Biographies of Inspiring Handweavers

The biographies of bygone handweavers who kept the art of weaving alive when it had largely been laid aside or who took it to new heights provide not only interesting reading but are motivating in ways quite different from contemporary weaving. Without their drive and dedication to the preservation and development of weaving, I might have never been exposed to the craft that has become so integral to my life.

Here are four of my favorite biographies of handweavers.

Theo Moorman 1907-1990 Her Life and Work as an Artist Weaver edited by Hilary Draper, published in conjunction with a 1992 retrospective of her work.

Theo Mooorman biographyTheo (Theodora) Moorman was born in Northern England in 1907 and began weaving at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London between 1925-1928.  She is best known for developing the technique that bears her name today – the Theo Moorman Technique.

She had an explorative nature. She loved experimenting with new fibers and weave structures. In 1957 she began investigating a variety of natural and synthetic materials, developing her “space tapestries” in 1963. From 1968 until 1982 she taught and lectured in the USA and Canada as well as within the UK. In 1985 the Theo Moorman Charitable Trust was formed and in 1987 an eightieth birthday exhibition was organized at the Oxford Gallery where all works were sold. Theo Moorman died in 1990.

In her autobiography, Weaving as an Art Form, she noted that all weaving taught in the 1920s was yardage and rug weaving. There were no wall hangings and all weaving was strictly two-dimensional. Also, throughout history artists designed the tapestries that were then woven by weavers. The credit went to the artist. Beginning in the mid 20th century this changed with appearance of the artist-designer-weaver as one person. Moorman thrived on this change.

The Weaving Roses of Rhode Island by Isadora M. Safner

The Weaving RosesThe Weaving Roses are brother and sister, William Henry Harrison (“Weaver”) Rose (1839—1913) and Elsie Maria Babcock Rose (d. 1926). They descended from handweaving ancestors on their mother’s side, the Northrup family, and chose to continue that legacy even when mill-woven fabrics were readily available.

This biography incorporates some arcane New England colonial history, obscure Northrup family history and letters. The heart of the book consists of weaving drafts in eccentric formats. Weaving tools revered and passed from Northrup generation to generation, and stories accompanied many of them along with knowledge of the handweaving environment through the decades of their use.

The Roses kept their family drafts and also collected drafts from others. They shared drafts freelywith anyone. Rose paid for drafts he found and was paid by others for his. Some of these drafts appear in Marguerite Davison’s A Handweaver’s Pattern Book published in 1944.

The Roses are a sturdy link in the chain of handweaving history. The Weaving Roses of Rhode Island is odd little book that is simply a reflection of its subjects who treasured the past and lived as their ancestors lived.

Weaving a Life: the Story of Mary Meigs Atwater, compiled by Mary Jo Ritter and edited by Veronica Patterson

Weaving a LifeBy the 1930s handweaving had nearly disappeared in America except for Weaver Rose and his sister in Rhode Island and isolated women in the Appalachian Mountains. Mary Meigs Atwater (1878 – 1956) was the force behind the revitalization of handweaving in the USA and Canada by collecting weaving drafts, teaching and writing from the 1920s into the 1950s.

Atwater was born in Illinois and studied art at the Chicago Art Institute and in Paris, France. With her husband she lived in mining camps in several western states, Bolivia and Mexico. In 1917 they moved to Basin, Montana and Mary saw that the women of the mining camp needed a cottage industry to occupy them and produce income while their husbands were away in the mines. She settled on handweaving, a nearly lost art. After her husband died in the 1919 flu epidemic, weaving became her life’s work.

She organized a weaving guild and published The Shuttle-Craft Book of American Hand-Weaving. She wrote monographs on specific weave structures as well as an instructional course in hand weaving. She was the principal author and owner of the Shuttle Craft Guild monographs, which are still in print. She died in 1956 in Salt Lake City where to this day the Mary Meigs Atwater Weavers Guild pays her tribute.

This book is not about weaving per se but about the incredible life this woman lead and the way she helped transform the craft of weaving from a discarded necessity into a new and vibrant art form.

A Weaver’s Life: Ethel Mairet 1872 – 1952 by Margot Coatts

A Weaver's LifeEthel Mairet is often referred to as the “mother of English handweaving”. Many major figures in textile design and practice, such as Marianne Straub, Peter Collingwood and Alistair Morton, passed through her workshop as apprentices. Her influence was immense, her work in weave, dye and design highly original and  her legacy is now almost forgotten.

She was pioneering in her exploration of new methods and techniques and active throughout her life, mentoring pupils and sending examples of her work to schools across the country. She taught at the Brighton College of Art from 1939 until 1947. A member of the Red Rose Guild of Craftsmen and the Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers, in 1937 she became the first woman awarded the Royal Society of Arts title of Royal Designer for Industry.

This short biography, beautifully illustrated with photographs of her work, will hopefully keep this fine weaver’s legacy alive.