I’m currently reading The Art of Fabric Collage by Rosemary Eichorn. It’s about piecing printed fabrics into collages, which are then fastened together permanently and used for garments, pillows, etc. As in most quilting, the fabric is valued more as a conduit for visual imagery – the patterns printed on the fabric – than as something unique unto itself. Remove the printed pattern, and the fabrics would be boringly identical – a lightweight plain weave cotton fabric.
I have been thinking lately about what makes handwoven fabrics unique, and how best to showcase handwoven fabrics. With a few exceptions (jacquard and tapestry mainly), handwoven fabrics are not conducive to detailed imagery: the patterns in most quilting fabrics are far beyond the reach of the handweaver. For the shaft weaver, and especially the weaver with relatively few shafts, patterns are limited to geometric, abstract patterns. This is not to say that the patterns can’t be complex – overshot has remarkably complex pattern on just four shafts – but to weave the image of a rose, one either needs a jacquard loom or a serious interest in hand-manipulated weaves.
So pictoral imagery is not one of the strengths of handweaving. What, then, is?
Well, first, pictoral imagery is not the same thing as pattern. Handwoven fabrics, especially on many shafts, do have pattern, and these are often quite beautiful. Some are geometric and repeating, like traditional overshot; some are free-flowing curves, as in network drafting. Some are more visual texture than pattern – like crepe weaves.
Second, handwoven fabrics have physical texture. Unlike commercial fabrics, which tend to be flat unless sewn into shape, handwoven fabrics can sport ruffles, textured surfaces, and rounded edges. This can be the result of weave structure (e.g. waffle weave or deflected doubleweave), yarn choices (overtwist or lycra yarns), yarn texture (slub and boucle yarns), or finishing techniques (differential shrinkage). Like commercial fabric, handwoven fabrics can be thick or thin, finely or coarsely woven, drapey or crisp – but these choices are all controlled by the weaver, not limited by what’s available commercially.
Third, handwoven fabric has structure. By this I don’t mean the visual pattern, but the structure of the fabric itself: doubleweave, for example, is woven with two layers, something that commercial fabrics typically don’t have. Handwoven fabric can be warp-faced or weft-faced or anything in between, as the weaver chooses – not something typically seen in commercial fabrics.
Fourth, handwoven fabric can sport unique colors. The weaver has a broad range of color choices in solid colored warp and weft – but so much more so with painted warps, knitted blanks, and handpainted skeins of yarn! Not to mention stripes of color in both warp and weft, in all their abundant variety.
Fifth, handwoven fabrics can be combined with surface design techniques for exciting possibilities. Ikat weaving combines bound-resist dyeing and weaving for spectacular (and often pictoral) effects. I recently wove and dyed quite a few samples for cross-dyeing, using cellulose fiber as warp and protein fiber for weft. This enabled me to dye the fabric twice for two different colors in warp and weft, producing really interesting patterns. Devore, or burnout, can be done by using a cellulose and non-cellulose fiber in warp and weft, then burning away the cellulose fiber to reveal another pattern underneath.
And, finally, handwoven fabrics have creative expression. The weaver has the opportunity to choose all aspects of the fabric, producing an infinitely richer palette than going to the shop and choosing from a mere 1000 bolts of fabric, most alarmingly alike. Instead, the weaver can produce millions of kinds of fabrics – even with a limited supply of yarns – and design the fabric to his/her desires, producing a unique combination of yarn, pattern, structure, color, and texture that fits with the weaver’s creative goals.
Given all that, perhaps it’s time to explore handweaving for what it is rather than stretching the limits of what it isn’t? This will be an ongoing question for me, as I struggle to balance my gravitation towards symbolic, visual imagery against the strengths and weaknesses of my medium – handweaving.