cotton, Living History, Spinning, Weaving

Claiming My Identity as a Black Weaver in 21st Century America

It is only recently that I have come to identify myself as a weaver. It has been much more culturally relevant to call myself a retail manager, a human resources coordinator, or a primary school teacher.

I met my first loom weaver, a professor and active artist, back in 2005 at college in the Apparel, Textiles, and Merchandising department. I was already in love with all forms of loom-free weaving and could do some hair braiding, macrame, crochet, and had figured out the knit stitch. I had never seen a loom or a weaver in person. My professor taught me the basics of weaving my Junior year. She taught me to weave with expensive yarn, using a complicated computer-operated loom. It wasn’t my place. I didn’t connect with that fabric (silky Tencel and overshot patterning all over), that loom did not suit my lifestyle. There was no community to join. Enthusiasm was nill for this slow, tedious work among my cohorts who were striving to become fashion designers and buyers. If college did anything, it made it very clear that I wanted nothing to do with the fashion industry but gave me license to keep practicing and learning. After all, I had to justify this degree.

I kept working, collecting tools, studying, and practicing in the seclusion of my home. I taught myself tablet weaving, then moved on to buy an inkle, rigid heddle, and folding table loom. I worked alone and never showed my work or practiced in public. I met knitting & spinning friends but no weavers. I have always been an anomaly in any fiber arts group both for being younger (even still at 36 years old), and the only Black American.

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These tablet woven bands were woven in college around 2005. Recently sewn into serviceable projects

I grew up in a predominately Black town of about 10,000 residents. Noone, beyond braiding hair knew or did any sort of fiber art. My inspiration came mostly from seeing my paternal grandmother’s past projects and hearing relatives rave about her skill in making clothing and crochet. Fiber arts were a thing of the past. Something left to the olden days. I was, and still am a radical for doing this work. Especially, as I have ventured into cultivating, spinning, and weaving cotton and processing raw wool. Regardless, my internal fire burns for this work. It is an inherent trait. I must do it.

In 2015 I found a weaving guild online that meets monthly. It is an hour drive away but I have grown accustomed to traveling long distances for fiber arts comradery. It has been so wonderful to meet fellow weavers. Fiber artists are the kindest, most generous people wherever they’re found. This has been my experience. All love.

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I was inspired to weave my first blouse from handspun cotton after joining Duneland Weaver’s Guild. I discovered that I prefer to weave in narrow strips that would then get pieced together intuitively into a finished garment. My beanie was created from handspun cotton by using a doily pattern partially then using crochet stitches to form the brim.

After finally being part of a real community I became aware of a huge void in my life as a fiber artist. I was weaving a lot more but not in a way that resonated with me. I didn’t love my work. The standard way is incredibly expensive and wasteful. The projects, mostly table runners, placemats, and dishtowels are foreign to my cultural context. The use of color was so conventional. Inevitably, I ventured off into my own realm of randomness.

As I have thrown out the rule book a certain aesthetic has defined itself within my work. I have had to acknowledge to myself that I am not just another weaver. I am a Black weaver and that means something. The connections I draw from the traditions of the past are unique. My eye likes a certain look. I have different goals for my textiles. I like high contrast and jewel tones. I like simple patterning in blocks rather than entire fields. I like for design elements to be irregular. I weave in narrow strips and piece the fabric together to make a larger fabric in order to limit waste. I plan projects on the fly with few notes. This is me.

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Working through some homegrown cotton
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I painted this picture back in 2010 when I first started spinning cotton to illustrate my complicated relationship with the fiber. The hand can be interpreted in 2 ways. Either it’s waving goodbye to the cotton fields (leaving a past of ruthless exploitation behind) or reaching back to the cotton fields (to reconnect and reclaim my heritage)

Some may read this and think why should race have to be a factor in this conversation. Honestly, I wish it weren’t and I fought it for years. I would challenge that person to imagine being an outlier in something that is so intertwined in your identity. Never seeing someone like yourself in any room, publication, or website. Connect with an ancient craft with no links or forms of reference other than the sappy, tragic cotton-picking slave narrative. What are my traditions in cloth? Where is my place in American weaving history outside of toiling in the fields of southern cotton plantations? If I am an American weaver, where is my rightful, dignified representation in the history books?  It’s an odd yet necessary space to dwell.  I have resolved that although Black Americans have limited participation in the American Weaving tradition today there is so much more to uncover about the past. There is only one American history and I am a part of it.

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Sharing a strip woven garment at a weaving guild meeting (photo: Duneland Weavers Guild website)

I stood up and said something at a guild meeting after 4 years of having not met another Black American weaver. I was met with much kindness and empathy yet none of us know what to do about this. It was at this point that I realized that I have a responsibility to be seen. If I am “it” then I have to stand up and be counted. I may not recruit an army of Black weavers but at least people will know I exist. It is completely out of my comfort zone but I owe it to those who came before me.

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Hanspun and woven naturally colored cotton keepsake amulet with cotton seeds and copy of Mary Madison’s Plantation Slave Weavers Remember: An Oral History (Available in Shop traditonsincloth.bigcartel.com)

Not long after that “coming out” moment, I discovered a book published by another Black American weaver called Plantation Slave Weavers Remember: An Oral Tradition. Mary Madison searched through the Nationa Library of Congress archives of interviews from formerly enslaved Black Americans and compiled their statements relating to fiber arts in a book. I have not been the same since this discovery. I am not alone! Thank God for the internet. I am on the right track to reconnecting with my own traditions in cloth in a meaningful way. I can go on forever about all the things I have in common with these ancestors as they describe their work with fiber. The best way to illustrate this connection is to share my practice and projects.  This point of view must be woven into the American fiber arts narrative. I am thankful to all of the people that have supported me along the way. My hope is that more people will appreciate and become active participants in practicing and preserving our traditions in cloth.

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Wearing my new handspun and woven keepsake amulet necklace. I will honor and preserve my traditions in cloth

12 thoughts on “Claiming My Identity as a Black Weaver in 21st Century America”

  1. So happy to find your site. Discovered Mary Madison’s book this spring and was so moved by it. Braiding my Black daughter’s hair was my main fiber work for years, but it also brought me back to spinning that I had “shelved” for the years of child growing and full-time work. Finding one’s own voice is so important.

  2. Expanding the world of weavers by technique, background and unique aesthetic is both old and new. Your strip woven garment is lovely, and new to me as a method, one I plan to try. I am a member of a large guild (200+), and it is only recently we have welcomed black spinners and weavers.

    1. Joan, It’s so nice to hear from a fellow weaver. I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of what can be done with strip weave but even so it’s been so rewarding. Wow, 200 weavers! That’s got to be an exciting show and tell.

  3. This post resonates with me so much. So much of it parallels my story. Similarly, I am always the only one in my guild and at weaving conferences. I have owned Plantation Slave Weavers Remember for a number of years. My excitement in finding myself in the American history of weaving was exhilarating, even if it was through the legacy of my enslaved ancestors. Thank you for writing this.

    1. I am glad we found each other. This really solidifies to me the importance of sharing our stories and work. There is so much solace in knowing that you’re not alone in doing this work.

  4. Wonderful site. I bought a copy of ‘Plantation Slave Weavers Remember: An Oral History’ and donated a copy to my weaving guild library..

  5. What a beautiful piece. I too can relate! Only black student in my weaving school (in Chicago not less). I’m still very very new to the spinning & weaving world but have very recently began thinking how I would love to learn to spin cotton. It’s my favorite fiber to work with when crochet or weaving. I saw your drop spindles full of cotton and I need learn this! Do you grow cotton in the Duneland area? That would be very impressive! Our short warm growing season seems like it would be difficult to grow cotton in the Chicago region. So so glad to have found you!

  6. Oh Happy Day!!
    I’m just sitting here browsing the internet researching information related to “African Americans loom weavers” for my future podcasts. Then I came across you, happy, happy. Every word written is so relatable and so refreshing. I’m very excited and I hope to meet you one day. My current journey is to find a Master’s program in Loom Weaving in my part of the country. There’s is one in Arizona, but I prefer California; better yet in Nevada where I live…how about that? Do you know of any universities or colleges that offer weaving programs outside of your area?
    Thank you for the literature suggestion, l plan to locate a copy immediately.
    I have signed up to your website and I will stay in touch though that platform.
    Keep your shuttles up and
    Your bobbins ready.

    1. Hey there!! I’m so glad you found my blog. I hope you’re well on the way to finding your Master Weaver program. Folk Schools usually offer these programs. I am not that familiar with the west coast scene. The University I went to only offered an entry-level weaving course. If you’re up for traveling there are quite a few programs on the East Coast. I just returned from the 8-Week Swedish Immersion program at Vavstuga in Massachusetts. It was wonderful!! I learned to weave so many different structures and got to practice weaving with linen singles quite a bit. Best of luck on your journey.

  7. My dear Sister. Thank you so much for your presence in the fiber and for standing up among the many. Your light has attracted me from afar (Las Vegas, NV). Your story is so similar to my own as well as the other writers, we share so much yet feel so alone in our process. May we all remain connected in the fiber of life.
    Thank you for the reading suggestions, the books that you suggested are just what I have been looking for to formulate my Master’s thesis.
    As many of your supporters have stated: “my gratitude goes out to you for your journeys into the warp and weft”. Please continue to keep us informed, updated and uplifted .
    Hope to read of your recent endeavors.

    1. Thank you for stopping by! I am so glad you enjoyed my blog. When I started writing I didn’t know if anyone would ever see it. It is so rewarding to make so many new connections through sharing my fiber adventures. I am sure we will cross paths again. We’re out here!! finding each other. If you’re on Facebook there is a group called African American Weavers & Spinners. We’d love to get to know you over there.

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