What does ‘handwoven’ mean?

I am often asked whether I weave my work myself, to which the answer is a simple ‘Yes’. But what does it actually mean to describe a piece as handwoven?

Throwing the shuttle

The rising profile of craft over the last few years means that many large companies are jumping in to badge their products as handmade or, if they can’t quite manage that, hand-finished. This practice can leave us skeptical about such terms. Is there really a pair of human hands making that thing? What exactly is going on?

Handwoven is not an easy term to unpick. It encompasses a wide variety of weaving practice and a wide range of tools, from the simplest frame loom to a state-of-the-art electronic Jacquard loom. Yes, even electronic looms can be tools for handweaving.

Part I: What the loom does

Every loom, however simple or complex, has two basic jobs. The first job is to keep the warp threads organised side by side under a nice, even tension.

This may be done with a wooden or metal frame, or by the weight of the weaver’s own body. When the tension is good, the weaver can start to insert the weft threads to make the cloth, and this is where the second job of a loom comes in.

Warp threads under tension

The weaver needs to interlace the weft with the warp, so that sometimes the weft travels over warp threads and sometimes underneath them. Depending on the desired structure of the cloth, the weft journey can be exceedingly complex.

On the very simplest looms, the weaver will ‘pick’ the warp threads as required using a stick, and then lift the selected threads out of the way to create a pathway for the weft. This pathway is called the shed and the task of creating the shed (shedding) is simplified by getting the loom to do some of the work.

Weaving in progress. The triangular space seen at the near side of the work on the loom is the open shed.
Shafts in action

Many of the loom technologies that have been developed over the last couple of thousand years are really about streamlining the job of shedding. It has often been accomplished by connecting the warp threads to an arrangement of shafts.

Each shaft can be raised independently or in combination with other shafts, taking all the associated warp threads with it. There are trade-offs, of course, but in general the increased speed of weaving and the reduced risk of error make these worthwhile.

Changing technology

But in more recent times – and by ‘recent’ I mean in the last two or three hundred years – other developments have been added to handlooms. These range from simple mechanical devices to complex electronic systems. How do they affect the process of handweaving?

In Part II of this post I will reflect on ‘what the weaver does’. You might be surprised!