CNCHnet . . . The Textile Arts Webzine of the Conference of Northern California Handweavers

Weaving Damask My Way

I started weaving damask after I had spent several years working on Warp and Weft Painting and had transitioned from abstractions to being inspired by the petroglyphs that are chipped into the granite rock outcroppings in my native Sweden. The petroglyphs are very well known in Sweden and used as decorations on many items, from socks to bags to the logo for the University of Gothenburg. I would paint the figures on the warp and then match the weft so that I had a balanced cloth with pure color for the figure. After a piece was woven I would do some shibori work over the entire surface and would find to my horror that the work I had so carefully done disappeared in subsequent dyeing. I needed some way to make the figures permanent and integrated into the cloth. Hence damask.

My first introduction to damask weaving came on a middle school field trip to a local professional weaver. I still remember her big loom, the many pulls in front of her, the dark, dank basement (she was weaving linen table cloths) and the many threads. I was very familiar with looms and weaving since my grandmother was also a weaver, but she wove only rag rugs on a four shaft counterbalanced loom, never anything as complicated or as fine as the wide, exquisite table cloths in damask.

Structurally, damask is a satin weave where pattern is created by shifting from warp-faced satin blocks to weft-faced satin blocks across the surface. The resulting pattern is formed by small squares, in my case, six ends by six picks to the side. According to Wikipedia, a satin weave is a structure where four or more warp ends float over one weft thread. Depending on the size of the yarn and the use of the cloth, any satin weave can be used for damask. Five end or seven end satin are more common than six and a three/one, one/three broken twill can also be used. The characteristic smooth and glossy surface of a satin is created by having as few crossing threads as possible as high satin numbers give clearer distinction between the blocks.

A damask loom has two harnesses, two ways of controlling each thread. The pattern harness controls which square is warp or weft faced, and the ground weave harness is used to build up the cloth. In the US “harness” is often used instead of “shaft”. Most looms have one harness consisting of four, eight, sixteen or more shafts. The pattern harness consists of heddles with very small eyes. These heddles are either supported by a shaft arrangement similar to a ground weave harness or, as I have done, each heddle is connected to a long draw-cord that is carried over the top of the loom and is connected by hooks at the front of the loom, so called “single pull”. Since my structure is home made, I do not have the fancy handles shown in the picture below. The pattern heddles are weighted to give the same tension to the lower units of ends as the ones being pulled up have.

On a damask loom the warp goes from the warp-beam through the pattern- harness, through the ground-weave harness, through the reed and then gets tied to the cloth-beam. The pattern heddles are threaded with groups of ends, in my case I thread six ends since I use a six-end damask. The pattern-harness often has up to 20 shafts so that repeat patterns can be created across the cloth, but since I use a “single pull” damask, each six end unit can be controlled independently.     

To get started I bought some lumber, dowels, metal rods, hooks and several packages of long skinny balloons and set to work building a simple structure that carried the draw cords for the pattern-harness over my counterbalance lams.

The structure also has a metal rod with hooks that are used to attach the draw cords that control the warp-faced squares. I still have the basic structure that I started with except for the balloons that, filled with water, worked as the counterweights for the pulls. I now use 2 oz. fishing weights.

Damask is woven in two steps. Following a graphed pattern, I pull down the draw cord that corresponds to a warp-faced square onto the hooks . This raises the pattern heddle in the back. I continue across the warp and then weave the six shots of the satin on the ground shafts. The next step is going back to the pattern, lowering and raising the next line. Then the six satin shots, etc.

The satin ground weave heddles have large eyes that make it possible to have the non-working warp-ends stand unaffected by the working ones. When a treadle is pushed down, one end from a warp faced unit is lowered and one end from a weft faced unit is raised. The rest of the ends stay in the position they were. That means that these working ends need to travel farther than the rest of the warp. To facilitate the extra stretching of those ends the looms need to be much longer than an ordinary loom.

A “real” damask loom has an extension that makes it about three yards long. That makes it possible to weave linen which is an inelastic thread and needs the long distance between the breast beam and the back beam. The loom I added the damask harness to was an eight shaft Gilmakra Ideal, which is a small loom, with a short distance between the breast beam and the back beam. I thought that the shorter length between the beams might cause some problem. It turns out that the problems were minimal since I work with fine silk, 50/2 spun silk set at about 50 epi. The silk is elastic enough so that the short span in my loom is not a drawback. My one attempt with singles linen ended in disaster, however, and I had to cut the warp off from the loom.

During the weaving process four of the shafts that are not working have to stay unaffected by the by the working ones. For this reason the six satin shafts are hung on shock-cords and weighted. The normal counter march mechanism on the loom is thus bypassed. I also make a narrow tabby edge on shaft 7 and 8 to make it easier to have control over the weft density.
I find weaving damask very satisfying. Designing for damask is like double weave, squares on graph paper, either black or white or color against color, but unlike double weave it has just one warp and one weft. My challenge is to be able to combine the warp and weft painting with the damask, to make two multi-colored surfaces interact and still maintain their integrity.

How was the drawloom invented?   Click on HISTORY to find out.