Beyond the Function of Making, the Process of Making

This is NOW: from Drawing to Contexture, Edinburgh

Tapestry weaving involves rhythms increasingly absent from contemporary life. It requires concentration, dexterity and patience. It also demands an outlay of time that does not always enjoy corresponding financial recognition. This would suggest that the process of weaving a tapestry is at least equal in importance to the outcome. If this is true, perhaps the making of woven cloth deserves more of our attention.

Elizabeth Barber notes that it is our own distance from the practice of making that has allowed the weaving described in Homer’s Odyssey to be misread for so long. “Penelope’s famous cloth, which she wove by day and unwove at night to fool her suitors, was almost certainly a story cloth,” Barber explains. “Homer’s audience would have known that only the weaving of a nonrepetitious pattern such as a story cloth is so very time-consuming, but we who no longer weave or regularly watch others weave are more easily mislead.” [1] We may want to ask what other contemporary misreadings are the result of this separation from the act of making? Where else have stories changed through our misunderstanding of the construction of the objects?

Beyond the function of making, the process of making is beginning to regain interest. The slow food movement, for example, saviours time and recognises the benefits time can bestow on an appreciation of the final product. The textile is more complex, but similarities are shared. Galleries, for instance, have started to show an interest in exhibiting process. Warps have been wound as meditative performance art[2]; the real time sewing of bespoke garments has suggested that boutique, workshop and laboratory can coexist in front of an interested audience[3]. These events suggest a commitment to exposing the rhythms of textile making to a broader audience.

When so much of life is now lived virtually, working in real time with real materials has become the exception rather than the norm. Malcolm McCullough cites hands as “underrated. Eyes are in charge, mind gets all the study, and heads do all the talking… [hands] are not idle, just underemployed.”[4] The hands of a tapestry weaver are far from underemployed. Nor are the eyes or the mind. Tapestry, and the demanding parameters of its making, require a contribution from every part of the maker. To recognise this, we must first acknowledge tapestry’s increasingly unique commitment to the process of making.

Dr Jessica Hemmings
Associate Director
Centre for Visual & Cultural Studies
Edinburgh College of Art
June 2009


[1] Elizabeth Wayland Barber. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times. London: W.W. Norton & Company: 1994, 153-154.

[2] Anne Wilson, Wind-Up: Walking the Warp, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago, January 2008.

[3] Andrea Zittel, Smock Shop Berlin, Sprüth Magers Berlin, February-April 2009.

[4] Malcolm McCullough, Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand. London: MIT Press: 1998, 1.