Skip to main content
European Commission logo print header

A study of weaving as technical mode of existence

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - PENELOPE (A study of weaving as technical mode of existence)

Berichtszeitraum: 2021-06-01 bis 2022-05-31

The objective of the PENELOPE 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, because it is perceived as a minor female craft with less technological challenge and impact. 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 organization 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. By explicating the mathematical and computing principles of weaving, we demonstrate its potential to engage tacit knowledge that is necessary to make technical and aesthetic choices in coding.
According to its main objectives, the project provides an alternative 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, i.e. the concept of histomorphism. It also provides concepts and knowledge for a technological instead of metaphorical reading of textile terms in ancient texts (archaic Greek poetry, early scientific and mathematical fragments), makes ancient weaving visible as a (digital) technology; and clarifies the problematic distinction of “western weaving” as automated versus “ethno-weaving” as algorithmic.
Along the project, the team worked on the concepts of ancient weaving on a warp-weighted loom including patterning principles, 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 with the digital tools we have developed: the pattern matrices, the PENELOPEAN robots and the live-codeable warp-weighted loom.
On the issue of hylomorphism, we found that 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 first by a concept called iconohistology, indicating the very specific construction of patterns and figurative friezes on the warp-weighted loom. Later in the project, this concept was further developed into the concept of histomorphism (from Greek histos, loom), indicating how the dualistic structure of threads integrates into a consistent whole. The capability of this (mainly tacit) integration in humans we described under the term ‘Homo Textor’: (wo)man the weaver (publications forthcoming).
On the connection of weaving and ancient Greek poetry (performed as songs and dance in public spaces) our investigation was able to demonstrate how archaic Greek poetry draws significantly on textile terminology. The work on ancient texts restored a technical/technological/literal reading of textile terms in Greek literature against the usual metaphorical reading of such sources.
As comparison of how weaving is coded across cultures, we first studied Andean weaving along the work of a Bolivian weaver, comparing patterns and patterning techniques. We found that the way to use numbers for organizing the weave and patterning the design is very similar tot he approach in ancient Greece. Such cultural comparisons were then extended to Indian handloom weaving where we realized parallels to the way how ancient Greek weaving concepts travel across the registers of craft, dance, poetry, music, and even philosophy (see the film Ulatbansi: DOI 10.5281/zenodo.6997935).
We use as repository and provide publications, software 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 of the PENELOPE project 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 allowed to establish a conversation with complex livelihood practices of contemporary weavers in the global south. Given the nature of binary decision making on the loom, the comparative program allowed 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, 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.
The PENELOPE project established the new concepts of homo textor, (wo)man as weaver, and histomorphism, capturing the specific composition mode of patterns at the loom. Furthermore, a conference format, the Panathenaic encounters, was developed where scholars and practitioners mutually verify their practices and knowledge.
Ulatbansi screening at final PENELOPE event, Museum for Plaster Casts, Munich, dissem. no 39
Robotic performance at Millenium Gallery Sheffield as part of AlgoMech 2018
Screenshot of pattern matrix simulator developed for the Looms in Motion online lab, dissem. no 36
Screenshot of online robot maypole coding session at Looms in Motion online Lab, dissem. no 36
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
Audience at Ulatbansi screening for Dastkar Handloom Fair, New Delhi
Screenshot of PENELOPEan robot maypole dance simulator
New robot maypole setup for Galleries, with interactive floor tiles