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The Last of the Silk Weavers

Reader, Aug 8

This article was written by Languedoc Living reader Claudia MK Leon.

The story of the Syrian Loom in France

Walking through the historical Old Town of Pézenas last May, we noticed a very smart silk shirt on display in an open window of a shop at the corner of Rue du Château and Rue Alfred Sabatier. We had just arrived in town and this was our first promenade to discover, not so much luxury clothing, as the incredible wealth of architecture Pézenas has to offer. We didn't linger, but decided to come back another day to check on the shirt's potential.

Which we did a few days later, this I time entered the boutique. I was immediately entranced with a mechanical device, oddly composed of rather intricately arranged parts, mixed with remnants of wood, iron cogs and endless lines of knotted string. The contraption was crowned by something resembling a 19th century typewriter, devouring over sized computer punch cards. This tall loom towered over racks and shelves filled with colourful silk and cashmere merchandise, some indubitably created on a loom just like this one.

The dimensions of the loom were quite impressive, but the arrangement of heddle cords and their three dimensional pattern was the most intriguing part of the machine. My previous experience with weavings is limited to the kind of free-standing vertical looms, Navajo women use. Their looms have a single layer of warp, stretched between the bottom and top loom bars within a simple frame. Those looms are easily disassembled and thus perfectly suited to the more nomadic life of the Navajo People, especially in earlier days.

The loom I saw here, could only be moved with great difficulty, that was immediately apparent. There were hundreds of warp threads, each one separately attached to a heddle, the device, which moves the warp in ways that allow the weft, the cross thread, to form a specific pattern in the finished cloth.

The key part of a loom with this many warps is the Jacquard Head, the punch-hole-cards instructional weaving guide. The pattern of holes in the punch cards determines the texture and pattern of the finished cloth.

In the top section of the loom, just beneath the Jacquard Head, hooks are arranged in a harness. The heddles, which guide the warp threads, are tied to these hooks. The chain of punch hole cards with its specific pattern of holes determines, which hooks lift which heddles, so that the weft thread passes either on top or beneath selected warp threads.

It is rather time consuming and difficult to thread a Jacquard loom, as you can imagine. Each warp end has to be hand threaded through an individual heddle eye. The heddles in turn have to be connected to the hooks in their harnesses in a specific order, which has to correspond to the chain of punch hole cards in the Jacquard mechanism. No quick assembly of this loom!

And how are the weft threads drawn through the warp? These days, there are many different ways to speed up industrial weaving processes. The traditional way of 'shuttling' the weft thread back and forth between the warp threads by hand, is only used for the finest of fabrics. As one of the last damask weavers in the Syrian tradition showed us.

Monsieur Kinan Tafesh, the manager of this heaven of silky clouds, the "Carrefour de la Soie", Silken Crossroads, gave us a brief demonstration of silk weaving on his tall loom. M. Tafesh had newly arrived from Damascus only three weeks before our visit. He is very proud of the long history of silk weaving in Syria and he was happy to give us an overview of the weaving tradition in his homeland.

Kinan worked very fast. Rather, he was shooting the shuttles back and forth between the warp threads with lightning speed. It was fascinating to watch him work his craft!

Since our visit with Kenan in his beautiful shop in Pézenas, I've learned more about silk weaving and its Middle Eastern roots. Sadly, our contemporary culture, in the West as well as in the traditional Eastern weaving centres, has little use for laboriously crafted treasures. Silk weaving is one more skill, one more craft expressing our spiritual yearning for beauty, which appears to be doomed to extinction.

This seems to be especially true for the weaving tradition in Syria itself, according to this 2009 video clip of M. Tafesh in Damascus, which I found on YouTube. 

I sincerely hope, young Anas was able to fulfill his dream of becoming a weaver.


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