Buying a First Loom
Information provided by Marcy Petrini
Right from the start-getting some advice on buying a first loom can help a weaver make a good decision.
The advice in this article will be purely my opinion, based on information that I have gathered in buying and using looms, helping my students buy looms, and seeing their reactions to the decisions they made. Ultimately, choosing a loom is a very personal decision, because intangible factors enter into the equation. Consider, for example, ergonometrics-what may be a comfortable weaving position for a tall weaver, may not be a comfortable position for a short one. Some weavers care about the aesthetics of the loom because of where it will be placed in the home. Others are interested only in the mechanics and not in the type of wood used in manufacturing. In my classes, I give students the guidelines discussed below. Since there are exceptions to every point, we also have the opportunity to discuss these guidelines and we talk about loom possibilities when one becomes available, or when the time comes to commit. I have even made “loom house calls” with my loom-doctor husband Terry Dwyer, who built my first loom nearly twenty-five years ago (still happily in use), and who maintains the looms at the weaving studio of Chimneyville Crafts where I teach weekly classes. Ideally, every weaver has a trusted teacher, mentor or friend who can help in the decision process. Trying a loom before buying is very important. If a guild is not available to help with that service, Convergence and other conferences are a great place to comparison shop.
My philosophy for a first loom is that it should be as easy as possible to use-“bells and whistles” can come with a future loom. Weaving is a slow process, and it is composed of many steps, each of which requires different skills-this can be daunting to a beginner working alone. It is far better to get a good, versatile loom without extras so the weaver can get started and proceed easily. I have seen too many looms purchased by beginners not ready for them. The loom then sits idle because a little something went wrong, or something a bit more complicated was required to proceed-something that would seem pretty trivial to a more experienced weaver. If there is too much uncertainty to a step-for example, changing the tie-up in a countermarch loom-the weaver wants to wait for when there is more time, when she is not so tired, when he can get help from a friend…. That time never seems to come.
All of my recommendations arise from this philosophy: buy a good, versatile loom, start weaving, experiment, get lots of experience, put lots of warps on, try different techniques, different fibers, and different structures. Do not be stifled by the loom. Preferences will become apparent and will determine what loom to buy next. Most of all, do not think of this first loom as the ultimate dream loom. Doing so will only frustrate you and paralyze the process. For any weaver who weaves long enough, there usually is a second loom, which may come as a replacement for the first, or as an addition to it, depending on the weaver’s space, finances and personal circumstances.
Types of Looms
The two best choices for beginners are jack or counterbalance floor looms. Weavers argue as to which is better: jack looms tend to be easier to use and they easily accommodate uneven tie-ups; counterbalance looms form better sheds because the counterbalanced shafts separate against each other, but for this reason, unbalanced weaves are usually harder to weave. In general, the choice between a jack or a counterbalance loom depends on what the weaver is used to. Ideally the weaver can experience weaving on both kinds before making a decision.
Position of the harnesses in
Four-harness jack system
All illustrations are courtesy of Rachel Brown, from The Weaving, Spinning, and Dyeing Book. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.
Countermarche looms require twice as many ties as either a jack or counterbalance loom. Beginners with countermarche looms tend to avoid changing the tie-up because it requires more work they are not yet comfortable doing. In order to experiment with various structures, changing the tie-up is a must. For this reason, I think countermarche looms should be the choice of more experienced weavers.
Complex looms of all sorts-dobbies and drawlooms-should be left to more experienced weavers. They require not only weaving, but mechanical skills. Far better for the beginner to concentrate on weaving. Similarly, sectional warp beams, fly shuttles and other aids to expedite weaving require different sets of skills, which should be learned only after the weaver is comfortable with the basics. For a beginner, even a second beam can get in the way.
Table looms are not a good choice for beginners. On a floor loom, the feet change the shed by operating the treadles, while the hands operate the shuttle. On a table loom, the hands have to change the shed as well as operate the shuttle. The process is nearly twice as slow on a table loom, and weaving is already a slow process. Furthermore, the tie-up on a floor loom generally simplifies the weaving, since the weaver needs to remember, for example, only to press treadle one, and does not need to remember that treadle one is tied to shafts 1 and 2. A table loom is a direct tie-up-one lever per shaft-so the weaver needs to remember the shaft combinations as well.
Table looms are good for workshops or classes when a weaver needs to bring a loom; in this case, a table loom makes a great second loom. If the weaver cannot have a floor loom for home and a table loom for the road, a portable loom is a much better solution than a table loom. There are several portable looms available on the market.
A four-shaft loom makes a great first loom. One could spend a lifetime weaving on it and still not exhaust all possibilities. If the weaver finds out that her preferences are really for complex patterns, more shafts can follow on a second loom. By that time, eight shafts may actually not be enough. The weaver will know just how complex he wants his weaving to be, and a better decision can be made on exactly how many more shafts to get, and whether that number is better served by a dobby, or a drawloom, or even a jacquard.
In the case of a beginner, however, eight shafts may actually be a hindrance to weaving. For better performance, the total number of shafts on a loom should be used, and it may be confusing for a beginner to translate a four-shaft pattern to eight shafts. Some beginners falsely believe that more shafts mean better design, but, in fact, more shafts mean only more complex patterns. Good designs can be woven on two shafts (tapestries can attest to this). Poor designs can come with as few as two shafts and with as many as a jacquard loom.
A 36 inch- or a 45 inch-wide loom is versatile-the choice depends on the available space. Unless space is truly a problem, I do not recommend a loom narrower than 36 inches-it is too restrictive. The only exception may be portability, when a weaver purchases a loom to do double duty for home and workshops.
Larger looms may be awkward for some to work, and weaving an occasional blanket does not warrant buying a larger loom at first. Double weave solves the width problem for the occasional wide item by allowing two layers, joined at one side, to be woven simultaneously. (See Doubleweave.)
I personally do not know of any unreliable companies in the weaving business. So the choices may come down to cost, aesthetics and service.
In considering cost, make sure that the comparisons are fair. For example, if the number of heddles is different, add the cost of adding the extra heddles to the loom before evaluating. (See Things You Need to Start Weaving for a good comparison.)
Aesthetics are purely personal. Some loom companies work with only one or two kinds of woods, while others can accommodate special requests.
Some loom companies deal directly with customers-others have local dealers. Some companies expect the weaver to assemble the loom, others rely on the local dealer, and still others deliver the loom assembled. Isolated weavers may not have a dealer nearby. If buying from a dealer, find out what the company expects the dealer to do and respect that agreement. For example, if the loom is shipped directly to the weaver, but the company expects the dealer to assemble that loom, make sure that the dealer does assemble it, so the weaver is not responsible for malfunctions. (I speak from experience—the dealer is no longer in business, but that did not help the weaver with her loom at that time!) Alternatively, make arrangements directly with the company to assemble your own loom.
A loom is a working piece of equipment. With time some pieces may require replacement. The Craftmen’s Guild’s teaching and weaving studio has working looms over half a century old. It is still possible to get replacement parts. For this reason, I recommend to students that they buy a commercial loom, rather than a home-made one, unless a close family member is the woodworker. I say this even with my personal experience of the loom made by my husband.
The Next Loom
Experimenting and acquiring skills allows the weaver to determine her preferences-wide looms for blankets, sturdy looms for rugs, compu-dobbies for networking drafts, or drawlooms for satins. Finding out the characteristics of the various looms helps the weaver figure out the best options for a second loom. A future Right from the Start will address this.
Marcy Petrini is a past president of the Handweavers Guild of America, Inc., and has been teaching weaving at the Chimneyville School, sponsored by the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi, since 1981.
The following list of loom manufacturers and merchants advertise in HGA's Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot magazine. This listing is not an endorsement; it is provided for your convenience.
Becky's VÄV Stuga
Jane's Fiber & Beads
The Loom Shed
Suzanne Roddy Handweaver