The Event of a Fibre

By Regine Hengge and Karin Krauthausen

Weaving, as Annie Albers knew, should be seen not through the lens of simple human agency but rather as an evolving encounter with thread’s constantly unfolding material potentialities. But what if we consider the thread-like macromolecules that are the basis of all life on the planet? Peering into nano- and micro-worlds reveals complex threaded architectures, microbial cities that are essential to inter-woven earthly survival – and which can provide models for our own future ecologies.

Studio Jongerius, 2021 © Hella Jongerius, VG Bildkunst Bonn, 2020, Photo: Magdalena Lepka

Onto the Length of a Thread – The Textile
Let us begin, like Anni Albers, with an event: in 1965, the artist and theorist wrote that her thoughts on weaving were guided by “the event of a thread”. (1) This statement is notable, particularly with regard to our understanding of material. We do not regard the thread as an everyday object or a passive material – no, the thread is an active occurrence that emerges from the everyday to become an “event”. The thread attracts attention; it surprises those who engage with it. This thread is not what Germans call the “red thread” (roter Faden) that steadily guides one through narratives or arguments by knitting together individual elements logically and causally. This thread is also not Ariadne of Crete’s crafty thread, which was used by Theseus to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Using this ball of thread, he recorded his route into the labyrinth so that he could find his way back out after killing the Minotaur. The activity of the thread, which Albers presents at the beginning of her 1965 book On Weaving, is neither a form of semantic abstraction nor a practical concretisation. This thread does not inconspicuously merge into an existing framework; instead, it enriches it by adding something unfamiliar and, in this sense, new. The momentum emanating from this thread is tied to the thread itself; it resides within the thread, within its material “structure”, which becomes a driving force, an element imbued with potential. And it is not surprising that Albers strongly emphasises this focus on the structure in her analysis of the woven textile: “The structure of a fabric or its weave – that is, the fastening of its elements of threads to each other – is as much a determining factor in its function as is the choice of the raw material. In fact, the interrelation of the two, the subtle play between them in supporting, impeding, or modifying each other’s characteristics, is the essence of weaving.” (2)

Fibres, Fibrils and Filaments – The Fabric of Life
Albers apprehends a fundamental principle in her exploration of thread material and (inter)weaving techniques. On the one hand, the complex woven product’s characteristics and functions result from an interplay between techniques and patterns and, on the other hand, from the basal material elements’ properties. Therefore, it is not an active subject – the weaver – shaping a passive material into an equally passive finished product here; instead, the material and the structures that define it are involved in making decisions by simultaneously enabling and limiting possibilities to which the weaver responds creatively. In nature, too, thread-like base elements are spun into fibres, fibrils and filaments on all scales, which, in turn, are woven into three-dimensional structures. All life on our planet is based on thread-like macromolecules, which are the fundamental components of all cells, regardless of whether or not these are single bacterial cells or human cells. In principle, DNA, RNA, proteins and polysaccharides – the fabric that allows life to emerge and exist – are one-dimensional polymer chains consisting of recurring small molecular building blocks that are “spun” by enzymes, which in turn are energy-driven molecular machines made up of three-dimensionally-folded proteins.

At this smallest scale, in the nanoworld, the self-activity and self-organisation of matter is the decisive factor in the assembly of functional units. The basis for this is the inherent thermal vibration that allows molecules to explore the space – the so-called Brownian motion of molecules – as well as the possibility of reaching deeper energy levels through structurally determined molecular interactions. Accordingly, the famous double-helix structure, composed of two DNA threads, results from the structure of its building blocks (nucleotides) and their ability to interact stably with each other through base pairing. Newly synthesised protein chains spontaneously fold into three-dimensional macromolecules due to the many interactions between their building blocks (amino acids) strung like beads. The proteins actively assisting this folding – appropriately called “chaperones” – merely encourage and accelerate the possible interactions already inherent in the protein chain’s “material” with its specific amino-acid sequence. These interactions result in a high level of stability of the fully folded protein, which, in this form, then becomes operational in the surrounding cell, for example, as an enzyme or as part of a molecular machine, which in turn produces proteins. In other words, the molecular machines fabricate themselves.

At the next higher level, the micro-scale, the cells become the shaping actors. With their energy-driven molecular machines, cells can produce proteins and polysaccharides internally and transport them through the cell wall to their surfaces. In the case of polysaccharides, it is there that these molecular threads are spun into intertwined fibrils, which in turn are woven into two-dimensional, i.e. planar, or three-dimensional meshes that hold the cell clusters together and protect them. One prominent example is the polysaccharide cellulose which is produced by both plant and bacterial cells. It is one of the most common biomolecules, which, by the way, is present in wood, cotton fabrics and paper, and which, for many years, was the raw material for the production of celluloid used for film reels. Using cellulose as a material, bacteria and plants could optimise the interweaving of polysaccharide threads (see image 1). But also protein molecules, which have already been folded three-dimensionally, further assemble at the cell surfaces to form long fibres or filaments. These are capable of further interactions and enable the cells to adhere to each other, i.e. mechanically “glue” together to form “tissues”.

Image 1: Scanning electron microscope close-up of a bacterial biofilm. The cells of the bacterium Escherichia coli (E.coli) shown here have surrounded themselves with a matrix of self-produced, interwoven cellulose fibres that give their community protection and cohesion. Individual cells have a diameter of about 0.001 millimetres. The cellulose mesh is reproduced in false colours to illustrate the structure.
© Diego O. Serra and Regine Hengge

Image 2: Fluorescence micrograph of a vertical thin section through a bacterial biofilm of Escherichia coli. Green fluorescent colour is based on a dye (thioflavin-S) that binds and thus makes visible the extracellular matrix, which in this case consists of tightly interwoven cellulose fibres and amyloid protein fibres. Individual bacterial cells can be seen as tiny black dots in this stained matrix architecture. The entire matrix layer has a height of approximately 0.05 millimetres.
© Diego O. Serra and Regine Hengge; previously published by Diego Serra et al. in: Environmental Microbiology 17 (2015), pp. 507–5088 (under Creative Commons Attribution-NoneCommercial-NoDerivatives licence).

The previously mentioned chaperone systems support the formation of most natural protein-based micro-fibres. There are, however, also proteins that spontaneously (without external help) assemble into thick fibres and large spatial structures. This applies in particular to the highly stable beta-amyloid protein fibre networks found, for example, in silk, and which, in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, get entangled into toxic “plaques”. In bacterial biofilms, which are multicellular aggregates of bacteria that appear in many places in the environment and our bodies, beta-amyloid protein fibres are often interwoven with cellulose fibrils. (3) This fibrous composite material forms a stable and elastic extracellular matrix that connects the bacterial cells into a tissue-like consortium and protects them from toxic environmental influences and predators. Using this mechanically superb fibre material, millions of bacteria can jointly produce a highly structured architecture that is more than a hundred times larger than the individual cells that “weave” it (see image 2). This collective achievement is remarkable: the size ratio between the producing bacterial cells and the biofilm matrix architecture with its “columns“ and “vaults“ corresponds to that between a human being and a gothic cathedral.

From the perspective of molecular biology, highly active molecular fibres, fibrils and threads are, therefore, what binds the living world’s innermost core together. Beyond just being the primary components of cells, they also weave together cells to form soft and flexible yet stable and elastic tissues. Looking at this nano- and micro-level, the following becomes clear: nature does not build with three-dimensional bricks as building blocks; on the contrary, she “spins”, “felts” and “weaves” by working excessively with quasi one-dimensional long fibres to assemble three-dimensional functional units on higher scales. Fibres are delicate lightweights with vast surfaces – in relation to their volume – that can simultaneously enter into many weak interactions. These interactions result in strong overall cohesion, while the possibility remains that the connections can be loosened again locally or reshaped without the entire tissue tearing or collapsing. This intricate, intertwined world of fibres forms soft, elastic, dynamically changeable and yet stable structures – precisely the kind of structures that active, growing, living systems need not only inside their cells and tissues, but also at their flexibly expandable interfaces and protective envelopes, where controlled communication with their environment takes place.

Bacterial biofilms clearly show that the interwoven fibre architecture has an existential function for this tissue-like bacterial community: it transforms the outside world, which is unpredictable and dangerous for the individual cell, into a protected interior space of the biofilm that the bacteria can homeostatically control and which thereby becomes life-friendly. Essentially resembling a city – a “city of microbes” (4) – the biofilm establishes a common supply structure for the bacteria; it does so as an extension of their own individual (cell) bodies. This “Extended Organism” and the related notion of the “Physiology of the Environment” do not only apply to biofilms but can also be found among social insects such as termites; their impressive constructions far exceed the size of any individual. (5) The physiologist J. Scott Turner has described this behaviour for various species, illustrating the benefit of their collective production for the individual organism’s life.

Might the idea of the “Extended Organism” not also be applied to human-made structures? For example, to our cities, which channel the flow of people and materials along with energy, information and capital, to the “advantage”, in a sense, of social coexistence? (6) Could our environment, composed of built structures, thus also be understood as an externalised collective physis? And how would an architecture look if instead of building structures out of bricks or stones, it reflected the principles of spinning and weaving to unite technical needs with a physiology that transcends both the individual and the human species? Perhaps this would be an adaptive and active architecture, as explored by Hella Jongerius in her research on Pliable Architecture (2021) (see image 3) and the woven 3D elements of her work Space Loom #2 (2019–ongoing).

The World of Fibres – Shared Agency
What do we see when we move from the nano- and micro-levels of molecules and cells to our macroscopic scale? Weaving is a cultural technique, one of humankind’s oldest. It long predates writing and is one of those manual activities that was able to combine instrumental purposes (protective mantle), symbolic needs (jewellery, identification, communication) and also epistemic curiosity (mathematics). The woven fabric provided insulation against uncomfortable temperatures, as well as being decorative and indicating the wearer’s social status or the weaver’s identity. Furthermore, the weaving of patterns required a notion of “counting” threads even before the invention of numbers. (7) Etymology continues to preserve the memory of the extensive meaning of weaving; the term “text”, for example, refers back to the Latin verb texere and thus to the practice of weaving and entwining (also, in a broader sense, the act of inciting, combining and composing). Yet, the cultural technique of weaving, along with the techniques that precede or accompany it (the cultivation of fibre material, spinning it into threads, basket weaving or sewing and cutting), is no longer commonplace in western consumer societies. The industrialisation of the 19th century and the globalisation of markets in the 20th century reduced weaving to a machine operation, turning textiles into short-lived and mass-produced goods produced cheaply by the workers of other countries (and at their expense). We buy clothing, but we rarely weave or process fabrics ourselves (except in the field of art); this characterises modern societies organised around the division of labour and determined entirely by capitalism. The only thing we generally know about fibres and threads is what we can see in the final product with the naked eye, usually without any knowledge of the production involved. We can hardly “sense” how fibre and thread behave during spinning and weaving or which properties their material structure contributes to both the process of weaving and the resulting fabric. In the 21st century, material is less a product of cultivation than of synthesis – whether as a cheap plastic or an advanced high-performance material, as a disposable product or a complex research application; whether it comes in the form of a nanoparticle-reinforced cleaning cloth or a quantum computer.

Rediscovering the activity of material, especially thread material, requires a kind of intellectual and sensual thrust reversal, such as may be generated by the change of scale. Looking at the molecular fabric of life can reveal this, but so can the revolt that Hella Jongerius incited with her Space Loom #1 in Paris for Lafayette Anticipations in 2019 (see image 4): the three-dimensionally-stretched thread frame, which was as high as the room itself – a system of warp threads within which one could easily live – clearly assumed control of the experience of space, material and weaving. There was no need for a weaving frame. The warp threads had become autonomous and the weavers seemed to hang locally within the threads like tiny figures, manually enlacing rather than weaving the weft threads. These weavers were by no means acting like marionettes, but certainly with diminished sovereignty, just because of the scale. Here, the activity of the material could be experienced directly, as could the spatial relations and social agreements that were established through the process of interweaving. The active/passive opposition transformed into a configuration of shared agency. Here, “agency” should be understood in the sense of a “shared or distributed activity” and thus in the way that the term has been understood in philosophy since the late-20th century: “In agency, the agents themselves are no longer only the actors/authors of action; instead, they are also caught up in a system of relations that shifts the place and authority of action and modifies [...] the definition of action.” (8)

Image 3: Hella Jongerius, Module #1, from the series Pliable Architecture, 2021–ongoing. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Magdalena Lepka © Hella Jongerius, VG Bildkunst Bonn, 2020

Image 4: Hella Jongerius, Space Loom #1, 2019, installation view, Lafayette Anticipations, Paris. Photo: Roel van Tour © Hella Jongerius, VG Bildkunst Bonn, 2021

Developing awareness for a material’s texture – its material quality – requires active senses and an active intellect. This comes naturally to the person who “makes”. (9) Manual production inevitably involves an implicit and explicit awareness of the materiality and relational character of shaping, which is what the British anthropologist Tim Ingold calls the “textility of making” and presents using the example of weaving. (10) According to the anthropologist, it is not craft per se that is at stake here, but a different “ecology of life”. (11) We think of our products and creations solely in terms of their rational and economic construction instead of relating them to our collective and individual existence, which cannot be understood without being embedded in environments. Organic life, which molecular biology describes, has a blueprint in the form of DNA; still, it only emerges, exists and grows in interaction with other factors, such as another living being or “dead” matter. Strictly speaking, organism and environment cannot be separated; activity is shared and distributed because both can only exist in an interdependent process with a generally open outcome. The organism can orchestrate the flows of material and energy that pass through it and keep it alive by “weaving”, “entwining” and “felting”. It does, however, thereby change what surrounds it and has to cope with the environment’s reactions and transformations. Therefore, recognising and practically experiencing the activity of the material, which surrounds us and that we act upon, is arguably a prerequisite for our beneficial connection and much-needed reintegration into our planet’s active material cycles.

Karin Krauthausen is a historian of culture and literary scholar. She is a research associate for the project Weaving of the Cluster of Excellence “Matters of Activity. Image Knowledge Gestaltung” at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin.

Regine Hengge is a professor of microbiology at the Institute of Biology and a project leader in the project Weaving of the Cluster of Excellence “Matters of Activity. Image Knowledge Gestaltung” at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin.

Endnotes

1. Anni Albers, On Weaving (London: Studio Vista, 1974 [first: 1965]), p. 15.
2. Ibid., p. 38.
3. For further details see Diego O. Serra and Regine Hengge, “Cellulose in bacterial biofilms” in Ephraim Cohen, Hans Merzendorfer, eds., Extracellular Sugar-Based Biopolymer Matrices (Basel: Springer International Publishing, 2019), pp. 355–392.
4. Paula Watnick and Roberto Kolter, “Biofilm, city of microbes” in: Journal of Bacteriology 182 (2000), pp. 2675–2679.
5. J. Scott Turner, The Extended Organism: The Physiology of Animal-Built Structures (Cambridge/MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2000), title and p. 7. In this context, Turner also refers to “external physiology” (ibid.).
6. For observations relating to this see Karin Krauthausen, “Hüttenkunde” in Ute Holl et al., eds., Gespenster des Wissens. Für Joseph Vogl (Zurich and Berlin: Diaphanes,), pp. 189–199.
7. For further details on the forgotten epistemology of weaving see Ellen Harlizius-Klück, Weberei als ‚episteme’ und die Genese der deduktiven Mathematik in vier Umschweifen entwickelt aus Platons Dialog ‘Politikos’ (Berlin: Edition Ebersbach, 2004).
8. Étienne Balibar and Sandra Laugier, “Art. Agency” in Barbara Cassin, ed., and for the English translation Emily Apter et al., eds., Dictionary of Untranslatables. A Philosophical Lexicon (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014), pp. 17–24, here p. 17.
9. In the original German text, the authors use the verb “wirken”, which, according to its etymology, can be understood here as “herstellen” (which means “to produce” or “to manufacture”). The term implies “Wirklichkeit” (“reality”), which is important for the authors’ argument – they understand weaving also to mean “herstellen von Wirklichkeit” (“producing reality”). For the term’s scope of meaning, cf. the article “WIRKEN” in Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm, digitised version in the Dictionary Network of the Trier Center for Digital Humanities, version 01/21 (accessed on 1 March, 2021).
10. Tim Ingold, “The textility of making” in Cambridge Journal of Economics 34 (2010), pp. 91–102, here p. 92f.
11. The anthropologist outlines his programme in the chapter “Culture, nature, environment: steps to an ecology of life” in Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment. Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 13–26. See also his juxtaposition of two modes of production: the traditional Western mode, “poetics of building”, and his preferred “poetics of building”, and his preferred “poetics of dwelling”, ibid., p. 26.