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.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Finishing old projects... II

Here's the assembled purse! It's not very big, though - I can just about fit my hand into it...

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Finishing old projects...

Today I finished an embroidery I've been working on for I don't know how long!
(I think a lot of people who are interested in medieval emobroidery and textiles will recognise the pattern - it's from a silk purse displayed in the textiles study room at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Timothy J. Mitchell's article on counted thread embroidery with drafts of this purse and others can be found on his homepage A Stitch Out of Time.)

The finished piece is less than half the size of what I originally intented it to be and it will be a very small purse indeed if I ever assemble it. When started working on it, I didn't worry too much about the materials and went for the cheepest option: mercerised cotton thread instead of real silk. At the time it seemed like the right decision to make, but after a while I realised that if I was going to wear this with my medieval clothing, I actually wanted it to be silk (or at least look like it, which this thread didn't)... By then I had done almost two thirds of what can be seen in the picture above, but I put it aside and ignored it successfully for years. This summer, in an attempt to relax after all the work with my thesis, I decided to finish it after all. I think I'll make it into a purse now while I'm at it and use it for my mobile rather than with my medieval outfits!

My thesis, by the way, will soon be available - I still have one image I need to check the copyright for before I can post it in the digital archive I mentioned in a previous post. Now the holiday's over I'll hopefully get round to it... After handing in my thesis in May, I continued working with Eric of Pomerania's Belt - there were still a couple of things I hadn't been able to explain properly. The analysis of the weave I present in my thesis is still correct (as far as I can tell), but the way I tried to recreate it isn't. But eventually I did figured it out - just in time to include the new findings in my paper proposal for the NESAT conference (North European Symposium on Archaeological Textiles) that takes place in May next year! When I got back from my vacation there was an e-mail in my inbox, telling me that my proposal had been accepted - yay! So whatever else happens this autumn (does anyone out there want to hire an archaeologist specialising in textiles ;-) ???!), I will still be here weaving Eric of Pomerania's Belt in my spare time. And if my research continues in the direction it's heading at the moment, I think I will have a rather interesting paper to present!