I gave a talk to my local handweavers’ guild a couple of days ago. Some people couldn’t attend, and some online friends wanted to see it. There’s no video, but I’ll share my notes and slides here.

Background image is a Roman curtain fragment.

The History of Weaving Technology in Europe:
A Ridiculously Brief Overview

It took me a lot of time to figure out what to talk about today. There’s so many angles when you’re looking at weaving history. There’s the economics of it. There’s sexism and classism. There’s the religious and occult significance of weaving.

In the interest of brevity, I decided to focus on the technology. But first, a few words about who traditionally made cloth.

It’s not just fabric.

Weaving was originally women’s work, which is why we don’t have ancient writings about it. we know very little about the culture of female weavers. Did they sing while they worked? Was it art or drudgery? 

Yarn had to be spun for clothes, linens, bags, even boat sails. Women were expected to be spinning if their hands weren’t busy, even queens.  Queens got better quality fiber, but even their hands weren’t supposed to be idle.  Girls were taught to spin as soon as they could hold a spindle.

But a huge amount of textile work was done by slave women. Everyone had slaves: Greeks, Romans, Irish, Norse… it was common in most of Europe until the 18th century, but lasted in some areas into the 1880s. If you could afford a slave, you had one.

So many of the technological advances in weaving and spinning were made by women who never got credit for it, whether they were free or enslaved. 

But before I get on my soapbox,  let’s talk tech.

Warp-Weighted Looms

A line drawing of a warp-weighted loom leaning against a wall.

There were two main types of cloth loom from antiquity until the middle ages. The one we have the most evidence of is the warp weighted loom. The warp hangs from a horizontal bar mounted on two upright poles. The warp is tied to weights at the bottom. The one I’ve brought to show you today is only 3 feet tall, with a weaving width of 15 inches. In practice,  these looms were the size of a king size mattress or larger. Ship’s sails were woven on huge looms of this type, all in one big piece.

Typically a header band was woven, either using tablet weaving or small rigid heddles, with the warp threads for the cloth used as the band’s weft. The band was sewn onto the top bar, and the weights were added. Cloth longer than the loom height could be made by rolling the top bar, and the extra warp yarn was wrapped around the weights.

Weights were usually lightly fired clay, or soft stone.  They were frequently wrapped in rags, because nobody wants to listen to the weights banging together. Plus the rags protected the clay from breaking.

We’ll discuss more about how these work during the demo. For now, let’s talk about how we know so much about warp weighted looms.

We only have 8 pictures of these looms in use, mostly on Greek vases like you see on the right. But we know they were used all over the Middle East and Europe, because archeologists have found loom weights everywhere. Frequently they’re either in the middle of the room between two post holes, which means they were mounted upright like the one on the right. The other kind were leaned up against a wall, like the one on the left, and weights were found in rows where the loom stood.

Loom weights have been found from as far back as 9,000 years ago, in the sites of Mesopotamian cities. A member of our guild, Greg, told me he saw them in use even today for rug making in Morocco. It’s one of the world’s oldest technologies, and it’s still used for weaving. Amazing.

[Note for readers of the blog: I covered the workings of the loom during the demo. Since you can’t see that, I’m adding a YouTube video of someone using one of these looms.]

Vertical Frame Looms

From Textiles and Clothing:
1150 – 1450

The vertical frame loom was also commonly used.  Besides becoming the modern tapestry loom, it replaced the warp weighted loom in some areas.  Originally frame looms were simple, but they grew more complex with the addition of rolling beams at the top and bottom to make longer pieces of fabric. 

Tubular Looms

From The Art of Prehistoric Weaving

Scandinavia is well-known among textile historians for its tubular looms, a frame loom that could make a seamless tube.  On the right you see the clothes worn by the Hundremose Woman, who was found in a bog in Denmark.  She and her garments were very well-preserved, considering she lived over 200 years bce.  Her dress was woven as a tube.

Draw Looms

From Textiles and Clothing: 1150 – 1450

The draw loom was invented in approximately 300 c.e.  It was used to make brocades and extremely complex fabrics.  Weaving on it was slow, and required the use of drawboys – slave boys who would sit above the loom and choose the threads the weaver needed.  Please don’t ask me how these worked.  I haven’t had time to look into them too deeply.  I do know that the Jacquard loom, the first loom to use punch cards and eventually inspired the modern computer, replaced the drawboys with an automated system.

Counterbalance Looms

From Textiles and Clothing: 1150 – 1450

The counterbalance loom was invented between the 10th and 12th centuries. Around then, weaving was taken over by men for the first time in Europe. They formed guilds and set rules. But by the 15th century, weaving was predominantly women’s work again. We don’t have time to get into it, but it’s a fun rabbit hole if you enjoy research.

Industrial Age Power Loom

The Industrial Age was driven by weaving. The power shuttle, or flying shuttle, was invented in the first part of the 1700s. It allowed a single person to weave very wide cloth. By the end of that century, the power loom, like you see here, was taking textile work out of the home and into factories.

Countermarch looms and jack looms are fairly recent inventions.  The jack loom didn’t come about until the 1930s, and is the most commonly available loom for modern handweavers.

The Fabrics

Most of the fabrics created in Europe came from wool, linen, and hemp. Bast fibers from nettles, trees, and other plants were used, too.  People would use anything that worked. Goat hair, horse hair, even wild animals like badger. Asbestos was spun from the earliest of times to make expensive fireproof items.  Gold and silver were worked into threads for embellishing luxury fabrics.

Yarns and fibers of different materials were often mixed to get fabrics with particular characteristics.  Combining a linen warp and wool weft was common.  In English this became known as “linsey woolsey.”  Very creative.

Silk wasn’t available for spinning outside of China until the late medieval period.  Silk fabrics were coveted and traded for.  Eventually someone smuggled silkworms out of China, and silk thread became an option for wealthy Europeans.

Let’s talk about the types of yarns used way back when.  

Yarn Thickness

The ancients used very, very thin yarns.  Like, 100 ends per inch was pretty normal for the scraps we’ve found. Some fabrics were so delicate we can’t recreate them, like a linen dress from Egypt that was found a few decades ago.  Flax that grows that fine isn’t even grown anymore.

Let’s look at some ancient fabrics.  All of the examples I’m going to show you on the next few slides are from prehistoric central Europe, from about 4,000 years ago. These fabric samples are all very well-preserved, and come from ancient salt mines in Austria.  You’ll notice the quality of the weaving.  Even the oldest fabrics found are not the work of beginners!

Shadow Patterns

From The Art of Prehistoric Textile Making

Weavers almost always used singles – one ply yarn.  The warp was hard twisted for strength, while the weft was softer.  Often, the two yarns were spun in the opposite direction, for both decorative purposes and to change the quality of the fabric.  There are a number of fabric scraps where yarns spun in opposite directions were used to create subtle designs, as the light would hit each yarn in a different way.

Color Patterns

From The Art of Prehistoric Textile Making

I’m not getting into the history of dyeing, but we do know that color patterns go back as far as weaving itself probably does.  Plain weave is easy to add colors to, and after the invention of twill, weavers could get even more creative.  Here we see lots of stripes and checks.  Checks were used heavily by Germanic tribes during the Roman period, and different patterns distinguished different groups, much like plaids do more recently in Scotland.


From The Art of Prehistoric Textile Making

The top row of this slide is all 2/2 twills, which were easily achievable with the warp-weighted loom.  On the bottom row, samples 4 and 5 are of broken twill.  The final one is diamond twill.  Again, these are from over four thousand years ago.  We know twill has been around since at least 5,000 bce, thanks to cloth imprints on pottery, and from basket remnants.

Other weaving methods seen in archaeology include rep weave, using piles, and floating warp threads.

Tablet Weaves

From The Art of Prehistoric Textile Making

The final fabric examples I want to show you are remnants of tablet weaving.  Tablets of bone have been found from the Stone Age!  Our ancestors were more clever than I am, because I’m terrible at tablet weaving.

Woven bands were used for everything from hair ties to knapsack straps to… well, anything you needed strong and/or decorative bands for.  They were often sewn around the edges of garments as decoration.  When your dress was too worn out to wear anymore, the bands could be taken off and put on a new outfit.


I wanted to mention sizing, as it was used a great deal in ancient weaving.  “Sizing” is any substance put on yarn to make it stronger during the weaving process.  It also prevents the yarn from shedding or fuzzing.  Since they were using one-ply yarns, making the warps stronger was important.

To size yarn, you soak it in the sizing, and let it dry before warping with it.  Lots of things can be used as sizing.  For linen, which comes from the flax plant, flax seeds are boiled into a gelatinous goo, then put on the yarn.  Some cultures have used strange stuff for sizing, including milk.  I’d like to think those fabrics didn’t take long to weave!

In this picture from SpinOff, we see the same fiber woven the same way, but the one on the right has sizing.  It’s definitely easier to weave with it, especially when your yarns are tightly twisted.


From The Art of Prehistoric Textile Making

Fabrics were finished in different ways.  Wool was often heavily fulled, for warmth and for water resistance.  Nap brushes and shears were common, sometimes while fabric was still on the loom.  They’d weave several inches, brush and shear the fabric, then roll the finished bit up on the top roller and keep weaving. 

Usually, though, the work was done off the loom.  Raising the nap was often done with a plant called the “cultivated teasel”, which was bred specifically for use in textiles!  Fun fact: for raising the nap, the Romans sometimes used hedgehog skins stretched over a board.  Poor hedgehogs.

Smoothing and polishing stones were used to finish fabrics as well.  This picture is of a typical polishing stone, shaped into half a sphere for ease of use.  They made the fabric shiny and more even-looking.

The End!

Background image source


E.J.W. Barber – Prehistoric Textiles

ibid. – Women’s Work: the first 20,000 Years

Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard, and Kay Staniland – Textiles and Clothing: 1150 – 1450

Karina Gromer – The Art of Prehistoric Textile Making

Marta Hoffmann – The Warp-Weighted Loom

Else Østergård – Woven into the Earth: Textiles from Norse Greenland

Categories: History


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