connect with like-minded weavers and offers community mentoring that isn’t reliant on experts, although it has birthed the influencer. Hashtags allow you to easily find weavers who weave like you, regardless of their loom. The popularity of frame-loom weaving has raised the profile of small looms and allows weaving to show up in more spaces. Weavers who’ve had no other landing place, create their own hubs supporting the styles they love. Weavers from diverse communities throughout the world are more visible, talking to us in their own voice, changing our perception of who weaves, why they weave, and on what type of loom.

Weaving does have a looooong tradition of self publishing in niche areas and fostering small centers of distribution. The internet is making it even easier for niche publishing to flourish, and inversely, more challenging for large publishing houses to survive. This is giving rise to more resources for more types of weavers weaving on more types of looms. If Mary Atwater were alive today, she would be all over the web. (And, I might add, vocal on more subjects than weaving; she was not one to hold back her opinion on anything, particularly politics. Her feed would be molten lava.)

Personally, I have forgone my floor loom, where I started my weaving journey, in favor of smaller, more portable and affordable, looms. I originally harbored the idea that the floor loom was the ultimate loom to have and master. I have found the rigid-heddle loom is no less powerful and much more accessible. I am far more productive with a rigid-heddle loom than I ever was with the seemingly more efficient floor loom. The rigid-heddle loom makes me nimble, providing me with the perfect balance of handwork with mechanical assistance. My sweet spot is two looms—a narrow 10” loom and a wider 25” loom with a double heddle block on a stand. With these two looms, I can weave anything I want, in practically any yarn I want, in any way I want, and in any space I want to be in.

I’m not sure that I’ve satisfactorily answered the question, but I hope I have provided a framework for you to answer the question for yourself. Stay curious and you will find your forever loom or looms; you can never have too many.

Heddles Up!

Liz

When, if ever, do you need a floor loom? Or is a rigid heddle loom enough?*For those who are interested in the relationship between floor looms and rigid-heddle looms, I have a video on my YouTube channel that that talks about the relationship of shafts, drafts, and the rigid-heddle loom using the 1/3 twill as an example. Also, David Xenakis has generously made his seminal publication on the construction of four harness textiles using three heddles available for free. I’m prepping to launch a new weave-along tackling the same project: napkins, woven two ways—one with a single heddle and one with a double, it is a perfect time to dip your toe into the many ways you can weave a similar cloth, differently.

**Anni Albers makes an interesting note about the rigid heddle in the chapter on the development of the modern loom in her book On Weaving (page 7-8). “However, 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 shed and countershed by the simplest means. This is the free rigid heddle.” She is writing this in 1965.  As far as I’ve been able to determine, the rigid-heddle loom is is essentially a 20th century invention, exactly when the first one was made, I’ve been unable to determine. I suspect it was prior to 1965, but perhaps not widely available. The loom we call a rigid heddle, combines the free-standing rigid-heddle used backstrap style, and the tape loom box to create today’s modern rigid-heddle loom that sits in a specialized frame and comes in a variety of sizes. I’ve reached out to folks who are knowledgeable about loom history and we still haven’t been able to determine a satisfactory first date or loom manufacturer for the rigid-heddle loom as we recognize it today.

Edit to add: A few weavers have been sending me dates for their vintage rigid-heddle loom. The oldest yet is a 1957 Spear’s rigid-heddle loom made in the UK. Anyone have a loom that was made earlier than that?

37 comments on “When, if ever, do I need a floor loom?

  1. When I joined the local weaving guild, I thought I would have to get a floor loom AND learn to sew..It took me a while to figure out that neither was true. Many fiber artists don’t consider rigid heddle weaving to be “real” weaving. There is more to weaving than making cloth.

    I picked up Karen Swanson’s book Rigid Heddle Weaving at the local library, and was surprised that it was about using rigid heddles with a backstrap loom!

    • I started in this place, too. I was really sure that I needed to go down this one path and I worked hard at it for so many years, really never hitting my stride. When I switched looms, I found my muse. It could have easily gone the other way or any which way.

  2. What a perfect timed post for me, living in UK, and just purchased a rigid heddle loom, teaching myself. I have had doubt’s if I have purchased the correct loom (I do have 2 x 12 dent heddlebars),
    You put into words everything which has been going through my mind, I was comparing the width of any woven project against the space and time needed for a bigger floor loom.
    You even discribe how I feel about the projects I want to make and how pleased I think I will be using pickup sticks for extra design.
    I have Syne Mitchell’s Inventive weaving on a little loom as my bible. Your words are a comfort to me, I can now focus on enjoying my rigid heddle loom. Thank you.

  3. What a great post! Thanks, Liz, for sharing your wisdom, honed over many years, along with your weaving techniques.

  4. I loved this article, Liz! This has encouraged me to keep on course with my rigid heddle instead of “upgrading”.

    Interestingly enough, as a machine knitter, I enjoy the hand manipulated stitches (a la Susan Guagliumi) better than the automatic patterning functions that two out of three of my machines can do. Rigid heddle weaving and hand-manipulated machine knitting are parallel skills and i enjoy them both.

  5. Great post, Liz! I started with a rigid heddle loom and have branched off in two ways in the intervening seven years. First was the acquisition of a four shaft, 50″ wide counterbalance floor loom. And some lovely little circular looms used to make bags and the like in Hungary, as well as a couple of nifty artisan-made rigid heddles with varying slot and hole configurations. Then came a computerized dobby and several inkle looms within a month of each other. I’ve somehow managed to go in both directions at the same time. It is all fascinating stuff, whether working with a backstrap set-up and a rigid heddle or a fancy sixteen harness floor loom that is totally computer controlled.

    Never mind dipping a toe in….I’m submerged up to my neck!

  6. I totally agree with the last writer! Thank you thank you for your timely article. It was like the Universe answered my questions! I am new to rigid heddle weaving and totally in love with the all that it involves: setting up the warp, threading the yarn through each and every slot and hole….. It makes me slow down and enjoy each moment.; it’s so meditative and therapeutic for me. The weaving community is amazing but I am encountering artisans who are staunch floor loomers and I get so confused and intimated that I question whether I should switch. But after reading your article, you have put my mind at ease. So thank you so much for your sage and timely advice!

  7. Great article!
    I met a floor loom weaver while spending the winter in the Bahamas and living on a boat. It intrigued me so I took a class when I returned home searching for a new creative outlet for retirement. Although I enjoyed I quickly realized that a floor loom was too expensive, too large and too complicated for my tastes. It was only by chance that I learned about a rigid heddle loom. I found a used one and taught myself the first steps. After fooling around with it for a year or two, I stumbled upon you, Liz, and Yarnworker. Wow! My joy and experimentation with my rigid heddle looms has expanded. I even bought a smaller loom to take on the boat with me. Thank you so much, Liz!

  8. This was such a wonderful and inspiring read, Liz… I have found myself being a little intimidated in conversations with other weavers (I learned to weave on my precious little 8” Ashford Sampleit- which I still love and use despite now having two larger rigid heddle looms) but not too long ago my husband took a woodworking class at Berea College and I tagged along and found myself wandering inside their incredible weaving classroom, which was full of amazing (and huge!) countermarch looms… after a few minutes of conversation with the instructor she asked me if I was a weaver, to which I kind of shrugged and looked at the floor and said something to the effect of, “I have a rigid heddle loom…” and before I could stammer out any more words she said emphatically “then you’re a weaver!” It was life changing- and your words reminded me of that experience- no matter the tool or medium, the power is in the hands of the weaver. Thanks for a great article! (Sorry I wrote a book in my comment. I get excited about weaving and can’t shut up. LOL)
    Paula

  9. Thank you for this! I have always been drawn to methods that seem to be outside the norm and then felt “less than” because I don’t go with the flow. I crochet more than I knit. I prefer spindles or my wheel. And rigid heddle and other small looms over floor looms.

    To be sure about the looms I took an intensive class at my local weaving guild to experience weaving on a floor loom. I very quickly decided it was not for me. I have no desire to weave intricate patterns. I love simple weave with interesting yarn. Rigid heddles can do everything I want and need. Thank you for a place to belong and weave!

  10. This is a newbie comment and should be taken with many grains of salt. Have a 26” rigid heddle which I love to work on but also purchased a Baby Wolf 4 shaft and have started using it. It only may be because of more experience but as I am working on the shaft loom the weave structure is clearer to me. Because of the loom or just more time spent?

    • Could be both. I have found that folks who spend time with a rigid-heddle first often make an easier transition to the floor loom than those who have no weaving experience at all, of course it depends on the person. You have built fundamental skills on an intimate scale and so all the moving parts and complexities of a floor loom may be more approachable.

  11. I have a floor loom. I bought it after learning to weave on a rigid heddle loom and then going to a 4-shaft table loom. Although multi-shaft looms are interesting and capable of perhaps more quickly weaving cloth, I still return to my 16 inch rigid heddle loom. It is my favourite and always will be. Sometimes simpler is better……….

  12. Fantastic article Liz. I’m a UK Ashford retailer and my customers often ask me the same question. My answers incorporate everything you’ve said! For me personally, I love the spontaneity and speed of the rigid heddle loom. I love showing new weavers how the rigid heddle is so much more than “basic” and I love it when they have that lightbulb moment! I’m self taught and have your book and Syne’s to thank.

  13. Thank you so much for your article, Liz. It was so interesting and has helped me to untangle my brain in relation to my weaving. I have been weaving for about two years now, and seem to have completely fallen in love with it. I have two Ashford Knitters looms (20″ and 28″) and I’ve taken many lessons both on the internet – by yourself and by Kelly Casanova – and real-life workshops in the UK where I live. Through all of these, I have learnt many hand manipulated techniques and how to read a weaving draft. Recently I watched a YouTube video by Vivianne Knits where she explains how to weave four shaft patterns on the RH using four heddle rods. I have been trying out this method, and have become completely enthralled and excited by what is possible to do on my loom {even though I’m finding it a bit difficult to find the shed sometimes!).. I borrowed Anne Dixon’s book ‘The Handweavers Pattern Directory’ from my local library and I’m looking forward to trying out some of the simpler drafts. However, it has also made me wonder about a four shaft table loom, so I think my next step will be to take a workshop so I can compare and then decide whether or not to save up and buy this type of loom Best wishes from another Liz! ,

  14. While I admire the amazing work that can be done with a multishaft floor loom, the idea of warping one is not at all appealing. My house would need a new room to accommodate one as well. Sometimes simple is best.

  15. I’m wondering how you feel about Table Looms? I have a 24″ rigid heddle and find the pick up sticks somewhat difficult and now thinking to go to a Table Loom.

    • A table loom is a lovely option and you can easily adapt floor loom instruction to it. Try as many loom options available to you and you find your right fit.

  16. I began learning to weave after I (re)retired. My first loom was a 32” Ashford rigid heddle. This served me well for about a year and a half until I bought a new to me but older than I am 4 shaft counterbalance floor loom. I have been using this for 2 years as my main loom. So my rigid kind of lived under the bed for quite a while.
    Then a large skein of fine mohair silk blend followed me home.
    Researching how to best make a scarf with it, I came to the conclusion that the rigid heddle had to come out to play. I set it up with a 7.5 dpi heddle and sat down to weave. In short, it was the perfect loom for this project. It has the ability to provide a delicate touch to a very fussy yarn and made the whole project a pleasure. I ended up with a gorgeous scarf for my wife and a fresh appreciation for my rigid heddle. It didn’t go back under the bed.
    Don’t sell the rigid heddle loom short. Yes, it has limitations ( you can’t make a warp rep floor rug on it), but so does a floor loom. A rigid heddle is a whole lot of fun to use, really easy to set up and doesn’t need a large amount of space.

  17. Interesting outlook, Liz. I need to explore my RHs more. I still have a small floor loom and enjoy weaving with it. I also got a table loom which I haven’t used.

  18. Thanks for the reassurance that I’m on the right track. As a kid, about 11 or 12, my first loom was a rigid heddle loom. My mother and I figured it out and I still have the 1st piece I ever wove. The edges are very uneven!! Years later I graduated to floor looms and table looms besides all the other things you can weave on–weavettes, inkle looms etc. Well, I needed more space in my studio, sold my beautiful 60″ counterbalance and now I’m weaving mostly on my 10″ and 32″ rigid heddle looms. It just seems to right. I particularly like making these looms do things that seem only for 4-harness looms, i.e. bumberette. Since I’m no production weaver and I’m in no hurry, I’m just lovin’ it!

  19. great article, great summary. I am looking for a ridged heddle loom, I hope to find a used one “on sale” – I have taken classes and I find them fascinating, thanks for your input.

  20. Thank you for the article! I have a floor loom that was sitting idle due to how much it was frustrating me. I got a 16” Ashford Rigid Heddle and found it so easy to work with. Being a patreon and watching videos, Facebook groups and weave alongs has helped me build confidence. I think I’m ready to try my floor loom again.. I have quite a few things I want to make wider than 16 inches. Now if only I can figure out how to fit it in my new place . It’s 5 foot wide. Yikes!

  21. Great article. Have woven off and on over the past 25+ years on floor looms. We bought a small home and no longer have room to set them up and thought a RH might be the answer to my need to weave. Now have a RH given to me by a wonderful friend in Dec. Have completed 39 projects and just scratched the surface of what can be done.
    Now that I am back in the saddle, so to speak, there are a few ladies that want to learn how to weave here in our little town. Have set up a meeting Wed to talk more in depth about what their expectations are and to set dates for individual classes. Would love to give them this article which so eloquently describes using a RH is by no means second fiddle to the floor loom.
    Thank you

  22. Great article. I started weaving on an eight shaft compudobby floor loom. I had great fun, but developed physical problems, and switched to a rigid heddle several years ago. I faced the “not a real loom” attitude from my guild at the time. I put together a presentation on simple looms and what the various types of looms can accomplish. It did open some eyes. I just got back from a guild retreat and was gratified to see several weavers using rigid heddles.

    In the mean time I have also started using pin looms. I was approached by one weaver with the “not a real loom” comments. All I could think is here we go again …

  23. The first time I ever tried weaving it was on a Swedish barn loom. It was magical! I then got the opportunity to learn how to weave back in the eighties on a floor loom—a Harrisville 22 in loom. It was magical, too. Then I bought my first loom—everyone said it was the one to buy. I never liked it and really didn’t weave much until I purchased a rigid heddle loom. At first, I wasn’t overwhelmed, but I eventually fell in love with it. To cut a long story short, I ended up receiving a little Harrisville 22/4. Sitting down to this little floor loom, I learned something very important about myself—weaving is very meditative to me and the rigid heddle and the Harrisville 22/4 are both quiet. Of course, the rigid heddle makes no noise beside the little click. Moral of this story is that if you are considering a floor loom make sure the noises don’t interfere with your concentration.

  24. I am also in agreement with the rigid heddle. I have kicked the idea around of having a 4 shaft table loom. I decided against it as I worried how much I would use it. I have used one in the past and I hated warping it. It just isn’t as painful with the rigid heddle! I also like doing pick up weaving. I have now started doing tapestry using pictures. Such fun!

    But I also have to thank you Liz. Your enthusiasm for the rigid heddle and showing us how to create beautiful things on it has caused me to be a weaving fan.

    Thank You!

    Gillian Loftis

  25. Wonderful article ! And Well said! I LOVE my RH looms! triloom and inkle loom too. I just love weaving and learning. Rigid heddle looms are mighty powerful tools. A bit over a year ago I got a new to me floor loom. Never thought of it as a replacment to my RH loom or any of my looms. Just another way to weave. I use all my looms. I just enjoy weaving cloth.

    Ellen

  26. As I read your article, I knew I was in a wonderful place where I would be understood and I could learn even more. While at the first Yarnfest, I purchased my 15” Cricket loom. Like many other knitters, I shopped while carrying my new purchase. It took more than a year for me to unbox that purchase and start weaving. Since then, I purchased a used Flip Loom.
    I meet with a group of all comer weavers with experience and varieties of looms. Some weave rugs only and some weave intricate fabrics (clothing) and some weave fine fabric (handkerchiefs). At first I struggled with ‘should I continue to go?’ I have continued to listen and look as they show and tell about their projects. Your discussions in this article helped me feel comfortable with my choice of rigid heddle. I look forward to each of your weave along projects and your clear directions.

  27. Hi Liz,
    One of my friends from our local guild showed a neat stole that was featured in Handwoven, January/February, 1984 titled “The Evolution of an Idea” by Olive and Harry Linder. It was done as a double weave then then cutting the warp two at a time at the back of the loom and weave them across the warp. If you have access to this pattern will you please let me know if it would be possible to weave it on a 24″ Kromski RH?
    Thank you

    • I don’t have that issue. As long as they are weaving plain weave and not adding a structure on top and bottom, it sounds like you should be able to do this, but I can’t say for sure.

  28. Thank you for this article. I have an internal debate going on about moving up to a larger rigid heddle (I have a 15” Cricket) or taking the leap to a table loom and my decision changes daily! I found your website at the end of your “A Weaver’s Guide to Swatching” and then this blog article. Your comments and thoughts have been a huge help. Thanks again.

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