An Interesting Minimalist Piece

I sometimes find “minimalist” pieces attractive.  This might be seen as my reaction to the rug world mantra of “color, color, color,” but I liked such things before I collected rugs.  So I think my eye is taken by some minimalist rugs and textiles because I find such pieces intrinsically attractive.  Mind you, I have not given up color, but I can often find other qualities very appealing.

Here are few pieces I own of this type.  The image below is of a Navajo blanket, probably about 1910.  If you treat “post” attributions seriously, this piece seems most likely in the style of either Crystal or Ganado, despite not exhibiting any red.

A restricted use of color is countered, interestingly, by not alternating the color of the devices every other vertical row as might be expected.

The piece above is an African raffia tube skirt from the Ivory Coast.  There is some color beyond the black, grey, white palette of the Navajo piece, but what strikes you, facing this piece, is its dramatic texturing.

The third piece is a macrame belt I made in the 1970s.

This belt is made of No. 10 white, cotton seine line and is done entirely in square knot and double half hitch.  Again, all texture.

The piece below is a child’s coir-fiber, rain cape knotted and worn by Miao minorities in southwest China.

This piece is knotted symmetrically, but is, even more, a piece that projects texture.

Early this year, I encountered and bought another piece in the minimalist vein.

This piece is best described with a very old-fashioned word.  It is, probably a “doily,” of some sort.  A “doily” is a small mat usually placed under a dish for protection of a table surface.  Traditionally, they were made of lace or even of paper.  I’m 72, and they were still visible in homes as I was growing up.  Although the need to protect surfaces from dishes still exists, one does not hear the term “doily” much anymore. The dealer from whom I bought this one thought that it had been made by an Amish woman about 1920 in Lancaster County, in southeast Pennsylvania.  It is more substantial than those made of lace or paper.

The mininalist nature of this textile extends beyond its color and design to include its structure and the way in which it was made.  There is no weaving at all, but it has firmer knots than you can find on any pile rug.  A couple of closer images will let you see some of this.

Here is a look at a back corner.

Mostly tan, but also some red, fibers were laid out at right angles to form a grid.  Then white cotton cord was used to tie each juncture firmly.  A firm knot, capable of being tied with a single end, is tied at each point at which vertical fibers cross horizontal ones.  The cotton tying cord then continues on to the next juncture, where it is tied again, etc.  This tying is done in concentric squares.

When all the junctures have been tied with the white cotton cord, the outside ends all around are cut (it was not clear, at this point in my considerations, when this cutting occured) and become a surrounding fringe.

Now the piece is turned over and “buttons” are rather crudely embroidered in brown wool to cover the tied junctures on that side.  Now we have a tan textile that has traces of red and also brown “buttons” decorating its grid intersections. (The piece looks more red than tan in the image below but, as I indicated early on, it in fact has a lot more tan cords than red.)

The last touch is that selected brown “buttons” are further embroidered in white to form an additional dimension of design.

Here is how these two colors of buttons now look close up.

This is how the completed piece looks overall, once more.

Despite the clear simplicity of the way in which this piece was made, it was not entirely clear how it was done, nor did I know what such a structure is called.

At first, I could not find anyone who knew either of these latter things.  Two dealers in antique U.S. textiles in the Black Angus antique mall in Adamstown, PA said they had seen such pieces, but did not know how the structure was described nor how they were actually made.  An expert weaver I consulted said the same thing.  The 90-year old mother of the hostess of a bed and breakfast I stayed at in July, said that she had seen such textiles and thought they were made on a wooden frame.

Recently, looking for something else in one of my macrame books, I found the answers.  The book with the answers is “Square Knotting or Macrame: Square Knot Handicraft Guide,” by Raoul Graumont & Elmer Wenstrom, 1949.  Their treatment is rooted in nautical knotting, but draws on that universe for knots particularly suited to decorative purposes.  The language used is full of nautical knotting terminology.

The first thing that caught my attention were images of some wooden frames and of a completed mat that seemed similar to mine.

The text says that to make such a piece one must build a frame precisely the interior size (that is, fringe not included) of the piece desired.  The openings in the woodern frame are of specified size vertically and horizontally.  Brads are driven in at these specified junctures across the top and bottom edges and labeled 1 through 8.  Similarly, brads are driven at the specified junctures down both sides and are labeled 8 through 14.

Now the basic material of the piece is put on the frame making multiple passes around the brads in a definite sequence.  For example, a first pass goes from brad 1 at the top to brad 1 at the bottom, then across to brad 7 and from brad 8 on the right side across to brad 14.

Once the material is on the brads and supported by them and the frame, one takes a tying cord and begins to tie knots at all of the intersections.  The knot tied is a “clove hitch,” a knot very well-suited to tying a sequence of  intersecting materials together firmly with a continuing single cord.  Here is an image of a clove hitch tied on a horizontal rod.

This knot is tied starting from below the bar with a single strand and taking it around the front of the bar going over its top and down behind its back.  Now this working end is brought forward from the back on the right side of the beginning section of the cord and then taken up, over, around and behind the bar again, moving to the left.  The working end is then brought forward from under the bar and pushed up underneath the second wrapping on the front side and is tightened by pulling this working end up.  Once tightened a clove hitch is remarkably firm.

And below is a visible series of clove hitches tied in this actual textile.

Notice that the tying cords move parallel with one of the material sections being tied where one material section crosses another, but that the white tying cord goes round them both tying them together before it goes on.  In the detail above, you can also see part of the concentric squares in which the tying cords move.  A separate cord is used for each of these concentric squares.

The directions say that the material sections that form the fringe are cut last, after everything else has been done and the piece is ready to come off the frame and the brads.

The book says this textile is called a “cross clove hitched doily.”  I no longer own it, but I like its minimal character very much.

Graumont and Wenstrom also give directions for some other methods for making different mats and rugs.  Some are done on wire frames, others are based on expanded versions of a knot called the Carrick Bend.

Here is one other especially nice looking rug for which this book provides instruction.

The finished character of the edges of this minimalist piece is especially nice.

This is the end of my little dissertation on minimalist pieces, triggered by my ownership of this little clove-hitched doily.

Not always, but sometimes, for me, less is more.


R. John Howe

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