Medieval London



The loomweight, an essential accessory of the warp-weighted loom, was especially popular in Anglo-Saxon England.  Loomweights appear to have arrived with the first wave of Anglo-Saxon weaving practices. Often described as large rings made of clay, but sometimes stone, loomweights are used to hold bundles of warp threads taut, creating a flat weaving surface. Prior to the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon period, pyramid and triangular loomweights were primarily used. These were made of stone, with a hole created towards the top to hang the threads through. With the rise of the Anglo-Saxons, circular clay loomweights began to replace these earlier models. Loomweights ranged from flat and quoit-shaped to cylindrical or near spherical. These weights were made from local clay, such as brick-earth at Mucking and London, and estuarine clay at Flixborough. Scholars debate whether these clay loomweights were used primarily fired or unfired. Many sites contain a variety of both, and thus it is difficult to ascertain whether unfired loomweights were merely grouped together awaiting firing, or were actually attached to a loom in use. Yet, some scholars believe unfired weights were commonly used in the earlier Saxon period, with a transition to fired loomweights in the Middle and Later Saxon periods. 

Loomweights are generally categorized into three types by the size of the hole in relation to the diameter of the ring of the weight. Annular loomweights are the earliest and most common, and are characterized by the thickness of the ring being less than a third of the diameter of the hole. The intermediate type, where the thickness of the ring is larger than or equal to the diameter of the hole, began to emerge at the beginning of the sixth century. Thirdly, the bun-shaped loomweight has a small perforation, and emerged at the end of the eighth century. 

Warp-weighted looms, the type of loom on which loomweights are used, are generally simply made, with few total pieces. It usually rests against a wall or roof beam at an angle. The warp-weighted loom has two uprights joined by a horizontal beam at the top of the loom, from which the warp threads are fastened in place. Multiple heddle rods are placed in the middle of the loom depending on the desired pattern. The loomweights are then attached to equal numbered sections of warp threads using a simple slipknot to let the loomweights rest a few inches below the heddle rod and a few inches off the ground. Depending on the length of the desired final woven piece, extra warp thread is wound around the loomweight. Weavers must use intuition to determine how much weight to put on a particular bunch of warp threads due to the stress put on the wool and warp threads by the hanging loomweights. Weavers must take into account the type of wool, the local humidity, how long the piece is expected to be on the loom, and many other factors. The weaver then distributes half of the yarn to hang straight down behind the shed rod, while the other half rests over the shed rod. The more evenly spaced the weights are placed, the more evenly spaced the warp will turn out. This arrangement creates a natural shed-like space that the weft threads can easily pass through. While the front row of loomweights never moves, the back row swings back and forth as the heddle rods are adjusted for weaving. Warp-weighed looms are easily disassembled, with all pieces coming apart for storage.

During the Anglo-Saxon period, women usually operated the warp-weighted loom. This distribution of labor during Saxon times is intriguing due to the heavy amount of work required by the warp-weighted loom. To use this particular loom, weavers had to stand for extended periods of time, and usually worked in pairs. Often, one had to stand on a stool to reach the top threads and completed pieces. Women produced cloth goods primarily for their family’s everyday clothing needs. As Anglo-Saxon society changed and became more trade focused, weaving became more organized and specialized, eventually producing cloth for export. In rural settlements, weaving often took place in a separate grubehauser, or hut with a sunken floor, that was only for craft processes, as indicated by archaeological finds of loomweights in tight parallel rows characteristic of the warp-weighted loom.

This particular loomweight, on display in the Museum of London exhibit Medieval London: Lundenwic, comes from the eighth century of the Middle Saxon period, when the Anglo-Saxons resided outside the city's fortified walls in Lundenwic. It has a height of 51 millimeters and a diameter of 123 millimeters, and is made of ceramic, or fired clay. As the thickness of the ring is roughly equal to the diameter of the hole, this loomweight would be considered an intermediate loomweight. Loomweights originating in London were often made from clay in the area, mainly brick-earth containing quartz grains or minute traces of iron, which helps explain the reddish appearance of this particular loomweight. There are also three crescent-shaped indentations on the top of the loomweight in a triangular shape, which could have been made as a sign of ownership. 

It is likely that most loomweights in London, like this one, were used in one of the weaving houses, a center of activity in Lundenwic where archaeological evidence of textile production has been discovered. However, loomweights seem to have had little value in Anglo-Saxon society. Compared to other weaving tools, loomweights appear infrequently in graves. Additionally, the weaving process causes loomweights to crash together and damage easily, especially if unfired. Since loomweights were replaced so easily and frequently, they had little value individually. Later on, the warp-weighted loom, and thus loomweights, appear to have been replaced by the two-beamed and horizontal looms. As Gale Owen-Crocker argues, the absence of loomweights in lists of essential weaving tools points to its replacement by these other looms by the eleventh century.

-Marisa Bohm

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