Crooked selvedges can be the frustration of many weavers. It looks so simple when the selvedges are razor sharp but getting those straight selvedges is another matter. I’ve compiled a big list of tips and opinions that I’ve worked out over the years to help you out in getting straight selvedges, and I’ve dispelled a couple myths. These tips will also help if you have persistently snapping selvedges.
Myths about weaving straight selvedges
First, I want to dispel a big myth in weaving. It’s very common in weaving, and other handcrafts, to recommend buying more equipment or tools as the first step to fixing ongoing problems.
But I strongly disagree. Our equipment and tools can definitely hold us back or let us elevate to another level, but equally we can work on technique before it’s necessary to spend the money. I often see weaving temples and end feed shuttles recommended as the first step to getting straight selvedges and I think that can make weaving even more inaccessible. Before we go to the expense and effort of buying tools, there are techniques and subtle changes that can make a big difference to your results.
These tools also have drawbacks that I don’t think are discussed very often. If you’re having frustrations with weaving, it’s important to know that temples may slow you down, because they need to be shifted every couple of centimetres as you build up cloth, and they may gouge holes in delicate fibres. It may hard to build up a good rhythm when using them. I know some people love them, and there’s no right or wrong, but it’s not what I’d recommend as the first step, unless you specifically want to use one. End feed shuttles (EFS) are expensive and for weavers investing in looms, yarn, tools, supplies, and more, it’s one more added expense on a long list.
I’ve seen it claimed that centuries of evidence show that weavers have always used temples and so it’s standard kit that we should use today. However, we’re usually weaving on fairly well-engineered looms that are more likely to be square and smooth. I’ve also seen it noted that temples are used in commercial machine weaving, and while this is certainly often true, I’m not a machine and you probably aren’t either. I don’t have a rolling temple, I don’t like slowing down for a manual temple, and I prefer to work on my technique as far as it can take me.
Temples and EFS are useful tools and definitely use them if you like! I always use end feed shuttle, but I didn’t invest until I’d been weaving years, and I’m always cautious of advice, particularly to newer weavers, that starts with buying more things. So here is my selvedge encyclopaedia that might just be what you need to help transform your selvedges.
Razor sharp selvedges: here we come
A bit of math
This part is a little dry so if it’s making your eyes glaze over, feel free to skip and come back to it!
At this point I’m going to cite Pythagoras. I know that sounds out of the blue, but hear me out. The fell line is one side of a triangle, the spot the yarn leaves the fell is the point, and the path the yarn takes is the hypotenuse. The opposite selvedge is the last side. Where the last side meets the fell is a 90 degree angle. It’s a right triangle!
Are you with me?
That means that the greater the angle of the point, the longer the length of the hypotenuse.
And that means that the longer the hypotenuse, the greater the amount of yarn in the shed.
The more yarn in the shed, the more is available to complete the path up and down around the warp ends. And that means the less it will need to pull at the selvedge and draw in in order to complete that path.
The longest path is the best path
Since we now know that the longer the length of yarn through the shed, the more yarn there is to complete the path through the warp, and the less the need to pull in at the opposite selvedge, let’s look at how to get that nice long path.
Throw at the reed, not the fell line
Let’s think of how we sit at the loom. One thing I’ve noticed when teaching is that some people creep backward in their shuttle throws, progressively throwing the shuttle closer to the fell line (closer to the weaver).
Reach right up to the beater and throw straight along the reed. If you have a shuttle race, that’s your guide, and if you don’t, that’s absolutely fine too.
Catch the shuttle mid-flight
On the other side, you need to catch the shuttle. Catching is key, because you’re catching it while it flies through the warp, rather than pulling it out. When you catch it on the other side, it should still just be in motion, so that the motion of the shuttle is laying the weft, and you’re not dragging it out. Pulling the shuttle can draw the yarn across and pull the opposite selvedge inward.
When you catch the shuttle, be very careful to keep the motion outward, and up, rather than pulling it back. Think back to Pythagoras and take the longest route. When you pull it back, you shorten that length of yarn through the warp. And that means that the weft will draw in at the opposite side.
It’s natural to have a bit of a backward motion, just because of how human arms work! But practice and look at how you can adjust that catching technique to minimise pulling it back, to help build up straight selvedges.
Take the shuttle out a bit farther from the selvedge
If you catch the shuttle right at the edge of the selvedge, that’s the limit of the length of yarn available to pack into the warp. Letting the shuttle come farther out of the shed leaves a longer length available and won’t pull at the opposite selvedge.
Beat on an open shed
I know, this has a range of opinions. I’m staunch about beating on an open shed, and here’s why.
When you beat on an open shed you have a long open path to lay your weft and then beat while it’s open or as you change sheds, and this allows the yarn to pack in tidily.
You will find your own way to do things and there is no right or wrong, but I can only say that through teaching and studio visits I’ve seen so many weavers fix problems by beating on an open shed, so definitely consider it.
Remember, it’s boom, whoosh, smash. Treadle, throw the shutle, beat.
Find the sweet spot
There is a point in the weaving space where magic happens. Too close to the breast beam and weaving can get sloppy. Too close to the reed and there’s not enough room for a long weft path. There’s about a 10-20cm patch in most looms that weaves like a dream. Find that spot and weave in it. I can’t tell you exactly where it is on your loom or for your style, but you’ll feel it and working in that space can go a long way toward getting straight selvedges.
Lower your warp tension a notch
It’s very instinctive to keep increasing warp tension to the maximum to keep the weaving feeling crisp, but remember that when you release the warp tension, the stretch in the warp yarn releases, and the cloth sucks in. If you can practice and weave with just enough tension you might find that your weaving gets more balanced. I like to think of as training for the Olympics at high altitudes.
Reinforce your selvedges
This is controversial, and I know some weavers advise using a polyamide fishing line selvedge to hold things in place to get straight selvedges, or if there are misbehaving, snapping selvedge ends but I really don’t think that’s necessary and don’t like adding plastic.
However, if you are having snapping selvedges, try using a weighted end in a reliable cotton to protect more delicate warp fibres and help create a straight selvedge. A cotton end has more stretch and durability to take either a small amount of natural draw in or a problematic amount of draw in, and might be what you need. Try our Supima yarn, which is available in multiple weights.
Is your warp tension really even?
Maybe the single most important part in weaving is getting the warp under even tension, all the way across. What also matters, though, is that the path of the warp around the warp beam has to be the same all the way across the warp, in order to mantain tention as you weave, not just as you tie on.
What I mean by this is that the warp has to be evenly packed on, without bulging out the sides. On a plain beam, later warp layers can slip off the inner layers, which means that the edges are taking a shorter path around the beam/packed warp. This means that the edges will be shorter through the length of the warp, and will pull harder and snap more easily – this is another reason to not weave under high tension. In my experience this is a huge source of problems leading to not getting straight selvedges.
If you’re using a sectional beam, what can happen is that the outer sections bulge out or slip down over each other, again changing the path around the beam on the selvedges, and therefore the length of the selvedges. This can be helped by being extra cautious and tidy while warping. However, if you’re stuck, you can create a dummy warp section in each section just outside of where you regularly warp, and leave those there. Those dummy sections will stop the warp from bulging out in those spots. I think this is a last resort but if it’s really giving you trouble, it’s definitely worth trying.
Sit evenly at the loom
I find I often inch to one side or another and notice my weaving has shifted slightly. Make sure that you’re in a spot that lets you throw evenly on both sides. If you’re too close to one side you might notice crooked selvedges or increased draw in happening.
Don’t think about your selvedges
After all that, am I really saying don’t even think about them? Yes, I am definitely saying that. Think of it this way, can you draw a straight line slowly and deliberately? I definitely can’t. But if I don’t think about it I can draw a somewhat smooth, mostly straight line. The best thing you can do is to adjust your technique and then stop thinking about it by getting into a rhythm. Remember: boom, whoosh, smash. Weaving is a song.
With all that said, I want to emphasise with caring and strength that selvedges do not indicate weaving perfection. We are humans and not machines and our work can definitely show character and the challenges of the weaving process. And if your selvedges are giving you a huge amount of stress, as I know they do for many, I want to let you know that you are still a great weaver, and it’s ok. Even with a perfect technique, fresh loom, perfect warp, most people are right- or left-handed, and will throw ever so slightly differently. It’s normal to have a side that gives you more trouble than another. Try some of these tips and see if they help, and if you really have no luck, well all I can say is that anything worth doing is worth doing with flaws. There is still joy and beauty in your work.
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Thanks for your support, and happy weaving.