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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.