Weaving: A Universal Language
Growing up I loved science fiction, and one of my absolute favorite television shows was Star Trek: The Next Generation. I loved the idea of a future where not only people travel the stars and have exciting adventures, but also that different species could all easily communicate with one another thanks to the ever so handy universal translator. It was fascinating to think that these characters weren’t really all speaking English to one another; rather, they were both speaking and hearing their own language. Not only that, but given that everything was always written in English, one must logically deduce that the translator works on written language as well, which is also simply marvelous.
As an adult, a universal translator still holds a massive amount of appeal: just the thought of being able to travel the world and have conversations with anyone and everyone sounds absolutely lovely. As the rate of technology seems to get faster every day, I do hold out hope that perhaps one day a universal translator will be science instead of fiction (or perhaps somebody might discover a species like the babel fish, a similar although slightly more stomach-churning version of the universal translator created by the late great Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
I bring all this up because the idea of the universal translator is just one of the many reasons why I love weaving. For weavers, drafts are an international language. I can open up one of the many wonderful Scandinavian weaving books on the market and while I won’t be able to read more than a few words beyond vav and garn, I will have no problem reading and understanding the drafts.
Better yet, because drafts have been the universal language of weavers for generations, I can also read and understand drafts that are hundreds of years old, even if I can’t decipher the old handwriting or read the language. Weaving historical drafts like these is a bit like time travel (yet another reason this science fiction loving girl is fascinated by weaving) as you look back at the sorts of cloth woven by a particular person at a particular time. You can discover structures that were popular and see trends in the types of cloth people wove. It’s amazing to look at an old draft and be able to understand it; it’s even better to weave cloth from that draft.
In the March/April 2015 issue of Handwoven, weaver Jenny Sennott has done just that. She found a wonderful book of drafts from Imperialist Russia and used one of the drafts to weave up a beautiful set of towels. Not only was she dealing with a book written in a foreign language, but also one written in a different alphabet. While Jenny did major in Russian in college and can read the Cyrillic alphabet, let me remind you as a former historian that language and writing changes quite a bit over time, so translating the text even for her would be no easy feat. The drafts, however, are a key to the past that any weaver can understand. There’s a bit more to the story of these lovely towels, but I’ll let Jenny tell that for herself.