On Basket Weaving

Tim Ingold, in an essay “On Weaving a Basket” suggests that all making be thought of as a kind of weaving. He bases this on observing the way that basket-weaving proceeds very differently to something like making a clay pot. Making a clay pot apparently involves the application of form to a material matrix. The clay is at first shapeless, and more-or-less homogenous. The potter then shapes the clay, as if applying a pattern. The concepts of form and matter that derive from this model of making were particularly influential amongst ancient Greek philosophers, for whom sculpture was the archetypal art. We inherit these concepts of form and matter from this quite specific idea of a specific kind of making.

Ingold, however, asks us to pay attention to a different kind of making. Baskets are made of long flexible sticks, and are far less easy to shape. The weaver begins with a spiral, or a number of interlocking spirals, and the basket slowly develops in her hands. The idea of a form applied doesn’t fit well with this scenario, and Ingold suggests that what it resembles more than anything else is something growing. At any point in the basket’s production, the weaver doesn’t have anything like a free hand. The next move is not completely predetermined, but it’s highly constrained—by the nature of the material, and the structural necessity of the over-under movement. With skill, the shape of the basket can be manouevred through adjusting the tension of the strands, and by inserting or ending strands. The basket arrives as a highly formed object—there is no question of the basket having made itself, or happening accidentally—but the role of the basket-weaver is not that of the ancient Greek sculptor.

Ingold claims that to understand making properly, we need to dispense with the picture of making as form-application, and see making in general as having the character of weaving: as a process that unfolds, in which all the previous states of the thing being made exert constraints and pressures on it’s current and future states. The maker’s action is managing an unfolding growth, rather than reifying a pre-existing idea of form.

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