first ever compu dobby for hand weavers

Dawn Jacobson

The things found when digging commences! Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of Ken Colwell's article as I'm missing that issue of SS&D. However, Susan Poague cited it in her thesis on "Computer Design in the Handweaving Process" (University of Iowa: 1987), which is available online.

Poague's thesis is well worth reading as it documents not only the move from mechanical to computer-aided dobby looms, but the beginnings of a lot of the software we, as weavers, rely on nearly every day. However, specifically to computerized dobby looms, Poague writes 
In 1981, the dobby and the computer were introduced in what was to become the first non-industrial computer-loom interface application. Ahrens and Violette, a dobby loom manufacturer in Chico, California, began distribution of a system for interfacing its production dobby loom with either Apple or IBM computers. Pattern Master IV with its Dobby Control disk was one of the programs used to replace the lag chain; the tie-up became electronic and stored in the computer's memory. The pattern in memory is woven automatically, as the computer selects the harness lifts in sequence. The software is able to simulate a loom with up to 600 treadles, although the harness numbers will always be limited to the number available on the loom. The computer can monitor the weft number, displaying the weaver's progress. (p. 63)

She continues,
Macomber Looms of York, Main, began marketing their own version of an electornic "dobby" at about the same time as the AVL loom was converted. Macomber targeted their Computer Assisted Textile Design and Production Series for the non-industry weaver. This was a much more accessible system than the AVL compu-dobby because it could be added to any Macomber Type B handloom built since 1936. The convenience of an electornic dobby was available for Macomber looms of any size having any number of harness frames. There was a choice in the type of computer to be used to interface with this loom. A small microprocessor could be attached to the shuttle box at the top of the loom. This was a computer with a limited capacity and only a digital readout, without a screen for graphics. It was able to perform the same Autoweave functions as the Atari computer system, the other alternative for interfacing. (pp. 63-64)

While I haven't had a chance to do more than skim most of Ms. Poague's thesis (a hard copy is currently printing), it does appear from these quotes that the two loom companies were very close to one another in bringing a computer-assisted loom to market in 1981.

The question that also arises: "Should the Macomber AirDobby system be considered a viable computerized dobby loom? Or was it an evolutionary dead-end?" There is no question that the converted dobby looms from Ahrens & Violette/AVL were (and are) dobby looms--F.J. "Jim" Ahrens began building mechanical dobby looms in the 1940s, and the partnership of Ahrens and John Violette in the late 1970s continued that tradition. Poague's description from 1987 is familiar to anyone who has woven on a contemporary computerized dobby loom, whether it is made by AVL, Leclerc, Louet, or Toika. It is a purpose-built piece of equipment: remove the dobby head from one of these looms, and they are nothing but sticks and string, incapable of weaving. 

On the other hand, at its core, the Macomber B (a "Big Mac") was, and is, a traditional floor loom. The mechanism that converted it from a traditional treadled floor loom to a dobby was a large box full of pneumatic actuators that fit over the treadles, connected (originally) to a rudimentary display. A contemporary comparison could be made to Lofty Fiber's TempoTreadle system: simply replace the sensors on each treadle with pneumatic actuators, and it's Macomber's AirDobby. Macomber's system was also reversible, which they used as a selling point: simply disconnect and remove the box of actuators over the treadles, and the AirDobby returns to its original state as a traditional floor loom.

Dawn Jacobson

Sally O

Here's a trail of breadcrumbs...

If someone can access the book Textile Arts Index 1950-1987 (pages 154-158), it lists all the articles about computers and weaving from that time span.

Periodicals listed in the index include Handweaver & Craftsman, SS&D, Handwoven, Weavers Journal, Complex Weavers Journal, Ars Textrina, Interweave, Fiber Arts, Prairie Wool Companion, Weavers Jounal, Master Weaver Library, and The Textile Museum Journal, among others.

Sally O

I was going through some vintage The Weavers Journal (Vol vii, No 3, Issue 27, Winter 82-83) and found an early AVL ad about computers and weaving on the back cover

Sally O

Photo of Ad: