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A study of weaving as technical mode of existence

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Unravelling weaving’s role in the history of science and technology

Weaving has long been viewed as a simple handicraft. But new research traces the art back to the origins of mathematics and science.

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Weaving is a concept found in many ancient texts, including those written by Plato. But is this reference just a coincidence, maybe a metaphor? Or is there something more going on? “The act of crossing threads over and under each other is a binary process that I believe has historic implications for the development of maths and science,” says Ellen Harlizius-Klück, a researcher at the Deutsches Museum (website in German). With the support of the EU-funded PENELOPE project, Harlizius-Klück investigated weaving’s contribution to the advent of mathematics and its role in forming intellectual history, especially the history of science and technology. “We wanted to not only prove ancient weaving’s contribution to the beginning of mathematics, but also draw a line from ancient weaving practices and notions to contemporary handloom weavers, such as those in India,” she explains.

Weaving a concept of order

Through practical explorations on an actual loom and careful examination of ancient texts, researchers discovered that ancient weaving contains several important framing and ordering features. Although lost in modern clothing technology, these features were decisive for their use as a model of order in ancient times. “The concept of order found in weaving helped shape festivals and was used in everything from arranging ritual dances to composing poetry,” remarks Harlizius-Klück. “It also provided the basic categories of odd and even for the first number theory.” Ancient Greeks in fact used weaving to describe the cosmos, an analogy that Einstein continued with his description of the universe as being a ‘tapestry of space and time’.

Ancient looms for digital simulations

To raise awareness about the importance of ancient weaving technology, the research team established the PENELOPE Laboratory. The lab contained two reconstructed ancient looms and some digital simulations. Open to the public, visitors could come and actually see how what is often seen as a traditional craft contributes to modern scientific and technological concepts. The project also took their findings on the road, holding workshops and exhibitions that highlighted weaving’s historical significance and modern-day contributions. “In one instance, we live-coded a recitation of Homer, with the code being fed to a small robot swarm who attempted to weave a braid,” notes Harlizius-Klück. The goal of the live coding event was to help people see that traditional weaving is not a mechanical process. “Even though today weaving is largely automated, ancient weaving was not,” adds Harlizius-Klück. “This visual demonstration put the spotlight on the digital and creative aspect of weaving.”

Weaving a thread from ancient Greece to contemporary India

When COVID-19 hit, like the rest of the world, the PENELOPE team went online, holding virtual workshops and producing films. One film connecting the weaving concepts of ancient Greece to those found in contemporary Indian weaving proved to be a big hit in India. “This film fuelled a number of important scholarly conversations about promoting the value of weaving cultures,” says Harlizius-Klück. According to Harlizius-Klück, this comparison between ancient Greece and contemporary India opens the door to a new way of presenting and exchanging traditional knowledge of so-called subservient technological cultures. “Thanks to the support of the European Research Council, our work has repositioned weaving as a binary and algorithmic technology, not only in the history of science and technology, but also for the weavers still engaged in weaving in a socially and environmentally sustainable manner,” she concludes.


PENELOPE, maths, mathematics, science, weaving, technology, handicraft, handloom, loom, number theory

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