Tablet weaving is ancient; there have been archeological finds of tablet-woven bands as starting edges for fabric from the 6th century BC. Separate bands are apparently younger - the oldest archeological finds are from the 3rd century AD (though I suspect the first applied bands happened as soon as the first cloth with a tablet-woven edge wore out). Tablet-weaving fell out of favor in Northern Europe in the 1600s, when powered ribbon looms were developed, but remained in use in other cultures up to modern times. Bands have been found woven of wool, linen, silk, cotton, and mixtures of these - wool warp and linen weft, for instance. Decorations brocaded into or stitched onto the bands could be any of these fibers or even metallic threads. Cards have been found made of wood, ivory, bone, leather, and many more substances.
Tablet weaving uses weaving techniques and terminology, although it differs from standard weaving in several ways. Like normal weaving, it has 'warp' threads - the lengthwise cords; a 'weft' thread which crosses the warps and binds them together to form fabric; and a 'shed' or space between the warp threads through which the weft passes. The cards act as 'heddles', allowing the weaver to raise and lower the warp threads to form the shed.
The major difference between tablet weaving and all other weaving is that the twisting of cards, besides forming a shed, actually creates a cord out of the threads passing through that card. The four (or other number) of threads twist around each other as in plying and produce a cord bound to the other cords by the weft thread. Thus tablet weaving produces a rather thicker and more solid fabric than most other techniques.
Tablet weaving is a warp-faced weave - what shows on the finished weaving is the warp threads only (except at the sides and a few places on the surface). The twisting weave, however, causes the warp to show up angled, which must be taken into consideration when working out a pattern.
The only things you absolutely need for tablet weaving are cards and thread. Other things that are helpful are a shuttle, a beater (which may be combined with the shuttle), a comb for spacing the threads, and a loom of some sort.
Medieval cards are made of many materials, but the simplest available to the modern weaver is cardboard. Cards have to be very thin to be useful, so while wood or leather, etc., would work, it would be difficult to have it thin enough while leaving it strong enough to hold the threads. Cardboard cards can be bought, or easily made. Cardboard smooth on both sides, like comic book backing boards, is excellent; playing cards are also very good and nearly the right size already. Cut the card with scissors or a paper cutter to the size square you want. Round the corners with scissors or a corner-rounding clipper. Punch holes in the corners with a hole punch. Mark each hole (with a letter or number or whatever you want), and then color the edge of each corner a distinguishable color with a marker (or other dye). The kit cards are marked with a different color at each corner - red, green, purple and gold. Most modern cords have four holes; cards with 6 or more holes exist. Ancient cards with as many as 8 holes have been found.
I generally weave with cotton thread - crochet thread is excellent, as it comes in many colors and several thicknesses and is quite smooth. I've also woven with sewing thread, and embroidery floss will work as well. For the most period look, you should use wool, linen, or silk; however, you will have to be very careful about abrasion on the warp threads. The cards will eat knitting wool very quickly (and vice versa); weaving wool (thinner and smoother) will work if you're careful. There are also dressings varying from wallpaper paste to flour-and-water paste to linseed jelly, which help smooth the wool while you're weaving it and must be washed off afterwards. Linen is smoother than wool and can be stronger, but you'll still need to be careful of abrasion - the same for silk.
A shuttle is basically something to wind the weft thread on to make it easier to handle. Almost any kind of weaving shuttle will work as long as it will fit between your threads. If you're going to use a shuttle, it's worthwhile giving it one smooth straight edge to use as a beater.
I've never actually used a comb. For larger, more complicated weavings it would be helpful to keep the edges straight and evenly spaced. A broad-toothed plastic or wooden comb would be best.
A tablet-weaving loom essentially does two things; lifts the weaving high enough that the weaver can get hold of the cards and turn them, and helps the weaver control tension. I discuss types of looms at the end of the handout.
The patterns in the weaving are controlled by two things. The first is the warping pattern, which will be discussed later; the second is the pattern of turning the cards. Cards are normally turned a quarter-turn, so that four turns will return the cards to the starting position. Some interesting effects can be obtained by turning more than one turn before putting the weft through.
The kits are warped for a chevron pattern. By varying how often and in which direction you turn, this warping pattern can produce chevrons, diamonds of varying sizes, Xs, and assorted combinations of these. If you turn all in one direction, you will produce chevrons; you will also twist up the thread-sets on the far side of the cards until you can't move the cards at all. Reverse direction and the twists at the top will untwist and allow you to continue weaving, while producing reversed chevrons. A common pattern is four turns in one direction (which brings the cards back to where they started) and then four back the other way. Depending on where you start, this can produce diamonds or Xs.
Much more complex patterns can be formed by turning only some of the cards, or turning some forward and some backwards at the same time. This can be worked out by experimentation (very slow, but you'll see what it really looks like), copying what someone else has worked out (much easier, but you can't create your own), or using any of several free programs available online to see what it looks like without having to actually weave and unweave (see bibliography).
To weave: Fasten your weaving so that it's under tension (fasten the stick to you and the knot to something else), and so that the faces of the cards are on your right and green is top and nearest you. (It doesn't really matter which way, but for a group situation it makes it easier if everyone's cards face the same way.) Slide your hand into the space between the threads just in front of the cards - the shed - and slide it down the threads to the end of the warp threads (where they're fastened to the pencil) so that the space is clear all the way down. Put your weft thread through this space, leaving some 3-4 inches hanging off to your left. Turn the cards a quarter turn towards you, so that the purple corner goes from top-away to top-close. Slide your hand or beater into the new shed (slide the cards up and down the threads to clear the shed if necessary) and beat down the twist you've just made. Pass the weft thread through the shed and pull it partway through - leave a small loop hanging on the right (1/2 inch or so). Turn the cards again, the same direction, and beat down the twist again. Pull gently on the weft to take up the loop - don't pull too hard or you'll pucker the side of the weaving, don't leave it too loose or you'll be weaving a net (the first few passes will be too wide because of the knots on the pencil - ignore it and tighten down as soon as you can). Pass the weft through again, leaving another loop on the left; turn, beat down the twist, pull the weft loop through, and pass the weft again. Do it again - that's the fourth turn and purple will be at top-away again. Now turn the cards away from you, so that green is at top-away and purple is at bottom-away. Beat, pull the weft, pass the weft, turn away. Repeat twice more, until purple is at top-away again. Look at the pattern you have, and decide if you want to repeat or vary it.
Unweaving is actually quite simple, if you make a mistake or decide you don't like the pattern so far. Make sure there's no weft in the current shed, and turn the cards back opposite the way you last turned them. Beat down the shed - this is mostly to clear the cords and make sure you turned the right way. If there's now a free weft thread in the shed, you turned correctly; pull it back through, and keep turning - don't forget to reverse your unweaving turns where you reversed your weaving ones.
The kit, as I said, is warped in a chevron pattern. This pattern is created by warping each card (except the first and last) with two colored and two white cords, with the places of the colored cords shifting a quarter-turn with each card. The pattern draft below shows this warp pattern; each column of four squares depicts a card, with each square representing a hole.
The bottom row, with the slashes, depicts the angle of the warp. Remember that tablet weaving warp twists as you weave and that the pattern must take this into account. The warps on the left are warped Z-fashion - that is, from the back to the face. On the right, the warps are set S-fashion, from face to back. This makes the chevron come to a point in the middle. If they were warped reversed, S on the left and Z on the right, the chevron would still be visible but it would be 'fuzzy', with the warp twisted away from the slant of the chevron - look at the underside of your weaving. If they were warped all S or all Z, one half of the chevron would be sharp and the other fuzzy, and the same reversed on the underside of the weaving. The weaving would also, unless you were very careful working it, twist a little in the direction of the warp.
In the kit and the patterns below, the two outermost cards are always one color. If you use a weft the same color as those cards, you'll have a single-color border on your piece. If you extend the pattern to those cards, or use a weft in a contrasting color, the weft will be visible along the sides. This can be a pattern element; for simplicity's sake, I've left the question out of these pattern drafts.
There are an enormous number of other warping patterns available, even if you limit yourself to the ten cards in the kit. Some simple ones are:
Vertical (lengthwise) rows, in which each card has four threads of the same color; you may have anything from alternating colors to each card (or pair of cards) a different color (make a rainbow!)
Horizontal rows, in which each hole of each card has the same color - that is, all the red holes have one color, all the green holes have another, etc. With this, you may have two alternating colors, two colors in paired holes (red and green one color, purple and gold another) for wider bands, or three or four different colors. Note that the edges of the bands will not be smooth; the preceding and succeeding bands will 'fuzz' into each one. Paired bands threaded alternately S and Z (/\/\/\) will have a herringbone effect.
Double-faced weave, which is set up like the horizontal rows with paired colors, so the top of your weaving is one color and the bottom is another. To keep these colors separate, turn only two quarter-turns forward and then two backward. This is the warping pattern used for making letters or reversed-color patterns as well, by turning individual cards two turns without putting in a weft so as to reverse the colors showing on each face. This is a neat technique and can produce gorgeous effects - but it's difficult to be certain what it will look like, and unweaving is a pain. This looks best when threaded alternately S and Z - all even cards S and all odd Z, for instance.
Some other pattern drafts - work out your own.
A finer chevron (the lines will not be as smooth)
Double diagonals. This will make overlapping diagonal lines the length of the piece. Note that it is threaded all in one direction - when weaving you'd have to be careful that the piece didn't twist in the direction of the warping (pull it back the other way now and then).
A double chevron - would look better with more cards. Note the changes in direction on the bottom row. It will actually look like chevrons rather than blocks because of those changes.
As mentioned earlier, cotton (crochet thread) is the easiest fiber to obtain and weave with. You can use anything that is sufficiently fine, flexible, and resistant to abrasion; experiment and see what works!
The next step, once you have your pattern draft and know what colors you'll be using, is to measure your warp cords. You'll need to calculate waste and take-up as well. It is always better to overestimate than underestimate - it's easy to not weave or to cut off some of your weaving, and difficult-to-impossible to add new warp cord lengths. The actual waste and take-up will differ enormously depending on the loom you're using, the size of your cards, the thickness and stretch of your cord, and the length of the finished piece. I generally estimate that the waste - the part of the cords that you won't be able to weave because of starting and finishing knots and lack of room to turn the cards - is about a foot, for any weaving. If you're using thicker cord, increase that; bigger cards will also need increases. Don't decrease - again, too long is a lot better than too short.
Take-up is how much length will be lost to the twisting of the cords. Like braiding, this can be up to a third of the length, and will be on the high end of that scale for shorter pieces. On a piece that you want to end up, say, 5 yards long, you should have threads 7 yards long (15 feet + 5 feet + 1 foot = 21 feet). Which is a LOT of thread to deal with, particularly since each thread will be that long and you'll be dealing with (4 x the number of cards you're using) threads. If you want to weave stuff in that range (for instance, trim for the bottom of a skirt in one piece), you will NEED a loom to keep it under control.
I strongly suggest that you cut your threads twice as long as you need, and tie the center with a lark's head knot to a stick or string stretched level. This only works if you have two threads of each color, of course, but it makes it a LOT easier to fasten the threads and keep the tension even.
This is probably the most tedious, and at the same time most important, part of tablet weaving. Each card must be threaded with the correct colors, in the correct holes, in the correct direction (S or Z). I'll give detailed directions for threading the kit, then go on to slightly more general instructions.
Note that the threading directions look like they are going the wrong way - pointing opposite the angle of the chevron. This is because if you use the lark's head method (mentioned above), you'll actually be threading upside down, with the end you'll be weaving from at the top. Thus when you're finished and turn your weaving in the direction you need to work in, the points will be aiming the right way.
Here's the kit pattern draft again. Start by fastening one end of all the threads to something - if you've used the lark's head method, they're already fastened (and probably already tangled - don't worry about it). Fasten the holder (stick or string) to something solid, so that it can't fall or twist. Put your stack of cards face up to your right. Pull out the first four threads (one by one is easiest) from the top (the stick) so that you have the ends and they are not tangled with each other or the rest of the threads. Thread each end through the card. For this card, because it's a border, you only need to keep track of direction (all the colors are the same). The first cards start S-threaded, so you'll be putting the end into the face side and pulling it out the back. If it's right, pull it all the way through. Do the same for the other three threads on this card. (Note that the threads in each card must be threaded in the same direction - if some threads are going S and some Z, the card will not be able to turn.) Pull the threads most of the way through, so that there's just enough slack that you can put the card down face-down (marked side down) on your left. It's a good idea to have some way to fasten the cards down or together so they can't fall - a peg on the table or a twist-tie through one hole will do it.
OK! One card done. Now repeat for the whole lot. For the next card, you'll need to check the colors as well. The two colored threads go into the red and green holes, the white threads into the purple and gold holes, and it's still S-threaded - face to back. Pull them through, lay the card face-down on top of the first card - make sure the cards are in the same alignment, so that the colors on the corners of the card match - and fasten it down. Let the ends of the threads lie on top of the first card's ends - again, they'll probably tangle, don't worry about it. Pick up the next four threads and the next card. This one the colors go into the green and purple holes (moving clockwise around the card, with an overlap of one hole). Still S-threaded. Next card purple and gold, S-threaded. Next card - fifth card, you're at the middle - gold and red, S-threaded. Sixth card - you're on the second side. Now the threading has reversed - it's Z-threaded, which means you put the end in the back and pull it through the face. Also, because this is a mirror-image draft, the locations of the colors shift in the opposite direction. For this card, the sixth card, the holes with colors are the same as the fifth card - red and gold. Remember to thread back to face. Pull the threads through and put the card face down on top of the others (fasten it). Seventh card - the same holes as the fourth card, gold and purple. Now the colors are moving clockwise, still with a one-hole overlap. Next - purple and green; next, green and red; next - you're at the border and all the threads are white. Done!
Check that you threaded them the right direction. Your pack of cards should be fastened together - put a twist-tie (loosely) through one hole now if you haven't already. Pick them up and begin sliding them gently up and down the threads - 'combing' them - to help untangle them. Don't squeeze the pack together, hold it by the edges so that the threads have room to slide. Be careful not to go off the loose ends of the threads. Comb the threads out until they are smooth and (more or less) even to nearly the end. Grab hold of the end and fasten all the threads together, trying to make them stay even.
The easiest way to fasten the threads is a simple overhand knot containing all the threads, like most of the kits. This works well for small pieces - ones with not very many threads, and with all the threads pretty close to the same size. If you're doing something more complicated, or something with a lot of threads in it (15 or more cards), it would be better to use other methods of fastening the end. You may tie many overhand knots, each with only a few threads in it, then fasten them together; be careful that each knot is at the same length in the threads. You may fasten a stick or string at the right distance from the top of your piece, then tie each card's worth of threads around it (half a square knot on the side towards the top, then a full square knot on the other side). This is actually useful in the weaving to help keep the tension even, but it's a very slow method of fastening the ends. Or you can clamp the ends into a fastener of some sort; this is both fast and gives you easy access for adjusting the tension - but if the clamp lets the strings slide you can get a horrible mess. Try variants until you find one that works for you.
If you have an inkle loom, or another way of setting up a circular warp, there's a slightly variant method of threading which gets the tension set right immediately. Take your string, which is twice the length you need, and fold it in half. Put the ends through the card (in the right holes, in the right directions). Hold on to those ends and the card, and wrap the rest of the doubled string around the pegs of the inkle loom until the loop at the end comes to the front of the loom. Now open the loop, pass the two ends of the thread that went through the card through that loop, and tie them off to the loop - not stretched tight, but with firm tension. It also helps if the loom isn't set to the furthest stretch of its tension. Repeat for each pair of strings - it can get complicated with patterns that don't have even numbers of colors in each card (the thin chevron, for instance, has three white and one colored in each pattern card). But the cross-overs that causes can be pushed out of the way near the knot, and will disappear into the waste.
Now you're ready to weave!
In general, when threading cards, be sure you know which direction to thread the card you're working on and into which hole each color goes. It is possible to do it by memory, but a pattern draft is a very useful object, and becomes more useful as your patterns get more complicated. Keep the reversal of the S/Z threading in mind - remember that you thread upside down so it needs to go in the 'wrong' direction as you thread. It is possible to thread going the right way, but that means that you begin weaving at the loose ends, and if (no, when) you have problems with tension you will have no simple way to adjust them.
For a small and simple piece like the kit, you are unlikely to run into serious tension problems. For longer or wider pieces, or ones with threads of differing thickness or elasticity, you will have tension problems. Some are sufficiently minor that you can ignore them; others will completely mess up your work unless you deal with them. There are lots of ways of handling a mis-tensioned warp - try them out and see what works for you.
The simplest, if you have loose ends at the top of your weaving, is to find the misbehaving thread and re-knot it so it's tight. This is easiest if the threads are fastened individually or in small groups, and can be difficult with a single knot for all the threads.
You can also, if there's enough slack, find the misbehaving thread, pull it tight and pin or tie it to the fastener so that it stays tight. Or tie an overhand knot in the thread to tighten it, up near the end.
Another approach is to take the slack threads, pull them to the side and pin them to the finished weaving, then continue weaving above on the newly taut threads. After the weaving is done, wrap or loop the leftover lengths to make a design element.
As I said above, the purpose of a loom is to raise the cards so the weaver can easily hold and turn them, and to help control tension, especially on longer pieces.
Medieval looms, as depicted in late-period illustrations and early- and late-period finds, were generally two upright poles in some sort of base, sometimes with a top bar as well. The other form of 'loom' that was probably used is simply fastening one end to something and the other end to the weaver - a backstrap loom. For more modern weaving, an inkle loom can be used, although that limits the length of the piece that can be worked - it's very good at controlling tension. A floor- or table-loom (rigid heddle) will work, if its heddles are removed or pushed aside. Finally there are looms specifically meant for tablet weaving, which basically help with holding longer warps. The reason to use a full loom rather than a backstrap is so that the weaver can get up and leave the weaving if necessary, and so that if there are problems such as loose tension the weaver can reach the whole weaving rather than only the end he or she is working on.
The Loomy Bin - online pattern program that lets you flip cards, also downloadable version. Excellent.
Guntram's Tabletweaving Thingy - a program for showing the effects of card turns on a pattern, including single-card turning. It can help you with patterns from basic to highly advanced - steep learning curve but it can handle just about any idea you may have.
TurnStyler Card Weaving Design Software - (on the right, third one from the bottom) Haven't tried this one yet.
Card Weaving, Candace Crockett. A good book - a short introduction to warping and weaving followed by a lot of information on doing more complicated weaves including brocades and manipulated-card weaving.
The Techniques of Tablet Weaving, Peter Collingwood. 'The tablet weaver's bible' - very complete information and documentation on historical, modern, and practical tablet weaving.
WeaversHand - list of tablet weaving links - extremely useful and interesting. The other links here are all on this page as well.
Eve's page - good info and links
Phiala's Stringpage - lots of good info and documentation
Pora's page - SCA-specific info and documentation
Or enter 'tablet weaving' into your favorite search engine - literally hundreds of useful links will show up. Also try 'warp dressing sizing' for anti-abrasion dressings for linen or wool warps.