A Bit More Weaving – Weaving ArtOctober 21, 2022
Last month I wrote about the ancient fine art and craft of weaving, and how it’s so important that there are many Greek myths which intrinsically feature it. It is an immense skill, and tapestries and lengths of cloth created in Ancient Greece, as in all pre-Industrial societies, were highly prized, whether they were meant to clothe the body or adorn a wall. All the weavers of the Greek stories I mention were women, and weaving, as an intricate craft, was always women’s work.
This only changed when semi-automatic power looms were invented at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, in 1786. They were so heavy they could only really be operated by men. This put many female weavers who used traditional methods out of a job. Up until now, weaving was performed individually at home in a cottage industry. Women wove and their children helped. With this work, women could often be the main breadwinners of the family.
Weaving and the Industrial Revolution
Following the invention and production of automated machines, the spinning and weaving factories that were set up in Lancashire and Manchester used water power to increase the output of cloth by thousands of times the previous amount. The machines were ingenious, and women and children were employed once more in this work. Men were usually the overseers. Unfortunately the factories were also dangerous and unhealthy, and women and children earned much less than the men. The air was full of fibres which were breathed in. The machines not configured for safety. So the children’s tiny fingers, employed to unsnarl threads caught in the machines and other tasks, were sometimes chopped off in the process.
The products of the Machine Age also improved lives. The fabric created in the factory meant cheaper clothes could be made, with sewing machines that also began to be installed in factories. So clothes were no longer so scarce and precious. However, the cloth that was produced wasn’t the best quality, and hardly an example of the fine art of weaving.
Have Nothing in Your Houses…
Even as it was happening, people rebelled against the perceived ugliness of industrial design. William Morris was one of the most famous Victorians in England who championed a return to traditional arts and crafts. His famous maxim was “ Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. He did not think that industrial design or cheaply printed cloth was beautiful.
Morris’s company, Morris & Co, designed wallpapers, murals, stained glass, embroideries and textiles. Some fabrics were block printed, but he also created jacquards and tapestries, hand woven on looms. These were intended as beautiful home furnishings, not individual weaving art works. But for everyday objects, they were incredibly expensive and could only be afforded by the elite.
The Bauhaus School Principles
The Bauhaus School in Germany had similar aims. Founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius its aim was to unify all the arts (including crafts) using radical modernist redesign. Whereas William Morris had yearned for the courtly Medieval world, the Bauhaus looked to the future. Students such as Sophie Taeuber-Arp designed brightly-coloured geometric woven rugs and wall hangings for which she charged an equal price as her oil-on-canvas paintings, created with similar motifs.
Anni Albers also studied at the Bauhaus. She worked to elevate crafts, and specifically women’s crafts, such as weaving, which were still looked down on. She wanted people to see weaving as art. Albers concentrated on weaving alone. In 1949 had an exhibition at the the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was the first solo exhibition to be dedicated to a textile artist at the institution.
Sonia Delaunay, the Ukrainian-born French mid-century artist also designed a dizzying array of objects, artworks and clothing, each of which she ascribed equal weight and merit. They included hand weaving. She called her work simultanéisme, or Simultaneous Design, and it was also known as Orphism.
Recent Weaving Art
More recently, artists like Chris Ofili and Kiki Smith who are known for their paintings and drawings have commissioned incredible woven wall-hangings as an expression of their art. The creations are so skilled that it would not be possible for them to hand-make them themselves without decades of intensive training. But luckily, there are still artisans who are able to translate sketches such as those made by Ofili into faithful woven reproductions. The results are unusual because tapestry design usually takes into account the limitations of the warp and weft of the technique. Anni Alber’s work, for example, is very geometric in character, and the blocks of colour suit the technique. But these later artist’s pieces seem to ignore the woven media. Somehow they replicate the translucency of a spreading pool of watercolour or the distortion of paper when it is painted on.
Chris Ofili’s work, The Caged Bird’s Song, was shown in 2017 at The National Gallery. It is a triptych measuring several metres across. This was made by hand by the Dovecot Studios, taking two and a half years to complete. They are so beautiful you could look at them for hours. The sheer amount of work that has gone into them, and skill aligned with the years of practice needed to produce something like this, meld with the artist’s own skills and intentions to make something breathtaking.
Kiki Smith’s work, Woodland, is a series of tapestries made in collaboration with Magnolia Editions and shown in 2018. The 2 by 3 metre tapestries were made using a digitised Jacquard weaving process. This employs a punch-card system to control the thread sequencing.
Weaving Art at Large
If you go to an art fair today, you will see many textile artists who work with weaving. Many of them are still women, although not all. Sheila Hicks is a grande dame of the medium. Myles Bennett actually unweaves – he paints on canvas and then unravels it, to leave the colours ghostly on what’s left.