The Yarnworker School patrons and I are spending our summer school session tackling the process of formulating a plan to weave a project. We placed pause on this activity to recognize a moment in a long reckoning with race, justice, and inequality in America. At a time when we have all experienced the impact of systemic lost opportunity, not proportionally, but simultaneously, it frames race matters differently. This space has been, and will always be, about weaving, and in weaving we see all things. The metaphors embedded in the weaving and design process are not lost on me as I continue to write this post. It contains a lot of words, perhaps too many words.
What is Design?
The mechanics of solving a for a quandary such as “I want to create a runner in these colors for this space” involves things like guesstimating sett, choosing materials, deciding when to test your ideas, and doing the math, is a substantial part of design. You have a vision and you formulate a plan. There is also that bit of something extra that you bring to it. The you-ness of it. There is so much there, there.
To proceed, you can jump in, see what happens, make adjustments when things don’t go as planned, and move onto the next project with nary a care for a plan with a capital P. Oh, the sheer joy of it all. You never know what will spill off your loom. There is also a process that includes thoughtful planning, experimimentation, study, and circling back. We often work on some sort of continuum between the two. I have a push-me, pull-you relationship with both methods. Discovery comes from mistakes, not from perfect plans. Better plans evolve by learning from your mistakes.
I think of the elements of weaving as a universal language. Almost every culture, since the dawn of humankind, has included some kind of weaving tradition that involves these elements—warp, weft, shedding devices, and colorwork. There are some instances where a loom isn’t even necessary, basket weaving comes to mind. When we learn to weave, we learn these things. Weavers combine these elements in ways using a wide variety of tools that may be utilitarian or for personal or cultural expression, or both. Just the act of making cloth is a form of personal expression.
What inevitably comes up when we tackle the subject of design is the concept of originality. And that is the purpose of this post. It is long, and as with many blog posts in this space, it is the answer to a question I am frequently asked.
Your work is always your own if it is for your own personal pleasure, which is what the Yarnworker School is all about—making cloth that makes us happy. Where it gets murky is when we share this work in a public forum, submit it for publication or exhibition, or sell it. The language we use to describe this work becomes important and so does our ability to recognize to what degree it is original. I say this not to discourage or gatekeep, but to encourage, empower, and support weavers of today and to honor the work that went before us. We need more sharing, more folks submitting work for publication and exhibition, more teaching, and in particular, more diversity in all these spaces. It is what keeps this craft moving forward.
Originality is not a must to be a weaver, but you do need to be mindful of what it is. The breadth of weaving styles is vast. You may have experienced that feeling when something truly fresh shows up in your space. It may or may not be original, but it is new to you. Each generation rediscovers anew the breadcrumbs left by the generation before. It is absolutely possible for two weavers to not be exposed to any published weaving materials or cultural weaving traditions and still arrive in a similar place. Similar, but never exact.
What I love about cloth is that it does have a point of view and fabric that is deeply rooted in a sense of place or time is evident, once you learn to see. The joy we feel in creating something feels new and fresh, because it is new and fresh to us. Plaid is not original, but the color, materials, proportion, and approach to plaid may breathe fresh air into this classic design element that shows up in almost every setting there is a weaver. Working with universal weaving techniques, inspired by lots of different sources, gets your work to a different place. You have to do your own work.
No one owns weaving, and the copyright laws involved in managing published works is complicated. It, as I understand, boils down to the fact that if you published the written instructions, in a publication or online, you have a greater claim to owning the components of your design than if you don’t. By this, I mean other folks can’t use your written instructions, photographs, or diagrams to teach or publish. A draft is not copyrighted, but your printed rendition of it may be.
There are other ethical and legal considerations, too. When it comes to selling other people’s designs or borrowing too heavily from them and then claim them as your own, that’s pretty universally recognized as unethical and largely illegal without permission. There are weavers who do not mind if you sell their designs if you ask permission and credit their work. If you are submitting your work for exhibition, check the guidelines to see if it requires that it be original. If it doesn’t you still need to credit your source. Keep in mind that copyright might be shared between two or more parties.
For further reading about selling your work and issues of copyright, check out this response form Madelyn Van Der Hooght, from author, teacher, and former editor of Handwoven and Handwoven’s ebook, Know Your Rights: Copyright 101 for Weavers.
Social media allows us to share our work directly and bypass some of the gatekeeping (see, Curators below). If you are at a gatekeeper’s door and can’t get in, social sharing and self-publishing offers another avenue to share your work. It may provide you with more feedback that will get you in that door, if indeed that is your goal, or you can create your own door.
When you post, it is a good idea to tell folks where your inspiration and knowledge came from. If you share a photo, be sure you credit it appropriately. Photographs are copyrighted although that right may be shared with the platform you posted on if it is included in their terms for using the platform. If photographing your work is part of your craft, you may want to put a watermark or signature on your photos.
The share button on social media can be a gray ethical area. I assume, but am still cautious, that if a post is shareable on social media and the privacy settings aren’t set to restrict, then folks want their work or links to be shared. I try to use good judgment in this area and mostly share works from organizations, news media, businesses, and individual weavers who maintain independent websites or a public profile. If you run a weaving-related business, be mindful how you use social sharing to sell or promote your own services or products.
Always credit the original source or include the original link. You may or may not include the source that shared the information, that can come with a hat tip if you regularly rely on someone else to do your curating for you. Just to say this from Yarnworker’s perspective, I would rather the work get shared and credited appropriately to the source than Yarnworker get credit for sharing the work. A substantial part of Yarnworker’s social media footprint is about showing the wide breadth of the weaving world with a curatorial eye towards what would interest a rigid-heddle weaver.
At all the points of entry to the craft, there are curators also known as gatekeepers. I have worked for, with, and among many of them. They taught me a lot and I owe many a debt of gratitude. They are managers of their space and it’s their job to be aware of what’s out there and what would excite, challenge, grow, and inspire their audience. I appreciate a curated approach—yarn sellers do it, publishers do it, galleries do it, guilds do it, craft schools do it, conferences do it, podcasters do it, blogs do it. At its best the approach is mission driven, collaborative, transparent, and introspective about what their gatekeeping criteria is, and how they implement it. Hopefully, all gatekeepers are mindful to encourage a diverse representation of their corner of the weaving universe and they aren’t afraid to challenge their own audience’s perception of what their mission is.
Many folks have covered this better than I have and I feel like it isn’t really right for me to speak to it in exacting terms. I don’t want to speak for others, so I’ll speak from personal experience. I found Lynda Teller Pete’s recent post on the Weave A Real Peace blog a particularly good frame for this conversation. Emi Ito’s open letter to white makers and designers who are inspired by the kimono and Japanese culture also made me cringe at my Bamboo Obi project in Weaving Made Easy. I could have done a much better job of giving credit for my inspirations. Sashes are universal, but the Obi is very specific. Saying more about its sacred ceremonial purpose and removing the word “modern” in the description and Obi in the title would have been much more respectful, and even that might not be enough.
There is a huge opportunity for weavers to personally explore the many ways culture and weaving intersect. It is one of the best ways to deepen your respect for traditions different from our own. Personal exploration is different from claiming, adding social gain, or profiting from them. It is in this area we need to bring more mindfulness to our work.
Know Your Vantage Point and Welcome Others
To conclude, I’d like to share a bit about my own weaving journey and the space from which I design, teach, write, weave, and work. I moved to New Mexico nearly six years ago from Colorado where I lived for twenty-five years. I moved there from Virginia, where I lived from the age of three. I was born in Texas. My early weaving life was greatly influenced by Western European traditions of the Appalachia—overshot coverlets, fancy twill linens, linsey woolsey homespun, rag rugs. Cloth that is not devoid from a point of view.
The weavers I encountered were primarily white. There is no weaving tradition in my family that was passed down from one generation to the next. I had neighbors and adults I greatly admired who did weave and I thought they made magic. I was completely enamored with sheep raising and weaving as a therapeutic activity. I was made aware by my family, teachers, and mentors of the deep roots textile culture and economics have to slavery, economic development, and inequality.
This is the cultural stew I was raised in and carried with me to Colorado, where I tried to get into Occupational Therapy school, and was rejected. I found my way into the social science department where I put together a mishmash of wool science, fiber arts, and socioeconomic coursework into a degree, which often led me to New Mexico where I now live.
I share a professional and personal love of weaving cloth with many weavers who walk the same cultural path as me and those who don’t. I hope I know my lane and I can point to many places in my life where my naive enthusiasm has made me drift; I’m still doing it. Sometimes a teacher needs to get schooled. How exhausting it must be to nudge folks like me. It is a personal, daily task to build my network of teachers, suppliers, artists, and makers. I am conscious of those who walk a different cultural path from mine and try to support their work in the way they want to be supported. It is a daily practice of figuring out how to show up.
Many of my weaving heroes first encountered weaving via another culture with a continuous weaving tradition, and we owe these communities a debt of gratitude and respect. It makes me a little crazy when I read headlines that include the “dying art of weaving” phrase or variation on that theme. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. When I use the word “culture” I am talking about a living breathing thing that is embedded people’s everyday lives. It is fresh and evolving in addition to having deep, deep roots.
Here is how some of this shows up in my life: I live in an area of the U.S. that is recognized for its weaving traditions, namely Navajo and Rio Grande style weaving, and I do not weave in this style. I am frequently asked to teach because I am visible and accessible. I often defer publishing, teaching, and other opportunities to other non-white weavers. I don’t mean to say I don’t accept plenty of the opportunities that come my way, but I am mindful of the ones I do accept and the ones I should pass on and/or encourage a more inclusive approach. There is an opportunity for me to say here, if you are a weaving teacher who represents, I’d love to hear from you and make referrals. To see the handweaving world express a more fully realized view of the cultural landscape in which weaving does and can live is a must. This means making visible more weavers weaving from non-white, non-normative, cultural landscapes—more publishing, more teaching, more exhibiting, more sharing, more posting.
Yes, we do want to have fun, and our hobbies are our pleasurable pastimes. Gathering and sharing our work is validating to the role that weaving plays in our lives. There is nothing here that says it needs to be so heavy, except sometimes it does, and it is an equally important part of the weaving journey—to see where we intersect as humans weaving, and to honor the many branches of the tree and respect its roots.