Standing at the loom

Christabel Balfour is an artist and weaver based in South East London, where she produces tapestries, rugs and homewares. For Ditto, Christabel writes about the intricate, repetitive and rewarding process of tapestry weaving on her lovingly – and painstakingly – restored 1976 Harris floor loom.

I am standing on one leg in front of my loom. My weight rests on my left foot, while my right hovers over the loom treadles. The rug before me is halfway finished.

I am following a sequence I know so well that it feels as innate as breathing. It goes like this: right foot down on the right hand treadle, raise the shed. Pass each of the three shuttles through, one after the other. Tamp down the weft into hills with the end of the bobbin. Swing the beater forward, press the weft flat. Change to the left hand treadle, and repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

If it all sounds mysterious and strange to you, don’t worry, that’s normal. Like all old crafts, weaving has acquired over the centuries its own specific vernacular, the weaver’s mother tongue. As a tapestry weaver and teacher, I spend my time translating. Every moving part, tool and process has a name, but also, a story. When I work I’m not working only with wood and wool, cotton and metal, I’m working with objects with a history.

My loom was built in Sussex, and completed on 29 April 1976 by a man called J Barrow. I know this because it is written on a slip of cardboard, hidden under the manufacturer’s plaque, with just a slither of its torn edge visible. I fished it out while warping the loom for the very first time – discovered, like a blessing from a ghost.

I fished it out while warping the loom for the very first time – discovered, like a blessing from a ghost.

From Sussex, my loom travelled to a woman who worked at it for ten years, until she moved house. It was taken apart and never reassembled, kept in a garage for the next three decades, the metal rusting, the wood stained with dust. Eventually the owner listed it for sale online to anyone able to restore it.

Today, it crouches in the corner of my studio; a little siege engine with its four short legs and broad shoulders, bearing the warp on which I’m working. Now I’ll explain: the warp and weft are the basis of all woven cloth. They are two sets of threads, intersecting at right angles. The primary purpose of a loom is to keep the warp held in place and under tension, while the weft is wound over and under each warp thread to build up the cloth. All looms the world over follow this pattern, with varying levels of additional mechanisms to make the process of weaving speedier and easier.

On my loom, the warp is first wound around the warp beam, where ten or more metres may be stored at a time. From there it travels upwards, over the back beam, to be threaded, one warp end at a time, through the shafts.

The shafts hang in their wooden bearings like the frames of a beekeeper's hive, or the slides of a projectionist. They are suspended from the top of the loom by a system of three rollers which keeps them moving in relation to one another. At the bottom they are anchored to the treadles, which resemble the long pedals of a church organ.

In each shaft hang the silvery wire heddles, like long needles with their eye in the centre. Each warp end is threaded through one heddle-eye in one shaft. When I press down on a treadle, the shaft is pulled lower, the opposing shaft rises, and each heddle-eye raises or lowers its burden of warp.

With me so far? Good...


Read the full article in Volume One of Ditto >

Photos by Paul Akinrinlola