Meisen Magic
How Textiles Could Revolutionize Big Data (again)

What do you see in this fabric?

Leaves appear suspended in a misty atmosphere, but that’s only the beginning. You’re actually witnessing the collision of two pattern planes, one on the surface and one in the structure, that seamlessly blend thousands of threads for a stunning visual effect. The pattern seems to hover in space, challenging your eye’s perception. It’s an optical illusion, and like most good magic tricks, its secrets are hidden in plain sight, if you know where to look.

Refocusing perception is the subject of The New York Times’ article, “Learning to See Data.” Scientific research increasingly depends on massive quantities of digitized information. In order to use it more effectively, analysts and artists are collaborating to develop a system of specialized pattern identification. However, textiles already offer an encyclopedic catalog of patterns, and a nuanced perceptual language for those who understand it.

Ada Lovelace, the 19th century inventor of computer programming, realized this connection between data systems and weaving. She wrote, “The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.” She understood how a matrix of pixels could be organized into a type of language used to mechanize actions, just as Jacquard punch cards told the loom what pattern to construct. Continuing with this analogy of language/structure, could programmers today learn valuable models from other types of textile design?

For example, this Meisen fabric from the Andrea Aranow Collection found at Textile Hive represents a style of Japanese kimono fabric popular during the 1920s and 30s. With Japanese fabrics especially, understanding how they’re made is like glimpsing a profound insight into the designer’s creative process. They use pattern as a poetic language, evoking shapes, rhythm, and space in unexpected juxtaposition. Their sleight-of-hand visual tricks purposefully confound the ability to see what’s truly happening, so look carefully.

What we see is a highly complex, layered pattern that at first glance suggests a woven Jacquard structure.Upon closer inspection, the tiny yarns appear organized in the basic over-and-under sequence of plain weave. How can this be? The yarn is so fine that we need magnification to see the true architecture of the weave.

The warp-dominated plain weave gives us the first clue that this is a Meisen fabric. Amazingly, the entire leaf pattern is printed on these warp yarns only. They’ve been stretched out first on a frame and loosely pre-woven. Then, colorful dyes were stenciled onto their surface to create the pattern of pink and gray leaves.

On an alternate frame, narrowly striped warp yarns in contrasting shades of dark and light gray are measured to the same length as the printed set of warps. These striped yarns supply the shadow weave effect in the finished fabric.

Next, the stenciled warps are unwoven and strung onto a weaving loom, with the dark/light warp stripes alternated throughout the pattern every three threads. After this time-consuming labor, similarly striped weft yarns bring it all together in a simple plain weave. Tiny crosshatches populate the background, resulting from the dark/light stripe sequence in the weft meeting the dark/light stripes in the warp at right angles. (John Marshall’s excellent blog post on the Meisen process helps explain these techniques.)

Lustrous silk yarn and a pearlescent color palette add to the visual intrigue with subtle, reflective qualities. Three shades of gray stripes flicker across the pattern, challenging your mind’s eye to complete the leaf shapes and understand their spatial relationship. The leaves seem to be falling through air, and almost twisting in the light as silvery yarns reflect the image. The pattern permeates the cloth, involving the 3D structure as well as the 2D image. Combining shadow weave stripes with stenciled warp yarns, this Meisen fabric creates a masterful depiction of space that goes beyond its surface into aesthetic dimensions that fool and delight your eyes.

An eloquent language of textile pattern exists in plain view, hidden from most people because they simply don’t know what to look for. The article, “Learning to See Data,” explains that information analysts struggle similarly to find ways to recognize patterns and organize large amounts of digital content. Data analysts train with a conceptual artist to change their focus, learning a new visual vocabulary of shapes, rhythm, and space. These are the same elements of textile pattern that, unbeknownst to most people, inspired the computer binary system in the first place. Why not go to the source and learn from textiles themselves, as Ada Lovelace (an inspiration for Ladyada at did when she adapted binary code from Jacquard looms to propose the original computer language for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine in the 1840s? (Learn more about Ada Lovelace from this In Our Time podcast.)

We already use a related concept in QR codes, a.k.a. 2D barcodes. Links to a single website or coupon appear as black/white checkerboard grids, familiar to any weaver as a drawdown for designing cloth.

But what if that coded pattern referred to a 3D structure, as it does in textiles, enabling you to access an entire database with a tap of your phone?

Or perhaps, mimicking the two faces of a damask weave structure, digital data could have a front and back, and its patterns be read differently from either side? These are only concepts, but since Lovelace recognized the information system encoded in just one type of patterned weaving structure, research into other textile forms seems promising.

Tens of thousands of elegantly patterned structures await the curious in textile archives such as Textile Hive. For instance, this Meisen example offers a great lesson in the visual language of complex patterns that could be used in many different applications, such as the design of layered data planes. Imagine Data Set A and Data Set B collated into a system of rhythmic stripes, shapes, and structure. Voila, you have discovered the secret of shadow weave Meisen fabric.

The key is learning what to look for and going beyond the surface image to understand how it interacts with fabric structure. Becoming fluent in textile pattern and structure opens exciting possibilities for future innovators. Re-envisioning textiles as a language for designed relationships conjures up nearly limitless potential.

Author: Annin Barrett

Annin Barrett teaches textiles, art and design history at The Art Institute of Portland. You can learn more about Annin and view some of her artwork at