From Italy to India to Wales. How the culture of hand weaving is undergoing just enough modernization to keep it alive, but not enough to kill the traditional craft completely
The culture of hand weaving
Hand weaving has been around for centuries, with many of the techniques used to produce hand woven textiles in the past still in use today. That said, the tools have evolved to accommodate society’s increased consumption and the capitalist production model of more and faster. For many countries, hand weaving was in their history; identity and heritage, while in other countries. Hand weaving has become just another skill that many are willing to sacrifice to make way for bigger and more industrial opportunities. No matter how small the percentile, people are practicing this skill in the hopes of influencing the next generation to take up the craft. Hand weaving can come in many forms; such as textiles, tapestries, baskets and rugs.
Whatever the case, it usually involves interlocking two yarns in a perpendicular fashion. Hand weaving is typically done on a handloom. A structure used to weave fabric without the use of electricity. Hand weavers from anywhere in the world will be able to use a handloom. What differs is the technique with which the strands of thread are interlocked. A rigid heddle loom is one example of a handloom that tends to interlock the threads fairly evenly based off of a plan.
India, Pavithra Muddaya – Vimor
In India, the culture of hand weaving is prominent. In 1974, Pavithra Muddaya and her mother, Chimy Nanjappa, established Vimor as a way to support themselves. What started as a necessity, slowly shifted into a continuation of the country’s heritage. «We slowly realized that it wasn’t only about us. But that we also had to encompass the weaver’s future and preserve our textile culture», explains Muddaya. There are two ways for hand weaving in India. The first is in regards to a rural setting. Where children are exposed to hand weaving from the time they are young: «It’s a home industry. It’s done in the home».
It becomes routine, with the most basic of techniques engraved in their minds. Even if they go out and explore the world as they get older, trying new things and building on other skills, the skill of hand weaving remains. This culture becomes embedded in muscle memory. So much so that it is normal for someone to go back to hand weaving once they retire. In urban areas, this skill is more a hobby. Cities represent innovation, technology and economic strength. They attract those who want to dive into the future, rather than those who want to communicate the past.
«Like my weavers say, agriculture and textiles were the two pillars of society. If it had been that difficult, it wouldn’t have continued for centuries», says Muddaya. In India, hand weaving represents the major economic activity of an entire ancient civilization. «We clothed the world in the seventeenth century», Muddaya points out. Even before the seventeenth century, the highest percentage of India’s GDP was thanks to textiles. Like in many parts of the world, machines have progressively replaced labor-intensive crafts. However, given the strength of the tradition in India, hand weaving techniques are still distinguishable between regions.
Kanchipuram and Banaras techniques
The two primary techniques are Kanchipuram and Banaras, with the former more present in the South and the latter in the North. «Primarily you needed to clothe your own people, so irrespective of whichever zone you were in or the kind of looms you had, the textiles were different» mentions Muddaya. She adds that in every pocket and corner of the country, they make textiles using different techniques. The end goal wasn’t to produce a masterpiece to showcase a way of hand weaving, but to create clothing; something a member of your family could wear.
Handmade and by machines
The Indian culture of bargaining disrupts attitudes towards that which is handmade and produced by machines. In the West, handmade items are valued; appreciated for their craftsmanship; and thus worth an elevated price. «In India, we don’t value things that are handmade, that are niche products. Here, we fail to see the value of them, so we bargain. We bargain until the weaver is desperate enough to give up because, after all, he has a sense of pride. He feels humiliated, but that is the culture we have brought to India post-independence», illustrates Muddaya. This lack of appreciation leads a complex skill. As something many of its artisans believe is worth no more than something a machine can produce. Although only the most basic of skills are needed to hand weave a piece of cloth; there are levels to it that can reach those of extremely complicated and intricate designs.
For one, most techniques that are done by hand are done in a way in which the design is on the underside. The only side the weaver is able to see until the piece is ready. This underlines the critical thinking which an artisan must possess in order to complete works of a high artistic level. While these different traditions and techniques began centuries ago, the resources available didn’t include modern tools, such as measuring tapes. Arguably, the tools they had at their disposal worked better than those developed today.
«In certain parts of India, the size of the weaving points are made based on condiments found in the kitchen», describes Muddaya. «You would use a sesame or mustard seed, for example. For each region, the weaver instinctively knows they cannot make a size bigger than the seeds which they are used to seeing in the village; or around their house». This paints a further picture of just how far intellectuality is pushed in hand weaving. Math, geometry and design represent the abundance of skills that a single artisan can possess, without even knowing it.
The industrialization of weaving
«There are over 1 billion people in India, half of whom live below the poverty line. They need a support system to move them out of poverty and into a better state of living, and handlooms fit the bill perfectly». This differs from power looms, one of the more prominent developments in the industrialization of weaving, which, in the traditional sense, represent movement in the wrong direction. Even though it has ‘loom’ in its name, the power loom is not on the side of craftsmanship but rather on the side of the machine. «We’ve had a legacy of textile-making for thousands of years. We’d be foolish to give this up for a soulless machine». Says Muddaya pushing back against the fact that the country hasn’t been taught about the differences between the hand loom and the power loom.
This goes hand in hand with just how important it is for a society to understand and appreciate certain crafts, valuing them at what they should cost instead of pushing their worth below that of the product of a machine. This comes down to how hand weaving was once perceived. «A peaceful activity that creates independent earning».
The machine will always be a threat to handcrafts.The answer lies within being able to distinguish that the two aren’t mutually exclusive and that they can co-exist. «Whatever the hand can do, they will continue to create machines to do just that. The hand works with the hand, heart and head. The machine is a soulless piece of technology». Although there is a real risk of hand weaving fading away, Muddaya believes that «it will never die out. If something has been sustained for over 2,000 years through wars and famine, it will continue to stay».
Italy, Carlo and Mario Colombo – Tessitura La Colombina
Many crafts practiced for centuries, have gradually become at risk of simply disappearing. Where there is a lack of technology, there is a lack of interest from the younger generation. In Italy, as in many other parts of the world, projects are constantly being set up to encourage younger generations to take up ancient skills. Hand weaving is one of them. To investigate the craftsmanship of the future, together with biomaterials and recycling practices, Alessandra Vaccari created the annual research project, FABBRICrafter. Considered as the last act, it concluded with Living Labs, an exploration into new approaches within the manufacturing of fashion.
Vaccari is a professor of the History and Theory of Fashion at the IUAV, University of Venice. In a nutshell, she explains that the aim of the project is to explore outside university walls and see whether «a widespread laboratory dedicated to experimenting with clothing, footwear and accessories can contribute to the environmental and social sustainability of Venetian manufacturing in fashion, including biomaterials, recycling and digital craftsmanship». The focus is on hybrid professionals who are straddling the study and skill of both makers and crafters, taking advantage of technological progress and the way in which artisans promote their work. Within this research project, Tessitura La Colombina in Veneto falls under the realm of hand weaving.
Eredi Colombo establishment
Today, in its fourth generation, brothers Carlo and Mario Colombo run the company. Born in the 1940s, La Colombina replaced the Colombo spinning mill, which had been active in Lombardy since 1895. Following the death of their father, Giuseppe, in 2019, Carlo and Mario established the Eredi Colombo, distinguishing within it the Nicki Colombo and La Colombina weaving mills. Today, Eredi Colombo has eight employees and produces around 10,000 garments a year, including accessories and knitwear.
In less than two years, it has all but completely abandoned the use of synthetic materials, instead concentrating on natural fibers. «Fifteen years ago, there was higher demand for mixed wool fibers containing polyamide and polyesters; while silk and cashmere were considered niche». Explains Mario. «In the last ten years, demand has shifted due to competition from foreign producers. We stopped being competitive on lower quality products so we decided to abandon their production, which used plastic fibers. We now focus on tailor-made products created from natural, traceable and sustainable fibers».
Carlo and Mario’s focus on innovation
They work to implement new research into the weaving tradition while still preserving the craftsman’s knowledge. From their perspective, handlooms are misunderstood as ‘antique’. In reality, they created the basic know-how that is still being used today. Simply put, modern handlooms are unable to replicate such creations as those of traditional handlooms. The heart of their brand is constituted by orthogonal looms with frames from the mid-1800s. Restored in 2012, minor details reflect the compromise which society has made to enhance the ease of working by hand. «We have created a slow factory». Says Carlo and Mario, who currently have fourteen handlooms, two of which are disassembled.
Mechanical loom and hand loom
«For twenty years, those machines stood still. Eight years ago, we decided to restart them with small changes: we added LED lights and replaced the more perishable wooden elements, for example the machine brakes, with nylon or Teflon». Taking an average of two days to assemble one of these looms by hand, the concept of merging the mechanical with the handmade takes advantage of the best qualities that each has to offer.
The mechanical loom makes 800 strokes a minute, while an expert hand loom weaver makes thirty strokes a minute; about one every two seconds. However, hand looms enable inserts of tape, fabrics and ribbons, which is impossible with mechanical looms. La Colombina takes advantage of both, unafraid to adapt to modern advancements. «Few companies have an internal knowledge of 720 degrees like ours: 360 degrees on the world of hand weaving, and 360 degrees on the world of modern knitting machines».
Innovations happening in the world of raw materials
In addition to keeping up with modern technologies, La Colombina takes advantage of the innovations happening in the world of raw materials. Almost all of their materials are natural and purchased from Italian suppliers who prioritize sustainability. They themselves are also experimenting with the use of natural fibers, such as native wools from different regions of Italy. This way of doing things considers the natural supply chain of a company, embracing the idea of transparency and accountability in the sourcing of raw materials. They are also considering and evaluating natural dyes, such as those made from walnut husks, coffee and cochineal, for use in their production.
Hemp is a plant which is currently undergoing substantial R&D to explore its fiber and textile qualities. It is a rough material to mix with silk, wool, or cotton, or washed a number of times for a smooth feel. The plant itself does not need water, nor does it impoverish the soil, an advantage in the agricultural industry. «Someone defined it as ‘the pig of the vegetable world’. Because it can be used in everything. from textiles to medicine», Carlo describes. Whilst it can be said that a few aesthetic details could only be accomplished through synthetic means; whether that be regarding the material or the production of the garment, that may no longer be the case. A piece made from a hand loom can display the unique qualities which natural materials have, a finalization which allows unprecedented variations.
A continuous dialogue between local weaving companies and training courses
The brothers share the idea that a continuous dialogue between local weaving companies and training courses is key to the maintenance of the craft at a traditional level. In addition to their collaboration with FABBRICrafter, Colombo also partnered with the Pietro Selvatico artistic institute of Padua to implement weaving courses that unite heterogeneous students:from twenty-year-olds who want to enter the world of work to general enthusiasts.
«The goal is to train future designers with knowledge of materials. Just as an architect needs to understand the materials he works with, so too does a designer in order to avoid designing impractical or non-functional prototypes», explains Carlo. While working by hand encompasses the value of craftsmanship, technology aids in working towards a more sustainable future. For many companies trying to embrace sustainability, working towards a zero-waste goal is high on the agenda. Hand weaving is, in and of itself, a controllable production method that shouldn’t result in a mass amount of waste. However, to further this, softwares such as Computer Aided Design (CAD) can help to rethink fabric placement before production begins.
United Kingdom, Martin Weatherhead – Snail Trail Handweavers
«What fascinated me about weaving was the combination of art and science», says Martin Weatherhead. «You’ve got the technology of the weaving process, and the artistic side of designing and making patterns». In 1975, Weatherhead and his wife established Snail Trail Handweavers in the rural countryside of Pembrokeshire, West Wales. After a few courses in London during the Seventies, they decided to move to the Welsh countryside to go into hand weaving full time. «in total bliss and ignorance as to what would be involved». Nowadays, this craft is practiced a lot on an amateur level. With only twelve professional hand weavers currently active in Wales.
Relying on hand weaving as a primary income introduces a whole other number of difficulties. Selling a finished product «is a skill in its own right. Most makers, like me, are not very good at it». Woven tapestries are hard to sell, as there needs to be an aura of appreciation around them for there to be an authentic relationship of understanding between the buyer and seller. Part of this issue relates to the market. «In Scandinavia, where there is a strong tradition of hand weaving, there is a built-in market of people who appreciate the craft».
The Welsh tapestry style
This impacts how creations are priced; whereby some crafts, like pottery and jewelry; can be made faster at a price that can be more competitive. This is why weaving on a machine-oriented level using power-looms is reasonably strong in Wales. One of the techniques used there is Welsh tapestry, also known as a double-weave. «The way the threads are lifted up and down is the essence of weaving. You lift the threads up, pass one across, then drop them, and pass it back again», explains Weatherhead.
«The Welsh tapestry style of weaving involves a loom that has to have sixteen frames that move up and down, called shafts. It’s quite complex. The most complicated loom that I have only has eight shafts, restricting the number of patterns you can do». This is more of a cloth making technique, than a technique to make rugs. One method used for rugs is to «make a pile, so it’s a shaggy sort of carpet which weaves quickly, but limits the amount of pattern».
When it comes to tapestries
Any type of hand weaving can be done with a simple wooden frame, time permitting. The concept of lifting the threads up and down to produce the design remains the same. In this case, «the entire frame is worked by hand. There is no machinery involved. No pedal and no leavers», explains Weatherhead. To produce something at a reasonable speed, a loom is required. When it comes to tapestries: «It’s slow anyway, because you’re weaving tiny pieces of one color here and another there. It’s done by choice so there is no mechanism to help you».
Weatherhead doesn’t consider the Welsh tapestry technique as a type of hand weaving, because it is a sixteen shaft machine-woven cloth. Once again, the debate circles back to the competitive nature between machine and labor: «If I had the loom, I could weave it; but I’m not interested in competing with a machine. A craftsman must design work that can’t be reproduced by a machine». What can hand weaving accomplish that a machine can’t? «Change», says Weatherhead.
Hand weaving and how much you want to invest in your tools
«There is a style of rug, which I call a color blend, where it changes from one color to another. I could suddenly add a high contrast color which would gradually change, then again another high contrast color, and so on. You can’t do that with a machine. You have to tell a machine to do every single step of what it’s got to do. Machines like to repeat, they like to keep it simple». Woven on a hand loom, a floor rug of one by two meters can take four or five days. A fleece rug can take a day, but washing and spinning the fleece can take three or four days preparation.
The same goes for how much you want to invest in your tools. Hand looms can range from forty to thousands of U.S. dollars. A wooden frame, on the other hand, is «about four U.S. dollars. It’s eight screws and four pieces of wood». Similarly, the thread used depends on how much you want to commit to the process. The thread used for hand weaving is not the same as wool used for knitting.
«When I look at the price that people pay for knitting wool, I’m horrified. It’s a different quality of yarn. You don’t weave with knitting wool. It can’t take the tension of being set up on the loom. You can weave with it, but it’s not as good». What you can use is fleece: «You can get fleece for nothing, farmers give it away for free», informs Weatherhead. «I’ve only spun fleece to make rugs. Spinners wouldn’t call that spinning because it was as thick as my thumb, but it made a fleece rug which was the whole point».
The future of hand weaving lies in the next generation
Although there are many people who enjoy hand weaving, this isn’t a guarantee that they will take it up professionally. Art colleges offer weaving courses for those who appreciate the skill, but Weatherhead explains that a lot of these have more to do with theory and less to do with the practical. «Many students would come to me to do a work placement and didn’t even know how to properly set up a loom, because technicians would set them up at college».
To retain the authentic skills and techniques of hand weaving; a traditional approach needs to take in education. Promoting hand weaving in a solely theoretical context, puts practical techniques at risk of dying out. Creativity is essential to attract a new generation of weavers. «I’ve had children as young as six come to learn to weave. They’re more adventurous than adults. They’re prepared to play; experiment and produce things you wouldn’t expect».
The culture of hand weaving has proportionately decreased
In 1998, Weatherhead obtained a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship. This let him learn about and research techniques found in Peru and Central Asia: «Instead of dyeing the fabric, you dye the threads so you have much more control over the pattern». The sections which you don’t want dyed remain tightly tied throughout the entire weaving process. It is the most complex hand weaving technique that Weatherhead has practiced, but remains one of his most cherished».
«He presents one of his creations made using the Ikat technique: a colorful jacket with two blue and yellow snails on the front. He explains that there are ninety-six threads in every inch. Although it uses a variety of techniques coming from all over the world, «underlying all of it is the basic technology. I could walk into any space for weaving in the world and I’d know what they’re doing because I understand the process. Equally, they could come to me, because I do hand weaving, and weave on my looms with no trouble at all».
From developed to developing countries, the culture of hand weaving has proportionately decreased. Although the introduction of machinery is a big factor, the future doesn’t look like it’s going to make way for solely hand crafted items. Innovation must take over, embracing the two simultaneously without compromising the ethical and sustainable approach of hand weavers.
Mrs. Chimy Nanjappa and her daughter, Pavithra Muddaya established Vimor in 1974 and started off by selling old saree auctioned by the temples called Temple Sarees. Slowly when these auctioned saree began dwindling, our focus shifted to recreating them keeping in mind the scalability and financial returns of the designs. They started training and encouraging small town weavers to re-create and produce traditional, marketable sarees.
Snail Trail Handweavers, established in 1975, is the partnership of Martin & Nina Weatherhead and is based at Penwenallt Farm in the beautiful, rural countryside of Pembrokeshire, West Wales.
Tessitura la Colombina
Tessitura La Colombina was born as a craftsman’s workshop where keeping up with the times meant combining design, research and know-how.