Dance of Pattern

By Patricia Bentley, 2005

Textiles speak in a language of patterns, a language that is used by cultures worldwide.

What is a pattern? A pattern is made from an element - a sound, an image or a movement - that is repeated according to a set of rules that govern proportion and juxtaposition. The rules can be basic: “line up six diamonds beside one another,” or they can be more complex, with many twists and turns. The basic pattern, made by a visual motif together with its rules of repetition, is like a melody that can be played in many different ways.

Although a pattern can be made up of representational motifs such as animals, plants and human figures, the textiles you'll see in Dance of Pattern use primarily geometric patterns. It is easy to recognize the subject of a realistic image - a picture of a sword certainly represents a sword - but non-figurative patterns are also rich in meaning. For example, a diagonal stripe pattern on Javanese batik is called parang rusak, meaning “broken sword destroyed,” and it signifies that the wearer (traditionally a member of the Jogyakarta royal court) is a great destroyer of enemies.

Why do humans create so many patterns? We make patterns because we live in a world that is teeming with them: the ways food is grown, rituals are practiced, music is played and buildings are laid out, all follow patterns created over time by generations of people. Every element of the natural world is built on patterned structures, including the cells of our own bodies.

Inspired by patterns in natural phenomena, and guided by ideas specific to their cultures and environments, textile makers combine basic components like stripes, diamonds, checkerboards and centres in a vast array of variations.

stripe is a simple line, the next step up from plain unpatterned cloth; a diamond in loom-woven cloth is formed as lines stair-step diagonally on a grid of threads; a checkerboard is called “on opposites” by some weavers for its light-dark, half this-half that construction; a centre speaks of unity, of a whole made of many parts.

What makes a pattern a pattern? Is something a pattern if it is not absolutely regular and even, and each shape is not an exact replica of the next? Yes! A textile pattern cannot be regular in this exact, isometric way because it is constructed on a stretchy three-dimensional, pliable grid of interlaced threads. Still, surrounded as we are by machine-made cloth, the 21st-century viewer may expect to see patterns with exact repeats, which tend to be smoother and more regular than cloth made by hand. The textiles in Dance of Pattern play with this expectation of “regularity,” appear to meet it, then break the rules to follow their own unique rhythms.

How do patterns dance? This exhibition highlights three ways. First, the hands of the maker mould and shape the cloth, giving it the vitality of an intensely worked, three-dimensional object. Second, the textile's vitality is accentuated when it is worn and the patterns adapt to the shape of the wearer's body. And finally, the patterns come to life as the viewer follows the twists and turns across the surface of the cloth.

Like wheels turning within wheels, geometric textile designs often hold all elements of the four patterns examined in Dance of Pattern: embroidered diamond shapes run along a woven stripe in a Sumatran tapis sarong; pieced diamonds line up in rows on a checkerboard field in an Indian patchwork quilt; one large diamond dominates the centre of a Mexican saltillo sarape. These and other patterns follow the cadence of an ancient, never-ending dance of lines and shapes, transformed in the agile hands of textile makers into vivid patterns to adorn cloth.

Stripes at their simplest are a way of representing numerical relationships, such as the ubiquitous bar code on commercial merchandise. The easiest pattern to produce in woven cloth is the weft stripe: a loom holds one set of threads (the warp) in tension while the weaver interlaces the weft threads, over and under, to make a web of cloth. As the weaver's hand shoots the weft threads, it is a simple matter to change their colour or thickness to make striped patterns.

Stripes in the warp threads require advance planning since they have to be put in place at an early stage when the warp is being made. A thick diagonal stripe is even harder to make; it can only be woven on a Jacquard loom, where every warp thread is individually controlled by a mechanical device - otherwise every interlacement must be done painstakingly by hand.

A cloth patterned with diagonal stripes seems to have more dynamic movement than one with straight stripes. Of course, there is a way to turn straight stripes into diagonal stripes - simply wrap the cloth around a wearer.

People living in the Andean regions of South America are masters of textile concepts and technologies. Some of their cloth has survived more than 2,000 years in mummy bundles preserved by the dry desert conditions on Peru's coast. Throughout long periods of textile making, cultures in the region developed vocabularies of symbols, often abstract or geometric in design, which expressed their beliefs and their ways of life. Foremost among these is a repeating pattern composed of two elements intertwining, often within straight or diagonal stripes. These elements can resemble the bodies of snakes, the faces of creatures, or the ropes in cord constructions - a two-dimensional depiction of two strands of yarn twisting around each other. This pattern also symbolizes the innate duality of existence, that everything must have its mate.

Checkerboards, checks and plaids look like tile patterns, but the checkerboard pattern is as natural to textile patterning as it is to ceramic mosaics. It is known as “on opposites” by weavers because it is a representation of the half-up, half-down construction of woven cloth and is an intrinsic balance of two opposing elements. Sometimes it is difficult to determine which of the two elements is the foreground and which is the background - either could serve, depending on how you look at it - and this figure/ground ambiguity can give a checkerboard pattern the character of an optical illusion. If one of the two elements begins to dominate in size or in placement, the checkered effect is lost.

Perhaps it is because of this balance that the checkerboard pattern is symbolic. In much of Indonesia, the checkerboard pattern represents the battle between good and evil, black magic and white magic. It is worn by warriors and guardians, and by Bima - the warrior hero of the Wayang puppets - to commemorate his mystical initiation at the bottom of the sea according to the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata.

Diamonds are easy to form on woven cloth because each of the diamond's four edges stair-steps up and down the underlying right-angled grid of interwoven threads. A weaver can create allover patterns of fine diagonal lines to make zigzags, and zigzags facing each other form diamond patterns. In tapestry weaving, diamonds make structural sense because their diagonals do not form long, open vertical slits in the textile's surface, which would weaken the cloth if square blocks of colour were placed next to each another.

The jewel-like diamond shape holds symbolic meaning for many cultures and religions. Both Hinduism and Buddhism envision the universe diagrammatically as mandalas (graphic symbols of the universe) and other maps of the cosmos, which are composed of diamonds within squares, within circles. When Islam superseded the older religions in Indonesia in the late 15th century, it brought to the islands the practice of abstract representation of living beings, adding to an already well-developed vocabulary of geometric symbols for flowers and other natural forms. On silk ikat patola cloths, made in India and treasured as sacred heirlooms in Sumatra and Borneo, the diamond star pattern symbolizes the four compass points of the heavens, with each point guarded (according to Hindu myth) by demon kings.

Centres of textiles can hold powerful, focal designs that suggest mandalas and other symbols of what the poet T. S. Eliot called “a still point in a turning world.” According to Buddhist thought, a mandala is a picture, frozen in space, of a universe that is perpetually whirling.

The reason for placing a dominant centre in a textile design varies. The centre may simply be “unpatterned” because it is hidden from view when the textile is wrapped, as with an Indonesian headdress. A central diamond may frame and flatter the wearer's head and shoulders, as with a Mexican sarape, which fits over the head through a slit in the middle.

A central medallion, or set of medallions, can symbolize a philosophic or religious centre, as with Islamic carpets and textiles, where a central field protected by borders often symbolizes an idealized garden. Textile makers who work with concepts of central designs almost always complete their designs with borders, as if the centre needs to be guarded. This centre-boundary concept is perhaps linked to a sense of the body as separated into inside- and outside-spheres and, by extension, contained in buildings and protected by communities. On an abstract level, the centre is the imagined centre of the world that focuses and unites the community.


“Floating just beyond the reach of hearing, the complex patterns come to us in snatches, tantalizingly regular, yet with variations and overlays that syncopate the rhythm.”
- Mary Frame, Andean textile specialist

“Pattern making is the basic activity of intelligent existence. Arranging lines and colours to please the eye, sounds to please the ear and concepts to please the mind are all essentially the same process.”
- Richard Foster, art historian

“People, all people, spend 50 per cent of their time inventing rules to retrieve their souls from chaos and the other 50 per cent to artfully inventing end runs around those very rules in an effort to escape the tedium of routine.”
- Peter Roe, anthropologist

“The mathematician's patterns, like those of the painter's or the poet's, must be beautiful. The ideas, like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way.”
- Godfrey Harold Hardy, mathematician

“Analogous to musical notation, the language of textile communicates most profoundly in abstract, non-objective form.”
- Warren Seelig, artist

“With every increase of the spirit's heat there needs to be a corresponding increase in the soul's capacity to contain it within its inner sacral space. This space, this colorful and intricate carpet of the soul, is the vessel of the anima - nurturer, weaver, reflector.”
- James Hillman, psychologist

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada