Last week I toured the studio of an artist who is learning to weave. Woven items she’s already created are strikingly beautiful. Looking at the loom and hearing her talk about struggling to master its use, I realized how much patience and skill this craft demands.
The weavers of England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries came to my mind. The eminent British labor historian E.P. Thompson tells their story in his magisterial study The Making of the English Working Class. The book evokes the world of pre-industrial weaving: household-based, engaging wife, husband, children and extended family in a shared effort, an important and, then as now, demanding craft.
One might call the weavers’ work sacramental, making an outward and visible sign of the invisible bonds of community woven by human effort and divine grace. One would certainly call their work creative. Thompson’s tale, a socio-economic tragedy, recounts how the Industrial Revolution destroyed the weavers’ form of life, uprooting weaving from the household, moving it into factories and compromising its sacramental and creative character.
All around the looms and the weavings in studios like my friend’s, the ghosts of Thompson’s long-gone weavers linger, a kind of communion of saints. Surely they know that the convenience and comfort bequeathed to us by the Industrial Revolution are not going away. Yet their silent witness reminds us of what has been lost. Modern categories, derived from the rigid division of labor introduced by large-scale industry, have purported to restrict sacramentality to the priestly orders and creativity to those of professional poets and artists. This is a kind of blasphemy, an attempt to confine gifts that God has scattered broadly and indiscriminately, like the sower, within the boundaries of narrowly-defined groups. The weavers of two centuries ago, along with their communities, knew better. Perhaps the weaving artists of today can help re-capture their truth.