A hand loom, or handloom, is any loom that is manually operated, unlike motorized or electrically powered looms. It is an apparatus on which weavers create fabric by interlacing the warp and weft threads. By providing tension on the warp threads, a hand loom enables the weaver to create cloth quicker and results in a more even weave. There are numerous types of hand looms, from simple, portable backstrap looms to complicated, room-sized jacquard looms. One of the simplest hand looms is the children's loom on which they weave loops of cloth into potholders.
The history of the earliest hand looms is sketchy. Archeologists have found evidence of weaving dating back to the eighth millennium B.C. in regions of Mesopotamia and Turkey. While excavating a 19th century B.C. Egyptian tomb, others unearthed a model of a weaver's workshop. It was complete with a horizontal loom, warping devices, and other weaving tools.
Most historians believe warp-weighted looms were the first to be used. The weaver suspended the warp yarns from a tree branch and some weavers tied the dangling warp to rocks or logs to pull them tight. This crude setup evolved into a free-standing vertical loom that some weavers use in modern times. Many other early looms, such as the backstrap hand loom, are also still used in undeveloped areas where electricity is not available.
Using the backstrap loom, a weaver stretches the warp threads from a stationary object such as a post or tree to a strap that the weaver wears around her waist. Leaning back away from the post or tree tightens the warp threads, thereby providing the necessary tension. Like many small hand looms, the backstrap loom generally is portable and lightweight.
The type of hand loom that a craftsperson chooses to use is dependent upon the type of weaving the person plans to do. Small tabletop inkle looms produce bands of cloth, such as belting or straps. Other large stationary looms, such as the foot-powered multiple harness loom, are capable of producing simple, plain-weave cloths, as well as complex brocades and jacquards.
In modern culture, craftspeople typically use hand looms to create artistic cloths, although before the 1780s, weavers used hand looms to make all fabrics. In 1784, Edmund Cartwright designed and built the first power loom; consequently, many hand loom weavers lost their livelihood. A master hand weaver could weave two pieces of 24-yard (about 22 meters) long cloth per week, but a steam loom weaver could weave seven similar pieces during that same week. The master weaver ranged between 25 to 30 years old, while the weaver in the factory could be as young as 14 or 15 years old and run two steam looms simultaneously. In 1823, Richard Guest estimated that a steam loom factory containing 200 looms would put 2,000 hand loom weavers out of work.