Textiles used to be created by hand, in an intimate physical relationship between fabric and weaver. But now, our textiles are programmed by computer, woven by machines. How do we reclaim the artist’s physical relationship with textiles in the age of the industrial loom? And in the process can we learn to automate some of the distinct and wonderful qualities of handmade textiles?
American textile designer Jessica Smarsch thinks she has the answer. A RISD graduate recently graduated from the masters program at Design Academy Eindhoven, she has figured out a way to create “handmade” textiles on an industrial loom. How? By recording the muscle movements of a person, and then incorporating their unique rhythms into the finished fabric.
One thing that makes handmade textiles so much more interesting that machine-made textiles is their variability. Even in a simple pattern, a weaver’s mental state becomes recorded in the textile, almost like a phonograph scratching a recording of a person’s voice into hot wax. If someone is listening to music, or someone is thinking of something sad, their muscles move differently, all of which is recorded in the fabric. You might not know how to read it, but it’s there. The result is that even with the same pattern, every handmade textile looks and feels unique.
For Constructing Connectivity, Smarsch set out to translate a designer’s emotional state, as recorded through the varying ways in which they move their muscles, to a mechanically woven textile. So in her system, a “weaver” wears an armband that measures the electrical pulses coursing through their arm as they “weave” in the air with a nunchaku-like device. The nunchucks are mostly just a prop, but they influence the way your body moves, and consequently, the data Smarsch’s sensors record.
Weave is in quotes because they don’t actually need to be weaving: your body movements could be recorded as part of a workout, for example. These unique muscle movements movements are then automatically adapted to a textile pattern, which is woven on a machine-controlled industrial loom. At first, it looks identical to any other textile printed from the same pattern, but after the fabric is washed and dried, the weaving patterns activate, taking on a unique texture.
According to Smarsch, her project was inspired by the perceived soullessness of mass-produced textiles. “Right now, the individual is not welcome to engage in the industrial textile system,” she tells me. “It is a system regulated by efficiency and mass production.” The goal of Constructing Connectivity is to figure out a way to insert humanity back into what should be the most human of industries: the clothing we wear, and the fabrics we press up against our skin.
Editor’s Note: Since it was published, this article has been corrected to clarify the role of the nunchucks in the headline, and also to correct an error about Smarsch’s education.