A Big Question
I recently read a IG post by a super accomplished and voluble young weaver lamenting the loss of emphasis on technique in the teaching of weaving in the US. It is implied that this loss of emphasis has been in favor of an emphasis on “art” or perhaps self expression.
The question of art vs. craft is one that haunts many craftspeople, and I wanted to write a little about my experience – I say “experience” because I have not studied this topic in a systematic or academic way.
I do come from a family of artists and art teachers and art students. My paternal grandfather attended MICA post WWI and became a writer/illustrator for western pulp magazines, my mother and father studied art and became artists and art teachers, my brother studied classical guitar through graduate school and worked as a professional musician until he jumped ship and became a lawyer (long story), and my middle child attended a well-known art school. So as you can imagine, there has been a lot of talk concerning this topic over the years. Additionally, although both my parents were/are artists (my father passed away several years ago, but my mom is still going strong and making art at 82), they had very different approaches, and there was constant discussion (sometimes friction) about the necessity of attention to technique (my father’s strength/obsession) versus flow and free expression (my mother’s strength).
I think there may be a reason that I became a weaver with a devotion to utilitarian (not merely!) objects (go ahead and weigh in Dr. Freud), but despite my efforts to avoid the hot zone, it keeps coming up in my teaching, in my practice, and certainly in my conversations with other weavers. My problem with the direction of many of these conversations, and certainly with the mildly righteous tone of the “lamenters” whether on the “art” side or the “technique” side, is that the parameters are often so fuzzy, and what people are really saying is “I am doing it the right way, and I feel insecure and I want to defend my way of doing things.” And my response is “Don’t feel insecure! You are allowed to be the weaver you want to be. Why do you want others to be the weaver you want to be??” And I also want to say in ALL CAPS that the real problem is not the approaches of the various very small number of art schools, craft schools and guilds where one might learn weaving, but the fact that there are so few. Ideally, we should be able to choose the school/class/institution that offers in-depth and complete courses emphasizing what we want to learn whether it be as a hobbyist, a production hand-weaver, a designer for industry or an artist. The existing programs are often stuck trying to be everything to everyone and falling short.
My understanding of the various venues where one can learn to weave breaks down to University art programs, craft schools like Arrowmont and Penland, guild programs that offer master weaver certification, local yarn shops that offer classes in learning to weave and finally (and newly!) online guilds and classes that offer a range of options. All of these have different strengths and tend to attract different audiences, but very few offer systematic, in-depth, full-scale programs that teach it all – good weaving technique as well as in-depth loom knowledge/design/materials/drafting/finishing, etc.
If we really want to get into the nitty gritty, we can talk about how many of these programs are incomplete, not because of some nefarious plan to undermine technique, but in response to demands that are based in economic realities, i.e. students at RISD are taught to weave – not really to be handweavers (apparently not a viable career when beautiful handwoven items are available from abroad at less than what the materials alone would cost a handweaver in the US.), but either to design for industry (often to design items for hand weavers abroad to produce on a large scale) or to use weaving in their art practices. They are taught the basics of weaving as well as composition, color, materials and design. There is very little emphasis on technique for the reasons stated above.
Most of the participants in craft school programs are either hobbyists who want to weave some cool stuff or art students who are expanding their practices to include fiber. The classes often emphasize a specific product, structure or material, but are not comprehensive due to time constraints and demand, I imagine. And I find that my experience with guilds and guild members is that even though production technique may not be emphasized, technique certainly is. And I would argue that it is the case that technique over design may be a weakness in the guild system.
To go off on a related but slight tangent, I was recently informed that WEBS the yarn store where I learned to weave in 1995ish, has recently been sold to a UK conglomerate called Lovecraft (ominous name if you are familiar with our New England author of horror/anxiety fiction, H.P.). Although WEBS was founded by a weaver and built its business on selling mill-end yarns (from the now almost entirely gone) New England mills, it has been slowly making weaving less and less central to its business (sadly, on a quick perusal of the Lovecraft site – weaving is not to be found). This is probably due to economic factors that are similar to those that have steered the decision making of various Universities and craft schools. That is – weaving has a steep learning curve that takes a lot of equipment and time to learn well, and the American market (in its terribly short-sighted way) pushes cheap thrills. This is why Jo-anns stopped being a fabric store and became a “craft” store. Americans are encouraged by the market and the digital-age attention span to be satisfied with “quick and easy,” and like the frog in the pot, we aren’t even aware of what we are losing, i.e. that the steep learning curve/hard-to-master elements of learning a craft are part of its nutritive value and part of its value period.
Back off the soap box
So, with no actual answers to the big question, but a lot of ideas about the big question – I agree in part with my IG craft mate that it is hard to find (not impossible – see Vavstuga/Marshfield . . .) deep, systematic instruction in weaving technique. I disagree, however in a notion that there is one way to approach weaving education or that there should be one kind of weaver. Even though it may be lamentable that being a hand weaver is a hard row to hoe career-wise, there are myriad artists, craftspeople and hobbyists who find the level of instruction they get at craft schools and yarn shops just right for the kind of weaving they want to do. I think we can all agree that acquiring more skill, more knowledge and more depth beyond a certain point, while always desirable, is an investment that may be beyond the reach of many when we as a society offer little in terms of reward for that investment. That is to say, true mastery is a wonderful thing and wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had national treasure status (like in Japan) for craftspeople who achieve it. However, for most of us, it is an investment without the possibility of reward. In the past, when master craftspeople had the possibility of making a living doing their crafts, when there were fewer cheaply manufactured alternatives and everyone was closer to the processes involved, the investment was both honorable and practical. Today we are all working with a different set of circumstances and while that may be lamentable, it is true. I do wish there was more technical training for weavers AND more design training, but perhaps more importantly, more awareness and appreciation for glorious hand-woven cloth.