Card Weaving

By: Sonja Carlson



Card or tablet weaving is a very ancient and widespread off-loom (no loom is required) weaving method of weaving narrow bands of fabric using flat cards with holes punched in them. Some archaeologists speculate that card weaving dates back to approximately 4,000 B.C. because certain patterns which lend themselves to card weaving appear often in ancient Egyptian carvings. However, this does not seem to be sufficient evidence to support knowledge of the technique. The oldest cards found in Egypt are a set of twenty-five 4-holed wooden ones believed to have come from the Coptic Period (400-600 A. D.). What is known is that card weaving has been known from Japan, China through Asia to North African and north through Europe as far as Iceland.


Scandinavians have been using card weaving since the Celtic Iron Age (about 400 B. C.). There have been cards uncovered in Scandinavia dating from this time. The most important archeological find, however, was the Oseberg ship burial. It was important because weavings and cards were seldom found together but in this find a set of 52 wooden cards which were threaded and half-woven were found. Card weaving was also used to secure the ends of yarn to a loom in Viking Age Scandinavia so very old woven fabric have card woven borders.




Before beginning, it might be helpful to know some of the more common weaving definitions to eliminate confusion.


A. Warp - the yarn / threads that are threaded through the cards.

B. Weft - the yarn / thread that is on the shuttle and passes through the shed.

C. Shed - the opening created when the cards are turned either clockwise or counterclockwise a 1/4 turn.

D. Shuttle (otherwise called a belt-shuttle) - a wooden tool used to hold the weft and which passes through the shed. A belt-shuttle has a beveled edge with which to beat down the weft.

E. Butterfly - a small bundle of yarn wound in a hand that can be released as needed for weft. I will explain how to make a butterfly later on.

F. Beat -to force the weft back against the body of the weaving.

G. Selvedge - the edges of the weaving.

H. Warp-faced - the type of fabric card weaving produces. Called warp-faced because the warp thread show and are the pattern threads. The weft does not show at all.

I. Threaded Up - Cards are threaded from the back to the front of the cards.

J. Threaded Down - Cards are threaded from the front to the back of the cards.

K. Home position - Holes 'A' and 'D' are at the top and 'B' and 'C' are at the bottom.

L. Heading / Header - Thick cord or yarn used to get the weaving started. Its purpose is to spread the warp threads out in their natural spacing.




The equipment for card weaving is very simple; it consists of a set of cards, a shuttle or butterfly of yarn, and yarn or thread. The earliest cards were made of wood, bone, horn or leather. Today, they're made of cardboard or plastic. The cards are 3 1/2 " square with 4 holes punched in them, one in each corner, 3/4" - 1" from the sides of the cards. There are variations in the number of holes and shape of the cards but the most common is the 4-holed square card.


The shuttle that I use is a Norwegian belt shuttle that is about 6" - 8" long and has a knife edge which works very well for beating in the weft. However, any small shuttle or flat piece of wood would work as well. As mentioned before, even a butterfly would work. To make a butterfly, hold the thumb and index finger apart and take the end of the yarn / thread and wind the yarn once around the thumb to start; then wind the yarn in a figure 8 patter between the thumb and index finger. When enough yarn has been wound off, wrap the yarn 3 or 4 times around the middle of the bundle, cut, make a loop and pass the cut end of the yarn through the loop and pull tight. The bundle can now be taken off of the fingers and you now have a butterfly. The beginning end of the butterfly (the loose, dangling one) is the working end and can be pulled out as needed.


Weft can be anything that can be woven. Wool yarn, cotton thread, jute, rayon can all be used. I use wool, cotton carpet warp, perle cotton , in a variety of weights and sizes, cotton crochet thread, and have even used metallic thread as pattern accent. the only criterion for a yarn to be used in card weaving is that it be fairly strong because the cards will rub and pull on it as they are turned and a weak yarn could break. Smooth yarns work a little bit better because there are no nubby bumps to interfere with the shedding process. Bumpy yarns tend to stick together but this can be over come by taking the knife edge of a belt-shuttle (if you're using one) or your finger and sticking it in the shed and then moving it first toward you and then back towards the cards. This motion will clear the shed for the weft shot.




There are sources for cards but the easiest and least expensive way to get cards (especially if you don't live in a large city) is to make them yourself. It's very easy to do. Take some cardboard (I use artist's tagboard because it's heavier and sturdier but any heavy cardboard will do) and draw squares which measure 3 1/2" x 3 1/2" square. Then cut out the squares and round the corners. The rounded corners won't catch on the warp threads when the cards are turned. Punch holes in each of 4 corners, 3/4" - 1" in from the edge of the card. Now mark the holes A, B, C, D starting with the upper left hand corner and marking clockwise (see Illustration). Then number the cards in the upper right hand corner 1 through however many cards you choose to have.

Card 1



Now, the fun begins! This step is warp preparation and warping the cards. Select your pattern, colors and length of warp plus 24" -27" for knots and waste. Before wind off the warp, I count how many warp ends (threads) of each color I need. I wind off all the warp ends of each color at once. This saves A LOT of time. Now, you can wind off the warp. You can do this in one of two ways. Method #1 - Take the ball of yarn / thread and drop it in a paper bag to keep it from rolling. Then take the end and tie or tape it to a yardstick. Then measure the length needed or wrap the thread around the yardstick, continuing wrapping until you have as many lengths as needed for the pattern. It's not advisable to put on more than 20 lengths if you're wrapping because the warp ends will start to pile up and you come out having the last wraps of warp ends longer than the first wraps. Also, try to wrap without stretching the warp. If you stretch the warp, you wind up with shorter lengths because the yarn/ thread shrinks back to its normal size. Alternate Method #1 - An alternative (and easier) method of winding off warp without a warping board and without the hassle of a yardstick is to have two fixed objects such as C-clamps, two chairs or posts at the distance apart that is needed plus about 6". The 6" is for allowing knots at one end of the warp. Knot one end of thread around one fixed object and then wind the entire warp by colors around the fixed objects. When all of the required warp ends are wound off, cut the unknotted end by slipping a scissors between the fixed object and the yarn and cutting the yarn. Method #2 - If you have a warping board, you can wind off the requisite number of threads using the board. It's basically the same principle as using the two fixed objects.




Once the yarn is wound off, you are now ready to warp your cards. Hang the hank of thread on back of a chair and have the stack of cards face up on the table to you right or left whichever is more comfortable. Take the first card and look at the pattern chart. In the same chart, card #1 had 4 light warp threads. Separate the 4 light threads from the hanks of warp and thread them up through the cards, one thread in each hole. Card # 2 has 1 dark, 1 medium, and 2 light threads. It is also threaded up, with the dark thread in A, medium thread in B and the 2 light ones in C and D. Card # 3 has medium in A, dark in B, medium in C and light in D. Cards 4 through 8 are threaded up and cards 9 through 15 are threaded down, that is, from the top of card coming out on the underside. Have the ward ends even as they come through the holes, extending them 6" - 8" above the tip of the card. Keep all the ends together and the same length.


After threading a card, lay it face down on the table. Separate the warp so that A and D are on one side and B and C are on the other side, and are about 2 inches apart and let the warp threads hang loosely over the edge of the table or drape them over a nearby chair. Turn all cards face down as you are done warping the. After all the cards have been threaded, take the 6 or 8 inches of extending ward and tie a knot in it. Slip a heavy rubber band around the cards to hold them securely. Hook the knotted end to a fixed object such as a door knob. Take the free ends in your hands and with a comb, pull and comb them to get out any slack and / or any "snarls". When the warp is smooth and straight, knot the free end of the warp. Then take a strong cord, about 24" long, fold it in half, make a half-hitch knot over the knot in the warp and between the two sides of warp. Do this on both ends. Your cards should now be in home position with holes A and D on top and B and C on the bottom (see Illustration).

Card 2



To begin weaving, tie the end of warp farthest from you to a fixed object such as a doorknob. Then tie the other end to a belt or a dowel which is then tied to the weaver.


To start, clear the shed by starting at home position (holes A and D on top). Hold the pack of cards in both hands with thumbs on top of the cards and turn the cards forward one quarter turn. Slide the cards back and forth along the warp to clear the shed and then slide your hand or the beveled edge of the shuttle back and forth in the shed opening. This will make a clear shed. If you have trouble turning the cards at first, rock the pack back and forth a few times before turning them. Then insert the end of the heading and push it toward you. Turn the cards, beat down, and insert the working end from the other side of the warp. Continue in this manner until warp yarns spread out. Finish at home position. Don't be alarmed at the way the pattern looks; the pattern is elongated because the heading is thicker than the regular weft.




Turn the cards forward. Clear the shed with the cards by sliding them back and forth along the warp, and with your hand or edge of the shuttle. Insert the end of the regular weft in the first shed, leaving several inches hanging out. Turn the cards one quarter turn forward again. Bear down hard against the weaving to make the row even. Repeat by inserting weft into shed from the other side. Be sure to insert weft loosely, leaving a small loop at the selvedge. Beat down the shot and then gently pull weft so that the loop lies flat against the selvedge. Repeat this procedure. Turn, clear shed, insert weft loosely in the shed, turn cards, beat down, pull weft taut, clear shed, etc.. If you run out of weft, bring the short end into the shed, under at least half of the warp, and out on top of the warp. When the piece is finished, these ends are cut close to the weaving or needle woven back into the piece, if long enough.


As you weave, you will notice that the unwoven part of the warp will become twisted. This happens because the cards are being turned in one direction only all the time and eventually you won't be able to weave any further. There are several ways to correct this twisting. You can turn equal numbers of turns forward and backward throughout the work. Any equal number of turns first in one direction and then in the other will remove the twist in the unwoven warp. Sometimes, it's best to turn all in one direction for several inches and then reverse until all accumulated twists are untwisted. In some situations, like a twill, you will want to turn all in one direction throughout the entire weaving. In this case, the twisted unwoven warp can be taken off the pack post or untied and untwisted by hand.





If you stop work before a weaving is finished, leave the cards in the home position and tie the pack together. If you are using a tensioning device, release the tension so the yarns won't stretch.


If a warp yarn breaks, wind off a new one, untie the back knot, thread the yarn through the empty hole and retie the back knot. Continue work and cut the loose ends after weaving.


While weaving, don't depend entirely on counting the turning sequences; try to follow the pattern as you go. THIS IS ESPECIALLY HELPFUL IF YOU HAVE INTERRUPTIONS!!! It's easy to get confused at first but with a little practice, it gets easy and you'll be accustomed to it.


If you make a mistake and notice it several rows later, you'll have to unweave by turning the cards in the opposite direction from that in which you turned them to weave, removing the weft after each turn until you reach the mistake and correct it.


If a pattern doesn't come out perfectly, there is a mistake somewhere in the threading or in the pattern draft you're using. Check the cards against the draft, and check the draft itself.


To read the sample draft chart, the letters on the left hand side indicate the holes; up and down across the top indicate the way the card is threaded - either threaded up or threaded down; the numbers across the bottom are the cards, numbered 1 - 15; the L, M, D indicate light, medium and dark threads. So card number 1 is threaded up with light threads in all 4 holes. Card number 2 is also threaded up with 1 dark thread in, 1 medium thread in B and a light thread in C and D, etc. The pattern is double diamonds and is woven in the conventional 4 turns forward and 4 turns back.

Sample Draft




A finish is needed to hold the weaving together after it is woven. There are many and varied ways to finish a project depending on its final use.







Cording is done the way rope is made. First, two or more bunches of ends are twisted in one direction and held. The twisted bunches are allowed to twist together in the opposite direction. The two twists oppose and hold each other. Tie an overhand knot in the end of the cording to secure it.




Both of these finishes bind the fringes while covering them up with a yarn of your choosing. Wrapped ends make a more rigid fringe. Whipping is similar but it's looser. To wrap a fringe, take a group of warp ends in one hand. With the wrapping yarn in the other hand, make a U shape with the wrapping yarn and place it on the bundle of ends. Make sure the "tail" of wrapping yarn is fairly long because it will get wrapped, too. Now, start wrapping the other end of wrapping yarn around the bundle staring close to the U. Wrap the yarn securely and have the wraps very close together. When you have wrapped the yarn as long as you want the fringe, tuck the end into the U and pull tightly. The U should disappear up underneath the wrapping.




This is my favorite way of finishing card weaving because it flows into the weaving better. There are many different braids you can use from a simple three strand flat braid to a four strand round braid to a complicated eight strand round braid. I like the round braids rather than the flat braids because the round braids tie into the twisting of the weaving better than the flat braids. The ends of a braid need to knotted or whipped to hold.




Knotting itself can be used to make a fringed finish. You can macramé the loose ends, or tie groups of overhand knots in different arrangements.




Twining is another way to bind the ends of the weaving and let the fringes dangle or cut them off short for a pile finish. To twine, take a doubled length of yarn and twist it tightly back and forth around groups of ends. More rows of twining can be added against the first row for extra strength or effect. Hold the end of twining in place with an overhand knot.




You can always finish a band by simply sewing overcast or buttonhole stitching the last weft to the rest of the weaving and letting the loose ends dangle unfinished.




To finish piece of weaving without fringe, the end of the weaving should be cut off and protected - either by rolling or folding it back on itself to enclose the ends, and then sewing it down to the body of weaving with an overcast or blind stitch. Or the cut end can encased in a piece of fabric or leather and sewn in place to protect it.