Weaving as Narrative

Toby Smith recounts how sometimes weaving is more than just the sum of warp and weft; it can be used to tell a story.

Toby Smith Aug 11, 2021 - 8 min read

Weaving as Narrative Primary Image

Toby’s former house and the inspiration for her tartan design. Photos by Toby Smith unless otherwise noted

It is not the tea towel that sustains my interest in weaving; it is the very subject of weaving itself that attracts me. Weaving is thousands of years old. It is older than we know because its presence is fugitive. Archaeologists often only know weaving was present in a culture because of the impressions of cloth left behind on fragments of clay. These impressions are like a dispatch from the past. In this way, we can think of handwoven cloth as a form of voice, as a medium with which we can communicate the stories of our lives.

Weavers have a huge design vocabulary with which to express ourselves: color, weave structure, and fiber. As with many other artists, we compose our work on a flat plane. We use lines to divide the space and create shapes. We can make these equal or varied, which in turn creates rhythms and suggestions of deeper meaning. A sharp zigzag twill line or a blooming-leaf overshot with its radiating lines can be visually disturbing. More grid-like overshot patterns or basketweaves are less rattling; such designs convey stability and predictability.

Color is a major component of our vocabulary. Many have studied the effects of color on people. One educational psychologist claims that the wrong color in a room could significantly lower the IQs of children. Personally, I would take that with a grain of salt.

Consider fiber. It can be inhospitably scratchy or seductively soft. It can be luridly shiny (they don’t call it Lurex for nothing) or it can be almost powdery in its matte appearance. Wool, cashmere, silk, polyester, cotton, linen—they all have their own social, cultural, and economic considerations. Thus, fiber itself can carry meaning. If someone were to gift you pajamas made from the roughest wool, you might wonder what was being communicated.

History is full of examples of cloth that conveys meaning. One of the most iconic is the Scottish tartan. Wearing a tartan is a sign of belonging. It signals membership in a group whose members have a common identity. In addition, the old Scottish tartans have stories to tell. There are many resources for those of Scottish descent to trace their names back to ancestral lands and the tumultuous history of a people. The tartan is a canvas upon which those legends are recorded, illustrating the narrative accomplishments of this cloth.


The 3920 Tartan, designed and woven by Toby Smith.

Take the MacLeods, for example. There are 26 different MacLeod patterns in the Scottish Register of Tartans, and there are probably as many versions of the clan history. The clan’s motto is “Hold fast,” which apparently they did; the seat of the MacLeod clan, Dunvegan Castle, is the only Scottish castle that has been continuously inhabited by the same family for 800 years, in spite of a history of economic ups and downs, internecine rivalries, battles, murders, and immigrations that date back to the Vikings. The old tartans are about belonging to a geographical area, a place as well as a clan.

The tartan is a story cloth that continues to resonate today, with new tartans constantly being designed. Tartans are so popular as a banner of belonging that there are tartans for everyone: bush pilots, prison guards, sewing machine companies, cattle shows, the Albuquerque Police Department, gardeners, Russians, the Arctic, and not to be outdone, the Antarctic. Consider the Jewish tartan. While applying the tradition of the tartan to signal belonging to a social group, the Jewish tartan also carries spiritual elements of Judaism through its use of color and numbers of lines. As it includes blue and white from the Israeli flag, it also refers to a geographical area, albeit a very long way from the Highlands of Scotland.

Humans are social beings. We seek a group identity, a unit to which we belong. The tartan is a powerful and reassuring symbol, distinguishing the “Insider” from the “Outsider.” It is an excellent example of weaving as narrative. These narratives may be largely imagined, as stressed by those who research traditional clan tartans. But we live our lives by the stories we believe, be they clan history, belief in a spirit world, or political commitment to an ideology. We live by stories. Weaving is just another way of telling them.

I’m moving. I am leaving my home of 47 years. I have a huge garden, a quirky 90-year-old house, and a great water view. As a way of taking my garden and all the memories of home with me when I move, I have made a tartan lap blanket. A blanket signifies security and protection, coziness and hominess. I chose a tartan for my design because I want to evoke the tartan’s ability to signal a sense of belonging to a place, as well as its power to tell stories. I call my design “The 3920 Tartan,” after my home’s address. True, my tenure here does not date back to the Vikings, but I’ve gathered a lot of stories of home in 47 years. My choice of structure is a straight 2/2 twill, as this is traditional for both blankets and tartans. Its two-end float also minimizes color blending, presenting clear blocks of color.


An illustration of just one of the MacLeod tartans from The Scottish Tartans, With Historical Sketches of the Clans and Families of Scotland. Photo courtesy of the Internet Archive

As with most modern tartans, the colors in my tartan do most of the storytelling work. All the colors in my blanket were dyed from plant types that I have grown in my garden at one time or another over the last 47 years. Yellow dye comes from marigolds, dahlias, coreopsis tinctoria, and onion skins. It represents all the flowers in my garden, yellow or not. Orange, from madder, tells stories about vegetable gardening—like the time I grew giant cabbages the size of a beach ball. Way, way too much cabbage. Or the time the snow piled up on the blueberry cage, which caved in and crushed all the large blueberry plants flat to the ground. Then in the spring, bit by bit, they picked themselves up and produced a great crop. Green symbolizes nature. It celebrates all the animals that have visited our yard: deer, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, bobcats, and bears. Green also represents the large trees and flowering shrubs and vines that cover the yard. Blue represents 47 years of stories about the inlet that flows in front of us. The water brings ships from all over the world. One day this past summer, in a gesture of farewell from the inlet, a pod of whales flowed with legendary grace through the water, right outside my front window.

There are many examples of handwoven cloths that convey messages. The messages can be big stories of history or small vignettes of memory. So take your weaver’s vocabulary of design, color, structure, and fiber and go weave yourself a story.