The Warp-Weighted Loom: Some Sources

4. What is a warp weighted loom?

Live coding has developed into an international community of practice over the past two decades, where artists make live use of programming languages to express and create time-based works, predominantly at the fringes of electronic music. By contrast, warp-weighted weaving goes back to Ancient Greece, with looms now a topic for preservation and reconstruction. While live coding and warp-weighted weaving lack common history, we have seen that they share much in terms of a uniquely human approach to making. This has to do with counting, abstraction, discrete forms and pattern, but also cyclic ways of working, and bridging the world of discrete mathematics and material experience.

We argue that the high status of the warp-weighted loom, as the dominant, advanced technology in Ancient Greece, structured human understanding from number theory to the cosmos, just as weaving still structures our thinking through metaphors, which pervade modern language even in those cultures where weaving is now relatively uncommon.

The above video demonstration shows the first version of our warp-weighted loom designed to be live coded via electric solenoids, bringing together live coding and weaving. As the captions explain, the live coded mechanism is designed to support hand weaving, where nothing is dictated to the human – they are free to ignore the outcome of running the code.

We already experimented with coding weaves in the Textiles Centre in Haslach Austria, on the TC/1 loom there, but the interaction was rather slow, as it took some time to upload a new image to the loom controller. The interaction between the coder, loom and textile was something like this rather hastily drawn diagram:

The aim with this ‘live loom’ is something more like this:

In this configuration, the weaver-coder is able to interact with the weave as abstract structure through the code, but also directly with the woven textile on the loom – with the primary channel of feedback being from the textile itself, and not from the screen.

It’s certainly early days for this loom, but we have already run a small workshop with Berit Greinke’s students in UdK Berlin, and will share the designs soon with a permissive license, in case you would like to build your own.


Looms are used to weave textiles. Weaving itself “is a process of interlacing two or more sets of thread, according to a pre-defined system, to produce a cloth.” (Vogelsang-Eastwood 1993). Loom weights are the most direct evidence of the use of a specific type of loom, the warp-weighted loom (a type of vertical loom). A warp-weighted loom, at its simplest, consists of a stick or bar (called a cloth beam) at the top supported by upright poles on each side. The entire frame frequently leans against a wall. Warp threads are secured at the top bar, so that they hang down freely. Loom weights are then attached at the bottom to bundles of warp threads to keep them taut. The weaver or weavers stand in front of the loom and work with their arms raised. The shuttle with a weft thread is passed to the left and right, under and over the warp threads, in order to produce a textile. The woven material is pushed towards the top of the loom as it is produced. The width of the frame determines the maximum potential width of the textile.

This type of loom is at least 4,000 years old. Some researchers think that the warp-weighted loom originated in Central Europe and then spread east, towards the Aegean area, and through ancient Anatolia to the Near East. The exact origin and spread are, however, still debated. It is clear that the warp-weighted loom was used extensively throughout Europe and the Near East. Its structure and use are falso amiliar from ethnographic studies. In the 1950s, the Norwegian scholar Marta Hoffman, of the Norsk Folkemuseum, Oslo) found women in Lappish Norway and Finland still weaving certain textiles, and in particular heavy woollen bed spreads, on warp-weighted looms (Hoffman 1964).

Illustration of Penelope at her loom, on a skyphos from Athens, found in an Etruscan tomb at Chiusi, From: Monumenti d. Inst. Archeologico, IX., pl. xlii.Illustration of Penelope at her loom, on a skyphos from Athens, found in an Etruscan tomb at Chiusi, From: Monumenti d. Inst. Archeologico, IX., pl. xlii.Two silent black and white films showing the use of a Norwegian warp-weighted loom are available on YouTube. Both are from the Norsk Folkemuseum, where Hoffman worked as curator. The first film (NF.Film-10517), made by Marta Hoffman in 1956, is 26.5 minutes long. The second (NF.Film-10484) dates from 1947 and is 10.11 minutes long.  

There are many depictions of warp-weighted looms on ancient Greek vases. Such depictions may not be technically accurate in detail, as the vase painters were probably not weavers themselves. But representations of warp-weighted looms on vases point to the widespread use of such looms. One famous vase, a lekythos (a terracotta oil flask) attributed to the Amasis Painter, depicts five groups of women processing wool (a picture of the vase can be seen at here). One image is of a warp-weighted loom. Two black-figured women weave upwards by standing in front of this upright loom. Its warp threads are clearly separated and attached to loom weights (Edmunds 2016).. According to the weaver, Susan T. Edmunds, a loom weight shaped like that on the vase, complete with a metal ring, is now in the British Museum.(Edmunds 2016).

Early Bronze Age spindle whorl. TRC 2014.0802.Early Bronze Age spindle whorl. TRC 2014.0802.Other women on this vase are shown weighing balls of wool, filling baskets with wool, spinning, and lastly folding and stacking completed textiles. This vase (31.11.10) was made circa 550-530 BCE in the Attic region of ancient Greece. It is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA).  Other images of warp-weighted looms have been found on early 5th century Greek vases in Italy, such as the Chiusi vase (sometimes called the “Penelope Vase”) (see here) and the Pisticci vase (Barber 1991:111).

Early Bronze Age spindle whorl. TRC 2014.0803Early Bronze Age spindle whorl. TRC 2014.0803It is important to note that the ancient Greeks may have used other types of looms, in addition to the warp-weighted loom. Narrower textiles, for example belts, sashes, straps, ribbons and decorative trims, can be woven with tablets (also called cards), and on band looms. The bobbin and bobbin fragment in the TRC collection might have been weights for a tablet loom.. 

Different types of looms may have been used during different periods. On mainland Greece, loom weights seem to disappear during the Middle Bronze Age, despite being found both before and after this period. Yet spindle whorls (examples from the TRC collection include numbers TRC 2014.0802 and TRC 2014.0803, which are used to produce thread, are still plentiful, indicating that textiles were still being produced. Exactly why loom weights disappeared during this period is a mystery, but it may indicate that another type of loom, one that did not need weights, was in use (Barber1991:308)

Barber, E.J.W. «The Peplos of Athena,» pp. 103-118 in Jenifer Neils, ed., Goddess
and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens
. Hanover / Princeton: Hood
Museum of Art, Dartmouth College / Princeton University Press, 1992.

Postulates the weaving of a figured tapestry peplos on the warp-
weighted loom as an annual gift to the statue of Athena Parthenos. More generally, continues the
history of weaving in the Aegean begun in her Prehistoric Textiles. Fascinating for
Classicists, even though Barber apparently misunderstands some technical issues such as the
attachment of long warps.

Barber, Elisabeth J.W. Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the
Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean
. Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1991.

Devotes several pages to the warp-weighted loom in antiquity, with extended
consideration given to types of loom weights.

Batzer, Anne, and Dokkedal, Lis. «Opstadvæven — nye forsøgsobservationer,»

Eksperimentel Arkæologi: Studier i teknologi og kultur
, no. 1 (1991), pp.
149-152. Lejre: Historisk-Arkæologisk Forsøgscenter, 1991.

Danish version of the article below.

——. «The Warp-Weighted Loom: Some New Experimental Notes,» pp. 231-234 in Lise Bender
Jørgensen and Elisabeth Munksgaard, eds.,
Archaeological Textiles in Northern
Europe: Report from the 4th NESAT Symposium 1.-5. May 1990 in Copenhagen

. Tidens
Tand 5. Copenhagen: Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademi, 1992.

Some highlights of the authors’ ongoing experiments at Lejre in Denmark,
especially with reference to the use of the notched heddle bracket. The authors tie up only one
thread per heddle, and they detail their sequence of heddle raising. They also weight each of the
four systems individually. Much of this is different from reports of historic Icelandic
practice.

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