Objects straddle the study of both high art and the mundane everyday object—the ornate textile as well as the relatively unadorned loom. My forthcoming exhibit on Balinese textiles, scheduled to open in February 2018, takes an anthropological approach to the loom and its products as efficacious means of socio-cultural and material fabrication wherein both cloth and people are “made” through lifecycle rituals such as birth, toothfiling and cremation ceremonies. As part of the research building up to the exhibit I taught a course at Bard Graduate Center (BGC) in Spring 2017 titled “Fabricating Power in 20th century Balinese Textiles” where students carried out preliminary research on Southeast Asian looms. How this project has served as a prompt for pedagogical and technical innovation forms the subject of this essay.

Ethnographic collections such as those in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) contain many twentieth-century looms from Southeast Asia, and the Bard Graduate Center Study Collection also has a loom from the Philippines.1 These objects became important resources in introducing students to loom technology as well as understanding the ways in which textiles are made integral to a society.

Looms have played their part not only in producing fabric but also in shaping perceptions of people. Images of Indonesian weavers making beautiful cloths on handlooms were a staple of early twentieth century Dutch tourism, promising an experience of a slower pace of life as an antidote to an overly mechanized West. Today, in the highland village of Tenganan Pegeringsingan in Bali, Indonesia, weavers sell magical double-ikat geringsing to western tourists even as similar cloths are used by Balinese for protection in lifecycle rituals such as toothfilings. The circular, continuous warp looms on which these cloths are woven are displayed strategically in the houses of weavers, essential both in producing these cloths as well as authenticating their value.

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Figure 2 This Balinese youth is protected by a geringsing cloth during a toothfiling ritual. Ubud, Bali, 2016. Photo by Urmila Mohan.

Looms were passed from mother to daughter in Indonesia and the gendered nature of the activity meant that women were embodied by their wooden sword-shaped “beaters”, used to push the weft yarn in place. 2 The use of continuous warps became embedded in local belief systems in Southeast Asian cultures where it is believed that power is physically contained in the textile. In Bali, for instance, the cutting of the warp may be a significant act and when cloth is used as a deity offering the loom is dismantled to remove the textile as a whole thus retaining its power.3 Hence, studying loom technology (and not just the products of looms) may indicate how people think and what they value. Claude Lévi-Strauss’ famous analysis of the role of totemic animals in mythical thinking describes them as entities that are “good to think (with)”.4 Lévi-Strauss invoked the physical and symbolic value of myth, where a peoples’ structure of the world was situated in the patterns of stories and relationships. One could replace animals with objects to describe how a loom in the BGC Study Collection became an entry point into the relationship between classroom project, study collection and the development of support resources.

Combined with Marcel Mauss’ emphasis on bodily techniques5 one might further amend Lévi-Strauss’ statement to say that looms are good to think through techniques. Our focus here is on one particular type of loom—the body tension or backstrap loom—illustrating the centrality of the weaver’s body in providing the all-important tensioned warp, and manipulating the warp to create a shed through which to pass the bobbin. The assignment was to compare two backstrap looms (one in the BGC Study Collection and one in the AMNH) as examples of Southeast Asian weaving technology with common features such as a circular warp.6

Information on the Filipino loom was sparse. In the one instance when it had been previously studied at BGC the context was different. That project had been about curating an exhibit from the Study Collection as well as a selection of objects loaned by the curators at the Chipstone Foundation. Its aim had been to interrogate curatorial issues of visibility and value and showcase different forms of learning as well as the preconceived notions brought to bear upon curatorial work.7 The loom was displayed in a recreation of a curator’s office, represented as if the curator was in the process of making decisions about objects. As a “durable textile,” the loom was an object that was visually interesting and could be displayed unconventionally, i.e., hung vertically to get attention. Hanging it next to an object placed in a vitrine made it part of a dialogue on the nature of display, and this mode of presentation was considered to give it an approximation of the physical form and tension it would have had while in use.8

In some ways, the students in my course were presented with a related problem of how to understand a loom. The Spring 2017 course was oriented towards my Focus Gallery exhibit and in order to help with the research for the exhibit the students started from the premise that looms were often seen as visually-pleasing, static objects. In the absence of direct contact with the weaver, if looms had to be studied for what they could do, i.e., their efficacy in transforming fiber and yarn into fabric, then how could a classroom exercise contribute to this process?

The students came from different educational backgrounds (design, conservation, art history). In this sense, the project was highly experimental and depended on the skills of these specific students—in a different group the project may have become something else. By working from the sheer material evidence of the loom (and aided by publications and the advice of experts) they were to try and place themselves in the position of the weaver, imagine the decisions that she made as she performed certain actions, as well as how those gestures may have appeared to an external observer. Within the limits of a museum study and assisted by museum staff as well as a fabric structure specialist,9 the students were asked to use an embodied, processual approach to the backstrap loom. They had previously read some works on the anthropology of making but were here being asked to literally put themselves in the mindset of a weaver—not an easy task by any means.10

Chantal Stein takes fiber samples with help from Barb Elam. BGC Study Collection, January 2017. Photo by Urmila Mohan.

Figure 4 Pallavi Patke conducts fiber counts on an Indonesian loom. AMNH Collections, February 2017. Photo by Urmila Mohan, used courtesy of the AMNH.

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The three students (two of whom had never used a loom before) took on the challenge of studying the design of the looms in BGC and AMNH from different perspectives. The latter contained a unique continuous warp, banana fiber (koffo or musa) loom cloth from Sangir and Talaud, Indonesia,11 bearing a striking supplementary weft pattern, provided with string heddles and numerous pattern rods. Students used their specific interests to guide their study and authored essays on the parts of the loom, the kind of actions that could be performed, and design development, 12 and worked from supplementary evidence such as wooden models of weaving figures in the AMNH, photographs of weavers from the KITLV digital library, Tropenmuseum, and Margaret Mead Papers, Library of Congress.13 Tests conducted by a student of conservation at the IFA lab showed that the fiber of the BGC Filipino loom cloth was cotton dyed with a blue dye.14 Further study helped confirm the origin of the BGC loom (Hanunoo-speaking tribe from Mindoro, Philippines), the purpose of the loom cloth (ramit or woman’s skirt cloth), and the manner in which the warp-faced patterning 15 was created.

To go back to the idea of thinking with looms, how could this process and the information gained be used in a preliminary sketch of worlds of origin and access? The students were not just collecting bits of data but had to frame their research findings in a paradigm that combined insights from anthropology, leading to reflections on other disciplines. Placing oneself in the role of the weaver helped expand the idea of “aesthetics” beyond the visual to include the properties of materials as well as their experiential qualities. As one student noted after studying fabric structures, “Looms can be re-animated and brought to the present through reverse-engineering of patterns, in a way defying the notion of history as a concept representing the past.”16 From a techno-cultural perspective the idea that was reinforced was that weaving across these insular cultures of Indonesia and Philippines were similar in their mechanics but different in their patterns and materials. Due to limited time, the culture of the Hanunoo loom could not be explored, but knowledge of Indonesian looms suggested that a circular warp could have ritualized uses.

Another student approached the loom in a different manner. In this case she highlighted how objects moved between western museums in response to changing political mandates by using AMNH archives to study the acquisition history of the Indonesian loom from a Dutch museum. She used different sources such as wooden weaving figures commissioned by Margaret Mead in the 1930s and photographs of weavers taken during the era of the Netherlands East Indies. These two sources—models and colonial photos—when compared with contemporary photographs, were evidence of continuity as well as how “tourist memorabilia” could serve as important didactic tools. Further, the student was able to include her physical interaction with the study loom as evidence, noting how “the weight and tactile aspects of the object become apparent” on direct handling as well as how the weaver would have needed upper body strength, coordination, and flexibility in order to successfully use the loom.17Through this project the student would, hopefully, have gained conceptual skills that could be used not just to study looms but other types of fabrication.

The third student engaged with the comparative study of looms not only by conducting a fiber test on the BGC loom but also by observing how she, as a conservator, had been socialized into a certain way of interacting with museum objects. Recognizing alterity was as much about who had access to the loom and in what manner, as it was about acquiring empathy with the weaver. Her critique also helped draw attention to how objects-in-process offered categorizing challenges. The AMNH loom and loom cloth from Indonesia, for instance, were collectively classified in the museum’s database as “equipment”.

These three levels of students’ analyses when seen together covered the loom from thing to representation, first working within the framework of loom technology, then relying on secondary forms of evidence to associate the objects with a provenance, and finally reflecting on the way these objects are fitted into western collections and culture. Researching a Study Collection object enabled handling as well as testing, and future tests could be conducted on the types of wood and dye used. Once the preliminary study was completed the final issue was how to embed the information acquired in the BGC Study Collection.

Fortuitously, Barb Elam, Associate Director of Visual Media Resources and Study Collection Librarian, was in charge of the BGC objects. When asked how the loom influenced changes in the Study Collection archival system she explained, “As the Bali course began to evolve and new research findings on the loom were sent to me, I needed to find a way to store and retrieve more information than what our in-house visual resources collections database was set up to handle. Photo documentation related to the Bali course (an AMNH fieldtrip, a workshop, etc.) was published in Artstor’s “Shared Shelf” but study results and conclusive data were harder to archive.” 18 Existing policies also shaped the way resources were developed. According to Elam, VMR practice had been to “withhold anything beyond ‘tombstone’ information in published Shared Shelf records” and she was prompted to store the new loom information on IRIS—a relational database and image cataloging tool she has customized over time to manage object collections. Documented at the time of writing, preliminary screenshots indicated how new data fields made room for what Elam termed, “‘multiple voices’ of professors, students, outside scholars, etc.” In addition, the Filipino loom had special requirements that anticipated further development including “an established vocabulary for costumes and textiles, especially non-western terminology and non-English terms.” For example, Elam stated, “In cataloguing the loom, the term ramit—the woman’s short skirt that was being woven on the loom—is not in AAT (the Art & Architecture Thesaurus), the authority used for most of our terms.”

Figure 6 Screenshot of IRIS notes featuring entries for conservation information, multiple voices, and object information.

Figure 7 Photos of BGC loom and associated fiber tests on Artstor’s Shared Shelf. May 2017.

As stated initially, a working loom has cosmological significance in certain Indonesian cultures with textiles being attributed with “magical” powers. By contrast, a loom in a museum or collection is the antithesis of one in use and has no such generative power. As a non-working machine that had been extracted from its culture of origin, the museumized loom is physically and temporally frozen and animation is only possible through acts of revitalizing study. Against this backdrop, BGC’s loom proved to be very amenable to hands-on research. The investigation that my students conducted had an impact that went beyond writing essays, also feeding into cataloging and archiving developments. In turn, this may well lead to future innovations both in the virtual recording of data as well as the physical storage and conservation of similar study objects. My analysis of this project from museum study to archival storage is a small interlude in the growth of the Study Collection but serves to illustrate that an object may become a pedagogical and technical prompt when educational and support resources are simultaneously developed. Indeed, if there was one concept that was actualized via this project, it was that looms were good for faculty, staff and students to think with!

Urmila Mohan, BGC/AMNH Postdoctoral Fellow in Museum Anthropology


Gell, Alfred. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Hauser-Schäublin, Brigitta, Marie-Louise Nabholtz-Kartaschoff and Urs Ramseyer, eds. Balinese Textiles. Singapore: Periplus Editions, 1991.

Ingold, Tim. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Totemism, translated by Rodney Needham. London: Merlin Press, 1964.

Mauss, Marcel. “Techniques of the Body.” In Techniques, Technology, and Civilization, ed. Nathan Schlanger. New York, NY: Durkheim Press, 2006 [1935]), 77–95.

1.This loom (no. 253182) was donated by Pat Kirkham, Emeritus Professor of Design History, Bard Graduate Center.

2.When generational continuity was lost in Bali, weaving knowledge and practice often ended and the loom and weaving tools were discarded. While ornately-carved wooden harnesses may have been saved for sale to an art dealer or collector, the weaving “machines” themselves were more likely to become scrap wood.

3.Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, Marie-Louise Nabholtz-Kartaschoff and Urs Ramseyer, eds, Balinese Textiles (Singapore: Periplus Editions, 1991), 63.

4.Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962) and Claude Lévi-Strauss, Totemism, translated by Rodney Needham. (London: Merlin Press, 1964). In the latter Lévi-Strauss discusses the various anthropological theories used to explain the widespread phenomenon of totemism. His conclusion is that specific animals are chosen as totems for particular clans not because they form an important part of that clan’s diet (“bonnes à manger”) but because of their metaphorical potential (“bonnes à penser” or good to think).

5.Marcel Mauss, “Techniques of the Body,” in Techniques, Technology, and Civilization, ed. Nathan Schlanger (New York, NY: Durkheim Press, 2006 [1935]), 77–95.

6.The idea of comparing these two looms came from observing the students’ varied responses to the BGC loom and, subsequently, I amended the assignment to focus on loom technology.

7.The course was “Curatorial Practice as Experiment: A Chipstone Foundation-Bard Graduate Center Collaboration” co-taught by Catherine Whalen and Sarah Anne Carter. The exhibit that resulted was titled “Introspective: Contemplations on Curating” that ran from late April to early September in 2016. Co-curators included Clara Boesch, Anne Carlisle, Maggie Frick, Cindy Kok, Caroline O’Connell, Alyssa Velazquez, and Angelik Vizcarrondo-Laboy.

8.Looking back at this project, the visual aspects of the loom may be deemed to have become more important than understanding the loom’s mechanics but it should be noted that an accurate didactic display was not the students’ curatorial goal. I am grateful to Alyssa Velazquez and Anne Carlisle, MA students, Bard Graduate Center, for allowing me to interview them and incorporate some of their observations. For more information on the project, visit http://chip.commons.bgc.bard.edu

9.We are grateful for the assistance of Milton Sonday, Former Curator of Textiles, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, as well as Mary Lou Murillo, Senior Scientific Assistant for Textiles, Division of Anthropology, AMNH, and Katherine Skaggs, Senior Scientific Assistant, Asian Ethnology, AMNH.

10.The readings were by Alfred Gell on technological enchantment, Marcel Mauss on bodily techniques of weaving, and Tim Ingold on the philosophy of making.

11.“Loom with Unfinished Textile”, AMNH Catalog No. 70.2/ 1249.

12.Patke, Pallavi. Designing on Indonesian Backstrap Looms: A Comparative Study. Spring 2017.

13.Adams, Daisy. The Machine Behind the Magic: Backstrap Looms of the Pacific Islands. Spring 2017.

14.Stein, Chantal. Studying Filipino Looms: A Comparison of Approaches. Spring 2017. Stein was able to sample the fibers from the BGC loom and identified them at the lab at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University lab using polarized light microscopy where the results indicated cotton. We thank the IFA for their assistance in this student exercise. Similar facilities will be available soon via BGC and its upcoming courses on conservation.

15.Patke notes that the BGC loom cloth pattern is a symmetrical mirror repeat in both horizontal and vertical directions. The cloth has a plain weave construction interspersed with parallel equidistant white warp floats in alternation with blue warp threads. A string heddle would have been used to separate sets of warps as per their lifting order and color sequence, while passing each row of weft yarns.

16.Patke, Designing on Indonesian Backstrap Looms.

17.Adams, The Machine Behind the Magic.

18.Personal communication with Barb Elam, 26 April 2017.