Fruit of the Loom

“We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter their color.” – Maya Angelou

‘Moroccan Rug Weavers’ acrylics on canvas, 102cm x 76cm

© Yvonne Ayoub, all rights reserved.

Weaving has always held a huge fascination for me. Whenever I’ve visited a new country, I’ve sought out the bazaars and markets and been drawn, in particular, to the unique tapestries, rugs and cloth hand-woven by local craftsmen.

On recent visits to Morocco and Egypt I witnessed the age-old techniques still being employed. I marvelled at the caravanserais where the Berbers brought their hand-woven wares from the desert, and high in the Atlas mountains, to sell, in time-honoured tradition,  in the souks of the old Medina:

I love all the colourful patterns, textures and threads, in fact the whole process, from the dyeing:

and drying:

and the spinning onto bobbins:

to the weaving:

to the finished article, anything from bed throws, tablecloths and cushions:

to floor rugs and even hats!:

Weaving is pretty much universal and yet every culture has its own traditional and unique use of pattern, design and colours, which are often are instantly recognisable; one look immediately identifies the country of origin:

and growing up in the north of Scotland, as I did,  the countless variations of the woven clan tartans were an early source of fascination.

Perhaps it’s that sense of continuity that appeals to me or  it could be down to the Lancashire  blood that runs through my veins. Perfectly suited with its damp climate and plentiful rainfall and home to the world’s most productive (and at one time, most lucrative) cotton-weaving industry (as dryer Yorkshire was, for the wool industry), Lancashire was where my own ancestors, not so very long ago, worked long shifts at the cotton mills.

My father recalls visiting, as a very young boy,  his Auntie Mamie at work, watching her deftly (despite having previously lost fingers in the process!) feed the shuttle through the warp and weft of a vast loom – just one of many huge, stream (and steam)driven contraptions that filled the enormous floor space of the local cotton mill. Altogether, they made such a racket with their non-stop, repetitive clatter that it left him reeling and not a little deaf! That particular mill had supplied the cloth for the uniform shirts worn by the Royal Air Force and to this day he can recall how the cloth was woven from two white and one blue thread. He also used to visit his Uncle Albert who worked on the dyeing side of the process. He would watch in awe as the imported American white cotton was threaded onto two foot wide bobbins and  anchored onto steel plates before being immersed into huge vats containing the blue dye. Born in Liverpool his whole life had been as tightly interwoven with the weaving industry as the cloth his aunt produced; yet another uncle had been a bargee working on the network of canals and locks that supplied the mills all over the north of England, with the bales of raw material that arrived by sea from exotic shores and passed through Liverpool docks.

(A useful site for further reading and viewing: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nationonfilm/topics/textiles/)

Of course my father was lucky not to have been born half a century earlier when he himself, from a very young age would have been employed, from morning till night, to dart at great risk underneath the terrifying machinery to knot together any broken threads.

Thankfully the Children’s Law passed in 1901 (70 years after the first Factory Act in 1833 which had restricted the minimum working age  to 9+, followed by three successive laws in 1847, ’67 and ’87) finally reduced the daily working hours for children, raised the minimum age to 12 years and all but abolished child slave labour, in England at least. It instantly reduced the till then high child mortality rate and all but eradicated common preventable diseases like rickets. For the first time in history,  children were given a right to full-time education and, perhaps most importantly of all, a childhood.

“I leave to children exclusively, but only for the life of their childhood, all and every the dandelions of the fields and the daisies thereof, with the right to play among them freely, according to the custom of children, warning them at the same time against the thistles.  And I devise to children the yellow shores of creeks and the golden sands beneath the water thereof, with the dragon flies that skim the surface of said waters, and the odors of the willows that dip into said waters, and the white clouds that float on high above the giant trees.” ~Williston Fish, “A Last Will,” 1898

Sadly today, though, child labour and exploitation is still rampant in the sweat shops of India and the far East, despite persistent international pressure. Having been an avid collector of, and dealer in, Persian rugs during my many years in the Middle East, I was alarmed to discover that some of my most prized intricately woven and densely knotted acquisitions had also, in all probability,  been made by children as young as 7 or 8!

antique ‘Soumak’ Kelim runner from Iran

Not so in Skiathos, thankfully. Here weaving was always a woman’s domain and Skiathos, like many of the Greek islands, has its own unique patterns in both floor rugs and cloth. Traditionally these were made within each household for its own domestic use. They were never made for commercial purposes so examples aren’t easily come by these days, unfortunately. They are not available anywhere to buy and those that do remain, if not still in use, are mostly lying at the bottom of wooden chests, protected by mothballs and languishing in the attics of the old townhouses. Rug weaving is an art. Wool was collected, spun, teased and dyed (with plants still found in the hills today, though few still know exactly which ones) before threaded onto the loom for weaving. It is a slow laborious, even tedious, process that requires extreme patience and accuracy in painstaking thread-counting.

“A weaver who has to direct and to interweave a great many threads has no time to philosophize about it, rather, he is so absorbed in his work that he doesn’t think, he acts; and it’s nothing he can explain, he just feels how it should go.” – Vincent van Gogh 1853 – 1890

“You see, when weaving a blanket, an Indian woman leaves a flaw in the weaving of that blanket to let the soul out.” – Martha Graham 1894-1991

Knowing of my interest in such things I have been given, most generously, a few treasured pieces as gifts, to adorn my old wooden Skiathos settee in the traditional manner:

The striped cotton back cushions are made from a hand-woven cloth, typical of Skiathos which was always dyed either red or, more rarely, blue.

This more ‘open’ weave cream cloth, also locally and hand-made, I use as an ornamental bed cover:

At the foot of the bed, just visible, lies a small persian rug, a ‘Qum’ (from the town of the same name) densely woven in fine, pure silk threads.

Over time I’ve collected various lengths of beautifully embroidered antique hand-woven pieces. These are from Skiathos and Skopelos:

Sadly, weaving was a cottage industry here that, just like the lace-making and the ship-building that  Skiathos was renowned for, has all but died out.

Lace, Crochet and white linen ‘cut-work’ is still readily available  in some of the local linen shops but much on display today is machine-made and imported from China, unlike these:

The few exquisite hand made pieces on show are instantly recognisable by their craftsmanship and quality –  and the high prices they fetch, reflect as much. They are mostly the work of  the older generation of Skiathos’ women folk who despair at the lack of interest in continuing the craft, shown by their grand-daughters, knowing their skills will most likely disappear altogether when they’re gone.

As for the rugs, these are rarer still as there is, to my knowledge, only one working loom left on the island and only one lady who knows how to use it but she never sells her work. She is the aunt of some dear friends of mine and today her beautiful rugs adorn the marble floors of their apartment:

I have been invited to meet her and I’m looking forward, next week hopefully, to having the rare opportunity to watch her weave her magic, first hand:

“Some people weave burlap into the fabric of our lives, and some weave gold thread. Both contribute to make the whole picture beautiful and unique.”

So while these cottage industries are slowly dying out, not only here but among small ethnic communities all over the world, thankfully, this fact is not going un-noticed in our major cities.  In the UK (and I’m sure elsewhere too) within our universities and art schools the same traditional techniques and skills are enjoying somewhat of a revival. Only last month, on a visit to the watercolour exhibition at London’s Tate Britain, with my daughter, I popped in, as usual, to the art supply shop of the UCL’s Chelsea School of Art & Design, just across the road. Remembering my son’s girl friend, Kat, is presently studying for a degree in ‘weave’ on the Textile & Design course there, I gave her a call and within moments she appeared and whisked us through a maze annexes, along endless corridors and up several flight of stairs, eager to show us the studios where she works:

Given a grand tour, we passed through the dyeing rooms:

and the screen printing studios:

We chatted to the ‘knitters’:

and the ‘stitchers’:

on our way to the weaving rooms where, hard at work, fellow students were seated, in deep concentration, at their looms:

We observed them grappling with the various stages of their labour intensive but, I’m sure, highly rewarding, course work:

painstakingly  untangling and threading lengths of the finest fibres, one by one:

These young craftsmen, the textile designers and weavers of today, will soon be supplying the fashion and furnishing textile industries with their fabulously creative designs –  that we’ll all be wearing or decorating our homes with, tomorrow!

Yet, apart from their relatively pleasant working conditions, it was comforting to know that nothing’s really changed; pinned to the boards at their individual work stations, I saw paper cut-outs and snippets of fabrics on their ‘mood boards’. It seems they continue to take inspiration from (and pay homage to) our rich international cultural heritage, employing and developing modern variations of traditional patterns, colour combinations and materials used by artisans from unique and diverse communities, all around the world.

Learning first to master traditional methods,  they progress on to looms which are now computer programmed and driven (and incredibly fast!). Even the bobbin threading uses state of the art computerised machinery:

and their designs often incorporate ‘new’ man-made fibres (such as by-products of the oil industry, re-cycled plastics and ‘smart’ fibres) using speeds and the very latest technology my Great Aunt Mamie could never have imagined even in her wildest dreams, barely 75 years ago:

Weaving is alive and well and going through a hugely exciting revival and so long as man needs clothes on his back and continues to enjoy home comforts, literally speaking,  this most ancient of crafts is sure to continue.

But not in Skiathos, sadly…….unless, that is, a revival is instigated here.

I am only too keen to prevent this traditional Skiathos craft from slipping into obscurity and if any of you feel as strongly about this as I do and are as enthusiastic about textiles and conservation as me, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Weaving Classes, revisiting and utilising the traditional techniques, from the initial collecting of plants for dyeing, to hands-on use of the simple wooden loom, can easily be arranged…….

“A woman’s hopes are woven of sunbeams; a shadow annihilates them.” George Eliot 1819 – 1880

8 thoughts on “Fruit of the Loom

    • Thank you Eleanore – your words are always so encouraging…..I really appreciate them! Hope you’re both well and the grey skies clear soon. Here at long last spring has arrived; the clouds have passed and the sun is shining through!xx

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  1. What an amazing colourful post Yvonne. Yes so many things are making a revival both here and in the States. “Handmade” is increasingly popular and you can understand why. The beauty and the originality of such pieces together with the skill that goes into making them has a deep attraction. They can transform living space into something wonderful. I suspect that you will very much enjoy meeting up with your lady weaver. And, this post made me smile because I have my own little bit of beautiful crochet work from the island which is appreciated every day together with wonderful memories of last year and thoughts of the lovely lady that goes with it 🙂

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