Weaving into a new age: how the world's oldest surviving craft gets a fresh spin

A wave of contemporary designers are breathing new life into hand-weaving techniques

Madinat Zayed, January 21, 2013 --  Hamda Almazrouei, 46, uses a floor loom to weave a table runner  at her mother's home in Madinat Zayed, January 21, 2013. (Photo by: Sarah Dea/The National)
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Weaving, like many traditional handicrafts, is experiencing a bit of a renaissance right now. No longer the domain of grey-haired empty nesters finding creative outlets to fill long days, weaving has been co-opted by young makers, artists and designers, who use this centuries-old technique to produce a diversity of contemporary art and textiles of every kind. A quick YouTube or Pinterest search reveals ­thousands of projects and tutorials, from ­hand-woven belts and bracelets to huge ­experimental artworks.

Weaving is acknowledged as one of the oldest surviving crafts in the world. The tradition can be traced back to Neolithic times, while fibre twisting, the raw material needed for weaving to develop further, dates back to between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago.

In comparison, the process of mechanised textile weaving hasn't been with us very long, evolving only in the mid-1700s as part of the Industrial Revolution. In the early 1900s, ­Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India's independence movement, famously used hand-spun khadi weaving as a symbol of freedom, at a time when Indian cotton was exported to England to be machine-woven, only to be imported back into India to sell to Indians as finished fabric at inflated prices.

The power of weaving in today's day and age

So many of the things we use today in our daily lives are woven, from bed sheets and chair seats to clothing, albeit most of them are now produced by machine, not hand. The process itself simply involves the interlacing of ­horizontal and vertical threads. There are many simple and complex variations, with minimal restrictions on what materials can be used to weave with.

Online videos documenting the skilled work of the French couture houses have become popular viewing across social channels. These mini-documentaries feature everything from hand embroidery to watchmaking. Many from Chanel showcase the hand-woven tweed used for the house's iconic jackets, which mix boucle yarn with ripped textiles, plastic ribbons and beaded threads.

India’s famous Banarasi saris are woven by hand on a loom in Varanasi AFP

This low-tech process is even used for high-tech applications. Special fibres are used to weave fireproof Formula One drivers’ jumpsuits, for example, while Nasa engineers hand-wove the wheels of the electric car used to traverse the lunar surface in the first-ever Moon landing. Today, textiles are commonly used for construction purposes in the aerospace industry, to build the fuselage and sometimes the entire aircraft body. Product engineers across industries use textiles for the auto and construction industries.

How weavers are using the skill to create new works

British weaver Margo Selby is one of the original designers who helped establish and popularise the present-day hand-weaving movement. Selby trained at the Royal College of Art, and consistently pushes the boundaries to create contemporary textiles for a variety of applications. Her trademark three-dimensional textiles often feature a series of raised dots in muted colourations, and are used on everything from hand-made shoes to chairs.

Although most of Selby’s textiles are machine-woven, the process begins with hand-woven concepts. Her understanding of graphics and colour harmonies, and a fascination with precise geometric patterns, inform her aesthetic. She continuously explores the boundaries between man and machine, hand and industrial, and craft and technology, and has collaborated with the Tate Gallery, the Royal Opera House and West Elm.

Described as floor art, her creations feature daring and gaudy eye-popping colours. She hand-weaves every piece herself from reclaimed yarn to produce one-off commissions and exhibition samples.

Wallace Sewell, a creative partnership that comprises Harriet Wallace-Jones and Emma Sewell, is an equally established and renowned company. Its partners are also graduates of the Royal College of Art from the 1990s, and they have produced materials for London's tube seats, scarves for the Tate Museum and textiles for Barneys New York. The creative duo are renowned for their use of bold colour, structure and yarn in unexpected geometric formats, creating contemporary fabrications with striking blocks of colour in varying scales. Wallace Sewell embraces traditional techniques, with all the initial design work produced by hand in its UK studios.

Award-winning designer Angie Parker is one of a new wave of weavers. She produces hand-woven rugs with traditional Scandinavian techniques, influenced by English graffiti and years of living in India. Described as floor art, her creations feature daring and gaudy eye-popping colours. She hand-weaves every piece herself from reclaimed yarn to produce one-off commissions and exhibition samples.

Enthusiasts can attend a plethora of hand-weaving workshops at studios around the world; watch "how to" videos on YouTube to teach themselves to work with traditional fibres or new materials; follow rigid rules and patterns; or let intuition guide them. Weaving is seen as providing a tactile creative outlet for more and more artists and designers, seeking to create fashion, product designs or art using fabric. As the process is entirely done by hand, there is no associated energy use and no carbon footprint, so this is an earth-friendly way of exploring your creative spirit.