Learning by Hand

Mary Olin Geiger

Via Handwoven Tape: Understanding and Weaving Early American and Contemporary Tape, a book written by Susan Faulkner Weaver

As she writes on pages 10-11: “Every culture needed long, narrow bands of cloth for their tying and strapping needs. Different cultures have referred to tape in their own manner, and have made it with their own variations in style and appearance… Oral traditions were important for passing down the Early Americans’ common tape patterns… functional, utilitarian tying and strapping tape, used for such things as cloth ties and satchel straps.”

Learning process described by Mary Olin Geiger

These are my reflections on the initial stage of learning a hand-craft in social isolation. Over the course of several days, the importance of human interaction in this process became apparent: especially in the act of learning. This length of tape was made with materials I already had in my home prior to quarantine, including cotton thread and a borrowed loom. Here, I translated my notes from a handwritten list into verse.

Page 102 #14, Tape Pattern: Single Dash with Border


Reproduction, original weaver unknown.

This weaver could have been my great great great great grandmother.

Or her sister, or her aunt, or cousin;

all the women and children used to do this.

So, men had it in their muscle memories too, probably.

They taught each other using words and hands                 

not writing it down.

I go to my warping board,

purchased at a store not far from where

they used to weave this kind of tape. Pennsylvania Germans.

I never thought I’d return to the place where half of my family came from.

Tape is utility made by women and children

A fibrous material needed to tie clothing and other materials together,

before zippers and velcro

to bind         attach          hold    

I wind the warp.   This I know

from past learning. Back and forth, tie it off, remove it.

Back to the book:

Tape is utility made by women and children

A fibrous material needed to tie clothing and other materials together,

before zippers and velcro    

to bind         attach          hold

Daisy chain, hands around loops, fingers

at the cross, making sure not

to     lose it.

Start from the front.

like I usually do.

Back to the book: 

A little unclear on warping – I take a measured guess? 

I’ve lost 3 strings in the cross. Ah,

Because they are individual colors. Damn.

now the warp is tangled

travelling through slots and holes. 

Will it stay messed up? 

more      knots

wind the shuttle. Begin. How do I beat? It’s too loose. 

Research this. Look at the pictures.

Ahhh, I look and see

the edge of the shuttle – that is the tool.

It’s tapered.         That makes sense. 

My hands are clumsy        This rhythm

is harder than I thought.

Why is it so loose? Why is my

warp not evenly tensioned! 

Angry. It’s all messed up.       Try to

start over; with this warp though.

It gets tangled. Can’t be saved. 

(Scraps for later I guess.)


Begin again. 

Go back to the warping board. 

Wind again. 

Ok, now, tie all the strings together, to

avoid those tangled, out of order threads.

Cross is intact. Good. Better than

last time.     Let’s keep it front to back.

that feels familiar. 

Warp again.

Through holes and slats, tie one knot. Start.

This feels better.         continue        wait 

It’s wrong again. I wish I had someone to show me.

I’ll talk to Chris when I’m able to see her again.

She’ll know. Susan might get back to me soon,

I’ll ask her.

For now, continue.  Terrible.

tension is wrong again. should I

stop? for the day? no, just re-tie.


Re-tie, get tangled. Don’t start

over again, just stretch it out 

Take the time to untangle.

I do this. 

Spread out the warp maybe? More

spaces? Try it. 3 knots now

instead of one. 

Begin again @ new knot at the

front.         Feels better.

Tension is great. Although

The weave is balanced and not

right. Too much spaces between threads. 


New knot @ front. Re-sley. Take out

half the spaces 

Begin again        better

closer. Getting a rhythm

feeling my hands learning the motions.

Up, pass, hold, shift grip, beat, repeat

Oops I miss a string. That’s ok.


Take away more spaces. Now

it looks alluvial. This works better.

Now, much better than before.


back and forth           back and forth 

back and forth. Step away.

Come back. Back and forth.

I see the end knots. A few

more passes.


First one done.

I coil the length, and carry it into another room.

Laying it out on paper to show the full length, I take a photograph.

What if they were here to help me?


Excerpt from a phone conversation on May 14th 2020:

Mary Olin Geiger: It was interesting, over the couple days that I worked on this first (length of) tape, I thought, “I’m doing this all by myself, getting frustrated.” I was having a conversation with this book, which is written words on a page, not dialogue. I was thinking about that, in this time of social isolation, and I realized how important that social part would have been: even in the learning. 

Susan Faulkner Weaver: You know, you can really reflect on whatever you want when you’re in a private setting, doing some kind of craft or art, whatever it is. I know one thing with weaving: weaving guilds are very, very important in today’s world. And that’s because, you know, weaving is a very private way of creating. Guilds are a way of coming together with all these people, coming from their private time, weaving together, sharing, educating, having fun, laughter. It’s really, really, really important. And it sort of balances out with that private time that you have in the weaving-focus. You know, other art forms, I’m sure they have their ways of gathering and communing together, which is very important. Another thing I just want to mention is that I have been teaching for many years, (and) if I teach a rag weaving workshop, I just do a little monologue on the history of rag weaving. I focus on the 1930s in Appalachia, and the importance of rag weaving to certain cultures. And then I get into the nitty gritty of how to do it. I don’t like the concept of “how-to do it,” you know, the concept of “make and take.” I think it’s important, and so I was doing that before I got into tape weaving, exploring different cultures and respecting where people were coming from a long time ago. I just think that’s so important when you’re going to work on something, to know that history before you go beyond it. 

M: That’s something that I both think about a lot and struggle with, because I think nostalgia can be a big rabbit hole. How do you have, or how do you live with, a history and act around a history while not saying it’s better or worse, or you know, any of those things? What are the ways that we can just exist with these histories? I do think craft is one of those ways. It’s a very direct connection. 

S: When you’re learning the weave structure, historically, you’re also learning about the people, and everything that was going on around them. It’s not just that narrow focus of weaving; you’re learning an overview of that particular period of time and what the folks were about and what was important to them. You’re using weaving or textiles as the focus, but yet, it’s not this narrow focus with blinders on.

M: It’s kind of like a conduit. to look at people through the things that they make.

S: It’s a symbol. Yeah, I just find that fascinating. And so, in writing this book, the focus was tape. But I was incorporating a lot of what I learned about Pennsylvania German history into that, and that was important. I know one of your questions had to do with something about other kinds of inherited learning?

M: Yeah! If you’d like to talk about that one, that would be a good transition.

S: Well, I was thinking of my mother. My mother’s father worked in a weaving textile mill, and he was just there for the machinery. He wasn’t really into the craft. But my mother has always been… she’s always been very creative. She was always a really good seamstress. She would buy her material, make her suits, and then she would go out and buy the accessories: the hat and the handbag, and the shoes to go with it. You know, the colors and everything back in the 50s and 60s. She was very good that way and a phenomenal designer: she’d upholster her own furniture, you know, stuff that I wouldn’t even attempt. I’m really bad on the sewing machine, which is where I have to do all my finishing work, and I cringe when I get off the loom and have to finish with hemming and all for handbags. But she has really been my role model, just from watching her. And I guess I took one step backwards and went into the world of weaving, creating the fabric, and she would do things with the fabric. I remember when I first bought my 42 inch floor loom—I had no clue what to do with it. I didn’t know whether it was a good loom or not, but I bought it from a farmer’s wife: she sold it quite reasonably to me. I came with all this 8/2 cotton thread, so I put the whole width of the warp on the loom—the whole width of the loom was warped up with this cream colored cotton thread, and I wove curtain material. I had no idea what I was doing, but I had no fear in me! I just did it. And I always think back on that, and it’s like you had got to have been crazy, Susan, but it worked! And so, bottom line is, I made a beautiful fabric: cotton fabric. The weft had some slub in it, so it had some interest, and (I) took it off the loom. And then I realized there is no way I could possibly make curtains out of this! I made the fabric, but I can’t do anything with it. I could not cut into it! So I gave it to my mother and she turned my fabric into beautiful curtains. And it was just wonderful. I guess I inherited that little bit from my mother, you know, how to examine fabric and play with it, then creating it. 

M: Right. That’s an interesting lineage too, because you identified stepping back in the process to the fabric itself, but you can also see how (the two parts of the process) interact and how the ways that you learned about fabric before inform what you’re doing now. 

S: I had never really thought of it that way before. (I’ve) never thought of my mother and having that much influence, but then I started really thinking: it was definitely there. 

M: A lot of what I’m thinking about is how to talk about and how to make sense of these relationships, like you just described with your mother, acknowledging the connections in ways that aren’t just related to the pristine craft object where it’s like, “I learned this from this person,” or all of those direct lineages. There’s also indirect things at play that we don’t often see (clearly). If it’s not being passed down through oral tradition, is it changing?

S:  Well, it is and it isn’t. You know, you can still  make the tape from my traditional tape patterns. But that’s why, in the book, I have the history and the tradition in the front and then (in) the back is contemporary. And I did that on purpose so that you would be able to take it and go with it. It isn’t changing, because it looks just the same, you know.  But yes, it’s changing as far as the colors and patterns and things like that. I don’t quite know how to answer that.

M: I don’t quite know how to answer it myself. I guess this is one of the questions that I try to bring in to conversations like this every once in a while, so maybe I can get a little closer, you know what I mean?

S: If you’re not learning it by the oral tradition way, if you’re learning the “how-to,” that would be the same as (being) curled up with your mother for years and learning how to do it with your sister or something. But you’re not learning any kind of little shortcuts, or tips that they would have been expressed in the oral tradition. So the change would be in the loss of some of the finer techniques, maybe, or in the spinning of the fiber. It’s being changed by not having all of that, and having to sort of pick up the pieces and go on. And that’s the sadness of oral traditions is that you’re losing some of the knowledge because it’s not documented. But you do the best you can, and hope that your reproductions are adequate.

M: And maybe it didn’t want to be preserved.

S: You know, I have some of my own pieces of tape, and some of them are from that period. And you can almost tell, I mean, sometimes they get a little wobbly… and you can sort of tell that maybe someone else was taking over on the loom. And this is one of the most beautiful things about tape weaving. A loom, in weaving, it’s a private thing. You work up your loom and you weave what you want to weave – it’s all you. But with the tape weaving, the beauty of the tape loom is that it is not just for one person: it’s all different people in the family that were weaving the tape. And to me that is just phenomenal! With a tape weaving, you had a bunch of different people weaving that length of tape. It wasn’t just one person as a tape weaver; that wasn’t their one chore. And so, to me, that was just an amazing concept: more than one person was weaving that piece of tape and you can’t really identify how much did one person do, before (they) got off the loom to do other chores, and someone else got on it later – if it’s raining or whatever, moving inside the house. You just have no clue. And to me, that makes it magical because it wasn’t just one person.

M: That’s a beautiful thought.

S: It was a shared piece of tape. It could have been one person, it could have been two, it could have been many people working on that because they were weaving yardage. They weren’t just weaving a couple of feet – they would put a huge warp on their loom, especially on the standing looms, and then weave it off. Not all at once, (but) whenever they had a free moment: so it was a continuous project.

M:  Yeah, and it’s connective: it’s like connective tissue between people. Then and also now.

S: It’s very social, you know: tape has so many people’s hands in it. People have different tension; everyone weaves a little differently. That was something that I would always think about when I was weaving tape at Landis Valley, before a lot of visitors would come in. When I would be on these old historical looms, by myself, and (my) mind starts wandering and wondering about who was weaving, what was the purpose, (and)  who was it going to be used for. There’s just so many questions out there: unanswered questions. But I think it’s beautiful to have unanswered questions.


MARY OLIN GEIGER (Mo) makes collaborative artworks, theater, performance, and the materials that live within those worlds and at their intersections. She is an MFA candidate in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice Program. For more information, visit mogeiger.com

SUSAN FAULKNER WEAVER has been weaving and teaching hand weaving workshops for almost 30 years. She began her studies at The Mannings Handweaving School in East Berlin, PA. Susan worked for a number of years as a Textile Educator and Demonstrator at Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, a PA German Living History Museum in Lancaster, PA. She is a member of the Central PA Guild of Craftsmen, as well as a Heritage Crafter in Lancaster. Her weavings are sold regionally.


Weaver, Susan F. Handwoven Tape: Understanding and Weaving Early American and Contemporary Tape. Atglen, PA. Schiffer Publishing, 2016.

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