PENELOPE Laboratory in India (1)

This August, Ellen and Annapurna work in Hyderabad, India, on two PENELOPE related projects: testing the warp-weighted loom with Indian handloom weavers for weaving cotton warps without starch; and producing a cover cloth with the ancient meander for our HOMO TEXTOR publication with Mattering Press. Together with the Handloom Futures Trust, we carry out conversations between looms in the premies of Malkha, a Marketing Trust aiming at decolonizing textile tchnology in India. “The Penelope project has actual on-ground implications in helping us parse out some issues the Handloom sector is facing in India vis-a-vis mechanisation” says Uzramma Bilgrami (HFT and Malkha). 

Ellen Harlizius-Klück discussing the warp-weighted loom technology with weavers and activists from Hyderabad in the PENELOPE Laboratory. Photo by Annapurna Mamidipudi.

One of the final events of the PENELOPE project had been a workshop in collaboration with Dept. III of the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, organised by Annapurna Mamidipudi, James Leach and Vivek Oak, where scholars and craftspeople met to share their practices and discuss issues of the responsible documentation of such practices. As part of the PENELOPE project contribution, VerenaWiniwarter (environmental historian, Austrian Academy of Sciences) and Charlotte Holzer (textile restorer at the Deutsches Museum) practically introduced tablet-weaving and the idea of weaving the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) which we developed in a joint publication (doi:10.1553/KIOESOP_011). In order to understand better the role of tablet weaving for using the warp-weighted loom, the Indian weavers and activists finally visited the PENELOPE laboratory in Munich to scrutinize the tools and objects of ancient weaving.

Scrutinizing the tablet-woven borders. Photo: Annapurna Mamidipudi.

In India, new cotton varieties and an energy-intensive baling process had been introduced with the textile machinery of the industrial revolution. Those machines afford specific cotton varieties that need more irrigation and pesticides than the local Indian ones. Facing questions of sustainability but also serious effects of the new genetically modifed seeds, Indian cotton farmers started to re-cultivate the old crops. The Malkha Trust was successful in removing the baling process as part of the aim to move toward organically grown cotton.

There are also issues with the stress that industrial machines impose on the cotton warp threads, usually handled by putting starch on it. But professional sizers, who know how to put the starch on the warp, are hard to find. Weavers are therefore interested in alternative loom technologies that put less stress on the warp or at least ditribute the stress more evenly than than is possible when stretching between two beams of a horizontal loom.

Exactly with regard to the evenly distribution of tension, the warp-weighted loom stands out. Here, the warp threads hanging down from a tablet-woven border attached to the upper horizontal bar of a loom frame, are tensioned by weights attached to the lower end of the threads. Stretching between two bars means that some threads get more stress and others less especially during work—without a possibility to adjust during weaving. Instead, on the warp-weighted loom, the tension remains the same all along the weaving process and can be adjusted at any time by changing weight or attaching more or less threads to it.

Ellen explains the setup for the taqueté weaving (left). Dharmendar weaving Taqueté (right).

The visit to the PENELOPE laboratory inspired the weavers to try the ancient warp-weighted loom in the Malkha shop. Ellen Harlizius-Klück will travel to Hyderabad, provide knowledge in the use of the loom, and explore its possbilities together with the weavers, the people from Malkha and Annapurna Mamidipudi (together with Uzramma Bilgrami from Malkha representing the Handloom Futures Trust).

Apart from experimenting with the warp-weighted loom, we also aim to produce the cover cloth for the HOMO TEXTOR publication with the weavers. The idea is to provide to the readers a physically scrutinizable example of the complex patterning principle we call histomorphism. Histmorphism is a term that Ellen developed to distinguish the way how patterns are generated in weaving, as emerging from the two distinct and discrete systems of structure and color, from the ususal idea of a design that is there as abstract idea first and then applied to matter (called hylemorphism).

Draft of cover cloth for Homo textor publication. The structure of the fabric is a honeycomb variation visible in the square with lozenges. This structure applies to the whole fabric, only the distribution of indigo and white in the thread changes: it is alternating with every thread in warp and weft direction except for the vertical and horizontal strip where 24 warp threads are indigo and 24 weft threads are white. The meander emerges from this combination of color and structure during weaving. This is an example for the concept of histomorphim.

The pattern will be woven on a warp-weighted loom and on a twelve-shaft horizontal loom. The image below shows the weaver Odelu at work. By this, Handloom Futures Trust and PENELOPE carry out conversations between looms in the Malkha space. The meander project will help identify the kind of artisans who will be capable of building the knowledge commons for the future of Indian handoom weaving.

Vorugonda Odellu preparing the loom for the meander cloth, with Malkha activists Dharmender Vaddepally, Ameer Sohail and Uzramma.

We are looking forward to ten days of intense work and hope for new experiences and encouraging results.

Cite this blog post
Ellen Harlizius-Klück (2023, July 28). PENELOPE Laboratory in India (1). PENELOPE. Retrieved May 23, 2024, from

Ellen Harlizius-Klück

I am a researcher interested in the order and logic of making textiles and its impact on the history of technology and science.

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