Tools and processes: producing cloth

Weaver using a frame loom, Jari, India (photo: Shefshef)

Weaver using a frame loom, Jari, India (photo: Shefshef)

The availability of different types of natural fibers, dyes, and other materials has given rise to various textile-making traditions across the Indian subcontinent. While regional practices differ based on the nature of materials artisans work with, a majority of textiles are especially distinguished by their unique methods of weaving.

Left: warp and weft diagram (photo: Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman); right: warp and weft on loom (photo: happyskrappy, CC BY 2.0)

Left: warp and weft diagram (photo: Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman); right: warp and weft on loom (photo: happyskrappy, CC BY 2.0)

Weaving is a technique in which yarns are interlaced to construct cloth. This foundational process significantly determines the look, feel and function of a fabric. Weaving typically involves the interlocking of two sets of yarns, known as warps and wefts—warp threads are stretched out vertically first, after which weft threads are moved back and forth between them, creating an arrangement that combines all the threads together.

Weaver using a pit loom, India (photo: Zac Davies, CC BY-ND 2.0)

Weaver using a pit loom, India (photo: Zac Davies, CC BY-ND 2.0)

Weaving takes place on a hand operated or mechanical device known as a loom, and weavers work with different types of handlooms, which primarily include:

  1. Frame Looms: These are composed of a mounted frame upon which warp threads can be stretched out, enabling weft threads to interlace with them through the help of a device known as a shuttle. These looms also have foot pedals, which help the weavers pass the weft through the warp.
  2. Pit Looms: Similar to frame looms, pit looms are situated closer to the ground with pedals inside a pit in which weavers can place their feet.
  3. Backstrap Looms: These portable looms are named after their straps, which weavers can wear on their backs or waists for support, enabling them to weave narrow strips of cloth.
Weaver using a backstrap loom, Uttarakhand, India (photo: Shyamal L., CC BY-SA 3.0)

Weaver using a backstrap loom, Uttarakhand, India (photo: Shyamal L., CC BY-SA 3.0)

Not only do different textile communities use different looms, materials, and techniques, but they may also intersect the warp and weft threads in a variety of ways, creating unique patterns and textures on woven fabrics. Some techniques of weaving—for instance, those seen in the production of brocades—even use additional warp or weft threads to create embossed patterns on fabrics. The various methods of weaving determine the visual characteristics, thickness, tear-strength, and drapability of a cloth. Over the past few centuries, several weaving processes have also been mechanized, as a result of which fabrics can be mass-produced.

While weaving remains one of the most prominent methods of textiles production across South Asia, fabrics can also be produced in a number of other ways, including knitting, felting, and braiding. These varied processes contribute significantly to the region’s expansive heritage of textile production and consumption.

Hand-operated loom from Dr. Vivasayam on Vimeo.

 

Power loom from Arsel Ozgurdal on Vimeo.

 


Additional resources

Take a short course on Textiles from the Indian Subcontinent with The MAP Academy

Read more about weaving on Encyclopedia Britannica

“Basics of Weaving and Woven Fabrics” from Textile School

“Handloom Weaver: Frame loom” from the Textiles Committee Govt. of India Ministry of Textiles

John Gillow and Nicholas Barnard, Traditional Indian Textiles (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991).

Jennifer Harris, 5000 Years of Textiles (London: British Museum Press, 1995).

 

Drawing from articles on The MAP Academy

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Cite this page as: The MAP Academy, "Tools and processes: producing cloth," in Smarthistory, February 10, 2023, accessed April 22, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/tools-and-processes-producing-cloth/.