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Weaving with Fine Threads

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What is a fine thread?

My mantra has always been: "A fine thread is one that is finer than you have previously used."

As threads get smaller they present new challenges, requiring more thought, control, and care in handling. With fine threads you get more yards per pound from your warp and weft, but the trade-off is it takes more ends, heddles, weft picks, and time to make the same surface area of cloth.

Going finer works best if you take it one step at a time. If you've been weaving with rug warp, try a slightly thinner thread such as a 10/2 cotton; don't reach for the cobweb-weight silk immediately. When weaving with finer threads, use a structure you're familiar with. Don't change too many variables at once. I would also suggest starting with a narrow warp. This minimizes the number of threads you have to work with and it makes it easier to get a clean shed. Fine threads have a tendency to stick together.


How I Warp Fine Threads

Over the years, I've developed specialized techniques that use industry-inspired equipment in order to work with fine threads.

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With fine threads, "tension" is the 500-pound gorilla. Maintaining a consistent tension is essential. It keeps too much stress from being put on any single thread (which would then break) and prevents tangles (which can be nearly impossible to work out in gossamer threads).

It may seem like there are many steps to my warping method but, done carefully and methodically, it produces a trouble-free warp in even full-width warps of the finest threads.


Winding the Warp

Because I warp back-to-front, I wind a threading cross (end-on-end) at one end of the warp and a raddle cross (grouped ends) at the other.

To figure out how many ends should be in each group of your raddle cross, decide how many ends per inch (epi) you want to beam on your warp beam. For example, if you want to beam 48 epi and you have an 8-dent raddle, you will need six ends per raddle cross group. The easiest way to achieve these six ends in the raddle cross is to work with six spools, or six cones of your warp. As you wind your warp, create your threading (end-by-end) cross at one end and your six-end raddle cross at the other.

Having a raddle cross also makes it easier to count the total ends wound so far; simply count the number of groups in the raddle cross and multiply.

Note: If you have a single yarn package, such as a one-pound cone, that you need to wind off into smaller packages for warping, an electric bobbin winder is helpful.

It also comes in handy when winding bobbins or pirns with the weft.

When I'm creating a long warp, I use a horizontal warping mill. My mill has a heck block on it so the threads are wound onto the mill under a more even tension than I could get by using my hand to guide the threads.


The heck block has two small shafts with heddles that go up and down to create the threading cross.


When the warp is finished, you have a threading cross at one end and a raddle cross at the other. Both crosses should be wound around heavy-duty wood pegs.

The crosses are in the shape of a large letter 'X'.

To protect the order of the threads in the cross, I tie a choke-tie around each leg of each cross and also around the loop around the end pegs.

Note: When taking the warp off the mill, I do not cut my warp ends free.  The reason I don't cut my warp until I'm threading the heddles and prefer to beam back-to-front, is to avoid having to tie onto the warp beam. Knots would affect the warp's tension, creating slight variations between each section.


Winding Onto the Warping Drum

I wind the warp (threading cross first, raddle cross last) directly from the mill onto my warping drum.

The warping drum, located 30 feet from the warping beam, keeps all the warp threads on a roughly parallel path which helps maintain even tension. The drum has a friction brake that allows the drum to turn as the warp is cranked onto the warp beam.

If you keep your warp under tension throughout the beaming process, the fine threads don't have a chance to tangle.


Inserting Lease Sticks and Cane

Next I insert a set of lease sticks into the raddle cross. The lease sticks help maintain a physical separation of the raddle cross before the warp is drawn through the raddle onto the warp beam.

Then I insert a "cane" into the loop at the end of my warp. On my loom (an AVL Production Dobby Loom) the "cane" is a wood strip that fits into a slot on the warp beam to secure the loop ends; no tying or lashing required.


Using a Wall-Mounted Beam Winder

To wind my warp onto the back beam, I use a beam winder that is separate from the loom. I remove the back beam from the loom and put it into the wall-mounted beam-winder.

When the warp is fully beamed on, I return the back beam to the loom for threading.

The reason I use a separate winding station instead of winding directly onto the loom is one of space. I don't have a 30-foot clear path behind my loom to stretch out the warp.

[Editor's Note: This feature is available for production looms, such as the AVL Production Dobby Loom the author uses. If you have a loom where the back beam does not lift out, you can wind onto the beam while it is still on your loom.]


Spreading the Warp with a Raddle

A raddle is a reed with a removable cap. The cap makes it possible for you to drop groups of threads into the raddle's dents rather than having to pull them through with a sleying hook, which can affect thread position and tension.

Position the raddle so you can leave it in place while winding the warp onto the warp beam. In my configuration, I clamp it to the beam winder. After securing the raddle cross to my raddle, I spread the warp threads out and drop them into the dents in the raddle.


Note: If you don't have a raddle, you can rough-sley a reed by pulling uncut loops through the dents to spread the warp, but I would only recommend this for narrow warps. See Summer-and-Winter Bookmark for more information on how to do this.

You can create a raddle by driving a line of finishing nails into a flat strip of wood that is as long as the width of your loom. The cap of this improvised raddle can be multiple rubber bands stretched across the nails.

Commercial raddles, or "drawing-in combs" as they are known in industry, can be purchased from companies that sell reeds. These raddles are often available in finer dents-per-inch than those available from loom manufacturers.


Winding onto the Back Beam

Once the warp is spread in the raddle you can begin beaming.

Having my beam winder separate from my loom enables me to wind my warp using my warping drum because I don't have 30 feet of space behind my loom in which to stretch out the warp.


aThe warp is drawn through the raddle and onto the warping beam under tension. This eliminates crossed ends and neatly places them in their proper location on the warp beam. This pays big dividends in maintaining perfect tension as the warp is wound off the beam during the weaving process.

The most important issue when working with fine threads is to have them beamed with even tension. If I can beam a warp I can weave it.

Over the years, I've had a few warps where the threads were too weak or disorganized to beam. I've learned to discard these. It's time-efficient to know when to cut your losses and start over.

With my beam winder and drum, I generally don't need any paper or other warp separator when beaming.

Once the warp is completely beamed onto the back beam, the back beam is removed from the wall-mounted beam winder and returned to the loom.


Threading the loom

I keep my lease sticks in the raddle cross as I'm weaving. That way, if I break a warp thread, I can easily locate where it belongs in the threading.


I insert a pair of threading lease sticks in the threading cross and hang them from the back of my castle to prepare for threading.

If you use a reed instead of a raddle to spread the warp during beaming on, you'll need to transfer your threading cross behind your castle. How to do this is described in the article Summer-and-Winter Bookmark.

Now is the time I cut the front loop of my warp open, in preparation for threading the loom.


Heddles: Do the Math

When you work with fine threads you need more heddles per inch of weaving width than you do for coarse threads. For example, for a five-inch weaving width at 12 ends per inch (epi), you would need 60 heddles. At 30 epi, you would need 150 heddles.

Make sure you have enough heddles before you start your project and find that you need to buy or borrow more heddles. If you are short just a few, you can tie string heddles.

There are many opinions about which type of heddles to use. I prefer Texsolv® heddles, a brand of string heddle crocheted from white polyester. They are readily available from weaving shops, slide and compact easily on the frame, and do not damage warp threads.

Whichever kind you use, make sure that your heddles do not abrade or cut the fine warp threads.


Comfortable Threading

threading the loomWhen you are warping your loom with fine threads, you have more warp ends and it takes longer to thread the heddles.


Find a way to be comfortable.

It is most ergonomic to have the holes of your heddles at eye level. With my floor loom, I remove the breast beam, hang the beater from the castle with cords, turn the built-in bench side ways (to use as a backrest), and sit inside the loom on a low stool and soft cushion. Once in there, I stay for an hour or given number of heddles.

It is important to take breaks when threading. It is when you're tired that you'll make mistakes.


Avoid Threading Errors

Since correcting threading errors takes time, I thread the loom carefully and try to do it correctly the first time.


Here's how I work:

  1. Count out the heddles you need to complete a given portion of the pattern, such as a pattern repeat or a given number of threads.
  2. Move the heddles across the heddle bars in the pattern that you will thread.
  3. Thread the heddles.
  4. Check to see if the group is threaded correctly and that you haven't crossed any of them.
  5. Tie the finished group with a slipknot.


When the threading is done, I put my loom back together to sley the reed.


Sleying the Reed

A reed manufacturer once told me that reeds with more than 30 dents per inch are fragile and easily damaged, and thus not practical to manufacture.

So for setts greater than 30 epi, I sley multiple ends per dent.


If you crowd too many ends per dent, however, you may end up with "reed stripe" in your cloth. Reed stripes occur when the thickness of the metal separators in the reed deflect the warp threads and create stripes where there are fewer warps than the surrounding cloth. Sometimes these stripes wash out, and sometimes they become a "design element." In addition, too many ends in a dent can mean more breakage and an uneven beat.

While sleying. I hold the beater in position using a footstool and my knee. (Feline supervision is optional.)

Once the reed is sleyed, I tie one-half-inch worth of ends in a "bight" (a group of warp ends tied to an apron). Each bight is tied with a simple knot and then laced to the cloth-apron rod.

Tighten the lacing cord to create an even tension across the warp.

Letting the loom rest over night before weaving seems to create a more even tension (or maybe it's just my more even temperament in the morning.)



Lillian WhippleLillian Whipple has been weaving since 1971. In 1990, she received her COE-W from the Handweaver's Guild of America and is a Master Weaver. Her in-depth study was "By a Fine Silk Thread."

For the past fifteen years, she has chaired the Fine-Threads study group for Complex Weavers.



Photo Credit: Photos by Grey Whipple