Crafting knowledge, weaving theories


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HIERARCHIES that keep millions of handloom weavers and craftspeople in the Global South at the bottom of the financial, social and epistemic pyramids are deeply entrenched. To those outside of the world of craft and handloom weavers, handloom weaving carries an impression of being an outdated, unproductive, fossilized technology that the modern market does not support. Yet, that traditional craftspeople innovate constantly to sustain their livelihoods is not news to those working closely with craftspeople; nor is their continuing sustainability in the face of rapid technological change surprising.

It is equally the reality of weavers that they not only survive, they even thrive in particular markets through innovating their knowledge. Notwithstanding the burden of vulnerabilities that craftspeople struggle with on an everyday basis, this essay argues that the reality of handloom weavers as contemporary socio-technologists too bears explanation and explication.

But, what does it mean to theorize traditional handloom weaving craft as a contemporary socio-technology when the utopia of robots with artificial intelligence that relieve humans of the need to labour dominates the technological imaginary of our times? What does it mean to affirm the expertise of an 80 year old Indigo dyer who tells colour by smell, when hand dyers and weavers’ livelihoods continue to be vulnerable in the modern market? What kind of market, state, legal frameworks afford ownership of knowledge to the millions of vulnerable craftspeople who make a living out of this occupation, even as historically their knowledge has been undermined as unscientific tinkering, appropriated as labour or museumized as heritage? Rather than using the vocabulary of preservation or modernization, by studying handloom weaving as a contemporary socio-technical ensemble, we explore what it means to takes craft seriously as knowledge.

What does the weaver know, when she knows weaving? Embodied experiential knowing as the tacit dimension of knowledge was first conceptualized by Polanyi.1 It provided an explicit attack at objectivism, or the tendency of thinking of knowledge as wholly explicit, impersonal and objective. Polanyi instead proposed the theory that knowledge was always embedded in the knower, and could be voiced only from within the whole system of acceptances that are logically prior to any particular assertion of the individual. Polanyi stated that we can know more than we can tell, referring to knowledge that human beings develop through the body and experience. This knowledge cannot be known from texts and manuals.


For Polanyi, the tacit dimension is a concept to point to the reductive empiricist’s blindness to the creative, non-codifiable dimension of inquiry.2 Yet, various authors have chosen a realist ontological position, holding that explicit and tacit knowledge exist in reality: explicit knowledge is codified knowledge that is easy to share, while tacit knowledge is knowledge that is difficult to articulate. While this sits paradoxically with Polanyi’s recognition that scientific knowledge is always constituted by both tacit and explicit knowledge,3 Science as the making of knowledge then includes the transformation of tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge.

Within such a framing, embodied, traditional, material knowledge of craftspeople becomes too easily cast as tacit knowledge in need of formalizing into science. The response of craft experts though, to this description of craft expertise as tacit knowledge, is that there is ‘nothing tacit about this!’ To those engaged with the producing, teaching, and using of handmade craft, the expertise at work in handloom weaving is robust technical knowledge.


Yet, the bias against craft knowledge as being unscientific, is historical. Indian skills and designs – particularly in textile weaving, printing and dyeing, played an important role in raising the quality of European industries.4 Nonetheless, observers in the Great Exhibition of the East India Company in 1851 in London claimed that Indian technologies offered no contribution to global knowledge. They were ‘so limited in application that they can scarcely be considered as bringing into play any principle of comparison or competition’, which was assumed to be a proof of the lack of progress in Indian technological culture.5

This led to the distinction between ‘genuine knowledge’, the ability to understand the meaning of something through one’s own reasoning processes, and having made knowledge one’s own; and being stuffed with other’s ideas and therefore in possession of only second hand knowledge. This was the basis for the distinction in which good knowledge and failed knowledge mapped onto the distinction between autonomy and heteronomy between an active subject and a passive one. Craft skills failed to make the grade of ‘genuine knowledge’ on all levels.6

At the same time, 19th century reformers, both Indian and British, held artisans themselves responsible for their failure to progress. These accounts cast them as passive in the face of modern changes, content with the past: ‘Indian artisans appeared as the polar opposite of the striving, competitive, rational, efficient, industrial men of western capital enterprise.’7 Government officials, local and provincial government bodies, missionaries, artisans, reformers, nationalists and industrialists – all participated in reifying the category of craft in opposition to modern industry. Thus this type of modernization – even of those who sought to protect crafts – defined weavers as too tradition bound to handle change on their own, which helped legitimize outside intervention to manage this change.8


Craftspeople who sought to keep knowledge private within kin or caste networks, as compared to a European strategy of dense information networks of artisan guilds, were perceived as lacking initiative in sharing knowledge. Yet, in an era with no protection for intellectual property rights, this urge of individuals to retain a competitive advantage seems a logical response.9 The shift of the colonial state in making private knowledge public represented an exercise not just of access but of power.10 Control of knowledge shifted as colonial authors of surveys, gazetteers and monographs put into public hands what had been personal property of craft groups11 turning proprietorial knowledge into public good, or common cultural heritage.

Lack of formal education was another explanation offered for craftspeople’s lack of progress. Alfred Chatterton found ‘the ordinary artisan […] unacquainted with principles and is therefore quite unable to explain why one way of doing a thing is better than another.’12 Their success could at best be explained as the work of ‘inspired tinkerers’.

Thus, when conceptualized as local, indigenous, tacit knowledge, the historic colonial hegemony of Science with respect to artisanal modes of knowledge is further exacerbated by the high value for objective explicit science as knowledge, over subjective embodied craft practices. The one is valued as knowing over the other as doing. Caste and class boundaries of knowledge communities are further reified: tacit knowledge, embedded in bodies of weaver and dyer castes, comes to be performed as identity and occupation rather than as robust explicit knowledge that can travel easily. As a result, it becomes available for appropriation by powerful actors who claim to have elicited knowledge from the tacit dimension of craft practice.


Some of the answers to the questions raised at the beginning of this essay are already available in contemporary studies of science and technology (STS). Scholarly work within history of technology and STS that relativizes the standard view of S&T as a form of collective cultural knowledge can open up a site of inquiry where craft production could be understood as a form of socio-technology. A first step to this end interrogates the standard view of science and subservient role of craft in it, the core of which is the mind body hierarchy. The ‘standard view’ of science and technology divides the domain of natural science into sciences or knowledge itself and its applied form in associated technologies.13 In this understanding, knowledge is produced by scientists and flows from science to technology, from laboratory to factory. Technology takes the universal knowledge generated by science and applies it systematically to specific transformations of matter and materials.


Characteristic knowledge of preindustrial production that was referred to as ‘craft’, embodied in technique, generally does not feature in this view. The production of scientific knowledge was seen essentially as a disembodied process, ‘the mind was crucial, the hand only incidental’;14 science and its theories were thought to exist within a realm of ideas; written texts become the carriers of these across time and space.15 Yet as scholars Pfaffenberger, Bray and Smith point out, these are evolving definitions as Science itself is interrogated by theory and practice.

A second step in this argument is to relativize the validity of science as universal knowledge with regard to local craft knowledge. While in general science makes the claim of inherently being objective, universal and accumulative, science studies scholarship shows how scientific knowledge is standardized and homogenized to exhibit such characteristics. In order to mobilize scientific knowledge, scientists ‘deploy a variety of social strategies and technical devices for creating the equivalences and connections’16 between peoples, places, contexts and materials. Science can instead be defined as ‘knowledge about natural, material processes expressed in declarative transmissible form, as text or graphically inscribed knowledge that is further encoded by translation into a specialist technical vocabulary, verbal or visual.’17


When we think of science as human engagement with nature, with a long past in human history,18 then we can see that modern science is in essence not so different from other so-called traditional knowledge.19 The turn to material brings back technique into the discourse of science. Technique, derived from the Greek ‘techne’, is defined as skilled practice that goes into material production of knowledge as well as production of artefacts.20 This approach suggests that ideas and theories, rather than being abstract, emerge from the interaction of the human hand with the material world.21

This approach to knowledge attempts to contextualize modern science while at the same time elevate local knowledge traditions (for example pre-industrial craft knowledge) to a valid way of knowing, thereby situating itself in the pursuit of cognitive justice.22 Both these steps are representative of the need to resolve the general tendency to distinguish between intellectual and manual labour that came about in late eighteenth century Europe, that arose from more fundamental oppositions between mind and body, creativity and repetition, freedom and determination.23


A third step relates attributes of modern socio-technical ensembles to traditional craft systems. ‘Socio-technology’ denotes social-material networks or systems, which include sets of techniques and equipment, but also trained personnel, raw materials, ideas and institutions.24 A socio-technical systems approach makes visible the idea behind developing technologies:25

‘Against the Standard View’s exaggerated picture of technological evolution from simple tools to complex machines, the sociotechnical system concept puts forward a universal conception of human technological activity, in which complex social structures, nonverbal activity systems, advanced linguistic communication, the ritual coordination of labour, advanced artefact manufacture, the linkage of phenomenally diverse social and nonsocial actors, and the social use of diverse artefacts are all recognized as parts of a single complex that is simultaneously adaptive and expressive.’26

This conceptual frame of socio-technical systems is now able to take into account socio-cultural narratives of handloom technology that eluded the frames of standard science and technology. In order to offer to newcomers to handloom fabric a glimpse into the nature of specialization that characterizes the handloom world, Uzramma, the founder of Dastkar Andhra and Malkha, would tell the story of the Kunche Erukula community in the Adilabad district.

‘The Kunche Erukula were a nomadic community, and the designated makers of the brush that weavers used to apply starch on the warp to ready it for weaving. The story goes that as the Kunche Erukula travelled from weaving village to weaving village, they would save their wage in the form of gold, that they would bind into the brushes while repairing them, for safe keeping till they came back next to repair the brush. The art of making the brush was known to be so specialized, no weaver would dare take apart the binding of the brush and steal the gold, for fear of being unable to put it back, and ending up with no brush for starching their yarn.’


The story transported the listener to a time when a sizing brush made of local fibre and twigs was worth more to the weaver than the gold that was hidden inside it, making a telling point about the socio-economic status of the weaver. She also spoke of the respect that these different communities afforded to each other, and the importance of the taken-for-granted social interactions and relationships that kept the transactions robust. The story very effectively made the point of how finely specialized and varied the different technologies and social groups of handloom were, and of what scale: a whole community would make a livelihood out of specializing in making the brushes for the sizing.

In the contemporary textile industry, the existence of multiple textile genealogies – handloom, khadi, integrated mills, power looms; and the porosity of their borders to each other add to cross-pollination in textile technologies. Newer technologies are continuously being added in parallel to the existing handloom ensemble, for example the mobile phone and the computer. Over time, artefacts and functional variants of the different specialized technologies are acquired in parallel by the socio-technical ensemble; in the dyeing technology example, natural dyeing technology, azo-based dyeing technology, and reactive dyeing technology.

Handloom weaving can now be described as a socio-technology, or a collection of heterogeneous elements of technologies (spinning, looms, warping drums, computers), practices (designing, sizing, computer programming), formal institutions (cooperatives, CSOs, government institutions), informal institutions (household, extended family, village community, caste) and social groups (weavers, dyers, designers, customers) that together constitute a socio-technical ensemble.27 This broadening of the unit of analysis, from the unchanging loom to the accumulative socio-technical ensemble, allows us to explore how innovation and expertise, as much as tradition and culture, are crafted in handloom weaving.


So how does theorizing handloom as a socio-technical ensemble help weavers make claims of knowledge, and empower them in their everyday struggle towards sustainability? A conference titled ‘Anchoring Innovation in Tradition’ became an experiment that placed the loom at the centre of the conversation, in the weaving village of Chirala in November 2018.

More than 300 weavers from all over India, along with weaver representatives from Thailand, Laos, China and Taiwan, debated these issues with 100 experts – scholars (both national and international), designers, connoisseurs, entrepreneurs, activists, NGO workers, dancers, musicians – who have immersed their life in the weaving world of India. Here,28 we explicitly discussed the future of hand weaving craft, yet were also engaged in a moral endeavour, implicitly asking questions about the sort of politics we want to characterize our knowledge systems with, while at the same time asking how weavers themselves could make knowledge claims, without falling prey to well meaning interventions that invariably are inadequate to the task of explicating what craftspeople really know.


The conference in Chirala was envisioned as a space for weaving and craft knowledge to be valued and evaluated, both including and beyond the market. The conversations would be with weavers, rather than conversations about them. The attempt was to bring knowledge distributed across the socio-technical ensemble of handloom weaving, dispersed in the various locations of weaving, wearing, in museums, in scholarly books, in the past and in the present, in dance and music, in stories and in scriptures, in young and old, man and woman together. This required hybrid engagements – in workshops using vocabularies of making, in panels that invited discussions between scholars and weavers and in scholarly seminars that focused on social, political and epistemic outputs.


Such an aim for a conversation made its own demands on the participants – to listen with humility and learn. Weavers indeed spoke, but they did so alongside their looms, using their own narratives and language. This was made possible by the work of scores of volunteers, young and old, setting up the more than 70 looms that had been brought by craftspeople from all over India, a curated exhibition, music and dance performances and 25 expert panels. Weavers in Chirala opened their homes to the visitors, hosting all 300 weavers as honoured guests. International participants contributed generously to the proceedings. Sponsors who made the event possible were conspicuous in their anonymity.

An entirely new generation of young craft activists united only by their commitment to furthering the cause of craftspeople, held the conference together. The first three days participants were completely engaged in ‘making’ workshops led by masters –weaving, dyeing, crafting, book making, storytelling and so on. The next three days weavers participated in the panel discussions, with invited experts in different aspects of handloom – technical, social, political and economic – in conversations that crossed barriers of language, race and religion.

The last one and half days saw key representatives from the workshops and panels present summaries and reflect on what they had learnt. Here scholars played a key role in thinking about outputs that could create ownership for craftspeople of both their heritage and their future, of their culture and their science. In order to facilitate outputs, participants worked in small groups, based on language, geography, areas of interest and commitment. The experience was transformative, but much like craft knowledge, defied explication in words.


What it proved conclusively was that even as livelihoods remain the main concern for the sector, claiming knowledge – the right to cognitive justice – is vital to its sustenance. That every culture owns knowledge is a conviction that the privileged take for granted, and oppressed are striving towards; but unlike charity, it cannot be given, but is a truth than must be demonstrated and experienced. I end this essay with the call to participation penned by Macharla Mohan Rao, the activist leader of the emerging network, National Federation of Handloom and Handicrafts. Translated loosely from the original Telugu, it embodies a theory of technology that is truly an innovation of tradition, yet is completely contemporary in its understanding of technological choices.

‘A new era has been reached in the development of handlooms and handicrafts. By being socially conscious and also sensitive to the natural environment, to discuss the current modes of production and knowledge in these sectors, a conference of handloom festivities is being organized between November 11 to 18, 2018 in Chirala. The conference will discuss the close relationships between production methods and traditional knowledge and develop people-oriented solutions. Many craftsmen from all states of India including the North East will attend the conference.

‘Craftspeople and handloom weavers hold their skills in their hands – but are poor. Challenged constantly with fast moving changes in technology they face serious threats to their livelihoods. As these tensions increase, we experience changes not just in livelihoods, but also in life worlds. As man’s needs increase, technology and development are concentrating on production methods and increasing mechanization – rendering the handloom industry without the support of hands. This is the core of the problem. Mechanization means consumption of power. The generation of power sacrifices environmental balance. Though entire society bears the responsibilities of the consequences, the advantages of technology are cornered by a small fraction of society. We are perpetrating an injustice to future generations, since all of society – both the poor and the middle class – faces the consequences of this fiery natural degradation.

‘We bear the effects of environmental degradation, unseasonal rains, air and water pollution, rise in temperatures. Strangely, we do not notice that we are playing with nature. We need to question, do we need this technological progress? Whose economic interests are we protecting? Technological progress is recognized as useful when it benefits society, improves livelihoods and employment, protects the environment, satisfies the basic human needs along with improving health and wealth. Unfortunately, technological progress is increasing inequality, and unemployment is rising.

‘Globalization of knowledge makes it possible to channel people’s demands for handloom and handicraft products. There are changes in craft products, as well as in art forms such as music and literature invigorating the society and implementing changes for the benefit of everyone. We invite technocrats, academicians, research scholars, workers and policy makers to discuss the orientation of current technological progress to improve society in a creative manner and for the welfare of everyone.’



1. M. Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension. Doubleday, New York, 1966.

2. N. Gascoigne and T. Thornton, Tacit Knowledge. Routledge, 2014.

3. I. Virtanen, ‘Epistemological Problems Concerning Explication of Tacit Knowledge’, Journal of Knowledge Management Practice11(4), 2010, pp. 1-14.

4. M. Berg, ‘In Pursuit of Luxury: Global History and British Consumer Goods in the Eighteenth Century’, Past and Present 182, February 2004, pp. 85-142.

5. J. Tallis, Tallis’s History and Description of the Crystal Palace, and the Exhibition of the World’s Industry in 1851. London Printing & Publishing Company, London, 1852.

6. A. McGowan, Crafting the Nation in Colonial India. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2009.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. T. Roy, ‘Music as Artisan Tradition’, Contributions to Indian Sociology 32(1), 1998, pp. 21-42.

10. A. McGowan, 2009, op. cit.

11. For a detailed discussion on the kind of ethnographic accounts of knowledge generated by the colonial state, see A. McGowan, ibid.

12. Alfred Chatterton, Agricultural and Industrial Problems in India. G.A. Natesan and Co., Madras, 1904.

13. B. Pfaffenberger, ‘Social Anthropology of Technology’, Annual Review of Anthropology 21, 1992, pp. 491-516.

14. F. Bray, ‘Science, Technique, Technology: Passages Between Matter and Knowledge in Imperial Chinese Agriculture’, The British Journal for the History of Science 41(03), 2008, pp. 319-344.

15. P.H. Smith, ‘The Matter of Ideas in the Working of Metals in Early Modern Europe’, in C. Anderson, A. Dunlop and P. H. Smith (eds.), The Matter of Art: Materials, Practices, Cultural Logics, C. 1250-1750. Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2015, pp. 42-67.

16. D. Turnbull, ‘Travelling Knowledge: Narratives, Assemblage and Encounters’, in M.N. Bourget, C. Licoppe and H.O. Sibum (eds.), Instruments, Travel and Science: Itineraries of Precision from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century. Routledge, London, 2012, pp. 273-294.

17. F. Bray 2008, op. cit., p. 324.

18. P.H. Smith, 2015, op. cit., p. 272.

19. D. Turnbull, 2012, op. cit., p. 276.

20. Rather than technique, I will use the term craft as a transformative process of production that requires knowledge of and interaction with the material, but is not limited to that knowledge; F. Bray, 2008, op. cit.

21. P.H. Smith, 2015, op. cit.

22. S. Visvanathan, ‘Alternative Science’, Theory, Culture and Society 23(2-3), 2006, pp. 164-169.

23. T. Ingold, ‘Beyond Art and Technology: The Anthropology of Skill’, in M.B. Schiffer (ed.), Anthropological Perspectives on Technology. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2001, pp. 17-31.

24. F. Bray, 2008, op. cit.

25. B. Pfaffenberger, 1992, op. cit.

26. B. Pfaffenberger, ibid., p. 513.

27. W.E. Bijker, Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1995.

28. Chirala is the hometown of the National Handloom Weavers Union (Rashtra Chenetha Jana Samakhya, RCJS). This conference was jointly organized by the RCJS, REEDS, the Handloom Futures Trust and the Anchoring Innovation research programme of Leiden University (funded by a Gravitation Grant of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, NWO). For details of participants see