Weaving: Contemporary Makers on the Loom, Ludion, October 2018 

Photography by Yeshen Venema

Photography by Yeshen Venema

Following the success of Urban Potters: Makers in the City, Ludion commissioned me to write a follow-up, this time about weaving. You can see the introduction below and buy the book on Amazon. The full text also includes profiles on 21 contemporary weavers and in-depth essays on gender, migration, weaving as art or craft and the future of this ancient craft. All copy as provided to the publisher.

Introducing warp and weft

Weaving is a vast and complex subject about which many books have already been written from instructive how-to guides to seminal texts such as Anni Albers’ On Weaving. This book attempts to be neither, but perhaps something in between – a survey of the contemporary weaving scene and an exploration of some of themes that touch the lives of makers today. In selecting both weavers and topics, it has of course been necessary to leave many more out that could ever have been included and those decisions have not been taken lightly. It is the hope of both author and publisher that what has been included will serve as an invitation for those new to weaving to go and find out more, and perhaps provide some fresh perspectives for those already familiar with the subject.

The history of weaving can be seen as a tug-of-war between hand and head, between control and speed, between risk and certainty. Craft theorist David Pye described the making process as a continuum from the ‘free workmanship of risk’ where the maker responds to materials and process throughout, and the ‘regulated workmanship of certainty[1]’ where decisions are finalised before making begins. In reality, very little sits at either extreme – most making happens somewhere in the middle, employing ‘hand knowledge’ and ‘head knowledge’ simultaneously. Moving along the spectrum from total risk to total certainty promises time savings, increased tooling and the transfer of control from the hands of the maker to the owner and programmer of the tools.

Although the principles of weaving have barely changed since its inception some 8,000 years ago and the very nature of the discipline requires decisions to be taken before the intertwining of warp and weft can begin, as the millennia have passed, mechanisation and industrialisation have moved weaving further and further towards Pye’s workmanship of certainty. Despite this shift, the element of risk has never lost its allure, and weavers throughout history have sought ways to engage with the threads throughout the process – not least the contemporary weavers profiled in this book, many of whom use simple hand, floor and table looms to create intricate and often challenging works of art, craft and utility.  

Fundamentally, weaving is the formation of a fabric through the interlacing of two sets of threads (the warp and the weft) at right angles to one another. The warp threads are held parallel while the weft is passed over and under the warp in rows to create fabric. The process is as old as cloth; we have used fabrics to swaddle our newborns and wrap our dead since time immemorial. It is likely that the weaving of textiles pre-dates the spinning of yarn, evolving from the practice of weaving reeds and grasses into baskets, fences and shelters. Very early weaving was carried out by hand with one end of the warp tied onto clothing or a belt (in a process similar to ‘finger-knitting’), before looms were introduced to keep warp threads taut, enabling the weft to be interwoven more easily. From that point on, despite all its complexity, weaving has comprised three simple processes. First, a selection of the warp yarns (in the case of plain weaving, every other thread) is lifted to form a ‘shed’ – the wedge-shaped space between the warps that are lifted and those left behind. Second, the weft yarns (initially bundled together, later wound around a stick, and eventually wound around bobbins in a ‘shuttle’) are passed or propelled through the shed from one side to the other. Finally, the weft is beaten or ‘tamped’ towards the previous row with a comb, before the shed is changed (forming the ‘countershed’) with those warps that were lifted being lowered and vice versa, so the process can begin again in reverse.  

Early weaving used a ‘warp-weighted loom’, in which two wooden sticks are leant against a wall supporting a rotating upper bar from which warps are suspended, each one weighted at the bottom. Weaving progressed downwards from the top, and so the weft was beaten upwards, working against gravity. Most commonly associated with Greek wool weaving (illustrations appear on Greek vases from 6,000 BC until 4,000 BC), this method was also used in Chilkat weavings common to several native communities on the northwestern coasts of North American, by the English in the early Bronze Age, in the rest of Northern Europe until the Roman conquest, and in Scandinavia and Iceland until relatively recently.

The weights at the bottom of the warp were eventually replaced with a second bar, resulting in the two-bar vertical loom, which allowed weavers to weave upwards from the bottom and beat the weft downwards. Examples of such looms appear in 12th Dynasty Egyptian wall paintings dating back to 1900 BC. They still used by the indigenous Navajo people in the southwestern United States, as well as in Africa, Greece and the Middle East; and they are similar to contemporary tapestry looms.

An alternative configuration is the Egyptian ground loom, also featuring two bars at each end of the warp but held horizontally off the ground by a peg at each corner. These looms can be seen pictured on pre-Dynastic Egyptian pottery from 5000 BC to 3100 BC and were also used in Peru, India, Europe, Africa and what is now Turkey. The horizontal orientation suits finer and looser fibres and the fact these looms are easy to dismantle and reassemble made this method of weaving particularly appealing to the Bedouin and other nomadic tribes in the Middle East, Pakistan and North Africa.

In the ‘back-strap’ or ‘body-tension loom’, the upper bar is attached to a pole or tree and the lower bar to a belt around the weaver’s back, so the warp can be tightened or loosened as the weaver leans backwards or forwards. Examples of the back-strap loom have been recorded in Asia, Japan, the Malay Islands, China, Burma and Tibet and they are still used in South and Central America – notably in Peru, Guatemala and Mexico. 

As looms developed, so did the tools used with them – from the bobbins and shuttles used to propel the weft, to the combs, reeds and ‘weavers swords’ used to beat it down, but none was as influential as the ‘heddle rod’ or ‘shaft’.

The design of a fabric is determined by which warp threads the weaver chooses to lift, and which are left behind, determining which warps the weft passes under or over. This selection was once done by hand giving the weaver full control – but this process took time, as the weft literally had to be moved handful by handful. The separation of warps was simplified by placing a ‘shed rod’ under the warps to be lifted, however this didn’t solve the problem of the alternate warp threads, raised to create the countershed. To address it, loose loops around these warp threads called ‘heddles’ were attached to a rod above (the ‘heddle rod’ or ‘shaft’). When this was lifted the threads were separated in the opposite way. A second heddle rod eventually replaced the shed rod, and multiple heddles were added to enable structural patterns, as seen in today’s shaft looms. The introduction of heddles (first recorded in Egypt in 2000BC but invented independently at different times around the world) was instrumental to the mechanisation of weaving.

For all the advances in speed and consistency that these tools brought, each new tool limited the freedom of the weaver. In a bid to regain control and return to the ‘workmanship of risk’, silk weavers in China in the second century BC and in the Middle East in the sixth and seventh centuries AD introduced the ‘draw-loom’, which enabled more elaborate patterns, such as brocaded textiles and damasks, by making an almost infinite number of different shed configurations possible. Each warp was now attached to a heddle and the heddles were in turn attached to draw cords for every shed configuration the weaver wanted to use. Each shed had a numbered cord that was pulled in sequence by a ‘draw boy’ while the weaver inserted the weft. The number of sheds was only limited by the number of ways in which the draw cords would be combined. However, the size and complexity of the loom demanded skilled workers and a permanent set-up, so although this gave control back to individual weavers, the organisation of labour that the loom demanded meant they were rarely working autonomously.  

Hand weavers, who pass the weft thread through the shed from one hand to the other, could only weave fabric as wide as their arm span, until John Kay patented the ‘flying shuttle’ in 1733. This device enabled the weaver to propel their weft yarn through the shed along a system of cords at considerable speed. Combined with innovations in spinning, flying shuttles were one of the key developments that led to power looms and helped weaving to fuel the Industrial Revolution in the North of England and beyond.

The draw loom was used across Europe until it was superseded by Jacquard techniques in the early 19th century. In 1804, Joseph Marie Charles (known as ‘Jacquard’ after his father Jean Charles) invented an adaption to existing power looms through which a system of up to 2,000 punch-cards dictated the shed configurations and therefore the patterns woven. ‘Bolus hooks’ attached to warp threads via a harness were either raised or stopped depending on whether they hit the punch card where there was a hole or where there was solid card. Whether or not each warp was raised or lowered determined whether the weft passed above or below it and therefore dictated the pattern. Each hook lifted individual threads, enabling intricate patterns, and could also be attached to multiple threads, enabling the pattern to repeat across the fabric. This revolutionised the production of highly decorative woven materials because it eliminated the need not only for draw boys, but also for skilled weavers, at a time when water and steam power were also being introduced alongside technology that enabled the shuttle to be propelled mechanically, and eventually digitally. However, although Jacquard techniques represented a significant advance in technology, the cost involved meant that they were – and still are – reserved for expensive fabrics. The majority of woven fabrics, both then and now are made on ‘dobby looms’ –  a type of floor loom that uses a ‘dobby’ head (a replacement for and corruption of ‘draw boy’) to control the warp threads. Most have eight shafts or heddles, enabling them to lift groups of warps (as opposed to the single yarns lifted in Jacquard looms). An alternative is the treadle loom, where multiple heddle rods (shafts) are controlled by foot treadles – one for each heddle rod.  

The weavers profiled in this book use both jacquard and dobby looms, with some working on simple lap looms, representing work right across Pye’s spectrum and embracing risk and certainty in different ways and at different moments in the process.

[1] Pye, D. (1968) The nature and art of workmanship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 18–19