Deb Brandon: Living in Radiant Color

For the Love of Textiles

I am a maker. More precisely, I am a textile artist.

At my loom. Photo by Brendan Wyant.

My textile journey started at the age of seven, when my mother taught me to knit. In elementary school I learned needle-point, and machine sewing in middle school. And in high school, I was introduced to knotted pile rug making.

            I continued to learn a variety of textile techniques into adulthood, including cross-stitch, felting, dyeing, surface design, and yarn spinning. I loved learning and applying all these techniques.

Learning to weave was different. When I first sat at the loom and took up the shuttle, I knew I’d found myself. I was a weaver. I’d always been a weaver. It was as if I’d been a weaver in a previous life.

            As my repertoire of textile techniques grew, so did my appreciation for handmade textiles in general and traditional textiles in particular. I loved roaming through arts and crafts fairs, ogling hand knitted sweaters, fondling handwoven scarves.

I came by my love of textiles traditions honestly—Mum and Dad, ethnic textile aficionados, purchased many ethnic textiles through the years: handwoven rugs made by Druze weavers, Arab made clothing, Indian embroidered cushion covers. My father, an academic, traveled a lot—whenever he returned from a journey abroad, he bore gifts for all of us. Two of his gifts stand out in my mind—a gorgeous handwoven maroon silk sari patterned in gold he purchased in India and a blue child-sized apron from Hungary, saturated with beautiful embroidery.

My interest in ethnic textiles increased further after I joined an organization named WARP (an acronym for Weave A Real Peace I became aware of WARP in the wake of 9/11.

On September 11, 2001, when the terror attack on New York took place, badly shaken, I felt compelled to make a difference in the world, to work towards world peace. I wanted to increase accessibility to education across the globe—the key to peace.

            I found my niche in WARP—an international network of socially conscious people dedicated to improving the quality of life of textile artisans in impoverished communities worldwide, through their textile traditions. Improving the quality of life directly leads to increased access to education.

Members of WARP include anthropologists, textile artists, and many traditional textiles aficionados. My exposure to and appreciation for ethnic textiles grew tenfold. A couple of years into my membership in WARP, I started writing regularly for the WARP quarterly newsletter—a column entitled “Textile Techniques from Around the World.” My interest and appreciation for traditional textiles grew as I continued to learn about them.

Three years after I’d started writing the articles, our newsletter editor suggested that we publish a booklet—a compilation of my articles accompanied by photos taken by WARP members in the field, and sell it to our members as a fundraiser for WARP. Shortly after the editor and I started working on the booklet, the bloody brain turned my life upside down. Though I continued contributing to the newsletter, we placed the booklet on the back burner.

H’Mong story cloth. Photo by Joe Coca

Shortly after I returned home from my surgeries, I started writing about my recovery. In the process, I discovered the storyteller in me, and my WARP newsletter articles shifted focus. In the past, my articles revolved around the textile techniques. Now, they were more about the stories behind the techniques—the artisans and their creative process, their communities, their traditions, and their culture.

Finally, a few years into my recovery, I resumed work on the WARP booklet. I rewrote the early articles completely, enriching them with stories, stories, and more stories.

Stories are inherent in textiles, especially in traditional textiles. Some of the stories are in the patterns, colors, and imagery. Many of the motifs worked into ethnic textiles are common to creation myths around the world. The serpent appears not only in the bible in the story of Adam and Eve, but also as the Naga in Laotian weaving, and the serpent cross stitched into H’mong textiles. Similarly, the tree of life forms another common thread in myths around the world and appears in traditional textiles across the globe.

H’mong story cloths speak of the journey of H’mong refugees, spanning their lives before the Vietnam War, their experiences during the war, their flight across the M’Kong River, and finally their struggles in the refugee camps.

Other stories are in the making of the traditional textiles, in the rituals, practices, and traditions. And, of course, many of the stories involve the artisans’ narratives about their personal lives.

In the eyes of the Berber of the Atlas Mountains in North Africa, the act of weaving is a metaphor for the lifecycle of the weaver’s son, from birth to death. Preparing the loom for weaving symbolizes his birth and childhood while he grows among the women. The weaving itself speaks to his journey through adulthood, away from the women’s world. Like the Berber weavers in Morocco, women across the globe watch their adult sons’ journeys through life from afar.

At first, I saw the WARP booklet merely as a way for me to share my passion for traditional textiles. As my writing progressed and improved, I regarded it as a book about stories of indigenous textile artisans. But when I reread my first complete draft, I realized that it was about much more. On the one hand, traditional textiles celebrate our differences, but the stories behind them expose our similarities.

As I wrote the stories, I became aware of the importance of traditional textiles to our humanity. Stories, fundamental to the human condition, are inherent in textiles, especially in ethnic textiles. All the narratives, worldwide, include elements that break us out of the “us and them” mentality. They speak to us as individuals and as a society, a part of a whole.

Unfortunately, over the past couple of decades, there’s been a sharp increase in the “us” and “them” attitude. The evidence is clear—Brexit in England, the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, and the formation of the “Black Lives Matter” movement the United States.

The stories behind the traditional textiles expose our commonalities—we have too much in common with each other to be divided into us and them, to be regarded as more or less. Stories allow us to acknowledge the person in each other. They prevent us from regarding others as less.

It occurred to me that by sharing these stories, I was working towards lessening the all too prevalent hatred, towards preventing us from losing our humanity,