A dive into the gesture of weaving, to understand what this technique represents for our contemporary civilisations: a form of writing, a logic of combination, and the forerunner of computers.
There are many analogies between the arts of weaving and writing. In French for example, text and textile share the same etymology: to weave comes from the Latin texere which means to braid, but also to weave, write and tell a narrative. In English, to weave comes from wefan which means to weave, invent, combine and arrange. These etymologies underline two concepts embodied in the word that are vital to understanding what this technique represents for our contemporary civilisations: a form of writing and a logic of combination. Some people now consider weaving to be the forerunner of computers. What is the basis for this hypothesis? More importantly, what does it tell us about this skill?
Let us start with the technical specifics of weaving: threads that interlace at right angles. Unlike basketry, the number of threads needed to make a given fabric is directly correlated to the development of tools to lift the threads in layers and pull them taut. Some vertical threads (warp) are lifted to allow another thread to be introduced horizontally (weft). All woven textiles, even the most complex, are created on the basis of this principle. This interlacing determines a fabric’s structure, i.e. which warp threads are lifted (or not) to allow the weft to pass through: this is called the “weave”.
The weave is the architecture of the fabric that determines the rules for interlacing threads, the order of the sequences that will create the pattern, thread by thread. The mechanical and aesthetic properties of the fabric lie in the interplay between the fabric’s structure and the type of fibres used. There are “an infinite number of weaving effects that can produce new fabrics”1. For example, linen, which is relatively stiff by nature, can be softened using a certain weave structure. Conversely, silk can be stiffened using another type of structure. There is an infinite multitude of weaves, and therefore of possible combinations for interlacing the warp and the weft.
On the first looms, patterns were developed on the loom itself. It is important to understand that weaving is based on complex mathematical principles. But early on in human history, for example in pre-Columbian Peruvian fabrics, mastery of these principles and experience of handling yarns already allowed for an extraordinary range of symmetrical patterns and images:. Even complex processes were fully developed in those ancient civilisations.
Weaving is both a manual and mental effort, based on a complex cognitive process. Weaving is to “count, separate, classify and put threads in order”2: it belongs “to the field of mathematics.”3 In this sense, weaving is a form of applied, tactile algebra.
In the beginning, despite the delicate nature of textiles, various weaves were preserved in the fabric itself, as a weaver knew how to read a fabric’s composition. As the art developed, so did the methods of documenting the processes of weaving and woven motifs. Patterns gradually came to be represented outside of the fabric itself, on paper: this is the weave pattern.
Schematic notation is like writing a fabric. In manuscripts found by Patricia Hilts, the first schematic notations from Austria and Tuscany resemble musical notation. The increasing complexity of the technical device was paralleled by the development of a highly codified writing system: a diagram represented the weave, as well as all of the steps required to create a fabric. This is the beginning of the conceptual representation of the weave: the weave diagram.
The diagram is the matrix that brings the fabric into existence, as it enables warping (prior preparation of warp threads), threading (respecting the order of entry of warp threads into loom frames is necessary for the exact creation of the pattern) and treadling (knowing which frames to lift in order to pass the weft): it is a code to be interpreted. According to convention, a solid square indicates a warp thread passing over the weft thread. In a way, the diagram can already be considered an algorithm, initiating the idea of computer programming: it separates the information from the action by describing a sequence of instructions necessary for constructing the fabric for its creation and possible reproduction.
The Jacquard loom is commonly considered the ancestor of the computer. This loom followed other inventions that automated the weaving process. It made it possible to activate a harness (responsible for lifting warp threads) according to punch cards that encode the weaving pattern. These cards embody the weave algorithm and above all make visible the binary logic (0 or 1) inherent in weaving: one thread passes either over or under another thread.
Although Jacquard did not invent this language, his machine introduced it to laymen and inspired engineers, starting with Ada Lovelace, a computer programming pioneer who created the first analytical machine. She explained: “We may say most aptly, that the Analytical Engine weaves Algebraical patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.” Weaving therefore inspired computers with its binary language, which is still used to store all of our data and information. As philosopher and cyberfeminism theorist Sadie Plant points out:
"The computer was always a simulation of weaving; threads of ones and zeros riding the carpets and simulating silk screens in the perpetual motions of cyberespace."
Despite myriad technical developments, this gesture of interlacing two threads is thousands of years old and has not changed. In this sense, the very first looms are the forerunners of computers.
But the link between weaving and writing goes far beyond computer language. Weaving and writing certainly share the gesture of unfolding lines: completing a line, then starting again. However, weaving predates writing and precedes the invention of alphabets. Long before inscription, thread work accompanied the development of thought. For example, the Incas are a civilisation long considered to have been illiterate. Yet it has now been discovered that the Quipu (or Khipu), a series of knotted white, yellow and red threads joined together in bundles, was used for accounting and writing messages. This was in fact a codified system to be interpreted, allowing information to be written in thread by means of a series of knots and colours.
Thread work therefore seems to be a system that crystallises thought, a form of writing. In Mali, in the Dogon language, the word “soih” (cloth) means “the word,” and “soihti” (weaver) means “the one who makes the word.” The thread fixes the human word. Far beyond its utilitarian functions, weaving has contributed to the dissemination of symbols, knowledge and the development of our civilisations. In this sense, weaving is much more than a skill: it is a language.