Tablet Weaving Documentation
This is a tablet-woven band made with 60/2 silk. The warp (background) is silk dyed blue with indigo. The background is done in a checkered twist-pattern (the monochrome background reflects the light to make a checkered pattern). The brocade sections are patterned after medieval constructs based on the saltire. The white brocade thread is undyed silk and the yellow brocade thread is silk dyed with weld.
Tablet weaving, also known as card weaving, was widely practiced from the end of the Roman empire until the 1500s. Extant brocaded tablet weaving bands – bands which utilize a supplementary, non-functional weft purely for decoration – are found from the early 6th to the late 15th century.
Brocaded bands were used for a wide variety of purposes. Many of the surviving bands were used for ecclesiastical garments. While evidence from paintings and carvings indicate that brocaded bands were probably fairly widely used for secular purposes (at least among the very wealthy), there are far less extant examples. As Nancy Spies notes, this may be influenced by the fact that the value of the bands meant that lay people would recycle the bands as often as possible. The more expensive bands, made with metallic threads, may even have been dismantled for their gold content.
This project is intended as a fillet, or headband. There are a few extant tabletwoven bands used on the head, as fillets or parts of caps. The early brocaded bands found at Birka were found mostly near the head (Crowfoot). A silk hairnet with brocaded tabletweaving was found from the 12/13th century. Other finds show non-brocaded bands being used in this fashion as well, and it is possible that a wider variety of brocaded headgear has simply not survived to the present day.
Period tabletwoven bands ranged in width and length. It is difficult to know exactly the length of brocaded bands, as they often survive to the present day as fragments. This band is 22 inches long. This length makes sense for its use as a fillet. The majority of surviving tablet-woven bands are very narrow. Almost half are under 1.3cm in width, and 70% of extant bands are under 2.5 cm. This band is 2 cm wide, with a variation of plus or minus 1mm.
Brocaded tablet weaving was often done with metallic spun-gold or spun-silver threads. Silk brocade wefts were also known, as was a combination of the two types of weft. This project exclusively uses silk. It was a more economical choice, as one large skein of undyed silk thread provided enough silk for both warp and brocade threads. As this was my first attempt at brocade, I also hoped that the relative familiarity of a fiber-based weft would be easier to work with than a metallic weft.
The warp threads of brocaded bands were almost universally made of silk (Spies 57). Analysis of dyes used on silk warp threads shows that indigotin, the chemical found in indigo, and, in lesser concentrations, woad, was found on several medieval bands (Spies 59). Indigotin is a blue dye. The silk used in this project was dyed using indigo. In period, this would have involved much time and effort to create a fermentation bath. For convenience and reliability of color, a more modern, chemically reduced indigo bath was used to dye the silk. I followed the instructions in Wild Color (Dean 54) to create a dye bath using one teaspoon of washing soda, three teaspoons of indigo, one ounce of color run remover, and about a gallon of water.
Brocading weft threads in period include both white and yellow for a wide time range (Spies 65). While I was unable to find an in-depth comparison of dyes used on these brocade threads, the analysis of silk warp threads shows that weld was used to make yellow for warp threads (Spies 59). It is not unreasonable to assume that weld, a popular dye for its exceptional light- and color-fastness, would have been used on the brocade threads as well. The yellow thread used in this project was dyed with weld, using alum as a mordant. Alum was often used to help the dye “bite” the thread.
The texture of tablet weaving is created by the manipulation of cards or tablets. Each tablet has a number of holes. The most commonly found bands across geographical and chronological periods use four holes, with one thread in each hole. The tablets in this project are threaded in such a manner. Each card can be threaded with the threads running from back to front or from front to back, referred to as S-threading or Z-threading. Because each card can be manipulated individually, each card can be threaded in a separate direction. By far the most popular threading seen in extant bands is alternative S/Z threading. (Spies 69) . A smaller minority were created with blocks of cards threaded in one direction followed by blocks threaded in the opposite direction. This was sometimes combined with an alternating forward and back turn. The slightly different twist inherent in a forward or backward turn and in S versus Z threading creates a subtle checkerboard pattern. There are three extant medieval bands utilizing this method, ranging in date from the 8/9th century to the 13-15th century (Spies 70). This project has adopted this latter method, which is sometimes called twist-patterning, based on the fact that it creates patterns from the twist of the warp thread.
Brocade patterns of extant bands fall into several categories. One of the most popular categories, according to Nancy Spies, was geometrical designs, with the majority of brocaded tabletwoven bands, regardless of geography or chronology displaying some sort of geometrical design, whether as part of a background pattern or as discrete motifs. Geometrical designs, which often rely on straight and diagonal lines, lend themselves well to the structural limitations of tablet weaving.
The patterns created were based very loosely on common geometrical designs. For instance, many geometrical designs found across Europe were at least bilaterally symmetrical, and in some cases display radial symmetry. All of the designs I created for this project display at least bilateral symmetry.
I was specifically inspired by the use of saltires. A saltire, sometimes referred to as St. Andrew’s Cross, is a large X. There are many cross-cultural representations of saltires on brocaded bands, as seen in Ecclesiastical Pomp and Aristocratic Circumstance. These are often stylized, and are sometimes depicted as double saltires. A band on a reliquary cover from 14th century Switzerland depicts several saltires (Spies 174). Nancy Spies’s analysis of the pattern is “various geometrical motifs based on the saltire.” The symmetry of the saltire and its ease of variation piqued my interest, and I began creating “geographical motifs” with the saltire as the starting point. I was particularly intrigued with one of the reliquary’s saltires that showed the standard X superimposed on a diamond background. A similar, but more elaborate, saltire-based design can be seen on a slightly later Swiss stole from the 15th century (Spies 167). My saltire designs echo these “saltire on a diamond” motifs, but with more elaborate detailing. The Swiss reliquary has a repeating pattern of Saltire 1, Saltire 2, Saltire 1, Saltire 3, and so on. I chose to utilize a similar pattern in weaving my fillet. Thus my relatively plain, two color saltire is repeated after each of the more elaborate saltire-based geometrical designs.
Changes for future projects
This project had a lot of firsts for me: my first time working with silk, trying twist-patterns, trying brocade, and trying to actually use my own patterns. Silk is fantastic! I had heard a lot of testimonials as to how nice silk is to work with, but even so, I was still surprised at how smooth it felt and how easily it worked in clearing the shed.
More importantly, I learned that brocading seems to narrow my work. Adding the brocade weft made the band more narrow than in areas where there was no brocade. I was not initially expecting this, and had to make alterations in my normal tightening patterns to accommodate this tendency. Throughout the project, I struggled with keeping the width of the band even, whether as a function of the brocade, or working with fine silk, or a combination of both.
I also wish that I had made the fillet ever so slightly longer. When I measured my head I forgot to take into account that I would need extra space to sew the ends of the fillet together, making this task more difficult. As a result of the fact that the fillet has a very narrow sewn together edge, a year of wearing the fillet has started to pull the edges apart a bit.
Crowfoot, Elizabeth and Sonia Chadwich Hawkes. “Early Anglo-Saxon Gold Braids”.<em> Medieval Archaelogy</em>. 11. 1967
Dean, Jenny. <em>Wild Color</em>. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1999.
Spies, Nancy. <em>Ecclisiastical Pomp and Aristocratic Circumstance</em>. Minnesota: Arelate Studio, 2000.