Taming the Linen Lion

bean bags

Over the holidays I took a stab at weaving some hemp napkins for my parents. Can we say disaster? Thankfully they love me unconditionally, so the mess that was meant to be napkins was happily accepted since it was something I made.

After that, I was determined to figure out how to weave properly with hemp, flax (linen) and other bast fibers.

So what is a bast fiber? Well, dust off those brain cells and remember back to your early days in science class where hopefully you were taught a bit about plant biology. Xylem? Phloem? Sound familiar? If I recall correctly, phloem is the tube-like living tissue that distributes nutrients throughout the plant. It tends to be long and stringy, which is how we’re able to transform it into weaving yarn. Plus, it’s sort of fun being able to say that you’re weaving with phloem.

Linen became my target. I was determined to weave a decent set of linen napkins. When I wove the hemp disaster, my main issues were warp tension and getting a tight beat using a rigid heddle loom. I got neither. There must be a way to do this, so what’s the trick?

I kept my ear to the floor over the past few months, and asked questions when I could. Here’s a bit of the advice I was given.

Spritz the warp with water.

Be extra careful about even tension when you wind on.

Make sure your sett isn’t too loose.

Linen is not forgiving, so what you weave is what you get.

It was starting to sound too fidgety for my taste, but I really do love the feel of linen, so I decided to press on. I consulted an article by Lynn Tedder in the May/June 2005 issue of Handwoven Magazine. Lynn’s article confirmed many of the tips I had heard, but also made me think that perhaps the rigid heddle loom was a good tool for weaving with linen. Abrasion seems to be the enemy of linen, and not having to pass through a reed and heddles diminishes this issue somewhat. There is a suggested sett chart in this article as well, which is helpful.

Could I get the tension I wanted and a strong beat? There was only one way to find out. I decided to weave a couple of linen napkins as a technique test. This is a two-heddle project, as the required sett of the linen I used was finer than my 12 dent rigid heddle would allow. Here are the basic project details.


Flip Rigid Heddle Loom – Any size Flip will do. I use a 20”.

2- 8 dent rigid heddles

Euroflax Originals Sport Weight Linen, Color Eggplant, 1 skein 270yds/skein 100 grams

Euroflax Originals Sport Weight Linen, Color Mustard, 1 skein 270yds/skein 100 grams

Sewing machine and matching thread

Sett: 16 ends per inch

Warp length: 47”

Width of warp in reed: 14”

Finished dimensions: Two 12” x 12” linen napkins

I set about warping my Flip. I opted to direct warp the loom. This was as straightforward as placing the first rigid heddle in the rear neutral slot, and rather than threading one loop (two warp threads) through each slot, I threaded two loops (four warp threads) through each slot. The warp sequence is 2” of eggplant, then 2” of mustard, alternating across until you have 14” warped beginning and ending with eggplant. With a sett of 16 epi, this means 16 loops over two inches of one color followed by 16 loops of the next color. I cut and tied off each color after two inches had been threaded, and then re-tied onto the apron bar when it was time to thread that color again.

I now have a group of four warp threads in each slot. After winding the warp onto the back beam, I re-threaded one thread per group of four into its neighboring hole. When you are using two heddles and have a color sequence, you always want to be sure that your threading preserves that sequence. Keep in mind that the threads that go through holes will be lifted and lowered together, and the threads that live solely in slots will remain neutral together.

After re-threading a single thread per group, I placed the second rigid heddle into the front neutral slot. This left enough space between the two rigid heddles for me to easily maneuver the threads into the second rigid heddle. Take your group of four and separate out one of the threads still only in a slot in

the first rigid heddle. This will then be threaded through a hole in the new heddle directly in front of the group of four. The remaining three threads (one of which is in a hole in the first rigid heddle) are then threaded through the slot next to the hole you just threaded in the second rigid heddle. So of your group of four, two will be in slots only and the other two will be in one slot and one hole each. When you raise the rigid heddles together, two of your threads will raise and the other two will remain neutral.

Continue across until all of your threads have been threaded through both heddles.

Being careful not to un-thread your work, move your original rigid heddle, located in the rear neutral position, into the neutral slot directly behind the second rigid heddle, which should have been in the front neutral slot. What you are going to do next is grasp both rigid heddles together with both of your hands. Very gently, so as not to un-thread your work, set them both in the up position. One will rest in the up slots, the other directly in front or behind (as you prefer). It may seem a bit precarious, but you’ll get the hang of it. The goal here is to minimize tension issues. And since during the weaving process, the threads in the holes are either up or down, it makes sense to tie on while in this position. Linen does not have a lot of stretch, and this will help your threads sag less, especially as you reach the end of your warp. You are now ready to tie onto your front apron bar.

Working in one inch sections starting in the center of your threads, tie onto the front apron bar. I tie all of the sections on, and then return to where I started and re-tighten each section before securing with a bow. As I do this, I gently press my hand against the warp threads to see if the tension feels right, making adjustments along the way. Once tied, you will want to throw three picks then beat to see if you can spot any inconsistencies in your tension. If this isn’t part of your weaving process, I would encourage you to give it a try.

The edge of fabric created each time you beat is your fell line. The idea is generally for this to be straight and level. When you make your three initial picks and then beat them all at once, you may notice that the line of weaving you just created has sections that undulate up or down relative to the fell line. If they fall below the fell line, that section of threads is too tight and needs to be untied and loosened just a bit. If there are sections that fall forward of the fell line, they are loose and need to be tightened.

Once your tension is even across your warp, you are ready to weave. To weave plain weave with two heddles, simply grasp them together and treat them as though they are a single unit. For this project, I started with the mustard linen. I wanted to alternate between 32 picks of mustard and 32 picks of eggplant so that I could easily see how balanced my weaving was as I went along.

I decided to test out the spritzing with water theory. I wove seven sections of 32 picks each, beginning with the mustard linen. During this process I tightened my Flip as much as possible. To get good tension I used two hands to really crank on the rear beam. I also advanced frequently. I found that using two heddles to weave added a bit of weight and made my beating stronger.

Once I wove the first seven sections, I got out my spritzer. I lightly spritzed the warp in front of and behind the rigid heddle. I used a cloth to wipe off any water that got on my loom, and I began to weave. Again I advanced frequently, and each time I advanced I would spritz the warp.

When the second half of my weaving was completed, I cut the fabric from my loom, and cut the fabric in two widthwise. I zigzag stitched across the cut ends and put the two pieces of fabric in the washer on a regular cycle with our laundry. From there they went into a regular cycle in the dryer and then to my ironing board for a serious steam pressing.

From here I was ready to hem the fabric to create my napkins, but first to assess any differences between the two pieces of material. My goal was to have two napkins with finished dimensions of 12” x 12”. Alternating color in both the warp and weft in 32 thread segments created a checkerboard effect. The section of fabric that was woven without being spritzed ended up being almost an inch longer than the spritzed section.

To finish, simply steam press your edge folding the cut edge under itself, and then straight stitch into place.

So to summarize my findings, the damp warp enabled me to beat the linen into place more strongly, creating a final product that just felt better – more luxurious and sturdier in my hand.

Although I now have two napkins of different sizes, I am ready to conquer my next linen project!

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Melissa Ludden Hankens

You can find Melissa designing weaving projects for the Schacht newsletter and teaching at the Creative Warehouse in Needham, Massachusetts. Website - melentine.com Twitter - Melentine (@Melentine) Instagram - melentine on Instagram