Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

A Certain Kind of Judgement


Warp & Weft at the Oriel Myrddin, Carmarthen, Wales, 2010.

Weaving involves the intertwining of threads – warp and weft – to create something more. That something more can be cloth. It can also be a structure in its own right such as a basket or screen. Part of the intrigue of weaving is found in this beguiling simplicity. At the least complex every weft thread reaches over and then under a warp thread, alternating up and down to create what we know as plain weave. At the most complex computer programmes control a dizzying variety of warp and weft combinations that create astoundingly complex patterns.

The knowledge that first created what we consider today to be complex woven structures is far from new. While weavers can now work with the assistance of Computer Aided Design, the advent of this technology has not made woven cloth fundamentally any more complex. In fact Anni Albers, writing in 1946, noted:

It is easy to visualize how intrigued, as much as mystified, a weaver of ancient Peru would be looking over the textiles of our day. Having been exposed to the greatest culture in the history of textiles and having been himself a contributor to it, he can be considered a fair judge of our achievements. He would marvel, we can imagine, at the speed of mass production, at the uniformity of threads, the accuracy of weaving and the low price. He would enjoy the new yarns used… But strangely enough, he may find that neither one would serve him in his specific interest: the intricate interlocking of two sets of threads at right angles – weaving.”[i]

While culture ploughs its way forward with claims of progress, weaving can be counted as a field of diminishing, rather than increasing, knowledge. Much of this loss can be attributed to our separation from the very act of weaving. Arthur Danto notes, “the industrialization of the weaving process has set between most of us and the reality of weaving a cognitive barrier”.[ii] Danto refers to this ‘barrier’ as “opaque enough that it must come as a surprise that Plato should have found common to the arts of weaving and of statesmanship a quality of mind that is very central to the practice of an art, namely a certain kind of creative judgement – the ability to make decisions in the absence of rules or of laws”.[iii]

The work selected for the warp + weft exhibition was not made in the “absence of rules or of laws”. Instead each work challenges the very conventions of weaving and in doing so creates a new space for weaving. Danto goes on to describe Plato’s understanding of weaving as “exercising a certain kind of judgement, which cannot be formulated nor, in consequence, applied mechanically.”[iv] The weaving exhibited here, for all of its technical demands on the skill and intellect of the maker, similarly refuses the easy path of mechanical application. Instead, the woven structure is taken to task: admired, questioned and challenged in a cycle driven by boundless curiosity for the inherent potential of weaving.

Two approaches are evident amongst the work on display. Experiments with the very structure of weaving broadly define one approach found, for example, in the work of Ann Sutton, Lucy McMullen and the late Peter Collingwood. The second approach asks what the woven structure might hold. Ainsley Hillard’s printed figures are an example of a graphic solution to this question, as are Ptolemy Mann’s colour studies. NUNO’s Feather Flurries (which require that the loom is stopped and feathers inserted by hand into double weave pockets) and Priti Veja’s use of fibre optic yarn offer another approach, literally asking the woven structure to hold or contain additions. In this second group the woven structure is not what is brought into question, but rather what that woven structure can contain or record.

Sue Hiley Harris celebrates the simplicity and beauty of weaving by picking out a single paper yarn coloured with indigo to provide a detail for the eye to settle upon. Working with cotton and monofilament, Lucy McMullen creates a complex cloth that spreads like honeycomb in all directions. Early works by Ann Sutton in monofilament similarly use weaving to create self-sufficient forms. The distinctive twisted structure of leno weave appears in the cast acrylic and red cotton experiments of Laura Thomas. Spaces between the woven structure are also central to Hiroko Takeda’s hand woven scarves, which are felted in sections after weaving.

Ann Richards’ woven jewellery uses silk crepe yarn and steel yarns to hold delicate rows of loom constructed pleats intact. Solid bands of silk and copper threads are apparent in Makeba Lewis’ organised geometries of colour blocks woven on a black and white cotton warp. The freestanding monoliths of Ptolemy Mann also dwell on the power of colour, here using hand dyed yarns to create colour fields intended to be experienced in the round.

An uncanny light marks the doll-like proportions of the dresses that make an appearance in Kathy Schicker’s hand woven Jacquard cloth. Priti Veja’s double cloth bags of polyurethane make this light real by weaving light reflective yarn into the woven cloth. Like Schicker, Ismini Samanidou (in collaboration with Gary Allson) works with the complexities of the Jacquard loom, here creating not only hand woven cloth, but also wood relief studies and drawings that explore the meaning of weaving.

In his short story “Trading Cities” Italo Calvino adopts weaving as a metaphor for “the relationships that sustain the city’s life” describing an imaginary town of Ersilia in which “inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency.”[v] When the information this system contains eventually grows overloaded, Calvino writes that “They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other.”

Weaving can be and mean many things. It is a network of connections. But weaving can also pay as much attention to the spaces it creates as the connections it establishes. Nearly half a century after Albers celebrated the astounding accomplishments of past weavers, we must do the same. Historical examples of remarkably complex woven cloth are to be celebrated. But today, this exhibition also brings together individuals who have chosen to question and challenge the potential of weaving. Ersilia, in many ways, epitomizes the work on display here: intricate networks that have been woven in a search of new forms – forms that are both “more complex and at the same time more regular than the other.”

Dr Jessica Hemmings
Associate Director
Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies
Edinburgh College of Art

[i] Albers, Anni. Anni Albers: On Designing. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press: 12-13.
[ii] Danto, Arthur. Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor. New Haven and London: Yale University Press: 33.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid., 34.
[v] Calvino, Italo. “Trading Cities” in Invisible Cities. Vintage Classics: 1997 (1974): 67.