When I was studying textile design I clearly remember being more than a little skeptical about the hand weaving classes that were part of our curriculum. What could be the use in learning to hand weave when the process of making the cloth that I wore in clothing for example appeared to be the product of a highly technical and industrial process, totally out of reach for an individual maker? I couldn’t see the appeal of what I thought was going to be some homespun version of cloth that was more suited to a Renaissance Faire costume than anything else and I wanted to skip weaving in favour of screen-printing, which I perceived as frankly way more hip than weaving could ever be. Well, all I can say is that after warping up a table loom and beginning to weave a clumpy sampler one afternoon I was totally hooked.
There’s something addictive about designing and weaving cloth. It’s an almost elemental process that is challenging both technically and artistically, and is so much more than the repetitive process of passing the shuttle back and forth through the warp. There’s a certain connection between your hands and your brain – a muscle memory that makers and artists cultivate that exists in the space between thinking and making. At its peak this becomes the state of “flow” that you might have heard of – a state where everything comes together in the work that you’re making and hours can pass unnoticed. Of course it’s not always that easy (particularly when looms are involved) but that’s the high that we’re always chasing…
Weaving at its most simple is the interlacing of weft threads at a right angle with warp threads held under tension – a binary process of alternating warp thread up and warp thread down to produce a plain weave fabric. But that is simply the beginning of the ever more intricate possibilities of construction that combines materials and complex combinations of threading to produce patterns, shapes and three-dimensional objects. Don’t take my word for it – take a look at this Pinterest Board to see some work that will really change your perception of what weaving is all about.
Weaving in general has been experiencing a real consumer revival of late in Western countries. In England, home of the industrial revolution – which was ignited by the advent of powered looms - weaving has always been widely appreciated, but industry in general has suffered from widespread moves to offshore production. In North America industrial weaving of cloth has declined hugely. The vast majority of mills mostly located in the South closed down in the early 2000’s as production moved to China following the expiration of the WTO’s last remaining import quotas on clothing and textile products at the end of 2004. However this broad collapse of manufacturing seems to have lately brought on a newfound appreciation for the handmade and small batch production. There are examples of small workshops and revived mills throughout the US and UK as well as the ever-present groups of dedicated hand weavers and local guilds. Although never a center for industry, here in Vancouver we too have a small but healthy community of hand weavers.
The Silk Weaving Studio, established in 1986 by weaver and designer Diana Sanderson recently celebrated 30 years on Granville Island. If ever you were curious about weaving this is the place to go and see looms in action! The studio owns both foot operated floor looms as well as several computer controlled dobby looms that can hold warps of more than 30 yards of hand-dyed silk.
These are used to create the wide variety of scarves and wraps woven at the studio. Whilst the computer aids the loom in operating each of the warp threads - the threads under tension– they still require each individual weft thread to be thrown by hand and I highly recommend going to see one of these in action. Check out the recent CBC interview with Diana – I love her quote about being hooked and starting to spend more money on silk than food..! Just don’t blame me if you also walk away with an armful of silk, silk blends or other gorgeous yarn. And if you’re interested in learning to weave ask at the studio about their beginner weaving classes as well the rigid heddle looms that they have just brought in - perfect for novices to learn on at home.
Ana Sousa is a local weaver making modern one-of-a-kind silk and natural fiber woven wall hangings. She and I recently participated in Vancouver design show ADDRESS Assembly showing a new series of work. I’ve already written about the trend in woven wall art and Ana’s work certainly hits the mark with her weavings finding homes in both private residences and commercial spaces. I asked Ana what drew her to weaving and she says “For me, it's two things, one is being able to make something out of simple string. It's quite magical. The second, which is still related to that connection with the material but also the connection with the tradition of weaving - it's so ancient.” Ana’s lists her influences as Lenore Tawney, Bauhaus artist Gunta Stolz and Sheila Hicks – all incredible and groundbreaking artists and weavers worth checking out.
For a different take on woven textiles, Post Projects is a local branding and design agency who recently completed a collaboration with Umbra Shift + Pendleton to produce the super amazing Cascade blankets The two patterns were inspired by the rugged terrain of the northern Cascade Mountains in western Canada.
So there you have it - lots of opportunity to embrace the craft of weaving with a modern sensibility. I'm off to warp up... stay tuned!!
One last tip – head over to The Jealous Curator to hear the latest podcast with artist Zoë Pawlak where she talks about having her paintings turned into amazing hand-woven rugs by Vancouver-based Burritt Brothers. Definitely worth a listen.
This article was published in The Province online on July 26th, 2016.
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