A shawl design and a carpet design are not the same

fig 1 A290 size as inset cw 2x

Recently I was asked to scale up the design of an antique Kashmir shawl motif, to make it more visible and effective in modern shawl production.  The original motif, represented by 100 talim lines (each woven in 2 picks) by 33 nals, at a threadcount of 80 threads per inch, would result in a woven image about 1.7 by 2.5 inches.  Doubling the size of the design at the same threadcount would produce an image 3.3 by 5 inches.  My undertaking throughout this exercise was to make the design no more detailed, requiring no more bobbins (“kani”) than before to do the weaving.

I realized that this proposal provides an opportunity to compare the different strategies, old and new, for getting the most pleasing woven image of a design visualised on a square grid.  In recent years, a carpet design program based on the square grid has been widely adopted for preparing shawl designs and the row-by-row weaving instructions (“talim”).  In a hand-knotted carpet, each unit of the grid represents one knot or tuft, and the knots line up not only in horizontal rows but also in vertical columns, one directly above another, so the square grid provides a detailed and properly aligned representation of the design.

The twill fabric structure of shawlweaving consists of weave-units of 4 warp threads and 4 weft threads.  At each treadling 2 adjacent warp threads (called a “nal”) are raised, two lowered, and 1 weft thread (or pick) is passed between.  The raised warp threads may be named in this sequence as: 1 and 4, 1 and 2, 2 and 3, 3 and 4, and then the sequence is repeated.  While it is true that the whole weave-units, each consisting of 4 by 4 threads, align in straight rows and columns, so they can be represented by the square grid, they are different in two important respects from the single carpet knot.  Each weave-unit shows 4 stitches (or “seeds”, a tapestryweaving term) of the weft thread, in the colours of the design, and these 4 stitches line up in a diagonal row.  So each weave-unit is more detailed, and has a peculiar diagonal orientation, that the square grid does not show.

fig 2 A290 as 2x size square gridImportant note: In my illustrations, each row of “brick-grid” units represents two picks of weaving, so two rows of “brick-grid” units represent one row of 4-by-4-thread weave units, and give a partial impression of the diagonal shift of weft stitches.  The straight-twill diagonal rises to the right on the back of the fabric as it is woven, but to the left on the front of the fabric, as shown.

As I said, the antique shawl fabric motif I am using for this article, like many others, shows 2 picks of weaving for each different line of instructions.  To double it in size, I would now be weaving 4 picks for each line of instructions (and across 2 nals for every 1 nal previously), just as if I were following instructions from a square-grid design like shawlweavers today.

 

fig 3 cleanup straight twill

 

 

 

Because the 4 weft stitches in each weave-unit follow the diagonal orientation, my woven motif will have a slanted, jagged appearance.

 

 

 

 

fig 4 cleanup 2 and 2 picks

 

 

To improve on this, many shawlweavers today weave the first two picks of each line of instructions (left-to-right, then right-to-left), then subtract 1 nal from the beginning of the line before repeating the same instructions for the 3rd and 4th picks.  This is an automated approach to counter the diagonal orientation and place the 3rd and 4th stitches more directly above the first 2 stitches in each weave unit.  And already, the line of instructions for the 3rd and 4th picks of a weave-unit is different from the line for the 1st and 2nd picks, but only slightly.

 

 

 

This previously published illustration (link) shows every thread of a motif detail: first as if woven following square-grid instructions, on the left, each 4 picks by the same instructions; at center, one nal subtracted after the first 2 picks; then on the right, following the edited version of brick-grid units, as it appeared in the original 17th c. shawl.

This previously published illustration (June 2012) shows every thread of a motif detail: first as if woven following square-grid instructions, on the left, each 4 picks by the same instructions; at center, one nal subtracted after the first 2 picks; then on the right, following the edited version of brick-grid units, as it appeared in the original 17th c. shawl.

 

fig 5 A290 2x 3 same weights

A major improvement in the appearance of the woven motif will result if the line of instructions for the 3rd and 4th picks of the weave-unit is carefully edited for the best placement of those stitches, even without introducing new colours or bobbins.  This process takes place at the design stage, and is based on representing each row of a square-grid design by two rows of brick-grid units that show the diagonal progression of the twill fabric stitches.  Each brick-grid unit, representing two stitches, can be assigned the same colour as an adjoining unit in the same row, either right or left, to produce a clearer design or smoother outline, without requiring more bobbins.  It is true that the talim line of instructions for the 3rd and 4th picks is different from the line for the 1st and 2nd picks.

 

 

fig 6 fine linesWhile this basic process of editing a design will produce improved, clearer lines and edges, it can lead to further refinements.  In my example I tried to retain the same weights of lines and shapes as in the original design.  Lines can be made finer and more delicate, without becoming broken-up and spotty.  Treating each talim line of instructions for two picks of weaving as an opportunity to make the design more clear and precise, is not a new idea.  Until recent years, it was the normal practice.  Shawl talim showed “half” units at the ends of every second line, to relate the talim line for picks 1 and 2, to the talim line for picks 3 and 4.  How to write shawl talim with these half-units, whether by hand or by computer, and relate these instructions to the warp threads as they appear treadled on the loom, is an article for another time.  Productive and convenient as it is to use CAD software for shawl designs, a program that provides only the square grid is not adequate.

 

It has been impressed on me that traditional shawl weavers are poorly paid for their long hours of work, and reluctant to consider any changes in their practice that could slow their production even more.  I have argued that the amount of weaving is the same, only the number of talim lines of instructions is more.  Admittedly, that leaves a gap where the weaver may have to refer more often to the talim for the instructions he is following, and where he gets less benefit from the unconscious memorization that comes from repeating the same instructions over and over.  Still, if the motif or pattern is repeated a dozen times across the width of the cloth, the memorization is still there.
Some shawlweavers and dealers acknowledge and seem resigned to the poorer rendition of their designs that comes from the current practice of 4 picks per talim line.  To me it seems a tragic absurdity, doomed to be abandoned, to devote so much effort to working at the limits of the fineness of threads and eyesight, and yet follow a method that produces coarse results.  It is up to dealers to recognize and pay more for superior workmanship.  Weavers must be able to take pride in their own work, to uphold the pride they have in the tradition of the Kashmir shawl.

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~ by Peter Harris on 29/10/2014.

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