What is a “Weaving?” What is Not? And Why? Part 1

Dear folks –

On January 30, 2010, John Howe (that’s me)

gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program at The Textile Museum, here in Washington, D.C. on the topic “What is a ‘Weaving?’  What is Not?  And Why?”

I am a retired instructional designer, who has collected rugs and textiles for over 20 years.  I initially focused mostly on Turkmen pieces, but have become more eclectic in recent years.

I collect on a budget and most of my pieces would not “move the heart” of an experienced collector, but fall, rather, into the category of intellectually interesting.  If I had real money I would collect 18th century Anatolian village rugs.

I am very interested in rugs and textiles, and one unavoidably learns things (and unlearns some of them) as one goes along, but, while I try to get things right, I do not pretend to any authority.  Instead, I focus on the enjoyments that collecting affords.

This program consisted of a lecture, supplemented with projected images, and then a following “show and tell” in which we examined pieces brought in.

Here is the lecture, substantially as I gave it:

This program is the residue and result of one I gave in 2009 on the topic “Easy to Weave; Hard to Weave.”

The work I did to prepare for that program was interesting, in fact, too interesting.  There is often a need to cut, and sometimes to cut savagely, what one drafts initially for such a program.  But I found, when I began to pilot test the “Easy to Weave; Hard to Weave” lecture, that I had, in fact, prepared two programs, not one.

Unless I was ready to serve a pretty good wine and some cheese at a mid-point break, no one, much, would stand for a program of the length I had built.

So I removed all of the aspects of that lecture and program that bore on the question of “What is a ‘Weaving?'”  This program is the permutation of that removal.

Now I expect that we all think that we know perfectly well

what a weaving is.

And it is true that you need to be a bit wary of folks like me who have hung out, on occasion, for a little to long with some philosophic types —

and who might lead you down some minor intellectual alley into a not particularly rewarding type of scholasticism.

(Wittgenstein, above, was not a scholastic, but did sometimes worry words a little.)

So I want to acknowledge that at first glance it might seem that the answer to this topic question is pretty obvious, easy and transparently evident.

But I also want to argue that when one begins to examine it more closely, its seeming obviousness recedes.

I think it is an instance of something we think we are so familiar with that further examination of it is not needed.  And so we, mostly, haven’t done it.

But when we take time to look more deeply, we find that things are not quite what we thought they were.

At least that has been my experience.  Let’s see if it is your as well.

So my first question is

What is to count as a “weaving?”

As I just said, it would be possible, here at the beginning, to tie oneself up in a scholasticism that doesn’t lead anywhere, much.  To avoid that, I have consulted four sources that seemed likely to provide some more useful definitional contours and parameters.

I looked at:

o   some standard dictionary definitions

o   that provided by Peter Collingwood in his treatment of   weaving

o   that provided by Irene Emery in her treatment of fabric structures

o   that provided by Marla Mallett in her book “Woven Structures”

Here, to begin, are, in turn, three standard dictionary definitions of “weaving.”

1.  To make (cloth) by interlacing the threads of the warp and the weft.

2.  Weaving is an ancient textile art that involves placing two threads or yarn made of fiber onto a warp and weft of a loom and turning them into cloth.

3.  Production of fabric by interlacing two sets of yarns so that they cross one another, usually at right angles.

And here is what the three experts say:

Collingwood, whose The Techniques of Rug Weaving is 500 pages long, gives a definition of weaving that is simplicity itself.

He says:  “Weaving is the interlacing of two sets of threads, the active thread crossing the passive thread at right angles.”

Irene Emery’s title The Primary Structures of Fabrics, signals a more comprehensive objective at the outset.  “Woven” fabrics are just one type of “fabric.”  She treats “weaving” under her heading of fabrics composed of “Two or More Sets of Elements.”

She does not offer a definition of the form “‘weaving’ is X,” but she does provide some components of her view.

First, she says “Fabric structures made up of two or more sets of elements are frequently called “single construction,” because they are made up of one set of warp and weft elements, but they are more commonly known as simple weaves…

Then, “…Simple weave structures are grouped according to the certain characteristic variations in the order as well as the kind of interworking…”

“Interlacing” is the simplest kind of interworking…each (ed. interworking) element simply passes over or under elements that cross its path…”

In this discussion, Emery says that one way that interlacing can be achieved is through the use of a shed, but she does not make such use a necessary component of what is to count as a “weaving.”  And we will shortly see why she does not.

Emery says some things about her general approach that bear on how she intends to look at and describe the structures she will treat.

She announces early that she will not treat the “processes” through which fabrics are created.  “The structures of fabrics have been classified with as little reference to process as possible, since structure inheres in the fabric, whereas evidence of process is seldom retained.”

In another passage Emery makes clear her view of the perspective from which fabric structures can be described.  “Inasmuch as the structural make-up of fabric elements is the result of the mechanical manipulation of the raw materials, the physical details of a fabric element can be determined with reasonable accuracy by observation alone.”

Look again, at these two points since they are one side of a debate.

For Emery, the “process” through which a fabric is created can be largely ignored


fabric structures can be accurately ascertained (and described) from the perspective of an “observer.”

Emery was a scholar; I am not sure she wove.  But Marla Mallett is a weaver and that experience shapes sharply her own views of what is properly called a “weaving,” and the perspective from which she believes our descriptions of woven structures should be made.

(To be explicit on this latter point, Marla holds that the perspective of the “weaver,” must be honored in our descriptions of woven structures and that moving to the perspective of an “observer” can create different and sometimes incorrect results.  If I read her correctly, Marla’s harshest criticism in this regard is that she holds that some of Emery’s descriptions of structures from an observer perspective, can, literally, not be woven as described.)

For Mallett, “weaving” IS a “process.”  A “weaving” is for her the result of the use of a specific process.  “Weaving” is the “interlacing” of a weft and a warp.  “Interlacing” is for Mallett the “sine qua non” of “weaving.”  If there is no actual “interlacing” (and Mallett uses that term in a narrow, technical way) the structure is not a “weaving.”

Real “interlacing,” Mallett holds, requires the presence and use of a “shed.”  A “shed” is an opening created by lifting and/or depressing particular warps so that cross-wise yarns can pass between them.

If a shed is used in this way, the cross-wise yarns can accurately be called “wefts,” and the resulting over-under movement of these yarns can be called “interlacing.”

A shed can be created laboriously by hand,

pushing a weft over and under given warps, but it is usually, and more efficiently, formed using either a “shed stick” or “heddles.”


is an image from the side of a loom showing a shed stick.  The “S” point to the place where the shed stick separates the warps and creates an opening—a shed.

The stick is going over and under alternate was so that one set (labeled “1”) is thrust forward, while the other (labeled “2”) is held back.

But there is also the need for the warps that are behind the shed stick (labeled “2”) when it is in place, to be brought forward.  This creates a different shed.  To do this cords (the “heddles”) are tied around the second set of warps and then to a bar  (labeled “H” above).

To bring the second set of warps forward, the shed stick is pushed up and out of the way (this lets all the warps below it return to some that close to a single plane) then, the heddle rod is raised and a second shed is created (at “H”), as in the drawing below.

Weaving proceeds by alternately raising a particular set of alternate warps with either the shed stick or the heddle rod, and by passing one or more wefts through the shed opening created, before that shed is closed and the alternative one is opened.

This conception of “weaving” technically excludes textile structures not accomplished using such a process, regardless of their appearance from an observer prospective.

Warp-weighted weaving

is still possible, if some device (including the fingers) is used to create a shed.  (As we shall see below, no loom at all is, in fact, required for some instances of “weaving.”)


Aside:  As Anthea Mallison, of the Textile Arts Department of Capilano University, has subsequently pointed out, the loom above is being used for twining not weaving, and there are no real “weights” being used except for the weight of the warps hanging down (that’s all that the bags contain).  I knew that, since I took the image  above from Cheryl Samuel’s fine book “The Chilkat Dancing Blanket.”  But the basic arrangement is very like that of a warp-weighted loom.  Here is a small image of a very ancient one on a piece of Greek pottery.

and here is a link to a larger image of one.

Drawing after a Greek vase of the Oddesey: Telemachus and Penelope with her loom

You can see that both of these warp-weighted looms look very much like the arrangement in Samuel’s drawing.  The differences are 1) the weights, that are in addition to that of the warps, 2) the occasional presence of a shed stick or two, and 3) what the weaver does.

End of aside.


For me, Mallett

makes the most plausible and convincing argument, and I have adopted her conception of what we should properly call a “weaving.” (Marla has read most of my treatment here and has made some editorial suggestions, but is not responsible for any inaccuracies that may remain.)

So the rest of this lecture is devoted to applying my understanding of Mallett’s conception to actual pieces created using particular structures, and to indicating whether or not I think we should describe a given piece as a “weaving.”

In each instance, I will also indicate why I have made the decision I have made.

The decision about whether we should consider a particular textile a “weaving” will depend on our answers to three questions:

o   Are there two separate yarns  being interworked?

o   Do the two yarns “interlace” one another?

o  Has any apparent “interlacing” been accomplished using a “shed?”

The answer to each of these questions must be yes.  Only textiles that meet all three of these requirements will be called “weavings.”

I need to give a few further caveats and parameters.  I will not be treating some clear instances of weaving that are not encountered readily by most of us nowadays.

I mean, on one hand, textiles from 15th, 16th and 17th Spain, Iran and Turkey woven with two sets of warps, and on the other woven pre-Columbian textiles that can also have very complex structures.

Additionally, I will treat only main varieties of such structures as tapestry, brocade and sumak, but not many others that exist.  For example, “zili” and “cicm” are terms used to describe varieties of “brocade” and will not be treated separately.

Not “Weavings”

Let me turn now to some structures that I think should not be called “weavings.”  Some of these will be straightforward, and, I think, uncontroversial, but others may surprise.

(I am using some of Peter Stone’s definitions of particular names of various textiles from his Oriental Rug Lexicon, 1997, for convenience.)

First, let’s dispose of the initial criterion question:

Are there two separate yarns being interworked?

Mallett, and everyone else I have consulted, agree that there must be two separate yarns if a given structure is to be called a “weaving.”  And the meeting of this criterion is not usually problematic.

But there are structures that look like possible weavings in other respects that do not meet it.

This is a structure that, from an observer perspective, appears to feature interlacing, but it is constructed using a single yarn.

It is for this reason, alone, not a “woven” structure but, rather, an odd kind of “knot.”  I have provided it here only to show that even a requirement as modest as  “two separate yarns” may not sometimes be met in the universe of textiles.

But this first requirement will not concern us further here.

Here are some other structures that are not “weavings” for different reasons.


Felt is a fabric of random, matted animal fibers, usually wool, that adhere to each other after a process of kneading and compression.  Such kneading and compression inextricably entangle the fibers.

Warmth and moisture speed this process.


Embroidery is decorative needlework.  Designs are made by sewing thread, using a needle, onto a ground textile.

The ground textile may be woven, but the embroidery stitches are sewn.

Some structures can look like embroidery but are not.  “Brocade” is one such.

The two small devices in the image above are brocades not embroidered.  We will repeat this point when we treat brocade, but Marla has suggested that, if you retain only one item from this lecture, it should be that “embroidery” is not “brocade,” and (this is the more usual mistake) “brocade” is not “embroidery.”


Back to embroidery:


One can usually spot irregularities even in very expertly done embroidery that are not seen in brocade because of the greater discipline and uniformity the loom and the interlacing provide and impose in the case of the latter.

Here is a close-up detail of an embroidery.



Below is a 17th century cushion cover in needlepoint.

Needlepoint is a variety of embroidery, but likely deserves particular mention here because  1) it is sometimes erroneously called “tapestry,” which we will see is a distinctive weave done on a loom, and 2) because there are some noteworthy rugs done in needlepoint technique.

Some needlepoint rugs

(this one is English and 16th-17th century) can be formidable, accomplished creations.

And the Portuguese are famous for their needlepoint rugs.

The one above is 17th century and in a Spanish museum.

Needlepoint rugs can be sturdy enough to permit use on the floor.  The one below

is done in traditional Portuguese design, using a traditional Portuguese technique, but was worked not long ago in Bethesda, Maryland, less then 10 miles from The Textile Museum.


Quilts are textiles composed of pieces of fabric either sewn together at their edges or onto a ground cloth (this latter is applique) to form a decorated “face.”

Often these pieces are “blocks”

that are themselves “pieced.”  The above block is for a quilt of the “log cabin” design.  The image below is of a number of such blocks combined and positioned to create an entire quilt “face” with particular “log cabin” design.

The completed “face” is a top layer, which is combined with a middle battened one and a bottom face and then sewn through to complete the quilting.

The fabrics used in quilts ARE usually woven, but that was prior to the quilting.  All the quilting work is done with sewing.  No “weaving” is involved in that.

Clove-hitch Mats

“Clove-hitch mats” are obscure textiles that I include only because I owned one briefly, and was moved to research them a bit.

They are made by placing multiple strands of yarn on pins driven into a frame

and then tying each of the places where the strands intersect with a separate cord that floats between junctures on the back.

Such mats are not weavings at all, but the “clove-hitches” that are tied at their junctures are firmer knots than any employed in a pile rug.

Clove-hitch mats have been made by groups as diverse as sailors in 18th century sailing ships and by the Amish in southeastern Pennsylvania.

“Hooked” and “Tufted” Rugs

The “hooking” method is distinctive from the “tufted” one, although the results are very similar.

Hooked and tufted rugs are a variety most of us have seen and recognize.  Here is Marla’s drawing, showing how “tufted” rugs are made.

Courtesy of Marla Mallett

Older pieces of this sort tend to be “hooked” (the piece immediately below was done in 1861 and is likely “hooked).

Hooking is done from the front with a tool like the red-handled one at the top of the collection of tools in the image below. No frame is needed for hooking, but it takes more time than tufting.

Courtesy of Marla Mallett

Although both hooked and tufted rugs are not woven, they are both accurately described as “hand-made,” even if there is some mechanization of the “hooking” or “tufting” device.

Here is another likely hooked example.

Some of the finest hooked rugs were made by women in Labrador, often fishermen’s wives, in an effort organized by a medical missionary, named Grenfell.  The most famous variety of Grenfell hooked rugs were made of women’s silk hosiery.

I find the above Grenfell aesthetically attractive despite its being an abstracted depiction of an array of splayed cod fish.

“Tufted” rugs tend to be more recent, but a great many are made now.  The one below was made in China.

Tufted rugs are done with tools like those in the lower part of the above collection of tools.  Tufted rugs are done on a frame and from the back.  This method takes less time than “hooking.”

Many tufted rugs tend to have modern designs

or modern adaptations of traditional devices.

But it is possible, now, to buy tufted rugs with traditional designs.

Marla provides a particularly interesting example of a tufted piece done in a traditional design (and format, for that matter).  From the front this piece (pictured below) looks very like an Anatolian yastik woven in pile.

Courtesy of Marla Mallett

The back clearly shows that this is not a knotted piece, but instead a tufted one.

Courtesy of Marla Mallett


Needle-knotting is a kind of embroidery in which stitches, that usually look exactly like symmetrical knots in a pile rug, are sewn, using a needle, onto a pre-woven ground fabric.  The only “woven” aspect of such a needle-knotted piece is the ground fabric.  The “knots” are applied with a needle.

This is a good place to note the differences that result from Emery’s ignoring of process and choosing the perspective of an observer versus Mallet’s insistence that weaving IS a process and that the perspective of the weaver should be honored in our descriptions.

To an observer, who is ignoring process, a needle-knotted knot is indistinguishable from one in a hand-woven, symmetrically-knotted, pile rug.  But someone working  from a weaver’s perspective, and for whom weaving IS a process, would not mistake needle-knotted knots for symmetrical knots in a pile piece. The processes through which these two varieties are created are entirely different.

Needle-knotting is also sometimes called “Turkey-work,” because oriental designs were used.

It was used as furniture upholstery in the Victorian era.


Knitting, most will know, may display some  “over-under” relationships in its yarns that resemble interlacing, but the yarns are interworked with one another using distinctive needles in ways different from those employed in embroidery.

This is a doll’s sweater, knitted about 20 years ago by my mother.


Crochet is a close cousin of knitting in which only one needle,

distinctive from both the those used in knitting, and the types used in embroidery, is employed.

As is the case with knitting, a great range of textiles are produced using crochet.  Here are three examples.

First, is a contemporary bed “rug” or spread.

Next, is a dress done in crocheted lace.

A third crocheted piece is the 18th century “miser’s” purse below,

so-called because the narrowness of it opening requires that coins be removed nearly one at a time.  The red top of this purse is knitted, there is some couching in its middle,

but the bottom is crocheted.


Twining has a look that often seems to suggest that “interlacing” of the warps by seeming weft-like yarns is occurring.

Below is Marla’s drawing of a variety of twining from her book Woven Structures.

Courtesy of Marla Mallett

The basic process through which yarns are twined is to take them around one or more warps (on opposing sides) and to twist them about one another before moving on to the next warp(s).

Twining is one of the most ancient structures and a great many varieties of it were developed.  One does not have to look very far to discover a variety of twining that  (from an observer perspective) looks like its cross-wise yarns DO interlace the warps.

Here is what Marla Mallett says about “twining.” “In the strictest sense, twining is not weaving, and twined yarns are not wefts.  Crosswise twined elements do not interlace; instead two or more spiral around each other as they enclose first one warp and then another.”

Notice how severely Marla’s indications here revise some common usages.

1.   Twined yarns are not wefts (one of the most frequent expressions used to refer to twined structures is “weft twining”).

2.   Twined elements do not “interlace.”

and both of the above indications are the case because twined structures are not made using a shed.

Here again for convenience is Marla’s drawing of twining:

Courtesy of Marla Mallett

Follow a given yarn across the drawing.  Notice the twisting.  That is, a given cross-wise yarn moves alternatively in front of and behind its opposite number.

BUT notice, also, that the cross-wise yarns move alternatively above and below the warps.  What would appear (from an observer perspective) to count as “interlacing” is this movement above and below the warps, and this kind of twining displays it.

I think Marla’s argument on this point goes something like this:

1.  Only yarns interworked using a shed are properly called “wefts.”

2.  True “interlacing” can also only be accomplished using a shed.

3.  Because the interworking of the cross-wise yarns in twining is not done using a shed, the yarns are not “wefts” and they do not “interlace,” regardless of how they appear from an observer perspective.

So what prevents us from placing twining in the “weaving” category is the process used to produce it.  There is no shed used.  There is no separation of particular warps into upper and lower positions.  Not even with the fingers.  Instead, the seeming “interlacing” is achieved as part of the process of taking yarns around a given warp on opposites sites and then twisting them.

Twining is a structure that illustrates Marla’s point that choosing “process” as critical to the defining of “weavings,” and adopting a “weaver’s perspective,” produces different results than does ignoring process and working from an “observer” perspective.

Although it may look like “interlacing,” the fact that the process through which twining is produced does not use a shed, means that it is not, and that even as sophisticated a textile as this

twined Chilkat dancing blanket,

is technically disqualified as a “woven” structure.


Macrame is, mostly, a matter of “knotting.”  And the two most frequent knots are the “square knot” and the “double half-hitch.”

There are some kinds of plaiting, often included in macrame,

but plaiting needs separate treatment, below, because some plaits are border-line cases, hard to place on one side or the other of the “weaving-non-weaving” line.

Weftless Sumak

Weftless sumak (image above on the left) is a structure in which yarns wrap warps, but in which there are no rows of “interlaced” wefts between the wrapped rows.  The image on the right above is of a balanced plain weave in which the wefts interlace the warps.  “Wrapping” is different from “interlacing” as you can see.

Weftless sumak is not a “woven” structure because its wrapped cross-yarns do not “interlace.”

The detail below is of an east Anatolian piece done mostly in weftless sumak.

Below is a complete khorjin set the connecting bridge of which is done in weftless sumak.

Here, below, is a closer detail of this connecting weftless sumak panel.

Notice the irregularity of the weaving in the bridge area is, in part, the result of the fact that there are are no structural wefts in this area.

Weftless sumak is, like twining, an instance of a structure that calls into question some of our assumptions about what a weaving is, once we conceptualize that and apply the defining criteria.  It is not a structure we can consider as “woven.”

Fiber Works

Fiber works (often also called “fiber art”) is the last category I will treat that is often not “woven” (although it can be).

Notice that the word “fiber” is even broader than Emery’s term “fabric.”  Most of us interested in rugs and textiles do not much encounter instances of what its practitioners would call “fiber art.”  Fiber art can include uses of weaving and of any of the other techniques we’ll treat here, but also none of them.

Here, one after another, are three small examples of non-woven fiber art.

This is an item of embroidery.  Cotton, linen, silk and wool on linen.

This second fiber art piece is described as a “collage” of some unusual fibers.

Ixtle: a strong fiber from a tropical plant like yucca.

Zacate: a kind of grass used mostly in Mexico and California.

Amate paper: a form of paper made in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

A third fiber art construction is described as “machine and hand stitching of synthetic thread and Mylar on synthetic cloth.”

There are lots of other fiber or fabric items that fit into this “not woven” category as I have defined it. The examples I have given suggest something about its dimensions.

Now let’s turn to some of the main structure varieties that I think meet the “weaving” tests I have established.



Let’s start with “tapestry.”

Courtesy of Marla Mallett

The structure on the above left is usually called simply “tapestry,” while the one on the right is called “slit tapestry.”  In fact, they are structurally identical, since slits occur at any point at which a weft goes around a warp and reverses direction.  The only difference is the height of the slit.

With tapestry, the patterning warps interlace the warps as they move across them.

There are no separate non-patterning warps that serve structural purposes.

Here is a small kilim made in slit tapestry that I find very beautiful.


Courtesy of Marla Mallett

“Brocading uses extra yarns — supplemental weft yarns — to ornament a ground fabric with floats on at least one face.

(A yarn “floats” when it crosses more than one warp before passing over or under a subsequent one.  The supplemental weft yarns in the drawing above alternatively  “float”  over and then under three wefts.)

There are a number of varieties of brocading, and, as we said earlier, we will not treat them.  More, the examples of brocade I provide below are not of the “over three, under three” variety in Marla’s drawing above.

And as we also noted above, “embroidery” is not “brocade,” and, more importantly “brocade” is not “embroidery.”  The latter mistake is the more frequent one.

The Anatolian cuval below is brocaded in a center panel where the patterning moves beyond stripes.

Here is a closer look at the brocaded area of this same piece.

And below is a look at the back of a detail of the brocaded band.

Lots of threads hang loose.

And to provide another example of Marla’s “brocade” is not “embroidery” mantra, here, below, is a detail of an edge of a different piece, an Anatolian grain bag.  This small repeated design element is the sort of brocading that is often mistaken for embroidery.


Sumak structures that include interlacing rows of structural weft, in addition to the patterning wrapped areas, ARE “woven.”

Courtesy of Marla Mallett

But it is the interlaced structural areas of this variety of sumak that bring it into the universe of “woven” structures, not the visually prominent wrapped ones.

We don’t usually think about it this way, but sumak, with intervening structural wefts, is only incidentally “woven,” since its most prominent feature, the wrapping,

is not an instance of interlacing.

“Rag” Rugs

Rag rugs are often overlooked when we think of weaving because they seem, and, perhaps are, so simple.

“Rags” of various sorts are woven on looms in, mostly, weft-dominant weaves

in which the warps mostly work to hold the “rag” wefts together.

The notion that one can inexpensively convert “rag” fabrics into rugs that are useful, serviceable and attractive, has been noticed by people all over the world.

The rug above is contemporary, but in a traditional Swedish design. (There is a large literature on Scandinavian rag rug designs and techniques.)

Jeff Krauss recently demonstrated that rag rugs have been woven in Japan.  The piece below is a sash for a kimono.

Here a two close-ups of this rag structure.

There is a very active contemporary production of rag rugs here in the U.S.  There is a web site “Rugtalk,” where mostly rag rug weavers share weaving problems and advice.  Some participants on this site are very accomplished technical weavers.

And despite seeming rather “declasse,” rag rugs have a respectable depth of history.  As I was examining some of the varieties of rag rug  I found one documented as having been woven in the U.S. in 1810.

Rag rugs are woven on looms and real interlacing occurs because sheds are created and employed.

So, humble as they may seem, rag rugs are real weavings.

Pile Rugs and Other Pile Textiles

First, let’s rehearse the three main varieties of knot used in pile rugs and other pile textiles.  They are the symmetric knot, the asymmetric knot and the Spanish knot.

Here is Marla’s drawing of a symmetric knot employed in a pile weaving.

Courtesy of Marla Mallett

Look at a particular symmetric knot in the drawing above.  Notice that it is composed of two wrappings moving in opposite directions.  Horizontal rows of wefts (not shown in this drawing) are placed between the rows of pile knots and provide the only interlacing in this structure.

So a pile weaving with symmetric knots is, like the variety of  sumak that has ground wefts between prominent patterning wrappings, only incidentally a “woven” structure.  It is so entirely because of its mostly invisible structural wefts, not because of its pile.

The image below is of a pile rug woven in symmetrical knots.

Here is a drawing of a Spanish knot.

Courtesy of Peter Stone

A Spanish knot encircles a single warp and because of that alone provides no opportunity for interlacing.  But, again, in a Spanish pile rug there are horizontal interlacing wefts between rows of pile knots.

So even as august an example as this 16th century Spanish pile carpet, is “woven” only because of its ground structure, not because its pile.

The asymmetric knot has potentially the best chance to qualify comprehensively as a woven structure.  Here are two drawing sshowing asymmetric knots open to the right and asymmetric knots open to the left.  Again, structural wefts (not shown in these drawings) would run horizontally between rows of pile knots.

The asymmetric knot is a hybrid.  On one side it is a half-hitch that wraps one warp, but its other side is a kind of inlay, moving under the other warp before coming to the surface.  This inlay portion is positioned potentially to interlace, but it ends before that possibility can be realized.

The drawing of an asymmetric knot below, tied on depressed alternate warps, makes the “‘wrapping’ on one side, ‘inlay’ on the other” character of this knot more apparent.

All three images above Courtesy of Marla Mallett

Notice in the drawing above, one pick of interlacing structural weft is visible below the knots.  Only the presence of such structural wefts make this structure a “weaving.”

Here is one of those wonderful old Salor engsis as my example of a pile piece with asymmetric knots (open, in this case, to the left).

So, as is the case for the other two pile knots, a pile weaving with asymmetric knots is a weaving only because of the interlacing that occurs in its structural wefts between knot rows.

I think we do not usually think pile pieces are “weavings” for this unobtrusive reason.


Note: If you haven’t read this section for awhile, please note that I originally included ikats under the “surface design” group treated further down.  An experienced person has pointed out to me since publication that ikat does not belong in the “surface design” group since the designs are put on BEFORE weaving.

They deserve their own category and this is it.

Ikat IS one more kind of textile that is incidentally a “woven” structure for the same reasons given for pile weavings and sumak above.

Below is a glorious item of Central Asian ikat.

Most ikats are are warp-faced and their dramatic designs are carried on their complexly-dyed warps.

They are “weavings” because the wefts that hold the patterning warps together interlace them.

The next group of the textiles I want to treat that are only incidentally “woven,” might be grouped under the category of

Surface Design.

A defining characteristic is that the designs are applied to the ground cloth AFTER that has been woven.

“Surface design” pieces are “woven,” only if  the ground cloth to which the surface design is applied is itself woven.

Included as members of the “surface design” group would be such things as:

Resist-dyed items other than ikats.

Various kinds of printed cloth as long as the cloth is woven.

Block printing of textiles have been done for centuries.  The two pieces immediately below are 17th-18th century Indian block print and mordant painted.

A third example is Japanese and stenciled

in a mode developed in Okinawa.

Even printed textiles on machine-woven grounds are still “woven” within our conception here.

The following example is Russian, from the Soviet era.

And the one below was is a German example from the Wiener Werkstatte association.

Both are early 20th century.

Moving back to a textile category that is not just incidentally “woven,” we have:

U.S., British and European Coverlets

The next four images are of a large fragment of a U.S. coverlet, woven in Pennsylvania, and signed by the weaver in 1849.

Such coverlets are fashioned on looms using a variety of weaves.  “Overshot” is one weave, frequently encountered, and the one above may be in “double-weave.”

Many coverlets are described as made in “jacquard.”  Marla points out that “jaquard” is a process, not a woven structure. “Jacquard” is a card-controlled weaving process that made it possible for a single weaver to do things that previously required a two-person, draw loom. A variety of weaves, not just more complex ones (this is true of draw looms, too) can be produced on a jaquard loom.

The two coverlets below are described as having been made using a jacquard process.

Woven U.S. coverlets are often encountered in antique shops, even antique malls.  Many are dated before 1850, and most are surprisingly reasonable in price.  Although there are many pedestrian examples, they can be interesting and aesthetically worthy.  There are no doubt some important collections of U.S. coverlets (although, I do not know of one), but generally I think they have not attracted the collector attention they likely deserve.

Inlaid Looped Pile

This is one other kind of structure that is clearly “woven” but not frequently encountered in older pieces by collectors.

It is best described with one of Marla Mallett’s drawings.

Courtesy of Marla Mallett

Initially, the “pile” yarns are laid into a shed in much the same way as most interlaced wefts.  But some instances of the weft are pulled up on the top side to form loops.  The loops may or may not be cut.  Notice that if the loops are cut, the only thing holding the, now “pile,” into the into the structure is the pressure of surrounding wefts and warps.

I think I know of only one antique piece with this structure.  It is an Afghan piece that John Wertime featured in his article in Hali 100  in his article “Back to Basics.”

Wertime said, specifically, that the pile in this piece could be pulled out, indicating that it is composed of such inlaid loops that have been cut.

“Faux-pile” rugs from Siirt are a similar thing.

The basic weave is weft-faced plain weave.  They are made on looms with sheds and clear interlacing.  But after the weaving some of the wefts on one side are pulled up with to form a “faux-pile.”

Some say “hooks” are used, and some effort is required.  Marla suggests that such pieces may be woven loosely enough that pile can be produced by merely “brushing” one side.  However it is accomplished, there is longish pile in these pieces, but nothing like the knots of a knotted pile weaving.

Such rugs are still being made today.  You can encounter them in flea markets.  They are not expensive, but some rug students pay serious attention to them, since their structure is one of the oldest known.  They are definitely in the “woven” category.

Border-line Cases


Plaiting is one structure that often sits ambiguously on the line between “woven” structures and those that are not.  In particular, it is difficult to decide how to classify instances of plaiting with fewer numbers of yarns.  Here are drawings of two instances of plaited structures.

The image on the left, above, is of a three-strand plait or braid of the sort often used in hairdressing.  Notice that it is formed by taking an an outside strand over the center strand, alternating sides.

The movement of the plaiting never takes a strand under other strands.  The instances of “under” that occur are only seen by looking back and noticing that an earlier strand goes “under” when the “over” plaiting movement is made.

It is difficult to see how a three-strand plait can qualify as a weaving because the “over-under” passage of its cords does not continue long enough to be considered an instance of “interlacing.”

But if the number of strands in the plait is increased, real “interlacing” does seem to occur.  The right hand image above is of a seven-strand plait and the individual strands do move over and under one another as it is formed.  And the process used to make this seven-strand plait does seem to be one that also requires that the fingers create sheds as one goes along.

The border-line character of plaiting as weaving is well-illustrated by Indian split ply camel girths.

The two below are from a private collection in South Africa.

I own a couple of the two-color sort.  Here are two closer images of one of them.

Although the yarns in the image above move obliquely, it does seem from an observer’s perspective that there is interlacing in this plait.

Split-ply braiding looks rather primitive and its “off-the-loom” creation might seem, initially, to be rather simple.  In fact, Peter Collingwood once spent ten years writing a book on this structure,

and suggests that it is much more sophisticated than its appearance suggests (a one-place error can, not only intrude on the intended design, it can undermine, critically, the integrity of the plait itself).

But, the critical question is “what process is used to produce it?”  The split-ply plait may seem difficult to classify as a weaving, first, because it is made without a loom and using a needle.  But neither of those indications may be disqualifying.

Here is a description of how this plaiting is done.  First, one obtains or creates a series of plied cords that are each composed of four yarns (in this case two light and two dark) which are plied.  Then working with a needle (here are some varieties used)

the plaiter separates the light plies from the dark ones and takes another set of four plied strands through the opening created.

At the next juncture the penetrating set of plied yarns is separated by the needle (light and dark again) and is itself penetrated.  The work moves back and forth with each set of four plied yarns penetrating and then being penetrated on this same basis.

Here is Collingwood’s illustration of this ply-splitting process (note that his plied strands are each composed of one color ( but different ones), rather than of two light and two dark yarns plied together, as is the case in the example we are describing).

Now is this kind of split-ply braiding “weaving?”  Well, the first distinction one notices is that the basic element is a four-ply cord and if real weaving occurs it is as a result of the separation of the two light from the two dark plies with a needle.  Does this separation of two light from two dark plies in this plied cord qualify as the creation of a shed?

Collingwood does not speak to whether a shed is created in split-ply braiding, but seems not to see the interworking of plies it entails as an instance of “interlacing.”

So split-ply braiding is distinctive from “weaving” in the sense that weaving does not involve splitting of previously  plied cords and that may be disqualifying (I haven’t asked Marla about this).  Still, the use of the needle in this plaiting process, seems to me very like creating a shed and the resulting look seems (from an observer perspective) very like interlacing, so I’m not sure.

Finger Weaving

Marla argues that the plaited, Dida, raffia skirts like this one

from Africa’s Ivory coast ARE woven.

(the Met in NYC is bragging in Hali about one they have acquired)

She says, “…they are definitely interlaced: one actually picks and make a shed with the fingers…I think the appropriate term for these Dida skirts is ‘finger woven’.”

“But,” she continues, “…the line between multiple-strand braiding (plaiting) and weaving is a slim one.”

“And,” she adds, “how about some basket weaving?”

Coir Rain Cape

This child’s coir rain cape, below, by the Miao minority in southwest China also seems problematic.

Here is its back.

Its appearance is of a piece that is fully knotted.

But there seems no sign of structural components other than the apparent knots.  There is no sign of interlacing that I can see.  The shape of the knot forms seems similar to that of double reversed half hitch (a macrame variation sometimes used as a heading cord), in that the brushy ends come up and out between some other parts of the “knot.”

Here is a drawing of two varieties of double reversed half hitch.

Examining it, the “knot” on this rain cape looks more like the lower of these varieties and is also very similar to a symmetric knot excepting that the latter is tied on two vertically oriented warps.

What I have not been able to determine is how it is held together row to row (and it definitely is).

So my current sense is that this “knotted” rain cape is not “woven,” because I cannot detect interlacing nor how a shed might have been employed while making it.

A better structure analyst than I may be able (Marla did not have an example to examine as we talked about it) to discern its features and character better.

One last piece.

There is a fiber artist named Claire Ziesler, who composes and creates free-standing constructions like this.

This particular work is owned by the Chicago Institute of Art.  They included it in a survey-type catalog of their collection that includes only a little more than one hundred items from the 15,000 plus textiles they own, so they think well of it.

Is it possibly a weaving?  Well, it is mostly composed of plaiting of various sorts and is for that reason potentially troublesome.  Most of the plaiting I can see seems of relatively few bundles of strands and may not exhibit enough “interlacing” to qualify.  But who knows?  Somewhere in this aesthetic pile there may well be woven components.

That is as much clarity and confusion as I can manage on this topic today, so let’s look at the example pieces we have brought in.

You can reach Part 2 of this RTAM using the link below:



R. John Howe

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