ANNI ALBERS at TATE MODERN – 11th October – 27 January 2019

Last week I visited the Anni Albers Exhibition at Tate Modern. I didn’t know much more about her than that she was introduced to hand-weaving at the Bauhaus, where the tutors felt it a more suitable activity for a female than painting.  Weaving has often been reduced in significance this way as it was thought to be an activity for women; it was considered a menial job suitable for a mother or wife to fit around her childrearing and domestic chores.

Throughout her career Albers explored the possibilities of weaving as a modernist medium, but one also deeply rooted in highly sophisticated and ancient textile traditions from around the world.  Students in the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus produced independent artistic works as well as designs for industrial manufacture.  Albers and her colleagues created wall hangings which she considered a modern development to textile art.  They described them as, “amazing objects, striking in their newness of conception in regard to use of colour and compositional elements”.


The weaving workshop developed its own distinctive language, making use of the grid structure of weaving, and emphasising haptic or tactile qualities. Albers published two influential books; one on designing and one on weaving.  Her seminal book ‘On Weaving’ (1965) serves as a kind of visual atlas by exploring the history of the last 4,000 years of weaving around the world, as well as examining technical aspects of the craft and the development of the Loom. Anni Albers made many of her pictorial weavings on the eight-harness Structo Artcraft handloom pictured below.


The loom is a machine for weaving cloth and was the world’s first piece of automated machinery. The earliest looms actually date from the 5th millennium BCE and consisted of bars or beams fixed in place to form a frame that held a number of parallel threads in two sets which alternated with each other. By raising one set of these threads, which together formed the warp, it was possible to run a weft thread between them. The block of wood used to carry the filling strand through the warp was called the shuttle.

The fundamental operation of the loom remained unchanged, but improvements were introduced through ancient and medieval times in both Asia and Europe. One of the most important of these was the introduction of the heddle, a movable rod that served to raise the upper sheet of warp. In later looms the heddle became a cord, wire, or steel band, several of which could be used simultaneously.

The draw loom, probably invented in Asia for silk weaving, made possible the weaving of more intricate patterns by providing a means for raising warp threads in groups as required by the pattern. The function was at first performed by a boy (the drawboy), but in the 18th century in France the function was successfully mechanized and improved further by the ingenious use of punched cards. Introduced by Jacques de Vaucanson and Joseph-Marie Jacquard, the punched cards programmed the mechanical drawboy, saving labour and eliminating errors. Punched cards were used to direct the weaving of beautiful patterns, punched cards either had holes or no-holes (un-perforated card) – it was binary: yes or no, on or off.

In the mid 19th century Charles Babbage designed an automatic mechanical calculator designed to tabulate polynomic functions. It was called the Difference Engine and was intended to compute many useful tables of numbers – through his interest in mass production methods he realised that he could ‘borrow’ the punched card method of programming from the Weaving Industry as it operated on the same binary system of ones and zeros.

Albers studied the material qualities of yarns, as well as different ways of working with them.  Combining yarns and techniques, she was able to create complex, multi-faceted pieces, rich in texture.  Using a floating weft technique and brocade weaving (adding surface threads to a basic weave), she was able to integrate additional threads as free lines.  She could draw with these threads into the structure of her pictorial weaving.


In the 1940s she began to explore knots by sketching and painting entangled, linear structures; and produced scroll-like works with Celtic-style knots.  Albers’ works reflect her statement “The thoughts can, I believe, be traced back to the event of a thread.”


String or thread has been being used to weave fabric for forty thousand years. As the great ice age sheets began retreating from Northern continents humans started inventing.  These newly creative hunter-gatherers produced novel tools – awls, pins and chisel-like burins, and they sculpted representations of animals and people. They painted pictures and made hand prints on their cave walls by spitting pigment over a hand placed on the wall. And it was these people who also invented string and sewing by twisted handfuls of little weak fibres together to make long, strong thread, or string.


The production of ‘homespun’ yarn and cloth was one of the first cottage industries, and pin money was women’s earliest source of independent cash when they sold surplus yarn and cloth, working as small-scale entrepreneurs long before the emergence of factories or the mechanisms which now define the textile industry.

Anni Albers was aware of the rich feminine history linked to every warp and weft of woven fabric and she was open to creating new works that explored the connection between text and textiles; textiles and architecture; textile as memorial and pictorial weavings, “what I’m trying to get across is that material is a means of communication.  That listening to it, not dominating it, makes us truly active, that is: to be active, be passive.”

It should also be mentioned that she developed a range of jewellery made with ubiquitous materials like hair pins, corks and eyelet screws, and she also took to printmaking when weaving became too physically demanding.

Though Albers was in favour of modern design and production, she held a strong belief that technology increasingly dulls our awareness of the tactile, or haptic, as it replaces the need to make things with our hands.  In her essay ‘Tactile Sensibility’ she states that

“All progress, so it seems, is coupled to regression elsewhere.  We have advanced in general, for instance, in regard to verbal articulation, but we certainly have grown increasingly insensitive to our perception by touch, the tactile sense.  For too long we have made too little use of the medium of tactility.’

How interesting it was to see Albers’ work and her commitment to establishing weaving as a modernist medium, but I feel the curators missed a trick, given her obvious inquisitive nature, I felt as if we were left with a bit of cliff-hanger.  For me, it would have been an instructive exercise (and fun) to explore how Anni Albers would have coped with, or indeed what would have been her opinion of the use mankind had made of weaving and the adoption of its punched card system?  Would she have been excited by this new turn in the history of weaving and its significance in the development and dominance of computers in everyday life?  Would she have re-prioritised the visual over the tactile; would she have been inspired by the possibilities of smart textiles; or would she have been appalled at work being made on a screen one removed from the human hand, with no touching and no haptic quality to inform the progress of her ideas?




Throughout History and Now

What did ancient people try to accomplish when they deliberately made clothes that contained meaning? For one thing, it must have been to mark or announce information.  Twenty thousand years B.C. a small, plump Venus donned a string skirt to announce her readiness for childbearing and in the mountains of South Central Asia, a Kafir woman wore a distinctive headdress for a few days each month to indicate that she was now a woman.

 Cloth could also be used as a mnemonic device to record events and other data.  Social rank too, has probably always been encoded through symbols in material, design, colour and embellishment of the clothing.  In Ancient Rome the emperor and no other enjoyed the privilege of wearing entirely purple robes.  Hanging up a distinctive textile could be a way of making ordinary space special, even sacred.  In Southern Sumatra a special ritual cloth was placed as a backdrop in important rites of passage ceremonies.  And the vision of Henry VIII and his ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ remains a vivid image in the minds of many British schoolchildren cheering at the British King who was grander and more stylish than his French counterpart.


Thirdly, fabric design has been used to invoke magic – to protect, to secure fertility and riches, to divine the future, perhaps even to curse. Within that magical world, fertility, prosperity and protection were three of the most common objectives.  Images of snakes, frogs and fish (egg layers all) incorporated into woven cloth were thought to bring wealth and fertility to a household in many parts of Europe.


The Slavic Goddess Berehinia – Protectress of women and their fertility displaying birds in her hands

 But Europe had no monopoly on mystical, protective images on cloth and clothing.  In Egypt, Tutankhamon’s tomb was found to contain a wealth of royal cloth, in particular a richly decorated tunic, with a neckhole forming an ‘ankh’ (or sign of long life) with his name embroidered at the centre of the cross and surrounded by the traditional ‘cartouche’ (a protective oval made by a magic rope), and at the bottom of the tunic panels embroidered with an array of real and mythical beasts (thought to be of Syrian workmanship) are all designed to ease his journey into the afterlife.

 More structural approaches to working magic have been devised with folktales telling of magic girdles where the magic seems to be inherent in the weaving, not merely in special decoration.  One possibility was to weave in the spell as number magic; in the Netherlands experts have unearthed cloth where the weaver has chosen red wool warp threads for her work, twenty four spun one direction, and twenty four spun the other way.  Opposite spins catch the light differently and, when placed next to each other, give a striped effect.  She divided the bunch spun one way into three sets of eight, and the other bunch into four sets of six, and alternated them. It can’t be a coincidence that in Holland, Germany and Denmark those numbers were considered particularly sacred.  The scheme is best known from the runic alphabet, which at first consisted of twenty four letters in three sets of eight, and later of thirty two letters in four sets of eight.  It is assumed that number magic began with the introduction of Mithraism into those countries via the Romans; Mithraic religion from the Near East is just packed full of number magic. 

 The Batak tribes of Sumatra generated woven magic another way; in one area the women wove special magical cloths on circular warps, which were never cut because the continuity of the warp cloth across the gap where the wool had not been woven in, was said to ensure the continuity of life from the mother to the child.  The birth of the child was represented by the beginning of the weft at one side of the uncut fringe; drawing the cloth through the hands of the weaver represented the child growing up, and when the other side of the uncut fringe was reached, it represented the beginning of a new generation whose life would repeat that of the mother, and so on ad infinitum.   Biblical students will remember that Jesus’ garment was removed from his body uncut “in accordance with the scriptures”, a possible reference to this custom?

But these magic numbers, symbols, and methods of weaving depended largely on the wearers and viewers buying into the myth of the magic woven into the cloth which they were conditioned to believe.  It was not until the twenty first century that actual magic became available to inventive weavers worldwide.  Conductive fibre or elements; computer circuitry and electronics; laser optics and speakers would mark the next stage for this fabricated messaging. Value Added Fabric can communicate, transform, conduct energy, grow, medicate, play music or identify friend or foe.  It is used for astronaught suits as it can inflate or deflate, be heated or cooled down, be lit up in dark outer space, and can incorporate infra-red digital displays and alarms.

Smart fabrics are set to transform the fashion industry and allow us to download new styles for our clothes rather than buying new garments.  “Micro-robotics, 3D printing and rapid changes in technology are poised to revolutionise fashion,”  says the designer of Lady Gaga’s bubble-blowing dress ‘Anemone’, and ‘Volantis’ her flying dress powered by twelve electric motor-driven rotors.

lady gaga 2

 Electronic conducting textiles have the ability to make music.  One example is the electric gloves that allow people to interact with their computer remotely via hand gestures, beautiful gloves that help the wearer gesturally interact with their computer and technology allows for a performance without having to interact with or physically touch, keyboards or control panels.

 The new generation of weavers will double as medics, technicians, artists, designers, spacemen, nutritionists, image consultants and, of course, scientists.  What will be next?  How much more inventive we can get?  Maybe they will be able to realise what only those imaginative writers of the TV series Star Trek, way back in the sixties, had thought possible; maybe the next big thing is Transportation Suits where we can wear a piece of clothing that will jumble our atoms and ‘beam us up’ to new and unexplored parts of the universe, or even to different time zones?  But what happens when those suits gets hacked or infected with malicious Ransomware?  Back down to earth or lost in time and space?  


String is thought to be the earliest manufactured thread and has been described as the unseen weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the earth.  String can be used for carrying, holding, tying and trapping, securing and decoration.  Textiles underlie the great prints and canvases of Western Art and form a surface to write upon. Paper nowadays is largely made of wood pulp but is still made in the traditional manner with the fibres from plants in specialist paper mills; these fibres are pulped and bleached, washed and dried and then filtered onto a mesh and compressed onto a fine felt. 

 Sophisticated textile production dates to six thousand years B. C., in southern regions of Europe, and four thousand B.C. Egyptian women were weaving linen on horizontal looms.  Archaeologists have unearthed fabric and rope fragments that date as far back as twelve thousand years in the past, making them the oldest known textiles in South America.  In China, where the spinning wheel is thought to have first turned, sophisticated drawlooms had woven designs that used thousands of different warps.  These prehistoric weavers seem to have produced cloths of extraordinary complexity, woven with ornate designs far in excess of the simple need to cover and protect bodies or to provide warmth and comfort for their dwelling places.


The production of ‘homespun’ yarn and cloth was one of the first cottage industries, pin money was women’s earliest source of independent cash and women were selling surplus yarn and cloth, working as small-scale entrepreneurs, long before the emergence of factories or the mechanisms which now define the textile industry.

There were other spin offs from textiles too.  The weaving of complex designs demanded far more than one pair of hands, and textiles production tends to be communal, sociable work allowing plenty of occasion for gossip and chat.  Weaving was already multimedia:  singing, chanting, telling stories, dancing, and playing games whilst they worked; these spinsters, weavers and needlewomen were literally networkers as well, spinning yarns, fabricating fiction and fashioning fashion.  The textures of woven cloth functioned as a means of communication and information storage too, long before anything was written down. 

Weaving is often used to mark or announcer information and a mnemonic device to record events and other data.  Textiles do communicate in terms of the images which appear on the right side of the cloth, but this is only the most superficial sense in which they process and store data.  Because there is no difference between the process of weaving and the woven design.  Cloth persists as records of the process which fed into their production; how many women worked on them, the techniques they used and the skills they employed.  The visible pattern is integral to the process which produced it, the programme and the pattern are continuous. 


The lozenge motif dates as far back as the Neolithic and Paleolithic period and is tied to human fertility and land. The binary male and female principles serve as the basis for deciphering the meaning of this symbol. It consists of two triangles. But in the pre-Ukrainian period, it was believed that the woman held the three corners of the lozenge (the three corners of the home), while the man held the fourth, which completed the integrity of the family. A lozenge with a dot in the middle symbolizes a sown field, which meant abundance and prosperity.  In addition to simple lozenges, we often see rhombuses with hooks (tiny horns) in Ukrainian embroidery. This design is called “zhaba” (frog) and symbolizes fertility. In ancient beliefs, this little creature was linked to heavenly moisture that gives life.

Lozenge-shaped patterns were embroidered on wedding towels and bridal gowns. Pregnant woman wore shirts covered with diamond patterns until childbirth as this symbol served as a powerful talisman.   

As the frantic activities of generations of spinsters and weaving women make clear, nothing stops when a piece of work has been finished off.  Even when magical connections are not explicitly invoked, the finished cloth – unlike the painting or the text, is almost incidental in relation to the process of its production.  The only incentive to cast off seems to be the chance it provides to start again, throw another shuttle and cast another spell. 





The development of computer software is a history strongly represented by women who have played significant rôles in its development. Ada Lovelace is the best known and Grace Hopper is also becoming a legend among the cognoscenti.   Less heralded by history was a group of six women who worked in wartime secrecy at the University of Pennsylvania, where John Mauchly and Presper Eckert led a team that was building ENIAC, the world’s first programmable, all-electronic, general-purpose computer.

 As ENIAC was being constructed at Penn in 1945, it was thought that it would perform a specific set of calculations over and over, such as determining a missile’s trajectory using different variables. But the end of the war meant that the machine was needed for many other types of calculations—sonic waves, weather patterns, and the explosive power of atom bombs—that would require it to be reprogrammed often.

This entailed switching around by hand ENIAC’s rat’s nest of cables and resetting its switches. At first the programming seemed to be a routine, perhaps even menial task, which may have been why it was relegated to women, who back then were not encouraged to become engineers. But what the women of ENIAC soon showed, and the men later came to understand, was that the programming of a computer could be just as significant as the design of its hardware.

The tale of Jean Jennings is illustrative of the early women computer programmers. She was born on a farm on the outskirts of Alanthus Grove, Maryville, into a family that had almost no money but deeply valued education. When Jean finished college in January 1945, her calculus teacher showed her a flier soliciting women mathematicians to work at the University of Pennsylvania, where women were working as “computers”—humans who performed routine maths tasks. 

One of the ads read:

Wanted: Women with Degrees in Mathematics…Women are being offered scientific and engineering jobs where formerly men were preferred. Now is the time to consider your job in science and engineering…You will find that the slogan there as elsewhere is ‘Women Wanted’.

 When Jennings started work at Penn in March 1945 there were approximately seventy other women at Pennsylvania working on desktop adding machines and scribbling numbers on huge sheets of paper.  A few months after she arrived, a memo was circulated among the women advertising six job openings to work on the mysterious machine that was behind locked doors on the first floor of Penn’s Moore School of Engineering, the ENIAC. She had no idea what the job was or what the ENIAC was, all she hoped was that she might be getting in on the ground floor of something new.  She believed in herself and wanted to do something more exciting than calculating trajectories.

When Jean Jennings got that job she was set to work together with Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Snyder, Frances Bilas, and Kay McNulty to figure out how the machine worked and then how to programme it.   They made careful diagrams and charts for each new configuration of cables and switches. What they were doing then was the beginning of a programme, though they did not yet have that word for it.

Around the same time that Grace Hopper was doing so at Harvard, the women of ENIAC were developing the use of subroutines. Because it was being used for atom bomb calculations and other classified tasks, ENIAC was kept secret until February 1946, when the Army and Penn scheduled a gala unveiling for the public and the press.  At the demonstration, ENIAC was able to spew out in 15 seconds a set of missile trajectory calculations that would have taken human computers several weeks. The women had programmed the ENIAC.  The unveiling of ENIAC made the front page of the New York Times under the headline ELECTRONIC COMPUTER FLASHES ANSWERS, MAY SPEED ENGINEERING.

Later Jennings complained, in the tradition of Ada Lovelace, that many of the newspaper reports overstated what ENIAC could do by calling it a giant brain and implying that it could think. The ENIAC wasn’t a brain in any sense, it couldn’t reason, as computers still cannot reason, but it could give people more data to use in reasoning.

That night there was a candlelit dinner at Pennsylvania’s venerable Houston Hall. It was filled with scientific luminaries, military brass, and most of the men who had worked on ENIAC. But Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder  were not there, nor were any of the other women programmers.

Shortly before she died in 2011, Jean Jennings reflected proudly on the fact that all the programmers who created the first general-purpose computer were women. It happened because a lot of women back then had studied maths, and their skills were in demand, she explained. There was also an irony involved, the boys with their toys thought that assembling the hardware was the most important task, and thus a man’s job. If the ENIAC’s administrators had known how crucial programming would be to the functioning of the electronic computer and how complex it would prove to be, they might have been more hesitant about giving such an important role to women.