12 November 2019

Like the virtual world, weaving resembles a binary system, says Prof. Birgit Schneider. A conversation about textiles as precursors of digital codes and tapestries with political message.

By Julia Schmitz

Prof. Schneider, what is it that fascinates you about weaving?

Weaving is one of the oldest cultural techniques in the world, older even than writing. At the same time, it’s the first cultural technique to work digitally, as we would describe it today.

You wrote your doctoral thesis about the history of the Jacquard loom, which is operated using punched cards and is considered a forerunner of modern image processing. How did you end up studying this topic?

This work stemmed from the nascent media sciences at the end of the 1990s: Back then, I was working as a graphic designer and did a lot of image processing, and I was always interested in programming too. It was then that I heard about the Jacquard loom for the first time in a postgraduate colloquium at Humboldt University of Berlin given by the media scientist Bernhard Dotzler. Dotzler was researching Charles Babbage, who developed the “difference engine” computing machine – considered a forerunner of the modern computer – at the beginning of the 19th century. Babbage used the punched-card loom created by Joseph-Marie Jacquard as a model. While I was studying, I was told time and again that ultimately all media technology originated in military applications and that digital media are always virtual. Yet textiles are far older and, even though they are a preliminary stage of digitization, they are not virtual but rather haptic. I thought this was extremely interesting as an alternative history of textiles.

Birgit Schneider, Photo: Iris Jahnke

Where do you see the connection between weaving and digitization?

Anyone who weaves first has to give fundamental thought to how thread is spun and the framework in which it will be applied. The result is a system of “warp” and “weft”, meaning of horizontal and vertical lines. It’s a binary system, whereby the weft runs across and back through the warp. I find it very interesting that other crafts, for example painting or pottery, do not need such a fixed frame at all. Weaving has therefore always been far more technical and rationalized. That applies not only with utilitarian textiles, but also for tapestry: Threads always have to have an ultimately geometric structure to generate the various patterns. If I then add colors to that, then the whole thing becomes even more complex.

Digital images are also made up of lines: The image code must stipulate how wide the image is, what range of colors is available, and which pixel has what color. The most apt comparison with weaving is bitmap graphics. If we’re talking about a strict, linear history of the technology, it’s not the case that someone invented an image code based on punched-card weaving – there was a whole lot of other steps in between – but weaving is nevertheless the earliest technology in terms of ideas in which the image code and the body of the image were separate.

When did this separation of image code and the body of the image take place?

The first punched cards were used for weaving around 1730, and then much more widely from 1805 with the improvements by Joseph-Marie Jacquard. If we’re talking about notations, i.e. how patterns can be noted in abstract form as coding for images, then we can go much further back. The earliest notations I found come from the 17th century, but I think that it must have existed even centuries earlier. After all, there’s no other way to weave.

For very elaborate images, sometimes up to 40,000 punched cards were used.

Birgit Schneider

How did such handwritten notations develop to become punched cards that controlled the weaving looms?

There’s a whole array of reasons here. One important role, most certainly, was the development of fashion cycles – parallel to the emergence of the capitalist system – in the 18th century: All at once there were special fashions for summer and for winter, which boosted sales. This didn’t mean a change in the cut of clothes like today, but rather the pattern on the materials primarily. In line with this, the execution of patterns on fabrics had to be accelerated somehow. It’s worth mentioning here how laborious it was to weave a multicolored pattern out of silk, sometimes even with patterns on both sides: Every loom had to be prepared for this over a period of months for the corresponding pattern to be set in the first place. With the punched cards, such downtime was avoided, and the looms could be used continuously once again.

How does this punched-card mechanism work?

As I mentioned, you need “warp”, made up of threads that form a panel into which the “weft” is woven using the shuttle. To weave a pattern, very specific threads need to be elevated, which vary from row to row. The punched cards ultimately dictate, through the holes, which of the warp threads should remain underneath. The reading mechanism for the punched cards sits on top of the loom and consists of clasps and nails that can feel these holes. One card represents one row of the weave and the threads that need to be drawn up and down. Incidentally, there’s a tremendous din when the weaver opens the compartment and the punched card is pressed onto the loom at the same time! For very elaborate images, sometimes up to 40,000 punched cards were used. These days we can barely imagine what it must have been like to make these countless cards.

With his 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin launched the discussion about originality – were there already concerns during Jacquard’s time that mass production would cause woven items to lose their status as unique pieces?

I think that weaving and the concept of the “unique piece” are incompatible in general. That doesn’t apply, of course, in the case of Hannah Ryggen, who wove tapestries – these are one-off items. The core of weaving, however, is the repetition of the pattern. In the kind of weaving we’re talking about the products have therefore always been standardized. The development of the Jacquard loom, in turn, is a process of industrialization.

People who weave view the world differently.

Birgit Schneider

In your dissertation, you write “that the technique functions less as a cultural condition of possibility; rather, culture and the arts provided the ideas for a technique as rich in consistency as the punched card mechanism.” But without technology, i.e. the loom, textile art would not have developed either, would it?

Weaving is an exciting example of a dialectical relationship: Once a frame is set in place, then it can produce unbelievable variety. With patterns, just a few changes can create something new time and again – there are virtually no limits. Of course, that has to be incorporated time and again into the technology, for example a foot-treadle floor loom. It’s like a piano that has set keys with which a multitude of melodies can be created.

Do you think that the tapestries by Hannah Ryggen convey their political message more strongly because they are woven rather than painted?

People who weave view the world differently. Once you’ve tried weaving, you start to think about color and form in a different way: It’s entirely different to weave a circle than to draw one. With Hannah Ryggen, the forms are very striking; sometimes they are distorted and very geometric. If she had painted them instead, then I do believe their expressiveness would have been very different. Ultimately this “battle” with the structure of the material – the fact that one is forced to work in grids – also has an effect. Painting, too, can be very media-reflexive, but I think that in weaving the medium and the texture always have to be considered to a greater extent. I create the canvas on which the image develops at the same moment as the image itself is created: Both steps are literally interwoven with each other.