Monday, 24 September 2007

Weaving with tablets and a rigid heddle

This famous depiction of a weaving woman comes from the 14th century manuscript commonly known as the Codex Manesse (Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift; Cod. Pal. germ. 848). The first time I saw it a couple of years ago, I thought that the artist didn't seem to know a thing about weaving or tablet weaving (assuming that the hexagonal objects on the warp are tablets and not a levitating warp beam) - the lady's sitting at the wrong end of the warp and, if we're talking about tablet weaving here, what's the rigid heddle doing there anyway? But now when I've thought about it and heard what others have to say, this set-up doesn't seem all that far-fetched anymore.

First of all, the woman's not actually doing any weaving in the picture, so she's not really at the "wrong end". It seems to me she's fiddling with the end of the warp (tightening it, sorting the threads?) , while using her beater to ward off the advances of the kneeling man (monk?) who's got his hand up her skirt. In Ecclesiastical Pomp and Aristocratic Circumstance (2000), Nancy Spies further interprets this situation as the woman actually incorporating the man's hair into the warp (p. 100). Secondly, looking at other medieval pictures of weavers and tablet weavers - and at their modern counterparts too - it's obvious that you can sit pretty much anywhere in relation to the band you're weaving; it's not necessary to have the fell (the woven band) right in front of you as long as you can reach it to beat the weft.

As for the rigid heddle, Spies (2000) describes it as a "heddle/warp spreader" (p. 97, my emphasis), which could explain what it's doing in the middle of a possible tablet weaving warp; it's separating the threads and helping the weaver keep the band even. But there may be another, albeit conjectural function for the rigid heddle.

In The Techniques of Tablet Weaving (Collingwood 1996) I found a description of an unusual way to produce a double-faced 3/1 twill. It's described on pages 166-167 and involves both four-holed tablets used standing on their points and a means to raise and lower alternate tablets to achieve the correct structure.
Collingwood suggests using a stick and leashes tied around the warp for this. There are no indications that this technique was ever used historically, but when I read about combining tablets and leashes like this, I immediately thought of the weaving lady in Codex Manesse - tablets together with a rigid heddle should work just as well as leashes!

The technique was a little tricky to master. For each weft, the shed was split twice - first by the square tablets standing on their points and then by the heddle raising or lowering every alternate tablet - which meant the final shed ended up being very small. It really helped to tilt the warp vertically on its side to get a better view of the shed. In various medieval manuscripts band weavers can be seen working with the warp in this position and I can verify that it really makes sense to do that if the shed's unclear!

The finished sample is approximately 2 cm wide and the front and back are shown here next to each other (I used thick cotton yarn, so it looks kind of rough).

Weaving with tablets and a rigid heddle on the same warp creates many new possibilities! For example, I tried it with two-holed tablets and managed to produce a nice little piece of double weave, combining ordinary interlaced twill with tabby. It might not be a historical technique or the most efficient way to weave complex structures, but for someone like me who loves all the technical stuff behind both tablet weaving and ordinary weaving, it's great fun!

Collingwood, P. 1996. The Techniques of Tablet Weaving. McMinnville: Robin & Russ Handweavers, Inc.

Spies, N. 2000. Ecclesiastical Pomp and Aristocratic Circumstance. A Thousand Years of Brocaded Tabletwoven Bands. Jarrettsville: Arelate Studio.


Anonymous said...

I, too, would like to test this Manesse image; I asked my library to bring in Collingwood's book for me. Did you put your warp on a frame? Or tie it to your belt and, say, a doorknob? If you are up for it, I'd like to talk with you more about how you created your band. Linda at doerksen [DELETE THIS] AT island DOT net. (Sorry for the work, but I -am- trying to avoid spammers...)

Arachne said...

I did it the backstrap way, since I only wove a very short piece - otherwise I would have used a frame or my loom. I really don't like being tied physically to my weaving!

I have a follow-up post planned - I finally got hold of the German article that discusses the Manesse depictions and rather convincingly argues that it's copied from another manuscript. And that the hexagonal objects on the warp are indeed a warp beam. I only need to find the time to write it...

It might not be what the Manesse images shows, but using tablets and a rigid heddle on the same warp still offers a lot of new possibilities to create interesting and unusual weave structures!!!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. I´ll try it if I find the time to do this rigid form.

I invite you to link with my blog at

I´m from Spain and, I´ve not very good english so my blog is in spanish.

Good job!! Thanks!! Sam.

Anonymous said...

Hey there! :)
I#d like to say something about Spies' interpretation of the Manesse picture, because it seems pretty wrong to me...

First of all, the lady actually really does not sit at "wrong end", fiddling with the warp. Deciding from the song this picture illuminates, she cuts off a lock of hair from the knight as a token of memory, because he is off to leave for a pilgrimage (he is clad as a pilgrim). The loom only stands in the background (maybe symbolizing the lady is quick with her hands and schooled in woman's artistry and thus very womanly and worth to be loved by a good knight).
Even if the scene does look very indecent to our modern eyes (the man having his hand openly up the lady's skirt!), it isn't in the least. It shows a very well-known and ritualized gesture of submission of the Middle ages: touching the seam of some higher-standing person, f.e. a liege. This is what the Middle-high-german song discribes.

Hope I could help a little.
(Please bear with my English! ;) )

Arachne said...

Thanks for the info! It's always good to know what the song the image illustrates is about when you try to interpret it!!! :-)

I heard/read somewhere (not in Spies' book) that the song was making fun of another medieval archetype - the licentious monk...but it might just have been someone's interpretation of the image itself and not the song after all.

Anyway, by now I'm more or less completely convinced that the Manesse image has nothing to do with tablet weaving. It's still a nice heddle, though!