Warp and weft: a cooperative relationship in tapestry weaving

In tapestry weaving, the relationship between warp and weft is an important one. How to reach a happy consensus between these two elements of your piece is not immediately obvious.

These questions might sound familiar:

What warp should I use? How do I even decide with all those numbers?
Why is my warp showing?
Why does this weft yarn look so bad woven when it is so pretty in the skein?
Why is my fabric so loose?

The warp has a big job to do. 

Warp is the ground of your piece. It is the tightly-held strings upon which your image is built. The warp is completely covered in traditional tapestry weaving, yet it is the necessary core of the structure.

And size matters. I use cotton seine twine for most of my warps.* This strong and slightly stretchy warp comes in a wide variety of sizes. I have my preferences which are based on how I want the final tapestry to look, but there is a range of sizes that will produce a structurally-sound tapestry.

Consider this diagram.

It is a cross section of weaving. Pretend you’ve cut your weaving in half and are looking down at the edge of it. The black dots are warp ends. The curved lines represent two picks of weft.

Notice that the weft has to follow a curved path to go around each of the warps. If I straightened one of those pieces of weft off the loom, it would be significantly longer than the width of the weaving. (Weft tension: Are your selvedges wonky? This is why. THIS video might help.) 

Also notice that there has to be room for the weft to fit between the warps. A common hack to know whether a weft yarn you have will work on a particular warp is to hold that weft up against the warp and visually see if it just about fills the space between the warps. Like this:

If you’re a particulars person: the above example is three strands of Harrisville Koehler Singles plied on a wheel and woven at 10 epi on 12/6 cotton seine twine on a countermarche Harrisville Rug Loom. Whew.

When changing the size of the warp, the amount of space available in that little eye-shaped bubble changes.

If the dots (your warp ends) are very small, there is a lot of room in there for the weft to shift around—though of course this depends on how big the weft is.

If the warps are very large, eventually there will not be enough room for the weft to fit between them.

Fat or thin warp?

If your warps are large, you will see distinct ribs in your fabric. This piece, Cordes Sensibles, is by Suzanne Paquette. The ribs in her work are fairly prominent. I don’t know what size warp she was using, but if you compare the details of this and the Mokdad piece below, you can see a distinct difference in texture of the surface. I do believe that the Paquette piece was woven at about 6 epi and the Mokdad at about 10, so that also makes a difference.

Suzanne Paquette, Cordes Sensibles, tapestry detail

Suzanne Paquette, Cordes Sensibles, tapestry 60 x 36 inches.


If your warps are thinner, you will have a much flatter fabric. This example is a piece by Ulrikka Mokdad. Both the Paquette and Mokdad tapestries were in American Tapestry Biennnial 11.

Ulrikka Mokdad, Little Mirror on the Wall, detail

Ulrikka Mokdad, Little Mirror on the Wall, tapestry 33 x 33 inches.


Many of my colleagues love fat warps and want that textural element which is so unique to tapestry weaving. Those that love this texture would not like the thinner warp that I use which creates a fabric that has less textural presence. In my work I am focusing more on the image created and de-emphasizing the ribs and I do this by using a thinner warp (12/6 cotton seine twine at 10 epi is a normal sett for me). In the detail below is is difficult to even pick out the warp ribs. The fact that this is a fairly fuzzy weft also blurs them.

Rebecca Mezoff, Emergence I, detail tapestry. More images HERE.

Once you’ve decided whether you like that ribbed texture to tapestry or not, you can decide whether you’d like to use a fatter or thinner warp. This warp still has to fit within the range of what will work in the structure of tapestry and this question is all about sett. I’ll cover questions of sett in upcoming blog posts.

The image below is of some samples I did all at 8 epi with different sized warps and the same weft. The woven numbers are the warp sizes of cotton seine twine. Can you see how much more pronounced the rib is for the 12/15 warp than the 20/6? Look at the warps coming out of the weaving to compare the sizes of the warp.

Weft size

We also have to consider the weft in the equation. A weft that is too fat will not cover the warp and you will see bits of warp peeking through. These are often called lice.

In the diagram with fat warps, the weft indicated would likely not cover the warp at all.

Each pick of weft is too fat to allow the next one to slide over and cover the other side of the warp.

In the photo below, the weft is too thick for this sett. In the darker brown section at the top, the warp is showing everywhere. We shouldn’t see the warp at all if we want to weave a weft-faced fabric. The weft should cover the warp as it does in the thinner rust-colored weft farther down. 

Weft on the top is too fat for this sett and creates lice. Rust-colored weft is thinner and covers the warp.

If you use a very thin weft, it will always cover the warp. But you will have a textile that is not as structurally sound as one where the warp and weft match well. When the weft is very thin for the sett (the spaces between the warps), there is too much room for the fibers to move on each other and you get a fabric that could be described as sleazy. The weft moves on the warp and you can imagine why that might be a problem especially in a very large textile.** 

A warp/weft match example

So let’s make this practical. Let’s say that you want to weave at 8 epi. That is an excellent choice of sett especially if you’re just starting out in tapestry (and your loom will accommodate it!). Your newly clumsy fingers can find the shed and the individual warps are spaced widely enough that you can manipulate them especially if you don’t have a shedding mechanism. But the sett is fine enough that you can get some detail in your images.

The weft you have to work with is a worsted weight 2-ply--perhaps Harrisville Highland or Weaving Southwest’s tapestry yarn.

You decide that you like a more intense rib in your fabric, so you go for a 12/9 cotton seine twine for your warp… or maybe you really want to ramp it up and you go for 12/12 cotton seine twine.

This combination of warp, warp sett, and weft will work well and your tapestry will be structurally sound and the warp will be covered (though you'd better test that weft yarn if you choose a 12/12 warp. Stiffer yarns like Weaving Southwest 2-ply may not cover a fatter warp when they would if the warp was thinner).

If you decrease the size of the weft considerably, your warp will be covered but the fabric will be sleazy and you’ll have to weave a lot of picks to get anywhere. If you increase the size of the weft, you’ll see warp lice because the weft won’t cover.

Conclusion

These three variables, warp, sett, and weft, impact structural stability of your tapestry and also impact the kind of image you can weave. I’ll cover more questions about sett in upcoming posts.

My final recommendation is to experiment. Spend a little time playing with different sized warps at different setts and see what the results are for you. Just because I choose a certain combination of warp, sett, and weft for the kind of fabric and image I want to create doesn’t mean that is the right choice for you.

Do you struggle with finding the right weft to use on a particular warp? Leave your comments below. Need further guidance? Consider an online class!


*Wool and linen warps are also completely acceptable materials.

**A wool warp and weft can help this problem if you want to use this combination because the little grabby bits of the warp and weft can meld together inside the textile making it more structurally sound.