Dec 12, 2019

Why weave by hand?

It's 2019. We have machines to do everything. Robots are taking our jobs, software is eating the world. The only reason humans are still involved is that some machines are too complicated to make, for now. So why weave by hand in 2019? Why do things the hard, slow, expensive way?

This will be a somewhat rambly exploration of common arguments given in favor of making things by hand, specifically textiles, and my own approach to that question. It will oversimplify some things and leave aside some complex matters that deserve their own piece.

Slow fashion

The evils of fast fashion are a common topic in textile, especially in eco-conscious Sweden. Sewing your own clothes, weaving your own fabric can then be a militant act. Handmade things have better quality, or so the idea goes, and they won't have weird chemicals in them, or exploited labor in the production chain. Natural dyeing is so much better for the planet.

Obviously this is an oversimplification: the waste of products and energy is much larger with handmade goods. With industrial scale comes efficiency - if only to increase profit. A lot of the discussion is scaremongering about synthetics and chemicals. Labor costs are much greater, but hobby makers don't count labor at all, and many professionals are underpricing theirs brutally.

What slow fashion does have going for it is an encouragement to consume less. Do we really need that many clothes, new things every season? But fewer textiles doesn't have to mean handmade textiles: I've personally been wearing fast fashion T-shirts threadbare over years, and am starting to consider replacing my 25-year-old bath towel.

Slow fashion and ecological concerns, while important, are not what push me to weave by hand. If only because as written above, many of the arguments strike me as scientifically questionable.


Weaving is ancient. It goes back thousands of years, and even very elaborate techniques and tools were invented several centuries ago. The Jacquard loom wasn't the first computer: it just put into punch cards what the Chinese did with string way back in BCE.

Sweden was rural for a very long time, organized in groups of farms that made nearly everything they used. Go two generations back, and every family had at least one loom. For many Swedish handweavers, the practice is about keeping traditions alive, rediscovering and preserving patterns tied to a specific place, and some fluffy idea of culture.

I'm from France. My home country was industrialized early, and making things yourself soon became about hobbies or excellence. When we speak of preserving crafts traditions, it's not on the same scale: it'll be old workshops, semi-industrial machines, manufactures. When it's about individual skills, it will be about haute couture or other luxury goods. For weaving, some examples are the Manufacture des Gobelins continuing to develop tapestry weaving, and a couple companies in Lyon preserving silk weaving on ancient looms. The factories in Northern France have mostly been turned into fancy apartments, and La Manufacture des Flandres is now a museum, showing the stages from the medieval handloom to the modern weaving machine.

While I like to learn and help preserve knowledge, it's not what drives me. I can't in good conscience claim to preserve a tradition I was never a part of, nor am I interested in repeating old patterns.


Making things by hand is good for the modern worker, writes yet another large newspaper. Could crafting solve the mental health crisis? Just go pet clay for a couple hours, it'll prevent burnout. You don't need union fights when you can go to an "office detox" at the end of a workday.

I'm the first one to make a case for every person having several energy buckets: different tasks drain and fill different buckets, and variation is good for most people. Studies show a genuine positive impact, but I still don't think crafts will save anyone from late capitalism and bad work conditions.

I've burned out. I'm burnt out. I'm not sure it'll ever heal fully. Leaning more into crafts wasn't so much self-care as a lack of other choices, because I could not go on with programming and gamedev alone: I needed to find something I had fun with again. I then proceeded to almost burn out on my hobbies, and again while studying weaving at HV. So this is definitely not it.

Process nerdery

Weaving is complex, or more accurately, it can be complex. You can do a lot with plain weave, like the rich illustrations of tapestries. You can play with color and texture while sticking to very simple structures, like in rag rugs. But you can also go up to dozens of shafts, draft mathematical theorems about woven structures, adjust every stitch in a Jacquard-woven damask so it'll be perfect.

Like a good programmer, I love systems, complexity blooming from first principles, emergent patterns and structures. My interest in a Jacquard loom isn't so much to be able to weave illustrative pictures, but that setting up more than 20 shafts would get really annoying. As my math teacher said: "To be good at math, you have to be lazy. But not too much". I don't want the easy way out, but I do want to be smart about doing things efficiently.

Whether it's making complex shapes appear from a simple 8-shaft twill, or overcomplexifying a traditional lace weave into a 10-shaft block extravaganza, I like to take traditional structures and make them richer, more complex, more emergent. It scratches the same itch as putting together a good API, sliding the last component of a system in place, and watching the computer do exactly what you wanted it to do. Remove the locking pin, pass the first few wefts, and see the cloth take shape, exactly as designed.

It's about the process, and about a love of making STUFF. Sometimes that stuff is software, sometimes it's fifteen meters of delightful linen. The major difference is that with weaving, I work from materials and process, more than the expected or desired final result. What do I want to work with? What's a good excuse to work with that?

But it's not about aimless play either. Once the materials and the technique are chosen, I make a plan, I validate the choices by drafting or testing or sampling, and I follow the plan, adjusting only as required. I'm a perfectionist: not by always finding flaws in what I made, but in always aiming to meet my own high standards, and rising them every time.

Things that don't exist

Handweaving is still used in the textile industry. It's impossible to beat when it comes to iterating quickly on small pieces. Designers for major textile companies will draft their designs in a handloom, testing patterns and materials. You can't just go and setup hundreds of meters of something unproven. It means small-batch making is at the heart of handweaving. While that's what makes it unaffordable for most people, it's also what allows me to make things that would not exist otherwise. If I want to make a dozen towels with pride flags on them? I can just set it up and go. There's appeal in that freedom, and in the political opportunities it creates.

The obvious sidenote

This entire ramble is written from a Western, industrialized perspective. Production handweaving for daily use is plenty alive in many countries, and not as a hobby as it generally is in Sweden. I suggest looking at Textile Trails, keeping an eye on Abby Franquemont's projects, or following Marcia Harvey Isaksson's continuation of "Weavers in the West" over on Instagram.

 ·  weaving