Technology and Crafts

Marcy Petrini

November, 2016 

Recently Nancy Perkins, Executive Director of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi (CGM), told me that there has been a discussion in the CGM Board of Directors about the technology in fine crafts and at which point using technology eliminates the individual practitioner’s creativity because the computer software dictates what the individual does – should that craftsperson, then, be granted juried membership in the Guild?

This is by no means a new argument; in the early 1980s, as computers started to become available for home use, I, and several others in the weaving community, wrote programs to do drawdowns; some believed that it was “cheating” – that the computer was doing all the work; in fact, all the computer did was fill in squares where the user told the program a square should be filled, to represent a warp or a weft thread. In the summer 1983 I wrote an article for Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot entitled “Computers Don’t Weave”. Now, over 40 years later, whether one uses drawdown software or not, I think that nobody would consider using it “cheating”, any more than writing with a word processor is.

I can’t speak for the crafts that I don’t practice, but I do use a computerized loom and I think that it allows more creativity not less! I realize that most people reading this blog are weavers and so I am preaching to the proverbial choir. However, feel free to refer people to these explanations when you hear that argument. Also, should you be thinking about a computerized loom, this will give you an idea of the advantages – and disadvantages – of using one. At Convergence™ 2014, I presented a seminar on this topic for people who were considering such a move, so I have thought about this problem for a long time (if you would like a copy of the handout, please click here).

At the core of the argument is creativity, originality and one’s own work.

First, though, we need some definitions since some of those terms are used differently by various crafts. If I say that I wove a scarf with a straight twill, a weaver knows exactly what pattern I am talking about. In weaving, a pattern is usually a particular weaving structure; even if you had to look up a more complicated pattern, for example an “M and W twill”, that says nothing about your creativity, it’s like looking up a word in the dictionary. With the same exact pattern, you could weave a flowing shawl, a well-balanced fabric to use in sewing a garment, a sturdy place mat, and an even sturdier rug. All possible because of your knowledge of fiber, yarn, sett, beat and, yes, creativity.

In contrast, for example, when knitters say “pattern”, they may mean directions that one could obtain from published sources. Depending on how difficult the pattern is – and publications may offer that information – the knitter could buy the recommended yarn and needle size and knit the item from the pattern. There could be tremendous skill in the task, but no creativity. Another knitter may design her own pattern which, in addition to skill, would require creativity as well. 

Part of the problem in this discussion, then, is how the word “pattern” is used by different people in different ways – and sometimes by the same person in different ways.

So, for starters, using a pattern does not preclude or include creativity. You have to dig a bit deeper. Although I must admit that the “rule” that I heard that changing somebody else’s work by 20% makes the work original is a bit of a stretch for me. We all “steal like an artist”, but the whole point of creativity is to synthesize those elements in a novel way so that it truly becomes a reflection of us as an individual; that is the essence of Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist, which I highly recommend.

Back to the loom. What does a computerized loom do for me? 

First, let’s consider what we can do with the usual four-shaft foot-powered loom; to form a shed where the weft will be placed, we have to have some warp threads down and some threads up; that is, some shafts must be up and at least one shaft must be down or vice versa. It turns out that taking shafts one at a time, or two at a time, or three at a time gives us 14 possibilities, for each shed. Clearly there are a lot of possibilities for weaving, but we are usually limited because we step on treadles on the floor to activate shafts up or down, and usually four-shaft looms have six treadles because of space limitations, so we have to be inventive about how we use the treadles and there are some sequences that are simply not possible.

As we increase the number of shafts, we obtain more pattern options, but the possibilities can become staggering. I have forty shafts, think about what’s available: shaft # 1 vs. the other 39, shaft # 2 vs. the other 39, and so forth until we get to shaft # 40 vs. the other 39. And then we move to shafts 1 & 2 vs. the other 38, and shafts # 1, 2, 3 vs. the other 37, etc. How many treadles could you fit under a 40 shafts loom? That depends on the width and even a 60” wide loom wouldn’t have enough, and it’s hard to weave on anything wider than 60”.

So, the computerized loom, used this way, is a mechanical device. I enter in the computer program what shafts I want lifted – my pattern – and the computer sends a message to a dobby that lifts the shafts I told it to lift. Not only I don’t have enough room for treadles under my loom, but that many shafts together are heavy and it would be difficult to lift them with one leg and move on to the next shed. 

Thus, I enter my pattern in the computer; but unlike 4 shafts where I can look up the pattern, there are no pattern dictionaries for forty shafts! I am not only making decisions about what to do with those “words”, but I am inventing the words! I would say that this is pretty creative.

It is true that once the pattern is entered, there can be less of a chance to make a mistake since the directions are identical every time. However, it is very easy to step on the pedal that controls the dobby too fast and so skip a step, which is harder to detect since the pattern is more complicated, and thus the mistake may not be visible… until we take the cloth off the loom! If you buy a computerized loom, you must be careful of this pitfall until you get used to the mechanism and then you must pay attention, looking at your weaving and at your computer screen in turn, to make sure you haven’t made an error.

The other consideration is floats. Floats are our friends and our enemies; on one hand, they make our patterns, deviating in some ways from the “over under” of plain weave. On the other hand, too long of a float means unstable fabric and more possibilities for snagging. We cannot simply take a four-shaft pattern and extend it, our floats will be too long, even with the closest of setts. And there is a drawback: a closer sett means a shorter float, but it also means a less visible pattern. So, when you design with more shafts, you must come up with creative ways to limit the floats while making the pattern large enough to be visible. 

In the September blog I showed a drawdown of a plaited twill that I had designed (it’s on the loom right now). In between the plaiting, I needed threads anchored or the floats would be too long. Plain weave is often used with fewer shafts, but with forty, the plain weave areas were too large and unattractive. I think I spent more time filling those areas with motifs that I did plaiting the twill.

So, what does the computerized loom do for me? I still wind the warp, thread the heddles, sley the reed, tie the warp on and throw the shuttle while weaving. But forty shafts give me more design options, the computerized dobby makes possible the lifting of shafts that would be otherwise impossible – physically and logistically. This allows me to do something totally unique, the hallmark of creativity. 


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