Dobby cottons are fun to play with, but most quilters outside of Japan may be unfamiliar with these highly textured fabrics. What exactly does “dobby” mean, anyway?
Dobby looms entered into the weaving scene in the mid-19th century and the origin of the term comes from “draw boy”, usually a young helper who would pull strings to move warp threads on a large floor loom up or down as desired, thus enabling the weaver to create fabrics with added texture.
On a treadle loom, each foot-operated treadle is connected by a linkage called a tie-up to one or more shafts. More than one treadle can operate a single shaft. The tie-up consists of cords or similar mechanical linkages tying the treadles to the lams that actually lift or lower the shaft.
On treadle operated looms, the number of sheds is limited by the number of treadles available. An eight-shaft loom can create 254 different sheds. There are actually 256 possibilities which is 2 to the eighth power, but having all threads up or all threads down is not very useful. Most eight-shaft floor looms have only ten to twelve treadles due to space limitations. This limits the weaver to ten to twelve distinct sheds. It is possible to use both feet to get more sheds, but this is rarely done in practice. It is even possible to change tie-ups in the middle of weaving a cloth but this is a tedious process, so this too is rarely done.
With a dobby loom, all 254 possibilities are available at any time. This vastly increases the number of cloth designs available to the weaver. The advantage of a dobby loom becomes even more pronounced on looms with 12 shafts (4094 possible sheds), 16 shafts (65,534 possible sheds), or more. It reaches its peak on a Jacquard loom in which each thread is individually controlled.
Using a treadle loom is tricky at first. I’ve only ever dabbled a bit with one myself, but it seems akin to learning how to play one of those big church organs… the type with multiple floor pedals, pull stops, and a full keyboard. Modern dobby looms are computer controlled, so a human only needs to program it, get it going, and check to make sure nothing goes wonky during the weaving process.
Some of the dobby fabrics in my shop have a sort of irregular, slubby texture, while others have a distinctly geometric texture. I like how light plays off these differences in what would otherwise be a pretty, but flat fabric.
What can you use dobby fabrics for? Many are heavier weight than quilting cottons but lighter than canvas or Oxford cotton, while others may be lightweight, breathable, and made for summer use. Dobbies can be used for clothing, quilting, bags, upholstery (with reservations–I’m not sure some would hold up to heavy use), curtains, and other crafts.
For example, I have this dragon fabric in six different shades, and I’m working on a set of throw pillows!