Pattern & Loom: a practical study of the development of weaving techniques in China, Western Asia and Europe   John Becker  (with collaboration of Donald B. Wagner) Nias Press 2nd edition 2014

It’s taken me a long time to read this book.  I remember posting that I would need to sit down and study it properly to do it justice, and I was not wrong. It is incredibly detailed and contains a wealth of knowledge garnered from solid research and practical application with hands-on weaving and loom adaptation.  It was first published in 1987 after the death of John Becker and was recognised for its importance in bringing new knowledge on the development of weaving techniques across the centuries and continents.  John Becker was a Danish damask weaver with the intimate knowledge and practical experience which informed his research into original techniques of ancient fabrics.  Donald Wagner is a Sinologist who worked with Becker and who has cleaned up the original work for this edition.

Starting with Part I, we learn of the patterned weaves of Han China, dating from 206BC to 220AD.  Right away, on the first page of text, my understanding of ancient Chinese silks as having been woven on drawlooms was challenged.  I confess to not being a historical weave scholar and to not having read Burnham’s 1965 book which first put forward that notion, but it instantly got my interest roused.  Amazingly fine silk fabrics were woven on relatively unsophisticated looms with pattern rods (think large pick-up sticks like the wonderful weaving still found in Laos). I learnt immediately about the qi which is a tabby monochrome fabric patterned with 3/1 twill; the Hanqi – tabby patterned with 3/1 warp floats on  every other end; the jin – polychrome (2 or more warp colours) compound warp-faced twill or tabby; and the qirong jin or rongquan jin – jin patterned with pile warp loops. The ground weave was always tabby.  With the simple use of clasped heddles (or on texsolv using the space above the heddle eye for threading) even non-lifted ends can be raised simply to become a pattern-end.

I did need to get my magnifying glass out to follow some of the drafts, but it’s worth the time taken at the start to study the nomenclature so that drafts are understood.  I found the first chapter on monochrome patterned weaves particularly interesting for my own research.

Then we looked at gauze weaves, and looking at the outlines of the gauze weaves reminds me of cable knitting.  There are clear descriptions of how doups work and instructions in how to set them up are helpful in understanding this effective open weave.

It is interesting to compare the loom-based method of the Chinese to the finger-manipulated weft method of Peru and the picking method found in Finland for their Karelian lace, which are all methods of creating twisting of threads around each other and which were all described in this section.

Chapter 3 on polychrome silks, known as jin, showed complex loop pile warp patterns which were woven on very simple looms using pattern rods for the loop (warp pile) and ground weave patterns.  These could much more easily be woven on jacquard looms from 1804 onwards but this whole book demonstrates how incredibly complex fabrics were woven on very simple looms.  Having woven jacquard velvet by hand, this description of the process in the Han dynasty left me in awe.

Part II, featuring patterned weaves of Early Western Asia, began with weft-faced compound tabby which is known as taqueté.  The consistency, quality and strength of the cultivated silk yarns in China led to warp patterned designs.  By contrast, weavers outside of China had to rely on spun thread of wool, cotton or linen and this led to more open setts where the “finest and most expensive yarns were reserved for the weft” which led to the weft become the pattern-forming element, such as tacqueté – weft-faced compound tabby, using a main pattern warp and a binding warp which were totally covered by two interacting weft yarns to create the pattern design.  Reducing the simplest patterning to 4 shafts and 4 treadles, the principles are shown clearly.

Chapter 5 was on weft-faced compound twill, or samitum.  Samitum using 1/2 twill used as a ground fabric became the main technique for multi-coloured silk weaving during the first millennium AD, developed first in Iran.  2 or 3 coloured wefts were most often woven.

Patterned samitum in one colour is elegant and subtle and used in churches and courts in Europe although it was woven in Islamic regions, most likely Syria, Antioch or Palmyra, using one colour weft as if it were two, which made a tiny aperture where the interlacements of each side’s wefts interact, creating a subtle design line that looks incised in the surface of the cloth, giving a “refined simplicity”.

Pseudo-damask uses a tabby ground (not of plain weave) but as the binding warp versus the whole main design warp, in an order of 1 tabby weft, 2 pattern wefts, opposite tabby weft, 1 pattern weft; but the same loom set-up as for 1/2 twill samitum.

In half-silks from Venice and Spain, linen and hemp was used for the main warp and other samitums of silk combined with fine woollen yarn and cotton with wool.

Part III focused on the Patterned Weaves of the Mediterranean Region beginning with lampas.  There is much discussion about the development of early lampas into true lampas, but the pertinent difference between taqueté and lampas is that taqueté is weft-faced, whereas the tabby binding and general appearance of lampas is of a balanced cloth (equal prominence to warp and weft) with patterning in the supplementary pattern weft, beginning in Iran before 1000AD and Moorish Spain from C8th – 15th, featuring prominently in Italy from C13th/14th (where Italian weaving centres were founded during the decline of the Eastern Roman Empire C12 – 13th), France from mid C17th and England from early C18th.  Chinese influence into lampas weaves appeared in C13th bringing Chinese dragons and motifs into designs with Arabic script, presumably originating in Turkestan, showing the influence of war and current affairs on fabric design.

Beiderwand from Schleswig-Holstein is also described in i) block patterning for shaft looms and ii) drawloom designs with a) flora and fauna forms and b) figurative scenes.

Chapter 7 looked at double-faced weft weaves from C12th onwards.  One warp, 2 wefts, using 1/3 and 3/1 twills ensure that the binding points of the other face are always hidden under the weft float of the first face, specially featured in Spain with many designs.

Chapter 8 looked at patterned double cloth.  Earliest examples of patterned double cloth have been found as far back as 850 – 300 BC in Peru of such quality and excellence that indicates a long previous development.  Persian examples of drawloom patterned double and triple cloth are found around C11th.  Early Scandinavian examples date from C13th. Drafts and explanations are given for drawloom, shaft loom and pick up designs, even showing pick up triple cloth which may be of interest to Anni Albers fans with 6 shafts at their disposal.  Note that tie-ups are generally for countermarch looms.

Chapter 9 covered damask.  The earliest found examples in twill date before 200AD and it is supposed to have developed in Syria where Eastern and Western design and technology met.  An incredibly intricate and advanced design found in Milan, Italy has been tentatively dated to early C5th Syria.  The subtle versatility of damask (the play of warp v weft emphasis in twill and satin weaves) was proved in its popularity in drawloom weaving from C15th onwards from Italy to Flanders and Holland as interest changed from colourful lampas to subdued silk damask with a focus on surface texture variations and damask fabrics were used for many different purposes in upholstery, costume and “wall linings” and later linen damask for tablecloths.

Part IV went back to China, to the Tang dynasty (618 – 907AD).  My understanding now is that the draw loom was developed in Persia in order to weave the weft-faced weaves such as taqueté and samitum, and then travelled east in to China with the Chinese weavers who had woven on the looms in the Abassid capital (now Iraq) in the C8th.  Twill lifts were only used for patterning, never for ground in Han, but by the Tang, twill was used in China with shafts and treadles, like in Western Asia, with a weft-faced compound twill.  However reversible samitum has never been found in Western Asia so perhaps this was a Chinese ‘speciality’.

The final section of the book showed the development of mechanical patterning:

From simple pick-up warp rods adapting through pattern heddle rods, true pattern shafts, cross-harness in Western Asia/Persia (new to me), drawlooms with individually weighted harness cords (China), the European drawloom and finally to the jacquard – fascinating developments and adaptations are outlined over many centuries.  What struck me was, contrary to my previous understanding, loom-controlled pattern selection was being used in Syria and Persia before the development of individually weighted harness cords in China, which is what we tend to think of as the original draw loom.  It’s incredible to think that, even by the year 1000AD, silks of Byzantine and Islamic original were being woven at 250cm wide on drawlooms with some kind of comber board with the expertise that demonstrates that the techniques were already developed to a high degree.  For example, a famous Mozac silk dated 671AD used 2700 different rows of pattern for a design which was around 90cm high.

This book has given me a much deeper understanding of how the various patterning weave structures were/are constructed and therefore much that I can consider when designing for my sample jacquard looms.  It has also turned on its head much that I thought I knew about the history of the development of looms for patterning and this I will have to digest and re-read a number of times.  It is well researched and I really enjoyed the hands-on practical application of weaving examples of ancient textiles to get a tactile and haptic knowledge of the method of weaving and the challenges faced by the weavers of history.  It has certainly widened my knowledge and given me a lot to ponder, which is always a positive for me.

This book is a valuable addition to the bibliography of the serious student of structure and complex patterning, and to the historical textiles buff as it encompasses technical know-how with history and geography and makes connections that I hadn’t seen before.  I still find myself a bit muddled over some of the timelines, but this is more probably my failing.