On Weaving

On Weaving

by Anni Albers

ISBN: 9780691177854

Publisher Princeton University Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Artists, A-Z, Professional & Technical/Engineering

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Sample Chapter


Weaving, Hand

One of the most ancient crafts, hand weaving is a method of forming a pliable plane of threads by interlacing them rectangularly. Invented in a preceramic age, it has remained essentially unchanged to this day. Even the final mechanization of the craft through introduction of power machinery has not changed the basic principle of weaving.

Other techniques had been devised to the same end: single element techniques — looping, netting, knitting, crocheting — and multiple element techniques — knotting, coiling, twining, braiding. In weaving, in the latter group, one system of threads, the warp, crosses another one, the weft, at right angles, and the manner of intersecting forms the different weaves.

Gradually the various phases of manipulating warp and weft were mechanized until the technique of weaving surpassed all others in efficiency.

Whereas single-thread methods can be handled with few tools, weaving needs more complicated equipment since the warp has to be given tension. The device giving such tension is the loom. Weaving, then, is the process of passing the weft between taut, alternately raised warps, as in the basic plain weave, or between other combinations of selected warps, and pressing it into place.

Earliest weaving was done on the warp-weight loom, where warps were suspended from an upper bar and weighted at bottom. Weaving here progressed downward, unlike other weaving. It was used in ancient Greece, and, more recently, by Indians of the North Pacific American coast. Next came the two-bar loom, with warp stretched from bar to bar, or, for extended length, wound onto the bars. Used either vertically or horizontally, the warp was held taut by a framework or stakes in the ground. Early Egyptian records show weaving on such a loom which, in vertical position, is also the tapestry loom of today.

Another loom, allowing for subtly adjustable tension, therefore finer weaving, is the back-strap loom, in which the lower bar is attached to a belt around the waist of the weaver, who, leaning forward or backward can tighten or slacken the warp. This loom made possible the extraordinary textile achievements of pre-Columbian Peru and is still found in remote regions of Asia and parts of Central and South America.

The intersecting weft, crossing between raised and lowered warps, was first inserted without tool, the extra length being wound into little bundles, as today in tapestry weaving: i.e., pictorial weaving. Later the weft was wound onto sticks and released as it traversed the warp. Finally, to introduce the weft faster and in greater length, it was wound on bobbins, inserted into boatlike shuttles, and thrust across the opened warp (the shed) in hand as well as in power looms.

To beat the weft into place, a weaver's sword of wood was an early instrument. Later a comblike "reed" was introduced, combining warp spacing with pounding of the weft. Suspended from the loom framework, the reed swings against the woven fabric, pressing successive wefts against it.

A first device for speeding up the selection of warps between which the weft passes was the shed-rod, carrying raised warps. To raise the opposite warps, an ingenious device, called a heddle, was introduced. The warps running under the shed-rod were tied with string-loops to a second rod, the heddle-rod, and they now could be raised past those on the shed-rod with one upward motion. Later, series of heddle-rods, replacing the shed-rod, facilitated the production of weaves based on more complex warp operation than that demanded for the plain weave, based on the principle of opposites.

In the medieval loom, the heddle-rods, now called shafts or harnesses, were suspended from the framework, similar to the pounding device, and were attached to foot treadles, as they are on hand looms today. They are still found on power looms. Though of incalculable value in saving time, this invention limited the thus far unlimited, primitive warp selection.

To regain some of the early freedom, the highly developed draw-loom was devised. Chinese in origin, developed for elaborate pattern weaving, such as brocades and damasks, it was later adopted in Europe. It was superseded by a further mechanized warp-selection method, Jacquard weaving, still in use today, though transferred during the past century to power-driven machinery.

Among high achievements in hand weaving, Coptic as well as early Peruvian weaving must be recognized, the latter surpassing perhaps in inventiveness of weave structure, formal treatment, and use of color, other great textile periods. In fact, practically all known methods of weaving had been employed in ancient Peru, and also some types now discontinued.

Today, hand weaving is practiced mainly on the medieval shaft loom with few harnesses. No longer of consequence as a manufacturing method in an industrial age, it concerns itself chiefly with fabrics for decorative use. Increasingly, though, industry is turning to hand weavers for new design ideas, worked out on hand looms, to be taken over for machine production. Hand weaving is included in the curriculum of many art schools and art departments of colleges and universities, as an art discipline able to convey understanding of the interaction between medium and process that results in form. It has survived through the ages as an art form in tapestry.

Hand weaving has also been taken up in the field of occupational therapy, having, though, as its aim there neither an educational nor an artistic end but solely that of rehabilitation.

It should be realized that the development of weaving is dependent also upon the development of textile fibers, spinning and dyeing, each a part of the interplay resulting in a fabric. Recent advances in the production of synthetic fibers and new textile finishes are having profound effects upon the weaving of cloth.


The Loom

Any weaving, even the most elaborate, can be done, given time, with a minimum of equipment. The main incentive, therefore, for perfecting the weaving implements has always been that of saving time. Precision of work, it is true, is greatly aided by adequate instruments, but fabrics of great accuracy have been executed without much mechanical aid. Furthermore, the manipulating of threads does not demand much physical effort, unlike the case where a resistant material has to be forced into shape. Weaving deals with a submissive material. But since it is building a whole out of small parts — a process that is time-consuming by its very nature — the invention of time-saving devices has always been a primary concern, from the earliest weaving frame to the latest power loom. In proportion to time saved, production can increase, of course, but we can suppose that the matter of production capacity was of little interest at a time when the usefulness of cloth was only gradually being established. Today, with this usefulness proved, it has grown to surpass in importance most other considerations, for better or for worse.

During the 4,500 years or, in some estimates, even 8,000 years that we believe mankind has been weaving, the process itself has been unaffected by the various devices that contributed to greater speed of execution. We still deal in weaving, as at the time of its beginning, with a rigid set of parallel threads in tension and a mobile one that transverses it at right angles. The main devices, in turn, have not become obsolete, but still form the nucleus of today's weaving instruments. If we follow the various inventions through the ages, we will not be led on historical detours, interesting per se, but will arrive at the underlying ideas in the mechanism of today's automatically functioning loom.

One of the initial problems calling for a solution in terms of equipment is that of giving tension to the first mentioned group of threads, the warp. We will not consider, at this point, matters of operation, or preparation for it such as warping, for instance, but will concentrate on implements and their development. It is interesting to observe that the answers to some of the technical points at issue are often of startling simplicity, as are truly ingenious inventions. For instance, by attaching one end of the warp threads to a bar and weights to their other end, the desired tension is achieved in a strikingly easy manner. This, then, is the warp-weight loom, an upright loom, as is apparent from the use of weights. It is best known as the Greek loom. It was also used in England during the early Bronze Age and in the Swiss lake dwellings. It is also the loom, with a slight variation, used by the Chilkat Indians of the northwest coast of America.

Another method of achieving tension is by stretching the warp threads between or over two bars, the prototypes of warp and cloth beams known to our day. To keep them taut, the bars are attached to a framework in either vertical or horizontal position. Both these ways have been used in various parts of the world: the upright version for tightly packed weaves such as tapestries and rugs; the horizontal one for finer and looser materials. Examples of the vertical type are found over most parts of the earth, from ancient to modern times. It was known in Egypt and Peru, in India and Asia Minor, in the European countries and Africa, for example, and it is still in use, among other places in France, for tapestry work, and in the United States by the Navajo Indians for their rug weaving. The best-known early example of the primitive horizontal type is the Egyptian loom, which is set low to the ground. In the Andean highlands still fairly recently, a similar type has been found.

The invention of the back-strap loom added regulative tension to the inventory of early weaving devices. One bar, carrying the spread-out, parallel warp threads, is attached to a pole or a tree; the other is fastened to the waist of the weaver, who can adjust the tension by leaning forward or backward. This makes minute regulation possible and with it a more delicate weaving operation. This back-strap loom occurs mainly in the region of the Pacific Ocean. It was, for instance, in use in Japan and the Malayan islands, and in China, Burma, and Tibet. In Peru, Guatemala, and Mexico, it can still be seen in use, and in some remote regions of Asia.

Next, we can suppose, the heddle evolved. Up to the time of its invention, the warp threads to be interlaced had to be lifted up with the fingers, so that the crossing, mobile threads, the wefts, could be inserted. After each intersection, the warps next to be interwoven had to be selected anew — shifting from odd- to even-numbered threads or vice versa — and raised as before. Only small groups of warp threads can be lifted up in this manner, just as many as a hand can easily hold. This means that, for each passage of a weft thread, as many handfuls of warps had to be picked up as the width of the cloth demanded — a tedious work. By placing a rod into permanent position under the threads to be lifted for the passing of the weft, one part of this work is greatly simplified, since the thickness of the rod causes a separation of the warps to be raised from those to remain lowered. The separation of the warps, or the opening, is called the shed; and the rod, in consequence, the shed-rod. Since the fundamental form of weaving operates on the principle of opposites, the problem of the counteropening is left to be solved. If those warps lying under the shed-rod are attached, by means of a string forming loose loops around each of them, to a second rod lying on top of the warp, the resulting device, the heddle, produces the countershed when raised. By introducing the weft alternately into the shed formed by the shed-rod and that formed by the heddle, the efficiency of the procedure — that is, weaving — is increased tremendously. For, since the shed-rod remains in position throughout the weaving of a cloth, one motion — that of lifting the heddle, not counting that of letting it go — takes care of the previously separate ones of gathering handfuls of threads over and over again. When the heddle is released, the threads raised by it settle back into their prior position, their "natural" position, under the shed-rod. "Natural shed" is an expressive term sometimes used for the first shed formation, in contrast to "artificial shed," used for the second one, which forces its threads past those maintained in their position over the shed-rod.

The type of heddle described here is the one that was destined to outlive others that evolved in the course of exploring the idea. Details such as the various ways of fastening the heddle loops to the rod, diverging with region, race, and period, may be of interest to specialists in the field, but our concern here is to trace the main line of mechanical contributions that finally were to result in today's weaving machinery. However, mention should be made of a cleverly conceived implement that, though not incorporated in the modern inventory of equipment, is interesting as another attempt at producing shed and countershed by the simplest means. This is the free rigid heddle. It is of a hard material, such as wood, bone, or even metal, and has narrow bars, each with a small hole in the middle through which a warp thread runs. Another warp thread is passed through the space between the bars. As the apparatus is raised or lowered, the latter threads slide past those threaded through the holes, thereby forming a shed, alternately above or below those threads. This invention combines the device for forming each of the two opposite sheds in one contrivance. Its disadvantage lies in the limited number of warps that can be used without calling for so large a size of heddle that it becomes unwieldy, and also in the friction that may occur when the threads slide up and down the slots. Also, it must be remembered, only the two basic sheds can be formed, thus making only a plain weave construction possible. Nevertheless, it has proved successful in the weaving of narrow fabrics and was used, for instance, in America, Germany, and Finland.

Weaving in the preheddle days could have held no greater promise as a technique of interlocking threads than did others such as twining, looping, and netting. With the simplification that the invention of the heddle brought, weaving was singled out, for millennia to come, to attain a major role in civilization.

The earliest evidence of the heddle is found in Egypt where it is estimated to have been in use before 2000 B.C. It probably was invented independently in many places and at various periods. In Peru, it was known as early as several centuries B.C. For some four thousand years, the idea of the heddle has remained intact, and it is easily recognized in the form of the harness in today's power loom. The shed-rod, in a sense an embryo heddle, has been given up, to be succeeded by a second, full-fledged heddle.

The next step, from heddle opposites to multiple heddles, signifies the carrying through of the initial notion. Series of heddles, with warp threads in designated order, raised in accordance with that order, will form structural patterns. To this day, the shaft loom of our industry operates on this very principle.

The great technical advance of the heddle prepared the way that eventually was to lead to quantity production of enormous dimensions. But, as Luther Hooper wisely reminds us, in his book Hand-Loom Weaving, "Each step toward the mechanical perfection of the loom, in common with all machinery, in its degree, lessens the freedom of the weaver, and his control of the design in working." Thus the emergence of the heddle is also actually a limiting element, for it channels thread construction and composition of a weave into a shedding system that permits within its scheme only limited development. Centuries and even millennia had to pass before some of the lost freedom of earlier shed formations could be regained through more intricate machinery.

So far we have taken up matters concerning the warp; we now come to the weft. The first, most elementary, way to introduce the weft thread or threads between the warps was, and still is today in tapestry weaving, by no other means than the fingers. A length of thread is laced over and under the stretched warp threads or inserted into the open shed. With longer wefts, wider weavings, and a speeding-up process came the idea of winding the weft yarn onto a stick that could carry it faster through the shed from side to side of the weaving. Hand in hand with the development of the loom went the development of weft carriers — shuttles. But at the point that we have now reached, a stick, sometimes delicately finished and ornamented, was all that had evolved.

Excerpted from "On Weaving" by Anni Albers. Copyright © 2013 by Anni Albers. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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