In former times many people wove cloth for their own use, and sometimes for sale or barter with their neighbours. In most of Europe these skills were lost long ago, but they are still practiced in many parts of the world, albeit in steep decline.
Weaving was done for practical purposes, but also for personal adornment and as a marker of identity. In many cases textiles and clothing have ritual and ceremonial aspects, such as the formal exchanges of bridewealth goods that occur in some parts of Southeast Asia.
Weaving is complicated, with many steps involving the cultivation of plants and animals, yarn preparation, dyeing, loom creation and setup, weaving and finishing. A novice weaver can learn to operate a loom in a few months, but it often takes a decade or more to master all the aspects of the craft. This information must be transmitted from generation to generation with few or no errors (looms are unforgiving devices), entirely by oral and visual means. In most weaving traditions, even in literate cultures, the written word plays little or no part. This makes weaving an ideal topic for researching how culture is transmitted and how it evolves over time. This type of transmission is becoming rarer today, but it is how information was passed from generation to generation for most of our 200,000 year history. The fact that the majority of such traditions are disappearing as factory-made textiles replace traditional modes makes recording such traditions an urgent concern.
I am interested in the "big picture" of how complex culture is transmitted and maintained over time, and how it changes. This means researching culture at a variety of scales, from conversations with individual weavers about their life history and how they learned their craft, to looking at large-scale patterns, particularly in loom types and weaving techniques, at a continent-wide scale.
Recently I have been focusing on loom technology. Looms are one of the most conservatively transmitted aspects of weaving culture, and reconstructing the phylogenies of loom development is an extremely rewarding topic (albeit one with a longish learning curve for someone who was not trained as a weaver). Looms are as much markers of people and ethnicity as language is, and they have the potential to reveal migrations and relationships between peoples. They are also interesting in their own right in the light that they shed on how technology evolves in the absence of the written word.