Monday, July 20, 2009

Where Did the Walking Loom Come From?

A Short History of the Walking Loom

We already know the Hispanic Walking Loom was not invented on the shores of Mexico. It is universally acknowledged that it came from Spain. But before that, where? Is it indigenous to Spain? Who invented it? It is, after all, very different from the looms used in the rest of Europe.

It has already been documented by Nora Fisher[1] that Don Ignacio and Don Juan Bazan actually introduced the Hispanic Walking Loom to New Mexico in 1807. The Bazan brothers were descendents of a family who had arrived in Mexico from Spain in the 1600’s. Ms. Fisher also points out that the treadle loom was “not in fact indigenous to Europe. Owing to a lack of historical writing on the subject, the treadle loom’s introduction to Europe is shrouded in mystery, but it probably came from the Near East. It arrived in Europe around A.D. 1000 and seems to have formed the technical basis for the tremendous expansion of the cloth trade concurrent with the growth of cities and the rise of the middle-class.”[2]

Prior to the Spanish immigrants to Mexico in the 17th century, two individual populations of weavers were already established in Spain. The type of loom they used is not known for sure, but considering that the treadle loom arrived in Mexico from Spain, we must consider that it was possibly used by one or both of these populations.

The Sephardic Jews[3] have a long tradition of weaving. There is a carpet in the Islamic Museum of Berlin which is dated no later than the early 1300’s, which depicts the Ark of the Covenant as a repetitive design. In the late 1300’s, Barcelona was home to numerous Sephardic Jewish weavers. Scholars have located legal documents dated 1406 which specifically refer to “the Jewish weavers of Zaragosa.” They continue, “By the end of the fifteenth century there were Jewish weavers to be found in almost every small community… and in the Catalayid district the weavers even worshiped in their own separate synagogue.”[4]

In addition to the Sephardic Jews, Spanish Muslims, referred to as Mudéjars[5], also had a strong tradition of weaving carpets. A well-known design favored by these weavers was the “Spanish wheel,” a motif comprised of intertwined patterns, which created a large, central, eight-pointed star.[6] The Mudéjars were also known to copy the patterns of silk textiles, as well as various types of rugs imported from Anatolian Turkey. Examples of their exemplary carpet art from the 15th and 16th centuries show a network of polygons in which fields of stars are contained by distinctive borders.

During the 15th century, most of the Sephardic Jews professed to be Catholic and were referred to as Conversos.[7] For many of them, however, the conversion was only titular, and they still practiced their original faith in secret.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain took seriously reports that some Conversos and Mudéjars were not only privately practicing their former faiths but were secretly trying to draw others back into their previous religious folds. In 1480, the King and Queen created the Spanish Inquisition to investigate these suspicions. During the first twelve years of this new institution, thousands of converted Jews were killed for breaking the law which prohibited practicing Judaism.

In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella completed their Reconquista by forcing the surrender of the Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus.[8] The surrender of the capital city of Granada placed yet another large Jewish and Muslim population under their rule, and Ferdinand and Isabella decided to act. They issued a decree, The Edict of Expulsion, which was designed specifically to drive the Muslims and Jews out of Spain.[9]

Many Sephardic Jews went to Morocco, primarily to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. These tiny Mediterranean coastal villages were centers of commerce, and the Sephardic Jews flourished in these locales, thanks to both legal and illegal trade.[10] The city of Fez, also located in Morocco, was populated by Mudéjars as well as many Sephardic Jews.

Again, we are not certain of what kind of looms the Jewish and Muslim weavers used during these turbulent times. It is possible that the loom used by at least some of these weavers was a treadle loom. Proof that the treadle loom reached Morocco at some point in time (most likely before the Muslim invasion of Spain in 711 A.D.) can be seen by viewing images of modern-day weavers in Morocco using the treadle loom.[11] I have recently found a photograph of a modern-day weaver, weaving on a walking loom, in Turkey. That picture is at the top of this blog.

Despite the difficulties of travel and communication in the Middle Ages, there was an constant flow of people, materials and information back and forth between countries. A massive emigration of Jews and Muslims occurred between 1492 and 1580, following the Edict of Expulsion. Many Sephardic Jews eventually emigrated from Spain and North Africa to South America, especially the countries now known as Argentina, Peru and Brazil. It is unlikely they brought the treadle loom with them, since there is no tradition of this loom being used in South America.

Just as Jews emigrated to South America, many of the Mudéjar emigrated as well. This population, however, moved to Central America – the exact portion of the New World where the treadle loom eventually took hold and began a weaving tradition that continues to this day in the Rio Grande weavers.

[1] Rio Grande Textiles, edited by Nora Fisher.
[2] Rio Grande Textiles, p. 152.
[3] Sephardic is the Hebrew word for Spanish.
[4] Anton Felton and Samuel Kurinsky, 1999.
[5] Mudéjar is a corruption of an Arabic term meaning “domesticated.” It derogatorily referred to Muslims who had succumbed to the authority of Christian rulers.
[6] It is interesting to note that a multifaceted, eight-pointed star is also a motif often seen in Rio Grande weaving, in the Vallejo style.
[7] Another more prejudiced term was Murrano, which means “filthy” or “pig” in Medieval Spanish. Happily, it is no longer used as a perjorative.
[8] Al-Andalus was established by the Muslims, who invaded Spain in 711 A.D. The Muslim armies were primarily comprised of Berbers from north Africa. By 718 A.D., Muslims controlled most of the Iberian peninsula. The Muslims ruled in Al-Aldalus for 781 years. It was a peaceful reign that encouraged research into philosophy, medicine, and the arts and sciences in a spirit of cooperation between residents of the kingdom. There was no religious conflict between Muslims, Jews and Christians since they all revered the Old Testament and were considered to be “People of the Book.”
[9] In his logbook, Christopher Columbus remarked, “In the same month (July, 1492) in which their Majesties (Ferdinand and Isabella) issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies.”
[10] Much of the illegal trade the Sephardic Jews bartered was the booty from the Barbary Pirates. The Barbary Pirates were freedom fighters from Al-Andalus who used raiding in an effort to reclaim Al-Andalus from Spain. The term “Barbary” is a corruption of the term “Berber.”
[11] See “Berber weaving in Fez, Morroco” at

Monday, July 6, 2009

Many Hands Make Light Work

Warping a Loom Doesn't Have to Be a Lonely Job!

This past week, we started warping our big walking loom. Anyone who has warped a loom can tell you that it is the longest, most tedious, boring and yet delicately meticulous part of weaving. They can also tell you that somehow, magically, the loom triples in size during the warping process. It is almost impossible to warp a walking loom this size by oneself. Well… I suppose it could be done; in fact I am sure that it has been done, but I don’t have that much endurance and discipline.

It starts with measuring the warp yarn. Patti spent two days measuring the warp, which she attached to our big horizontal warping mill. Along with our Strauch skein-winder, the mill is probably the most important piece of equipment we have. It is 6’ wide, and allows you to spool out yards and yards of yarn as you attach it to the loom.

That was the easy part. Next you have to pull the yarn through the heddles, one strand at a time. After that you have to pull the yarn through the beater – again, one strand at a time. At that point, you can tie it onto the apron rod. It is an exhausting job, involving climbing in and out of the loom as well as stretching across the front and back beams to reach the heddles. Unless you have the spinal column of a feline (I wish!), you end up with a backache at the very least.

Amazingly enough, even though it was a major holiday weekend, we were so lucky in that we were able to call on an extra pair of hands! Donna came and helped and it was just wonderful. Three of us were able to switch places, catch mistakes before they happened, and most important of all, root each other on as we tired.

There is a marvelous synergy when several people are working on a task. Somehow the jokes are funnier and the work goes more smoothly and quickly. There is a rhythm that sets in and three almost become one. Way back in the days when I was a singer in a rock band, we called it “the extra note.” There was almost a hum in the air during the silences as we slipped the individual threads of warp through the heddles.

After we were done, we checked the time and to our surprise, warping the heddles with three of us had taken less than half as long as the last time, when Donna and I warped it alone. No one was over-tired and we were still joking and laughing when we got done. The task we had all dreaded had actually become fun.

That got me thinking about a book that I read some years ago during a seminar on natural dyeing at Hillcreek Fiber Studio in Columbia, Missouri. The book was Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. As we worked during the seminar to achieve a common goal, there was no sense of competition among the 20 or so women, only that extra note humming all day long. According to Dr. Barber, this is the way that women have always worked together.

Later today we’ll be warping the beater and starting the tie-on process. There is still much to do, and some of it can be done by two people. We are still going to invite Donna along for the ride, though. Even if she works on her own weaving while Patti and I warp, I expect we’ll hear that extra note along with the conversation and the laughter.