Essay 1


Maya Gulieva

Isn’t it curious to think that a decorative language of ruffled flowers gave way to a robust and powerful language of computer programming? Running a finger over the grained underside of history like over the back of an embroidery, computing and textiles are intricately interlaced.


Despite its extraneous detailing, weaving, at its core, is a trade of few words: up or down. A warp thread can either be lifted up so the weft passes under and hides from view, or the warp thread is left down so the weft passes over and makes a visible mark. In 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard programmed his punch cards to make weaving patterns with only two options: hole or no hole. Yes or no. On or off. 1 or 0. This is binary: the basis of computer programming. The same ‘holes’ that had given way to Morse Code, programmed ‘picots’ and ‘flounce’ into the sartorial pizazz of Queen Victoria and Kate Middleton, and encoded elegant authority into the jabots of Ruth B. Ginsburg. Was the answer to computing always enciphered in the visual scripts of Victorian needlework?

Lace’s cryptic glossary of flora whispered to the first computer programmer, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, who predicted the digital revolution in 1893:

We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves… the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.1

Her colleague, Charles Babbage, envisaged the Analytical Engine from Jacquard cards as instructions for mathematical calculations — instead of feeding wefts they would feed number combinations. In 1881, the first musical recorder operated “in the language of Jacquard”2 ; by 1911, the punch card holes composed data for the polynomial calculating machine and laid the foundation for IBM. Ada’s soft spoken prophecy came true in 1940, with the building of the first universal stored-program computer. Lace was the thread that spun flowers and leaves into mechanised progress.

Programming Lace


“No lace. No lace, Mrs. Bennet, I beg you!” cried Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, yet few of Jane Austen’s contemporaries plead against the florid excess. Lace fever captured the eighteenth century English people, who “not only liked to be married in lace, bedded in lace, and executed in lace, they also liked to be buried in lace”.3 Since the ‘point-net’ frame had spun out of the stocking trade in 1786, Nottingham became the machine-lace capital of the world, feeding the consumption with over 130 factories. For over 100 years, this rapidly expanding industry was a pivotal driver for innovation, automation and, in turn, computing. No trade is immune to death by technological change, globalisation and recession. The Nottingham lace industry now hangs by a thin thread: since its decline in the 1950s, only one small company remains. In vogue, few are well versed in the silky language that ‘coded’ lace patterns.

For all its ups and downs, a faithful stitch runs through the lace motif: a female labour force. Lace was made of fine threads of silk and laboriously woven by the slender hands of Victorian women required for the fineness of work (many of whom were children). By 1860, there were “150,000 workers making lace by machine and less than 10,000 hand-workers left in England”.4 Whilst machines continued to deprive labor in thousands, these craftswomen yarned an entirely new field of employment. By 1865 the lace industry employed over 30% of all women in the UK. Nottingham also went by another name: ‘city of women’.5

From 1841, when John Levers adapted the Jacquard apparatus to the Leavers machine, practically all lace of any pattern, net and outline could be made mechanically. An additional ‘a’ was attached to the name as to aid pronunciation when selling in France; this transnational dimension worked to similar effect as the hyper-globalised competition pushed by computer technologies. Jacquard punch cards were the key driver in Britain’s competition with the machine-made lace industry in Calais which squashed the golden age of hand-made lace, “one of the only examples of enduring female-dominated occupational communities in English history”.6 With it severed the filaments of a feminist vision that valued slow hands over machines, “invoking quality of both the labor and fabric”.7 Although the differences between hand-made and “imitation” (machine lace) were only observable under a magnifying glass, it is said that lacemakers sought to simplify their ornamental grammar, so the designs would lend themselves better to binary translation. Anni Albers observed that “a loss of range seems to accompany mechanical progress in weaving”.8 It is long not a secret that aesthetic degradation is one of the problems associated with mass production alongside dehumanisation, alienation and reification.

Programming Lace


Since 1795, the stuttering warp-machines looped the minds of inventors striving for fluency of mechanised perfection, but the early lace machines refused to enunciate until 1810, when John Healthcoat untangled their tongues. Straight-laced John sought to optimise two things which keep most decent scientists awake at night: inefficiency and error. It is said that as a boy and frame-smith apprentice from Duffield, Derbyshire, John was inspired by many hours observing eloquent fingerwork of women who twisted and spun the yarn by hand. Translating the clues in female digits into precise mechanised gestures led forward the next step of industrialisation. In theory, machines would relieve people of hard labour and reduce production costs, and “the mechanisation of lace production meant that it could be democratised, enabling the Victorian middle classes to consume what was previously unaffordable”.9 However, an optimisation that sought to iron out an economic division led to a gendered one. Only men, known as twisthands, operated Heathcoat’s Old Loughborough machine, whilst women and child labourers were left with “unskilled” and taxing jobs of embroidering, bobbin-filling, threadings, clearing, pearling, winding, dyeing and mending — lace running — still working by hand and mostly in the dark and damp rooms of houses; sunlight was thought to damage the delicate lace. A Nottingham lace runner and self-taught poet Mary Bailey (1775?-1828) laments her working conditions in Petition to the British Fair addressed to wealthy “ladies of Britain, we most humbly dress”:10

How hard have we worked, and our eyes how we’ve strain’d
When those beautiful flowers we run.
View the ball-room, where beauty beams round,
And shines with such elegant grace,
And think you in no ways indebted to us.—
The Runners of Nottingham lace.

Gender-segregation by trade and a male monopoly on machine operation persisted for over 30 years (1834-1865), and it would be more than a century until “women could work as mechanics, iron and steel workers, masons, carpenters, navvies or engineers, or even simply remain in employment once married”.11

Weaving "Translation" from Anni Albers, On Weaving 
Programming Lace

Like Luddites, lace runners, too, tried to resist the progress of machinery that robbed them of their “hard-earned pittance”. Yet it’s the struggle against oppressive practices of “intermediary mistresses or agents” which in 1840, led a procession of 400-600 women on strike:

no wonder that misery enters our dwellings—that we are in the depth of poverty, that our children are crying for bread, while there is a swarm of locusts hovering between us and the manufacturers, ready to devour one hand of our hire; is it not enough that we have to compete with machines which, in many cases, supersede needle-work; but are also robbed in the manner described above; is this the state of things to exist?12

Not until the 25th November 1871 did female lace-makers strike their first win: a 25% wage rise (from two shillings) and a 54 hours working week — still worse conditions than of their husbands, brothers and sons. Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’s (1790–1846) novel The Wrongs of Woman addresses the plight of lace runners in the industrial conditions of 1844, and whilst being “the most skilful they were the hardest worked and the worst paid of all the operatives connected with the lace trade”.13 For the most part, the lace runners of the city of women and beyond remain “shrouded in obscurity, not unlike the dark rooms in which they worked.”14 Mary Bailey died ill and too poor to afford medical assistance, having given birth to 11 child labourers. The fate of Tonna’s heroine, Kate Clark, is the lifeline of many lace runners who, after being squeezed by their masters, “sell their craft” and forgo their “virtuous codes” to become prostitutes.


Artist Asier Mendizábal describes weaving origins which formed the basis of the construction industry as “fossilised” in its “frets, meanders, chains, braids, arabesques”:15

With the evolution of the construction and plastic techniques, [warp and weft] translate to other material techniques, replicating forms that would no longer be the result of the [weaving] process itself, but a symbolic reminder of past processes.

Programming Lace

Mechanisation hasn’t changed the basic principles of weaving: they are still up or down. Yes or no. On or off. 1 or 0. Like ornament was a prelude for binary, industrialisation was a preface for the digital revolution: programmed to exclude working-class women, black people and other marginalised groups from the benefits of mechanisation. The social codes of today still don’t offer equal benefits of the mechanised “progress”. The sweated fates of hands that laboured lace and silicon chips are still etched into the epidermis of contemporary society.

Ada Lovelace warns us:

The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis, but it has no power of anticipating any analytical revelations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.16

With machines, class, race and gender inseparably enmeshed, will the moral codes of computers, too, be laced from its textile blueprint? In this looming future of synthetic consciousness, could we blame the machines for translating our wrongs into their rights?

  1. Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage: Translation and Notes by Ada Lovelace, Luigi Federico Menabrea, Ada Lovelace, 1893
  2. The Jacquard Mechanism: Influence, Macclesfield Museums,
  3. Wright's Directory of Nottingham, C. N. Wright, 1999, p. 98
  4. “Fine Fingers”: Victorian Handmade Lace and Utopian Consumption, Victorian Studies, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Summer, 2003), Elaine Freedgood, p. 627
  5. “Women and Children in the Machine-Made Lace Industry in Britain and France (1810–60)”, Fabrice Bensimon, Textile: the journal of cloth and culture. Volume 18: Number 1, 2020, pp. 69-91
  6. Ibid.
  7. Freedgood, 2003, p. 627
  8. On Weaving, Anni Albers, Nicholas Fox Weber, Manuel Cirauqui, 2017, p. 10
  9. Lace: Here: Now, Amanda Briggs-Goode and Deborah Dean, 2013, p.42
  10. Poems, Humorous and Sentimental, Mary Bailey, 1826, p. 11
  11. Bensimon, 2020, pp. 69-91
  12. Report of the Children’s Employment Commission: Trades and Manufactures, Parliamentary Papers, vol. XIV, 1843, p. 42
  13. 'Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's The Wrongs of Woman: Female Industrial Protest', Joseph Kestner, 1983, p. 209
  14. Bensimon, 2020, p. 88
  15. “Clay Vases: Geodesy and Craniometry”, Problemas de estilo y vasijas de barro (Problems of style and clay vessels), Asier Mendizábal, Quito: Zarigüeya/Alabado Contemporáneo, 2016, p. 41
  16. ‘Lady Lovelace’s Objection’, Computing Machinery And Intelligence, Alan M. Turing, 1950, p.13
0s & 1s