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A study of weaving as technical mode of existence

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - PENELOPE (A study of weaving as technical mode of existence)

Reporting period: 2019-12-01 to 2021-05-31

The objective of the project is to develop a theory of weaving as technical mode of existence as part of a deep history and epistemology for digital technology. The problem is that the role of weaving for the development of theoretical concepts has been underestimated and neglected so far, probably because it is perceived as a minor female craft with less technological challenge and impact. Technological progress is typically measured in terms of gaining time from dull and tedious repetitive tasks. Weaving appears to be the archetype of such repetitive work and thus is esteemed the more technological the faster it goes. We address this framing of perception by presenting ancient weaving as the earliest binary and digital technology and stating that weaving provided the first concepts that could lead to scientific argumentation and describe complex structures formed out of single elements (atomic structure, arithmetic organisation of geometrical patterns, order of the community).

This investigation is important for society because it unpicks underlying assumptions regarding technological progress as increase in speed, and thus automation, rather than creative material innovation. Further, it provides a technical mode of existence to feminized work of material crafting, as computing expertise, rather than labour that can be replaced by machines. By explicating the mathematical and computing principles invoked in weaving, we explore weaving as a new kind of pedagogy that has the potential to engage tacit knowledge that is necessary to make technical and aesthetic choices in coding.

The overall objectives are to provide an alternative concept to the idea of hylomorphism (as introduced by Aristotle and critically discussed by Simondon and Ingold), which better explains how weaving integrates contradictory/binary/dualistic elements into an ordered whole; to provide concepts and knowledge for a technological instead of metaphorical reading of textile terms in ancient texts (archaic Greek poetry, early scientific and mathematical fragments); to make ancient weaving visible as a (digital) technology; and to clarify the problematic distinction of “western weaving” as automated versus “ethno-weaving” as algorithmic.
During the first half term of the project, the team worked on the concepts of ancient weaving on a warp-weighted loom including patterning principles and image production, developed digital tools and a programming language for exploring ancient textile patterning across different domains of early Greek culture like poetry (esp. choral lyric), dyadic arithmetic or geometry, and investigated textile terms as technical vocabulary in ancient sources.

We have set up a PENELOPE Laboratory where we explore ancient weaving at a warp-weighted loom and conduct experiments and tests of the digital tools we have developed: the pattern matrices, the Penelopean robots and the live-codeable warp-weighted loom.

We found that the digital coding of weaves did not begin with the Jacquard machine, but was already part of handloom control in non-industrial contexts (Brosemachine, Austria). However, the standardisation of weaving drafts was a result of industrialisation and not common to weaving before.

On the digital aspects of ancient weaving we found out that the notion of sieve in the algorithm of detecting prime numbers (sieve of Eratosthenes) indeed has a relation to patterns that interfere to a grid (the sieve) showing only the primes as result.

On the issue of hylomorphism, we found that indeed the concept of design as a sketch executed in a sort of material is not able to explain the pattern and image generation in (ancient) weaving. We replaced this by a concept called iconohistology, indicating the very specific construction of weaves, patterns, and figurative friezes on the warp-weighted loom of antiquity (histos), but not restricted to ancient weaving.

As comparison of how weaving is coded across cultures we first studied Andean weaving while the Bolivian weaver Sandra de Berduccy resided in our laboratory for 6 weeks. We compared patterns and patterning techniques and found out that even for very different technologies (Andean weavers use a backstrap loom) the way to use numbers for organising the weave and patterning the design is very similar.

On the connection of weaving and ancient Greek poetry (as songs performed in public spaces on ritual occasions) our investigation shed light on the extent to which archaic Greek poetry draws significantly on textile terminology in describing sound, the movement of dancers, and the and the mechanics of musical instruments. In addition, we found that the combination of metrical sequences into broader rhythmical patterns is described in ancient theory of rhythm and metre by technical terms of weaving and interlacing that probably referred to the movement of the dancers.

All of the work on ancient texts restored a technical/technological/literal reading of textile terms in archaic and early classical Greek literature against the usual a metaphorical reading of such material which scarcely engages with the reality of the craft.

We explored the digital approach to patterns by directly coding a design in TidalCycles (without any weaving software) and weaving it on a TC1 loom, which is a draft loom without Jacquard machine.
We use as repository and collect relevant publications and other data under the community name PENELOPE (
Beyond the objectives of explicating the digital nature of weaving, and the role of the loom in the history of digital technology, a key movement has been towards the understanding of coding as practiced manipulation of material whose outcome is at once the [weaving] pattern and the code itself. That is, rather than an abstract existence, code is always an expression of the material that is being coded. Moving codes across media of weaving, music, poetry makes its material embeddedness visible, pointing to the material affordance of different media, and their amenability to being coded.

Further, the focus on the practices of coding allows for the historic penelopean loom to come into conversation with complex livelihood practices of contemporary weavers in the global south. Here, rather than stable code as output, it is innovation in the market that is valued. Given the nature of binary decision making on the loom, the comparative program will allow us to explore how choices that seem to be limited to binary outcomes are in fact complex decision trees, both materially and aesthetically, and constantly evolving in response to creative urges of the coder/weaver. Through explicating the common digital ancestry of both the loom and computer coding, we expect that a key outcome is to encourage and shape public engagement in Europe and India (as compared weaving culture) regarding the nature of knowledge of weavers, through representing weaving knowledge as a technical mode of existence.

Finally, we expect to come closer in our understanding of coding as performing both a creative and a stabilising role -- particularly in the current debate of AI of what it means to automate binary decision making.
Robotic performance at Millenium Gallery Sheffield as part of AlgoMech 2018
The pattern matrix: a tool to simulate the genesis of patterns on a warp weighted loom
The PENELOPE laboratory in the Museum for Plaster Casts of Classical Sculptures, Munich