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Researcher Spotlights: Marianne Fairbanks on subverting expectations while sowing interest in weaving

A white woman smiling, with grey hair, wearing graphic-patterned earrings and a polka dot shirt.

Researcher Spotlights are Q&As that shine a light on School of Human Ecology faculty members’ unique scholarship and research interests.

Marianne Fairbanks is an Audrey Rothermel Bascom Professor, associate professor of Design Studies and Kohl’s Center Innovation Faculty Fellow. Trained in fiber arts, her work includes a studio-based practice where she produces woven works and sculptures that experiment with color, pattern and structure.

Outside the studio, Fairbanks created Weaving Lab, which aimed to bring the art and practice of weaving into public spaces while inviting people to try it for the first time and observe how it made them feel. She also co-runs Hello! Loom, a small business that sells handheld, affordable looms to individuals and educators alike. Additionally, she collaborates across campus with engineers and scientists to invent new material applications and design-based solutions.

In November 2023, UW–Madison unveiled “Seed by Seed,” a set of banners displayed on Bascom Hall that Fairbanks co-designed with anthropology PhD student Molly Pauliot and Stephen Hilyard, a professor of digital arts. The banners, featuring Ho-Chunk beadwork designs and imagery, were created as part of the university’s 175th anniversary and the Our Shared Future initiative.

How did you become interested in your area of study?

I loved art in high school and then went on to study art in my undergraduate career at the University of Michigan where I took my first fibers class with Professor Sherri Smith. I loved all of the techniques, materials and concepts tied to textiles and it became my primary focus. I went on to get my graduate degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) where I studied fibers and material studies and expanded my practice to include collaborative work and social practice.

What’s your motivation for doing this type of work, and how does it impact human well-being?

I think of weaving as soft architecture. We interlace threads to create a three-dimensional object, and the systems that we use to create that are really complex and mathematically based, but few people understand or appreciate that. That’s the curse of cloth — from the minute we’re born we’re covered in cloth, we’re wrapped, we’re protected, and it’s familiar. But it’s discounted because very few people today are exposed to its creation. A string has to be made from a raw material, and then it has to be processed, and then it’s woven, and then it’s colored.

When I arrived at the School of Human Ecology I started Weaving Lab, which ran during the summers of 2016 and 2017 in the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. In 2019, we took Weaving Lab first to Chicago for two weeks and then to three Scandinavian countries. It was a public lab that invited people to come in and weave on floor looms and ask questions about weaving. We were working to challenge stereotypes, such as the idea that weaving takes a long time or that it must be meditative. It was an opportunity to understand if those things were true for individuals who tried weaving in the lab. It was also about publicly producing cloth, as these creative and design-based things often happen out of view of most people, so the average person doesn’t understand them very well.

But I also was trying to subvert the idea of a “lab.” Here we are on a big research campus — things like engineering and math get a lot of attention for how important they are, and I thought by having the Weaving Lab I could demonstrate the value and importance of creative research. It was always interesting during Weaving Lab because people would ask: “What’s your thesis?” “What are you going to do with the results of this research?” I like to subvert that question, because in my mind, I say: “What if it’s just about the process? What if it’s about the fact that I got 20 people to sit down for an hour and weave? Is that enough?” I think of it as seeding interest and appreciation for the thing that I love by helping others to make it and have an appreciation for it. As an art form that has been largely made by women, I think it is completely undervalued within society.

One thing that came out of Weaving Lab is Hello! Loom. It was a design that I came up with, because people would stop in the lab and say things like, “I really want to experience weaving, but I don’t have time.” With these handheld looms we could say, “Here you go, take this and some yarn and go experiment.” At first, I was just giving them away for free. After Weaving Lab ended, people were still asking how they could get them, and I realized that I couldn’t just give them away anymore. That’s how the business started. We sell them to the public, but mainly educators, across the country and the world.

Part of it is about encouraging people to slow their brains down, get off their screens. Move a needle over and under through the warp threads, learn some physical dexterity. Notice what happens when colors interact, when materials interact.

I guess my “why” is to try and extend appreciation from a place of hand — in other words, you might appreciate a material more if you’re part of the process of making it. And I will never feel bad about trying to get people to be creative within their own lives.

Where do you see an opportunity to shift a conversation?

Something new I’m working on is our hemp research lab, which I think is very relevant to loads of people around the state. When it became legal to grow hemp in Wisconsin in 2019, everyone began planting it to produce CBD and the market became completely oversaturated. All of these farmers were left high and dry, and some of them were burning a huge amount of product they couldn’t sell. So the question now is, what other products can be made? Growing hemp is easy and sustainable in ways that are really exciting, but the state currently has little infrastructure to process it because hemp was illegal for so long. We’re processing everything by hand right now.

We use hemp grown by the Ellison Lab, which is run by my colleague Shelby Ellison, an assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture. We can use the inner fiber to create paper, rope, twine or textile. There’s something called hempcrete, which is created when you replace the sand and the silicon in concrete with hemp hurd. There’s also a mycelium-based product that could replace Styrofoam. We’re taking baby steps right now, but it’s something that could become really productive for the whole state. But again, a lot of infrastructure is still needed.

What has surprised you about working in your field?

The never-ending ideas to be invented. The possibilities with weaving are endless and I continue to be inspired to find new techniques, processes, ideas and applications.

What do you see as the most critical question currently facing your field?

I see that as a two-sided question. In higher education, I think a critical challenge is to keep placing high value on art and design. These creative practices create critical thinkers, makers and dreamers who contribute to society in very important ways. In terms of textiles and fashion design, it is an incredibly unsustainable industry. Fast fashion hurts people and the planet. We need to invent new solutions and consume less. This is the most urgent issue in my field.

Who are some individuals who have influenced your work? How do you think about “paying it forward” as you gain experience in your field?

Sherri Smith, my fibers professor who first taught me to weave, remains a large influence in my work and my teaching. My SAIC professor Ann Wilson has inspired me with her exquisite work, the range of her practice and her professionalism. I am inspired by artists like Sol LeWitt, Eva Hesse, Buckminster Fuller, Otti Berger, John Cage, Olafur Eliasson, Sonia Delaunay, Bridget Riley and David Hammons. My work pays homage to all of the anonymous makers of sophisticated textile traditions, including age-old indigenous processes in form-making and handspun textile production.

I hope that my work with Hello! Loom, Weaving Lab and as a professor all pay it forward as I work to share weaving and creative practices with my students and community.

What else should the Human Ecology community know about you?

I am the proud parent of two kiddos, Kai and Ada. Ada went to preschool here at the Child Development Lab so she likes to say she has “already gone to college.” I have one dog named Oslo, just learned to bake sourdough and love spending time on Lake Wingra in the summer.

To learn even more about me, watch this video I created that aired on PBS in May 2022.