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Janna Maria Vallee demonstrating weaving at the School of SweetGeorgia online tapestry course

Tapestry Looms

Janna Maria Vallee tapestry weaving art piece

Hello! Janna Maria Vallee here again with a new addition to my series of articles which I’m writing with the intention to help you gain more confidence as you venture into the art of tapestry weaving. Today we are talking about tapestry looms; what to look for, the pros and cons of the tapestry looms on the market today, as well as some great DIY options.

When shopping for a tapestry loom there are absolutely some key things to look for, but there are also specific wants and needs that you will have regarding size, budget and comfort. So, in this article I cover all the things to consider when shopping for a tapestry loom with the hopes that you will have a clearer idea of what will be best for you. We will consider versatility, what size tapestries you want to weave, what features to look for in a tapestry loom, price, and finally DIY options.

The first thing you should know is that all of the looms that I talk about here are built with the ability to adjust tension. As we learned in my first article What is Tapestry?, tapestry is weft-faced. In order to create a weft-faced fabric in a manner which is both structurally sound and easy to weave, the weaver requires a loom with tension control. This also means that whatever loom you are using, it must be able to take a high amount of tension without the beams bowing or even breaking. Likewise, the warp you use to dress your looms must be equally as strong, which is why you want to stick with buying warp which is called ‘tapestry’ (example here) or ‘rug warp’. These warp yarns are offered in wool, cotton, linen or hemp materials.

 

There are two kinds of tapestry looms: High warp and low warp.

High warp looms face you in an upright manner, so you are not looking down while you weave. High warp looms can be found in both floor loom (eg. Leclerc Tissart) and tabletop styles (eg. Mirrix, Schacht) and DIY styles (eg. PVC, copper pipe).

Low warp looms offer warps which lay in front of you at a 90 degree angle from your body – think of a typical floor loom, but for tapestry you’re specifically looking for a counterbalance or countermarch floor loom. Tabletop counterbalance and countermarch looms do exist but are less common, especially if you’re shopping second hand.

Now let’s get into all the things to consider within this range of looms:

VERSATILITY

You might be wondering, is there one loom that does it all? Can I weave my shawls and tapestries all on one amazingly versatile loom? In theory, yes – if you’re looking for a loom to weave both tapestry and other kinds of weaving you will be looking for a counterbalance or countermarch loom. 

My usual advice to new tapestry weavers is to get a high warp tabletop tapestry loom as they tend to be most comfortable to weave with. But, if you have access to a counterbalance or countermarch loom, great! Just be sure to spend a few hours weaving on one before you commit. Whether they are tabletop or floor loom style, weaving on a counterbalance and countermarch loom requires a lot of looking down to manipulate wefts, and so your neck and back may not fare well. 

In tapestry weaving, maintaining even and tight warp tension is key. This is why with low-warp looms, you want a counterbalance or countermarch loom as opposed to a jack loom. They offer even tension on all the warps when the sheds are open. When you treadle on a counterbalance or countermarch loom to create a shed, the warps which are destined to be on top, go up, and the warps which are destined to be on the bottom, move down. The expanding of both sets of warps maintains even tension on all warps while weaving. Conversely, with jack looms the only harness you are engaging are the ones that get raised. They are jacked up to create a shed, and this creates more tension on the warps which are lifted, compared to the ones which have been left in a resting state below.

SIZE

The size of your tapestry is determined by the size of your loom. Floor looms offer you the ability to weave both small and large tapestries. But, you sacrifice portability and real estate. They can also be cumbersome to warp up a small piece, depending on your loom.

To my knowledge the largest tapestry specific tabletop high warp loom is Mirrix Looms’ 38” loom which weaves a tapestry up to 35” x 61” in size. This loom offers the best of all worlds in terms of comfort, portability, tapestry scale and price. The next size down, their 32” Loom, offers a weaving size of 29” x 60”. 

When considering tapestry loom size, you might think that getting the biggest loom is the most versatile in terms of the range of sizes of tapestries that you can weave on that loom, both big and small. In theory this is true, but warping up a large loom, say a 38” Mirrix loom, to weave a 12” tapestry is far harder to do, and more time consuming, than if you warped up the same tapestry on a 22” or oven better yet a 16” Mirrix Loom. I can warp up a 12” tapestry at 8epi on my 16” in less than an hour. The same feat would take me at least 1.5 hours on my 38” loom and would take a lot more physical effort, not to mention more warp yarn. The time differential here will depend on the looms you are considering, but I generally want to point out that bigger is not necessarily ideal.

COST

Higher Priced Tapestry Looms
Low warp floor looms like Leclerc’s Mira or Fanny, or Glimakra countermarch looms, are pricey (upwards of $2,000), but it is not unheard of to find these second hand. If the size doesn’t scare you off and you’ve tested it to make sure your neck and body fares well when weaving on a low warp loom, this might be the loom for you.

Medium Priced Tapestry Looms
Two comparable tabletop high warp looms are the Mirrix 22” Loom for $350 USD and the Schacht Arras Tapestry Loom for $430 USD. Mirrix Looms offer looms which range from 5”-38”. A cost consideration with any Mirrix Looms which are 28” and larger is the power treadle, which you will invariably decide you need, and costs $350 USD.

Lower Priced Tapestry Looms
Making your own wooden, PVC or copper pipe loom is the most affordable option, and there are some great looms to be made. You can even add features like the ability to have your loom stand upright on your table (skookum clamps work great), or the ability to advance your weaving and have tension control. There are lots of resources online and schematics for these kinds of DIY designs and we can talk more about those in the forums. Just be sure that your loom can take the tension required of tapestry without its beams bowing. This is discussed in my PVC loom tutorial in Module One, Part Two of my Fundamentals of Tapestry course here at SOS.

I instruct you to create a simple PVC frame loom with tensioning (utilizing threaded rod and nuts on the side beams). That design calls for four ½” PVC elbows, six 12” long  ½” PVC pipes and two 12” long ½” threaded rods with two nuts each. I mention in my tutorial that if you are going to change the size of this loom to be sure to maintain the scale (ie. six PVC pipes, and two threaded rods all of the same length) and to not decrease the girth of your PVC if you are making the loom smaller. In order to scale up in size you would need to make sure to increase the girth of your PVC and threaded rod. This design is made after Archie Brennan’s Copper Pipe looms which I’ve linked below. Copper pipe is ideal for strength, especially if you are building a loom larger than 12” wide. Ideally you will have access to welding supplies, as opposed to super glue, when building a copper pipe loom. 

 

A closer look at commercial tapestry looms

Commercial tapestry-specific looms like low warp counterbalance and countermarch looms, and high warp tabletop tapestry looms (this does not include simple wooden frame looms which can often be mistaken for proper tapestry looms), all come with the important features needed in a tapestry loom: Beam strength, tension control and the ability to access both sheds. Let me sum up for you in point form the other general pros as well as some cons of commercially available tapestry looms.

LOW WARP FLOOR LOOMS

Some examples are Leclerc Mira, Nilus Fanny or Glimakra looms.

Pros

  • Versatile
    • you can weave more than tapestry on them.
    • You can weave small and large tapestries on them
  • They offer a large shed (ie.easy to pass a shuttle full of yarn through). 

Cons

  • Your body may nor fare well with weaving tapestry on a low-warp loom. There is a lot of looking down and manipulating your weft required in tapestry weaving, and your neck and back might suffer on this type of loom.
  • Size: They require more space.
  • Price: They usually require more of an investment.

 

HIGH WARP FLOOR LOOMS

I’m not going to go into these kinds of looms in this article because my experience with them is close to nil. With that said, if I came across an opportunity to obtain a high warp tapestry floor loom I would take it. I prefer high warp weaving, so my 38” Mirrix is as big as I can weave, and I would love an opportunity to try a professional high-warp tapestry loom like Leclerc’s Tissart tapestry loom.

 

TABLETOP HIGH WARP LOOMS

Some examples of tabletop high-warp looms are Mirrix Looms and the Schacht Arras Tapestry Loom. Mirrix Looms offer a wide range of sizes (5”-38” wide) and the Arras Tapestry Loom comes in one size which can weave up to 20” wide.

Pros

  • Portability. Even the largest Mirrix Loom can be lifted, moved and stored easily.
  • High warp looms may be more comfortable for your body.
  • They are designed specifically for tapestry.

Cons

  • You can not weave other types of weaving on these looms. They are designed for weft-faced weaving (tapestry, rugs).
  • You cannot weave anything larger than 35”X61” on commercially available tabletop looms (Mirrix’s 38” Loom)

 

DIY AND SIMPLE FRAME LOOMS

Simple Pipe Looms as shown in my SOS tutorial:

Simple Pipe Loom Pros

  • They offer tension control with the use of threaded rods and nuts.
  • Low in price
  • Portable
  • Collapsible when not in use
  • Can be positioned upright with skookum C-clamps.

Simple Pipe Loom Cons, compared to commercially available looms:

  • You only have easy access to one shed. The second shed gets picked up one-warp-at-a-time with your fingers. You can get proficient at this with practice, and this is how I wove tapestry for years before I got my first Mirrix.
  • You can not advance your weaving on these looms, and therefore the height of your weaving is limited by the height of your loom, taking into account the continued ability to make a shed as you get closer to the top beam. I recommend weaving no closer than 16” from the top beam.

 

What about a simple wooden frame loom?

Before you go and make or buy a wooden frame loom for tapestry be sure that it has the ability to have your warp yarn apply a lot of pressure on the beams without resulting in the structure of them bowing, or possibly even breaking. Many wooden frame looms on the market are not great for tapestry for this reason, and the larger the loom, the more likely it will bow. You might be surprised how tight your tapestry warp should be tensioned around the loom. For perspective, Mirrix Looms come with a wrench for tightening their wing nuts beyond what your hands can manage.

The above loom uses 1” wide wood, the top beams are 15” wide and the side beams are 20” long. These are the maximum measurements I would recommend for these materials. To have a simple frame loom have tension control you can simply warp up your loom in the same manner I warp up the PVC loom in my Fundamentals of Tapestry class, which is to simply wrap the warp around the entire loom repeatedly. This way you have a layer of warps at the back of your tapestry where you can weave in a doweling or rectangular piece of wood to increase the tension (in the same manner you can see done here on the front of the loom). The more pieces of wood you add (in opposite sheds) the tighter your warps become.

This loom looks like a lot every other frame loom you’ve seen, right? Well, its simplicity is what I love about it. Many other wooden frame looms are fashioned with notches for the warp yarn to fit through while you dress the loom offering even spacing when you’re first beginning your weaving. But I have a couple of issues with them. One is that those notches only keep your warp yarn evenly spaced for the first few rows of weaving. After that it’s up to you as the weaver to maintain even weft tension, lest your warp yarns become too close together or too far apart. My second issue is that once they are there your loom is set to only that warp spacing, also known as ends-per-inch (EPI), and you can not use your loom with weft yarn that is much finer or much thicker than that loom is built for, or move your warp yarns to the exact EPI you wish. So, you kind of throw versatility out the window for the sake of saving a couple of minutes of spacing yarn by hand each time you begin a weaving.

 

One important note about DIY options:

With some creativity and elbow grease there are ways to eliminate the cons of DIY looms. So, if you’re up for some more involved DIY options there is research to be done on Youtube and also here at American Tapestry Alliance.

Now that you have a better idea of what you might be looking for, you might be ready to make or purchase a tapestry loom. Be sure to meet me in the forums if you have any further questions.

If you’re interested in purchasing a tapestry loom, between myself, Everlea Yarn, and SweetGeorgia Yarns, you have a good variety of options to choose from.

 

All the very best to you on your tapestry journey. See you in the forums,

Janna Maria Vallee