Keeping it Together: Ribbons and Tapes in the 18th Century

March 20, 2014 in Living history, Outlander Inspired Knitting Patterns, Uncategorized by M C

From a wedding scene to the court of Paris, to Jamaica to the Colonies… Outlander, and the 18th century, is bound together with ribbons and tapes.  Whether part of a marriage ceremony, a necklace (for a jet fish) or a bit of finery purchased as a token of love, ribbons and tapes hold the 18th century together in a way we, comfortable with elastic in our undies, and plastic fasteners everywhere else, can’t begin to imagine. Tapes are the unsung heros of the horse halter and the lowly grain sack.  Ribbons hold up stockings and secure petticoats around the waist.  In colonial America the weaving of tapes is no idle pursuit, but one of those necessary, repetitive, chores perfected by young women fighting embargos and boycotts.

In the middle of the 18th century cloth, and  ribbons, were being mass produced on mechanical looms bringing a surprising diversity of fabric and color down to even the most impoverished.  Unfortunately for Colonial and Revolutionary War America those tapes and ribbons were import items.  But if you lived in London, or Europe, ribbons were readily available to even the lower classes. You can see stunning, and terribly sad, snippets of 18th century fabric and ribbons preserved in the London Foundling Hospital’s records, giving us a peek into the textiles of the time undimmed by exposure to sunlight.  A portion of this collection can be viewed online at Threads of Feeling, and the ribbons in particular look very similar to what is available today in any well stocked fabric store.


In colonial America households economical housewives produced miles of their own tapes. It became a tradition in New England for a young man to make a modestly elaborate tape loom for his intended, presumably to indicate his esteem for the girl, but perhaps, more practically, to show he had some decent woodworking skills.  And we wonder why New England men lack something in the romance department when they start out from a tradition of practical household tools as courting gifts.

tape loom article 1Today a colonial era tape loom is a collectible, and priced accordingly.  A fragile collectible, even if you could lay hands on one.  A reproduction? Even pricier.  For a small loom of limited practical value tape looms are well beyond the reach of my resources. And while you can do creative and lovely pieces on a tape loom, a tape loom is a rigid heddle loom.  This means regardless of how you warp it it is essentially designed to create two “sheds,” the temporary separation between the upper and lower warp threads through which the weft shuttle is thrown to create cloth.

History has been slipping through the fingers of human beings for thousands of years, and tapes and ribbons are a perfect example of an art developed to staggering complexity, then lost, rediscovered, and resurrected to an art form once again.  Mechanized and colonial tape looms were used to make creative and colorful bands, but tablet or card looms, simple flat disks with a warp suspended between two poles, were used to make the finest, most intricate work, the middle ages and Asian cultures could demand.

Medieval weaver working on her card loom

Medieval weaver working on her card loom

“Tablet” or “Card” weaving is absolutely ancient.  Archeologists have uncovered tablet bands used as edging on fabric dating them from 500 BC.  Middle eastern cultures wove with cards, Asian weavers used cards.. Vikings used cards.  Card weaving appears in Iceland, Medieval Europe and Scandinavia, which has a particularly rich history of card weaving starting around 850 AD.  The work that can be done with a simple card loom is stunning and what started out as a peasant craft became a sophisticated court pastime with bands made from fine silks, with decorative motifs and inscriptions, involving hundreds of cards.

Once the cards are threaded, and the warp threads tied up, card loom weaving goes surprisingly quickly.  Nevertheless, tablet weaving fell out of favor in much of Europe around 1600, when power ribbon looms were developed.  It surprises me, given how quickly a card loom can be taken down for transport, that tapes and ribbons, which continued to be produced by hand artisans, were produced using  small box looms instead of tape looms. The art was all but lost to Europeans, but there you are… the art of weaving complex and beautiful tapes with cards slipped away.

Replaced by miles of ribbons pouring out of English and Chinese textile mills. Jenny pulled a plain blue mill made silk ribbon from her pocket to tie up her brother’s hair in Outlander.  And Claire wore a similar black ribbon as a necklace in Voyager.

But there’s a reason western weavers have been fascinated with card weaving ever since it was rediscovered in the late 19th century.  What you can create with simple cards is.. simply stunning.

And surprisingly easy to do at home with a few simple things you likely have on hand already.  I should warn you.. once you’ve made your first simple band you’ll find yourself on the verge of a craft addiction.  What you’ll use your ribbons for is something of an open question.  I think I’ll use mine as bookmarks, and decorative edging on kitchen towels.  As you may recall, I have quite a bit of linen which needs to be put to a good use.

So.. now that you’ve been warned, let’s make a simple card loom and explore the dangers of misinterpretation of textile artifacts by historians: Experiencing History: Your Own Card Loom

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