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Beading on the Edge

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It's no secret—I have a passion for weaving narrow bands on a small rigid heddle. But like most rigid-heddle weavers, I sometimes yearn to make my plain weave a little less "plain".

On a whim one rainy afternoon, I combined some beads with a selvedge technique borrowed from shaft-loom weaving, and presto: a fun and easy way to make a simple band, simply stunning!

Bands woven this way have beads running down their edges and are as nice in the hand as they are to the eye.

To describe them in "weaverly" terms, these bands are woven in warp-faced plain weave, with beads carried on a supplemental floating selvedge along each side of the warp.




Equipment, the warp, and the concept

small heddleThe first step is to warp your loom. For these beaded bands, you may find a small heddle easier to use than a full-width one. (The limitation of a full-width heddle for this particular project is that the "slot" spaces are often too narrow to allow beads to pass through.)

You may be able to find small heddle sections like this one made by Beka (shown with a green and pink warp) at your favourite weaving shop, I sell a small semi-rigid heddle loom, and other small frame looms work just fine, too.

(Editor's note: This technique would also work well on an inkle loom, or backstrap loom.)

Measure your warp yarns and thread the heddle. The warp provides the pattern in these bands, so explore stripes and proportions, or arrangements of shiny and matte—this narrow format is a great place for experimentation.

When the main part of the warp is ready, measure two additional warp ends about 30% longer than the rest of the warp. These two strands, the "floating selvedges", will be placed at the outer edges of the main warp and will carry the beads. They don't need to match the rest of the warp, but they do need to be small enough to pass smoothly through the hole in the beads.

Thread beads onto each of these two selvedge threads. How many beads? That depends on the size of the beads and the size of your weft. The beads run along the edge of the band, separated by weft shots; so if you're using a thick weft, you won't need as many beads as you would with a fine weft. That said, there's no need to obsess about it. If you thread enough beads to make a strand as long as the expected final length of your weaving, you can be sure you won't run out along the way (in fact, you'll probably have beads left over at the end).

When your beaded selvedge threads are ready, set them in position at the outer edges of your band warp. They will be "used up" at a rate slightly different than that of the rest of the warp, so they must be tensioned separately. How you do that will depend on your weaving setup. Here are two basic arrangements and their tensioning methods:

(1) My preferred setup is to weave bands using a small heddle suspended on the warp (a semi-rigid heddle loom is shown below), with the far end of the warp knotted and attached to a fixed point and my end of the warp clamped to the arm of my chair.

With this arrangement, I knot the two beaded selvedge threads together at the far end and clip that end in place with a strong clothespin. Because the selvedge threads are longer than the rest of the warp, the clip starts out partway along their length, with extra thread dangling down from the clothespin. It's not elegant, but it's easy to adjust as weaving goes along and I find I need more slack at the selvedge.

The beaded selvedges pass straight through at the edges of the threaded heddles, as shown below.


weighted bead warp(2) If you've set up using the framework of a larger rigid heddle loom to hold your warp, it's even easier: you can tension each beaded selvedge thread by coiling it up inside a film can (along with a few coins if you need the weight), then dangling it off the back of the loom.

With the "far" end of the beaded threads taken care of, warping is almost done. Position the beaded selvedge threads at the outer edges of the warp.

Their separate tensioning and the weight of the beads will cause them to rest at a slightly different level than the other threads, as you can see in the photos. This is normal, and actually helpful during weaving.


Beads warped as floating selvedge on a semi-rigid-heddle loom.

beads hang down


Beads warped as floating selvedge on a traditional rigid heddle.

warped rigid heddle



Weaving the band

Threads and beads in place, you're ready to weave! The two rigid-heddle weaving sheds work much as they usually do. In the "up" shed, the beaded threads naturally hang at the lower level, along with the warp ends from the slots.

up shed


In the "down" shed, you will need to use your hand to lift the beaded threads to the upper level.

down shed


To begin, weave a header without beads, pulling the weft through firmly to bring the warps together so they touch, shoulder-to-shoulder. This will set the band up for warp-faced weaving. Include the selvedge threads in the woven header, but don't involve any beads just yet.

After the header, you're on your way—and the beading can begin!


Slide a bead down to the fell line on each side of the warp.

slide down the bead

Raise the heddle to open the "up" shed. Insert the shuttle, pack down the previous pick, and pull the weft through. If you watch the selvedge as you pull the weft tight, you can see the weft anchoring the bead in place.

Lower the heddle to open the "down" shed, and lift the beaded selvedges to the upper layer of threads. Insert the shuttle, pack down the previous pick, and pull the weft through.

throwing the weft picks


The detail photo below shows how a weft pick locks the bead in place when you pull it tight against the selvedge.

tying in the bead

It's a good habit to check at the start of each pick to make sure the selvedge thread will be caught by the weft, and the bead will be anchored in the right position when you pull the weft tight. Beads have independent spirits and tend to wander away from the fell if you don't keep an eye on them.


Colour and design

Beads add another dimension to the design of woven bands. Their shape, sheen, size and colour all play important roles—and give you many options. The choice and its effect are in your hands. Here are some examples...

Silver-lined beads tend to "dress up" any weaving. The pale lilac ones in this example transform handspun bamboo yarn into something delicious and formal.

bamboo and lilac beads


Small, solid-colour beads, while not showy, add interest and texture. In this case, they add character to what would otherwise have been a plain striped band.

green striped band


Sampling is the best way to see whether or not a particular style of bead will work when it's out on the selvedge. For an example of something that doesn't work all that well, consider the detail view of this one: the colors of these cylindrical beads perfectly echoed the weft on this scarf-in-progress and would have made a lovely embroidered embellishment—but as beads "on the edge", they were bland and disappointing.

bad example


Floating selvedges and wider weavings

It's just as easy to use floating selvedges on a rigid heddle loom for a full-width project as it is when weaving bands with small heddle sections. For example, here's the back view my loom warped full-width for a scarf, with its two beaded floating selvedges coiled into film cans (something similar, actually), and dangling off the back of the warp beam.

full-width weaving

The wider project weaves up the same way as the little bands: you slide a bead down to the fell line at each edge of the weaving, then open a shed and pass the weft through, making sure it anchors the bead at the selvedge as you pull it tight. Then you open another shed, make sure the edge thread (and bead) will be caught by the weft, and pass the weft through.

full width


full-width fabric detailFinal words

In the world of shaft-loom weaving, floating selvedges provide a way to get a smooth woven edge on weave structures (such as twills) that wouldn't normally "catch" the edge thread on every pick.

The floating selvedges are threaded straight through from the warp beam to the front beam and do not pass through the eyes of any heddle. It's this free-running path, uninterrupted by a heddle, that makes them "floating".

That's the classic role of floating selvedges—but as you've already seen, it's not the only one.

So there it is. Go forth and weave. And as you go, imagine running your hands down the selvedges of your next project—to feel the cool, nubbly smoothness of a long line of beads!



Ruth MacGregorAn unrepentant handspinner, Ruth MacGregor has been making yarn for nearly thirty years. She started weaving when she realized one could weave twill on a rigid heddle loom. Several years (and looms) later, rigid heddles remain her loom of choice—most often with multiple heddles. Her yarn and weaving excursions appear regularly on her website. She teaches handspinning, braiding, and band weaving at shows in Europe and North America and is the author of two small-but-useful books: Learn to Spin Silk on a Top-Whorl Spindle and Tablet Weaving—Basic two-colour patterns.