Before the Industrial Revolution, all fabric in the Western world was woven on hand-looms and did not use any electricity. It was a precious material that could be re-used, re-incorporated into new clothes, or over-dyed to give it a fresh look. In Florence during the Renaissance, velvet fabric took months to produce and the gowns produced from them could fetch the price of a house!
In France, the Jacquard loom was one of the great technological inventions of the 18th century and could be “programmed” with replaceable punch cards to create complex brocades and damask fabrics. The hand-loom is said to be the pre-cursor to the modern day computer, as is explained in great detail in Jacquard’s Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age.
Just two decades ago, people across rural China remember watching their mothers hand-weave fabric at home during their youth. This has disappeared rapidly as the country has modernized and moved the population into the big cities.
Guizhou province is one of the few places in China where families still weave their own fabric at home. Hand-woven fabrics take on symbolic and spiritual importance when wrapped around the beam of a house (for protection), used as a baby carrier (to protect the child from harmful spirits), or wrapped around the heads of those at a funeral ceremony (to honor the deceased, who wove it before they passed away). They also serve as a window into the character of the person who made it, revealing their patience and attention to detail.
Here is one of the Miao fabric masters weaving fabric at our workshop in Dimen Village. He can weave up to 20 meters of narrow-width (about 38 cm wide) fabric per day on this “fast” hand-loom. Most looms take a bit of concentration, but he shows that one can multi-task (or even smoke a cigarette, as he’s doing here) once the technique is perfected.
Afterwards, he leaves written instructions of how to continue the fabric for the next weaver.