Mirrored & Inverted: Kustaa Saksi's Jacquard Weaving

In the late 19th century Dresden-based Leopold Blaschka (1822–1895) and his son Rudolf Blaschka (1857–1939) began to produce in glass remarkable replicas of plants and marine invertebrates. Their creations may look surreal or otherworldly, but they are in fact accurate models intended, at the time, for display and study in universities and museums. Rendered by the Blaschkas in glass, creatures such as sea anemones, tubeworms, and jelly fish look able to defy gravity on land as they once did underwater. Their colours are spectacularly vivid; tentacles and textures rendered in exacting detail.

Improbable though it may seem, I catch glimpses of the Blaschkas remarkable glass work in Kustaa Saksi’s textiles. Saksi’s textiles make no pretence to offer models for scientific study. But part of the uncanny atmosphere of his pattern making is that in-between the bizarre are recognizable elements: a sea slug, worm holes and coral; but also simians, arachnids, and eyes peering out. Today the Blaschkas surviving works are considered historical curiosities. As teaching models, the objects fell out of favour in the mid-20th century when footage taken during underwater dives became the preferable way to study marine life.[1] But it is worth remembering that at the time of their making, these objects were exemplars of cutting edge education and technology.[2]

Saksi’s chosen medium – Jacquard weaving – is another cutting edge technology of the past. But when Joseph-Marie Jacquard patented his namesake invention in 1804, the technology did not change the woven structures it was possible to weave. Instead, Jacquard made the weaving of complex patterns far more efficient. Prior to the Jacquard loom, an experienced weaver needed to work with an assistant, known as a draw boy, who manually raised and lowered warp threads while literally sitting on the top of a loom. Jacquard’s invention used punch cards to control the thread sequence, dramatically increasing the speed of production, but also allowing an existing design to easily be woven in repeat. With the advent of the Jacquard loom the cost of elaborately patterned cloth dropped sharply. What had once been a luxury of the wealthy was now possible to mass produce.

Jacquard introduced speed. Speed, in turn, allowed for complex woven structures to be produced in volume. While all cloth woven on a loom is created through a combination of interlaced warp and weft threads, the number of warp threads and the options for complex combinations of raised and lowered threads available on a Jacuqard loom allowed for more organically shaped patterns to be woven. The less complex the weave, the more geometric pattern options tend to be; squared-off and blocky rather than rounded and flowing. Today's Jacquard looms are digitized, but the fundamentals of woven structures remain the same.

These historical facts pose something of an irony when understanding the work of Kustaa Saksi. Over the past decade, the Amsterdam-based Finn has developed Jacquard woven cloth with the TextielLab at the Textielmusuem in Tilburg, the Netherlands. Elements of his designs are mirrored or inverted, but ultimately each textile presents an image, rather than a repeating pattern Jacquard’s punch cards introduced with new-found mechanical efficiency. Volume too is far from Saksi’s objective. His textiles are produced in editions of six to eight – an approach more akin to printmaking’s use of limited editions than textile manufacturing. To maximise production textile manufacturing typically uses the width of the loom to dictate the width of the cloth, while length can be as long as the available warp. Rather than the width of the loom dictating the width of the cloth, Saksi’s textiles are woven on their side with the width of the loom dictating the height. The fringed selvedge edges that typically appear on the top and bottom of blankets instead appear on the left and right sides.

Herbarium (2022), a large-scale textile inspired by botanical drawings for a school lobby in Helsinki and the 26 meter-long Archipelago (2020) depicting abstracted flora and fauna from the Finnish coast are exceptions. In these works, woven panels are pieced together – 18 in the case of the enormous Archipelago. Saksi’s more typical approach is the production of collections sharing a common theme. The six-part First Symptoms (2018), for example, draws inspiration from patterns that appear with the onset of migraine headaches he has experienced for much of his life. The eight-part Hypnopompic (2013) was inspired by a family member’s descriptions of hypnopompic hallucinations. Unlike dreams, hypnopompic hallucinations can mean a person feels mentally and physically trapped in the experience, despite being awake.

Two hundred plus years after its invention, Saksi uses the Jacquard loom for reasons quite different than its invention. Except, that is, for the sheer complexity of pattern making. Often described as psychedelic or surreal, it is in the creation of pattern that Saksi, working with technicians at the TextielLab, challenges the technical possibilities of the Jacquard loom to the fullest. His textiles are optical rather than tactile experiments. Fibres range from mohair, alpaca, cotton and merino wools that invite touch, to viscose, acrylic, lurex, metal, rubber and phosphorescent yarns that create distinct optical contrasts and can be scratchy, even disconcerting, to the hand. His education in graphic design, rather than textiles, at the Institute of Design in Lahti University of Applied Sciences in Finland may explain, in part, this unconventional approach to the conventions of Jacquard weaving.

Jessica Hemmings

Professor of Craft, University of Gothenburg, Sweden

[1] Alexandra Ruggiero & Katherine A. Larson “The Blaschka Legacy in Worldwide Collections: A New Resource”, Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 59 (2017) pp. 419

[2] James Hyslop “5 minutes with… Glass sculptures of jellyfish by Leopold Blaschka”

https://www.christies.com/features/5-minutes-with-Glass-sculptures-of-jellyfish-by-Leopold-Blaschka-9636-1.aspx [accessed 20 March 2023]

  • Image credit

    Kustaa Saksi