What, how, and dear gods why?!
Lets start out with what samite is. Samite is a compound twill, using two warp structures, to create a patterned fabric. At it’s heart that’s all it is. It is also one of the most luxurious, sought after, and valuable fabrics in history. Why? Because it’s a pain in the ass to weave and is generally done with silk and precious metal threads. It was also strictly controlled as a trade good. You couldn’t just go buy samite from anywhere, limited places were producing it (Assyria, Byzantium, and places owned by them were biggest producers) and that drove up costs.
Figured samite showing common motifs
Traditionally samite involves a twill binding warp, and a core pattern warp (which ends up being completely covered by the motif being woven, much like a tapestry warp). The binding warp shows on the pattern as little dots, making it look over all like twill. Each color added to the over all design involves yet a more complicated pick up and treadling pattern. This would involve a loom that has multiple, almost an insane amount, of harnesses. I do not have that. I have an open 4 harness table loom. Which means being a wee bit nontraditional. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
All of the magic of samite happens inside the binding warp shed. Once that’s open you’re basically making tapestry on the pattern warp *inside* the shed of the twill. It’s super cool.
How this works (in an ideal world when you have enough shafts to not have to pick out your pattern):
-Open your twill shed.
-Open your first pattern shed, IE raise every thread that is NOT the color you are currently using as a weft.
-Throw weft 1 through the open pattern shed NOT between your pattern warp and twill warp.
-Close your first pattern pick NOT YOUR TWILL SHED.
-Open second pattern shed (if you’re using only 2 colors in your design this will be the inverse of your first pattern pick).
-Throw weft color 2 through the shed in your pattern warp.
-Close your second pattern shed.
-Repeat pattern sheds as needed (if you’re using more than 2 colors) until all colors in your design have been thrown.
-Close your twill shed.
-Beat into place, then repeat from the top.
If this sounds time consuming? Congrats! You’re right! It is! I’m averaging about 8-12 rows an hour. Not inches, rows. At this rate it takes me roughly an hour and a half to hour and forty-five minutes to weave one inch. And this is only doing one pattern repeat. BUT DON’T LET THAT SCARE YOU OFF! Seriously. If you’ve ever done any sort of pick up pattern before, you can do Samite.
As this is my first attempt I opted for only doing a 1 – 1.5in wide band of the stuff. Rather than actual yardage. Just in case I hate it. I warped a 2/1 twill using the first three harnesses, and warped all of my pattern warp through harness 4. This meant I could raise the entire pattern harness, pick out the pattern with a weaving sword, throw the pattern weft, then drop the pattern warp, pick out the ground with the weaving sword, and throw the ground weft, all without disturbing the 2/1 twill shed. I alternated threading a pattern warp and a twill warp for a ratio of 1:1 binding warp to pattern warp. I should have done a 2:1 pattern to binding warp threading since my binding warp came out too dense and ended up obscuring the pattern. You could probably take it down to 3:1 and it’d look just fine.
So what does that look like in plain numbers? For what I did here is my threading, 1,2, and 3 being white binding warp, 4 being green pattern warp:
1, 4, 2, 4, 3, 4
For what I should have done:
1, 2, 4, 3, 1, 4, 2, 3, 4
Yet a third option with less binding warp pattern disruption:
1, 4, 4, 2, 4, 4, 3, 4, 4
Because I did a 1:1 ratio my twill line is Very Very visible. Observe:
Those diagonal lines of white dots are where you see my twill binding warp. If I’d made it a bit less dense it’d be a bit less pronounced. If I’d made it the same color as my ground it’d be less pronounced, but I’d go utterly bonkers trying to pick the pattern out. So I’m left with this.
Because I’m doing this on a normal table loom, and doing it as a pick up pattern rather than loom driven, I am using a pattern designed for tablet weaving. You can do this with a cartoon (like tapestry) or a transparency if you’ve got one. I just work better from charts, so that’s what I’m using. It means I can count threads just like I would for knitting or cross stitch, and means I could, if I wanted to in the future, use any color work chart intended for knitting or cross stitch, in order to make samite.
Here is how I make samite happen, with pictures because otherwise this is useless.
- Lift appropriate twill harness AND harness 4 (pattern harness). Note how 1/3 of the white binding warp is now lifted and all of the pattern warp is up.
- Slide my weaving sword under any pattern warp meant to be ground color, and over any of the pattern warp meant to be the main design. Note that all of the twill binding warp remains in it’s original position of 1/3 over the weaving sword and 2/3 under it. You should never manually alter the twill shed, just create the pattern shed.
- Throw my design weft, in this case black, through the shed created by my weaving sword. This takes the weft under any threads that will be the background and over any threads that will be design.
- Remove my weaving sword and lower the pattern warp ONLY. I am leaving the twill shed open.
- Beat the design weft into place.
- Taking my weaving sword I am *lifting* any pattern threads (not twill threads) that are *under* my design weft from my last pick. Any pattern threads that go over the design weft will lay under my weaving sword. You’ll notice this is just the inverse of the pick we just did with the design weft.
- Throw my background weft through the new pattern shed created by the weaving sword. The pattern warp should now be completely covered by either a pattern weft or a background weft.
- Remove my weaving sword, close the twill shed, and beat into place.
Then you start back at step 1.
A few things to keep in mind to make this easier on yourself:
- Pick different color pattern and binding warps. DO NOT attempt to use the same color for both. Your pattern warp color does not matter as your pattern warp is entirely covered by your design. Do yourself a favor and pick one with a high contrast to your binding warp.
- The higher your thread count the smoother your lines and more clear your design will be. The band I’m doing is 60/2 silk, and there’s roughly 50 pattern warp threads in that 1in-ish wide band. This falls in line with “coarse” and “low quality” samite found in Danish viking era graves. If you’re going to use coarser thread, like 20/2, go for a much wider band and get the thread count as dense as you can for your pattern warp so your weft has space to make clean lines. Otherwise you’ll end up with 8 bit samite. Which is cool if that’s what you’re going for! Not so much if it’s not.
- Samite makes thick and heavy fabric. Think about it. You’re using two warps, and at least two wefts. You’re going to end up with a fabric twice as thick as you would get normally. Make sure you select your yarn, and plan your project, with this in mind. If you want delicate trim for a neckline then you don’t want to use no. 10 crochet cotton, it’ll be too thick. Aim for quilting thread at most. If you want a samite belt because you’re just that fancy? Then 20/2 weaving yarn or no. 10 crochet thread is perfect.
- As with any color work choose colors with high contrast. Otherwise, as you see in my sample with the gold weft on the green and silver background, your design won’t show up as well. You’re weaving samite, leave subtle for somewhere else.