This post is the first in a series introducing you to common weaving structures—a lot of which you’ll find when browsing Gist’s pattern collection. From the simplest plain weave or twill to more complex overshot, summer and winter, or double weaves, there’s a lot that you can explore and make with two or four shafts!
Plain weave is a fundamental weaving structure in which the weft travels over and then under adjacent warp ends. The weft does the opposite in the next row, traveling under/over a warp end it previously went over/under. Plain weave creates a smooth and strong cloth.
While plain weave can be woven on multi-shaft looms, the rigid heddle loom is the ideal tool to practice your plain weave, since the slot and hole setup of the reed makes threading simple and straightforward.
Even though we call it “plain” and use words like “simple” or “straightforward,” there’s nothing ordinary about plain weave—there’s a ton that you can do with it!
There’s another word that’s often used to refer to plain weave that you might hear: tabby. Though tabby and plain weave speak to the same weaving structure, at Gist we use them to refer to two distinct processes.
Plain weave is reserved for the explanation above — when we’re weaving simple over-one-under-one cloth. Tabby is used when we’re referring to the plain weave that is used in projects like the Bloom Table Squares or the Summer and Winter Towels. In these projects there is a ground weft and a pattern weft. The ground weft is plain weave — tabby — while the pattern picks travel over a sequence of ends to create a pattern.
I sometimes think that if I had to, I could happily and easily weave in plain weave for the rest of my life — I’d never run out of new yarns, textures, or ideas that I wanted to try. There is definitely a cultural mindset that tells us that complex = better, but I think plain weave proves that isn’t always true. Some of my favorite ways to explore plain weave include:
There’s no weaving rule that says your cloth needs to be all one color! Plain weave is fantastic for exploring stripes, checks, and blending colors in both the warp and weft. Some of my favorite projects, like the Skyline Towels, give you a great opportunity to play with weft stripes, while the Houndstooth Scarf plays with three different colors in the warp and weft to create a very intricate and classic design.
One of the coolest ways to play with color in plain weave is to try color-and-weave. These patterns create optical illusions of a sort — by planning the order of your warp and weft colors and raising and lowering the right threads at the right time, you can create very complex designs through color interaction alone. The Color-and-Weave Towels and Confetti Runner projects are fantastic examples of the patterns that can be created using color-and-weave.
Plain weave can be jazzed up by adding yarns with texture, such as Mallo. Its thick and thin nature creates a lively texture that feels great in the Textured Cotton Scarf project. Compared to a smooth-textured yarn (like the 4/8 un-mercerized cotton used in the Deep End Towels) you can get a sense of how much texture can change the look and feel of your projects.
Changing the sett of your plain weave project can transform your textiles into something special. Adding space between warp ends, such as in the Skip Dent Scarf, can create airiness, while cramming warp ends together creates density.
Plain weave is an excellent base for exploring hand-manipulated lace, like in the Brook’s Bouquet Scarf. No special tools are needed to create this delicate and airy texture, making it suitable for any type of loom! Other projects, like the Huck Lace Rigid Heddle Runner or the Windowpane Blanket, need pick-up sticks to make creating these manipulations faster.
There’s plenty more that you can do with plain weave than what I’ve mentioned on this short list, which is part of what makes weaving so exciting. Experimenting with new materials or new color choices is all that it takes to move plain weave out of the familiar and into the exciting. Instead of thinking about it as ‘plain’, I like to think of this structure as the solid basis for all weaving skills, a subtle and sturdy foundation to build beautiful textiles from.
Amanda Rataj is an artist and weaver living and working in Hamilton, Ontario. She studied at the Ontario College of Art and Design University and has developed her contemporary craft practice through research-based projects, artist residencies, professional exhibitions, and lectures. Subscribe to her studio newsletter or follow her on Instagram to learn about new weaving patterns, exhibitions, projects, and more.