A Background in Tablet Weaving


The History of Tablet Weaving

Tablet weaving, also known as Card Weaving, was the name given to a technique used for weaving decorative bands throughout Europe from the time of the great Roman Empire up until the 16th Century. Tablet Weaving twines threads into strong bands that can be either very simple patterns, like chevrons, or very complex patterns, like lettering and pictures. Tablet Weaving has a history of its own, from simple bands used as the header setting up the top of the warp of a length of cloth to be woven on a warp-weighted loom, to Brocade patterns (weaving a band with overlaying gold, silver, or later silk cored gold) to 3/1 twill (threads offset from one another), to Double Face (a pattern that is reversed on the back, both in color and direction) to Thread-In (pattern is determined in card threading and turning direction). Tablet Weaving was present throughout Bronze Age Europe and South-western Asia and slowly developed into a complex art form of its own in Scandinavia and Scandinavian-influenced areas of Europe. Unfortunately, once the invention of the Jacquard loom revolutionized the weaving of decorative small bands for trim, tablet weaving was forgotten in Europe until approximately a century ago, when a woman by the name of Margarethe Lehman-Fils singlehandedly revived the art. Bands can be woven with anywhere from 4 to several hundred cards, depending on the technique and pattern one wishes to achieve.

One of the most important discoveries of Tablet Weaving was in the Osberg ship burial, where a partially woven band of 52 tablets was found, still mounted on the weaver’s frame. This find is extremely uncommon due to normal disintegration that happens in the ground (especially brocaded bands woven after the 12th Century as the use of gilt silver in place of gold foil corrodes and disintegrates faster). A number of other finds have also occurred, such as several from Birka of a similar pattern. One of the bands from Birka was a brocaded strapwork pattern, executed in silk and metallic thread. Another find was a belt (more or less the only belt find I am aware of) executed in a 3/1 twill double face technique with multiple colors.

Tablet weaving had many uses in period; one example is strapping for spurs, however, primarily it was used for decoration on clothing. Sometimes tablet weaving was woven as the garment’s borders, to create a strong selvage or finished edge. Due to the inherent strength of tablet weaving, it was entirely possible to cut bands off one garment to sew them onto another. Bands were usually made from expensive, rare materials and so the thrifty, but nonetheless well-dressed, would recycle his or her trim onto a new garment once the old garment wore out.

Tablet Weaving is known as an “off-loom” form of weaving, meaning it does not require a loom. All Tablet Weaving requires is a maintained tension along the warp threads. This can be achieved by doing things like, tying one end to a table leg and the other to your belt and pulling back for tension (this is called ‘backstrap’ weaving). Or it can be performed by using a warp weighted loom. A warp weighted loom is also a period form of loom, which uses weights (usually of stone) tied to one end of the threads and uses gravity to keep them taught. Or one can attach a pair of C-clamps upside down to a board and warp one’s band on the long end of the clamps.

Reproduction of the band found at Birka (done in a thread-in pattern rather than brocade).

Tablet Weaving in Modern Times

Tablet Weaving in modern times is not only practiced by members of the SCA, but also various other people. There are groups like TWIST (Tablet Weaving International Studies & Techniques), The Braid Society, and Complex Weavers (all weaving interest groups) that research and practice this art. All of the various techniques of Tablet Weaving are still practiced, from the simplest version, thread-in to complicated 3/1 twill. In the SCA most tablet woven items are trim and belts, which can use any of these techniques, with thread-in and double face mostly used for Viking personas, and brocade used for later period personas. Some items, like belt favors for fighters are also possible to weave with the double face technique which makes for quite a unique item for he/she to wear.

Modern day materials vary, depending on the budget allowed for the work. Usually cotton is preferred due to the ease of working with it, and price. Otherwise silk and a finely woven wool is good to work with and can produce stunning results.

A reproduction hat from the Viking age trimmed with tablet woven trim.