The Ancient Craft of Tablet Weaving

Getting Started


This document is provided as is without any express or implied warranties. While every effort has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information contained, the author assumes no responsibility for errors or omissions, or for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein.

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies. Website mirroring is permitted by express prior arrangement. Permission will only be granted if the document is posted in its entirety and the content and format of the document remain completely unaltered by the mirroring site. The definitive version of this document can be found at http://www.shelaghlewins.com.

Copyright © 2003 Shelagh Lewins.


What is Tablet-Weaving?

Tablet weaving is a method of weaving strong, narrow, decorative bands. The equipment required is very cheap and simple, yet the range of possible patterns is immense.

Tablet woven bands are known to have been made in Europe from the Bronze Age up until medieval times, and they are still made in parts of the world such as Turkey and Pakistan.

Uses of tablet-woven bands included the decoration of clothing, and use as belts and straps.

Materials used in the past include wool, linen, silk, and gold and silver thread.

Equipment and Materials

For your first band, you will need:

Tablets

Figure 1: Tablet Designs

Figure 1: Tablet Design

Make your tablets out of cardboard, or old playing cards. To make each tablet, cut out a square about 5 cm on each side, and punch four holes in the corners, drawing construction lines as shown in Figure 1 to locate the holes. Round the corners off as shown.

Historically, tablets were made of bone or wood, and perhaps also of leather or horn.

Shuttle

The weft thread will be wound onto a shuttle so it can easily be passed through the band while you are weaving. Figure 2 shows two possible shuttle designs. Make your shuttle about 2 inches long and cut it out of stiff cardboard.

Historically, shuttles were usually made of wood.

Figure 2: Shuttles

Figure 2: Shuttles

Yarn

Any kind of yarn can be used, but a thick thread about the weight of double knitting wool will be easier to work with than a very fine thread. Although fluffy knitting wool is easy to obtain, it's hard work to weave because it sticks to itself and is very stretchy. A smoother yarn such as worsted spun wool, machine knitting wool, cotton or silk will be much easier to weave.

If you are interested in creating bands similar to those used in historical times, remember to choose soft colours that resemble naturally-dyed shades. Especially suitable colours are:

Many other colours can be achieved by using natural dyes, but if you start with the three above, you will be on safe ground.

Historically, quite fine threads were used, no greater in thickness than the threads used to weave cloth on an upright loom.

Weaving a Simple Band

Cut two lengths of yarn in one colour, and two in another, all about 6 foot long. These are called warp threads and will run along the length of the band you will weave.

Thread each warp thread through one of the holes in a tablet, as shown in Figure 3, with the two threads of the same colour in adjacent holes. Now fasten the threads between two fixed points about 5 feet apart, so that they are horizontal and moderately taut. The tablet will tend to turn sideways so that it lies along the threads, which is fine.

If you now rotate the tablet as shown by the arrows in Figure 3, it will twist the four warp threads into a cord, and you will see that the different colours alternate along its length, like a barber's pole.

Figure 3: How a Tablet Twines the Warp Threads

Figure 3: How a Tablet Twines the Warp Threads

Now cut 14 more warp threads of each colour, and thread up the other seven tablets in the same way, so that the 8 tablets lie side by side in a deck, as shown in Figure 4. Make sure the tablets all have the same colours in the same holes as each other: turn the tablets to achieve this if necessary.

The gap between the top two threads and the bottom two on each tablet is called the shed. By passing a weft thread through the shed each time you turn the tablets, you will lock the eight separate cords together to make a sturdy patterned band.

Wind a few yards of thread onto the shuttle and pass the shuttle through the shed, leaving the end of the thread hanging out the other side.

Turn the 8 tablets, all together, a quarter turn, thus creating a new shed. Don't hold the tablets too tightly; a little bit of space between them helps the threads to turn more easily.

Use your hand to push the warp threads towards the beginning of the band, so that the weft is pushed back as far as possible and the band will be firm and tight. This is called beating. You can also slide the tablets to and fro along the warps a little, which will make the shed clearer. Pass the weft back through the new shed. Don't worry if it's uneven to start with: the beginning of the band is always the most difficult part.

Figure 4: Using 8 Tablets to Weave a Band

Figure 4: Using 8 Tablets to Weave a Band

Turn the tablets again, beat the shed, and now pull the weft tight before passing it back through the shed again. This helps you to keep the width of the band even.

Continue weaving like this. You will see horizontal stripes appear on the band as you weave it, as shown in Figure 4 and Sample 1.

Sample 1: widthwise strips

Sample 1: widthwise strips

As you weave, the warp threads will tighten up. Detach one end from its anchor point, and use a belt and a safety pin to refasten it at the correct tension, as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Using a Safety Pin to Fasten the Band

Figure 5: Using a Safety Pin to Fasten the Band

Weaving Diagonal Patterns

When you start getting bored with the horizontal stripes you are weaving, you can use the tablets to create more interesting patterns.

Look at your tablets from the top. You can flip them about a vertical axis so that the warp threads enter the tablet from either the left or the right. If the tablet lies so that the thread follows the diagonal of the letter S, it is said to be "S threaded". Flip it, and the thread follows the diagonal of the letter Z: hence this orientation is called "Z threaded". See Figure 6.

If you flip the tablet and then continue weaving, it will twist its warp threads in the opposite direction. This will change the way the threads lie on the surface of the band, and will also reverse the order in which the different warp threads come to the surface. You can use this phenomenon not only to untwist the warp threads, which will become twisted beyond the tablets as you weave, but also to create diagonal patterns on your band.

Figure 6: "S" and "Z" Threaded Tablets (top view)

Figure 6: "S" and "Z" Threaded Tablets (top view)

Flip your tablets so that they are all "S" threaded. Then turn them without passing the weft, so that the two colours are arranged in a spiral as you look along the pack, as shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7: How to Orient the Tablets for Diagonal Stripes

Figure 7: How to Orient the Tablets for Diagonal Stripes

Now continue weaving. You should see diagonal stripes of your two colours of thread, as shown between points 0 and 1 in Figure 8. If the lines are broken rather than sharp and clear, turn the band over - the lines will be clear and sharp on the other side. Use this as the top side and carry on! Alternatively you can rearrange the tablets so that the spiral runs in the opposite direction: this will make the pattern appear on the top.

Figure 8: Diagonal Patterns

Figure 8: Diagonal Patterns

When you reach the point marked 1 in Figure 8, flip all the tablets about their vertical axis, so that they are threaded in the opposite direction, and carry on weaving; the diagonal lines will reverse direction. At the point marked 2, flip the left-hand four tablets, but leave the right-hand four as they were. Carry on weaving; you will see a chevron pattern. At the point marked 3, flip all the tablets and continue weaving; this will create a diamond. Sample 2 illustrates chevrons, diamonds and some other patterns which can be woven by flipping tablets.

Sample 2: various patterns

Sample 2: various patterns

More Patterns and Colours

It's now up to you to design your own patterns. By flipping some or all of the tablets at intervals along your band, you can create almost any pattern of diagonal lines, including stripes, chevrons and diamonds.

Note that if you weave with all the tablets oriented the same way (e.g. diagonal lines), the band will gradually twist. This is ok if you are going to sew the band to a piece of cloth, but if you want to make belt or strap, you can avoid twist either by having half the tablets Z-threaded and half S-threaded (e.g. chevrons and diamonds) or by flipping them all at intervals (e.g. zigzags).

For your second band, you may like to try using three or four different colours. As before, make sure that you thread all the tablets up the same as each other, including ensuring that they are all threaded in the same direction to start with (either S or Z).

You can use more than 8 tablets to create a wider band with more pattern possibilities, although twenty or thirty tablets begin to be tricky to manipulate.

Finally, you may want to put a border down each side of the band to keep the edges even and firm. For each border, thread up one or two tablets with the same colour in all four holes, and don't flip them unless their warp threads have become very twisted and you want to start untwisting them.

Sample 3 shows a band created by threading each tablet with red, yellow, blue, yellow. The tablets are then arranged to weave diagonal lines as before. The borders comprise two tablets threaded entirely with blue on each edge of the band, and then another two on each side threaded entirely with red. Each pair of border tablets is arranged with one S, and one Z threaded, in order to create a flatter band.

Sample 3: three-colour band with border

Sample 3: three-colour band with border

A Few Other Hints and Tips

Creating Fixed Poles in a Normal Household

If you don't happen to have two firmly planted poles conveniently placed in the middle of your living room, use two chairs upside down on a table as shown in Figure 9. These can also be used for measuring out lengths of thread.

Figure 9: Two Chairs and a Table Make a Warping Frame

Figure 9: Two Chairs and a Table Make a Warping Frame

Faster Warping

Cutting all the threads first and then poking them through the holes in the tablets is slow work, so you may prefer to use the following method to measure, tension and thread up a tablet in one go. First wind the yarn into balls or onto spools so that you have one of the right colour for each hole of the tablet (in case you are using the same colour in several holes). Now thread the correct colour yarn through each hole of the first tablet. Make sure you thread them all through from the same side, and that the threads are through the correct holes. Tie the four ends to your fixed point, then unreel the four yarns with the tablet hung in the middle until it's long enough to cut and tie them all to the other fixed point. Repeat for the rest of the tablets, making sure the threads are all equally taut.

When setting up a pattern with several identically-threaded tablets, you can extend the method - this is called continuous warping and is a great time-saver. You need to warp up between two vertical posts for this to work. Wind the yarn into balls as before. Put all the tablets you want to thread together, like a deck of cards. Then thread each of the four yarns through the appropriate hole in all of the tablets at once (you may need to use a darning needle to get the thread through the whole deck). Now tie the four ends to your first post, and hold the deck of tablets. Drop the first tablet off and pass the four threads around the other post. Release the second card, and pass the threads back around the first post. Continue until you've released all the cards. Now untie the first end, cut the four threads from their balls and tie the two sets of ends together. You may want to make a box or something to hold the balls or spools so they can unreel freely without rolling about. It takes a bit of practice to get the tension the same in all sets of threads, but is well worth it for bands with a lot of tablets.

You can add border tablets in the same way, by starting again with four balls of yarn for your border. It's best to work from the centre of the band outwards. Once you've finished, you can arrange all the tablets correctly and start weaving. Remember that the band will contract as you weave, so make sure you will be able to remove it from your posts, or move them towards each other.

Weaver-Tensioned or "Backstrapped" Weaving

Fasten the woven end of the band to a belt which goes round your body, just under the ribs. Fasten the far end of the warp threads to a stair post or other fixed point, as shown in Figure 10. Now you can control the tension of the warp threads by leaning slightly forward or back. This is the traditional way of weaving in many countries.

Be careful to keep your back straight and try to find a posture which will not hurt your back.

Figure 10: "Backstrapping"

Figure 10: "Backstrapping"

Transporting a Band "in Progress"

If you need to put the band away or move it while it's partly woven, first tie a piece of string firmly around the deck of tablets so that they cannot become disordered. Also tie short lengths of string around the warp threads approximately every 18 inches. This will prevent the warp threads from becoming tangled.

Finishing Off

When you've finished weaving, sew the free end of the weft into the band and cut it off. You can cut the warp threads and leave them long enough to braid or knot to leave a fringe or tassels, or you can cut them short and turn the end of the band under and sew it like a hem.

Further Reading

"Card Weaving" by Candace Crockett is an excellent beginner's guide, and will tell you about a range of patterns and techniques.

If you want to explore tablet weaving in greater depth, I recommend the late Peter Collingwood's book "The Techniques of Tablet Weaving", which explains the history and techniques of the craft and will give you a lifetime's worth of different ideas to explore.

Weavershand is a wonderful website giving all sorts of information about tablet-weaving and other weaving techniques.

Where to Buy Materials

Wool, silk, cotton and other yarns can be bought from either of these shops:

George Weil and Fibrecrafts

Address: George Weil, Old Portsmouth Road, Peasmarsh, Guildford, Surrey, GU3 1LZ

Phone: 01483 565800

Website: George Weil and Fibrecrafts.

The Handweavers Studio

Address: The Handweavers Studio, 140 Seven Sisters Road, London N7 7NS

Phone: 020 7272 1891

Website: The Handweavers Studio.


Shelagh Lewins

Back to Shelagh's Home Page