Textile weaving is almost as old as civilization itself, and it is still practiced around the globe. Weaving probably developed as a refinement of mat or basket making, in which the much finer materials needed the support of vertical tension to remain straight. Much of what we know about looms is the product of guesswork, offering few specific dates or inventors.
Evidence in Archeology
While early looms were made of wood, which is not known to last, illustrations of them have been preserved on sturdier artifacts, such as pottery. The oldest depiction of a loom -- a horizontal ground-loom design -- was found on the side of a bowl unearthed in Badara, Egypt. Textiles, which can provide evidence of the looms that created them, have been preserved under certain conditions that prevent bugs and rot. Egypt's dry, sand-laden climate allowed for the preservation of quantities of plain linen, most of which were found in pharaohs' tombs. Frozen tombs uncovered in Central Asia contained ancient loom-woven textiles. Scandinavian bogs sealed entire garments from as early as the Bronze Age.
Horizontal designs follow the way materials would have been laid out on the ground. They were used by a number of ancient cultures, and Bedouin tribes today still favor this style of loom. An innovation on this design was the pit loom, in which the weaver would sit or stand in an actual pit to allow for more comfortable work. This became a more effective tool when pedals were introduced that allowed the weaver to move the warp threads, allowing the shuttle to go through more easily.
Vertical, warp-weighted looms -- in which tension is kept by tying weights to bundles of threads -- are depicted in ancient Greek arts. By 1900 B.C., Egyptians also had a variation on this design, using a second bar in place of the weights. This style of loom is still used by the Navajo Indians, who picked up weaving from the Pueblo Indians long before the arrival of the Spaniards. One of the most important innovations on the basic vertical loom was the separation of the warps using shed sticks, followed by further separation creating a "counter-shed" using a heddle bar. Vertical looms also came to use foot treadles.
Body-tensioned looms involve a strap and two bars, one attached to the wearer and one to a post, tree or similar object. These looms are portable, allowing the entire project to be rolled up and attached to a different fixed point. Over time, these looms were refined with many of the same innovations as vertical looms, including shed sticks and heddle bars. Body-tensioned looms have been popular in a number of countries, from Japan to India, but today are most commonly seen in Peru and Mexico.
Joseph-Marie Jacquard invented a loom that used a punch card system in 1801. This was the first step toward automating weaving, and also had an effect on other scientists -- including those working on computers. This created an intertwining relationship between computers and weaving, allowing for ever-increasing complexity in design and pattern. Today, everything from which warps are moved to weaving speed can be controlled from a laptop computer.