When I moved to Glasgow a year ago, I moved to the country of carpeted floors. Every British home seems to own a carpet, and everyone seems to have an affinity for it too. These carpeted floors are everywhere. Finding them in pubs is normal – whether this entails the tartan floors of my local one or the customised floors at the pub franchise Wetherspoons, where each of their 800 locations across the UK is dressed in customised carpet designs, inspired by the history of the building. Black and red Art Nouveau roses in Somerset, movie reels in a Paisley-esque pattern in an old cinema-turned-pub in Gloucester.1 I can’t help but think about all the remains of long nights buried in these carpets. Dried up liquids, late-night conversations, and the dirt from underneath endless pairs of shoes. How they clean these floors is still a mystery to me. You would think my cold home country of Norway would appreciate carpets the same way as Brits do. Instead, I grew up with insulated houses and woollen socks, and, to me, the carpets remain a uniquely British phenomenon. There are carpets in shopping malls and classrooms, and even in the changing rooms of my swimming hall.
Libraries can then seem like the lesser odd location for soft floors, muting sounds and making the rooms feel warm and cosy. Yet the carpets of Glasgow’s public Mitchell Library are of an unusual kind. Each floor is dressed in its own colourful and striking patterns, catching the eye of any visitor and distracting you away from your books.
The first floor is anonymously dressed in a patchy beige carpet. With an inventory of various stains from years of dirty shoes eventually to be cleaned, it offers an example of a failed public carpet and no warning of what’s waiting for you upstairs. The second floor, on the other hand, welcomes you with a Celtic-inspired pattern in green, brown and orange, stretched across the room in a hypnotic repetition. Moving onto the third floor, you will find a deconstructed interpretation of the city’s coat of arms. A tree and a thistle. A book and a bell. A fish with a golden ring in its mouth. These illustrations don’t only reference the city’s crest, but also the related hymn: There’s the tree that never grew, there’s the bird that never flew, there’s the fish that never swam, and there’s the bell that never rang.2
The carpet is woven in a palette of deep reds and golden yellows in a way that resembles a glitched 3D image, making you wonder if you are tired, dizzy, or have just spent too many hours in here. There are probably carpets I still haven’t explored, as this building – like its floors – sometimes feels like a labyrinth organised by a logic separate from the world outside.
‘There is almost like a desire to distract you,’ said the Turner prize-winning artist Elizabeth Price about the carpets in the Mitchell Library in an interview.3 They became the subject of her solo exhibition at the Hunterian Gallery in Glasgow last year. The carpets are not only unusual for a public library but also speak a language of their own, or at the very least they offer a different logic. Price continued, ‘The combination of the library and those carpets proposes something about how knowledge works or what was possible to think about. It might be much more about imagination than this late capitalist knowledge house, growth and productivity. Encountering knowledge can be sensory, exciting and psychedelic and that’s what those carpets remind me of.’
Since moving to this otherwise grey city, I have visited The Mitchell Library on a regular basis. It is usually with the aim of writing, since the library’s rather spacious bookshelves hold a poor selection of books, and rarely have the titles I’m looking for. The small art section mainly consists of books on gardening, paired with some half-trendy coffee table books about pop artists. Researching the history behind the library’s carpets, I was provided a sparse pile on the topic, mainly on traditional Oriental and Aztec carpet designs, with some chapters about the colonial history of the British carpet industry.4 Britain’s appreciation for carpeted floors dates back to the sixteenth century when textiles had previously only dressed tables, walls and windows. The Turkish, Persian and Far Eastern carpets brought back to Britain became symbols of their colonial power and conquests. The weaving traditions and designs of these colonies also came to influence British carpet production in the centuries to come.5
There were, however, no books to be found on the topic of the carpets surrounding me in the library. It felt like the carpets occupied enough space as it was, and a book on the topic would seem excessive. Or perhaps it was just too close to home, as the carpets were designed and produced by the carpet designer and manufacturer J & J.S Templeton & Co on a Spool Axminster loom in the outskirts of Glasgow. Templeton was once among the leading carpet designers and producers in the Western world. In the 1950s, they even were the city’s largest employer, with over 7000 people working in their factory – a building modelled after the Doge’s palace in Venice, in stark contrast to the otherwise gloomy, industrial city.6
Stoddard International plc was the other big Glasgow-based carpet designer and manufacturer, founded in the mid-1800s by the American Arthur Francis Stoddard. He had left the States for Europe due to his strong resistance to slavery and instead decided to set up his company in Scotland.7
Together, these two companies would come to be the largest names in the industry for a century, producing carpets for everywhere from Downing Street to the White House, the Queen’s coronation, and the Titanic ship (as well as the 1996 movie by the same name).8
Symbols of status and affluence as much as coverings for the floors, the carpets would usually come with designed patterns, made according to the room, occasion and style.9 Historically a working-class city, the Glaswegian carpet industry didn’t only live off dressing big addresses but thrived on their workers who eventually afforded to give their floors a makeover in the latest fashion. One floral carpet could be made after the floral decorations on the queen’s copy of the bible. Another one would be inspired by the mosaic floors in Byzantine churches. A restaurant would decorate its floors with a carpet pattern that matched the ornaments printed on its wine list.10 As the carpet manufacturer Fred H. Young wrote in his book on Templeton’s carpet production, these soft floors had become a symbol of success and modernity in the industrial age. Whether clothes were invented for protection, modesty or vanity, one can ask the same about carpets. ‘Like clothes, carpets have become part of our civilization.’11
Like clothes, carpets will also move in and out of fashion. With the introduction of easy-to-clean linoleum floors and shiny wooden panels in the 1980s, the decline of the carpet industry began. By the Nineties, the former competitors Templeton and Stoddard were sold to a Dutch company and outsourced, and by 2009 they were liquidated in the lost search for a new owner. Carpets were no longer symbols of a prosperous middle class but a declining symbol of an outdated past.
Yet they still exist on the many floors of the Mitchell Library. Like an alternative bibliography of Glasgow’s industrial past, or like artefacts holding tactile logics and languages of their own. In fact, the words ‘text’ and ‘textile’ share the same etymological origins. ‘Text’ derives from the Latin ‘textus’ – meaning tissue, but also style or texture of work. In turn, this comes from the word ‘textere’ – meaning to weave.12 Whether it’s thoughts or threads, the two practices share the same structure of linear materials fit together into a material of their own.
It’s curious how the mind likes to think in metaphors. I moved to Glasgow to study writing, at a time I struggled to write, and instead, I found myself weaving. It started as a form of distraction from the page, weaving paper instead of threads. I would cut my pages of writing into thin strips, weaving them back together into a new material which turned the text into a tissue. In his book The Death of the Author, the semiologist Roland Barthes talks about the text as ‘a tissue of quotations from innumerable centres of culture.’13 For me, weaving strips of sentences into their own kind of tissue became a way to let out my frustration around my initial craft through a simple fidget. I gave sentences another structure and a muted, illegible language of their own. At a time when everything I wanted to say disappeared between the lines, weaving was all about lines. Horizontal and vertical; warp and weft. Slowly they turned into the visual language of tapestry.
In her book Weaving the Word, textile researcher and writer Kathryn Sullivan Kruger compares the reading of a historical piece of woven cloth to one of a historical text. Not only are the earliest pieces of writing found woven into textiles – which, by the way, were traditionally made by women, leading the earliest writings back to the female. Kruger also emphasises how the forces that go into creating a piece of art are too rich and varied to be understood by only one discipline. ‘Textiles, like a sheet of paper, convey meaning, their language consisting of a grammar of fibre, design and dye.’14
Textile artist Anni Albers was also interested in the meeting between textile and text. Different yet similar practices and operations, binding threads, and combining words are processes of creating each their own texture. She used the typewriter as a tool for weaving, making up patterns of letters and numbers through the grid-structured format of a document.15 Just as sentences on a page move horizontally, lines are stacked vertically. After all, the loom was the earliest invention of the computer. The introduction of punch cards to automatise patterns of weaving would become the logic behind the 0s and 1s our computers are built on.16
The computer, just like the loom, can be traced back to women. Ada Lovelace is considered the first computer programmer, as she recognised how the machine could operate beyond pure calculations. ‘The Analytical Engine,’ she said, ‘weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.’17 Like a piece of lace, a weave, a text and a computer are all intricate constellations of ideas, made tangible in each their way. And how could she possibly have owned a better name, Ada Lovelace?
I have advanced from weaving paper by hand to using the digital jacquard loom that weaves thousands of threads into images in the same way as the library carpets were made. I spend my days following an image of green and white threads slowly emerging as I mechanically move the spool back and forth, while a computer tells the loom to lift specific combinations of arms, holding each their own thread. I fall into an automatic, meditative dance, a quiet language of the loom. I weave faces in a crowd watching a tennis match. Caught as they followed the ball moving back and forth over the net in their own automated rhythm, my work on the loom almost became an extension of their movements.
The jacquard loom is a surprisingly loud thing, and these weaves are born from a state of noise. Quietly, the loud machinery drowns out all surrounding sounds. Perhaps the textiles themselves are forced to be quiet. Or they might hold on to the white noise that remains when the loom is turned off. The quietness of a completed weave makes me think of the quiet void of the weaving industry that once shaped this city, which is now long gone. All the looms that were once running separated the chaos of noise as a side effect of the neat patterns they produced to keep historical buildings honourable, homes warm, and libraries quiet.
Today, the remains of Glasgow’s once-largest industry sit in the city’s largest public library. They hold their own records of history through a series of kaleidoscopic patterns and soft, woollen surfaces. Dust and debris, decades of footsteps of a city evolving through the industrial rise and fall of its infamous carpet industry. Now, my many attempts at writing also belong between the fibres of these colourful carpets. In this library, text and threads have slowly been woven together, or simply reunited as the shared language where they both once came from.
Emma Aars is a Norwegian writer living in Glasgow and Oslo. Her first essay collection Eye as a Camera will be released by Objektiv Press in January 2024.
‘The City Crest,’ https://www.glasgow.gov.uk/article/17325/The-City-Crest, accessed 9th November 2023. ↩
‘Elizabeth Price talks psychedelic carpets and library utopias in her new show at The Hunterian,’ Scottish Contemporary Art Network, 6th December 2022, https://sca-net.org/elizabeth-price-talks-psychedelic-carpets-and-library-utopias-in-her-new-show-at-the-hunterian/, accessed 9th November 2023. ↩
Cornelia Bateman Faraday, European and American Carpets and Rugs, 2nd edition, Antique Collector’s Club, 1990. ↩
‘TITANIC CARPET DESIGNS SAVED FOR THE NATION,’ UNIVERSITY NEWS, University of Glasgow, 28th January 2009, https://www.gla.ac.uk/news/archiveofnews/2009/january/headline_107179_en.html, accessed 9th November 2023. ↩
‘Interwoven connections : the Stoddard Templeton design studio & design library 1843-2005,’ Exhibition Catalogue, Mackintosh Museum The Glasgow School of Art. ↩
Stoddard, ‘Carpets and Interiors: a guide for architects, decorators, furnishers, hoteliers, shipbuilders,’ 1955, p. 45. ↩
Fred H. Young, A century of Carpet Making, 1839-1939, Templeton & Co, 1944, p. 11. ↩
Susan Howe, Spontaneous Particulars, New Directions, 2020, p. 19. ↩
Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image-Music-Text, Fontana Press, 1977, p. 146. ↩
Kathryn Sullivan Kruger, Weaving the Word, Susquehanna University Press, 1994. ↩
T’Ai Smith, ‘On reading On Weaving’ in Anni Albers, On Weaving, 2017. ↩
Amalie Smith, Thread Ripper, Gyldendal, 2022, p. 9. ↩