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Q&A with Hello! Loom Creator and Design Studies Professor Marianne Fairbanks

Image: Hello! Loom example weaving, multi-color, in process.

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Marianne Fairbanks is a textile artist and assistant professor of Design Studies in the School of Human Ecology at UW–Madison, which offers undergraduate degrees in Textiles and Fashion Design and Interior Architecture, as well as MFA, MS, and PhD graduate programs. Professor Fairbanks, who recently earned tenure, launched Hello! Loom to make her popular hand-held looms available to the public. Follow her on Instagram.

What inspired Hello! Loom? And what was its development process?

I first initiated a project called Weaving Lab back in 2016 at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. I had the chance to set up this social practice project in Lynda Barry’s Image Lab space for the duration of the summer. I brought four floor looms down and wanted to have the lab be a space for textile production but also a social space for conversations and questions. The project works to extend access to weaving so that we might invent new ideas about textiles, community, and making. 

One thing I noticed was that while we had many visitors who stayed to participate, many had to leave after only a few minutes, and I wanted them to have something to take home so that they could continue the weaving exploration on their own. This inspiration, along with access to the laser cutter at SoHE, allowed me to prototype a small laser-cut loom. I knew I wanted the design to be handheld and attractive, so from the beginning the design was based on the size of a cell phone. Over time the design evolved to be much more sophisticated, with an embedded comb, needle, and stand all included in the sleek pop-out design.

Hello! Loom pop-out on navy background
Hello! Loom prototype, 2016 (iPhone 6 size, 5.44″ x 2.64″, laser-cut cardstock).

I was able to give away many of these looms as part of Weaving Lab but soon found that people were always asking how they could buy more. It has taken me a few years to figure out how to transition this idea into a business.

Hello! Loom today, displaying its various pop-out elements (2019).
Hello! Loom today, displaying its various pop-out elements (2019).

What originally drew you to weaving? And how did your research and practice evolve over time?

I first learned weaving as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan. I learned from renowned weaver, Professor Sherri Smith, and was fortunate to go on to weave for her as an assistant and helped weave her work for two years.

While I continued to study and teach and make art and fibers-based work for over 15 years, I did not come back to weaving as my main research area until I came to UW–Madison in 2014. I returned to it with fresh eyes and used it as a chance to really explore new materials and concepts through weaving. I use the digital jacquard loom and am fascinated by what is possible on this sophisticated tool. Using a tape-like material, I make large-scale weaving installations directly on walls and windows to explore color relationships and complex patterns. I have come to think of weaving as a starting place for all of my research, and I am fascinated by the complexity and the potential it holds as a process and a material.

What partnerships have developed out of Hello! Loom?

I have brought on a former grad student, Erica Hess, as a business partner. She helps with so many aspects of the business, and I rely on her for her amazing design skills. 

I have worked with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) to patent the loom’s design, and while the patent is pending, I am grateful that this resource is available on campus. Additionally, we have used the university’s Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic for legal assistance in getting the business set up, the Business School’s Business and Entrepreneurship Clinic for help with some cost models, and Discovery to Product (D2P) for advice on bringing the product to market.

We are proud to have the looms locally produced and are happy to work with a local, family-run business in Sun Prairie called Laser-4-U

On the creative side, I worked with Danish weaver Sofia Hagstrom Moller this summer to distribute Hello! Looms to 40 professional Danish weavers and was happy to include their work in an exhibition I had at Copenhagen Contemporary International Art Center in August. The small format of the loom made it easy for the weavers to explore something new and also gave us a chance to show the work of all 40 weavers in one space. It was a huge success and is now being shown at a second location in Copenhagen, Udstillingssted for Tekstil.

I have also connected with many educators who use the loom for workshops and in their classrooms. Textile historian Elena Phipps uses the loom in her history classes at UCLA and is able to have her students use the loom to try their hand at the sophisticated weave structures she is teaching. This hands-on approach to learning about historic techniques is so exciting and will help these students to really know weaving and how it works, not just with their eyes but with their hands. 

Finally, we have started to distribute the looms to vendors near and far. Soon we will have them for sale in the Chazen Museum’s gift shop, and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art will use them in an upcoming workshop for kids. The gift shops at the Rohsska Museum (Gothenburg, Sweden) and Copenhagen Contemporary have both carried the looms. And we have a new vendor in Philadelphia, The Weaver House, that sells the loom and is developing workshops with it like “weave your own Christmas ornament.” 

What about a human ecology perspective helped to incubate Hello! Loom? Why SoHE?

Well, I have been fascinated by the history of handweaving at SoHE. It was originally taught here as a domestic craft, with utilitarian purpose for the home and on the body. I have researched this history, and my Weaving Lab project initially was developed to investigate both the utilitarian production of cloth alongside the more conceptual potential of the process. The design of the portable, distributable laser-cut loom is about accessibility, and I think that has always been a mission within my art practice, but is certainly a mission within SoHE as well. 

What’s something most people don’t know about weaving?

Weaving is a binary system made up of warp—the yarns in tension—and weft, the yarns that go over and under the warp from left to right at a 90-degree angle. Just from this simple over-and-under binary system of two threads, there are hundreds of thousands of possible outcomes. In other words, there is always something new to discover when weaving! 

Though abstract, weaving very much has the potential to hold messages and meaning, so I encourage new weavers to think about what messages they can send in their small Hello! Loom weavings.

A starter guide by Fairbanks designed to help people develop their own weaving patterns. The black square indicates where the warp is over the weft, and the white square indicates where the weft is over the warp: binary!
A starter guide by Fairbanks designed to help people develop their own weaving patterns. The black square indicates where the warp is over the weft, and the white square indicates where the weft is over the warp: binary!

What do you most hope for out of Hello! Loom?

My hope is that these looms will get into the hands of as many people as possible and that those people will get a chance to explore the systems of weaving and their own creativity first-hand. I love the idea of people getting off their digital devices and into a material exploration by weaving on a handheld Hello! Loom. I really think people will enjoy this opportunity to slow down and work with materials, connecting their mind and body through the process of craft.

Learn more about Hello! Loom, including how to purchase (teacher discounts available), and follow its Instagram account for artful inspiration. Share this story on Facebook and Twitter.

Black-and-white weaving sample on Hello! Loom.
Black-and-white weaving sample on Hello! Loom.