About Our Looms

Welcome to the Weavers Barn. Here you can see an unusually large number of looms in use as well as all of the related tools needed to turn fiber into cloth. Spinning wheels and carders, warping boards and swifts, spindle winders and shuttles, each is an essential step in the process. All of our weavers are volunteers who donate their time and talent to support the museum with our weaving and by sharing with visitors and the community some of the more recent history of this most ancient of arts.

Our rural hand weaving tradition here in the United States comes predominantly from the early European and Scandinavian colonists with later immigrants adding to the mix as well. The earliest weavers came to the New World from Sweden, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Scotland and Ireland.

Barn Frame Looms

The oldest looms in our collection, which predate the Civil War, are often called barn looms, a name which is somewhat misleading as they were never intended to be used in a barn, nor were they made from re-used barn timbers. They were, however, built like timber framed barns because their makers were familiar with construction methods of early barns and homes. Hence, some historians and weavers feel that the correct name is actually "barn frame looms".

Others posit that the name evolved from the German word "bauernwebstuhl", meaning farmhouse loom which was first shortened to bauern loom then morphed into barn loom.

Regardless of which name is used, they were all constructed alike of large beams with mortise and tenon joints and dowels or wedges as fasteners. The beams and cross pieces (girts, rails) support the cloth and warp beams, as well as the harness and beater. Three main types are: four post, sleigh, and cantilevered. Some looms have diagonal braces or supporting struts for added stability.

These frame type items are called the shafts and are used to control sets of warp threads. The treadles raise one or more of the shafts which creates a space (known as the shed) for the weft to pass through.

It is interesting to note that this part of the beater (point out the reed) which keeps all of the warp threads lined up, is actually constructed of pieces of split reed. Hence, the name of this essential part of the loom, called the reed even today when it has been made out of metal for well over a century.

In most barn looms the warp beam is higher than the breast beam. When the beater is pushed back, the arc of the swing brings the warp in the bottom of the shed even with the bottom of the reed and shuttle race. Some looms have adjustable warp beam heights, to allow for the build up of long warps, thus maintaining the warp beam/breast beam relationship.

Treadles are generally attached to a treadle block at the rear or front of the loom. Some were attached to the separate weaver's bench and some simply rested on the floor under the front of the loom with ends slung in loops of cord hung from lamms or shafts.
>> read a story of our oldest barn loom

What is a Jacquard Loom?

Although this is commonly referred to as a Jacquard loom that is something of a misnomer as it is the mechanism or head, that sits on top of the loom which bears the name of its inventor, Joseph Marie Jacquard. The loom itself is typically a Dobby type.

Jacquard, a Frenchman who was involved in the weaving trade from boyhood, recognized that although weaving was an intricate process, it was also a repetitive one and saw that a mechanism could be developed for the production of sophisticated patterns. Refining and improving upon the work of predecessors in the field, notably Jacques de Vaucanson who first used a punch card system on a loom in 1745, Jacquard popularized the mechanism around 1803 and is generally credited with it’s invention. The work of Basile Bouchon (1740) and Jean Babtiste Falcon (1728) also contributed to Jacquard’s design.

Jacquard’s mechanism simplifies the process of weaving textiles with complex patterns such as brocade, damask and matelassé. The pattern, which is determined by which warp threads are raised, is controlled by a series of cards, strung together and fed through the Jacquard head. Holes are punched into the cards and as the card is positioned above the Bolus hooks, the hook can either rise, if there is a hole in that position, or is stopped if the card is solid. Each line of holes on the card represents one pick or one pass of the shuttle through the shed.

The Bolus hook raises or lowers the harness (or shaft), which carries and guides the warp thread so that the weft thread will either pass above or below it. The sequence of raised and lowered threads is what creates the pattern. Each hook can be connected via the harness to a number of threads, allowing more than one repeat of a pattern. A loom with a 400-hook head might have four threads connected to each hook, resulting in a fabric that is 1600 warp ends wide with four repeats of the weave going across.

The Jacquard loom was the first machine to use punched cards to control a sequence of operations. Although it did no computation based on them, it is considered a significant step in the history of computing hardware. The ability to change the pattern of the loom’s weave by simply changing cards was an important conceptual precursor to the development of computer programming. Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine, was strongly influenced by Jacquard's mechanism.

Prior to the invention of the Jacquard loom, anyone wishing to weave something with a complex pattern would use a drawloom. In this type of loom a second person (other than the weaver) is needed to manually select the warp threads that need to be raised for each pick. It is a slow and labor intensive process, with practical limitations on the complexity of the pattern. Jacquard’s father was a drawloom weaver and Joseph served as his ‘draw-boy’ as a child. Sitting on top of the loom for hours on end, raising and lowering warp threads at his father's direction must have been a powerful incentive to perfect the Jacquard mechanism.

The single biggest advantage of the Jacquard loom is it’s ability to produce so many different weaves from one warp. Conversely, this is also one of it’s biggest disadvantages as the threading (or dressing) of a Jacquard loom is very labor-intensive. Modern jacquard looms, which are computer-controlled instead of using punched-cards, can have thousands of hooks and even a small loom with only a few thousand warp ends can take days to re-thread.
>> read a story of our Jacquard loom

The English Dobby Loom

Dobby looms first appeared around 1843 — roughly forty years after M. Jacquard invented the Jacquard device that can be mounted atop a loom.

A dobby loom is a type of floor loom that controls the shafts that carry the warp threads using a device called a dobby. Dobby is a corruption of "draw boy" which refers to the weaver's helpers who used to control the warp thread by pulling on draw threads to raise the shafts.

The dobby is, like the Jacquard, a treadle-less floor loom created to take advantage of the full number of sheds possible with the shaft system of warp control.

On treadle operated looms, the shafts are connected to one or more treadles. When the weaver steps on a specific treadle, that shaft (or combination of shafts) is raised and a unique shed is created. A different treadle raises a different combination of shafts and warp threads and creates a different, unique shed. The combination of these different sheds is what creates the structure and pattern of the weave.

An eight shaft loom can create 254 different sheds. However, most eight shaft floor looms have only ten to twelve treadles due to space limitations. This limits the weaver to ten to twelve distinct sheds.

With a dobby loom, all 254 possibilities are available at any time. This vastly increases the number of cloth designs available to the weaver. The advantage of a dobby loom becomes even more pronounced on looms with 12 shafts (4094 possible sheds), 16 shafts (65,534 possible sheds), or more. It reaches its peak on a Jacquard loom in which each thread is individually controlled.

A manual dobby uses a chain of bars or lags each of which has pegs inserted to select the shafts to be moved. The selected shafts are raised or lowered by leg power on a dobby pedal.

Another advantage to a dobby loom is the ability to handle much longer sequences in the pattern. A weaver working on a treadled loom must remember the entire sequence of treadlings that make up the pattern, and must keep track of where they are in the sequence at all times. Getting lost or making a mistake can ruin the cloth being woven. On a manual dobby the sequence that makes up the pattern is represented by the chain of dobby bars. The length of the sequence is limited by the length of the dobby chain. This can easily be several hundred dobby bars, although an average dobby chain will have approximately fifty bars.

Jacquard looms, whilst relatively common in the textile industry, are not as ubiquitous as dobby looms which are usually faster and much cheaper to operate. However unlike jacquard looms they are not capable of producing so many different weaves from one warp.