History of Cretan Textiles

Cretan woven fabrics with geometrical decoration are among the richest and most structured traditional geometrical weaves worldwide, even though only one shape, the diamond, and its variants are used. Such textiles have not been woven for years, and few old examples are left. They have been bought by peddlers and sold outside Crete, or even abroad. These textiles are not only beautiful, rich and varied; they are unique, both as to the weaving technique and as to their features.

From an ethnological point of view, these textiles constitute an exception in the process of traditional decoration. Cretan woven fabrics do not present isolated designs but complete complex compositions of geometrical motifs and colours in perfect harmony. It would not be an exaggeration to suppose that this type of decoration not only came from Byzantium but was actually designed by master weavers in the workshops of the Imperial Court, craftsmen of artistic refinement and great experience, with a profound understanding of geometry.

It is probable that these geometric woven fabrics came to Crete in 1092 with the Twelve Lords of Byzantium and their families. The patterns were passed down from one generation to the next, the nobility multiplied and the patterns were transferred to the people, becoming a tradition and folk heritage for Cretan women weavers over the following centuries and the common artistic resource of the island.

All weaving women draw on the same reserve, and although each may believe that she is creating something new, in fact her inventiveness is limited to minor variations on traditional motifs. There is no entirely new and original creation in weaving tradition, or in folk art in general. It is very difficult, almost impossible, for an exponent to overcome the limitations imposed on him by local artistic tradition – limitations of technique, style and expression.

This is why we believe that the Byzantine patterns of the Comnenes have been preserved in the woven fabrics we have found in Crete, dated to the early 19th century. This astonishing fact also constitutes extremely important evidence of 11th-century Byzantine civilization.

Textiles with geometric decoration are woven across Crete, with regional variations and particular features in each area.

Geometrical designs adorn fabrics used for household purposes and decoration, such as various bedspreads, wall hangings, sofa covers etc., as well as textiles necessary for outdoor work, such as “sintzandedes” (saddle-cloths) and the drouvades and vouryies (bags) used by Cretan farmers and shepherds until recently. Due to their use, woven fabrics with geometrical designs are usually woollen, or more precisely of wool and cotton: the warp threads are woollen, while the connecting wefts are cotton.

In “xobliasta” woven fabrics, also known as “embroidery on the loom”, the decoration is woven on the loom at the same time as the fabric. This weaving technique is complicated, time-consuming and requires great care and attention. To create the decorative motifs, the weaver passes the coloured weft, wound into small skeins, through the warps by hand. As different coloured wefts alternate in each row, the weaver must judge the length of each colour line carefully, counting the number of warp threads. New measurements are needed for the next row, as the decorative patterns are created by increasing or decreasing the length of each colour line, moving the line, eliminating it or creating new ones. As the weaving progresses the patterns appear. Between them is visible the background colour, the “ground”. This is shuttle-woven. Usually the different wefts of each colour in the same row are not connected to each other but simply run alongside, covering two adjacent warps. In this case, small interruptions appear in the weave. When the lines of the design parallel to the warp are large, the wefts are intermeshed to make the weave continuous. This is difficult and time-consuming work. Another way to achieve the same result is to pass the two adjacent wefts through the same warp, but this results in a slightly crooked line. In Cretan woven fabrics, decorative patterns with lines at right angles to the weave are rare. Usually the pattern lines are oblique, as the basic motif is the diamond.