Moving to a new site

At the end of this month, this site is moving to:

I will not be continuing to write this blog, but I’ll leave it up at it’s new location.

I’ll still be weaving, but I am planning on moving into some new projects, including tapestry and rugs.

Thank you to all the readers and followers who have shared my interest in weaving and archaeological textiles!


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The word Sprang is originally from the Swedish language (meaning to spring or jump) and it refers to a unique kind of textile.  It’s neither weaving nor netting – it’s more like a type of braid.

Sprang is created when warp threads are systematically twisted around one another, and as a result looks a bit like netting, except it’s not looped or knotted.  It predates knitting by many centuries, and since there is no weft it is not weaving either.  

Sprang has been used for more than 3000 years to make flexible items like bags, stockings, sleeves, and hairnets.  Examples can be found in archaeological collections from around the world, and as a practical craft technique it’s likely that it was discovered independently by many groups, including ancient Greeks, ancient Peruvians, Northern European Celts, the Hopi and Navajo.

The most ancient example of sprang to be found so far is this hairnet which was buried with a bog body in Bredmose, Denmark, and dates from around 1400 BC.   


Many other examples have been discovered dating from the European Iron Age and early Medieval periods.  And although there are no surviving examples from the Greek Bronze Age, the sprang loom can be clearly seen in artwork, such as this painted dish.


Image from: Jenkins, I. and Williams, D.  Sprang Hair Nets, Their Manufacture and Use in Ancient Greece, American Journal of Archaeology,  Vol. 89, No. 3 (1985) pp. 411-418

The basic technique of twisting the threads is fairly simple to learn, although I have to admit that I had at least a dozen false starts … with the entire project unraveling!  Finally, I have produced a recognizable example, with the help of all of the references listed below. The sticks hold the last few rows in place, and all except the last one can be removed as the work progresses.  Everything that happens at the top of the loom is also twisting in reverse at the bottom, so the sprang grows at twice the speed.  

You can do a “Z” twist, so that the ‘stitches’ wrap to the left like this /////  or you can do an “S” stitch with the ‘stitches’ going the other way \\\\\.  Using both of these directions in a single item will help the sprang to lie flat, rather than curling up in one direction or the other.  And once the work meets in the centre, it can be anchored with a firm stitching row which replaces the last stick, and prevents it all from un-twisting again.

Here is my sprang with “Z stitches” at the top, and “S stitches” in the bottom few rows.


Here you can see it on the Salish loom.


And this is the sprang when it’s done … a very flexible textile.


In fact these techniques have never gone out of style in many parts of the world.  There are communities in Eastern Europe and in South and Central America where it is still a popular craft, used to make everyday items like sashes, hair nets, shopping bags, and hammocks.

There are also crafters – both ancient and modern –  who have developed sprang techniques to a level of great artistry.  It’s worth having a look at Pinterest for sites like this with more fantastic examples.




Prehistoric Textiles, by Elizabeth Barber

The Techniques Of Sprang: Plaiting On Stretched Threads, by Peter Collingwood


Great Websites:



And here’s a very helpful series of youtube videos –  this is lesson 1:

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Nålbinding – learning to knit like a Viking

In Danish the word means ‘needle-binding’.  And judging by some of the photos that you can find on Pinterest, there’s been quite a rediscovery of this technique by modern crafters.

Nålbinding predates our modern knitting and crochet by more than a thousand years.  It’s a method which requires the yarn to be threaded through the eye of a needle and then coiled through the neighboring stitches, so unlike knitting it doesn’t unravel.  The textile that it creates is thick and strong but also stretchy, so great for socks and mittens – the items most commonly found by archaeologists.  The earliest known examples come from a mitten at a Swedish site and a sock at a Coptic site in Egypt – both apparently dating to around the 4th century CE.

Nalbinding mittens image

nalbinding image

Nålbinding was a popular craft in the Viking era, and surviving examples have been discovered in sites from Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland, many dating from the 8th to the 11th centuries.  In her description of the excavations at the Coppergate site in York, Penelope Walton Rogers describes one single specimen – the only nålbinding found so far in Britain.  It was a worn sock, uncovered near a 10th century wattle building, although whether it came over from Scandinavia on a Viking’s foot, or was crafted locally is the topic of some speculation.

Coppergate sock

A number of different stitches have been identified in the archaeology, and these are named for their find-sites.  For example, there is the York stitch, the Oslo stitch, the Mamen stitch and the Coptic stitch.  And given the free-form nature of this technique, it makes sense that there would have been a lot of improvisation, with different communities coming up with their own variations.


Weald and Downland Open Air Museum

I recently visited the beautiful Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex where dozens of historic buildings from the Medieval up to the Victorian period have been rescued, transported and then re-built on the site.  You can walk around and through these wonderful buildings, and also take classes in heritage trades and crafts – everything from blacksmithing and stone carving to making your own cheese, coracle or longbow.  I was there for a workshop being offered in nålbinding, and spent the day learning to knit like a Viking!

As the only left-hander in the group, I clearly needed some extra coaching … but our instructor Judith Ressler was very patient, and the examples of her work were inspiring.  Have a look:

Another participant brought along this book by Ulrike Classen-Buttner, which is full of history and archaeological photos as well as patterns and instructions.

Nalbinding book image

The basic shape for nålbinding can be either a tube (good for socks and mittens) or a round (starting in the centre – good for hats and mats).  In the class we learned the Oslo stitch, but it seemed as if some of the other stitches might be variations of this one.  I’ve just finished a second attempt at a glasses case … better than the first!

nalbinding glasses case 2nd



Walton Rogers, P.  1997.   Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate: The Archaeology of York: The Small Finds.  York: Council for British Archaeology.


Great how-to Websites


Helpful YouTube videos

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The ancient (and modern) practice of sharing yourself through craft

Anthropologists and archaeologists are often interested in how research from a related field can bring new insight, especially on the level of theory.  And this has come home to me in the past few weeks while I’ve been attending a series of lectures about the art and literature of the English Renaissance.

The reason I’m spending so much time at lectures is that for the year that I’m here in Cambridge I am employed through the Disability Resources Centre as a note taker, working with some amazing students at the university who need additional support.  As a bonus, I am learning more about English literature than I ever expected to!

The idea which has crossed over from anthropology to archaeology – and to English literature – is referred to as ‘distributed personhood’, a term popularized by Alfred Gell in 1998.  He was writing about art and anthropology, and proposed the striking idea that after objects are made, they act on the world as an extension of the maker.  Other writers and researchers have applied this view to their own fields, with an emerging sense that it can relate not only to a work of art, a tool or a weapon, but also to a piece of music, a dance, a story …  We distribute ourselves whenever we make an impact on our world.

Jason Scott-Warren (whose lectures I have been enjoying this term) talks about the derivation of the word ‘technology’ as coming from the Greek tekhne, which means both ‘art’ and ‘craft’.  As he points out, the two words have very different connotations to us now, with art representing a high level of aesthetic achievement, and craft suggesting the simpler production of useful things.  But as late as the Medieval period, “art was a craft –  a technical proficiency that transformed the natural into the human and artificial” (p 17).

The word ‘art’ simply meant skill, and an ‘artful weaver’ was one who showed expertise, and subtle technique.   So it follows that craftwork, like artwork, distributes the presence of the crafter, fanning outwards to all who will ever see or use the objects they have made.

Arjun Appadurai, in his Social Life of Things talks about all the identities that an object can assume in its ‘lifetime’ as it is passed from hand to hand, generation to generation.  It might at different times be a commodity, a gift, an heirloom, a memento or a ritual object.   But Gell goes farther, and suggests that objects are not just passively handed along, they have agency, extending the artist’s (or artisan’s) reach across distance and time.  People take action through the things they create, this way distributing their personhood.


Photo credit: NHMV

Textiles in the Hallstatt Salt Mines

This makes me think about the amazing collection of textile fragments found in the salt mines near Hallstatt in Austria, and dating to the early Iron Age, around 1500 to 1400 BC.  When this large site was excavated, archaeologists found over 700 textile fragments at the bottom of the shaft and in the underground caverns.  They believe that since there were no entire garments, and some pieces appeared to be torn into strips, these were already recycled scraps of cloth when they were taken into in the mine, most likely used as rags for cleaning or slings for carrying tools.  When the mine was abandoned, all sorts of garbage and debris was dumped into the shafts.  And with the salt and airless environment, it was preserved for over 3,000 years before being uncovered by archaeologists in the 19th century.  Today hundreds of these fragments of cloth have been painstakingly cleaned and preserved – and are now in the Natural History Museum of Vienna, prized examples of some of the oldest textiles found in Europe.

I expect the weavers would be astonished at the long lifetime of those scraps of cloth: once clothing perhaps, then rags, disposed of in a disused mine, then excavated in the 19th century.  And in the 21st century they are displayed with care, and admired by crowds of visitors.  Such a reach of presence – of their ‘distributed personhood’ – could hardly have been imagined!

Does it make you wonder about the items that you have woven?   Maybe the scarf that you gave as a gift to your sister or daughter will many years later be passed on to their own son or daughter.  And 50 years after that it might be given to a thrift store, to be passed along to warm someone you will never know …   In 3000 years maybe it will be in a museum as an example of 21st century craftwork!



Appadurai, A.  The Social Life of Things, 1986, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.

Chua, L. and Elliot, M. (ed’s.)  Distributed Objects: Meaning and Mattering after Alfred Gell, 2013, Berghahn Books: New York.

Gell, A.  Art and Agency, 1998, Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.

Harris, S. et. al.  Cloth cultures in prehistoric Europe, Archaeology International, issue 12, 2009.

Naturhistorisches Museum Wien.

Scott-Warren, J.  Early Modern English Literature, 2005, Polity Press, Cambridge: UK.


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Creativity and Inspiration


For as long as textiles have been created – whether by braiding, felting or weaving – craft-workers have been combining the functional requirements of the cloth with creative ideas.  This may have been to enhance the textile’s warmth or strength, to introduce different fibres, or to change the look of the textile with new dyes, pattern weaves, manipulation or sewing techniques, but I find it inspiring to consider just how inventive these early crafters were.  In cultures around the world and across thousands of years, there have been artisans – their names now long forgotten – who have not only provided us with practical solutions as diverse as woven baskets, felted boots and card woven bands, but have devised ways to make them exquisitely detailed and beautiful.


Grass storage basket from the 18th Dynasty reign of Thutmose II, 1492–1473 BCE

felted boots

Felt boots from one of the Pazyryk Tombs in Mongolia, 300 – 238 BCE

merovingina tablet weaving

Fragment of Merovingian card weaving from France, 7th century

Howard Gardiner is a contemporary psychologist who has written at length about creativity, and he points out that for many creative people, the ground-breaking leaps of imagination are rare in life.  They spend most of their time applying their skills to all kinds of small everyday problem solving, and this incremental ‘practice’ seems to prepare them for the moments of great inspiration and novelty when big ideas do come along. (3)

It’s easy to see how this could have applied to weavers in pre-modern eras, when the spinning of yarn and production of cloth would have been time-consuming activities.  The ‘everyday problem solving’ might have been for labour-saving efficiencies or durability of wear.  But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it might have been just as much for artistic expression – to make their work more interesting and enjoyable to create, and to produce a beautiful product that would be appreciated when it was done.

This seems to be the view of Elizabeth Barber, who describes how elaborate the weaves were in Bronze Age and Iron Age textiles.  “Whenever we catch a glimpse of central European fabrics they are fancy … plaids and checkers on top of zig zag and diamond twills” (1).  They were also finished with highly ornamental borders and embroidery.  Barber suggests that this pride in craftsmanship was consistent with the care which would have been taken by others in the making of sculpture and the decoration of pottery.  Because of the perishability of cloth, though, this artistry has not always been as recognized.  And yet, Barber points out, not only in Europe but across Asia, Africa and the Americas, ancient textile workers “have been pouring their creativity of design into the cloth that they needed to make anyway for a hundred household uses.” (2)

… and Inspiration

In a way, I see it in my own working as well.  Each project suggests the next, and unexpected discoveries lead to new ideas.

The Christmas holiday has been a wonderful chance to be at home with family, friends and neighbours.  It has also meant that for a few weeks I am re-united with my loom and can finish warping up the work that I abandoned back in September.  I don’t expect I’ll have time to finish weaving this scarf before I leave for Cambridge again, but I have made some progress!


The warp is bamboo in two shades of blue, with a sett of 16 epi.  And the weft is a fine silk-wool blend.  I was a bit spontaneous in deciding on a weave structure this time.  Obviously there’s a diamond twill there, but with a border of point twill along the selvages and a symmetrical combination of bigger and smaller diamonds interlocked.

I have decided to improvise a little now, and for the next few projects move progressively further away from the designs which have been found in archaeological textiles.  This will mean trying out some interesting variations based on the basic building blocks of tabby, twill, check and stripe.  For example, in the past few months I have been captivated by the knitting of Kaffe Fassett.  His work is a wonderful example of exuberant creativity!  So my next challenge is to translate his vividly warm colours, patterns and textures into my own weaving.

KF coat

Image credit: Pinterest


(1)  Barber, E.   Prehistoric Textiles.  Princeton: Princeton University Press. (p 293)

(2)  Barber, E.   Prehistoric Textiles.  Princeton: Princeton University Press. (p 298)

(3)  Gardiner, H.   Creating Minds.  New York: Basic Books/Harper Collins.


Archaeological Images×50.jpg



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The Huldremose Woman has more to tell us

There is an interesting story I’d like to share – which has emerged from the research of Margarita Gleba and Ulla Mannering.  Their articles are referenced below.

It was sometime in the 2nd century BC, and a woman living in north-eastern Jutland, Denmark was about 40 years old – an advanced age in this period.  We have no knowledge of the circumstances of her death or how she came to be buried, but her body was concealed in the water-logged bog for more than 2000 years.  Then in 1879 a farmer was cutting peat when he was shocked to come across her body.  This Huldremose woman (as she came to be known) was surprisingly well preserved, fully dressed with her long woollen skirt, scarf and two woolly sheep skin capes.  The farmer’s first impression was of coming across a crime scene.  Local officials were sent for to exhume the body and bring it to the nearby farm house.  Then the police chief and doctor were called in to report the grim discovery.  It was not until they made a closer examination of the body that it became clear how ancient this find really was.

Danish landscape

Photo credit:

Iron Age clothing

This discovery offered a rare opportunity to understand the clothing of the Iron Age in Northern Europe and Scandinavia. The woollen skirt is a complex construction of checked twill with 7 to 10 ends per cm.  It has a tubular tabby selvage at the hem and a waistband of warp-faced rep tabby, seamlessly woven into the rest of the skirt. The scarf is also woollen and woven in a different checked 2-2 twill with 6 to 7 ends per cm.  Originally it was secured with a bone pin.  The capes are pieced together with the fleeces of several sheep, and one of them even had a hidden pouch with a comb, woven band and leather thong inside.

This was already a stunning insight into a pre-historic time, and has given valuable information to textile archaeologists.  But the body was re-examined in 2010 by Margarita Gleba and Ulla Mannering, and their account turned up a few surprises!

Huldermose woman

Photo credit: The National Museum of Denmark.

New insights into old finds

It just shows how valuable it can be to go back to earlier finds with new technological methods.  The Huldremose woman, “one of the best preserved and best dressed [of the] bog bodies” still seems to be revealing new secrets.

The reason that Gleba and Mannering went back to this particular find was that they wanted to conduct strontium isotopic tracing analysis of the Huldremose textiles.  In a nutshell, strontium is a kind of isotope found in organic matter – it is taken up by plants from the soil, and by people (or sheep) through eating the plants.  So it can be used to figure out the plant, the wool, or the person’s original geographic location. This is a valuable tool for archaeologists who want to explore trade, migration or geographical provenance.

Gleba and Mannering found a tiny thread of plant fibre in the peaty material next to the body, so    they did their strontium analysis on this as well as fragments from the scarf, the peat from which the find had come, and the woman’s body.  The wool of the scarf was found to be of local origin, but the plant fibre thread – and possibly the woman – were not.  This challenged the conventional wisdom that in this time and region, societies were isolated and self-sufficient.  Here was a woman who may have come from as far away as Norway or Sweden.

The vanishing undergarment

The thread of plant fibre was a puzzle, and now the researchers began to question their own findings.  The only plant fibres that had ever been found preserved in bogs were from heavy rope.  But further tests confirmed that this was the real thing.  A strand of thread from a woven shirt or undergarment – it still had the distinctive zig zag shape of a thread that came from a woven piece.  After a close re-examination of the body, they were surprised to find that subtle impressions could be seen of a fine tabby weave on her chest, shoulders and back.  The scarf and skirt were clearly twill, so this was something different.  It seemed that there was another garment which had vanished from sight over the centuries – rotted away in the wet bog.  It was a tabby-woven plant-based cloth: maybe hemp, nettle or linen.  On very close inspection, they found more threads of this garment on her skin.

Dyed cloth

There were more surprises.  Archaeologists believed that people of Scandinavia during this pre-Roman period used only naturally coloured wool: black or white, brown or grey, as it came off the sheep.  But new tests on the wool in the scarf and the skirt suggested that these textiles had been treated with vegetable dyes.   The skirt would originally have been blue and the scarf a shade of red.

If it is true that some ancient bodies found in the bogs were among the poorest of their society -their fate the result of being banished, or murdered – this does not seem to one of them.  Here is a woman in a costume of quality dyed cloth, capes made with a dozen sheepskins sewn together, amulets around her neck and even an indentation on her finger that showed she had been wearing a ring.


The revelations kept coming. In subsequent testing the plant fibre of her undergarment has turned out to be not linen or hemp (the likely candidates) but nettle.  So this turned another theory on its head. Flax and hemp were cultivated crops in this era, but nettle is only known as a wild plant, so this raises the new idea that nettles would have been gathered in the wild and then retted, processed and spun to make cloth.  More research has followed up on this line of thinking, and now textile fragments dating back as far as the Bronze Age, nearly 1000 years BC have also been identified as being woven from threads made of nettle.

I think this is an amazing story of tiny clues unravelling big discoveries.  It suggests that there may be many more collections of ancient textiles which deserve to be revisited with the newest technology.  Clearly yesterday’s conventional wisdom will always need to be open to re-examination.

And an interesting project for any spinners out there who have run out of fleece.  Gather some nettles – a combination of spinning and weeding!

Great Websites


Bergfjord, C, U. Mannering, K M Frei, M Gleba, A B Scharff, I Skals, J Heinemeier, M L Nosch, B Holst, Nettle as a distinct Bronze Age textile plant, Scientific Reports 2, Article number: 664 (2012)

Frei, K M, Skals, I, Gleba, M & Lyngstrøm, H. The Huldremose Iron Age textiles, Denmark: An attempt to define their provenance applying the Strontium isotope system. Journal of Archaeological Science 36 1965–1971 (2009).

Gleba M, Mannering, U (2010) A thread to the past: the Huldremose Woman revisited. Archaeological Textile Newsletter 50:32–37.

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A change of focus … and a bit less weaving

I don’t have any of my own weaving to show you this month.  The fact is that for most of the next year I’ll be away from home – and away from my loom!  But the good news is that my husband is going to be doing an MPhil at Cambridge, and I will be working part-time at the university.  So all’s well – I will be surrounded by some truly great libraries and museums, and for the next few posts I can focus on the academic side instead of the hands-on weaving.  And there is some exciting work going on the field of archaeological textiles, so this will be very interesting.

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Diamonds and Broken Diamonds

Diamond twill is an ancient weave which has been identified in textiles dating back thousands of years.  I think it is a beautiful, symmetrical and versatile pattern that combines well with borders in a point twill, or with variations of beautiful ‘bird’s eye’ designs.  (It also works quite well with a stripey warp, as you can see below!)

close up diamondsdiamond twill

But the surprising reality is that during the Celtic Iron Age this weave was almost unknown.  Lise Bender Jorgensen, in her survey of weave patterns for this period in Europe, describes the diamond twill as “exceedingly rare”.  In pre-Roman sites across Northern Europe and Scandinavia, where textiles are found at all, about 10% of them are broken diamond twill – almost the same weave, but with an offset of one thread in each repeat.  (Tabby is still the most common weave, followed by diagonal twill, which together account for 2/3 of all pre-Roman textile finds.)

broken diamond twill 2
broken diamond twill

My first thought was … why?  Why would this broken diamond twill be so much more popular than a straight symmetrical diamond twill??  On my trusty Louet Spring, I have recently woven both patterns, and the straight diamond twill is certainly a more natural rhythm, and simpler to count out.

During the period of Roman occupation the picture was completely different.  In fact, the opposite was true, with fragments of broken diamond twill virtually unknown in the excavation of Roman forts, while evidence of diamond twill is common.  Vindolanda, in northern England is great example of this.  It was built by the Romans in the first century AD as a frontier fort on the northern edge of their territory.  Early levels of occupation have been uncovered which pre-date the construction of Hadrian’s Wall nearby, and it is in these early levels that more than 600 fragments of textile were found.  60% of them were diamond twills.

lbjk                     lbjl      not broken                                                              broken

(Thank you Medieval Textiles Study Group!

My search for an answer was complicated by the terminology of different writers.  Some ignore the distinction between the two weaves altogether while others use ‘lozenge twill’ as a synonym.  Bender Jorgensen explains that since the true diamond twill is almost non-existent in the Celtic period, she will use the term ‘diamond twill’ to denote broken diamond twill and ‘lozenge twill’ to mean diamond twill …

In the end, an explanation finally emerged from a re-reading of Marta Hoffmann.  And of course it leads back to the warp-weighted loom, which was the almost universal weaving technology across Northern Europe and Scandinavia from as early as the 8th BC.  In her ground-breaking 1964 book “The Warp-Weighted Loom”, Hoffmann describes the mechanics of weaving on a weighted warp, and explores this very question of diamonds and broken diamonds.  She reports that others experimented with weaving these patterns directly on a loom, and discovered that with the string heddles tied as they are onto the hanging warp threads, it is not possible to have a weft float go over more than two warp threads.  So that would make the true diamond twill impossible.  The Romans introduced the vertical two-bar loom, with the warp anchored at both ends, so this freed them from the limitations of a weighted warp, and meant that it was possible for them to have the longer floats.  Hence their symmetrical diamonds.

So that seems to be the answer!

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A warp-weighted Tablet Weaving Loom

I’m enjoying teaching myself about tablet weaving, through some reading and a lot of trial and error.  Over the past few months I’ve spent quite a while experimenting with ways to make sure that I’ve got the right tension on the warp.  And after a few false starts, the very ancient idea of using loom weights occurred to me, and it seemed like a new solution!


The first method that books suggest for tensioning the warp is to gather the entire warp and knot it to a door handle or a hook on the wall, then attach the working end of the warp to a belt around the weaver’s waist.  This backstrap method seems to be popular, but it has not worked for me.  I like to be able to stand, sit or move away from the weaving without having it attached to me.

So the next thing I tried (Method Two) was to create my very simple loom from a board with a handle at each end.  My intention was to gather up the warp threads and tie them to the two handles while I worked with the cards in between.  The problem with this emerged fairly quickly.  As I wove, the twisting built up behind the cards and the tension increased.  I had to untie the warp at the back often to untwist everything, and then I had to re-tie the warp and try to make the tension the same again.

Method Three was something I came across in my reading.  (I can’t remember where …)  It was to tie the entire warp to a weight and hang this over the edge of the table I was working on.  This way the tension did not increase with weaving, or even with advancing the weaving at the working end.  However, the twisting still built up behind the cards.  Using fixed fishing swivels for each card solved the problem of twist build-up, but didn’t have the advantage of using a weighted warp.

Then came my bright idea, I thought:  Method Four!

weights on loom

I admit it seemed unlikely that I had come up with a new innovation in a craft that has been around for 10,000 years.  But I decided that instead of using one big weight, I would try using a separate lead fishing weight for each card.  In the end this was not heavy enough, so now I am using a metal ring for each card and I can attach as many weights as I want to each.  Three 1-ounch weights per card seems about right.  Now the twisting does not build up behind the weaving and the tension is steady for all the cards.  Brilliant!

close up












And then a few weeks after my inspired new discovery, I came across Luther Hooper’s book, Weaving with Small Appliances (Volume II) published in 1923.  It is available now online at:  And there on page 38 he suggests exactly the same thing.  So of course I am not the first to come up with this after all.  But it is still a great idea!

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Celtic Knots

I found an interesting pattern for weaving a Celtic knot design, so I am giving it a try.  (Thank you Robyn Spady.

celtic braid

Of course it won’t be authentic as far as Celtic weaving design goes.  As I have written about already, Celtic weaving originated in pre-Roman Europe and consisted largely of checked patterns and twills.  The secret to weaving this kind of supplementary-weft structure (like brocades and damask) was unknown outside of Asia and the Byzantine Empire until the draw loom was finally introduced to Italian textile artists in the 12th century.  Still it is a nice experiment!

The evolution of Celtic Art

I have been doing a bit of reading about Celtic art, and knot work in particular.  There is a wealth of opinion out there in books, articles and websites, with almost no common ground between the two dominant camps:  academics, archaeologists and art historians are in one corner and the romantic enthusiasts of all-things-Celtic in the other.

The conclusion of those who have studied the artifacts in depth is that Celtic sculpture and metalwork displayed knot work purely as decoration.  The same is true of the extraordinary patterns seen in many Hiberno-Saxon illustrated manuscripts.  The most famous of these is certainly the Book of Kells, an illuminated copy the Gospels which was created by monks around 800 AD.  The pages are filled with complex knot work, scrolls, braids and other patterns which are mathematically precise and beautifully drawn, with bright colours and elaborate calligraphy.

Book of Kells detail celtic trinity symbolceltic hearts

The romantic enthusiasts have suggested that the never-ending pattern of knots might suggest eternity.  Or maybe that the endless crossovers suggest the inter-connectedness of the physical and spiritual worlds.  The early Christian church seems to have adapted the ancient triangular knot as a symbol of the Holy Trinity.  And as recently as the past couple of decades, jewelers have begun weaving heart shapes into the knot work.

At this point I began to realize that Celtic culture could not be confined to the history books – it did not come to an end in Britain with the Norman Conquest.  A Celtic revival began among artists and writers in the 19th century and it continues to this day.  Traditional designs, legends and religious themes are honoured even as they are adapted and embellished.  And artists and others are free to ascribe symbolic meaning to Celtic knots, even though there is no historical evidence of the Celts themselves making the same symbolic associations.  There is a timeless beauty in these patterns, and I expect this alone would account for their enduring popularity.

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