Weaving to the beat

Sara Lindsay

1 June 2023

Sara Lindsay shares her experience of the unique sounds made in the weaving process.

(A message to the reader.)

In my youth, my skills as a pianist and guitarist were basic, but I was told I had a good ear for language. Some years later, I relinquished an opportunity to study French at university in order to go to art school. Later still, I became a weaver, and it came as no surprise to me that my ear responded acutely to the acoustic nature of the weaving process.

This sensibility was enhanced in 1985 when I attended a Melbourne performance by the pioneering Japanese sound artist Akio Suzuki, well-known for his inventive musical instruments and his desire to hear and record the sonorous tones of our everyday environment. I still remember clearly the power and simplicity of Suzuki’s performance. A selection of cardboard boxes of different sizes were placed around the stage. With a roll of cellophane tape in hand, the artist moved from one box to another, wrapping the tape around each one as he traversed the space. The tape was unwound at different speeds, creating a variety of long and short, brittle vibrations.

This method of creating sound resonated with the work I was exploring in my home studio at the time.

During the week, I was still working as a weaver at the Australian Tapestry Workshop (ATW), collaborating with other weavers and artists to make large-scale tapestries on commission. I had spent six months studying weaving at a school on the outskirts of Kyoto, and in each of these environments, I had encountered a wide range of equipment with sonic peculiarities.

Determined to pursue an individual approach to tapestry, I spent evenings and weekends combining the European Gobelin style of tapestry weaving I was using at the ATW with aspects of the Kasuri weaving I had studied in Japan. Using black and white cotton gingham cloth, carefully sourced for its particular textural qualities, I started to make a new series of handwoven tapestries by manipulating the fabric to create various woven patterns. The larger the gingham check, the larger the pattern – whilst the fine check produced a random field of black and white marks which took on the appearance of static or ‘white noise’.

For over a decade, I spent long hours in the studio tearing up bolts of gingham fabric, recording the variety of notes and rhythms that this process created. These varied depending on whether I tore the material in 5-metre lengths or went from the shorter distance of selvedge to selvedge. Since then, I have also made tapestries from hemp and acetate, which produce different sounds when torn. The light acetate tears quickly, with a high-pitched rip; the thick hemp is harder to tear, making slower and deeper notes.

Once the fabric is torn into strips, it is wound into balls on a small plastic device, filling the air with a particular whirring sound. A regular click often interrupts this whir as the ball winder ages, and the worn cogs stick.

The next stage of preparing the yarn for tapestry weaving is to wind it onto a wooden bobbin using a hand-operated metal instrument. A central spike is inserted into the bobbin’s core; yarn is wrapped firmly around the bobbin, and winding commences by turning a handle attached to a rotating disk. Depending on the properties of the yarn and whether it is a single strand or multiple, the winding can pick up speed and then slow down if the yarn needs to be smoothed out or untangled. This winding is relatively noisy, particularly in a large workshop where more than one weaver can be winding their bobbins at the same time.

In order to commence weaving, the brass-tipped bobbin is used to feed the weft through the warp and to pack down the yarn. The beating of the yarn creates a rhythm that is often commented on – a tap, tap, tap. Depending on the tapestry’s size and the yarn’s thickness, this tapping will vary. Cheryl Thornton, a senior weaver at the ATW, told me she could recognise a weaver by the speed of their beating. “It’s all in the movement of the wrist”, she said.

The beating sound will also vary depending on the thickness and tautness of the warp.

Recently I wove a small tapestry using bamboo paper yarn as warp. I was surprised to discover that it emitted quite a different sound from the high-twist cotton warp I normally use. The bamboo has little give and bounces back into place with a sharp slapping movement when the warp is manipulated.

Unlike the tapestry weaver, who works vertically on a high warp loom, often made of metal, many weavers use timber shaft looms with a horizontal warp, which have their own particular repertoire of noises. A metal-slatted device called a reed sits in the beater at the front of the loom. It is used to space the warp threads evenly and is pulled backwards and forwards to compress the yarn – gently tapping to produce finer fabrics and firmly beating several times if a dense, thick fabric is required. On larger looms, floor pedals operate the shafts – 4, 8, 16 or more. These contain metal or polyester heddles, through which the warp is threaded in order to create a pattern. When the weaver changes shafts by operating the pedals, a rattling or jangling will often be heard.

The other dominant sound is made by a boat shuttle, a wooden object with small rollers. These shuttles speed up the weaving process and are most suitable for weaving fabric, the design of which requires the repetitive use of a single colour weft. The weft is wound onto small bobbins fitted to the shuttle. The weaver throws the shuttle from side to side through the threads, creating a sound that is interrupted by the regular rhythm of the beater.

Last night I attended a concert by Elision in the finely tuned acoustic environment of the beautifully wood-panelled Elizabeth Murdoch Hall here in Melbourne. It was part of ‘New Music Days’, a concert series that celebrates experimental music. The final piece was composed by Liza Lim.

After seeing a 10-metre piece of clear plastic lowered from the balcony, picked up by three of the musicians and rustled across the stage, followed by an intense cacophony of improvised instruments, I left dreaming of a composition that could truly respond to an orchestra of tapping bobbins and whirling winders, underpinned by the firm drum of a loom’s beater.

About Sara Lindsay

Sara Lindsay lives and works in Naarm (Melbourne). She has been a tapestry weaver since joining the Australian TapestryWorkshop in 1975. In 1991 she left the organisation to pursue an independent career as a weaver, curator and educator. Sara currently divides her time between individual studio projects and those with a high level of social engagement. She has mentored a group of women from Melbourne’s Karen community for 10 years and has recently undertaken a residency with a textile-based creative hub in Lisbon, A Avó Veio Trabalhar. A new project is now underway with Sara, Paw Gay Poe (Melbourne) and Rosa Camemba (Lisbon) collaborating through weaving and embroidery. Sara plans to return to Lisbon for 6 months in 2024. Follow @slindsay.studio

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  • Jasminka says:

    Wonderful to read your words and listen to the sound of your work.
    Attuning ourselves to the sounds of our environment might make us more aware of what we are doing…. Listening.
    The seven year old son of my backyard hairdresser came into the garage where I was being beautified. He sat down to talk to me when he noticed that there was “music” coming out of his father’s wifi speaker. He simply asked: “ Why is this on while we are talking?” “ Just for some background noise, “ his father answered. The boy shook his head in disbelief, nodded and turned to me to finish our conversation.

  • lokesh ghai says:

    Enjoyed the article along with sounds it present and a certain mediative peace it spins.

  • Songül ARAL says:

    the symphony is wonderfully relaxing…

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