How to Make a Primitive Loom

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Building the primitive loom from dowels and string.
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TOP: The primitive loom is ready for its first weaving assignment.BOTTOM: A woven mat made of string and cattail leaves.

To the hopeful, hopeless, or hapless (pick your category) beginner, a full-size loom can be an alarming contraption … and the mystique in which some experienced weavers like to veil their craft doesn’t help matters any. Well, if weaving appeals to you, you may be glad to know that you can dispel your awe and discover the basic principles of the skill by building a very primitive device in your back yard.

“Primitive” is the word for this gadget, all right. Nothing could be simpler to construct (just pound sticks into the ground and tie strings on them) and the resulting machine is so easy to operate that I’ve seen first- and second-grade children using one in their school playground. Of course, you’re not going to turn out tapestries or patterned fabrics on such an invention … but as an introduction to weaving, the outdoor loom is hard to beat.

Here’s what you’ll need to begin the project:

[1] Earth soft enough to pound sticks into.
[2] Fifteen dowels, each approximately 18 inches long. Sturdy sticks cut to a uniform length will do just as well . . . I used dowels because I had some given to me.
[3] Ball of postal or baling twine, or heavy string.
[4] Hammer (or large rock) for driving stakes.
[5] Yardstick.
[6] Scissors.
[7] Natural weaving materials: cattail leaves, corn stalks, goldenrod stems, straw, wheat, reeds … anything that isn’t too brittle when it dries out. I’d recommend that you begin with a place mat of cattail leaves, which are easy to obtain and to work with. Just cut a bundle (a good armful should make two table covers) and lay the greens flat in a cool, damp spot until you’re ready to use them.

To make the loom frame, lay a yardstick on the ground and pound seven dowels into the earth about three inches apart in a straight line. Then place the rule parallel to this first row of stakes and a dowel’s length away, and hammer in seven more sticks exactly opposite the first. (These dimensions will make a place mat 18 inches long.)

Next, prepare to “warp” this simple loom by measuring and cutting seven lengths of twine at least 24 inches long (better too long than too short). Tie each piece of string to the middle of a dowel in Row One, pull the line taut and fasten the other end to the corresponding stake in Row Two.

Then cut seven more bits of cord to a length of at least 28 inches and attach one end of each just above the first knot on a Row One stick. Draw out these strings to lie parallel with the warp … they should pass between the stakes in the second row and extend several inches beyond.

You began with 15 dowels, remember? The extra one is–as they say in weaving circles–the “heddle bar” for your loom. Lay that last stick parallel to and beyond Row Two and tie the outstretched cords to it evenly, so that all the strings are equally straight and firm. This movable rod-and-twine arrangement is the heddle which you’ll raise and lower as you weave.

The simple loom is now ready to operate. Raise the heddle bar and place a cattail leaf below the attached strings so that it lies across (and perpendicular to) the warp cords. (The space between the two sets of strands is called a “shed”, by the way.) Now lower the bar and gently push the reed close to the dowels of Row One. With the heddle bar still down, lay your next piece of greenery in the shed below the warp. Then lift the bar again and nudge the leaf so that it lies as close to the first as possible (but remains flat).

The technique is as simple as that . . . just raise and lower the heddle bar and stick a leaf through each time. Continue this process until you have filled all the space between the lines of dowels.

You have now woven your first place mat. To remove it from the loom, unfasten the two knots on each dowel and tie the strings together so that the leaves are held in place. Next, tidy up by cutting the uneven edges of the greens in a straight line about two inches from the outside two twine warps. Finally, place your finished product on a level surface and let it dry flat. If you’ve used green leaves, they’ll shrink as they lose their moisture and you may have to retie the fastenings to tighten up the mats.

The fruits of your loom experiment are delightful either as table settings or under flower arrangements. The mats can be left in their natural state or–when dry–enhanced by a light spray of a clear acrylic finish to highlight their markings and give them a glossy shine.

You needn’t, however, stop with place mats. Be creative! Put your dowels closer together and make narrower, longer wall hangings. For your beginning weave find an interesting stick long enough to serve as the ornament’s tie rod, and finish with another piece of wood heavy enough to hold the “fabric” taut. Between these end pieces work in reeds, seed pods, interesting grasses, feathers, weeds or whatever intrigues you. Any design and pattern you fashion will be entirely your own artistic creation and, therefore, all the more enjoyable.

Or–for a more practical product–make cornstalk doormats. These are woven in the same way as the table covers, but I prefer to use a warp of baling twine for greater strength and an interesting effect. You can work with either green or ready-dried stems … just be sure to strip off the leaves. Then place your dowels and string the loom to turn out a finished rectangle of the size you want.

Any of the articles you create on your primitive outdoor machine make unique gifts, cost only pennies and demand little time. And–after a bit of practice with natural bounty that’s free for the taking–you’ll be hooked on weaving and ready to progress to more intricate looms and more sophisticated fabrics.