I am drawn to idiosyncrasy - the objects that have impacted me most over the years contain a DNA unique to the person or place which made them. Sometimes, like with clothing, the object can take on more meaning as the user then embeds their stories within them. I have a visceral memory of my grandfather’s wool jacket that had the label from an Irish weaving mill inside the lining. The jacket was not only powerful to me as it was made of a specific place - but also that it carried the scent and shape of my grandfather, even without him in it. Those have become the most important elements of any object for me - the provenance and the ability to gain meaning along the way.
I keep these principles in mind, aiming to make well constructed garments in a way that is unique to the place where they are made and simple enough visually to last a very long time. The goal is for each piece to gain as much use & meaning along the way as possible. Much of my work is very personal - I draw each paper pattern & sew every first sample. We manage the production in small scale sewing shops in California, being quite present and involved in their making. I have never been able to use fabric woven locally as it does not exist for the most part, I have to seek out and import all of the fabrics I use to make clothing in California. I don't mind doing so as I enjoy searching all over for fabrics that inspire me - from Ireland to Japan, Italy, Germany and more.
One of the dreams I had when I started making clothing was to create a product entirely of the place I live. About a year ago I met Marina Contro, a weaver based in San Francisco, and we began the conversation that led to this project. In January, I had a few different ideas for '5 year anniversary' projects that would've taken place this fall - and with all that has happened since then, I'm very happy this one was still possible for us to work on. Using naturally brown, undyed Rambouillet wool from a ranch in northern California, Marina spent the last month or so weaving this cloth in our studio.
Three scarves and three Big Shirts were made-to-order in the studio for this project in early 2021.
In conversation with Marina
ek: What’s on your loom right now?
MC: Following the wool warp for this project, I dressed my loom with a relatively short linen warp. It’s striped with natural grey, bleached, and dyed green linen and being woven in a twill.
ek: How do you define your practice?
This question is challenging because I always feel like it’s asking me to choose between artist and weaver. It inevitably brings up the craft versus art conversation. Within the Fiber world, there’s often a desire for textiles to be seen as an art form rather than just something used to make clothing or bedding. I don’t separate the two. I’m interested in exploring them as a synthesized whole.
I value the lessons of weavers that have come before me. People have been weaving for thousands of years and in that time, weaving hasn’t changed very much, looms haven’t changed very much. I use an antique loom from the late 19th century that serves a physical reminder of that history. I am in no way innovating when I am at the loom, I am using techniques that existed long before I did, techniques to create cloth that served a purpose. I am committed to weaving skillfully and precisely. Next, I value function. Followed by form, of course form.
ek: How do you approach material?
The “common thread” (sorry) in everything I weave is function. So, I use whatever material gets the job done. I lean toward natural fibers because of environmental and health concerns but if a synthetic fiber presented itself as the best option for whatever reason, I would use it. Under the umbrella of natural fibers, I prefer bast fibers like linen and hemp for their strength and versatility. Fabric woven with these fibers can be pressed and shiny, line dried and wrinkled, or machine dried and used heavily until it becomes soft. Both fibers are long lasting even as they soften.
ek: what stands out to you about handwoven cloth vs machine woven?
First off, there is a set of knowledge associated with machine weaving that I also respect as highly as I do hand weaving, especially in smaller mills. There are, of course, possible differences in drape and feel. Machine woven cloth is often finer and denser and finished in a way that’s not totally doable for most hand weavers. Handwoven selvedges are rarely perfect (though many of us strive for them to be), machine woven selvedges are without flaws.
The biggest difference for me, though, between hand woven and machine woven cloth is the role of the weaver’s body, it’s the act of weaving. I aim to make fabric that does not look “hand woven”, maybe the untrained eye can’t even tell it’s handwoven. For me, that’s ideal. There will be an uneven beat every now and again or a pull at the selvedge that might reveal that it is made by hand but it’s not about trumpeting that it is handmade.
- photography & video by Allen Danze / sound by Evan Hiller -
ek: how did you get into weaving, and how did you learn?
About twelve years ago I worked for a clothing line in New York where I learned many lessons, not the least of which was my own and my peers’ disconnection from how, where, and by whom cloth is made. I had been interested in textiles from a young age but it was at this point that I started to really dive in. I signed up for a weaving class. My first ever class was actually at the Richmond Art Center here in the Bay.
The most formative times for my weaving, though, have been at the Marshfield School of Weaving in Vermont. A very special place run by Kate Smith who I am so grateful to have a teacher and mentor. Her depth of textile knowledge is incomparable. MSW focuses mostly on historic fabrics and techniques using barn frame looms like the one I use in my studio. Another place I have spent a significant amount of time learning complex weaving is the Lisio Foundation in Florence where they teach jacquard velvet hand weaving.
ek: What made you want to work on a project together? What stood out to you in the process?
I learned about your work about a year and half ago and reached out to you about doing a project like this. I had not done that before, I just cold called you. Upon learning about your work, I was impressed by your attention to textiles, that’s something I haven’t really seen in the garment world. Not only choosing beautiful and interesting fabrics but providing details about where they are from and what they’re made of. As I mentioned before, function is a big thing for me. Your designs are timeless and multifunctional. Which was of particular interest to me because that type of design often means a garment gets worn more frequently and for longer. There is a respect for the fabric but also an encouragement to put it to use, to watch it change, to possibly wear it out.
One of the most exciting parts of the project for me was in the early development stages when we were working together to narrow down materials and design the fabric. I sourced a handful of yarns in varying sizes and fibers, wove samples of each at varying weights and we went from there. At the beginning you said it was important that the yarn be sourced local to us in Northern California and that it be the natural color of the fiber, not dyed. Will you talk a little bit about why it was important to you/the project that we followed these guidelines when it came to the material?
ek: Well, given the opportunity to make cloth from scratch - I was drawn to the idea of attempting the simplest, purest form while also creating something that could only happen in a certain place. I wanted to make something unique that couldn't be replicated by just anyone, anywhere. Immediately I wanted to make something completely in Northern California - which doesn’t really exist for woven fabrics.
For this project that meant sourcing fiber from as close to San Francisco as possible, altering the fiber as little as possible, and creating a deceptively simple and timeless cloth that has all of this story wrapped into it - but visually doesn't demand attention and is quite subtle. Aside from that, I feel naturally occurring colors have the most depth, and it's ideal to avoid any chemicals or dyeing if possible. The yarn we settled on is spun from a really nice shade of brown/grey - from Rambouillet sheep a similar breed to merino - it has an airy weight to it and a really soft hand. It just seemed the most extreme yet simple thing to do - to create a cloth made entirely in the area around the studio.
What was your experience like working with the handwoven fabric? How was it different than working with industrially woven cloth?
ek: Well cutting handwoven cloth is far more terrifying - it is inherently more sacred and personal, being the product of human energy rather than electricity and a machine. Most of my ideas and inspiration come from fabric so this project really meant a lot to me and allowed me to achieve something I wasn’t sure would ever be possible. As you were weaving in our studio I was really confronted with the process and pace. I like to think I have a great deal of respect for all the cloth I work with - knowing very well what an intense energy consuming trajectory that is required from growing/raising fiber to dyeing and weaving and shipping etc. This is just a heightened version. It’s funny though, by the time you had finished the first length of cloth and showed it to me I was sort of shocked as if I hadn’t been watching the whole time - it still seemed like magic to see the end product. I had an instant connection & attachment to the scarf when I took it home, as if I had already had it for years. Maybe because of the simplicity of a plain weave or the familiarity of a natural shade of wool - it feels like a relic in some ways - like it could have been woven 1000 years ago and displayed in a museum. I really like that feeling as if it blurs a line between primitive and modern.