How to Weave Great Towels with a Rigid-Heddle Loom

There persists a myth about rigid-heddle looms: that while they’re great for weaving scarves and pieces with thick knitting and fashion yarns, one can’t weave fine fabrics using traditional weaving yarns on them. Fortunately for us all, weavers the world around are proving this false by weaving beautiful, fine fabrics on these versatile little looms. Susan E. Horton is one such weaver who has been designing gorgeous towels and napkins on the rigid-heddle loom that have all the drape and absorbency of a floor-loom–woven towel but with much less time spent warping.

Susan began weaving around twenty years ago on a multi-shaft loom, and through the years, she has made a name for herself in the weaving community with her keen eye for color and technical prowess. In 2013, Susan was asked to teach a class on weaving with the rigid-heddle loom. She agreed, even though there was one problem: she had never actually used one before. She borrowed one from her guild, taught herself using videos, and was instantly smitten. “For me it’s the flexibility—the ease of it,” Susan explains. “You have so much less time invested in the beginning start-up, more freedom for experimentation—I will even sample things that I don’t think will work just to see what will happen.”

Go-To Cotton Yarn: 8/2

One of those experiments included designing and weaving towels using traditional weaving yarns. “I wanted to see what its capabilities were,” Susan said. “It bugged me that no one ever seemed to use weaving yarns on the rigid-heddle loom. I have this whole closet full of weaving yarns. Why can’t I use some of it?” Since those first experiments, Susan has designed and woven many towels on the rigid-heddle loom and has plenty of advice for other weavers who wish to do the same.

Jodi Ybarra’s Down by the Lake Towels use 8/2 cotton doubled in the warp and weft.

Jodi Ybarra’s Down by the Lake Towels use 8/2 cotton doubled in the warp and weft.

One of the most important aspects of any weaving project is picking the right yarn. Susan prefers 8/2 cotton, a weaving yarn commonly used for towels, napkins, and other table linens. She loves 8/2 cotton because it’s durable, absorbent, and inexpensive, and comes in a rainbow of colors. It’s a finer yarn and is typically sett at 18 to 24 ends per inch, quite a bit higher than most rigid-heddle reeds. Getting the sett right for towels is important: if the sett is too high, the towels will be dense, stiff, and less absorbent; if the sett is too loose, the fabric will have holes and threads that move around and can get easily caught (also known as “sleazy” fabric).

Susan gets past the problem of sett by using a trick she learned from a friend and fellow weaver: she uses two threads of 8/2 cotton in each slot and hole of a 12-dent reed to get a sett of 24 ends per inch. She says that although she has only tried this with 8/2 cotton, she thinks an 8/2 or 22/2 cottolin would also work at this same sett and could even be paired with 8/2 cotton.

For the weft, rather than doubling up the 8/2 cotton, Susan often uses a single thread. This not only gives her a better hand, it also lets her create bold stripes in the warp that would normally be obscured when weaving balanced plain weave. For those who want to weave a color-and-weave pattern that requires a balanced sett, doubling up the 8/2 cotton in the weft works just fine, too. The fabric will be slightly denser, but not too much.

Since publication of this article in Easy Weaving with Little Looms 2016, Susan E. Horton has taken on the post of editor of Handwoven.

—Christina

Featured Image: You might be surprised to learn that Susan’s sophisticated towels are woven with 8/2 cotton on a rigid-heddle loom. Photos by Joe Coca

Susan’s Towel Tips
  • Warp: 8/2 cotton, doubled in 12-dent reed
  • Single strand for weft
  • Keep floats short (¼” or less)
  • It’s all about the ends
  • Of course—sample!

Weave your own brilliant towels!

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