Sett: How does it affect materials for tapestry weaving?

This is the fourth blog post in a series about sett. You can find links to all of them at the end of this post. 

I frequently get questions in my online classes about which yarns to use for tapestry weaving. To answer that question, you have to think about what sorts of imagery you want to weave and at what sett. Of course I can give you a list of my favorite yarns, but I may be looking for different characteristics in my weaving than you are. Knowing how sett and yarn interact will allow you to make the best choices for what you want to accomplish in terms of image creation and the look and feel of the resulting fabric.

Let me start out with an example of a tapestry I wove when I lived in Santa Fe. Before I show it to you, keep in mind that I also wove this piece that year (Emergence VII). Obviously I mention this because I want you to know that I actually can weave art tapestry... you might question that when you see the red heart below.

Rebecca Mezoff, Emergence VII, 45 x 45 inches, hand-dyed wool tapestry. Photo: Cornelia Theimer Gardella

This is the piece I want to talk about. The green one with the big red heart.

Example of a weaving at too loose a sett.

The problem I have with this weaving is not the red heart and green trim. It could work quite well for either Christmas or Valentine's Day (though it definitely isn't quite my normal style). The problem is the mismatch between the sett and the yarn.

If you could feel this piece you'd notice that it feels very loose. I call fabric like this sleazy. It was woven at 6 epi on 12/6 cotton seine twine with Harrisville Highland weft. This worsted-weight* weft is far too thin for a 6 epi weaving on such a thin warp. This piece would have been much more successful with a thicker weft and I definitely should have used a thicker warp at 6 epi (like 12/15 cotton seine twine perhaps--though that warp is too fat for the slots on a Hokett loom).

The feeling of this fabric is very pliable and the weft moves easily on the warp. Weft was hand-dyed Harrisville Highland.

The warp size, warp sett, and weft size do not work well together in this example.

Fabric quality

Tapestry weaving creates a fabric and the quality of that fabric is important. It is probably most important in larger works which aren't mounted on another surface, but it is an important consideration for any size tapestry. It is important because a sleazy, unstable fabric is not something that will last for a long time. If the weft can move around on the warp a lot, that is an unstable fabric.

On the other end of the spectrum, it is possible to create a fabric that feels very much like cardboard. If the weft is very thick and stiff and packed in very tightly, the fabric will be stiff and unyielding. That might be fine, but think about the presentation you want the work to have on the wall.

I want my tapestries to look like textiles. I like them to hang freely because I want them to be in the world in all of their textile-ness. The sway a little when you walk by them and if you feel them, they are quite soft and pliable.

Not everyone has the same goals. If you are looking for something different than I am, the combination of sett, warp, and weft that you choose will need to be different than mine.

Let me say that again in case you glossed right over it.

Not everyone has the same goals.

If your fabric/image goals are not the same as mine, the combination of sett, warp, and weft that you choose might need to be different than mine.


Matching weft size and warp sett

If you don't know what I mean by sett, go back and read the last few posts. They're linked at the bottom of this post. It is worth understanding sett.

In the first post of this series, I talked about what sett was and mentioned one way you can determine the size of weft to use as in the image below.

Comparing weft size to warp sett in tapestry weaving.

Let's look at that in more depth.

The above photo shows one good way to quickly estimate if your weft is about the correct size. Just hold it up to your warped loom and see if it fits visually between the warps. Though that is a good start, the issue is more complex than that.

The Space Between the Warps and Archie Brennan

Archie Brennan wrote a popular article called The Space Between the Warps. You can read the whole thing, print it out, and find many other articles about tapestry on THIS page of the American Tapestry Alliance's website (rabbit-hole alert! You might be there for awhile. Don't forget to come back here!)

Put simply, the gap between the warps must accommodate the weft. So the gap itself determines the weft thickness as much as the warp sett does. Yet the nuances of this relationship are often neglected. The space between the warps, along with the fiber type and the direction and tightness of the spin, defines the crispness or softness of the line between adjacent shapes, and is thus, a key aspect in tapestry making.
— Archie Brennan, The Space Between the Warps

As usual, Archie has managed to give us the core of the issue in a few sentences. 

The space between the warps is important--perhaps more so than the sett. But there are many other variables. I often have students ask me for a list of wefts to use at a particular sett. Though I can make suggestions, that is only a starting point. The other variables must be considered.

Just to be clear. The sett is how many warp ends are in one inch. But the space BETWEEN the warps can differ depending on the warp you're using. If your warp is very fat, the space between adjacent warps will be much less.

In the photo below, the loom is warped for both samples at 8 epi. Notice that the space between the warps is very different. There is less space with the fatter warp.

Weft size for a particular weaving depends on

  • the type of imagery you want to weave
  • warp sett
  • warp fiber type (linen, cotton, wool, something else)
  • size of the warp you're using (even cotton seine twine's numbering system is not consistent. I've had 12/9 and 12/6 twine that seemed identical and others that were very different in size)
  • weft fiber type (wool, what kind of wool?, cotton, linen, synthetic, other things people use for weft)
  • type of weft (singles bundled, tightly plied worsted spun yarn, a bundle of mixed character, spongier woolen spun yarn)
  • and Archie says that the direction the yarn is spun makes a difference (probably it does make some difference when you look at turns on hill or valley threads and at selvedges but let's leave this one out of consideration for now)

In that article, Archie describes a method which gives us a good place to start. He takes a ruler and wraps the warp he wants to use around one centimeter. The number of wraps becomes the number of warps in one inch. This works well since there are about 2.5 centimeters in an inch. When the warps are spread out, the spaces between them are just wider than the diameter of the actual warp thread.

Figuring out warp sett. Wraps per centimeter and warps per inch.

In the photo above you can see that the 12/6 warp has 12 wraps in a centimeter and the 12/15 warp has 7. Archie might use the 12/6 at 12 epi (ends per inch) and 12/15 at 7 epi.

Same sett, same weft, different warp

What are the differences in a textile woven at 12/6 and 12/15 warp at the same sett? I wove these two samples to experiment with that. The weft is Frid Vevgarn from Norsk Fjord Fibers woven at 8 epi. There are exactly the same number of sequences in each weaving. Notice that the one on 12/15 warp is quite a bit longer than the one on the thinner warp. The fatter warp did not allow the weft to pack in as much.

12/15 is a little bit too fat for 8 epi according to Archie Brennan's formula. 12/6 is a bit too thin.

Both wefts are identical: Frid Vevgarn. Identical number of picks. Warp is 12/15 cotton seine twine and 12/6 cotton seine twine.

My warp

The warps I tend to use are slightly thinner than Archie recommends. (I use 12/6 or 12/9 cotton seine twine.) I like a thinner warp because it means my fabric shows less of the warp ribs. I use a fairly fuzzy yarn and so the surface of my tapestry looks quite flat. Other people love to see those warp ribs and a fatter warp is important to create this.

I did enjoy weaving on the thicker warp. but I did not like how the warp behaved when I went to hem the piece. Especially on something so small, the hem did not behave well. Also, the Frid Vevgarn weft is a lot stiffer than the Harrisville yarn I usually use and that influenced my opinion also. I love the look of the Frid yarn, I just might do my headers differently if I used it on a thick warp.

Another example

I did a second set of samples with a completely different yarn. I have students now and then who are allergic to wool and I wanted to test this Cascade UltraPima Cotton as a weft material. Here is what that very smooth, shiny yarn looks like on the same two warps.

Notice you can see my relays--they don't hide well with a very smooth yarn. I was using meet and separate and two butterflies for each color. The center yarn is variegated.

The weaving on 12/6 is much flatter with the warp ribs less prominent. The 12/15 warp on the left shows the ribs much more. There are the same number of sequences in each weaving, but again the weaving on the fatter warp did not pack in as much. That is due to the smaller spaces between the warps!

Cascade UltraPima, 100% cotton. 220 yards in 100 g. 8 epi, 12/15 warp left, 12/6 warp right.

Fatter or thinner wefts?

To create a stable fabric, you do need to use a weft that will fill in the gap between the warps fairly well. But there is some room for experimentation here.

Consider these samples. All were woven on the same warp: 12/6 cotton seine twine at 8 epi with a singles yarn so I could change the size of the weft bundle in each example. The horizontal lines were made with one sequence of whichever weft I was using for that section. Notice the thickness of the lines in each section.

Clicking on the images in the grid below will blow them up in a lightbox.

If you could feel these samples, your hands would understand the difference between the fabric in these cases. The examples with 1 and 2 strands of Harrisville Koehler singles yarn is thin and flexible. The sample with two strands feels stable enough for a larger textile. The one with only one strand, the weft moves around on the warp pretty noticeably.

The examples with three and four strands feel very stable. The cloth is much thicker and the weft doesn't move at all.

There are pretty big differences in how these weavings look. Imagine how this translates to an image. With a thinner weft, lines are much more delicate and greater detail especially in the horizontal direction is possible. You could make very smooth low angles and curves with a thin weft like this. However, it takes absolutely forever to weave.

Look at the photo of all four examples again. The example at the bottom with four strands of yarn is 3.25 inches high. The example with only one strand is 7/8ths of an inch high. They have the exact same number of weft sequences. It takes about four times as long to weave the same distance with the thinnest weft as the fattest.

And that, my friends, is the answer to why I increased my weft bundle from three to four strands for the 9 x 9 foot tapestry I just started. It will weave markedly faster. And with a design as large as this that is not overly complicated, I don't need the finer detail available to me when I have a smaller weft bundle.

So what was all that again?

That was a lot to digest. The short version is this.

All the variables matter. When you change warp size, warp sett, or weft size, you are influencing the options available to you in the finished work. They affect:

  • character of the image: very fine lines and steps versus chunkier forms
  • character of the fabric: stiff, thick, sleazy, flowing
  • stableness of the fabric: sleazy with weft moving on warp to a textile that will last a long time
  • speed of weaving

If you're still wondering what yarns to use, maybe start HERE. I talk a lot about yarn in my online comprehensive tapestry techniques class which you can find out more about HERE.

Please let us know your experiences with different yarns and sett. Have you found a combination that you really like and why do you like it? Tell us in the comments!


*Worsted-weight: this is one of the words used primarily in knit and crochet circles to describe how thick a yarn is. It is a mid-weight yarn that is very popular for garment creation.