Reading: Bauhaus weaving theory

Smith, T. (2014) Bauhaus weaving theory: From feminine craft to mode of design. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

I found this a difficult book to read. It’s academic writing, with lots of references to ideas and philosophies and people and work that I don’t know, using words that I don’t know or know only in a more general sense, not the precise-in-this-field sense.

It was also difficult because of my expectations, my desires. I want to find a compelling reason for hand weaving today. Not a joy of craft or handmade functional/wearable item way, but an expressive or conceptual way in which weaving provides unique perspective or insight. That may seem narrow, or a backwards approach, it may combine with other things or develop or change out of all recognition as I progress in my studies, but to me today “weave” seems to contain more, to offer more, to have more in processes and materials and metaphors and allusions and human history, than any half lifetime could explore. So a “weaving theory” – what answers would I find in weaving theory? None really for my personal quest, not in Bauhaus weaving theory. After reading this book I have more questions – which in the long run is probably more valuable.

Smith’s book begins with the original manifesto for the Bauhaus published by founder Walter Gropius – an art-craft unity, joining “practical and scientific areas of work” (p. xiv). Weaving was there at the start, and continued throughout the Bauhaus history. And the weavers wrote about their work. “Through texts that explored weaving’s material elements, loom practice, and functional applications, a Bauhaus theory of weaving emerged” (p xv).

Their early weavings were “pictures made of wool” – not taking advantage of weaving’s specific nature, but translating other media, in particular painting. Later Anni Albers “argued that weaving’s processes, structures, and materials are best explored through direct experimentation on a loom” (p xvii). New fabrics were created from experiment, using advantage of what the medium weaving could offer.

The book explores the changing goals of Bauhaus, driven by individuals, politics and economics. Gender issues are explored. In 1922 weaving generated significant revenue, more than any other workshop at Bauhaus. However its status was low – “As the social and economic history of textiles haunted the Bauhaus weaving work, the textile medium, it seems, was dismissed as mere labor, as ornamental form without ‘intuition’, whose ‘inner sound’ could only ever ‘simulate internal necessity'” (p 32).

As time passed the Bauhaus developed a functionalist rather than expressionist approach. The weaving workshop responded. “At once modernist, or insistent on the distinctness of this thing and its space of practice, and acknowledging a specifically modern civic identity … early weaving theory joined together the rhetoric of functionalism, modern marketing, and the new women’s movement” (p 44). “Color and form as an abstract, autonomous terrain of inquiry remain integral to the object, even as it shifts toward use. Utility and formal concerns occupy the same matrix” (p 67).

By 1931 Gunta Stölzl in her writing “declares that there is a rhetorical cleavage between … the development of textiles for use in interiors (prototypes for industry) and speculative experimentation with materials, form, and color,” she also insists that any ‘cleavage’ between utility and experimentation is also bound within the very structure of the woven prototypes” (p 67). [By this stage the theory is definitely moving away from my own agenda – but I wonder, what is the modern day’s art rhetoric?].

The third chapter of the book, “The haptics of optics: weaving and photography” struck some resonances for me, beginning with “tactility”, which for me is one of the great strengths and interests of textiles generally. “The Bauhaus weaving workshop explored the possibilities of color and formal composition through the interlacing of threads, tacitly placing it in comparison to painterly composition and architectural function. Yet the specific palpability of threads and cloth surfaces required a new set of terms” (p.79). Photography, able to show the “intimacy”, the textured detail, the tactile nature of a fabric, provided a new language.

Previously I thought “haptic” was to touch as “optic” is to sight, but here I learnt it is more. Otti Berger “through a subtle and perhaps counterintuitive response to photography, … insisted on the tactility of different materials (the smoothness of silk or the roughness of jute, for instance) as well as the fabric’s contact with the kinesthetic movements of the body within architectural space (with curtains or upholstery fabric)” (p 81). Berger “queried the limits of the visual as modernism’s prized term of formal inquiry” (p 84). There is space and movement within haptic – is this part of the unique perspective or insight I am seeking? Moving beyond the visual to incorporate other senses? (I’m reminded of Hiromi Tango – see 30-Oct-2014).

Smith continues to examine Berger’s work in the next chapter Weaving as invention: Patenting authorship. In a traditionally anonymous field, Berger sought acknowledged authorship of her textile designs. Her initials appeared on sample books. She took out patents on innovative work. “Berger was not the typically creative author-artist – at least insofar as that would have signaled the deep recesses of her inner life, the projection of her soul onto her work. But neither was she the anonymous factory laborer” (p 111). Berger was an inventor. Smith explores ideas around the inventor as author, the anonymity of textiles, a link back to gender.

It was in the final chapter, Conclusion: On weaving, on writing that I lost my tenuous grip on Smith’s arguments. “Recall that the Bauhaus weavers, in their practice and in their essays on their craft, absorbed the languages of other media. In their wall hangings, for example, the weavers adopted the formal principles of expressionist painting; in their workshop’s prototypes for architectural textiles, they assumed the functionalist vocabulary of the Neues Bauen; for their fabrics found in Neue Sachlichkeit photographs and glossy magazines, they considered the limits of optical and tactile perceptions; and within patent documents, one weaver sought intellectual property protection for her textile inventions” (p 141), seems a good summary of earlier chapters. Much that followed was beyond my grasp. The subtleties of “media” or “mediums” are clearly important, but I don’t have the background knowledge to appreciate them. “Weaving is not just a set of processes: it is also, as I’ve indicated, a certain mediation of the semiautonomous zones of form and history” (p 172) I want to understand, I suspect is relevant to my own inquiries. The following sentence, “Textiles are so overtly bound up in the modes of production that define precapitalist and capitalist societies, and the gendered problematics that circumscribe labor, that they are rarely called ‘art'”, seems to point to areas I have been keen to avoid in my thinking, that I want to move beyond.

So yes, a difficult book. It began as a doctoral dissertation, and it shows. There is nothing wrong with either of those things. I’ve learnt from this book and I’m convinced there is much, much more I could learn. I just need to work up to it.

6 Responses to “Reading: Bauhaus weaving theory”

  1. 1 MegWeaves February 1, 2015 at 8:13 am

    Goodness, Judy, so much to think about. Just for starters, the very use of “cleavage”? That “textile” is inked to the pre/capitalist divide could incidental – it could very well have been flour milling or transport? Haptic makes textiles richer than photography, (and a bunch of other “art”??) I need to come back to your post, I almost want to read this book knowing full well I’ll also want to throw it against a brick wall the first sentence I won’t understand. And in order for me to understand, I feel I need to read up on Bauhaus in general, but also the social background of the genders, and industries in general, of the time in Germany. What have you gotten me into???

  2. 2 MegWeaves February 1, 2015 at 8:43 am

    Textile isn’t “appreciated” in the same way as “art” in that, except for tapestries and other show pieces, finished work force us haptic experiences, even more so than say ceramics. In that respect, it’s possibly closer to, say, cooking than visual at? Textiles is no longer just visual, is it; so it’s more immediate, more emotional/primal, less cerebral, and theoretically it should be close to architecture and furniture, but at least what architecture I’ve seen is so far from the comfort of the inhabitants it has nothing to do with people now… Goodness me. what have you gotten me into???

    • 3 fibresofbeing February 1, 2015 at 11:24 am

      Sorry Meg – what have I got both of us into? Over the years a number of people have told me I think too much – has that happened to you? Maybe they were right, or maybe we just need to think more! This certainly doesn’t feel less cerebral.
      I find it all fascinating, if very puzzling.

  3. 4 MegWeaves February 2, 2015 at 6:37 am

    I used to be troubled when I didn’t get a relatively quick answer, but now I enjoy the not knowing just as much. This is a fascinating track. I kept thinking about it all day yesterday, and probably will dwell on it for a while, Judy. I think finally there is a reason why textile is superior, if I want to rank it, to paintings and other objet d’art. And perhaps even so for being strongly associated with women’s work?? But we won’t tell the blokes just yet.

  4. 5 MegWeaves February 2, 2015 at 7:50 am

    As for the thinking bit, yes, I have been told that. And I have tried to not think and just make, but even last week I had a crisis after making without not much thinking, and realized we can only live/make the way we are programmed to. Plus, making without thinking is utterly unsatisfying and dare I say, at time, potentially, soul-destroying. Without thinking, it becomes manufacturing.

    • 6 fibresofbeing February 2, 2015 at 6:50 pm

      Yes. I enjoy the process of weaving, the rhythm, the very immediate and literally hands-on problem solving, the act of creation, for me it’s focused rather than meditative… but ideas, planning, thinking, expressing are really important too.
      As always, the more I learn the more I realise how little I know and how vast the world.
      For me there is something very special about textiles. I want to articulate at least a part of that.

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Fabulous figure sculpting workshop with Kassandra Bossell!

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