Women Weavers and Web Weavers

Textiles, narrative & technology…

A post for Ada Lovelace Day

Throughout history women have used craft work as an outlet for their creativity. Often deprived by domestic circumstances of education and work, they turned to craft, and particularly needlecraft, to express their creative energies. Simple household objects such as quilts and tablecloths were made into beautiful objects women could be proud of. And women’s lives and women’s narratives were often stitched into these textiles.

Simple crafts have often been the poor relation of the more mainstream art forms, and now Web weaving is seen in a similar way: a Web artist isn’t a “real” artist, a Web writer isn’t a “real” writer. Now, women working on the Web have more than a passing sisterhood with those craftswomen of the past.

Philomela

In Greek mythology, Philomela was kidnapped and raped by her brother-in-law Tereus, King of Thrace. He cut out her tongue so that she could not accuse him, and imprisoned her. She had no way to tell her story until, during the year of her incarceration, she began to weave her story into the fabric she wove on her loom, perhaps a tapestry, perhaps a garment. She had the fabric sent to her sister, Procne, who came to her rescue, and the sisters plotted a terrible revenge.

The women of Normandy

Tapestries have always told a story, from simple hunting and family narratives to great battles told in threadwork, the classic example being the Bayeux tapestry (actually an embroidered linen strip), which tells the story of William the Conqueror and his invasion of England in 1066.

Ada, Countess Lovelace

Ada was Lord Byron’s daughter, and, perhaps to counter any leanings toward the arty/literary which so enlivened her father’s world, was encouraged to study mathematics and science. She collaborated with Charles Babbage, who invented the ‘Analytical Engine’ in 1843. The machine was probably never built, but contained the operating principles from which the computer was later developed. Ada translated a text by Manabrea about this calculating engine, and her notes, which took up more space than the original text, are generally agreed to contain the first instances of written software. Some parts of the Analytical Engine were derived from the punched cards used by the Jacquard loom to store and process information. The Jacquard loom itself was developed as a response to the demand for weavings with representational imagery, influenced by fabrics from Asia which became popular in Europe in the 18th century.

“Who can foresee the consequences of such an invention? The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves. The engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

Sadie Plant

Sadie Plant has written in her essay The Future Loom: Weaving Women and Cybernetics and her book Zeros and Ones about the parallels between digital practices and the making of textiles.

“The weaving of complex designs demands far more than one pair of hands, and textiles production tends to be communal, sociable work allowing plenty of occasion for gossip and chat. Weaving was already multimedia: singing, chanting, telling stories, dancing, and playing games as they work, spinsters, weavers, and needle-workers were literally networkers as well. It seems that “the women of prehistoric Europe gathered at one another’s houses to spin, sew, weave, and have fellowship.”

Alicia Felberbaum

Alicia’s project Holes Linings Threads took Sadie Plant’s work as its starting point.

“As a former weaver I was interested in and familiar with the manufacture of cloth, its cultural and political weight in the history of ancient and contemporary societies.

“I have often been asked if I don’t miss weaving and making. I realised that as in weaving, this change in medium also required a set of new skills. Making does not necessary have to be confined to the physical world. The emergence of computation as a medium, rather than just a set of tools, suggests a growing
correspondence between digital work and traditional craft.

“The need to become skilled in handling the language of the computer was necessary if I was to become confident working in that medium as an artist manipulating this new material. The process was (for me) like learning a new language, to be able later to use it in visual conversations and to weave various texts and images where the pixel becomes the texture.

“In the project Holes Linings Threads, I tried to create an open piece, a network of traces through short essays. In these essays I tried to explore the relationship between textile production, with its punch card operation, and the computers around the world that are powered by switches-the almost addictive and obsessive acts of work, the cyclic repetition of the loom, the assembly of the cloth, the shouting above the noise of the machines, and today, the tack, tack, of the keyboard with the continuous staring into and beyond the screen.”

Quilters

Particularly in America, the history of quilting is the history of women’s voices, from the friendship and signature quilts of the 19th century to today’s narrative quilts. There have also been digital quilts such as trAce’s Noon Quilt, which Wired described as:

“a patchwork-in-PERL of submissions from writers all over the world … to create a composite picture of the planet through human eyes as the sun’s apex moves through the world’s time zones. Writers are invited to look out their windows wherever they happen to be at noon local time, and describe what they see in 100 words. The impressions are woven together on the site.”

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