When contemplating the fundamental nature of weaving, or how the two variables of warp and weft can be put into different constellations to produce an almost endless series of variations, it is easy to see why people compare weaving with the digital language of zeros and ones. Almost every publication on weaving will refer to the genealogy between the punch card system of the Jacquard Loom and Charles Babbage’s first modern computer design. Babbage’s colleague, Ada Lovelace, is said to have made the comparison that “The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves”.
In the Jacquard machine, patterns are programmed upon cardboard cards with small punched holes. A string of these ‘punch cards’ run through a mechanism controlling which warp threads should be raised in order to allow the weft thread to pass under. Written in a binary code of open and closed holes, each punch card held the instructions for a specific weaving pattern. Although Jacquard’s use of punch cards to direct the weaving process marked a big leap in the development of the loom (and consequently the production of patterned textiles), people have used binary code to visualise and translate pattern designs since the earliest of days; take for instance the gridded cartoons with black and white squares representing the over and under movement of the weft. These ‘coded’ pattern drawings show that abstract mathematical thinking has been elementary to the craft of (hand)weaving long since Jacquard introduced pattern software in the shape of punch cards.
However, Jacquard’s loom and Babbage’s Analytical Machine introduced a dilemma that designers are still grappling with today. Notwithstanding the efficiency of the mechanised loom and its digitised offspring in terms of speed, costs, labour, and their ability to (re)produce the exact same pattern design over and over again; these machines have also standardised textile production.
Being able to produce the perfect copy – in fact, a series of perfect copies – has long been the virtue of industrialised production processes, but this comes at the expense of creative experimentation. Finding ways to work within these standardised systems and maintaining some room for one’s own creative input seems to be the quest for many designers today. Just like the kente weavers on the tourist markets in Bonwire and Sakora Wonoo allow themselves some room to improvise on the standard (read: commercial) kente patterns, designers working within an industrialised system continue to carve out space to play around with some of the variables in order to create a unique expression.
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