warp threads prepared for handloom weaving

A Look at Handloom Weaving

Second in a series of articles about how our Indian fabrics are made.

warping beam and marigolds

Here at Loom & Stars, we love all kinds of fabric, but we really love handwoven fabrics. What makes these fabrics different? Well, they are just that: woven by hand, by people, using a handloom (which is to say, a hand-operated, non-mechanized loom). That’s why we refer to the fabrics interchangeably as "handwoven" or "handloom" fabrics. If you have read the article about our visit to a weavers' village, you’ve seen where our handloom fabrics are made. Now let's see how they are made. Along they way we'll learn some cool weaving vocabulary, too!

Weaving is a fascinating and intricate process, and most of us don’t think too much about it, just taking for granted that fabric exists. Most handloom fabrics (and most woven fabrics in general) are plain weave, which is the simplest weave structure, so that's what we'll look at here. In a plain weave, the weft threads alternately pass over and under one warp thread at a time on the loom.

Hang on, what are warp and weft? First of all, let's look at a loom:

handloom with definitions

Warp threads run the length of the cloth and are the ones strung onto the loom in order to make weaving possible.

Weft threads are interlaced with them at right angles, running across the fabric from selvedge to selvedge. I always remember that the WEFT goes from right to LEFT. Together, warp and weft form cloth.

How can we interlace the warp and weft if each thread has to pass over, then under, then over, then under the next, and on and on? We’ll divide the warp threads -- those running the length of the cloth -- into two sets and string them up in such a way that alternate threads belong to alternate groups, which we’ll call A and B, like this: ABABABAB.

warp threads wound on beam
Before we can weave, we must set up the loom, which is a big project. All those hundreds of warp threads must be arranged in order (especially if the fabric has stripes or multiple colors in the warp) and wound up on a beam.

hands threading the warp

Then, with nimble fingers, the ends of the warps must be carefully threaded through the heddles. A heddle is something with a hole or eye in it for a warp thread to pass through; here the heddles are made of knotted string. Every warp thread goes through its own heddle, and they are arranged in two sets, A and B, as mentioned above.

handloom with two shafts

The heddles themselves are held in order in two frames, called shafts, one for the As and one for the Bs. The prepared heddles and beam are put onto the loom, making sure that the tension is just right, and each shaft is connected to its own treadle (pedal).

handloom with shuttle and shed

So how do we weave? First we’ll need some weft thread (which someone has already wound onto a bobbin, thank you!) and we’ll load it into a shuttle. Step on one of the treadles/pedals, and the corresponding shaft rises, raising all its warps with it. This separates the two sets of warp threads, creating an open space through which the weft can pass. This space is called the shed, and it's what makes a loom an efficient way to weave. If we raise shaft A and pass the shuttle through (by pulling a cord overhead), our weft will go under all the A warps and over all the B warps (remember, they were arranged alternately across the width of the cloth), with this result:

A  A  A  A  A  A  A  A  A  A
————————————————————>  weft
 B  B  B  B  B  B  B  B  B  B

Then we step on the other treadle to lower shaft A and raise shaft B, which re-opens the shed in the opposite arrangement. Now when we pass the shuttle through, the result looks like this:

 B  B  B  B  B  B  B  B  B  B
<———————————————————  weft
A  A  A  A  A  A  A  A  A  A

Next we pull down the batten, a moving frame which holds the reed (essentially a giant metal comb), to beat the fabric in. This presses the two passes of the weft into place, maintaining the correct tension. And that's it! We've made two throws of the weft and are back where we started, having created a little more fabric. Let’s see it happening:

Performing these motions over and over, a weaver falls into a comfortable rhythm. Press down a treadle, throw the shuttle through the shed, pull on the batten to beat it in. Then press the other treadle, throw the shuttle back and beat it in, always keeping an eye on the cloth and making sure the selvedges are even.

blue threads to be wound

As you can see, the fabric passes through many hands in its transformation from thread to cloth, and no electricity is used in the handloom weaving process. Because it is not made by power machinery, handwoven cloth has a special softness and can be made from very fine threads. With years of experience and a knowing touch, the weavers create fabric of exceptional quality and incredible beauty in a great range of weights and textures, ranging from robust canvases to the most delicate, sheer cottons imaginable.

Plain weave cloth, which we’ve been looking at here, can also serve as a base to support other techniques, such as jamdani weaving, which we’ll learn about next time.


Read the previous article: A Visit to a Weavers' Village

Read the next article: A Look at Jamdani Weaving

Watch a film: How Are Handloom Fabrics Made?

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