An Ancient Art Revived

Christine Spangler weaves together tradition and technology


The loom made it easier for her to create vigorous curves
on the abstract landscape “Norwegian Inheritance,”
woven of wool, silk and rayon.

Continuing a tradition that is millennia old, Christine Spangler weaves hand-dyed threads into lyrical patterns and bold abstract designs. No mythic Penelope stationed at her wooden loom and endlessly hand-weaving a funeral shroud as in the Odyssey, Spangler is more likely to be found sitting in front of her Dell laptop designing in Photoshop and other specialized software, or standing and passing the shuttle across the cast-aluminum, state-of-the-art digital floor loom in her Chevy Chase studio.

A storybook spectrum of fiber styles flows from this combination electronic and hand-weaving process. Her collection includes pastel and brilliantly hued scarves with imagery worthy of display, vivid wall hangings and uplifting designs for liturgical commissions.

Throughout her 35-year career, Spangler created works inspired by the folk arts of Norway. These geometrically patterned pieces are perfectly suited to the mechanics of a traditional loom. However, all of that changed a decade ago when she started working on a computerized loom. “The design possibilities using this technology are tremendously greater,” she says. “It gives me far more flexibility and the ability to create free patterns—the part of the process I enjoy most.”

Spangler learned the weaving craft while living in Oslo in the 1970s. Fair-haired, blue-eyed and speaking the local dialect, she was the only non-Norwegian attending the State College for Art Teachers and School of Art and Design.

“It was a time when traditional crafts were widely practiced. Now almost all the textile industry has been lost and with it an appreciation of older knowledge,” she says with a note of nostalgia. Still, the proliferation of new technology has attracted a new generation—at least in the U.S.

According to Rebecca Stevens, consulting curator for contemporary textiles at The Textile Museum in DC, the number of weaving students in this country has doubled over the last 10 years. “They already know how to use the technology, and they love the ability to design with threads—to create a tactile object in our digital world,” she says. “Anything you can do on a computer, you can do on a traditional loom, but it would take so long, it would take you a lifetime to do it.”

Spangler pulled out two recently completed scarves, illustrating her ability to switch colors, patterns or themes with ease. On the first, creamy butterflies flutter across a wavy background of pale rose, soft green and azure blue.

As Spangler explains, “I use the computer because there’s much more freedom to control the entire process. During the design phase, I can zoom in to see the weave structure or zoom out and color code them on a digital map, so I’m sure to have a good distribution of different weave structures throughout the piece.”

She still threads and passes the shuttle across the loom in the time-honored way. But she is assisted in weaving as the electronic loom guides her to achieve the pattern already programmed in. And she no longer needs to calculate the number and order of threads grouped together to form a pattern.

Now each cross thread can be manipulated independently, allowing her to change patterns across an entire piece without stopping. This revolutionary advance eliminates the time-consuming task of completing each little section as the pattern changes in traditional tapestry weaving. The possibilities for pictorial designs or patterns are limited only by the 27-inch width of the loom.

Weaving, despite its antiquity, has a natural compatibility with the computer process. Its basic building block involves crossing one thread over another at right angles, the longitudinal thread called the warp and the weft running across—a unit similar to a pixel. To depict a convincing curve requires placing threads close together to create the impression of a continuous line, in the same way that a digital picture appears more accurate or realistic when pixels are densely packed.

A precursor of modern computers, the Jacquard loom, invented around 1805, was the first machine to use punch cards to control the loom’s action, automating production of woven patterns across the width or length of a fabric. The method Spangler uses is considered Jacquard weaving, but different from that still used in industry. Spangler now spends at least twice as much time designing as weaving, compared to equal time in the past. The ratio reached four to one on a wall hanging she designed two years ago. Called “Norwegian Inheritance,” the abstract landscape of undulating curves and robust textures in wool, silk, rayon and metallic threads required Spangler to work out six different weave structures so that each of six different colors would rise to the surface, one at a time.


Christine Spangler uses a digital loom to expand design
possibilities in her weaving, often influenced by the arts of
Norway. Her hand-dyed threads serve as a color library
with formulas for future reference. A traditional Norwegian
coverlet inspired the symmetrically patterned wall hanging
behind her. Photo by Michael Ventura.

In a different mood, the playful trompe l’oeil “Grandmother’s Norwegian Coverlet” simulates wrinkles and shadows on a wall hanging. As Spangler affirms, “The piece would have taken me several months to weave before. For all practical purposes I wouldn’t have done it without the technology.” Both pieces appeared in an exhibition “Banishing Boundaries—Weaving Digitally,” at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in 2006.

With a parallel career teaching at George Washington University, Mount Vernon College and the Corcoran School of Art, Spangler has passed on the fundamentals of weaving and design that she has learned. “While my textile education was classical and strict,” she concludes, “most of my work has tried to push the boundaries of a given technology, springing from my love of tradition, and the expressive power of color and texture.”

Tina Coplan is a writer based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

RESOURCES: Christine Spangler’s weaving can be found at the Potomac Craftsmen Gallery in the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia. For more information, call (301) 652-1637 or visit www.spanglertextile.com.


Chemical dyes mimic the colors of natural dyes from
a historical coverlet that inspired this vibrant trompe
l’oeil hanging.

Blues and grays shimmer on wool-and-rayon scarves
with complex patterns adapted from Norwegian folk
costumes.
Spangler favors blue-and-white color schemes in
charming variations. To achieve the soft look of her
butterfly scarf, she hand-painted silk threads in
pastel shades before weaving.
This wall hanging is made of two layers of cloth woven
together, a technique originally intended for warmth.
Spangler uses this double weave for design value to
bring black threads from the lower layer to the surface.
This one adapts the colors and weave of rugs by
Navajo weavers at Canyon de Chelly in Arizona.