“Easy to Weave; Hard to Weave,” Part 2: The Pieces Brought In

Dear folks –

This is the second part of a two-part virtual version of a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning (RTAM) that John Howe gave at The Textile Museum on February 28, 2009.

If you want to start with Part 1, which is the lecture, you need to go to this link:


But if you have already been through the lecture, this second part presents and comments on both some of the pieces John


had brought in to illustrate the categories provided in his lecture, and those brought in by members of the audience. 

Since this is a topic that triggers different people in different ways, some of the pieces brought in by those in the audience were examples of different aspects of this question from those John treated in his lecture.

John began with two macrame pieces he had used to make his analogous argument, suggesting that some woven structures seemed intrinsically easier or more difficult to fashion.

The first of these was a small, compartmented hanging with a sampler design.


John used the center panel in the top row of this sampler to show what a tightened square knot looks like.


The sides of the square above are chains of square knots tied one on top of another, but the “wall” of fabric within the square is the best place to see tightened square knots.  Individual square knots occur at each junction.

He also had the checkerboard piece in the room that he used to make his argument about how difficult it is to control the double halfhitch.


 He passed both of these pieces through the audience.




Early in the “in-the-room” discussion, Pat Riley,


who has traveled widely, and observed some contemporary, but traditional weaving communities, commented that many of the difficulties of weaving seemed, in her experience to be associated with various aspects of setup and with techniques such as those that assured that warps were depressed to various degrees or not.

John agreed


and ticked off a list of factors that affect weaving difficulty, importantly, that he had not treated explicitly in his lecture, for reasons of time.

He said these include:

1.  What materials will you use to create your woven textile?  Wool, cotton, linen, silk, etc.?

2.  What sizes will the strands be that are used for the warps, the wefts, and (if a pile weaving) the knots?  How many plies will each of these strands have?  Will the working strands be composed of more than one of these materials?  (Even if you are not spinning these strands you will have to select them.)

3.  How many warps per horizontal inch will you use?

4.  How many structural wefts will you use and will they be placed in separate sheds or not?

5.  Will the structure be one with the warps all at one level or will alternate warps be depressed to some extent?

6.  If alternate warps are to be depressed, how much depression is desired and how will that be accomplished (will you “crowd” warps or or use taut wefting to displace them, or both?)?

7.  If a taut weft is used, will additional sinuous one be also, and, if so, how will they be placed in the various sheds?

8.  If this is a pile weaving, what knot will be used for the pile?  Will you vary the knot or its employment in particular situations and, if so, when and how?

9.  What type loom will you use?

10.  How (mechanically) will the warps be place on the loom?  And if there is provision for tightening the warps, as one goes along, how is that adjustment to be made?

John said that he had employed Marla Mallett’s term “weave balance” to refer elliptically to such aspects of weaving difficulty. 

He quoted Marla, saying that “A perfect balance must exist between the yarn sizes of warp, weft and knot, as well as several (ed. other) construction features.” 

John said that these are admittedly aspects of weaving that entail real difficulties. 

He said that he had (ultimately) omitted them from explicit treatment in his lecture because, as Marla points out, weavers, working within an established weaving community, have such aspects of weaving “handed to them,” so to speak.  

It is potentially very costly to experiment with such aspects of weaving.  Marla:  “Rather than tamper with a good thing, village and nomadic weavers tend to replicate the distinction weave balance worked out by the people before them. ” 

Weavers tend not to “play” with the solutions to the problems of weave balance their particular weaving community has some to over the years. 

This is one of the reasons why structural factors can often be an aid to attribution.

The next pieces shown were some of those used to illustrate various parts of the lecture that treated what designs are easier or more difficult to weave.


In the image above, on the board, beginning on the left, was the Anatolian weaving with Manastir-like end decorations, the plain ivory areas of which were John’s example of a balanced plain-weave in which the warps and wefts are the same color.

Peeping out of the edge of this Anatolian weave is a Yomut chuval the plain elem of which was John’s example of a weaving that employs a single color.

The kilim to the right of this chuval, was John’s “in the room” example of woven stripes.  It is the back of an Anatolian grain bag that he bought on the basis of the appeal of its stripes alone, without knowing that it was only part of a more complex whole.

The piece on the right in the image above is a Swedish rolakan hanging with a large-scale cruciform design.  It was John’s example of a simpler design.

The next piece was an opulent chuval fragment with lots of silk and a mina khani design.


 This fragment was John’s “in the room” example of a more”complex” design.  (It would have until recently been called a “Beshiri” piece, but is among those likely better described now with the term “Middle Amu Dyra.”)

John’s example of a rectilinear design was this Anatolian bag face in a zili weave.


Its rectilinear design seems among those that are easier to weave.

Wendel Swan had also brought a  colorful zili example.


A closer detail.



Wendel said this this design seemed to him to be one of the easiest to weave.

Note:  Marla Mallett said in our subsequent conversation that although zili looks simple to weave, there must be something difficult about it, because if you examine almost any piece woven in it, you are likely to find lots of errors.  Zili, she noted, requires careful distribution of color.

John had brought two examples of curvilinear designs.

The first was the contemporary Tibetan horse cover below.


The Chinese mat below has a curvilinear device in its field.


The curvilinear elements in these two pieces, especially those in its border of the Tibetan horse cover, were doubly difficult to weave, since both were drawn using relatively low knot counts.

Colin England,


an actuary, attracted to the drawing of curvilinear designs on a rectilinear grid, and hence to finely woven, often silk rugs, spoke to four examples, illustrating degrees of fineness, and how materials affect that (often by 0ften limitation).

His first example was the Saruk carpet below.


This handsome piece was the least fine of his examples and was woven in wool on a cotton foundation.  A cotton foundation is somewhat bulkier and places some limits on fineness.

Colin’s second “materials-fineness” example was the carpet below.


This carpet is wool-on-wool permitting more fineness than the wool-on-cotton Saruk example.

A third “materials-fineness” example was the rug below.


This pictorial rug is woven with wool on a silk foundation, permitting a fineness greater than that of the previous two.

Colin’s ultimate “materials-fineness” example is the sizable Hereke rug below.


This rug is silk knotting on a silk foundation, something that permits a fineness of 2,000 knots per square inch and above.  Only pashmina and silk can achieve the fineness that silk on silk permits.

One of the difficulties that confront weavers weaving complex, curvilinear designs at this level of fineness must be what can be seen by the naked eye.  I am not sure that magnification is not sometimes used, but its seems unlikely that it was in such weavings as the early Mughuls, that sometimes have a fineness of 2,000 kpsi and above.

John’s next “in-the-room” example was of designs with devices that have either similar or disparate shapes. 

His “similar” example was the “Ersari” khorjin on the left in the image below.


This piece employs devices that are similarly shaped.  It is, in fact, surprising, as one continues to look at the piece, at the visural richness and complexity the weaver has managed despite this.

The weaving on the right in the image above was John’s “in-the-room” example of a design with differently shaped images.  Here it is below by itself.


This piece features several differently-shaped devices, placing it among pieces rated more difficult to weave.  On the other hand, these different devices occur (excepting for the borders) in horizontal rows, thus permitting the weaver to deal mostly with one design device at a time.  This latter feature reduces somewhat the difficulty of weaving this varied design.

By the way, his piece, is not a rare bag-face, but one chest tab from a horsecover. 

One feature that has puzzled folks who look at it is that , despite being part of a larger assemblage, it is not “cut,” but is, rather, complete as it came off the loom.  Most suggest that it is likely Kurdish, maybe Bijar.

We now moved to pieces with narrower and wider color palettes.


The piece on the left, in the photo above, is a contemporary “faux pile” Siirt with four undyed colors.  It was John’s example of a narrower palette.

The Kordi “pushti” on the right does not have an exceptionally wide color palette,


but contrasts well with the Siirt piece.

John next treated designs that were spaciously arranged versus those the devices of which were arrayed more densely.  He had two spacious examples.


The first of these was the yellow-ground Konya fragment above (yes, the grass indicates that this photo was not taken in-the-room”)

A second spacious example was  a tired,  but dated Kazak.


This piece has the same design as a larger one with wonderful color in Schurmann’s Caucasian book. 

John said that this piece is one that we would not ordinarily show in a “rug morning,” but that the drawing in both its field and in its archaic-seeming border provides  good examples of devices spaciously used. 


This piece is dated 1319, which places it in the early 20th century.

John’s example of a design with densely arranged devices was the composed Coptic piece below.


 This is an array recomposed from parts of Coptic garments.  The “bird” forms in the “borders” are open and spacious, but the field devices are packed-in, densely, and may include some humanoid forms.  The seller estimated it as 4-5 centuries A.D.

John had brought a yastik woven with a “little rug” design as his example of Carol Bier’s description of designs that are easier to weave since they can be woven entirely working with only a half or quarter.


The design in the yastik above is one of those that can be woven completely if one has only one quarter of it.

John’s “in-the-room” example of a design that can be woven by reflecting one half was the Ladik niche design that he employed in the lecture.


John noted that he referenced this rug to show that niche designs were often woven upside down and that that  required particular design devices like ewers to be drawn upside down so that they would be oriented right-side-up when the piece was shown with the niche at the top.

But, in fact, this particular rug was woven with the niche at the top and no upside down drawing of the ewers in it was required.


But this piece is a good example of a design that can be woven completely by reflecting one vertical half.

Pictorial rugs are often among those that cannot be woven by rotating or reflecting a quarter or half.

John had brought a Firdowz as his example of this type.


As you can see each of the quarters of this piece is different.  So despite the fact that it is fairly coarse, it is placed among designs that are more difficult to weave.

We now moved to other pieces that had been brought in.

Tom Xenakis spoke to a jajim.




Although this warp-faced piece was woven in narrow strips and then sewn together,  the designs in it seem dense and complex enough to support an estimate that it was harder to weave.

Here is a closer detail of its front and back.


Note: Marla said that although this jajim is warp-faced, it is not the sort of design: dense, composed of small repeats, that she rates as easier to weave.

This jajim design, she said is one of those that she would rate as more difficult to produce because it is composed of larger design elements that are not closely arrayed repeats. 

Harold Keshishian had  brought in a horse cover that he felt, tentatively, might , be Senneh.


Here is a closer look at this “over the saddle” piece.


 The density and variety of the design elements in this piece suggest that it has a design worthy of being placed among those that are harder to weave.  Saddle covers were special occasion weavings and are argued to often have been made by more experienced weavers and from superior materials.

There might be some question of whether this dense design could have been woven from memory, but I think I have picked out in the image below the basic repeat from which it is composed.


Notice that this possible repeat is composed of simpler elements and would not seem impossible to hold in one’s mind as one worked.

The next “brought in” piece was this one.


My notes do not indicate what aspect of weaving ease vs difficulty this piece was intended to illustrate, but it has a rectilinear designs, pretty intensely arrayed, in some areas, but also features some horizontal banding.  


The rectilinear character of its designs, the relatively few variations in them, and the banding, argue for its placement among flatweaves that were likely easier to weave.

The next piece was the sumak mafrash side panel below.


Wendel Swan spoke to this piece, saying, that for him, it was an example of less than successful drawing.

Here is a closer look at it.  Can you spot the drawing “defect” that Wendel sees?


 Wendel points out that the “core” from which the blue latchhooks move out on both sides is not smooth, but jogs frequently.  And the “opposing”  (inside and outside) blue latchhooks are sometimes not smoothly aligned with each other. 

I think Wendel sees this piece as one that could have been drawn better and that shows signs as having been difficult for its weaver.

The next piece was also brought in by its owner as an instance of poor drawing.  It was a complete khorjin set.


Its owner described the drawing of the two medallions on it as “wonky,” apparently thinking that they were too different from one another.  Most in the room, including Wendel, disagreed.

This piece had good color in its pile faces and an unusually long, and especially colorful, connecting panel.


Wendel Swan had also brought in a Persian tea purse.  These items, still being used, are rarely seen by U.S. collectors.


It is placed among those that are more difficult to weave, both because of all of its quarters are different, the design is curvilinear, and because its small size likely makes drawing more difficult.

He said that this one is 9.25 inches V and 7.75 inches H.  It has a mostly pile front and


a leather back.

The next piece was the Tekke Turkmen mafrash below.


Although its devices repeat, they are densely placed and the piece has a fineness exceeding 500 knots per square inch.  For this latter reason alone, it is placed among pile pieces that were more difficult to weave.

Here is a closer detail of it.


I think much of the white is cotton.

Note: I think Marla would likely disagree that the densey arrayed design is a source of weaving difficulty but she might not object to the notion that at 500 kpsi, the weaver might have trouble seeing what she was doing without magnification.

The next piece was a non-Turkman, Central Asian, main carpet.   Its owner attribues it to the Uzbeks.


This piece had full pile and good color.  Rich Isaacson spoke to it, pointing out that it was a piece in which the weaver(s) repeatedly changed her/their mind(s) about the design.

To take only one more obvious example, the piece was begun with an entirely different border done in different colors than that ultimately adopted.


Despite the fact that relatively few design devices are employed rather spaciously, it is arguable that the weaver(s) found at least some of the designs in this rug difficult to weave.

The next piece brought in was a Baluch bag.


Here is a look at its back.

bi10aThe stripes of this back seem pretty straightforward but the density of the design and the employment of close analogous colors in it would likely make the pile face of this bag a middling difficult design to weave.

The next items shown was a comparision between two Baluch niche designs.


 David Hunt spoke to these two pieces,


saying that the piece on the right is antique, while the piece on the left is new.   They are both of a type described in the literature as products of the Djan Beki Baluch.  While there are some similarities, David said that the antique piece required more time and labor to make.  It has more colors, a finer weave, more complex end and side finishes, and a generally more complicated design.

David said that these two rugs illustrate well the changes that have taken place over time with regard to Baluch weaving practices and to those of carpet weaving, more generally. 

The last consideration of pieces in the room focused on the execution of striped borders in three pieces, but especially on that in one of them.

Michael Seidman spoke to this comparision.


He said that he wanted to compare how the weavers of these three pieces had planned for and handled the orientation of the striped main borders on them.

He started with the Afshar bag face below.


He said notice, in the image above, that the weaver chose to continue with the same rightward-leaning stripe, not just entirely across the bottom, but also up both sides and across the top.

Similarly in the Ladik niche design that John showed,


the weaver chose a different leaning, but also stayed with it all around the rug.

But in the the rug below, from the Baku area, often referred to as Khila, the weaver made different decisions with a view toward a particular outcome she wanted.

First, here is most of this latter rug as it hung on the front-of-the-room board.


Michael said that we should notice here that the weaver has slanted the stripes on the right side of the piece to the left and those on the right side to the right. 

More, examination of the top main border shows that the left side of it slants to the right and the right side of it slants to the left, and that these two sections meet in a perfect tent-like joint in the center.

In order to achieve this effect ,the weaver made decisions at the very beginning.  Michael asked that the bottom of the rug be held up so that we can see what moves this weaver made at the start.


Notice that as this weaver wove the striped main border at the bottom of this piece she oriented the stripe on the left side to the left and formed a joining “V” at the center so that she could continue weaving the right half of the bottom main border with its stripe leaning to the right.

BUT, when she got to the level of the bottom minor border at the edge of the field, she reoriented both stripes of the major border so that the one on the left side slants right and the one on the left side slants left.  By making this move she set things up, at this early stage so that she could have a top border that was a mirror image of the bottom one with a perfect joint at its center.

Michael offered this treatment as an instance in which an experienced weaver looked far ahead and moved skillfully to achieve a particular main border effect she desired.

John had placed a handout for this session on each chair as participants arose.

It gave a barebones summary of the lecture (something you don’t need here) and a list of sources.

Here is John’s sources listing:

Book: Humbert, Claude, Ornamental Design, New York, N.Y.: The Viking Press, 1970.

Bier, Carol, Symmetry and Pattern, a Textile Museum exhibition in 1997, an internet version of which is still on The Math Forum.


Email exchanges with the late Peter Collingwood, Marla Mallett and Mark Traxler.

If you want to see more of Wendel’s Swan’s treatment of Persian change purses, a salon featuring them is in the Turkotek.com archives.  Here is the link:


To assuage his feelings of guilt for having violated nearly everything he knows about instructional design by having given a PowerPoint-assisted lecture nearly an hour in length, John included in the handout an exercise, experiential, like one Marla Mallett sometimes uses in workshop situations, but with very different objectives.

It is an exercise intended to let you experience a little of what a pile weaver does when selecting colors as he/she weaves.

Here are the directions for this exercise:

o  Examine the two images that follow these printed instructions.

    –  The top image is of the front side of a short section of a border on a Caucasian rug.  The design is a frequent version of the “trefoil.”

     –  The bottom image is of the back of this section.  It lets you see the knot more clearly.  Treat it, in this exercise, as if it is the cartoon from which you are weaving a pile rug.

o  Starting with the lower left corner of the bottom image, begin to mark (with a pencil) on the blank graph paper the color of each square in the cartoon.  The first square is “B” for brown and is the side selvedge.  After that, and moving to the right, is the color of a pile knot.  Since this is theh back and since knots go around two warps, both knot nodes are showing and each two of them comprise one actual knot.  So the next squares are yellow and there are six of them.  That’s three pile knots.  So record on your graph paper three “Y’s” in separate squares to the right of the “B” you have written for the selvedge.

o  The usual practice of pile weavers is to put all of the knots of a given color into a given row before moving to any other colors used in that row.  So, now you need to find where the next two yellow knots go (two squares to the right of the yellow knots you have already recorded).  Continue in this way until you hve put in all of the yellow knots in this first row.  Then go back to the left and put in the red knots, marking each appropriate square with an “R.”

o  The next row is easy, since it is mostly dark brown knots with only one red and one yellow one on the left side.  Put in that row.

o  Now the question is how far you want to continue this exercise?  There are some easy lower rows yet, but after you get to the trefoil designs, the counting and placement get a little trickier.  If you have the patience, try to continue with this exercise until you have, at least, completed the first trefoil device on the row with a red not in the trefoil’s center, you will have grappled, more than a little, with one part of what a pile weaver does as he/she weaves.

Expert pile weavers are reputed to be able to tie at the rate of 10,000 to 12,000 knots per day.   And they talk, constantly as they do it.

Seems miraculous, doesn’t it.

Well, it is said that many weavers are illerate an that they are similarly in awe of our ability to read quickly and steadily across one line after line of type without hesitation.

Below, the top image of the front and the bottom image is of the back of the border section referenced above.


I hope you have enjoyed this virtual version of this “rug morning,” despite its likely, tiring, length and convoluted character.

My thanks to Pat Riley for a good set of notes, to Thada Bornstein, who took the candid photos in the room, and especially to Marla Mallett who worked generously and patiently with me beforehand on this session and afterwards on this post.  It must be more than a little tiresome to have to explain (and sometimes re-explain) some of these aspects of weaving to a non-weaver.


R. John Howe

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