A report from HOMO TEXTOR


The notion of homo textor refers to three dimensions of human beings where weaving (texere in Latin) is at stake. First of all, textile production is one of the oldest technologies and constituted the exchange of homo sapiens with the world longer than any other craft. Secondly, the title alludes to the fact that the human body and brain both consist of connected fibres. Furthermore, recent studies in ethnology and anthropology suggest that the concept of weaving stands in for the inner structure of societies and their proper relation to the world, today all pervasive in the idea of the world-wide web.

Neither abstract metaphor, nor material commodity, it is weaving itself, and not its meaning as textility or cloth production or consumption that these papers interrogate. At the core are two approaches at work. First, how can we rethink paradigms of knowledge in ancient Greece, when we put weaving as techne at the juncture of art, craft, technology in conversation with weaving narratives, which is how this knowledge travels in time? For example can we think through the notion of poikilia, reframed as cross-sensory perception of pattern, as ordering both the natural and manmade world, and as a concept which engages with both form (and surface) and material without necessarily being bound to a specific craft or effect, and yet enabling/affording the transference from one medium/material/technology to another? Second, how can we rethink paradigms of knowledge for the future, when we put weaving as women’s work, as marginalised livelihood, as binary way of knowing that subsumes electronic coding, into conversation with methodologies that are specific to classical studies of Ancient Greece? Here for example, what can our understanding of weaving as both coding the loom, and ordering the world, bring to our contemporary understanding of production and consumption of knowledge and science, particularly with reference to ethics that may or not order emerging technologies?

In order to be generative, we approach the topics from various disciplines [philology, ethnology, mathematics, art, computer science] along four topics: 

  • Weaving as Order in Ancient Greece
  • The Textile Production of Weaving and Song
  • The Textile Production of Knowledge and Science
  • Pattern Machines: Alternative histories

Archaeology of Textile Production and Consumption in Archaic Greece: State of the Art and Future Direction

Margarita Gleba prepared the stage for us by reporting on the current state-of-the-art evidence of archaeological textiles in ancient Greece (especially the first half of the first millennium BC), Eastern Mediterranean and Southern Italy. She also presented the techniques and tools whose remains allow scholars to make inferences on textile production.

The archeological record of textiles mostly comes from high status funerary items. These items were very much for ‘elite consumption’ – so we have to acknowledge a bias as we have far less from the average (or lower) class people of these societies; diatopic and diachronic variations also greatly affect our knowledge of archaic Greece textile culture, with certain regions and certain periods providing much more archaeological material than others. 

Still, archaeological textiles offer precious information regarding choice and availability of raw material (animal or plant fibers) and preferences for certain weaving techniques. Margarita showed us how evidence is gathered using microscopic analysis – detecting different types of plant or animal-based yarns. It is possible for instance to trace the evolution of sheep as they were gradually domesticated, with their wool becoming of higher quality. 

Although trade and communication were well established between different societies in the region, each area had its own defining customs in terms of both products and textile techniques. In Greece the predominant methods were weft-faced plain weaves, often with fine double packed wefts. These could number from 50-100 threads per centimetre. Some fibres were spliced instead of spun for more glossy appearance. The strict minimalism of the plain/tabby weave was contrasted by the Greeks obsession with colour patterns in their fabrics. This invites comparison with Southern Italy at the time, where there were far more diverse weaves in use – twill and tablet weaves employing combinations of the two with the use of tablet borders. Here, however, colours were mostly the same throughout a garment. Furthermore, archaeological remains of tools reveal differences between the strength of the yarns required for these techniques. This can be detected by spindle whorls used for spinning yarn – with heavier ones needed for the strong but hidden warp yarns for the Greek weft faced fabric, while in Italy lighter spindle whorls are found, but heavier loom weights. Investigation of spindle whorls allows functional analysis and provides crucial information about the type of threads used. 

There are big unknowns surrounding how the vast quantities of sails required for the time were manufactured – particularly during times of conflict. Each sail would have taken as long to weave as the actual process of building the haul of a ship. They could have been provided via a tax on households (sail material being woven on household looms) or this could of course have been the job for slaves. We know from literary and historiographical sources that women from areas famous for making textiles were seen as a commodity at the time. Sails production may be counted as a factor in pushing textile industry: archaeological evidence is not at hand for this production, and other methods have to be developed: more detailed scientific and toll analysis, and deeper exploration of environmental data.  

In order to feed the looms, each weaver would have also needed 3 people spinning yarn. This means women would have been doing this constantly, weaving (and spinning) being an activity which could be carried out contextually to other domestic tasks, like food preparation and child caring – and children would probably have started very early to help mothers with spinning. There are unknowns as to why this was considered a gendered role (which continues until the industrial revolution) – what can be said is that the domestic dimension of textile work has been a constant tract of the craft. Women and children are generally underrepresented as agents of textile production. 

An interesting issue for the PENELOPE project is that in Greece tablet weaving is only suggested by iconography – there is no material evidence that they did this, and in fact some of the borders that we see depicted might have been produced in a variety of weaving techniques. In Italy, clay spools are pervasively found, and these usually reflect tablet weaving. However, Greeks would have known all about the technique from their neighbours; as Margarita observes, the puzzling question is why they seem to not use the technique, while they in every likelihood knew it.

Modular patterns: A Survey on the Textile Origin of Neolithic Design

Kalliope Sarri took us further back to human development and consciousness in the “deep time” of the Neolithic period. We can use textiles as a way to trace human intellect and its understanding of the world and nature. Its use can be  associated with a changing “mental environment”, and perhaps the first introduction of empirical mathematics.

During the even more ancient Paleolithic time, humans were living a nomadic existence. The art  remaining in caves and artifacts from this time is predominantly figurative in nature. There is some symmetry present, but generally it consists of pictorial representations of the world and the creatures around them.

During the Neolithic, life fundamentally changed – people became settled and started farming. Art becomes geometric – zig zags and spirals appear on the decoration of pottery, repeated pattern forms connected together in a modular logic. This was a world where these ideas travelled far, but these patterns remain extremely consistent across the connected world and they can with all likelihood be traced back to woven patterns.

Only pottery survives from such early times, with surfaces covered with abstract forms. However, much of the abstraction seems to have clear textile basis – some of it is obviously figurative depiction of fabric. We also see the ability to comprehend complex transformations of 3D textile forms onto the 2D pottery surfaces. In some cases, depicted bands seem to reproduce the very fabrics, rather than just being inspired by textiles. Woven patterns, to judge from textile-inspired pottery decoration, were standardized.  

Kalliope suggests that weaving (and we include basket weaving here) could have been a primary source of abstract thinking. While pottery, stoneworking and bone carving for example all require incredible skill, tactile abilities and strength, but probably less ‘applied mathematics’ and ability to transfer pattern from 3D to 2D, weaving requires mathematics and planning in a slightly different way for warping and loom setup.

Was the loom seen as a calculating system? Were they programming in order to raise their living standards? In terms of systems of calculation, early looms may be compared to the abacus – also a three-dimensional counting system with horizontal and vertical components. What we do know is that that they had the luxury and spare time to devote to these activities, and that “what they are showing in their patterns is what is important to them”. Decoration of Neolithic pottery, especially of ‘modular’ patterns, invites thinking that prehistoric people through textile crafts and experimentation with symmetry had access to pre-mathematical notions, later implemented in other technologies. 

There is a close connection between basketry and weaving (basketry being an older craft than weaving), and basketry might have played a role in the transition between woven or interlaced patterns and how these are ‘migrating’ into decoration of pottery. There is a crosscraft copy of patterns in Neolithic craft practices around a broad geographical area, which suggests connections and circulation. 

Temple Dressing: from Thread to Stone in Sacred Architecture

Deborah Steiner took us forward in time to the temples of archaic and early classical Greece, and was able to vividly depict a world very distinct from our own – one where weaving enjoyed a privileged position in society and its rituals. She focused on sacred architecture which is at times depicted in literary texts as being ‘woven’ or ‘plaited’ in ways that invites thinking to the idea of the “fabric” of a building, or the act of “dressing” buildings (with the temple being thus perceived of as a living/animated structure). More generally, Deborah’s argument showed how weaving was central to an individual’s experience of the ritual through the pervasive presence of textiles in sacred spaces (especially in temples) as material garments worn by statues and temple personnel, and as votive offerings. The central role of textiles is also reflected in the activity of weaving and cult choral dancing carried out by groups of maidens within the temple’s precinct. This, in turn, shows that weaving techniques are reflected in both the structure and design of sacred buildings, and in the decorative programme of temples.   

The temple structures themselves were described as being plaited (e.g. from stalks of fearn in Paus. 10.5.10) while inside the sacred building fabric was used to divide and animate the space, not to mention textile ‘workshops’ in areas of the temple (where often weaving tools are found) which were designated spaces for textile production. Temple inventories (epigraphic evidence) have left behind huge lists of garments brought by worshippers as votive offerings, and the statues of the gods were “dressed” by “robers” – their ritual role being to provide (in some cases also weave) garments for gods and goddesses. 

Deborah’s talk argued that the more than passing resemblance of the structure of the peripteral temples (the colonnade) to warp-weighted looms may not be accidental – as in several cases frieze decorations contain the same imagery and motives as woven patterned figures on the starting borders on weaves. Similarly, column design was inspired by dresses, with an obsession for folds and creases. In general, weaving patterns may be detected in the design programme of archaic and early classical monumental temples, and Deborah proposed to see a sort of direct projection, from woven fabric to temple decoration.

In Samothrace, the 4th century BC ‘Hall of choral dancers’ is a frieze featuring 920 dancing figures, each with dresses with different folds and realistic forms carved individually. This is one of a number of instances of dancing ensembles represented (carved or sculpted) in architectural sacred spaces, either around temple columns or on friezes; the garments of the dancers (and their poikilia) are made integral to the architectural programme and to the ornamentation of the temple surface, thus highlighting the idea of kosmos pervading the sacred space. 

“Much cosmos arises from her (i.e. the moon) dazzling apparel” (Homeric Hymn to Semele, vv.4-5); here Deborah brings in the word kosmos (‘ordered structure, orderly arrangement’, but also ‘ornament, adornment’), a notion closely related to ideas of order, and often associated with products of weaving, but also with choral dancing, with natural phenomena, and with architectural spaces. “Everything beautiful has cosmos” – it can be sometimes be used for the textiles themselves, the building, the votive objects the worshippers bring. Often literary texts talk about deliberately breaking kosmos (and thus intrude into what is “akosmios”) in order to form it again (as the Greeks seemed to like a certain amount of disruption), as maybe a glitch artist or break-beat obsessive would understand perfectly today. The overlapping between the media (stone and fabric) in sacred spaces may have altered the perception of the connections between the two.  

Poikilia, Geometry and the Patterns of Nature in Greek Archaic Mind

In a similar vein Adeline Grand-Clément talked about the Greek’s “advanced technology of enchantment”, i.e. the notion of  poikilia, by paying attention to some under-explored (yet fundamental) features of the semantics of the term: sensory perception and the geometry of pattern. Usually translated as ‘variegation’, often in association with multicoloured appearance of artefacts, the semantics of the term poikilia has been recently repositioned within a different frame, where the perception of pattern, light and movement on a surface seems to represent a kind of “nonfigurative active power” – often embodied in a pattern that “slows perception down” (as Alfred Gell has pointed out).

Adeline introduced examples where the term is associated with patterns in nature – snakes with their geometric skin pattern, the wryneck (known as the “maddening bird”) which has a similar patterning, and also strange behaviour as it mimics snakes through rotation of its neck. In the case of the wryneck, the pokilia of its plumage offers to the viewer no regularity, but a blurring of patterns and colours; in addition to this, it might be that some further feature of the bird contributes to make it embody poikilia, like for instance its snaky mobility (as detailed by Aristotle in his Historia Animalium) and its hybrid look. Adeline stressed the association of the wryneck’s poikilia (its appearance and somewhat deceptive behaviour) with the notion of metis (a sort of cunning intelligence that proceeds through mazely roots). The magic wheel (the toy where you spin a disk by tensioning twisted string), a love enchantment device, was also called iunx (wryneck in Greek), and the term is often metonymically associated to love charm; to the magic wheel and its poikilia are connected the magical charms of the girdle of Aphrodite. These things all embody swirling movement and overwhelming desire, and are constantly associated with Aphrodite. Adeline suggested that the pattern woven/plaited in Aphrodite’s himas may have been part of its enchanting power, through poikilia (in this case arising from complexity of the pattern, combination of texture, mobility, and erotic functions).

The geometrical pattern of the snake’s tessellated diamonds (or “rhumbos”) is referred by literary sources as poikilos also in connection to its deceptive behaviour (and here is another link with the wryneck). This is described as a “deviant pattern”, and is used throughout history after this time for tricksters and to depict crafty characters, for example the “lord of misrule”.

The Greeks also used this to depict the “other” or the enemy (often the non-Greek, the barbarian, be him Persian and Trojan, the wild and uncivilized) – for example on an invented costume for Trojan archers (this is completely different to what we know people from that area actually wore). In this case it was used as a form of propaganda, but the attraction associated with poikillia makes this a bit more nuanced: “did the Trojan war start by Helen falling in love with Paris’ poikiloi trousers?”. The rhombos figure may designate a woven pattern; the term is etymologically linked to a root meaning ‘to turn round’, and rhombos also designated the bull-roarer (used in ritual) and a type of magic wheel: the rhombos is thus to be traced back to the domain of metis and poikilia. Intricacy of decoration, variety of textures, but also unpredictable and dangerous mobility are some of the features that link the snake’s skin and the trousers of the Trojan archer under the domain of poikilia: the rhombos pattern might have been endowed with certain symbolic values (and, especially in the bull-roarer, some sound features as well), and the connection with geometry seems to partly ground the association. 

How Poetry appropriates (Textile) Technology: One Methodological Point in the Investigation of the Vocabulary of Ancient Weaving 

Giovanni Fanfani, member of the PENELOPE team, elaborated on how Greek poetry appropriates textile technology through his study of the metapoetics of their literature. In particular, the talk addressed a methodological point, i.e. the extent to which it is possible to derive ‘unmediated’ information about weaving technology from Greek literary (and especially poetic) sources – given that poetry provides our main body of testimonia on textile technology, together with ‘technical’ descriptions or definitions of weaving devices or techniques provided by lexicography of late antiquity, which give a largely inconsistent picture of those items. While it is often true that a more nuanced knowledge of ancient weaving technology gives us a better understanding of particular poetic images drawing on textile imagery, close reading of poetic texts shows that authors manipulate imagery and terminology according to matters of poetic strategy or conventions of literary genre, rather than for providing technical information about the craft. This, however, should not prevent us from appreciating instances of weaving terminology employed as technical terminology in reference to e.g. instrumental music and theory of meter.  

Giovanni discussed the use of kosmos as both material and song, poikilia as a logic of criss-crossing and meandering that obtains order through variegation – both notions often found in archaic Greek poetry in association with music (and musical instruments), song, and with weaving as technē (a term encompassing art, craft and technology, domains that were not perceived as strongly separated as nowadays).

As well as in weaving, the criss crossing logic/enchantment of poikilos is used to describe music on both the phormix (which closely resembles a hand loom) and the aulos – which is two pipes played at the same time that would have produced complex interlacing melodies. These experiences were commonly multisensory too – poikilos (in the perfect participle of the verb poikillō) is used to describe a combination of a particularly well woven headband whose Lydian provenance is probably a reference to Lydian harmony being used in the musical performance of the choral song (Pindar Nemean 8).

Rhythm is described as early as Plato (Republic 400a-c) as an interlacement of metrical units (“three kinds of rhythms out of which all the steps/movements are interlaced”). The notion of the interlacements of metrical units into rhythmical patterns become in Hellenistic metrical theory a proper doctrine, called epiplokē, which explains the origin of the formation of a number of fundamental meters (and the modulation from one into the other) through addition and subtraction of a quantity (syllable) from one end of a meter to the beginning of the other, or transposition of quantities within the meter.

Getting to ways in which the lexicographers of late antiquity tried to explain uncommon/difficult terms found in literary texts, Giovanni surveyed the case of the many competing definitions of the weaving device kairos, alternatively identified as  the loom shed bar, the starting border of the fabric, or the chained spacing chord preventing warp threads from entangling (thus ordering them through both keeping them separated but also interwoven with the weft); the homograph kairos (with a different accent) is a fundamental and pervasive concept in archaic Greece, designating ‘the due time, opportunity’, but also ‘right measure’, and is at the core of Pindar’s poetics of the unity of his poetry: the possibility that the abstract kairos is grounded on the weaving device and its functions is appealing, and has been applied to a passage in Pindar where the term appears together with others suggesting a reference to weaving; in one particular passage, Giovanni sees that the presence of both poikillein and kairos is, however, less a reference to aspect of textile technology, than a statement of poetic (entirely in keeping with the semantics of poikilia as indicating the gleaming of light on a surface) where Pindar is declaring to be ‘highlighting moments of brilliance’ of his patron’s athletic successes.

The question of whether weaving imagery is used metaphorically or instead as technical terminology depends much on what we consider metaphor to be; in Aristotle’s definition of metaphor what emerges is the idea of a visionary mode of sight which allows to see one thing in terms of another; a further way into this could be to see weaving as a mode of ordering the world that is transferred from textile technology to other domains.  

Reflections on References to Textile Technology in the Diction of Archaic Greek Lyric and Epic

Gregory Nagy provided thematic continuity with the previous talks by discussing a few instances of the way the lexicon of archaic Greek poetics (i.e. the terminology and notions illustrating how poetic composition, performance, and poetry/song are conceived of) is rooted in textile technology. One of the most distinctive images ancient sources offer for the practice and process of (orally) composing Homeric epics is the term rhapsōidos, which designated the bard reciting pieces of Homeric poetry at public contests or in private gatherings; the word is etymologically linked to a verb, rhaptein, which is usually thought to indicate ‘sewing’ and ‘stitching’ the song (aoidē): the etymology of rhapsōidos is explained by ancient lexicographers as pointing to the compositional and performative practice of ‘sewing together’ scattered pieces of Homeric poetry into a ‘whole fabric’.

However, the image of ‘weaving a song’ is much more pervasive in the Indo-European literary repertoire (while the image of ‘sewing/stitching poetry’ would be rather unusual), and archaeological textiles show that there were several techniques for fabric connection through weaving rather than stitching with a needle. Gregory thus proposed to see the etymology and usage of rhapsōidos as pointing to the idea of ‘a specialist in connecting the fabric of song from one weaving to the next’; Greg also declared himself happy to allow for different phases of specialization of a specific term (in this case the verb rhaptein), a phenomenon that can be often observed in linguistics.

Greg then focussed on the image of the ‘fabric of song’, which builds on another key-term of archaic Greek poetics, namely hymnos (‘hymn, song’), which designates song as performed poetry (mainly choral): the term may be etymologically related to the Greek verb for ‘weaving’, hyphainein (the link was at least perceived as a likely one, since hymnos is found as object of hyphainein in a number of passages in archaic Greek choral lyric); Greg showed that, significantly, the phrase aoidēs hymnos in Homer, Odyssey 8.429, which we may translate as ‘the fabric of song’, is a reference to just that conceit of the compositional and performative practice of rhapsodes who, bringing together pieces of epic songs, wove the poetic fabric by connecting pieces of fabric (the phrase comes in a passage where Odysseus is listening to a bard ‘… so that he [= Odysseus] may feel delight [terpesthai] at the feast [dais] and in listening to the humnos of the song’). In Odyssey 8, the bard Demodocus deliver a poetic performance which is made of three sections: when the singer picks up his recitation from his previous section after an interruption, or when he switches to a different part of the story when requested by Odysseus, the Homeric text highlights the process of poetic transition (from one piece of poetic fabric to the next) in a way similar to how, Greg observed, in rhetorical and orathoric practice, the Latin verb contexto (etymologically linked to texto = ‘weave’) indicates the practice of ‘continuing (to weave the speech) where one has left off’; in book 13, Odysseus picks up Demodocos’ performance and delivers his own bardic performance, thus continuing in the ‘weaving’ of the hymnos of song. Greg further proposed to see a reflection of the technology of weaving in Jacobson’s model of metaphor and metonymy as placed respectively in the horizontal axis of combination and in the vertical axis of selection, which reminds of the way in weaving combination and selection are intimately related.               

Touch, Memory and Song: Knowledge in the Socio-Technical Ensemble of Weaving

With so many demonstrations of how central a role weaving knowledge must have played in human development, PENELOPE project member Annapurna Mamidipudi propelled us into a world where the value of the weavers mind is almost entirely devalued and hidden.

Annapurna introduced us to the contemporary socio-economic reality of weavers in India. Her work is concerned with the enumerated and perceived values of knowledge, market, innovation and tradition. A key question is regarding how weaving knowledge is valued, if not as labour competing with mechanised production, in the market. Using the example of innovation, in one particular case of Jamdani weaving, she explained how rather than increase productivity, weavers quietly innovated by speeding up their planning and non-weaving overheads by using computers – not as a design tool, but as a way to calculate and optimise, to reduce the required yarn, and thus manage rising costs of yarn. The second innovation was to re-invent a new interpretation of an older style (one of great luxury – of course, what everyone wants in austere times) – and invented a history to package it up with, in order to sell this new, old design.

The key was that the last thing they ever want to be seen as is “innovative”. In order to maintain their marketing advantage it is of course essential to remain solidly “traditional” at all times.

Thus knowledge, in this case innovation, is made tacit by design. As Yellappa the master dyer reflected “If you think everything is already known – what is the point of learning?”, and conversely: “If you think you know everything, what is there left to discover?” But equally, it has a mode of existence in weaving that is materially different from in other forms, and this can be grasped well using the example of numbers. For example, in textile production a single number can be used as a way to coordinate a multitude of different “ways of knowing” – for example the number that represents the thickness of yarn has many different interpretations to the people involved – for the spinner it will be a categorisation for their product, for the dyer it will have implications for the chemical concentration of the dye and mordant, for the weaver it is threads per inch, for the user, it is drape. For all of them this number is attached to a particular dimension that is numbered -weight, thickness, length conveyed through touch. The number appears again, as visualised by the weaver as resolution of motif in labour and price, as much as a digital code along x and y. 

An important notion of counting in weaving and dyeing, or numeracy, is related to the idea of time. Innovation is recast as past tradition, moving techniques from the past into the future cannot be named as innovation, but as tradition. In Indigo dyeing for example the dyers know the fastness of the colour by smell, its depth by memory, and health of the Indigo vat by touch. Counting repetitively involves bodily memory as breath rather than numbers that are counted, thus numbers exist tacitly in the body. Collective knowledge of value is built through counting number of dips, the darker the colour, the more time it takes, and the more precious. Thus tacit numbers, like knowledge, become available through touch, memory and song.

Woven witness: Mnemonics, Textiles, and the Myth of Philomela

In Sophocles’ disturbing myth of Philomela, Procne and Tereus, Philomela is said to somehow have secretly communicated with her sister Procne via weaving. Many of the details of the story are lost to us, but Sophocles (quoted by Aristotle in his Poetics) describes this as the “voice of the shuttle”  in his lost drama Tereus (a reference to a plot device of the play, in particular to the recognition scene, in Greek anagnōrisis). Following an accidental discovery of weavers singing in India and encoding pattern information into songs, Anthony Tuck has been searching for this voice. Does it refer to communication which is pictorial in nature (a scene inwoven into a fabric), symbolic or a text written in threads? Or does it refer to a weaving pattern that relates to a specific song – a hidden language between women?

A technological tradition to commit pattern-related information to memory and performing them as/in songs seems to have been widespread in the Indo-European linguistic environment, as passages from the Veda attest to the connection between weaving and song, an association exploited as well by female figures in Homer (e.g. Cyrce and Calypso). A number of passages from dramatic poetry (esp. Euripides in the Ion) seem to make reference to just such connection between narratives woven into fabrics, and the singing accompanying weaving activity: in the Ion, in particular, some episodes of the myth are recognized as being heard while weaving (“This story was never told on the woven cloth, nor words were ever said of any child begotten by a god and who had a good life.” vv. 507-508). The myth of the Gigantomachy, in particular, woven into the cultic peplos offered to Athena in the context of the Panathenaic festival, is mentioned in association to ‘stories at the loom’; Euripides (in IT 221-224, where the loom is ‘fair’-voiced’ and Hec. 462-472) makes explicit references to maidens singing-and-dancing and weaving the peplos for Athena with an in-woven Titanomachy (a variant myth also associated with Athena and her peplos), thus possibly suggesting correspondences between song related to particular episodes of myth, and pattern information for weaving those same scenes on the loom, possibly through reference in the songs used to reinforce the structure via rhythmic devices.

We know that a group of selected young girls performed in the Acropolis the weaving of the cultic peplos for the statue of Athena, and it is inviting to speculate that they might have recited/sung a repertoire of song containing pattern-related information for executing the weaving. Further evidence comes from a rare inscribed loom weight from Veneto region (Italy), written in Venetic language (a Indo-European language) referring to a connection between a song of epic argument and the warp and weft of the weave.

Back to Sophocles and to the dramatic enactment of the ‘voice of the shuttle’, Anthony suggested that the playwright could be confident that his Athenian audience would have understood that woven patterns could be recognized by weavers as physical embodiments of coded narratives, the shuttle voice would have provided a mechanism by which the two sisters, sharing a childhood of work on the loom, could have communicated: that is, it seems probable that specific woven patterns might be traced back to specific narratives. Another possibility aroused in the discussion following Anthony’s presentation: the hymen (membrane), a term also derived by the verb hyphainō, may indicate the starting border, and the allusion to the sexual violation of Philomena might have been enacted through the presentation of a fabric where the border is cut away (there is a symbolic association of the border of a fabric being ripped apart being linked with a divorce or separation), also given the ritual implications of the starting border in terms of family lineage. 

The Rapport of Weaving and Geometry in Archaic Greece

In textile terms, ‘rapport’ means a repeat of a pattern, while in its general meaning the term may imply an ‘exchange’ of some sort. Ellen Harlizius-Klück began by introducing the notion of ‘dyadic arithmetic’ in Euclid’s Elements, a section of arithmetic that is commonly traced back to the Greek’s fascination with proofs, thus neglecting any possible ground in material knowledge or technology: the contents of that theory of odd and even numbers, however, contains knowledge that is crucial for any weaver to be able to weave patterns on a fabric. This potential provenance of dyadic arithmetic from weaving is generally neglected in the modern history of mathematics.

Already in the works of Plato, Socrates claims that the “blazonry (poikilia) of the heavens should not be taken as patterns/models (paradeigmata)” (Republic 529d-530a) for the study of the real astronomical bodies and their geometrical relationship, but the geometrician would think it “ridiculous to examine them seriously for the purpose of grasping in them the true meaning of geometrial equality, doubledness …”. This ironic and ambiguous attitude so dismissive towards weaving on the part of Plato is also evident in the Statesman, where weaving is used as a model (paradeigma) for the art of the Statesman because the model of mathematics is rejected as being too complex for the interlocutors of the dialogue. The term poikilos is also associated to features and the nature of numbers in the Laws 747a. Ellen thinks that there is something here that, also through the use of poikil– terms, is to be traced back to weaving.     

The diagram of the double square, which illustrates the problem of the incommensurability of the side and diagonal of the square, is implied in two Platonic instances where mathematics is discussed. The ratio between side and diagonal was called by the Greeks logos alogos (unspeakable word), which Ellen thinks has something to do with ritual. The diagramm of a doubled square that always includes this “unspeakable number” can in fact be accurately represented in textile form and there it would be possible to reason with odd and even numbers as it is done in Euclid’s proof. Figuring out this possibility of proofing with the contradiction of odd and even was the basis of proof in western mathematics, and the debt that mathematics has with weaving is shown by the words we still use today: line from flax (linon), radius and compass both originate from the shuttle (Latin: radius), rule stems from Latin regula: the heddle rod (kanōn in Greek).

One of the ways early Greek arithmetic is likely to have proved the incommensurability problem is through placing pebbles (Greek psēphoi), the logic of which resembles the way a weaver creates geometrical patterns through structuring threads in a particular shape. One of the ways Ellen has woven the double square patterns is through a twill, which is a technique not attested at the time in Greece, but maybe known in Asia Minor (an area Pythagoras may have taken from – this being a speculation). The theory of dyadic arithmetic found in Euclid, especially in its definition of even and odd numbers, and also in formulating the properties of even-times odd numbers (and vice versa), comes very close to how a weaver has to calculate the repeats of his/her pattern.  

In weaving, Ellen observed, operations are much closer to arithmetic than to geometry. This also concerns interference patterns to generate e.g. a meander, where alternation of colour (‘mix without mixture’, one of the connotations of poikilia) and of ups and downs produces a pattern unpredictable (from notation/diagram) for the uninitiated, but known by every weaver. The poikilos pattern from the trousers of Paris shows a similar pattern, and also shows the problem of ‘migrating’ the geometry of textiles into the ‘non-euclidean’ geometry of trousers stretching on the legs of a statue. On the contrary, a particular kind of completely flat patterns appear on Minoan frescoes and then return in startling patterns on the garments of religious figure in Medieval iconography: the poikilos effect of this pattern is meant to facilitate meditation. 

In Greece at this time there was no concept of a separate nature and culture, so people were free to consider “using weaving as a way to understand how nature generates”, also in reference to the expression ‘a wonder to behold’ (thauma ideisthai): woven articrafts provide a way to perceive of the order of the cosmos. Could this be the reason for their startling theories about atoms? I.e how a mixture of separate elements (warp and weft) results in a third thing (the pattern) which still is not a mixture of the two, but rather the two elements are still recognizable, something of no surprise to the weaver? 

The Textile Expression Gap

Lars Hallnäs gave us his consideration of textile from an observation of a philosopher immersed in a textile department. In usual (non-textile) designed artefacts the path from abstract form to concrete expression is clear – solid things are designed, manufactured and exist with all the components staying in their expected places to provide a car, building or computer keyboard.

Textiles are different and contain a deep paradox which seems to be hinted at by our use of language – yarn is the base material of fabric, but a textile is defined by the threads of yarn being in all the right place rather than simply an agglomeration of all the matter the yarn is comprised of. At the same time the yarn is a means of expression, so in a fundamental way the fabric is abstract – a Kantian “thing-in-itself” which makes it highly problematic. In this way textile form is “open” in some way that other forms are not.

Comparative Reflections on Andean Weaving as Science

Denise Arnold disclosed the advanced sciences of Andean weaving. Here is a culture that is filled with the kind of thought processes that we have been hearing about from the far past, but in a contemporary state. If we treat western science as the “ethnoscience of the westerners” we can zoom out and look at scientific enquiry as a collaborative social activity with various “activity streams” that collect and record knowledge.

For the Aymara and their Inca ancestors “knowing” means building on what is already there, the exploring of a space with defined limits. The Inca were interested in sofware while we have been (until recently) overly concerned with hardware in our societies. Their kind of knowledge is about subtly and carefully shaping and harnessing flowing energies “going with the flow” rather than mastering or forcing.

Like all scientists the Inca employed various models for categorising and standardising activities which included weaving and agriculture. They even have a very structured academic path, an order you need to progress through from “my first loom” to the pinnacles of a knowledge based society. The stripes, boxes and colour used in weaving patterns often denote agricultural knowledge, the colours of specific crops at different stages, and the progression of the land and ecosystem at different altitudes – of key importance in the Andes. Weaving is the women’s equivalent to quipu, food bags are coloured with patterns denoting the transformations the contents need to go through in food preparation.

With increased exposure to globalisation these practices have accelerated in part, with an explosion of complexity and patterns which now include machine guns, trucks, locations of natural resources and changing meteorological conditions. The flip side to this exposure is that literacy kills weaving, and since 1960 these practices have been in a sharp decline.

Braiding and Dancing: Embodied Rhythm and the Matter of Pattern

Victoria Mitchell took us on a zig zag between wildly diverse practices from Scottish rituals to cutting edge robot research, and embedded much of the previous discussion in a wider context. She brings many practises together under the same interest – braiding, weaving, spinning, dancing and folding. Her experience of braiding has given her an understanding of the “haptic/optic twists and turns” for the material practice of basketry.

Echoes here of Ellen with pattern as a “structural generator” – a “performative way to advance knowledge”. Hair as the possible originator of pattern and textile, co-operation and caring for one another.

Also Victoria introduces the connection of dance to braid. Symbolic coded dances are used to keep everyone together. While dancing for high society is generally about reinforcing and maintaining status, using complexity and “bling”, for the rest of society the focus is quite different – social bonding is the aim, so rhythms and rituals need to be accessible and as inclusive as possible. She also introduced us to the term “flexture” – in this case as a combination of robots, plants and people working together.


The Machinery – Challenging the Automaton: Creative Resistance and the Nineteenth Century Cotton Worker

Immediately breaking conventions with a blast of clog dancing on a stage built from a hastily reconfigured book shelf, Caroline Radcliffe pitched us into industrial revolution era England.

Clog dancing was conceived as a grasping of control by the oppressed in dire circumstances. Part survival, part “rejection by embrace”, a “tactical creation” – tap dancing arrived during a time of trauma and change, a vast expansion of urban life and exploitation of working people, including children.

Clogs were designed to allow people to work effectively in an environment that needed constant drenching to prevent fire and keep cool enough to keep machines running. The exclusively female and child workers (the men were used for heavy loading tasks, feeding these machines) tasked with operating the complex machines were given wooden stages with which to work on for 10 – 12 hours a time, and a constant deafening sound track with which to improvise to.

These dances escaped into domestic settings, and directly incorporated elements of the machines – shuttles, axles and teeth – herringbone dances from twill weaves with echoes in the dances of cotton slaves and symbolic crip gang dance moves used in Los Angeles today.

Clog dancing became a gigantic craze later on – “the hip hop of the nineteenth century” and like the weaving of the Aymara was subject to a constant reinvention and innovation with particular sets of steps being handed down the generations and remain subject to intense intellectual property rules.

Rewiring Women and Electronics: Textiles as Radical Tech

Ebru Kurbak is on a mission to make the obscured links between textiles and electronics visible. Coming from/embedded in Turkish textiles, the meshing of fabric with electronics reveals that both are simply ways of “organising matter in three dimensions”. All threads are conductive, so what would the world look like if one of these textile cultures had exploited general purpose computation before the cold warriors of the 1950s?

Ebru has constructed a key part of the universal turing machine entirely in threads (the Arithmetic Logic Unit) in her project “Stitching Worlds” (togehter with Irene Posch)- with the electronic switches of silicon replaced with miniaturised electromagnetic yarn and beads. Unlike the mineral version, this one has the advantage of being tactile, audible and visible.

Current investigations include re-discovering and embarking on a lost dangling thread in the history of recording via a yarn based “tape” recorder where yarn is used instead, saturated with magnetic material. By following these hunches and later discovering them in the historical record she is “slipping the cone” of likely future history and nudging us towards a world with a different set of possibilities.

Fabrications and Corporality. Perspectives on the Late Medieval Textiles of Kloster Lüne

Ane Kirstine Preisler Skovgaard presented her PhD topic in compensation for Julian Rohrhuber who could not make it to the conference. She introduced us to the textile work of medieval nuns.

In late medieval female religious houses, textiles were highly important media, serving a variety of complex functions in religious practice. Textiles were both important liturgical tools and, moreover, fabrication of textiles was also a key activity in many nunneries, as nuns typically honoured their obligation to perform manual labour in the convents through textile production. Since textile was a medium that the nuns brought into their religious practice in various ways, Ane argues that the principles, properties and sensory impressions that characterise textiles also shaped the devotional life of late medieval nuns. The paper touches upon some of the ways in which the many experiences that nuns had both producing and using textiles might have affected their religious practices and understandings. For one thing, textile production was often used as a devotional activity in nunneries, an activity which in some cases even led to mystical experiences. Also, the textile material was a powerful metaphor for corporality in late medieval Christianity and within convents it was regularly applied to explicate how God could attain a human body in Christ. Images and writings made in convents in several aspects show traces of having been shaped by the nuns’ experiences with producing and using textiles.

In the paper, this aspect is discussed using the late medieval textiles from the German convent Lüne as a main example. Some of the textiles from this convent represent martyr legends, and the images of these textiles illustrate the individual martyrdoms as transformational processes that bear a striking likeness to textile chaîne operatoires. This indicates that the nuns of Lüne applied the logics of textile production to portray how their most important martyrs were changed from mortal beings to heavenly figures. In this manner, the textiles of Lüne are interesting examples of how textile production within nunneries also functioned as a factor in the creation of female monastic piety.

Closing the Loop between Live Coding and Ancient Greek Technology

Dave Griffiths and Alex McLean

Making music/weaving by writing ‘live’ code, reducing the gap between ‘plan’ and ‘implementation’ [hylemorphism?], is the focus of Alex and Dave’s collaboration. Live coding in music unblackboxes the workings of both the mechanical innards, and  the algorithmic patterns, by making music through writing code that the audience can see. This helps in exposing the thought processes behind the patterns in music the coders make. So how could we use this to develop language that exposes the thought processes behind the weaves we make? 

While demonstrating his live loom, Alex McLean told us that programs can be like recipes, where there is a list of instructions that ends up with a product, imperative programming; or declarative programming, where what is specified is the end product. Instead live coding is programming in the opportune moment, and referred to as kairotic coding, based on a question of asking what if? In order to navigate a space of possibilities. By bringing in the body through dance, as a response to live coding music, the body is made a place responding to and for creating possibilities. This idea when carried into live coding the loom, demonstrates the kairotic coding of the loom, to navigate a space of possibilities for the weaving body. When live coding the loom, the difference in patterns on the screen, colours inserted into the loom and possibilities that come from their interference makes for surprising outcomes, possibilities beyond what can be planned for. What is manipulated, following live coding of music, are the relationships between the different operations, available as instructions that make up a pattern on the loom. Each consecutive decision is made based on what the weave looks like on the screen, and when woven, visual and sonic [through the clicking of the keys] feed back that allows for guiding the process towards an aesthetic outcome.  The interface, or the coding instructions become the means to build these relations, and they are made visible, through live coding the up and down movements that are the operations that are programmable on the loom. 

What the interface does is making it possible for the user to think of weaving patterns in terms of language, and take action in terms of the actual weave, iteratively responding it terms of perception of the result. Thus the visual interface becomes a means to explore the space of possibilities that are available to the weaver whenever he or she weaves. In doing so, they make visible the thought process behind the making of weaves.

Sketch of live coded arachnoid weaver that was included in the PENELOPE proposal as its vision. Drawing by Ellen Harlizius-Klück.

Dave Griffiths reminded of  the start of the PENELOPE project featuring a visual of the weaver’s weaving process being coded by a computer programmer and projected on a wall or to the floor as an arachnoid device that makes visible the weaver’s thought process. From Dave’s perspective of collaborative research into technology, the best way to address this is to open up the question of what is [weaving] technology, by building the technology. Here, the technology is to build a weaving robot, rather than the loom. In general, the need for robots seems to be self evident, easily replacing a human doing repetitive actions that make him or her an automaton; one that does not generate anything, but follows orders. On the other hand, as knowledge work or coding the computer is seen as the deciphering of representations on static media. When we use a cultural idea of what knowledge work is, it becomes obvious that such knowledge work requires the human body to only engage with a small subset of human capabilities. The approach of programming weaving robots makes visible the gap between the idea of the weaving body as an automaton whose actions can be programmed perfectly into a robot, and the idea that knowledge work focuses on ciphering and deciphering perfect codes-coding as a textual practice.

Yet code in this project is used counter to the idea of programming a static body, or an automatic outcome. Starting with tanglebots, where the output is to create robots that create tangles, in workshops with children, and to small penelopean robots with wheels and legs, the urge was to understand what could make robots command human affect – when and how did robots claim attention and care from the public, who watched them weave. The body of the robot is a woven mixture of electronic equipment, legs and tablet woven three dimensional fabric. Functions are interwoven in material, space and time: the robotic legs move endearingly in time as they walk, and the weaver turns the tablets in space to generate three dimensional fabric, the robots dance around the Maypole and demand the intervention of viewers into the automated code, to order the dance around the pole. The PENELOPEan performance is now reconstructed with the robots as choral dancers, with live coded music in time with the Homeric recitation. The Maypole performance takes it one step further, as viewers ‘help’ the robots to braid and unbraid around the Maypole, and become participants themselves in choreographing the dance. This turns the performance into a performative mode, through which robots lose their automator status, and become actors in the social world, inducing viewers to participate in producing a collective outcome. 

Cite this blog post
dave (2019, October 23). A report from HOMO TEXTOR. PENELOPE. Retrieved April 17, 2024, from https://penelope.hypotheses.org/1838


Dave Griffiths is an award winning game designer, programmer and livecoding algoraver based in Cornwall. In 2014 he co-founded Foam Kernow, an independent research institution for exploring uncharted regions of art/science and designing speculative cultures. With an early education in weaving, bell ringing, 8 bit computers and animation, he has worked in the games (Sony Europe) and film computer graphics industry (Moving Picture Company), and has credits on feature films including Troy and Kingdom of Heaven. He performs internationally with ‘slub’ a algorithmic rave group.

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