Making fashion trims by ancient weaving and braiding techniques

Trim or trimming in fashion clothing is a form of applied ornament, such as ribbon, ruffles, belts or narrow bands and linings. Such trims once were a characteristic of mid-Victorian fashion. Historically, all trim were made and applied by hand, which made heavily trimmed furnishings and garments expensive and high-rank as shown in figure 1. After industrial revolution, machines such as machines for woven trims and sewing machines make these trimmings cheaper and affordable for modest dressmakers and home sewers. Therefore, modern fashion evolved emphasizing delicacy of cut and construction over impenetrability of trimming making the applied trims a signifier of mass produced clothing by the 1930s. The iconic braid and gold button trim of the Chanel suit are a notable survival of trim in high fashion of modern times.Today, most trimmings are commercially manufactured. Scalamandré is known for elaborate trim for home furnishings, and Wrights is a leading manufacturer of trim for home sewing and crafts. Trims are used generally to enhance the beauty of the garments. It attracts buyers. Appropriate use of it creates more value of the product. Some ancient weaving and braiding techniques were used in the past to produce decorative and fashion trims. Such techniques include inkle weaving, card or tablet weaving and ancient Japanese braiding technique names as Kumihimo. This blog provides an insight of these ancient techniques to produce fashion trims for today’s fashion clothing.

Figure 1. Elaborately trimmed fashions for April 1861 from Godey’s Lady’s Book.

Inkle weaving

Inkle weaving produces a type of weave that belongs to the “bound weave” category of fabrics. Inkle weaving typically produces what is known as “warp-faced” bands. That is, only the warp threads, the length-wise threads, show in the final woven piece. The weft threads are completely hidden by the warp, except at the very edges. The term “Inkle” simply means “ribbon” or “tape”. Inkle weaving is commonly used for narrow work such as trims, straps and belts. Inkle weaving was referred to in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. It was brought to the United States in the 1930s, but predates this by many centuries in other countries.

Inkle Loom

Inkle looms are constructed in both floor and table-top models. Either model is characterized by a wooden framework upon which dowels have been fastened. These dowels will hold the warp threads when the loom has been dressed. One of the dowels, or a paddle, is constructed so that its position can be adjusted. This tensioning device will be taken in as weaving commences and the warp threads become shorter. Additional equipment includes yarn of the weaver’s choice, yarn or thread for forming heddles and a shuttle to hold the weft. One such model of inkle loom is shown in figure 2. The shed is created by manually raising or lowering the warp yarns, some of which are held in place by fixed heddles on a loom known as an inkle loom. The inkle loom is threaded with warp threads according to the weaver’s design, alternating between yarn that can be raised and lowered and yarn that is secured in place through the use of the heddles.

Figure 2. A simple model of an Inkle loom

Weaving on Inkle loom

The raising and lowering of these warp threads creates the shed through which the weft thread will be carried on a shuttle as shown in figure 3. The weaver should make one pass with the shuttle with each opening of a shed through the lifting and lowering of threads. A simple lifting and lowering of threads creates a plain-weave in which warp threads are slightly offset. Weft threads are only visible at the edges of the band and the weaver may wish to take this into account by warping threads that will form the edges in the same color as the weft. As the weaving commences, the warp threads will shorten on the loom and the weaver will need to adjust the tension periodically. As the inkle band progresses, it will also get closer to the heddles. The weaver will also need to advance the warp thread along the bottom of the loom to open up new weaving space. When the warp is ready to be advanced the tension should be loosened and tightened again in order to resume the weaving process. 

Figure 3. Shed formation on the inkle loom

There are other more advanced techniques in which, instead of merely allowing warp threads to alternate in their up or down positions, individual threads are brought to the surface to form what is called a “pick up” pattern. One side of the band will show the exposed surfaces of warp threads while, on the other side of the pattern, the weft thread will be visible. Using a supplemental weft thread that will come up over the top of certain warp threads, brocaded designs can also be created into the inkle band. Inkle bands are quite strong and can be used in applications including, guitar, camera straps, narrow bands and colorful shoelaces. In fashion the use of inkle bands can be found as belts and trims for garments and other textiles as shown in figure 4.

Figure 4. Belts and color full trims for fashion garments made on inkle loom

Card and tablet weaving

Card or tablet weaving is a method of weaving strong, narrow, decorative bands. The equipment required is very cheap and simple, yet the range of possible patterns is immense. Tablet woven bands are known to have been made in Europe from the Bronze Age up until medieval times, and they are still made in parts of the world such as Turkey and Pakistan. Uses of tablet-woven bands included the decoration of clothing, and use as belts and straps. An inkle loom is also useful in the practice of tablet weaving for its added portability. Simply thread the warp onto the loom but use cards instead of alternating between free-hanging and heddle-secured yarn.

Preparing card or tablets and yarns

Card or tablets can be made of cardboard or playing cards. To make a card or tablet, cut out a square about 5 cm on each side, and punch four or more holes depending on the required pattern to be waved in the corners, make the corners round as shown in Figure 5(a).  Card or tablets can also be made of wood and leather. In order to make a simple band one only one card is enough however, up to eight cards can be used. Historically, the thread materials used include wool, linen, silk, and gold and silver thread.

Figure 5. (a) Cards or tablet made of cardboard or playing card (b) threading of tablet (c) shuttle

However, any kind of yarn can be used, but a thick thread about the weight of double knitting wool will be easier to work with than a very fine thread. Although fluffy knitting wool is easy to obtain, it’s hard work to weave because it sticks to itself and is very stretchy. A smoother yarn such as worsted spun wool, machine knitting wool, cotton or silk will be much easier to weave. Many colors can be achieved by using natural dyes. The weft thread is wounded onto a shuttle so that it can easily be passed through the band during weaving. The shuttle is usually about two inches in length and can be made of wood or cardboard as shown in the figure 5(c).

Threading in of card or tablet

In order to make a band with eight cards and two colors of threads using a four hole card, a total of 16 lengths, about 6 foot long of each color thread are required. These are called warp threads and will run along the length of the band to be weaved. Each warp thread is then threaded through one of the holes in a tablet, in such a way that the two threads of the same color are threaded in adjacent holes. The 8 tablets lie side by side in a deck as shown in the figure 6(a). The threads are then fastened between two fixed points about 5 feet apart, so that they are horizontal and moderately stretched. The tablet will tend to turn sideways so that it lies along the threads, which is fine. When the tablet is rotated, it will twist the four warp threads into a cord, and different colors appear in alternate along its length, like a barber’s pole as shown in the figure 6(a).

Weaving by using card or tablet

The gap between the top two threads and the bottom two on each tablet is called the shed. By passing a weft thread through the shed each time by turning the tablet, eight separate cords will be locked together to make a sturdy patterned band. Turning the 8 tablets, all together, a quarter turn, will create a new shed. The tablets should not be held too tightly and a little space between them helps the threads to turn more easily. The weft threads are pushed towards the beginning of the band with the help of hand or a comb, so that the weft is pushed back as far as possible and the band will be firm and tight. This is called beating. The shed can be made clear by sliding the tablets to and fro along the warps. Pass the weft back through the new shed.

Figure 6. Using 8 Tablets to Weave a Band

The weaving is continued, like this and an even and compact band is produced with alternate horizontal stripes on the band as shown in figure 6(b).

Making diagonal and mixed patterns by using card or tablet

Card or tablet can be flipped about a vertical axis so that the warp threads enter the tablet from either the left or the right. If the tablet lies so that the thread follows the diagonal of the letter S, it is said to be “S threaded” and if the thread follows the diagonal of the letter Z, this is called “Z threaded”. If the tablet is flipped and then weaving continued, it will twist its warp threads in the opposite direction. This will change the way the threads lie on the surface of the band, and will also reverse the order in which the different warp threads come to the surface. This phenomenon can be used not only to untwist the warp threads, which will become twisted beyond the tablets as weaving continues, but also to create diagonal patterns on band as shown in the figure 7.

 Figure 7. (a) How to orient the tablets for diagonal stripes (b) diagonal patterns

As the weaving continues, diagonal stripes of two colors of thread, appears on band surface as shown between points 0 and 1 in figure 7(b). If the lines are broken rather than sharp and clear, turn the band over and the lines will be clear and sharp on the other side. Alternatively the tablets can be rearranged in order to make the spiral runs in the opposite direction. When the point marked 1 in figure 7(b) is reached, flip all the tablets about their vertical axis, so that they are threaded in the opposite direction, and continue weaving; the diagonal lines will reverse their direction. At the point marked 2, flip the left hand four tablets, but leave the right hand four as they were. As the weaving continues a chevron pattern is formed. At the point marked 3, flip all the tablets and continue weaving, this will create a diamond pattern. Therefore, by flipping some or all of the tablets at intervals along your band, you can create almost any pattern of diagonal lines, including stripes, chevrons and diamonds. The figure 8(a) illustrates chevrons, diamonds and some other patterns which can be woven by flipping the tablets during course of weaving.

Figure 8. (a) Various patterns formed by flipping card or tablet about vertical axis (b) three color band with border

The band will be twisted if weaving is carried out with all the tablets oriented the same way (e.g. diagonal lines). In order to make a belt the twisting of band can be avoided either by having half the tablets Z-threaded and half S-threaded (e.g. chevrons and diamonds) or by flipping them all at intervals (e.g. zigzags).  Three or more colors can be used provided that all the tablets are threaded same as each other and all are threaded in the same direction to start with (either S or Z). In addition, more than eight cards or tablets can be used to make a wider band with more pattern possibilities, although twenty or thirty tablets begin to be tricky to manipulate. In order to keep the edges firm border can also be added on each side of the band by threading one or two tablets with the same color in all four holes for each border. It is noteworthy that the border cards or tablet do not need to be flipped unless border warp threads have become very twisted. Figure 8 (b) shows a band created by threading each tablet with red, yellow, blue, yellow. The tablets are then arranged to weave diagonal lines as before. The borders comprise two tablets threaded entirely with blue on each edge of the band, and then another two on each side threaded entirely with red. Each pair of border tablets is arranged with one S, and one Z threaded, in order to create a flatter band. When the weaving is finished, sew the free end of the weft into the band and cut it off. The warp threads can be cut and left long enough to braid or knot in order to leave a fringe or tassels, or it can be cut short and the end of the band can be turned to sew it like a hem.

Kumihimo braiding technique

Kumihimo is an ancient Japanese technique of making trims and braids. Kumihimo is the general name for a variety of Japanese techniques which date from around 550 C.E. The braids created by Japanese craftsmen served both ornamental and essential purposes, providing a means to fasten and decorate clothing; wrap knives & swords; hang banners, mirrors, and musical instruments; bundle carrying and storage wrappings and more. They were also an integral part of the unique Samurai armor, which was constructed of numerous plates laced together with braids to form a protective covering. The different types of “narrow wares” braids, bands, cords, ropes, etc. are as numerous as the cultures which have been fashioning them for centuries, using techniques as simple as finger braiding and twisting and as complex as modern textile machinery. The construction methods were carefully guarded secrets, passed from master to apprentice through the ages.

Figure 9. The Kumihimo braiding and ancient samurai armor

The Diversity of Kumihimo Braids

The five stands as shown in figure 10, allow the production of an amazing collection of different braided structures. The maru dai can be used to create braids that are round, square, rectangular, hollow, spiral, flat, triangular and even pentagonal and half-round in cross section. Threads are held taut between weighted tama which hang from the outer edge of the kagami (mirror), and the counterweight underneath. The braid grows downward through the sloped hole in the center.  In contrast, the braid grows upward on the kaku dai, where the completed portion of the braid is suspended above the tama, which are rotated to maintain the twist in the elements themselves.

Figure 10. The five stands of Kumihimo braiding technique

The karakumidai braid is strictly a twined structure, and great skill and patience is required to achieve the correct tension throughout the braid. The aya take dai is the only one of the stands to use a true weft, which is passed through sheds created by moving the tama from notch to notch on the wooden “feathers” at the front of the stand. Taka dai braiding process is very similar to weaving, with one key difference: each element in the braid acts as both warp and weft in turn. Because the stress on the completed braid is borne by every element within the structure, it can be far stronger than a similar fabric with warp and weft. The illustration in the figure 11 shows the path of the weft (green thread) through the warp (blue threads) in a traditional under two, over two twill fabric. Once the weft reaches the opposite edge of the warp, it returns with the same sequence, offset by one thread to create the weave. The same under two, over two sequences is used on the taka dai, but the braid is worked from the outer edge to the center. Once the thread has completed its turn as “weft”, it takes its place at the end of the row on the opposite side of the taka dai to resume the role of a warp element, as seen in the illustration on the right.

Figure 11. fabric making on Taka dai braiding

The range of structures along with the opportunities for varying fiber type, element size, element color and color placement offer a tremendous diversity of braids for the Kumihimo enthusiast. It is this vast array of possibility that makes Kumihimo such an exciting art.

A woven fashion belt

Sources

  1. Hawes, Elizabeth. “Fashion is spinach.” (1938).
  • Brown, Rachel. “The weaving, spinning and dyeing book.” (1980): 367.
  • Crockett, Candace. “Card weaving.” Design 75.3 (1974): 39-39.
  • Collingwood, Peter. The techniques of tablet weaving. Faber & Faber, 1982
  • Owen, Rodrick. Making Kumihimo: Japanese Interlaced Braids. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2004.
  • Carey, Jacqui. Creative kumihimo. Carey Company, 1994.

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