Women Weaving the World: Text and Textile in the Kalevala and Beyond

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Chapter Three

Weaving Sisters: Feminism and the Subversive Stitch

Within a patriarchal hierarchy of space, form, and voice, craft—and thus women’s art—is equated with amateurism. As curator and theorist Glenn Adamson critiques, there is a “lopsided scheme in which craft, often coded as feminine … is always seen as inferior to the hegemonic category of art.” This “disregard for [crafts] has been convincingly critiqued as one subplot within the more general history of the devaluation of women’s art” [1] and continues to this day. As Adamson remarks of Anni Albers’s prolific weaving:

While prejudice against techniques originated in domestic crafts can lead to discrediting of female artists, there is the potential for power in the separation of crafts from arts. At the end of the twentieth century, Feminist [
3] artists, including collaborators Judy Chicago and Faith Wilding, found in amateurism “a strategy that held both the traditional home model and the mainstream art world at arm’s length.” Craft was the means to express or manifest amateurism, as “a symbol of unjustly quashed creativity, and a token of the Feminist desire to break out of the stultification of domesticity.” [4] Works such as Womanhouse [5] and The Dinner Party [6] transplant the amateur and domestic into professional and public contexts, challenging “the presumption that women’s creativity itself [is] domestic and non-professional.” [7]

Textiles, in their ubiquitous inclusion in society, are particularly performative in the process of being made, displayed, or worn. Weaving, specifically, is a performative process in its spatial and temporal dimensions. The process of weaving on a loom is like a theatrical performance: the loom, already built and warped, confines the spatial bounds of the process, much like a set establishes limitations for the performer; the textile unfolds over time, through the process of weaving, much like a performance, as a product, is the sum of durational activity of the performer. Just as each performance of a show is unique, shaped by the performers existing in real time and space and thus never truly replicable, so too is each act of weaving distinct, unique to different bodies, looms, and environments. Any action, including the unplanned, is recorded in the temporal passage of the performance; there is no way to retract or redact an action in a durational event. In the process of weaving, as opposed to the textile object that is its product, to undo is to redo. There is no way to edit the textile without doing the process of weaving in reverse, or “unweaving.” Thus, the process of weaving is always in progress—whether forwards or backwards, it is always progressing in time.

The Writer as Rhapsode: Weaving the Strands of Personal Experience

Weaving is a part of my inheritance, passed down through at least seven centuries of Eilittä women who have lived on the land that now belongs to my parents in northern Finland. Language, too, is a part of this inheritance, and the stories it contains, from the national identity shaped by Kalevala to the specific oral history of my family. Strength, domesticity, resilience—these are all a part of this heritage, passed down to me through my mother and grandmother, connecting me to a long line of strong-willed women who lived in harmony with the harsh environment around them, faced challenging lives of farm and domestic labor, and wove beautiful, useful text/iles. When I weave on my grandmother’s loom, using thread she ripped from her family’s old clothes, I am replicating and perpetuating my inheritance. As I engage in the same activity, using the same motions as my ancestors, I am bringing the past into the present, weaving history into my rugs to carry this story into the future.

My inheritance is also Greek: my paternal great-grandparents immigrated to the United States and, as a student of literature and theatre I am engaging in traditions shaped by ancient Greek arts. I am Penelope, weaving time on my loom, telling and retelling history; I am Arachne, both proof of and depicting the skill of human hands, the artistry that craft brings to utility; I am Antigone, honoring ritual and the transcendent power of motion and repetition; I am Sappho, speaking to power, insisting on writing women into history. I am a writer shaped by the stories of the Western cannon and using the English language, inseparable from Greek influence.

As I engage with these threads of inheritance and scholarship, I am continuing a process of discovery that began during my transition into college. Mid-way through my last year of high school, I submitted my college applications, including a personal statement that began like this:

Poom-Poom, Clink. The beater slides back to its rest position as I pull the rough cloth strip through, guiding it with my fingers. I step on the pedal to tighten the loom’s strings as I slam the beater again, adding another row to the forming rug. Poom- Poom, Clink. I pass another strip through, a wooly blue that used to be the lining of my grandfather’s farm jacket. Poom-Poom, Clink. Now a strand of auburn, thin and silky, the remnants of my mother’s high school summer dress.

I go on to describe myself sitting at my grandmother’s loom in the family farm house in Northern Finland, land seeped in over seven centuries of family history. I follow the rhythm across the Atlantic to Ghana, where I was at the time of writing my college applications. There, I am threading beads into a bracelet, different beads for the various places that were part of my definition of home. As I wrote about how “on opposite sides of the world I weave my story, stringing together my family history and memories of the life I have led so far … all the people, places, and stories that intertwine with the rhythm of my life,” I did not know that four years on I would be in my final year at Harvard, returning to weaving and craft to tell my story.

Since 2012, much has changed, both in the world and for me. While I have strayed far from the experience that, as a high-schooler, I imagined I would have in college, and though my academic path has been meandering, in retrospect I can find a kind of continuity. The rhythm of my life that I tried to convey to college admissions officers is one that I am rediscovering as I stand, yet again, on the edge of a transition. What beads will I add to the string, and what threads to the rug? What will be the new strand in my story?

Seven Women Weave: A Proposed Performance

When the audience first enters the space, they experience the wonder of a new world in which the rules of space and time function differently. This is facilitated by the most prominent feature of the space, a giant net that stretches across the room, creating a textile ceiling above both the stage and the audience. Without the conventional straight or domed ceiling, the audience is attuned to the dynamic nature of space and how it shapes the movement that occurs within. During the performance, the net is lowered and raised in asymmetrical, undulating waves, highlighting and challenging assumptions of stability and structure. In moving across the space and taking their seats, the audience notices the fabric that connects their seats to both the net above them and the stage. As the performance progresses and the actresses interact with these threads on the stage and the net above, the audience is integrated into the space and process of the performance and understands that they are a critical part of the stories being told. They are the connection between the stage and the net, just as they carry these characters and stories into the fabric of society. They are the recipients and mediators of the stories, as important to the performance as the warp threads are to a textile.

Soft yellow lighting filters through the net from lights in the grid above. Below the net, from the sides of the stage, brighter lights illuminate the moving parts of the loom. From downstage, foot lights illuminate both the net and the actresses, fading in and out to accentuate the movement of the net and the rhythm of the loom. The light creates a sense of warmth and intimacy: it is the light of the home, the welcoming glow that shines through winter windows and invites the cold and weary in. Though the other elements of the space may be abstract or transcend reality, the light grounds the space in a feeling of familiar, domestic comfort.

The movement on stage is poetic, but purposeful. The actresses are working to share this performance with the audience; the characters are at work weaving their stories on the stage-loom. Their actions are mechanical and repetitive when operating the stage-loom and maneuvering the net, but fluid and abstract when engaged in telling their stories. There is a constant tension between the mechanical and the poetic in the dance of the actresses with the textiles, suggesting the co-existence of labor and creativity in weaving and craft in general.

This dichotomy is echoed in the vocal elements of the performance. The script presents many of the scenes as songs and these are indeed presented musically, but without accompaniment. Many of these songs are meditations on the Kalevala tradition in their employ of seven and eight syllable lines, repetition, and narration that alternates between first and third person. This influence is also reflected in the singing, which is more akin to chanting in the spirit of oral poetry rather than lyrical music, focused on rhythm rather than melody. Part and parcel of operating the loom, these songs are working songs, like those mentioned in the first chapter, set to, and designed to maintain, the rhythm of collaborative labor. The Weavers lend their voices to one another’s stories to share their communal experience of womanhood, interweaving the sounds and rhythms of their bodies, the loom, and the vocalized text to create a woven soundscape like the textile space they inhabit.

For all the mechanics of the space, the production itself is minimalist. There is no off-stage or backstage workings to the show, as the actresses themselves move the net and work the stage-loom. Nothing is obscured from the audience, as the goal is not spectacle but rather a communion of storytelling. The performance proposes a mechanism of telling and offers the audience a collection of stories to experience and interpret in the context of the visual-tactile environment around them. To this end, there is no over-arching plot or narrative to the script. Rather, the common themes and performance elements serve as the warp for the varied weft-threads of the stories. In sourcing characters and stories from mythology, personal history, and the work of other artists, as well as in combining visual-tactile installation, text, rhythm, and movement, the process of designing, proposing, and performing this piece is a woven collage.

The audience will exit the space having shared in the joy and the burden of womanhood and domesticity. Hopefully, they will be prompted to question the nature of expression, authority, and voice, and consider what alternate modes of communication the marginalized have turned to throughout history. Most importantly, they will have shared in a collective act of bearing witness to and celebrating the “world of women” that haunts Lucy Lacrom’s poem, a world of generation in the face of destruction and of love in spite of pain and sacrifice. Leaving a world of textures and text/iles, they will be more attuned to the woven world around us all, the hidden hands that have made it, and the stories it contains.


[ back ] 1. Adamson, Thinking through craft, 5.

[ back ] 2. Adamson, 5.

[ back ] 3. Adamson uses the capitalized “Feminists” when referring to the women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

[ back ] 4. Adamson, 151.

[ back ] 5. Womanhouse was a large-scale collaborative exhibition inspired by the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts. The 1972 exhibition occupied an old house in Hollywood, CA, creating an “exclusively female environment” in which each room was crafted by women artists to create a symbolic house of womanhood. See www.womanhouse.net .

[ back ] 6. The Dinner Party (1974–79) is a three-part project on women’s heritage, consisting of a work of art, a book, and a film. The work of art itself includes tapestries with text alluding to feminine stories and a striking table with 39 unique place settings representing important historical and literary female figures. Each setting includes a unique textile mat and dishware. See www.judychicago.com

[ back ] 7. Adamson, Thinking through craft, 150.

[ back ] 8. Lucy R. Lippard, “Making Something From Nothing (Toward a Definition of Women’s ‘Hobby Art’),” Heresies 1, no. 4 (Winter 1977–78): 65.

[ back ] 9. Bryan-Wilson, Fray, 19.

[ back ] 10. Bryan-Wilson, 19.

[ back ] 11. Bryan-Wilson, 17.

[ back ] 12. Though, of course, there has been a huge commercial market made around the D.I.Y. trend.

[ back ] 13. For more on the Pussyhat Project, see www.pussyhatproject.com

[ back ] 14. This is based on a January 19, 2017 estimate. Current numbers are surely much higher, as many people made Pussyhats to wear themselves at marches outside of the main march in Washington, D.C, and other made hats not intended for marches.

[ back ] 15. Jayna Zweiman, quoted in Annelise McGough, “The Creators of the Pussyhat Project,” January 20, 2017.

[ back ] 16. Rob Walker, “The D.I.Y. Revolutionaries of the Pussyhat Project,” The New York Times, January 25, 2017.

[ back ] 17. Walker, “The D.I.Y. Revolutionaries.”

[ back ] 18. A term popularized by craft scholar and writer Betsy Greer. See craftivism.com and the “Craftivist Manifesto” for more information.

[ back ] 19. Phrygian caps, or liberty caps, became a symbol of republicanism prior to the American Revolution. Phrygian caps have been a symbol of the pursuit of liberty in Early Modern Europe.

[ back ] 20. The AIDS quilt, known as The Quilt, is considered the world’s largest community art project. The product of the NAMES Project Foundation, it is a quilt made up of squares dedicated to those lost to AIDS. See www.aidsquilt.org

[ back ] 21. Hand+Made: The Performative Impulse in Art and Craft, organized by Valerie Cassel Oliver, curator, for the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, May 15 through July 25, 2010.

[ back ] 22. Oliver, 12.

[ back ] 23. For more on the history of performance and craft, see Oliver’s essay “Craft Out of Action” in the catalogue for Hand+Made.

[ back ] 24. Oliver, 8.

[ back ] 25. Beili Liu, The Mending Project, 2011, Installation and Performance, Women and their Work Gallery, Austin, TX.

[ back ] 26. See photos of The Mending Project in “Installations,” on Beili Liu’s official website, http://www.beililiu.com/

[ back ] 27. Jaimey Hamilton Faris and Shulang Zou, Yuan, Beili Liu, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Art Gallery, 2014, exhibition catalog.

[ back ] 28. Bryan-Wilson, Fray, 261.

[ back ] 29. Bryan-Wilson, 274.

[ back ] 30. Bryan-Wilson, 263.

[ back ] 31. Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1, no. 4 (1976): 882–888.

[ back ] 32. As explained in the first chapter, I understand rhapsody as derived from the Greek rhaptein, a weaving through integration of threads from two distinct pieces together. A rhapsode, then, is one who weaves pieces together in a new way, and a rhapsody would be the process and product of such an integration of parts.

[ back ] 33. Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” 882.

[ back ] 34. See Appendix B: Craft and Performance Influences for a more comprehensive list of artists whose work has shaped the development of this proposed production.

[ back ] 35. See Appendix H: Script for the text of Seven Women Weave.

[ back ] 36. See Appendix C: Interviews.

[ back ] 37. See Appendix D: Devising Material

[ back ] 38. For an explanation of the characters, see Appendix G: Characters.

[ back ] 39. See Appendix H: Script for the text of Seven Women Weave.

[ back ] 40. See Appendix E: Scenic Design.

[ back ] 41. For clarification of weaving terminology, see Appendix A: Glossary.

[ back ] 42. For a basic simulation of this, see Appendix D: Devising Material, for two experimental installations I created using similar techniques of ripping clothing.

[ back ] 43. See Appendix F: Costume Design.

[ back ] 44. See Appendix E: Scenic Design.