The Eyes Have It

Over the time of owning a 32-shaft loom, I had moved away from doing plain weave designs, wanting to focus on more complex structures and patterns that multiple shafts will allow for. The weaving study group that I belong to, presented a challenge to get back to exploring the most basic of weave structures: plain weave. Initially I was opposed, but being part of the group, I agreed to take up the challenge (albeit begrudgingly). 

But what to do? I was not excited nor inspired by plain weave. Whatever I was going to weave, I wanted to push myself to use as many shafts as possible on my loom, and create something that would get people to take a second look. Something that would make them ask “What is that?”. Something that would, without them knowing it, invite them in to look closely at the object, at plain weave, and at weaving in general. The design had to be striking, and the more I thought about it, the piece should have a large presence to really stand out. I also took on the additional design challenge of weaving an abstract concept, and translating that into a piece of art. I had no idea of how I was going to do this, or what I was going to weave, and it was only after many hours of playing with ideas on paper and in my head, that I finally decided on a wall hanging. I came up with the concept after ruminating on the challenge, and I decided to weave a design that would represent the group’s vote to do plain weave for our study, with me in opposition. My piece would have 15 eyes, one representing each group member; all eyes would be open except one eye would be closed. This would represent a play on the word ‘aye’ (sounds like eye) or yes, and the many aye (yes) votes to my one ‘nay’ (no) vote. I would call the piece “The Eyes Have It”. Now that I had an idea of how to represent the abstract concept that I chose, I could move ahead with weaving it. In hindsight, there was still more planning to do.

Over a few weeks, my imagination envisioned a wall hanging of three rows of five woven ’tiles’ of eyes, however that would be a flat piece of fabric and many people have seen wall hangings before. With further consideration, the piece transformed in my mind into a suspended curved tapestry, which would be more visually interesting than my original design plan. As I thought about how I would execute on the form structure, it continued to morph into the final iteration: a circular sculpture. People often ask how long it takes to weave things; this took a couple of years from design to final execution, and was a fluid compilation of ideas and transformations that happened over time.

The first part of weaving that I approached was the center band of eyes, with two layers woven simultaneously, in two colors for an 8-block design of plain weave on 32 shafts for the motifs. One layer was yellow cotton warp (lengthwise threads on the loom) with a peach cotton weft (horizontal thread on a shuttle, that passes through the warp threads to weave the fabric). The second layer was emerald green cotton warp and a variegated wool/silk weft, which introduced subtle blending of colors (blue, grey, green, red, purple, black). I designed two motifs, one with an open eye, and one with a closed eye. I included a thin strip of exchanged layers between the ’tiles’ of motifs, to define a border on the side of each eye. These hollow tubular strips also allowed a metal rod to pass through and support the vertical sides of the finished structure, and connect it to a frame of two hula hoops used as the top and bottom supports. The eye band was faster to weave, with only two shuttles required, in comparison to what was coming next.

The upper and lower border bands with checkered squares and stripes (cotton warp and weft) proved more difficult to weave than the eyes, which surprised me. Here is why it was a more complex cloth: I designed the cloth to have different numbers of layers in each row from edge to edge. Across the span of the cloth was a single layer (brown), a triple layer (brown, white, black), a double layer (white, black), a triple layer, a single layer, a triple layer, a double layer, a triple layer, and finally, a single layer. And I had to weave the fabric with the wrong side facing me so that I would have better control over the multiple layer exchanges happening within each row. Remember, I wanted to challenge myself with plain weave, and so I did! My mother-in-law says I make things more complicated, and in this case she was right.

Weaver dons the bands before sewing onto the sculpture.
The bands were a lot of weaving!

This design used only 12 shafts, although its layering is more complex than the eyes. It was not an efficient weave, as I used seven shuttles to complete the one to three layers across the cloth for one completed pick (or row) from edge to edge. Each checkered square was 1.5 inches high (and wide), and it took 30 minutes to complete the height of one square. The selvedges of where the layers exchanged across the row were finished beautifully, and required no further binding. Unfortunately, it was taking too long to weave, so I made a modification to use fewer shuttles (and meet my deadline for finishing the project). The change resulted in long floating threads at the edges that had to be bound at finishing time to prevent unravelling, so the efficiency came at a cost. Although the three-shuttle cloth appears identical to the seven-shuttle cloth on the right side, this is a good example of how the methods with which one chooses to weave can change a cloth’s finished qualities. Both versions are examples of good weaving, but with different finishes. As time was an issue, the second method with fewer shuttles was best, as I could weave 66% faster than the seven-shuttle method. It took considerable calculations to project my total weaving time, and added another level to weaving that I had never done before: determine a weaving pace and estimate the time to finish based on that pace.

Once woven, this double band of checkered squares was folded around the bottom hoop of the sculpture frame, and hand sewn to the bottom of the eye band, around the outside, and then around the inside. This ensured that the double weave tubes for the supporting vertical rods were not closed off but remained inside as open, separable layers. For the top band (and part of the bottom checkered band), I changed from weaving checkered squares to racing stripes to represent racing against time, which was yet another facet of the story that was this piece was becoming. It was fun that I had the flexibility in my own design to make the plain weave not so plain. The construction of the piece was as complicated and time-consuming as the weaving. Besides the handsewn piecing, I added story elements to the inside of the sculpture with embroidered Shisha mirrors, bead embellishments, tiny whistle charms and bells. Afterall, if something has ‘bells and whistles’ it is anything but plain, and I did not want this plain weave sculpture to be plain. 

Beading and Shisha mirror detailing, inner circle
Beading and Shisha mirror detailing of the inner circle

I enlisted the help of my husband and a couple of biker friends from our motorcycle club, in creating the frame structure components. Steve Templeton helped me source some feet for the sculpture, and assisted me with applying colorful paints to them for extra whimsy. Sandy Haining had a good metal cutting saw, and he helped cut the metal threaded rods to the right length (oh, the math that was involved in that!). Dalton Brown graciously manufactured drilled wood dowels to my specifications, that were fitted into the hollow hula hoops at very precise positions, which would align with the vertical metal rods. Sandy and Dalton never thought that they would be helping with a weaving project as bikers!

Photo of The Eyes Have It sculpture.
The Eyes Have It

The final sculpture is a story of a group vote, and how much the talented weavers of that group influence me. The circular appearance represents our weaving circle, the group. On the outside, are the eyes, one for each person’s voting ballot proposing that our study theme would be ‘plain weave’. With one nay (me), and 14 ayes (everyone else in the group), the closed and open eyes are a final count of the voting results. The inside of the open sculpture represents our inner weaving circle, and show that all 15 eyes are open. This is because when our group meets, we all come ready to learn from each other, and to be inspired. There are no closed eyes amongst these weavers, there is openness and sharing. The Shisha mirrors on the inner circle represent how during and after our gatherings, we each reflect upon what we have seen and learned about. This group is great for sparking new perspectives, and that is captured by beadwork in the shape of bursting stars, and a bolt of lightning that is the essence of how ideas seem to come out of nowhere.

On the outside of the sculpture, the squares are black and white. This represents the outcome piece being plain weave, as if it was written in black print on white paper in an agreement. I had to do plain weave for the group study, and so I did. On the inside of the sculpture, there are some subtle differences; some of the squares are gray. The gray squares represent that not all of my decisions were straightforward in the making of this piece.

This piece was the first time that I recall having so much change from the initial acceptance of the challenge to the end result, and yet it flowed. Idea after idea kept coming, it was designed and woven in the sweet zone of creativity.

There are many other aspects to my first attempt at weaving art in this sculpture, including comments from other people asking what it is, and what my inspiration was. I love hearing their interpretation of what they think it is or what it represents. People have suggested a playpen, a native drum, Celtic symbolism, and Egyptian influence, to name but a few of their perspectives. I feel this is successful as an art piece because people are curious about it, and bring their own perception of what it is. Ultimately it is whatever you think it is, and that was what I set out to do: to tug at the curiosity of the onlooker and invite them to look closer.

I am thrilled and honored to have received the Guild of Canadian Weavers Nell Steedsman Award for this piece which took months for me to complete, from its inception and evolution to its final presentation. This truly was a journey and an experience that I am still enjoying. For me, getting an award like this for my weaving was like getting an Oscar.

The Nell Steedsman Award honors excellence in quality of handweaving. The award was received at the Ontario Handweavers and Spinners Conference May 2013.

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