The ground loom: a microcosm of the world
The ground loom is an essential tool used by nomadic Bedouin women in the Middle East and North Africa to weave textiles. A simple and portable structure set up directly on the ground, it is composed of warp threads stretched across two parallel poles held apart by pegs, with the weft threads interlacing over and under the warp threads to create the finished textile. It forms the crux of communal interaction and homemaking among Bedouin tribes and plays a central role in their daily life.
While the ground loom serves a central function for Bedouin communities, who make and unmake their homes as they move through the desert, it also holds great symbolic and metaphorical meaning to these communities and to the formation of the Bedouin cultural identity. The weaving process, more than just a method for building homes, acts as a manifestation of Bedouin communities’ relationships with the natural and spiritual worlds they inhabit. The act of weaving plays a central role in their daily life, as it is used not only to make homes and clothing, but also to symbolize the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. Each thread represents a unique aspect of existence, and it is only by weaving these threads together that a complete and cohesive fabric can be created.
The ground loom not only highlights the importance of balance to the weaving process, allowing it to proceed smoothly and produce high-quality textiles, but it also represents resourcefulness and adaptability. It embodies the skill of creating something valuable and useful even in difficult and transient circumstances. On a cultural level, it represents a continuity of cultural traditions, and is often passed down from mother to daughter, transmitting cultural heritage and intergenerational knowledge. This generational craft conveys significant cultural and spiritual values like patience, perseverance, interdependence and collaboration.
These principles are tied to a particular time and culture that has been fading for decades. The traditional culture of nomadism in the Arab world has slowly given way to a wave of urbanization and modernization that has left its mark on Arab cultures and urban landscapes. This shift is evident not only in the culture itself, but also in the modes of production within it. As Karl Marx observed,1 under the capitalist mode of production, labor does not only produce commodities but also “produces […] the worker as a commodity”. The age of industrial production has alienated us from our relationships with material and making, numbing our sense of becoming and our connections to the physical world around us.
The intimacy of creating objects and the labors involved in producing them – using a variety of tools and mediums – is an integral part of Bedouin cultural identity, and, by extension, the ancestral heritage of many Arab cultures. While the ground loom is not the only tool used to build a tent or structure, it embodies a form of knowledge that has long been ignored in the architectural canon: an “anti-architecture” approach that flourishes in environments of scarcity, and is not threatened by them; one that values resourcefulness and adaptability rather than glorifying more sedentary – and often more environmentally damaging and expensive – material. What lessons can we learn from the ground loom and the principles it represents? How can we incorporate such tools in contemporary building practices to create new geometric and social potentials?
Conscious Skins: reintegrating cultural heritage into modern modes of production
These principles were integral to my approach and methodology for the advanced design studio I taught at the Yale School of Architecture in 2021, which I named “Conscious Skins”. The students began their investigations by identifying a specific indigenous craft tradition focused around an existing fabric structure, textile technique, and in some cases, a related material ecology. The first half of the semester was spent pursuing this textile knowledge, exploring materials, and replicating, translating and transforming practices of hand-making. Documentation of their investigations and their creative processes was a key requirement. By doing this, the students were able to articulate and reflect on their thought processes, design decisions and material choices. Additionally, documentation allowed for a deeper exploration of the cultural and social contexts surrounding the craft traditions being studied, providing a platform for critical engagement and dialogue. The intersection of the students’ rigorous experimentation with material and their interaction with the larger cosmology of hand-making culminated in the design of a comprehensive system for textile production. This process deepened their understanding of the spatial and conceptual complexity of creating “devices”, “structural fabrics” and “soft architectures”. It is in that feeling of their bodies out to their outer “skin” – through touch – that their processes of “making” became more conscious and intentional, leading to a heightened awareness of time and a more thoughtful approach to the process of making.
The emphasis on textiles in my work – and in this design studio – has always stemmed from my admiration for the Bedouin tent, known in Arabic as bayt al sha’ar, meaning “house of hair”. The word “tent” is itself derived from the Latin tendere, meaning “to stretch”. The tent, woven from goats’ hair and wool, has the unique ability to contract and expand, making it adaptable to changes in the weather. Wool, a natural textile fiber obtained from sheep, is similarly versatile due to its excellent tensile properties, allowing it to be stretched and molded into various ways.
As an architect, I am inspired by the tent’s capacity to adapt and transform with the environment, just as the loom can turn fibers into woven fabrics. This quality enables me to push the boundaries of textile design, exploring new techniques and materials to create structures that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also functionally innovative. By stretching and manipulating the materials I work with, I can create new geometric potentials, transforming the two-dimensional plane into three-dimensional forms that have a more profound connection to the surrounding space. This approach pays tribute to the principles of adaptability, continuity, flexibility, and circularity inherent in the Bedouin tent while also expanding upon them, exploring new possibilities in both form and function.
What begins with intimate and intuitive experimentation with materials, ends with structures that are imbued with the unique moment in time and context in which I started and engaged in the process. One way I visualize this process is through what I call a “creative compass”: a web of lines or relations that place the subject (me) at the center, surrounded by different experiences that shape my perspective of my surroundings. This compass helps me reflect, ask questions, and come up with an informed, grounded and adaptive response to challenges. The “I/me” at the center of the diagram is not a signifier of ego or importance, but rather of a reflexive praxis that explicitly acknowledges that we are not “objective” observers in the process, but rather “subjective” actors who impact and are impacted by things around us and within us. This act of reflexivity, of continuously circling back to the epicenter is best represented by the web of interconnected lines and relationships that weave together my experiences and perspectives, probing frequent and continuous questioning of my process, practice, outcomes and choices.
The circular nature of the compass reflects my circular approach to making: the past feeds the present, and the present feeds the past. My own ancestral heritage has always been central to my creative process. To inspire a similar circular approach in the studio, the syllabus began by identifying textile traditions and exploring the interplay of materials, construction techniques, and socially-embedded and highly technical design practices involved in that textile culture. The goal was to explore how the hand – guided by intuition, experience and knowledge – forms the foundation of esthetics and how it shapes the evolution of textiles over time.
Weaving as a union of mind, body and soul
The making of a Bedouin tent is a dynamic process that reinforces the linkage between mind, body and hands. To begin spinning, a Bedouin woman typically sits on the ground and loops long strands of bundled hair around her arm, occasionally sliding the strand beneath the sleeve of her embroidered dress. As she infuses the cords with her own energy, the woman performs the first step in the cosmic spin of creation.
Hand spinning is a crucial aspect of weaving in Bedouin culture, where all yarns are traditionally spun by hand. Spinning wool is a vital and time-consuming task for Bedouin women. The process is almost like a meditative practice and the performance itself is a form of meditation. Each thread passes through the warp and the hands of its maker, forming a unique piece in its own right. Weaving in Bedouin culture creates a space in time where the flow is smooth, comfortable and soothing, allowing for the handmade to be fluid without the pressure of achieving perfection.
With the yarn spun and ready to be woven, Bedouin women then go on to make their traditional tents, which are created according to the dimensions of the women’s body, a measuring device for scaling their homes through the performance of tent-making and building. The sense of scale is acquired by comparing the object with the size and shape of the body, situated at the center of the tent-making process. This deep connection between the body, the fabric and the final shelters emphasizes the importance of the functionality and practicality of the tent, as the weaver must ensure that it is well-proportioned and fits the needs of her family. The use of the body as a measuring device establishes a direct link between the human form and the natural proportions of the surrounding environment, ensuring that the tent is well-suited for its purpose.
The intimate connection between the weaver’s body and the final shelter in Bedouin culture goes beyond just the physical act of weaving. Singing is another integral part of the tent-making process, accompanying almost every step, from cutting and beating the hair to weaving. The tools used – such as clippers, sticks and the loom – create a rhythmic accompaniment for the weaver to sing along with while engaging in the physical movement of weaving. Through touch and utterance, the senses share common origins.
Bedouin women sing du’as (prayers) during the weaving process, invoking the loom as memory and treating weaving as a form of prayer. Every aspect of the process is considered sacred. The songs sung during work in weaving or other pre-industrial crafts adopt rhythms and performance styles appropriate to the specific physical movement required.2 Music and craft are deeply intertwined in Bedouin culture, with songs serving as tools in the labor process and creating a sense of community and shared tradition. This union of music and craft, of touch and utterance, creates a sense of groundedness that accompanies the weaving process, extending beyond the tangible outcomes – the tent – and creating meaningful and spiritual connections with others and with the natural world surrounding them.
Terroir: The making of a social space
I created Terroir, a mobile cultural space built on the foundation of a ground loom, in response to my studio’s prompt and as a cultivation of my architectural practice and cultural inspirations. The concept of Terroir, which stems from the French word meaning “sense of place”, influenced the design of the structure. The root of the word terroir – terre – means land, soil or terrain. It embodies the idea that a product is not merely a collection of materials and processes, but a distinct expression of its origin and identity. It is the culmination of characteristic qualities of the local environment, which leave an imprint on the product and its production process. This connection to the process of creating a structure is key to cultivating a truly social space where people can engage, reflect and immerse themselves in a specific moment in time and memory.
Terroir is part of an architectural program that taps into the local knowledge of Jordanian communities while supporting women’s livelihoods. It also promotes innovation in craft and material technology, particularly using animal fibers, and highlights the region’s unique history and locales to promote a circular economy. Handwoven by 14 women of the Howeitat tribe in Jordan’s Badia, the structure uses wool from sheep bred in the area known as Awassi to create 16 handwoven structural fabrics that come together to convey that same sense of terroir through the woven structure. The composite material, which incorporates wool and wooden rods, results in a tent-like structure that combines soft and hard materials to facilitate unique immersive experiences and social interactions.
Terroir is a dynamic and portable structure designed to host a variety of cultural experiences in different locations. It serves as a bridge between maker and consumer by conveying the craft-making experience through its physical design and setup. At the entrance, the walls of the structure are made of spun wool yarn in its original form, which is gradually compressed and woven into a tensioned material as visitors move through it. This interplay between the raw materials, organic and inorganic forces, and community reflects the unique personality and character of the land, or terroir.
Journeying through the tent creates an architectural framework for a holistic, embodied experience of being a Bedouin weaver. It fosters appreciation for the value of their practice by allowing visitors to engage directly with the terroir of the site of making. The structure also connects different generations of makers and consumers through the contrast of the material, structure and contemporary cultural experiences. This contrast helps facilitate social interaction and inspires engagement and reflection on the design process of the structure and the development of the craft.
Terroir provides an intimate yet open environment that values the importance of culture, locality, and traditional modes of knowledge and practices. It seeks to establish new relationships with the labor of making while promoting the importance of culture and tradition in a contemporary context. Through its unique blend of traditional and contemporary practices, Terroir offers a collaborative and creative platform that encourages us to slow down and connect with the land, materials, and each other. Moreover, it encourages us to support the evolutionary growth of our relationship with animals, emphasizing the importance of preserving and respecting the natural resources that sustain us.
Terroir is not just a physical structure, but a manifestation of cultural and ancestral inheritance, inherent qualities of the land, and a celebration of heritage. It serves as a bridge between past and present, maker and consumer, and tradition and innovation. By reconnecting with my ancestral heritage and exploring the cultural significance of weaving, Terroir has pushed forward a new conceptual design and process. It probes the questions: How can we incorporate the values of inheritance, inherent qualities, and heritage into our own creative endeavors, and what impact can this have on our relationship with the natural world and each other?
Weaving as a social architecture: reshaping our interactions with time and space
Designing for material experiences by engaging in the process of weaving allows us to structure, communicate, reflect on and connect with our design. Through experimentation with various fabric structures, we gain insight into how different materials behave under tension and compression. This understanding enables us to push the boundaries of different textiles and their limitations, resulting in a design that stretches and tests the material’s properties.
Weaving involves a technical craft that starts with the creation of a loom and culminates in the creation of a tapestry. However, the act of weaving is not just a mechanical process, but rather a connection between humans, technology, environment and community. The foundation of weaving is rooted in natural principles of living, and the Bedouins’ daily lives exemplify this through their continuous process of weaving and maintenance. Their way of life involves a constant construction and deconstruction of their homes, which adds a purposeful and dynamic element to their daily lives.
Weaving as a mechanism of production involves using raw materials and situating the body that produces the fabric and the shelter at the center of this building process. In that sense, shelter becomes the manifestation of the body – creating a sense of origin and belonging unparalleled within the urban landscapes of today’s world. The slow and detail-oriented nature of weaving is absent from today’s building cultures, replaced by a desire to build faster, and create bigger, taller and more rigid structures.
Approaching weaving as a modus operandi that embraces communal and collective building processes can help revive the notion of cradle-to-cradle architecture,3 which can offer plenty of environmental and social benefits to our urban landscapes. Creating shelters that are grounded in active engagement with materials, tools and technologies, and that invite new creative potentials, can help support the thriving of the human spirit and its environment. It can also restore the contextual link of our urban landscape to its origin, culture and heritage – representing a continuity in the evolution of place-making that is not linear but rather circular, rooted in the present, but watered, fed and nurtured by its past. In the words of Pritzker laureate Wang Shu: “A lost tradition means a lost future”.4
Cradle-to-cradle architecture, or circular architecture, is temporal in nature. It provides a practical way to reconnect with past, present and future – and puts into question the meaning of temporal lines that showcase the circularity of creation. The question when bringing weaving back into contemporary modes of production remains: How do we use it to reshape our interactions around time and space? How can we – physically and metaphorically – use traditional modes of production to leave the ground and the forces that tie us here, forced into a sedentary and unevolved space?
The nature of weaving, in certain ways, reinforces the idea of architecture being an ever-adapting and ever-present social process. The movement towards a form of architecture that approaches time and space in a new way requires that we question our current and traditional modes of production; where they failed and where they succeeded, where they changed and where they were reinforced. Concepts of heritage, inheritance and modernity must be unpacked, while our approach to time and our responsibilities to future generations must be discussed in an active, reflective and affective process within the architectural canon and beyond.
Zijing International Conference Camp
Studio Zhu-PeiLi Xiangning’s Letters from China column focuses on the Zijing Conference Center and International Campus by Studio Zhu Pei....
“JARZM” Private House
John Friedman Alice Kimm ArchitectsIn the Highlights column, Charles Dupont talks about the JARZM private residence, designed by John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects in Los Angeles...
Japan Women’s University Campus
Kazuyo Sejima & AssociatesKazuyo Sejima & Associates designs a building for Japan Women’s University in Tokyo...