Working With Wood For Textiles

Prototype spindle
splinters, maybe?

Without really intending to, I seem to have embarked on a project to make the necessary tools to transform a bundle of raw fibrous materials into cloth.  The sixth grade is going to do a project sometime after the Thanksgiving break where they learn to spin thread.  The result is that I have an ‘order’ for a dozen or so spindles, and at left is a photograph of my prototype.  It’s pretty rough-and-tumble, as these things go; the main whorl was cut out of a No.2 select pine board, and sanded; the pilot hole from the circular saw mounted in a drill was enlarged to 1/4″ to accommodate the dowel, and a cup-hook and a cut were added to complete the spindle.  The hardest part of the whole exercise was clamping down the board in place so the circular saw would cut through the board.

I think it will be fairly easy to make a dozen more. Given that new ones (with fancy lathe-turned whorls) sell for upwards of $20, and this cost me $20 for the cup-hooks, board, and doweling to make a dozen spindles (the circular saw blade was extra, alas — and let’s not talk about the drill itself).  I’ll be able to give them a basket of tools for their thread-makign project. Incidentally, this will also enable me to complete a project from Caveman Chemistry, which I’ve been meaning to get back to.

The Inkle Loom 

Inkle Loom But quite by chance, while working on my viking pants, I encountered the idea of Inkle Weaving.  It was a little bit of effort to find the right model of Inkle Loom to try to build, but after a bit of effort I found this one, which I liked, for several reasons.

The most important one was that it could definitely be adapted into a student project very successfully.  As with other student projects, I’ve been keeping a running spreadsheet of the costs involved; I think that mine will wind up running me about $40.00, because I bought more expensive wood than I should have; and because I made several expensive errors in materials purchases. But I think that with #2 Select Pine boards, that typically these sorts of looms should run around $10 in parts. Wow.  That’s a student project, if I can get it to work.

Inkle LoomToday was about cutting the parts, fitting the dowels, and discovering that I bought the wrong screws — I got 1″ screws and I needed 1 1/4″ screws. I also needed to drill a hole through that 5″ block of wood in upper-right of the second photo (where the boards are shown with holes/insets for the pegs already drilled) from end to end. Yeah, I got that done — but I had a 6″ bolt, and it turns out I need a 6 1/2″ bolt or maybe even a 7″ bolt.

I also found that my tool cabinet was about up to the task on building this. The slot in one board (at lower left in this second photo) required the use of my wood-carving tools.  The holes for the mounts for the pegs were drilled with a 3/4″ spade bit and my grandfather’s hand drill (supplemented with my electric drill for the last two holes). I think for student looms, I’m going to have to give them a set of pre-drilled parts…

Inkle Loom
The loom assembly underway

It was at this point that I discovered that I had bought the wrong-sized screws.  While working through the assembly process for this loom, I learned that you can’t use 1″ screws to bind two 1″ thick boards together (I learned in the Adirondack Chair class that wood in America is its listed size before milling — so a 1×3″ board was 1×3″, and then was sent through a milling machine to make it finished and beautiful, but that reduces its dimensions to somewhat less than that… my 1×3″ boards are about 0.7×2.7″, for example). I’m going to need 1 1/4″ screws for that…

Ultimately, though, I think that I’m going to have assembled the infrastructure for cloth making on a small scale (inkle bands are rarely more than 4-5″ wide, for example), and found a way to teach kids to make the spindle for making the thread, and the loom for turning the thread into ‘cloth’ (or more likely, friendship bracelet-like things.  That excites me.

What’s even more interesting, though, is that it’s possible to make the connection between an Inkle Loom (which can also be used for card weaving) and a computer.  There’s something about binary mathematics and weaving — the up-shed of a loom vs. the down-shed of the loom, the bytes represented by the possible number of warp strings in the pattern, and the program represented by the way in which the up and down-sheds are positioned on the loom to drive the weft which reveals a pattern in the underlying binary mathematics.  I’m looking forward to helping kids make the connection, as James Burke did for me in Connections, between the emergence of weaving (the work of women for the last 20,000 years) and the growth of modern computing


  1. […] Increasingly, Tai Chi is part of the background of my life.  I get up in the morning, I do tai chi, and then I go about my day. The day is usually incredibly crazy. But it’s also pretty normal and ordinary.  I do what most people do in my profession.  I coach from the side, I sagely talk from the stage, I move classroom-to-classroom through a schedule, sometimes to teach Latin, and sometimes computer science, and sometimes carpentry or game design or technical skills or weaving. […]

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