Choosing a Loom

Since launching Olla Nua in late 2015 I’ve had the pleasure of teaching tapestry weaving workshops across Northern Ireland. I have happily found that in that short time, the popularity of weaving as a craft has increased, with enthusiastic learners discovering the infinite challenges and rewarding work that it can offer.

I often get asked for advice about choosing a loom to weave on, and it’s no wonder, as there are so many options it can seem overwhelming for new weavers! I’ve put together this post with the intention of highlighting some of the main things to consider and a little insight into my own loom journey.

My loom story – looms for cloth weaving

I currently do most of my weaving on a Swedish Glimakra Standard floor loom, that I was lucky enough to find second-hand from a local weaver at a time when Olla Nua was just an inkling of an idea. We collected it as an unpromising jumble of wood, string and bolts as unfortunately the owner didn’t have the space to show it assembled. It was another couple of years before I had the time and space to get it up and running. A few spare parts and a lot of research, trial and error later, I finally got there!

Glimakra loom.JPG

It’s a large, wide and strong loom, suitable for weaving long lengths of cloth and heavy rugs. The 10 shafts are connected to foot treadles via a series of lamms, pulleys and cords (called a ‘countermarch’ system) that need to be understood and adjusted for each of my different woven designs. It’s a fascinating but somewhat confusing system (except to physics buffs, perhaps), explaining why my loom and I had a bit of a love and hate relationship during our first few years together!

Nicola's loom.jpg

I also have a little vintage Lillstina table loom, purchased cheaply from my art college just before I graduated. They were getting rid of it because it needed a bit of repair and only had 4 shafts, limiting its design capabilities. Like most 'table' looms, the shafts are lifted by hand for each pick of weaving using levers, meaning that it is slower to weave on than floor looms that have foot treadles for this purpose. I usually like to design woven patterns that use at least 8 shafts, but table looms like these are great for sampling more basic weaves on, are simpler to set up and handy to transport. Rigid heddle looms are an even simpler type of table loom that still allow long lengths of cloth to be woven, such as scarves, but are even more portable and usually more affordable.

Lillstina loom.JPG

Tapestry Looms

Tapestry weaving is a great technique for beginner weavers to learn as it requires little equipment and can be used with knotting & wrapping techniques and a huge variety of yarns to experiment with texture, colour and composition. The hands do most of the work, so only simple tools are needed. In tapestry weaving, the warp (vertical yarn held under tension on the frame) is usually entirely covered by the weft (the yarn you weave across the warp), producing a thick, sturdy textile that can be suitable for decorative wall hangings and rugs.

Although you can weave with tapestry techniques using a floor or table (horizontal) loom, it is easier to use a vertical loom so that you can see more of the design as it progresses.

You can start weaving tapestries using just a simple wooden frame and a little knowledge about how to create the warp. I was taught to weave tapestry using this type of simple loom in art college, and I use them in my workshops. An uncovered artist’s stretcher frame (the type that would normally be covered with canvas for painting) is ideal – these can be bought cheaply from art supply shops and marked with measurements for spacing the warp. The warp is wrapped around the frame and then evened out with a taught cord tied across the bottom of the loom to create the weaving base. You can get special frame looms with slots on the front for winding the warp around – these are easier to warp but limit the sett (warp spacing) that you can use.

Simple frame loom.jpg

Smaller frames can be used as you sit in a chair, with the base of the frame resting on your lap and the top of the frame leaning on the edge of a table. Larger frames (your ambition is your limit!)can be used with a stand, clamped to a table or propped against a wall.

The most advanced tapestry looms, often used by professional tapestry artists or those wishing to create large, complex tapestries, have their own stands and may have extra features such as heddle bars (for lifting the warp ends), continuous warping capabilities (allowing a longer warp to be woven than the height of the loom) and warp tensioning.

Weaving on my Ashford tapestry loom - photograph by  TACA

Weaving on my Ashford tapestry loom - photograph by TACA

In summary – a few tips

* First of all, consider the type of woven textile you want to make (for what purpose), the techniques you would like to use, size of textile you’d like to create and whether speed of weaving is important to you. There are an amazing variety of looms available (or that can be made at home) from the simplest frame or strap to the most complex computerised (and expensive) ones.

* Try out some weaving techniques that need little or no special equipment before committing to a complex or expensive loom. You can weave small tapestries on a simple wooden frame, and long narrow bands using just a door handle or clamp and set of weaving cards.

* Think about second-hand looms – try contacting your local art college as they may be updating their equipment, or check any of the popular buy-and-sell websites for listings. The Loom Exchange is a UK-based website for listing weaving equipment for sale and wanted requests. This is how I found my loom, unusually in Northern Ireland, so you never know what you might find! Be sure to do some research though – see below...

* Before purchasing a complex loom, try to see it set up and in action (and even better, try it out). If you’re thinking of a second-hand loom and this is simply not possible, it can be risky but worthwhile depending on the price and how much time and effort you are prepared to put into figuring out how it works and if there are any missing parts. At the very least, ask the owner to label the components and provide and image of the loom set-up and a manual if possible. Check out the model and manufacturer’s website – they often have downloadable instructions and accessory pricelists. And ask any weavers you know if they have any insights or perhaps own a similar loom, or search and inquire on online forums such as Weavolution.

*If you're thinking about buying a new loom, ask potential suppliers for more information to help you make sure the loom is right for you needs. I haven't yet had the pleasure of buying a brand new loom, but have purchased many tools and parts from George Weil and have always found them very helpful.

Weaving is such a huge subject and there are so many tools and techniques that it can seem difficult to know what to start with. I hope this post has helped a little but just keep in mind that some of the most beautiful and complex woven textiles in the world are created by people with few resources and simple homemade tools. I was lucky enough to witness this first-hand during travels around Peru and Bolivia over a decade ago. I often remind myself of these amazing weavers if I get frustrated about my lack of equipment or struggle with a complex technique.

Best wishes to those of you just beginning your own weaving journey!


Open House Belfast - Open Studio Event


Open House Belfast at The Little America Congress

22-30 Hopefield Avenue, Belfast BT15 5AP / Saturday 22nd October 2016 / 12pm - 4pm


I'll be opening the doors to my weaving studio as part of Open House Belfast - Architecture & Engineering Festival, for one day only. Our space at 22-30 Hopefield Avenue is home to Oscar & Oscar (architecture & interiors), as well as Dollybirds Art, The Working Kitchen, Ryan Burke (wooden sculpture) and Belfast Puncture / Charlie Bosanquet (artist). 

Come along and see my Swedish loom in action, and enjoy a peek at the spaces of the other artists and makers who share our characterful building. I'm excited to add that coffee and bakes will be provided by Justin from The Working Kitchen! Not to be missed, as anyone who has had the pleasure of tasting Justin's freshly baked sourdough bread will already know...

Please note that regrettably, our building is not wheelchair accessible as we do not have a lift to the upper floors.

To celebrate the first anniversary of Olla Nua at Hopefield Avenue, I thought I'd share some slightly intriguing photographs of my loom, taken by Simon Mills

weaving loom ireland
weaving loom Ireland
weaving loom Ireland
hand weaving Ireland

Hope to see you there!




Get Weaving This Summer!

Olla Nua Tapestry Weaving Workshop

I'm teaching a tapestry weaving workshop in the art space at the lovely Haptik cafe, Newtownards, to celebrate August Craft Month. I'll have tapestry frames prepared and ready for weaving, and will be showing how to create texture with special knotting and wrapping techniques as well as the principles of plain weave, so that you can create your own mini wall hanging to take home.

I weave most of my collection for Olla Nua on my large, quite complicated Swedish floor loom, which is ideal for weaving long and wide lengths of cloth. But I recently returned to tapestry weaving on the simplest of looms (all you need is a wooden frame) as a way of using up the myriad of yarns that I've collected up throughout my life. If you're something of a yarn addict like me, then tapestry weaving is the craft for you! It's also a relaxing craft that can easily be taken up at home. During this introductory workshop, we'll focus on textural weaving techniques but also think about the use of colour and composition.

All materials will be provided for the workshop, including access to my vast and varied yarn stash! And of course, you are welcome to bring any favourite yarns from your own stash. The workshop is suitable for adults and young people aged 16 and over. Please book early as numbers are limited!

Booking: The workshop costs £25, to book please email me at or telephone 07779480736
Date: Saturday 06 August 2016
Time: 10:30am - 4pm
Venue: Art Space @ Haptik cafe, 29 Frances Street, Newtownards BT23 7DW. Please note that unfortunately this venue is not wheelchair accessible.

There are lots of events taking place all over Northern Ireland for Craft Month so be sure to take a peek at the full programme available on the Craft NI website.


Dipping into Tapestry Weaving

Tapestry weaving workshop Nicola Gates

If any of you have been roving  an eye over Pinterest interiors boards lately, you may have noticed a new obsession...all things knotted, woven, tied and textured adorning the walls of otherwise stylishly minimalist homes. Have a look at my 'Beautiful Weaving' board, and you'll see what I mean!

As I child, I spent hours browsing through my mum's vintage collection of Golden Hands craft magazines from the sixties and seventies - they were full of ideas for decorating your home with colourful textiles. But textural macrame and woven tapestry wall hangings have been shunned in recent years in favour of slick framed photography and art canvasses. Happily, they are now seeing a revival - at least partly thanks to Brooklyn-based artist Maryanne Moodie, who seems to have perfectly satisfied our new found appetite for texture and geometry. As well as their decorative appeal, textiles on the walls (the more textured the better) are a great way to add softness to a room, helping to absorb harsh sounds. 

Tapestry weaving can be as simple or as complicated as you wish. It takes years for a weaver to develop the skills needed to produce something like the amazing image-based work of the Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh, but the basic technique for weaving simple shapes, stripes and textures can picked up quickly. 

For most of my weaving, I work on a large Swedish floor loom, producing lengths of cloth to be made into cusion covers, pouches, scarves and throws. Tapestry weaving, worked on a simple wooden frame, was something I had a brief introduction to in art college but hadn't continued with. Lately though, I have picked up the tapestry frame once again and enjoyed experimenting with chunky yarns, geometric shapes and textural knotting & wrapping techniques. It gives me a chance to wind down from the repetition and speed of my big loom and to use up some of the myriad of yarns I've accummulated over the years. I've even created mini tapestries to wear as pendants.

Tapestry is an ideal technique to get started in weaving as it requires only very simple equipment and doesn't take up much space. If you're interested in having a go, take a look at my pinterest boards beautiful weaving, tapestry art & weaving techniques for inspiration. You can also keep an eye on my Facebook page for upcoming workshops, or sign up to my newsletter for updates on workshops, woven products and events.

Happy weaving!

Tapestry art by Nicola Gates

Olla Nua at Castle Ward

Ely cushion. Image courtesy of Craft NI, Photography by Simon Mills, 2015

Ely cushion. Image courtesy of Craft NI, Photography by Simon Mills, 2015

Over the last few months I've been busy finalising woven designs and product prototypes. So I'm very excited to be showing our first collection at Crafted 2015, the annual Winter craft fair at Castle Ward, County Down, on Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th November. The event is organised by the Craft and Design Collective in partnership with the National Trust. You can find more information here.

There'll be food stalls as well as local craft and lots of activities for children, so make sure to call by if you're near the area!

Our collection is also on display at Space CRAFT shop and gallery, Belfast, on the run up to Christmas, where I'll be taking orders for the new year. Space CRAFT is something of a hidden gem in the's just up the escalators beside the famous Sawyers deli.



The Maker's Tools

Alongside working on my first collection of handwoven textiles, I have been fitting in some projects with local museums over the past year. I recently had the opportunity to coordinate an exhibition for Fermanagh County Museum, showcasing contemporary craft by selected artists and craftspeople based in Fermanagh, Leitrim and Monaghan, alongside traditional crafted objects from the museum's collection.

The concept for the 'In the Making' exhibition was inspired by the work of folklorist and artist, the late Johnny McKeagney, who had a life passion for collecting local histories and recording traditional crafts. Inspired by Johnny's mesmerizing drawings of 'The Coachbuilder's Workshop', I visited some of the local craftspeople who were taking part in the exhibition, to photograph their tools and workspaces. We displayed some of these images alongside prints of Johnny McKeagney's drawings on the exhibition walls.

It was intriguing to see inside other maker's spaces and get an insight into the myriad of tools they use! 

From top to bottom, images from the studios of: Fiona Kerr JewelleryAnn McNulty PotteryDesign Onion (Ronan Lowery), O'Brien Willowcraft (Tom O'Brien), Wove in Hove (Louise Hardman), Ernestone (Michael Hoy). Many thanks to the makers for giving me a glimpse into their spaces!

Also exhibiting were: Brigitta Varadi, David Cousley, Jonathan Ball, Mulholland Jewellery (Fiona Mulholland), Peter Fulop, Ruth Duignan, Séamus Dunbar and Simon Carman

We asked the artists and makers how their work is inspired by, or contrasts with the traditional materials and techniques associated with their discipline, and used their replies in the labels for their pieces on display. 

My early reliance on hand tools out of necessity, has now become a reliance on them out of choice. They allow me to get close to my work, make the shapes and marks I want, and to push myself.
— David Cousley, woodworker

Johnny McKeagney's wonderful drawings can be found in his book, In the Auld Ago. 'In the Making' is on display at The Higher Bridges Gallery at The Clinton Centre, Enniskillen, until 19th September 2015. The exhibition was supported by Northern Ireland Museums Council through its Community Engagement Initiative.


The Cambrian Mountains Wool Challenge

We're delighted to be taking part in a touring exhibition showing how Welsh wool from the Cambrian Mountains can be used to make beautiful and practical products - The Cambrian Mountains Wool Challenge

The Challenge was formed by the Cambrian Mountains Wool Initiative and offered designers the chance to use Cambrian Mountains wool fleece, yarn or woven fabric to produce their creation. I decided to dye half of my Cambrian yarn with natural indigo and use it to create a rug version of our Newgrange design. It was a chance to try something new, being the first time I had dyed with indigo and woven a rug!


Handweaving by itself is a slow process but dyeing the yarn before weaving adds a whole other challenge. First, the yarn has to be wound from the cones it comes on from the spinning factory, into 'hanks' - loose manageable wraps of yarn which allow the dye to penetrate.  It then has to be gently washed to remove any excess oils or factory finishes that might stop the dye from taking evenly.

Indigo is a bit of a magical dye to work with because it has to be used in it's 'reduced' state - with all oxygen removed from the dye bath. This turns the solution a yellow-green colour, as indigo only shows its characteristic vivid blue shades when it combines with oxygen. The yarn is dipped just for a minute or two into the bath, and slowly turns from yellow-green to blue when removed and exposed to the air. I built up the colour with different numbers of dips to produce three varying shades of blue. Sounds confusing? I found lots of helpful information on Jenny Dean's website and books and from my indigo supplier,

 After dyeing, it was time to start weaving. I used a warp of strong linen cord, spaced out in the reed of the loom to allow the Cambrian wool weft to pack down and cover it completely (this is called a weft-faced weave). The yarn was 'bubbled' during weaving (shown in the last picture above) to prevent the rug from narrowing in. Finally, after weaving and cutting from the loom the linen warp ends were knotted and threaded back into the weft to make a neat top and bottom edge.

I'll be heading to London to have a look when the Cambrian Mountains Wool Challenge exhibition tours to the London Welsh Centre, on the 19th and 20th September 2015, which also happens to be the start of London Design Festival... looking forward to meeting the other challenge designers and a peek at a few LDF events!

handwoven Newgrange rug

Donegal Yarns, Kilcar

In February I enjoyed a fascinating visit to the the factory of one of my suppliers, Donegal Yarns, in the pretty Donegal village of Kilcar.  A traditional Donegal yarn is known for its colourful 'burrs' - small clumps of short-fibre wool, that give the yarn a flecked appearance.  It is said that the technique originated from the hand-spinning process, when little neps of precious dyed wool were combined with the natural-coloured fibre during the carding (or combing) of the wool before spinning.  In the past, plants and lichens from the mountains were used to dye the fibre, and the resulting coloured flecks are characteristic of a donegal tweed.

I've always loved heading over the mountainous road from north Fermanagh to south Donegal, but once you pass the busy fishing port of Killybegs and head towards Kilcar (or Cill Charthaigh - this is a Gaeltacht region), the views become truly breathtaking.  This is part of the recently sign-posted Wild Atlantic Way, and for good reason.  

Before the early 1900's, wool spinning in the area was purely a cottage industry.  The first commercial spinning facility was established in Kilcar by the Congested Districts Board, to provide employment and meet the yarn demands of the local carpet factory.  Thankfully, the building of a modern spinning mill in the village in the 1970's ensured that this beautiful yarn could continue to be produced locally and compete in the international market. 

Chris Weiniger, General Manager of Donegal Yarns, generously shared his passion and spared his time to show me round the bustling factory and talk me through the production process. There's a surprising number of processes involved, from the point that the huge bales of wool arrive into the building, through dyeing, mixing and several stages of spinning until the yarn is finally wound on cones ready for delivery to weaving and knitting companies.  It always amazes me how much work is involved in the creation of a finished textile, and this is just one part of the story.  Thank-you to Chris and the staff at Donegal Yarns for showing me around the factory and letting me capture their work.

I should mention another successful textile company based in Kilcar - Studio Donegal, who weave fabrics and throws on traditional looms.  They have a beautiful shop and even offer the opportunity to watch the weaving process first-hand.  I think this company deserve a blog post of their own be continued!