As a student at the Marshfield School of Weaving, I learned a blessing for the life of cloth. I learned this blessing after we had freshly cut a warp from the loom. We, as classmates and new friends, had waulked the cloth together. Translated from Gaelic by Norman Kennedy, founder of the School and tradition bearer of Scottish weaving practices and ballads, the blessing is a meditation on ephemerality:
These words contain a worldview that what we create should outlive us, the makers and users of objects. And, that the cloth will transform through its own life cycle from one purpose, perhaps a blanket, to another, such as a rag, before becoming threadbare and weary.
Instructor Justin Squizzero reflected that it is we who are ephemeral, our lifetimes should run out before the cloth. It is the things we make that possess the potential to touch an immortality that is always beyond our grasp. Yet, we can participate in that longevity as stewards. We are stewards of the objects themselves. And of generational knowledge for principled, poetic methods of production. And overall, we are stewards of the source of all our material possessions: the earth.
Cultivating stewardship over the life of cloth
As a material, cloth’s humble ubiquity offers a focused example on how we may cultivate stewardship on these many levels. Becoming familiar with its methods of production are valuable; familiarity invites kinship, and tenderness. Woven cloth, for one, is constructed from the intersection of warp and weft threads. Conversely, a series of looped yarns fed from a single source composes a kitted or crocheted piece. Sewn fragments or appliqued surfaces arranged in blocks comprise quilted cloth. Quilts stack and stitch like a sandwich with a warm batting in the middle. Then the quilt is ready for display, on clotheslines and gallery walls.
Stating where, precisely, the origin of cloth production begins is difficult
One could say it starts with a cone of yarn ready to loop onto knitting needles. Or perhaps it is waiting to wind into a warp which is then arranged carefully onto a weaving loom. But, one could also say the origin of cloth is with soil. It starts in plants such as cotton, hemp, flax (for linen), and bamboo (for some rayons). Equally, one could begin with animal sources, depending on the material. Sheep and alpaca are sheared for their wool. Angora rabbits get a careful haircut. And the cocoon of a Bobbyx mori moth provide silk threads.
Cultivating and harvesting these raw materials requires human labor. With that comes the recognition that cloth production has resulted in dark stains on our moral histories. Sustainable cloth production means ethical labor standards must be accessible and unquestioned, at all stages. It is a consideration for the environmental impact, from soil to rags.
The loom: where the life of cloth begins
To focus on the process of weaving, let’s study the loom. In this device, hundreds of threads that compose the warp are arranged and held in tension. A loom may be vertical and warp-weighed with stones, a method dating back to prehistoric Europe and Ancient Greece. Other vertical styles are practiced today for tapestry. Diné (Navajo) and Turkish rug production is one example. Peoples of the Northwest Coast practice Ravenstail and Chilkat weaving. Sometimes the loom may be flat on the ground, held in place with rocks and rods. Bedouin communities demonstrated this where the desert enables expansive uses of the landscape.
Backstrap weaving engages the body of the weaver to maintain tension, as seen in Mayan and Peruvian weaving traditions. Floor looms are larger, more stationary approaches to the process. They are make the Kente cloth of Ghana and throughout Europe and the United States. China created loom adaptation systems with complex patterns using harnesses and draw looms. These technologies were introduced to Persia, India, and Europe, and eventually led to the invention of the Jacquard loom.
This mechanized and computerized pattern production through punch cards operates on the binary system of absence and presence. Meaning 1 and 0 — the basis of all modern computer code. Since the Industrial Revolution, modern factories depend on these highly efficient looms to produce consistent, stable woven cloth.
Still, warp threads on a loom do not make woven cloth alone. All these loom technologies facilitate the lifting or lowering of certain warp threads to make space for the weft. The weft traverses the warp perpendicularly, going over and under warp threads selectively. Through accumulation, these intersections make the warp and weft become one, become cloth.
Cloth becomes what we need
What the blessing of use and ephemerality reminds us is that cloth has a life of its own. That life depends on use. The cloth is an active part of our lives and, hopefully, the lives of those who follow us. Perhaps we could transition with gratitude rather than haste when the life of the cloth is exhausted.
This lesson transcends cultural and temporal boundaries. On a recent First Nations Cultural Landscape Tour in Madison, Wisconsin, guide Omar Poler (Sakaogon Ojibwe) suggested that we realign the aspirations of our own life through considering the Objiwee word akiwenzii. We can quickly translate this as “old man”. But, Poler suggests, through an examination of the etymology, akiwenzii can convey “the one who thinks of the earth.”
Protecting the life of cloth as it ages
As we grow older, perhaps we should define our societal role by a devotion to conserving and protecting what lives on beyond ourselves, in thanks to what was provided for us at our birth. Perhaps the threads that I touch today will be present in the burial shroud of a distant descendant. So that as tatters, together, we may return softly to the earth.
Diamond Brand Outdoor Gear uses woven cloth for many of its products, and is considerate of the material’s whole life cycle. For instance, see their repurposing of scraps in the Moonrise Project, here.
About the Author
Danielle Burke is an artist and folklorist. She studies textiles, craft pedagogy, and artist communities; her studio practice focuses primarily on weaving. She is currently a PhD candidate in Design Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Visit her website here.