The (b)order of Penelope‘s weave
First some god breathed the thought in my heart to set up a great web in my halls and fall to weaving a robe—fine of thread was the web and very wide; and I straightway spoke among them: ‘Young men, my wooers, since goodly Odysseus is dead, be patient, though eager for my marriage, until I finish this robe—I would not that my spinning should come to naught—a shroud for the lord Laertes against the time when the fell fate of grievous death shall strike him down; lest any one of the Achaean women in the land should be wroth with me, if he were to lie without a shroud, who had won great possessions.’ (Homer, Odyssey 19, 138-147)
We do not know what Penelope’s “robe” looked like. Only few depictions on vases show her in front of a loom. The most famous is the one from the Skyphos Chiusi, an attic red figure vase that is dated to ca. 430 BCE. Here we see a decorated fabric in progress rolled up on the upper beam of a wearp-weighted loom standing upright behind her and her son Telemachus. The German scholar Hugo Blümner commented on this picture:
The finished robe shows ornamented borders and a horizontal stripe with winged figures of different kind; it is hardly possible that these figures are meant to be woven, because this would be impossible to do on such a simple loom. For sure this is meant to be embroidery combined with weaving. (Hugo Blümner 1912, 158).
Today, we know that embroidery is uncommon among textile finds and played no important role in ancient textile production. However, the notion of the simplicity of the weaving tool and the work that is possible to achieve with it has hardly changed.
Penelope is mentioned more than 50 times in the Odyssey with the epithet periphron denoting the circumspection and considerateness she not only displays in weaving. Woven patterns are the result of an ordered crossing of single elements that rests on a dyadic structure (warp/weft, lifted thread/un-lifted thread). In the case of a warp-weighted loom, these elements are usually provided as well as ordered by a starting border. This is a band woven first and its weft threads will become the warp for the loom.
The threads are already divided and grouped into odd and even ones. On the loom, one half is hanging in front of the shed-bar in the lower half of the loom; the other half is hanging behind. The starting border defines the dimensions of the weave as well as its structure and quality and the possibilities to pattern it. Knowledge of arithmetical properties of numbers like odd, even or prime as well as their combination is crucial at this stage of work. In contrast to modern looms, it is impossible to insert a missing warp-thread into the weave when the work is already in progress.
On the occasion of the exhibition „Penelope reconstructed“ in the Museum for Plaster Casts of Classical Sculptures in Munich, a loom was assembled to give a notion of Penelope’s huge loom and the weave. The warp-weighted loom made by Andreas Willmy was not meant as a reconstruction, but as a functional tool. Not one of the depictions of ancient looms on vases would be suitable as blueprint for a loom reconstruction. We know nothing about the raw material or the kind of joints applied. The warp-weighted loom in Munich has no firm joints and the idea was to use textile means (strings and ropes) for an easy setup and take-down of the device. For presenting the loom in the open space of the museum, the loom got a support; a feature that might have been uncommon to ancient ones.
The warp-weighted loom is a very flexible device. It is possible to detach and re-arrange the weights at any time, to change the direction of the warp, to change the heddles and the rhythm of warp-lifts, and to combine different types of weave. This was crucial especially for the structure of the Chiusi fabric, where the weft threads of the short and narrow starting band are also the warp threads of the figured band, but in respect to the whole weave, they run again in weft direction.
Such a combination of different bands within one weave is unusual to us today. However, we find it applied for example in the coat from Thorsberg. Such combinations of bands may also explain literary epigrams where several girls weave hems for a fabric. These are probably starting borders or vertical continuations on the selvedge. A poem, by Antipater of Sidon (AP 6.287), reads:
Artemis, fairest of virgins, sovereign lady of women / We three wove (hyphenametha) this border (pezan) for thee. / Bitie wrought (kame) the dancing girls / And the crooked stream of winding Maeander. / Blonde Antianira devised the decoration (kosmos) / That lies on the left side of the river, / And Bittion that on the right, / Measuring a span and a palm.
Today, the loom carries a double-weave in progress framed by a small tablet woven border that runs around all three sides of the weave also framing the figured band on top. It is currently on display in the Museum for Plaster Casts in Munich and will be part of the exhibition Divine Design in the State collections of Antiquities in Munich from April 2017.