What does ‘handwoven’ mean?

I am often asked whether I weave my work myself, to which the answer is a simple ‘Yes’. But what does it actually mean to describe a piece as handwoven? In my previous post I talked about the role of the loom in handweaving. Now it’s time to consider the weaver.

Part II: What the weaver does

I’ve described my own process in full here. For the purposes of this post, let me share a single example.

When I was at the V&A Festive Market in November last year, I was delighted to meet some descendants of John Kay, the inventor of the fly shuttle.

Full bobbin in the shuttle

The shuttle is the tool which carries the weft yarn through the shed, and it is traditionally ‘thrown’ by hand. Like many contemporary weavers, I continue to throw my shuttles by hand – up to a point. That point, for me, is about 70 cm.

If I am weaving something narrower than this, such as a scarf, I can comfortably throw my shuttle from hand to hand through the shed. Wider than this, however, is too wide for me. At 75 cm, my arms can no longer reach around the edge of the warp without straining my neck. I need to use my fly shuttle.

The fly shuttle is operated by pulling on a cord. The cord tugs at a wooden block which hits the end of the shuttle and launches it across the warp, where it meets a matching wooden block at the other side. Pulling the cord again sends the shuttle back the other way. When I weave with this tool, I am still using my hands to do the work but they are no longer in direct contact with the shuttle itself.

Is it still handwoven?

Seen from our perspective, when high tech fabrics are constructed in factories operating state-of-the-art electronic powerlooms, the fly shuttle seems a modest enough invention, though it was extremely controversial at the time. But when you pile innovation on innovation, is it still handweaving?

Some simple loom-tinkering with wooden battens and milk bottles

I think there are two important things to take into account. One is that weavers have always innovated. Indeed, it seems to be in the nature of weavers that they can’t help tinkering with their looms! (I am speaking here, of course, about weavers exercising choice over their own technology, and not changes which are imposed by others: that is another topic altogether.)

To say that innovations up to <choose your arbitrary point in time> are ‘permitted’, while those that come later are not, is to limit the craft in order to preserve a mythology, and it makes me very uneasy indeed. But when I reflect on the range of tools that have been developed – over the centuries or in the last ten years – I feel thankful that so many options are readily available to me as a craftsperson. It means I can focus my energy on creating cloth, which is the thing I love to do.

The second thing to consider is the pace of the work. Some looms certainly lend themselves to much speedier weaving than others, independent of the skill of the weaver. But who is ultimately setting the pace?

Be a handloom ever so shiny and new – with however many labour-supporting gadgets – if the weaver walks away, then all weaving ceases.

Whether it is fast or slow, the weaver and not the loom is the one who creates the cloth and sets the pace for the work.