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Plain Weave Variations

Collapse fabric woven in plain weave.

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When I told my friends I was writing an article on plain weave, they gasped: "But you have a 24–shaft computerized loom! You can weave any structure you like!  Why are you writing an article on plain weave?"

The answer is simple; there's nothing plain about plain weave!


Plain weave draftPlain Weave Structure

Plain weave (also sometimes referred to as tabby) is the most basic weave structure: over one, under one.



Getting Creative with Plain Weave

While more complex weave structures are interesting, there are many options in weaving that have nothing to do with structure: color, texture, sett, wet-finishing, tapestry—there's literally a lifetime of weaving to be found in plain weave!

Paint Your Warps (and Wefts!)

Scarf woven by and photo copyright Laura Fry, 2009Painting a warp is quite simple—the warp is wound, then stretched out and painted with dyes.  After setting the dyes and rinsing out the warp chains, the warp is beamed and threaded as usual.  Natural variations in the warp threads produce a feathered effect, one color fading gradually into another to make a rich, complex fabric. 

Alternating stripes of two painted warps, or a painted and solid warp, can make the fabric even more interesting—all in plain weave!


A more refined—and involved—form of painted-warp work is ikat dyeing, which is done by winding the warp in small bouts, then dyeing it in patterns using a resist-dye technique.  When put on the loom, the small bouts line up to produce complex patterns in the finished cloth.  It is time-consuming and challenging, but produces beautiful results.

Guatemalan ikat, woven in plainweave on a backstrap loom.

The weft may also be stretched out and dyed, ikat-style.  In this piece, both warp and weft are ikat-dyed, with spectacular results:

Guatemalan fabric, warp and weft ikat, woven in plainweave on a backstrap loom

It's hard to believe that this is "just" plain weave, but it is!

Make Stripes!

A striped towel is interesting.  But what happens when you spice it up with stripes in both directions?  You get plaids!  You can weave in the wildest colors or choose a smooth, subtle palette—use traditional tartan patterns or make up your own. 

Plaids woven by and photo copyright Sharon Alderman, 2009

Another form of striping is log cabin, where light and dark warps and wefts are alternated.   Where two light or two dark warp threads are placed next to each other, or two light or two dark weft threads are placed next to each other, the stripes appear to change direction—producing a beautiful checkerboard pattern. 

Scarf woven by and photo copyright Barbara Fessler, 2009


Play with Iridescence

You may have noticed that some fabrics, like Thai silks, show different colors when you look at them at different angles.  This is called iridescence, and produces beautiful results in—you guessed it—plain weave!  While iridescence can show in many structures, it is strongest in plain-weave fabrics, and can produce beautiful and dramatic results all on its own.  The scarf below was woven by Nancy Weber on a red cotton warp using a skein of Mini Mochi sock yarn as weft. It shows the ever-changing colors in iridescent plain weave. 

Iridescence shows most strongly when the colors are complementary (opposite each other on the color wheel), but can be seen clearly even when colors are close to each other.




Texture is another area where plain weave shines.  Because it is a simple structure, there is nothing to distract from a wonderfully textured yarn. 
The photo below shows a simple tea towel with a natural colored, unmercerized cotton warp and a slubby linen blend weft.  See how clearly the yarn shows? 

In general, the fancier the yarn the simpler the structure should be, so if you have a unique and interesting yarn, try showing it off in plain weave!


Textured yarn sample

You can also get interesting effects by mixing a textured yarn with a smooth one.  The sample below was woven  with a 2/20 mohair warp alternating with a sportweight loop mohair, to create a textured checkerboard—see the interesting textures that result?


Differential Shrinkage and Collapse Weave

"Differential shrinkage" is a scary-sounding name for a very simple idea: pick yarns that shrink differently, stripe them in the warp or the weft, toss them in the washing machine, and presto! A ruffly, textured fabric. 

There are several ways to create ruffles in plain weave:



One way is to weave the stripes under different tensions.  Make one set of warp stripes very tight, another on the loose side, and weave with an open beat.  (You will need two back beams for this, or else a way to weight one warp more tightly than the other.) 

When removed from the loom and wet-finished, the tight warp will shrink more than the loose one, producing ruffles.  This technique is called seersucker.


Another way to get ruffles is to choose yarns that shrink differently, and create the ruffles during wet-finishing.  The example below was woven with stripes of Lycra yarn alternating with 10/2 cotton in the warp; when washed, the Lycra yarns shrank, pulling the cotton stripes into wonderfully textured ruffles.   The samples before and after wet-finishing shows the dramatic shrinkage—nearly 50% in the finished shawl!

While the yarn used in the sample was a rare mill-end, a similar result can be had by mixing a feltable wool in stripes with cotton, silk, or some other non-shrinking fiber.  When agitated in warm water in a washing machine, the wool will felt and shrink, drawing the other fibers into ruffles.

It is important to weave collapse fabrics with an open beat—this gives the warp yarns room to shrink and do their magic.  Notice how the "before" photo in the samples are very loosely beaten—the yarn looks like window screening!  Yet the same fabric, if beaten densely, would show little to no shrinkage. 

More information about collapse weave can be found in Anne Field's wonderful new book, Collapse Weave: Creating Three-Dimensional Cloth .




Ever wanted to weave a lacy fabric?  You can do it in plain weave!  All you have to do is skip dents when sleying the warp. The sample below used a 2/20 mohair warp, sett at 2 ends/dent in a 10-dent reed.  I sleyed it in one-inch sections, skipping two dents between each stripe, and wove it using 2/20 mohair and thin stripes of a "filler" warp—a heavy, slippery thread that I pulled out before wet-finishing.


During the wet-finishing process, the yarns moved in to fill the holes, producing a lovely, lacy effect.

lace fabric sample



“Hudson River Tapestry” woven by and photo copyright Brenda Osborn, 2009No discussion of plain weave would be complete without the fanciest plain weave of all: tapestry! 

Most tapestry is woven as a weft-faced plain weave in which the weft completely covers the warp. The wefts are manipulated by hand to create beautiful images in the finished piece.

Tapestry differs from many other forms of plain weave in that the wefts are usually discontinuous—traveling only part-way across the fabric.




“Stone Buddha” woven by and photo copyright Brenda Osborn, 2009Many books have been written on tapestry weaving, and I won't try to cover the techniques here.  But I do want to leave you with an inspirational photo:

And yes, this is plain weave!



All the techniques I've outlined will work, of course, in structures other than plain weave.  You can weave fancy twills on a painted warp, do collapse fabrics in doubleweave, play with textures and stripes in any structure.  But many of these techniques are at their best in plain weave because the simple structure shows off fancy yarns and textures without competing for attention.

I hope I have convinced you that plain weave is a fascinating structure, and that you could weave for years and years without exhausting the possibilities of plain weave.  Simple it may be, but there's absolutely nothing plain about plain weave!



Tien ChiuTien Chiu is one of the co-founders of Weavolution, a gathering place (and social network) for handweavers.  She discovered weaving in October 2006 and was promptly hooked.  When not basking in the joys of plain weave, she weaves ever-more complex designs on her 24-shaft AVL Workshop Dobby Loom.  She is currently weaving and sewing her wedding dress, which can be seen (along with the rest of her work) on her website.