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Weaving Art, Focus, and Community in a Time of Worry

Image: Student Kristen Wold’s book weaving over the hardcover of Outlander, by author Diana Gabaldon.

Design Studies Professor Marianne Fairbanks offers a video tutorial on weaving from household items.

Marianne Fairbanks headshot
Design Studies Professor Marianne Fairbanks

“This just feels like the School of Human Ecology way: if we can’t be together in person, how can I still share something I’m passionate and knowledgeable about in this strange time?”

That’s School of Human Ecology Professor Marianne Fairbanks, of Design Studies, describing the impetus for sharing her “book weaving” video tutorial beyond the audience of her classroom. Fairbanks originally developed the short training for the 14 students in one of her two weaving courses this spring, but when she shared it on Facebook with friends and family, the positive response overwhelmed her. Far-flung acquaintances she had met at conferences, nearby friends looking for a new challenge in their craft, and professors at other colleges and universities thanked her and asked if they could share it with their own classes and groups.

Fairbanks herself only learned book weaving relatively recently, when she visited her alma mater, University of Michigan, to give a talk a couple of years ago. Her former professor, Sherri Smith, showed Fairbanks how to take a few standard items from one’s kitchen to set up a string-harness loom over a hardcover book. Fairbanks was hooked, and she continues to use the practice as a first-class-of-semester project with her students, particularly as they get to know one another and before they sit down at full-sized floor looms.

“I think this craft can bring comfort in that it offers a place for focus and control when so much else in our lives right now feels out of control,” Fairbanks reflected. “And beyond that, one of the key principles in my art and scholarship is to promote accessibility and invite in as many new voices as possible to this form. Book weaving is one way to do that.”

In addition to her teaching (now online for the remainder of the spring semester), Fairbanks promotes accessibility to weaving through her low-cost hand-held Hello! Loom and through her Weaving Lab, which has toured its workshops regionally and internationally and hosted guest artists to create and showcase works produced with SoHE’s digital loom. Milwaukee’s Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum has invited her to a residency in June, but the program is currently on hold due to the pandemic.

“I forget how technically difficult weaving can be,” Fairbanks said. “Making this video helped me to slow down, break down a complex challenge into simple steps, and just focus on the task at hand. I think we could all use a little of that right now.”

Below are Fairbanks’s book weaving tutorial video, as well as examples of current and past years’ student weavings. Fairbanks encourages them to reflect the books’ contents in the weavings’ concepts, represented in color, pattern, and material. If you don’t have yarn on hand, she offers that you can cut up an old t-shirt or unravel an old sweater for materials.