i Woven Collection by Megan Brown, photography by Stuey B

Breadth of the Weft: the craftspeople using weaving in remarkable ways

Read time: 13 minutes, 33 seconds

“Artists, designers and makers are proving that weaving can be manoeuvred in near endless directions.” Says Victoria Woodcock as she explores the application of weaving techniques across disciplines, from loom to loupe.

Accompanied by the sound of birdsong in Greenwich Park, Jacob Monk is telling me how his teenage interest in embroidery has led him to a career in weaving. “I just fell in love with the equipment that comes with each part of the weaving process,” says the 27-year-old designer, who began his love affair with the loom while studying textiles at Central Saint Martins and now has a studio space at Cockpit Arts in Deptford. “I’m on The Clothworkers’ Company Award, which gives me subsidised rent for two years and access to the weavers’ studio, which has six looms in it, shared by the five of us. We have a loom rota. I have definitely found my thing.” 

Monk’s thing, specifically, is ikat weaving – a technique that originated in Indonesia, using resist-dyed yarns to create patterned fabrics. “Ikat is such an ancient process,” he says. “If you look at places like Indonesia, Japan, India, they’ve really mastered the process so that when you look at the fabric you think there’s no way it’s been hand woven, but it has, and its all been hand-dyed to create the pattern. That’s how you get that kind of blurred effect between the colours. It looks almost like it’s been painted. It’s got a very organic sense of movement to it.” 

i Jacob Monk on the loom

Yet despite the flowing effect – which in Monk’s hands is made contemporary with contrasting blocks of bold, jewel-like colour – the ikat weaving process is anything but ad-hoc. “It can be quite methodical and structured,” says Monk. “It’s almost like you’re working backwards. I’ll draw out a design and then I’ll have to figure out how I’m going to dye the warp threads to achieve it, but then there’s always an element of surprise. As much as you’ve planned it out, you don’t know for certain what the finished piece is going to look like.”

A thread can be followed from Monk’s upbringing in Oldham, Lancashire, to this chosen metier. “It used to be a mill town, infamously known for its cotton-spinning industry, but almost all the factories have been shut down now,” he says. “I have an amazing photograph of my grandma working in a cotton-spinning mill during the second world war.” But despite this heritage and an initial interest in textile manufacturing within the fashion industry, Monk is increasingly drawn to the idea of textiles as art object. “So much skill goes into producing a fabric, and sometimes that gets lost when you get the finished product,” he says. “Displaying my work as wall art encourages people to look at it in-depth, to question how it’s made.”

Monk’s decision has a serendipity to it, aligning with a reappreciation of weaving as fine art, as the work of modern masters is looked at afresh. In 2018, for instance, Tate Modern opened a major retrospective of the work of Anni Albers, the Bauhaus-trained artist who explored abstract modernism on the loom. The tapestries of pioneering Swiss abstractionist Sophie Taeuber-Arp have also gained currency; in 2020 it was announced that her estate will be represented by major international gallery Hauser & Wirth, and the recent retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Basel will now move to Tate Modern (July 15-October 17), followed by MoMA in New York. In Edinburgh, meanwhile, dedicated tapestry studio Dovecot is currently highlighting the woven work of Archie Brennan, billed as “one of the greatest unrecognised pop artists of the twentieth century”.

At the same time, contemporary artists and makers are rethinking the warp and the weft within contemporary narratives. Diedrick Brackens, for example, weaves personal stories, exploring his identity as a queer, black American to create figurative pieces that have been shown in the New Museum in New York. At Dovecot, the work of contemporary artists is translated into tapestries, while other creatives are exploring weaving off the loom. In East Sussex, Annemarie O’Sullivan makes contemporary baskets using ancient British basket-making techniques in self-harvested willow, while back at the Cockpit Arts space in Deptford, Esna Su’s use of traditional Turkish ways of weaving, twining and crochet – some taught to her by her mother – result in intriguing, tactile and sometimes wearable sculptures. “My pieces were made to explore the struggle faced by thousands of displaced people in Syria,” she says, “and how they continue their lives in small tents in sprawling refugee camps near my hometown of Antioch, Turkey.”


i The Refugee by Esan Su, photography by Michelle Marshall

Combining the sculptural and the wearable pulls weaving into the world of jewellery, and one name that stands out in this realm is that of Mary Lee Hu, a master of wire metalwork whose lyrical and intricate work can be found in many museum collections, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Goldsmiths’ Company Collection in London. In Knitted, Knotted, Twisted and Twined, the publication accompanying Hu’s 2012 show at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington State, Stefano Catalini, the director of curatorial affairs, wrote: “Using wire the way hand-weavers use threads, Hu has blazed a trail both as artist and innovator, exploring the nexus between metalsmithing and textile techniques.”

Now 78, Hu began experimenting with textile processes in metal wire while at graduate school at Southern Illinois University in the 1960s. “I was required to take an elective and I’d taken ceramics and printmaking as an undergrad, so I thought I’d better try out weaving,” she tells me over Zoom from her Seattle home that overlooks Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. “After learning how to string up a loom, we were required to do an off-loom project and I chose a knotting technique that was in those days fairly obscure, called macramé. I thought, ‘I have to get this project done, and I have to get some jewellery done, what about if I did macramé in wire and made jewellery out of it? Maybe I could get credit for both classes with one piece?’ This is the story I tell myself but I think it’s true. We make myths about ourselves.”

i Work in progress in the studio of Mary Lee Hu

Myth or not, what followed was years of exploration, converting textile processes into jewellery, driven by a love of line and often inspired by the drawings of Lalique. In 1974, however, she was recreating a series of basketry techniques when she discovered one that really stood out – so much so that she has used it exclusively to this day. “I came across a basket, Northwest Coast Indigenous American, made out of twined cedar bark,” she recalls. “I really loved the surface texture that the weaving process of twining gave. In weaving you have a warp and a weft, generally at right angles. In twining, you’ve got two wefts twisting around each other. When you have a twist, there’s a slant between the two of them. A very minor detail, but I loved it.”

Hu worked first in silver, before switching to gold wire in the 1980s, when her early curvilinear forms also gave way to more geometric and pattern-oriented structures. “But when I was getting ready for a show in 2000, I went back curvilinear, and now I’m still at that,” she says, adding that whether she’s creating complex repeat patterns as a necklace or weaving in-between the sweeping swirls of a brooch, wearability is key. “Sometimes the pieces are larger and you can wear them to the opera but probably not the grocery store,” she smiles. “I’m a craftsman. I want to make a wearable, well-made piece – and it has to be attractive enough in some form that people who aren’t into the technical aspect will still like it.”

i Woven ring by Mary Lee Hu, photography by Jordan Davis Robles

For Hu herself, however, most of her pieces are seen as “technical challenges” – and what Catalini refers to as Hu’s “innate aspiration to perfection and her stubborn curiosity in pursuing aesthetic challenge” has at times been all consuming. “I didn’t do much except work for decades,” she laughs. But since giving up her teaching role at the University of Washington 15 years ago, she’s found a new pace. “Now, I like to read in the mornings, primarily jewellery history, of all sorts, archeological, anthropological, contemporary; my library has close to 4,000 books on jewellery,” she says. “Then I’ll work in my studio, which is at home, for several hours. I also work in my garden a lot.”

I don’t draw things. I just stick in images, stick in feelings, and they gestate. Tweet this

Hu’s beautiful terraced garden, stretching around her property to the waterfront, is another labour of love. The stone patio was pieced together with stones Hu cut and set herself over a period of eight years. During the pandemic, the space has been a sanctuary – and an inspiration. “Last fall, I was sweeping up around the yard,” she remembers. “Golden leaves from the Aspen tree had just fallen down, the wind would blow them around and they would pile up in corners, and I thought that was so beautiful. I kept it in the back of my mind. I don’t draw things. I just stick in images, stick in feelings, and they gestate.”

i The Garden of Mary Lee Hu, from Mary Hu: Superlative Treasure and Studio Tour, Mobilia Gallery, Cambridge MA.

This memory is now making its way into a neckpiece that will be part of an exhibition this summer at Mobilia Gallery in Cambridge, Massachussets. “This piece has been particularly difficult in coming about,” says Hu, who has found her recent political and racial tensions in the US unsettling – a feeling that came to a peak earlier this year. “When the capital was invaded on January 6, I just felt like all these awful things were happening in the world, everything piling in one after the other. I thought about things being ripped apart and burning down. And that gave me a technical idea – of taking my woven stuff and just melting it. So I’m making a bunch of golden leaves – not Aspen, but a form I like better – piling them up in the corner of the shoulder and the neck, then melting them back.”

As well as continuing to innovate, Hu’s work is influencing younger generations of jewellers. One such is Megan Brown, who last year launched a collection called Woven, combining gold and silver in a woven mesh of linked chain that mimics fabric textures and patterns. “I was redeveloping the work during lockdown, and I really wanted to come back to my family’s roots,” says Brown, whose great-great grandfather founded a weaving mill in Yorkshire over a century ago and which is still in operation today – run by Brown’s father and uncle. “They weave fabrics for Savile Row tailors. They did the cloaks for Harry Potter,” she says. “I did start studying fashion, but jewellery fit me much better. I’m really inspired by the sculptural flow of fabric.”

i Woven Hoops by Megan Brown, photography by Stuey B

Working from a renovated barn space attached to her family home outside of Harrogate – “it’s very rustic, very beautiful, surrounded by fields and nature” – Brown is now experimenting with different ways of weaving as well as embroidery. Like Hu, she likes the hands-on aspect of weaving, using minimal tools, and wants her work to be wearable. At the same time she feels the lure of working on a larger scale. “My ambition is to progress into more 3D sculptures, combining the traditional silversmithing techniques with my weaving process,” she says, citing work of 1960s textile artists as an influence. “They were women who wanted to study art but were shoved over to textiles,” says Brown of the likes of Aurèlia Muñoz and Ruth Asawa, whose sculptures took fabric-based skills out of the female domestic sphere and into fine art galleries. Then as now, artists, designers and makers are proving that although weaving might be held within the structure of the warp and the weft, it can be manoeuvred in near endless directions.

Author: Victoria Woodcock | Photo Credit: Stuey B, Michelle Marshall and Jordan Davis Robles