Book Review: Unraveling the history of weaving

The art on show in this book celebrates not only the wonder and dynamism of fiber, but also the beauty and mystery of life itself.
Updated 08 January 2018
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Book Review: Unraveling the history of weaving

One can only rejoice at the release of a new, expanded edition of one of the world’s best books on weaving. “On Weaving” is an absolute masterpiece written by Anni Albers, one of the most talented and creative artists of the 20th century. Printed several times since its first publication in 1965, this new version features full-cover photographs instead of the book’s original black-and-white illustrations, as well as an afterword by Nicholas Fox Weber, executive director of The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and essays by Manuel Cirauqui and T’ai Smith.
Weber writes in the afterword that Albers “took the art of textiles into realms that are glorious guideposts for all people for all time.” Albers revolutionized the way people looked at textiles, she also gave weavers and designers whose inspiration was stifled a breath of fresh air. She opened new channels of creativity, suggesting unforeseen possibilities, new ways of combining visual and structural work in thread, art and design.
“How do we choose our specific material, our means of communication? Accidentally, something speaks to us, a sound, touch, hardness or softness, it catches us and asks us to be formed. We are finding our language and as we go along we learn to obey its rules and its limits,” Albers once said.
And indeed, Albers found her medium, weaving, by accident. In 1922, at the age of 23, Albers was accepted into Bauhaus, a pioneering school in Germany whose mission was to teach the role of functional art and design to everyone, regardless of wealth and class. Bauhaus provided courses in various specialties, such as woodworking, metal, wall painting and glass. Most women at the time chose to enter the weaving workshop whereas Albers preferred to study the art of glasswork. However, Walter Gropius, who founded Bauhaus, believed that it was not advisable that women work in the heavy crafts areas, such as carpentry and he said: “For this reason, a women’s section has been formed at the Bauhaus (School), which works particularly with textiles, bookbinding and pottery.”
Ambitious and eager to know more about the history of textiles, Albers visited ethnological museums in Berlin and Munich and read “Les Tissus Indiens du Vieux Perou” by Marguerite and Raoul d’Harcourt, which introduced her to the ancient textile art of Peru. She would eventually consider the Peruvian weavers as “her greatest teachers” because nearly all the existing methods of weaving had been used in ancient Peru.
During her early years as an artist, Albers was profoundly influenced by Paul Klee who repeatedly insisted that the ultimate form of an artistic work was not as significant as the process leading to it. Klee also introduced her to his use of formal experimentation and graffiti-like markings, which he believed could nurture the subconscious. Albers adopted this concept and integrated it into her abstract tapestries.
This book takes the reader on a journey of discovery of an ancient craft, one that has remains essentially unchanged to this day. The book’s first chapter, “Weaving, Hand” is in fact the entry about weaving that Albers wrote for Encyclopedia Britannica: “One of the most ancient crafts, hand weaving is a method of forming a pliable plane of threads by interlacing them rectangularly. Invented in a pre-ceramic age, it has remained essentially unchanged to this day. Even the final machinery has not changed the basic principle of weaving.”
Weaving is one of the oldest surviving crafts in the world and goes back to Neolithic times, about 12,000 years ago. “Beginnings are usually more interesting than elaborations and endings. Beginning means explorations, selections, development, a potent vitality not yet limited, not circumscribed by the tried and traditional,” wrote Albers.
The artist used to take her students back in time to understand how it all began. The hides of animals are probably the closest prototype to fabrics. They are flat and versatile and can be used for many purposes. They can protect us from the weather and also shelter us as roofs and walls. Perhaps it all began when someone had the idea of adding a flexible twig to fasten the hides together. This manner of using both a stiff and a soft material was found in the 5,000-year-old mummy wrappings excavated in Paracas, Peru.
The wrappings extracted from the tombs were like “rushes tied together in the manner of twining… stiff materials were connected by means of a softer one to form a mat pliable in one direction, stiff in another,” wrote Albers.
These rushes are closer to basketry than fabrics. In fact baskets made using a similar technique were found in the same burial site. Twining is a method that appears to have evolved into weaving and this, according to Albers, might explain one of the origins of textile techniques.
Knotting, netting and looping resemble twining. Crocheting and knitting are said to have been invented by the Arabs. The oldest specimens have been located in Egyptian tombs from the seventh or eighth century.
Tapestry weaving is a form of weaving that dates back to the earliest beginnings of thread interlacing. One of the earliest pictorial works was found in a tomb located in northern Peru. Along with cave paintings, threads were the earliest transmitters of meaning, according to the book.
Albers developed “pictorial weaving” between the 1930s and 1960s. Her woven pictures are unique works of art in which colors, sounds, abstract forms and pictures are embedded in the fabric. Thanks to a unique and sophisticated technique combining history and innovation, an unbridled imagination and unrestrained energy, Albers weaved masterpieces. Her tapestries celebrate not only the wonder and dynamism of fiber, but also the beauty and mystery of life itself.


What We Are Reading Today: Hitler’s American Model, by James Whitman

Updated 15 August 2018
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What We Are Reading Today: Hitler’s American Model, by James Whitman

  • The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law 

Nazism triumphed in Germany during the high era of Jim Crow laws in the US.

Did the American regime of racial oppression in any way inspire the Nazis?

The unsettling answer is yes. In Hitler’s American Model, James Whitman presents a detailed investigation of the American impact on the notorious Nuremberg Laws, the centerpiece anti-Jewish legislation of the Nazi regime, says a review on the Princeton University Press website.

Contrary to those who have insisted that there was no meaningful connection between American and German racial repression, Whitman demonstrates that the Nazis took a real, sustained, significant, and revealing interest in American race policies.

As Whitman shows, the Nuremberg Laws were crafted in an atmosphere of considerable attention to the precedents American race laws had to offer.

German praise for American practices, already found in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, was continuous throughout the early 1930s, and the most radical Nazi lawyers were eager advocates of the use of American models.