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Tablet-Woven Brocade

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Brocade uses a supplemental weft to create patterns or pictures in woven fabric.  I love this technique because it allows me to create bright, multi-colored images with a high degree of graphic complexity: I can make a peacock with brown wings and green tail feathers, each feather with a tiny blue eye spot; I can render the subtle shading of a moth’s wing.  I like realistic representation in my designs, and brocade does that better than any of the other techniques in my weaving arsenal. 

Note: I developed some techniques for tablet-woven brocade that are uniquely mine.  I’ll mention the more conventional options as we go along, just be aware the way that I do things isn’t in any of the books. My method is easy to learn and very efficient. I’ll give you lots of pictures, and some videos to show the tricky parts.

This article assumes you have a good grasp of the basics of tablet weaving. 

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[Editor's Note: For the basics of tablet-weaving (also called card-weaving) see Pam Howard's article on creating a Card-Woven DPN Holder, which walks you through tablet-weaving for the first time, starting with creating your own tablets.]


Brocade Uses a Supplemental Pattern Weft

For the brocade pattern weft (the gold in the picture below), I use a thread that is larger than the warp and compacts easily. Flat silk (a special embroidery silk with almost no twist, like Au Ver a Soie's "Soie Ovale") is perfect for light-weight ribbons. I switch to multi-stranded silk or cotton to brocade projects woven out of heavier threads. s

gobletEmbroidery thread is ideal for brocading: it comes in many colors, has good sheen, and is softly spun which allows it to "belly out."  This last means the thread or floss blooms in the surface floats, allowing it to cover more of the cloth.  This makes the brocaded design appear more solid and substantial.  If the brocade weft is too thin, the design may look sketchy and flat, with gaps between the lines of brocade.

Metal-wrapped threads, fine wire, or metal strips, can be used to brocade tablet-woven bands. These make a beautiful glittering surface with an incredible sense of richness.  If the metal thread is too thin compared to the warp, you can double it. 


The Band is Made of Ground Weave

Brocade is a surface technique. There is a ground weft which binds the fabric together. If the brocade thread was vaporized, you would be left with a solid-colored band.  Because the structural integrity of the band doesn’t depend on the brocade threads, they can dance above the cloth and look pretty.

The ground fabric should be sturdy, easy, and inconspicuous, to display the brocade to best effect. 

Ground weave is one of the things I do differently from other tablet weavers.  Most people prefer a background weave in which all the tablets turn continuously in one direction, and are threaded alternately in the S and Z configuration.

I prefer the two turns forward, two turns back (2F/2B) ground weave used for double-face weaving, and I warp all my tablets in one direction (either S or Z, it doesn't matter which.)  The fabric looks a lot like grosgrain ribbon, especially when woven in fine thread. 

peacock brocadeUsing the double-face weave structure also allows me to use a second set of colored threads to create double-face designs in the same piece with brocaded designs. 

Double-face works up faster than brocade, and is sturdier. I use it to fill large areas, saving the brocade for eye-catching details.  The drawback to this is that you have to keep track of where you’re at in the ground weave, as well as making the brocade, but I think the results are worth the effort.

I often use black for my ground fabric; I like the way brightly-colored designs appear to float above a black surface, and the black doesn’t interfere with the optical blending of the colors. 

When I use a colored warp, I have to be careful of how the warp’s color will interact with the brocade. A blue warp will shift everything towards blue. So, for example, I might have to brocade orange-yellow thread to get it to read as yellow. 


Surface Brocade Verses Through Brocade

Tablet weaving is warp-faced; you typically don’t see the weft (except in special cases, for example, when a turning reversal showing a spot of weft, or when the weft is used as a design element.)  Because of this, when my brocade thread is not floating across the surface of the cloth, I can hide it in the middle of the ground shed, and it does not show on the reverse of the woven strap.

The brocade thread runs through the main shed, leaps out to float over the pattern floats, and dives back into the main shed.  To avoid ungainly floats, there are tie-downs at regular intervals to bind the thread to the surface.

This is surface brocade. 

The kind that I don’t do, is called through brocade.  With through brocade, the brocading thread goes over or under the whole band. When it isn’t floating on the front, it’s floating on the back.  This is good for overall designs like lattice work, and is used a lot with metal brocade. (Because you want to see all that glorious gold!) The patterns that I work with usually have long stretches of unseen thread, which would make a mess of floats if I had them showing on the back.  By using surface brocade, I can have spot designs and multiple colors without having to worry about where the thread goes when it’s not showing on the top.



The Brocade Shed

Brocade takes place in a special shed that is typically hand-picked for every shot.  Some ingenious weavers have designed sets of tiny leashes to pull their brocade sheds, essentially recreating in miniature the mechanism of a draw loom.

For my figurative designs, I hand-pick the brocade-pattern sheds.  Because this is surface brocade, the thread will either go between the upper and lower pairs of threads in each tablet (in the main shed) or it will float above all the threads of the tablet. 


Brocade Patterns Are Charted

Brocade is charted on a graph, and followed line-by-line like a cross-stitch pattern. 

Because tablet weaving is warp-faced, it tends to elongate the brocaded designs vertically. If you plot brocade pattern on square graph paper, the image will appear stretched when woven.

goblet chartTo compensate, I created brocade graph paper with a height-to-width ratio of 3:2.

I started out designing with pencils and graph paper.  These days, I use design software called Pattern Maker, which was written for cross-stitch but allows you to distort the chart however you like.  It makes life much easier, and allows me to do things like compile phrases out of charted letters. 

You can also use spreadsheet software and chart your designs by coloring in the cells. 

The brocade design is created by weft threads floating across the surface. If these floats get too long, they can snag and break when the band is used.

If you have an area with long floats, you can add tie-downs (non-brocaded spots) to your design.  My preference is for the brocade to float over no more than five warp threads. You can see in the chart to the left that I added a line of tie-downs (the white blocks) along the stem of the goblet. Carefully spacing your tie-downs can give character to your designs, as well as improve the structural integrity of the woven band.


Traditional Brocading Technique

First, I’m going to explain the traditional method of selecting the brocade shed.  (This is so when I explain my method, you’ll understand what makes it different.)

  1. Turn the tablets to create a new shed. 
  2. Beat with the shuttle, and throw the ground weft.  (The shuttle holding the brocade weft always chases the shuttle holding the ground weft.)
  3. Insert your hand into the edge of the shed, and count off the tablets as you go across. 
  4. For every marked square in your design chart (where the brocade thread floats over the warp) raise your fingertips so your hand goes over that tablet’s threads. 
  5. For every blank square in your design chart (where the brocade thread is hidden) put your fingertips down, so that they go between the upper and lower pairs of thread on the tablet.
  6. Work your way across until you’ve reached the other side, then pass the shuttle with the brocade thread through the shed where your hand is, and draw it snug, but not tight. 
  7. Don’t beat the brocade shed. The brocade thread gets beaten into place with the next ground shed (Step 2.) 
  8. Repeat Steps 1-7 to weave the entire charted design.


You can use a pick-up stick instead of your hand to create the brocade shed. I don’t recommend using the brocade shuttle for this purpose, however, because it will abrade your brocade thread and may cause pills or shredding. 


My Brocading Technique

This is my method for creating a brocade pattern shed. It has the benefit of preserving the pattern picks between ground-thread shots. This makes it more efficient, especially for designs that repeat or have gradual change.

  1. Turn the tablets to create a new ground shed.  Beat with the shuttle and throw the ground weft. (The shuttle holding the brocade weft always chases the shuttle holding the ground weft.)
  2. Reading across the chart, select tablets that will be brocaded over (where the weft will show) and push them up the warp away from you. 

  1. Put your middle finger (or a stick) into the main shed.  Turn the selected tablets two turns forward.  What will happen is that the threads of the selected tablets will wrap around your middle finger. 

  1. Then, put your index finger (or a second stick) into the shed above the selected threads, and turn the selected tablets two turns back

  1. The pattern selected tablets haven’t woven anything, they have just idled, but they’ve given you their threads without you having to pick the threads. 

  1. Now, pass your shuttle through the brocade shed (where your index finger is) and pull snug, but not tight. 

  1. Change the main shed, and you’re ready for the next line. 
  2. Repeat Steps 1-7 to weave the entire chart.

You can use a pick-up stick instead of your hand to create the brocade shed. I don’t use sticks, myself; I like having my hands in my weaving. 


After you have picked the pattern cards from the design chart, you use them to create the brocade shed.


For the first line of brocade, my technique and the traditional technique are about equal in terms of speed. In both, you have to hand-pick the pattern from the chart.

The time savings comes in on subsequent lines. You keep the ground and pattern packs separate, and pick the next line of the pattern chart by moving only the cards that differ from the previous line.  This is especially useful in patterns where the design changes follow a regular progression, like knot-work.

knotwork brocadeThe greatest time savings with my method is in designs where a portion of the pattern repeats vertically.

For example, If I’ve got a design like the one to the right, I can use the same set of forward-shifted pattern cards for the ten brocade lines in the center before I have to re-pick. 

With many designs, the changes from line to line can be made with a few additions or subtractions to the shifted-forward set of cards. (For example: a pattern block becomes wider by two tablets added to the right, another becomes narrower by one tablet taken off the left.)  By sliding tablets forward into the selected pattern pack, or back into the main pack, you can easily change which tablets are selected. 


Brocading with Multiple Colors

If you’re working a brocade design with more than one color, each color uses a separate shuttle.  I don’t recommend using more than three colors in the same row, as the wefts pile up in the main shed and distort the design. 

When weaving with multiple colors, pick an order for weaving the colored wefts (for example: red, blue, green), and stick to it. This will help prevent errors.  If a color skips a few rows in the brocade design, you can run it through the main shed alongside the ground weft until it is needed again. This is easier than tying off and starting on again. 


Starting a New Brocade Thread

Eventually your brocade shuttle will run out of yarn, or you will need to add in a new color. You can bury the ends of the brocade thread in the ground shed, as show in the video below.


Finishing the Band

I press brocaded pieces firmly with a fairly hot iron and steam (unless I've used a synthetic thread, such as metallics, that scorch.)  Pressing makes the brocade thread belly out, and smoothes the ground weave.  Press silk with a cloth above it to avoid getting iron shine. Be careful with water or steam if there’s any chance of the dyes in your yarns bleeding. You may wish to test the wash-fastness of your threads beforehand.


Uses for Brocaded Bands

butterfly brocade Brocaded tablet weaving is a labor-intensive technique, and is best used for special items.  I prefer applications that won’t get a lot of abrasion: garment trims, decorative accents (tablet-woven tags for your hand-woven garments are really sharp!) bookmarks, and to support medallions. 


Resources for Tablet Weavers


Michael CookMichael Cook experiences a little madness each spring; he raises silkworms. You can read about his exploits raising caterpillars and reeling their silk at his website, which includes a gallery of his embroidery, brocaded tablet weaving, and saganishiki. He also runs a Yahoo group for folks who raise silkmoths.