What is a Rigid Heddle Loom & how does it work?

Plain weave – the weft passes over and under the warp threads

Are you thinking about buying a loom for weaving, but don’t know where to start? Looms vary in complexity; a simple frame can be used to produce a plain weave (see illustration) while a large floor loom will provide the mechanism to produce intricate cloth.

weaving-liamStringing yarn vertically around a picture frame provides you with the foundation threads (the warp) on which to weave your horizontal threads (the weft) over and under. You may have done this on a shoebox as a child. Using this method to weave cloth has many drawbacks. The method is labour intensive because the warp threads have to be lifted alternately to allow the weft thread to pass under and over, it is difficult to keep the warp threads taut which is crucial for cohesive cloth, and the finished woven cloth can only be as big as the frame.

The yarn used on a loom for weaving fabric is split into two groups; the warp which is first wound onto the loom to provide the structure for the fabric. The weft yarn is then threaded through the warp to complete the fabric. The choice of the weight and colour of the yarns used is very much up to the weaver.

The rigid heddle loom is the most basic form of loom and a good place for a weaver to start to learn about weaving.  It provides the weaver with the tools to overcome the basic problems of opening the warp threads in unison for the weft to pass through (see ‘The Rigid Heddle Reed’ below).  It is also possible to adjust and maintain the tension of the warp, and to weave cloth longer than the length of the frame (see ‘The Cloth Beam and the Warp Beam’ below). The loom is simple to understand and easy to set up, making it an excellent choice for beginner weavers.

Parts of a Rigid Heddle Loom

This is an illustration of the Ashford Rigid Heddle Loom and its components

The Rigid Heddle Reed

A reed is a flat frame containing a series of evenly spaced slots (much like a comb). Each of the uprights has a hole in the middle. The warp threads pass alternately through the slots and the holes.


The reed rests on rigid heddle blocks attached to the inside of the loom. These blocks have recesses cut into them to allow the reed to be repositioned in an ‘up’ position, a ‘down’ position, or in a resting position with all the warp threads.  This position with all the warp threads in a line is used when threading up the warp.

The heddle block showing the up position, the down position and the neutral or resting position

When the reed has been warped up* the warp is wound onto the back warp beam. The beam is prevented from unwinding by a ratchet and pawl system. The teeth on the pawl click into the cogs on the ratchet and help to maintain the tension on the warp threads. The ratchet and pawl work in the same way on the cloth beam at the front of the loom.

stick-shuttle-passing-through-the-shedWith the reed in the ‘up’ position, the warp threads, which are threaded through the slots, do not move, while the warp threads which go through the holes are lifted up. When the reed is in the down position, the warp threads in the slots again stay in position while the warp threads through the holes are pulled down. The opening between the sets of warp threads is called the weaving shed.

The weft yarn is passed through the shed using a shuttle and is then pushed into place against the previous weft threads using the “comb” of the reed. As the reed is lifted and lowered, the weft passes under and over alternate warp threads to weave the cloth.

The Cloth Beam and the Warp Beam

A diagram showing the set-up for direct warping a Schacht Flip Rigid Heddle Loom. Apron bars are tied onto the Cloth and Warp Beams ready to receive the warp threads. Note how the length of the warp will extend beyond the length of the loom.
The warp is tied to either a warp stick (as in the image of the Ashford Rigid Heddle Loom, left) or an apron bar / dowel rod (as in the image of the Kromski Harp Forte Loom, right).

The cloth is woven at the front of the loom by lifting and lowering the reed between rows and moving the shuttle backwards and forwards through the shed. As the weaving grows, the weaving space is reduced preventing the shuttle to pass through the shed. The pawls are then lifted to release the ratchets so that the woven cloth can be rolled forward onto the cloth beam and a length of stored warp can be rolled from the warp beam.

*See Ashford’s ‘Learn to weave on the Rigid Heddle‘ for detailed instructions on how to warp your loom and start weaving, the booklet will open as a PDF in a separate window.

This is an illustration of the Kromski Harp Forte Rigid Heddle Loom and its components

Once you have mastered how to warp up and weave on your rigid heddle loom you will be able weave scarves, place mats or tea towels, as well as fabric for home furnishings and clothing.

Which is the best Rigid Heddle Loom?

There are quite a few models of rigid heddle looms to choose from.  Ashford offer their standard Rigid Heddle Loom, the folding Knitters loom which comes with a carry bag and the neat and compact SampleIt loom. The folding Harp Forte from Kromski features decorative scrolls, while their Presto has a more contemporary appearance. Schacht also offer a folding rigid heddle loom, the Flip, plus the robust Cricket Loom which can be converted into a 4 shaft table loom with the addition of the Cricket Quartet. Most of the rigid heddle looms on the George Weil website are available in a choice of weaving widths.

The performance of these looms is comparable, they are all suitable for weaving a plain weave fabric and more advanced techniques can be achieved by adding a second heddle block and reed and the use of pick up sticks. The internet provides a huge resource of information for weavers, use it to explore difference techniques and to gain inspiration for your next weaving project!

Weaving on an Ashford Rigid Heddle Loom using a Variable Dent Reed. The size of the slots and holes vary across the width of the reed to allow the use of thicker or novelty yarns as a warp. This example shows a chunky yarn being used as the selvedge. The ‘selvedge’ is the left and right side edges of the woven cloth