On Weaving

From the invention of the loom to the World Wide Web: weaving is omnipresent in our lives. These short texts accompanying the exhibition Hella Jongerius: Woven Cosmos give a small insight into the social dimension of a centuries-old craft.

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Studio Jongerius, 2020

Studio Jongerius, 2020

© Hella Jongerius, VG Bildkunst Bonn, 2020, photo: Laurian Ghinitoiu

Weaving and Spinning in the Collective Consciousness

The fundamental technical principle of weaving – warp and weft threads intersecting to form a network – reflects the overlapping contexts that emerge from thinking about weaving. Many idioms refer to the importance of textile production methods in human societies. They exemplify the meaning of weaving, spinning, and of the textile in the collective consciousness: people spin stories; they pick up the threads during a conversation; they surf the World Wide Web. Life can hang by a thread, and desire can be felt with every fibre of one's being. The scope of the textile's wide-ranging meaning in our use of language manifests in the Latin word textus (structure, web, context), which refers to the interwoven, etymological relationship between written texts and woven textiles.

Weaving, Braiding, Spinning

Different techniques connect the threads and yarns in this exhibition. Weaving involves combining longitudinal threads (known as warp threads) and transverse threads (known as weft threads) to create fabric with a loom. Handloom weaving involves a so-called shuttle that guides the weft thread through the longitudinal threads. For braiding, the threads cross over diagonally; baskets, for example, are made using this technique. Unlike weaving, this method – just like braiding hair – do not require a machine. During spinning, yarn is created by twisting fibres, usually with the help of a spindle or spinning wheel.

Jacquard’s Loom

The history of the first modern loom, commonly described as the first computer, reveals weaving’s innovative potential. Furthermore, the advancement of digitality is tied to the evolution of weaving and the loom. At the beginning of the 19th century, Joseph-Marie Jacquard invented a loom controlled by punched cards that could produce continuous patterns. This invention was a breakthrough for industrial mass production. Wire hooks were able to reach through the cards’ “programmed” holes to take hold of the threads below. Wherever there was a hole, i.e. a one, in the card, a thread appeared – a pixel. If the hole was closed, the needle could not pass through, and the pattern did not change. This binary system of open and closed points produced a code that controlled lifting and lowering. Nowadays, the pixel is comparable to the intersection of the two warp and weft threads, i.e. the horizontal and vertical lines. Tactile, sensual material relied on this abstract, technical grid. Weaving was, therefore, one of the first craft techniques that separated the prime image (the code) and the product (the materialisation of the code). Ada Lovelace, who is considered the first computer programmer, and her husband, the mathematician Charles Babbage, were inspired by Jacquard’s loom; they created the first calculating machine, also controlled by punched cards. They developed the “Analytical Engine” – a machine made up of thousands of cogs. Just like Jacquard’s looms could automatically produce fabric patterns using a chain of punched cards, their calculating machine could “weave” algebraic patterns.

Creation Stories of the Cosmic Loom

Jongerius’ installation Cosmic Loom refers to the many creation stories that link weaving to the origin of life. The Egyptian creation story, for example, holds that Neith, goddess of war and hunting, wove the world in her cosmic loom. Following the birth of her son, the sun god Ra, she mounted the heavens onto her loom and wove the universe. Submerging the woven web in primordial waters, she gathered all living creatures and placed them on the earth. Ananke, the Greek goddess of fate, spins the universe in Plato’s vision. The sun, moon and planets served as her spindle whorls. As she wove, sirens sang through the nets of fate, and souls moved ceaselessly along the threads on their path between death and rebirth. According to the mythology of the Batak ethnic groups of North Sumatra, Indonesia, the goddess Si Boru Deak Parujar, the creator of humankind and the world, was the first spinner who withdrew to her home, the moon, to spin, and who has determined the phases of the moon ever since. The story of the Moirai involves three sisters: Klotho, the youngest, spins the thread of life; her sister Lachesis divides and measures it, while the third sister Atropos cuts it. Norse mythology portrays the Normir, the Fates, similarly; here, three spirit beings spin the thread of life for all living creatures and the gods. Urd is the oldest of the sisters, associated with the past and with fate. Verdande is associated with the present and actions currently taking place. Skuld represents the future and all the actions that drive the process of life. Native American myths of the Southwest describe the spider grandmother Kokyangwuti. According to Hopi cosmology, she is the Earth Goddess who gave birth to humanity. Similarly, there is the powerful teacher and trickster Spider Women, also known as the “Creator of Life”, who spins every human being’s destiny. She is a resourceful helper in trying situations by creating a web of energy around those seeking help. The metaphysical understanding of these oral traditions suggests that life, and society, is a network in which each individual represents one thread. Spider Women knows all these networks and can teach them. This is why popular dream catchers are shaped like webs; her knowledge is supposed to be caught in them overnight for those who are asleep.