I have been thinking lately about expressiveness…
What is expressiveness? In a word, it’s communication. Expressive faces let you see clearly what a person is thinking, while expressive language communicates convoluted ideas clearly and with flair. But not all faces, or all languages, are equally expressive. English does not express concepts in the same way as Japanese, or Swahili, because the structures, words, and underlying cultural underpinnings are all different. Each language is expressive in the ways that satisfies its culture’s need for expression, and that language, in turn shapes the thought of that culture. George Orwell expressed this neatly in his classic novel 1984, which featured a new language, “Newspeak”, the main purpose of which was to destroy all words that did not directly support the new regime, to make it impossible to engage in “thought crime”. Lacking words to express disapproval, people would be unable even to think disapproving thoughts, becoming completely dominated by the regime.
So what does this have to do with weaving?
Well, I have been thinking about expressiveness in media. In the same ways that language shapes thought, medium shapes the creator’s expression. Painting and drawing are very visually expressive media, good for communicating concepts through line, color, and shape. Sculpture is also visually expressive on its surface, but also has texture and form. Music manifests emotion and concepts through sound, and dance expresses its meaning through movement.
But weaving is more like architecture than like fine art, in the sense that form follows function. A building may be artistic in its scope, but first and foremost it must be functional – well-built and able to stand up to its intended use. A woven fabric intended for upholstery must be strong and abrasion-resistant, while a fabric meant for a blouse must be fine and delicate. Long floats are only acceptable in an area that gets very little wear. This is one kind of constraint.
But beyond the engineering requirements, weaving – and the creative thought behind it – is also shaped by the tools. And that is where I struggle with the medium. The most expressive form of weaving – in visual terms, at least – is tapestry, which is weaver-controlled. Free form, but very very slow. As soon as you move to loom-controlled weaves, however, tools become the choke-point for free expression. Working solely with loom-controlled weaves, you are limited to patterns that can be created with the shafts and treadles that you have available. This frequently means minimal expressiveness in line and pattern. Not in the sense that you cannot create different patterns – obviously you can create millions of different patterns on even a relatively simple loom – but in the sense that an arbitrary pattern is most likely impossible to replicate in loom-controlled weaving. In painting, you can pick up a brush and draw a triangle. In loom-controlled weaving, that is not so easy.
And that is what I have been struggling with, artistically speaking, but lacking the vocabulary to describe. The reason I want a jacquard loom is that it (more or less) offers the expressiveness of weaver-controlled techniques with the speed of loom controlled weaves, and allows exploration of more complex structures than traditional weaver-controlled-techniques (which are mostly variants of plainweave). With a jacquard loom, I can pick up a brush and draw a triangle, and do so in a way that allows full exploration of both visual design and underlying weave structure.
Where does that leave me now? Well, I’m not exactly stranded for expression. While I can’t do an arbitrary pattern, there are millions of things I can do. A 24-shaft loom is pretty miraculously versatile, and there are lots of things to be done with color, structure, and texture even within the limits of a 4-shaft loom. So while I do feel artistically constrained, I also feel there is a lot to express within the limits imposed by my tools. What I will be working on, over the next few years, is figuring out what can and cannot be “said” using loom-controlled (or weaver-controlled) weaving, finding the rules and limits, and possibly pushing the edges of both.