From Maker to Aficionado

Uzbeki ikat.jpg

I became a maker at a young age. I was first exposed to a textile technique as a seven year old when Mum taught me to knit. Through the years I learned a variety of textile techniques, including needlepoint, crocheting, felting, and spinning. I enjoyed them all.

Learning to weave was different. It was as if I had come home, as if I was a weaver in a previous life. Every time I sat at the loom, I felt connected to weavers near and far, in space and in time.,

My enthusiasm for the fiber and textile arts took off. I attended festivals, meetings, and conferences. I wanted to see (and feel) it all—scrumptious raw cashmere, hand spun silk, gorgeous hand woven clothing. The weaver’s handshake became a part of my new normal—I fondled fabric and fiber wherever I went, whether I was among kindred spirits or complete strangers, whether it was reciprocated with a smile or elicited startled looks.

At weaving and spinning events I was also exposed to a broad range of ethnic textiles—silk scarves from Laos, felted slippers from Turkey, Mexican rugs. I was mesmerized.

My love for traditional textiles leaped to a new height after I joined WARP (Weave A Real Peace) after 9/11.

WARP is a networking organization for people who are interested in making a difference in the world. Many of WARP’s members work towards helping impoverished textile artisans improve their quality of life through their traditional textiles.

After the terror attack in New York City, I had to help, to change the world for the better. I came across an advertisement for WARP in a weaving magazine. Its mission and the work of its members called to me. I knew that improving quality of life increases awareness of the importance of education, which in turn is an effective tool to foster peace. And here was WARP, an organization that made a difference at the global level. Not only was it about helping communities in need, but it also promoted global connections. I was not surprised to learn that helping these these communities led to better access to education. The added bonus that WARP’s members achieved results through textiles was irresistible.

By October 2001 I joined the organization. And I felt as I had when I first sat at the loom, as if I’d arrived home. This was where I belonged. Among kindred spirits, who wanted to change the world for the better, through textiles.

A couple of years later, I started writing a regular column for the WARP newsletter “Textile Techniques from Around the World”. As I wrote and researched, my interest and passion for traditional textiles grew.

In the spring of 2006, five years after I joined WARP, my world fell apart. And my identity as a mother, mathematician, textile artist, and ethnic textile aficionado was threatened.

I suffered several strokes and underwent three brain surgeries, which wreaked havoc on me and my life.

In particular, I could only dream of new weaving projects—I could no longer weave.

But within my first month of recovery of the subsequent brain surgeries. I started weaving my dreams.

As a brain injury survivor, the project challenged me, but I persevered and completed it—yards of shimmering silk in the colors of sunset on the water. It had a quality that the old Deb would have been unable to produce.

In the wake of the surgeries, as I recovered, my life became fuller, richer. I became more creative. I also became more passionate and compassionate. I cared more about the world around me about the bigger picture. I cared more about my commitment to WARP and its mission. I cared more about textile traditions.

I enjoyed writing articles about textile techniques for the WARP newsletter, but now it took on a new dimension—the research consumed me. Also, in the process of recovery, I started writing, and with practice and help for a writing coach my writing improved.

Just before the brain bleeds, the WARP board suggested that I compile a collection of my essays from the newsletter, and sell the collection to WARP members as a fundraiser. As my skill as a writer grew, so did my vision of the fundraiser. From a grass roots project it evolved into a book (“Thread Around the World: From Arabian Weaving to Batik in Zimbabwe”) that I hope will reach a broader audience, one that will raise awareness of cultures worldwide and make a difference.


On my way to class, I almost tripped over a student sitting cross-legged on the floor. As I apologized profusely, I noticed her hat, and froze— Definitely not crocheted. Nor knitted. “Love your hat. Did you make it?”

It had been a gift and she had no idea how it was made. With her permission, I took several photos, then did some research at home. I was right, it was neither knitted nor crocheted.

The technique was called naalbinding (Danish: needle-binding), also known in English as knotless netting or knotless knitting. It was mostly used for mittens, socks, hats, milk strainers, and bags.

Naalbinded textiles are formed by interlocking loops, which, unlike in knitting or crocheting, cannot be unraveled mid process merely by tugging on the yarn. The resulting fabric can be very elastic or very stiff depending on the type of yarn and on ratio between the yarn size and the size of the loops.

The technique predates knitting and crochet. Its origins lie in the bronze or early iron age. In the past, naalbinding was practiced all over the world. Currently, it is still practiced in Central Asia, Persia, Scandinavia, Central and South America, and New Guinea. It is a craft associated mostly with Scandinavia since it has had a continuous tradition there.

To form the interlocking loops, naalbinders ply single-eye needles, similar to large tapestry needles, traditionally made of wood, bone or antler. They use short lengths yarn (2-4 yards), which they join together (without knotting) as the work progresses.

Naalbinders, usually work the stitches from left to right in the round, spiraling upwards, each row building on the preceding row. In its simplest form, a row of loops, or stitches is worked into the running edge of the previous row of stitches. There are many other variations of naalbinding, where the basic structure remains the same, but the loops are worked into one or more of the loops in the previous row, and into one or more of the previous loops just made.

After learning about the technique, I would have liked to study a naalbinded piece more closely.

Perhaps, if I’m lucky, I’ll trip over that student again sometime.



  • Schmitt, Lawrence, Lessons in Nålbinding: Scarves Wimples and more, Larry Schmitt, Cottage Grove, WI, 1996.

  • Schmitt, Lawrence, Mittens, Mittens, Mittens! A Nålbinding Mitten Workbook, Larry Schmitt, Cottage Grove, WI, 1997.

  • Schmitt, Lawrence, Lessons in Nålbinding: Lots of Socks, Larry Schmitt, Cottage Grove, WI, 2000

  • Claßen-Büttner, Ulrike, Nalbinding - What in the World Is That?, Print On Demand, 2015.

  • Mellgren, Nusse, Nålbindning - The easiest clearest ever guide!, Scanglas AB, 2014.


A Smattering of Perugia

Marta Cucchia

Marta Cucchia

Matteo suggested we visit Rocca Paolina, the 16th century fortress in Perugia, the capital of Umbria in central Italy. I thought it would be like all the other castles I’ve encountered in the past. I assumed we’d climb up the keep, gaze at the view from the wall-walk, and peek thorough the murder holes, imagining myself shooting arrows through them.

I certainly didn’t expect to explore underground tunnels around the foundations of the fortress. Reveling in the cool air, we explored the meandering tunnels, learning about their intriguing history. We could have easily spent another hour underground, enjoying the refreshing temperatures, but we had more on our agenda.

Our next stop was the aqueduct, another must-see according to Matteo. It involved climbing steep hills and endless steps. Though once more, I was hot and sticky, reminiscing over visits to similar sites during my childhood, I enjoyed explaining its purpose and workings to Daniel, Molly, and Slav, my fellow travelers.

But both the castle and the aqueduct were mere distractions on our way to our ultimate destination—the Guiditta Brozzetti workshop, a hand-weaving museum and school.

I’d made the appointment to visit the studio months earlier. A textile aficionado, once I made the decision to travel to Perugia for Matteo and Laura’ wedding, I searched the internet for textile-related landmarks in the area. And there it was: , the website of Laboratorio Guiditta Brozzetti, located in the imposing church of San Francesco delle Dome.

Finding it was not straightforward—when Daniel’s GPS claimed we arrived, we had to study our surroundings for a few minutes before we spied the faded sign directing us to the entrance.

A diminutive pixie with close cropped gray hair and bright red lipstick greeted us at the door—Marta Cucchia. I wasn’t sure of her position. Curator? Manager? Teacher? I quickly learnt that she played all those roles and then some.

Marta is a lovely strong woman, a doer, vested in her life’s work. Marta, like her mother and grandmother before her, follows her great grandmother, Guiditta Brozzetti’s, footsteps, working towards preventing old textile techniques from dying out.

Guiditta Brozzetti used to collect traditional hand-woven textiles from the poor peasants in the Umbrian countryside. She helped supplement their meager incomes by selling the textiles in Perugia. Later, Guiditta Brozzetti opened a weaving school for women interested in learning a trade. She hoped her students would work towards continuing the Umbrian weaving traditions. Now, Marta and her students, like the students in the original school, use wooden four harness looms to replicate these same traditional textiles. Marta often uses patterns she reproduces from those depicted in old paintings.

In addition, in order to bring the glorious medieval damasks back to life, Guiditta Brozzetti transformed some of the school’s four harness looms into Jacquard looms (invented by Joseph Jacquard in 1801).


(Until 1800, the only way to create damasks and other complex patterns, was by picking up threads by hand. Jacquard’s invention automated the process, making these beautiful textiles available to a broader market.)

Marta, sharing her great grandmother’s vision, uses old wooden Jaquard looms (I forgot to ask if they were Guiditta Brozzetti’s original looms.) to weave stunning pieces, some depicting mythical creatures such as griffins as dragons, others covered with images of twining vines, and other local flora. Like her great grandmother, Marta, hoping to prevent the art of damask weaving from falling into extinction, teaches the techniques to students, in classes and workshops, and offers apprenticeships.

I was reluctant to leave. I had so much to learn from Marta. I could have spent hours there, talking to her.

I consoled myself by purchasing two fabulous pieces. I rationalized going over my budget for the trip by telling myself that I’ll need samples when I write an article about my experience for my column “Textile Techniques from Around the World” in the WARP ( quarterly newsletter.


Resource: Bombelli, Clara A.Baldelli, Arte Tessile Cultura E Tradizione Umbra: Laboratoria Giuditta Brozzetti 1921-2001, Italgraf, 2001.


Amish Quilting

Streak of Lightning; photo credit: Daderot

Streak of Lightning; photo credit: Daderot

My son, Daniel, a toddler at the time, and I sat on the grass knoll overlooking the site of the auction, an Amish auction. Daniel, mesmerized, watched the kids playing tag and hide-and-seek among the quilts flapping in the breeze. An older girl pushed a little boy on a swing. I suspected that she was old enough to have had a hand in the making of one of those gorgeous quilts.

One of the most distinctive features of many Amish quilts is in the play of black

against saturated hues. Who chose the combination of colors for the top? The girl or her mother? Perhaps the mother allowed the girl to piece the top on a treadle sewing machine, while the mother designed their next quilt.

Though Amish needle-workers typically use a machine to piece the top at home, the women usually get together in group for a “quilting,” where they quilt the top onto the ground fabric by hand.

Amish communities are very close and extremely conservative. Changes in

designs, fabrics and colors are made only with community approval, which is why there are distinct regional styles. Adhering to community guidelines also means that changes occur very slowly—the evolution of Amish quilting styles have always lagged behind that of the “English,” as the Amish refer to outsiders.

Quilting became popular among the Amish in the 1870's. Most of the first Amish quilts were made in one solid dark color in worsted wool, with elaborate

quilting patterns. Gradually, basic piecing was added, and more colors were

used. As the "English" started making Crazy quilts, the Amish began using basic block patterns, which had been popular among the “English” several years earlier.

In the early 1900s brighter colors started appearing. During World War II, as

wool and cotton became scarce, synthetics replaced natural fabrics. Due to the

difficulty in working with synthetics, quilting patterns became less intricate. The next significant change occurred (by the 1940s) when pastels were added to the Amish Palette, prints started appearing, and appliqué work emerged.

In the 1960s the "English" discovered Amish quilts, and Amish quilters

started producing quilts for sale. Quilting is still an important part of community life—the Amish continue to make quilts the traditional way, machine pieced and hand-quilted, for family use as well as for sale at craft shops and auctions.

We’d originally hoped to purchase a quilt at the auction, but gave up—we weren’t the only “English” who had discovered the auction. The bidding on the quilts was fierce. We consoled ourselves with rich and creamy Amish-made ice cream.


The Amish Quilt, by Eve Wheatcroft Granick, Good Books, 1994.

Back Strap Weaving

The Mayan weaver was kneeling on the ground in front of her loom weaving complex patterns. I stood above her mesmerized, watching her fingers flying across the warp, one row, then another and another. How did she do that, so deftly, without consulting a design? How did she keep track of all those colors?

Weaving: San Juan Chamula, credit: Rob Young

Weaving: San Juan Chamula, credit: Rob Young

The backstrap (body tensioned) loom is one of the simplest looms used by indigenous weavers. The backstrap refers to a strap that fits around the back of the weaver’s midsection. In the front, the strap is attached to the loom’s breast beam. The warp is then usually strung between a stationary object and the breast beam, and the tension on the warp is set by the weaver leaning against the strap. Backstrap looms vary in different parts of the world, in their construction, whether the strap is made of leather or fabric, and the warp is continuous or discontinuous, and the particulars of the position of the weaver relative to the loom.

In Central and South America and in isolated pockets in Asia, most weavers either kneel or sit in front of the loom, the back beam is tied to a tree, or a pole. They control the tension on the warp is obtained by leaning back. Of all the versions of the backstrap looms, this one is by far the easiest one to transport and set up.

In southeast Asia, the majority of backstrap weavers usually sit upright, legs outstretched, feet braced against the back beam.

In some places in Asia, the back beam is held firmly in place. In Bhutan, for example, it’s part of a frame that is anchored to a wall. In Indonesia, the beam fits between a pair of fixed supports. However, in Laos and Vietnam, as ion Central and South America, the back beam is not supported. Unlike South and Central America, where the back beam is tied to a tree, in Laos and Vietnam the unsupported beam is held in place by the weaver leaning backward, her feet braced against it.

For narrow warps, such as belt looms or in tablet weaving, there’s no need for a back beam. The warp threads are knotted together and the knot is tied to a stationary object. But in cases where the finished fabric is wider, a device that spreads out the warp threads helps maintain an even tension. In most cases the back beam plays that role. But in the Ainu looms in Japan, a bamboo reed, hanging behind the heddle bars both keeps the order in the warp threads and prevents them from bunching up.

Similarly to many Asian backstrap weavers, the Ainu weaver sits with outstretched legs. But instead of bracing her feet against the (nonexistent) back beam, she rests her feet against the reed.

Kayan Weavers Burma. Photo credit: Thomas Schoch

Kayan Weavers Burma. Photo credit: Thomas Schoch

In Japan and Korea, some of the looms are transitional, a hybrid between a back strap loom and a single harness loom, where the entire frame is stationary. As in traditional backstrap weaving, the weaver leans against a strap for tensioning. But unlike most backstrap looms, where sheds are created by raising and lowering heddle bars, in transitional looms, the back beam is part of a stationary frame, where the harness, which creates the shed, is operated through a cord that is attached to the weaver’s foot.

Whichever technique back strap weaver uses, it’s clear that it is very hard on the body. A Bhutanese weaver I met at a weaving conference more than a decade ago, mentioned that the pain in her back and outstretched legs can become unbearable, limiting her hours of weaving.

As I watched the Mayan weaver kneeling on the ground, advancing row by row, and she created a gorgeous huipil, I wondered how long she could keep going—her back must have been killing her.



  • Ann Hecht, The Art of the Loom: Weaving Spinning & Dyeing Across the World, University of Washington Press.

  • Eric Broudy, The Book of Looms: a History of the Handloom from Ancient Times to the Present, University Press of New England.

  • H. Ling Roth, Studies in Primitive Looms, Robin & Russ Handweavers.

  • Andrew Hunter Whiteford, Herbert Spencer Zim, and Owen Vernon Shaffer, North America Indian Arts, St. Martin’s Press.

Polynesian Featherwork

Feather boas, feathers decorating Mardi Gras masks, peacock feathers in vases, ostrich feathers embellishing hats, but an entire cloak made of feathers? That was new to me. I had to investigate further.

Since Polynesia lacked precious metals or gemstones, the Polynesians came to treasure natural materials such as feathers. Featherwork garments were worn (usually with a feathered helmet) primarily by the chiefly castes, soldiers in battle, and for religious affairs.

The feathers came from a variety of birds. Birds caught specifically for their feathers were treated as a renewable resource, snared during the molting season, and released after harvesting to grow new plumage and to procreate.

On the other hand, meat breeds had their feathers removed after they were killed. Nowadays, due to economical and environmental issues (most of the birds became extinct), featherwork specialists often work with readily available feathers, dyeing and trimming the to shape.

Attaching feathers to form garments involves stretching a foundation cord between two wooden pegs, from which the artists suspend warp threads. They then twine weft threads around the warp threads, inserting feather quills within the twists of the twined threads, as they advance row by row.

A full sized cloak is made from hundreds of thousands of feathers and can take more than a year to complete.

Nowadays, featherwork cloaks and capes are mainly used in reenactments of traditional rituals and other formal occasions.



  • A Visual Guide to Traditional Techniques: World Textiles, by John Gillow and Bryan Sentence, Thames & Hudson.

  • World Textiles: A Concise History, by Mary Schoeser, Thames & Hudson.


Faroese Shawls

Faroe islands.jpg

Sheep, outnumber the inhabitant of the Faroe Islands two to one. Strong winds, an abundance of rain, and shallow soil inhibit the growth of trees. Grass covers most of the land on the group of islands in the North Atlantic. There is plenty of grazing for the sheep.

Not surprisingly, there is a strong knitting tradition on the islands.

Though many of the knitting traditions have been heavily influenced by both Denmark and Norway, the construction of Faroese shawls is unique to the islands. Unlike the awkward and impractical shawls I often see worn at various fiber and textile related events, Faroese shawls, were designed with practicality in mind. The shawls are an integral part of Faroese culture, worn by the young and old, as a fashion accessory for an evening out, or during the day with a pair of jeans.

Most Nordic shawls are usually triangular, some made by knitting together two triangular panels. The Faroese, however, knit a rectangular gusset down the center, between the two triangles. Shoulder shaping prevents the shawl from slipping off the shoulders. In addition, the shawls have long ends, allowing them to be tied around the waist, and they are large enough to draw over the head in foul weather. Traditional Faroese shawls are lightweight, but very warm, often lined with a contrasting knit lining.

Though I have knitted shawls as gifts in the past, I have never been tempted to keep one for myself. I dress for comfort and the thought of constantly having to adjust the shawl on my shoulders just doesn't appeal to me. However, I strongly suspect that if I knit a Faroese shawl, I may not part with it.


  • Knitting Around the World, from Threads, the Taunton Press.

  • Knitting Around the World: A Multi-stranded History of a Time-Honored Tradition, by Lela Nargi. Voyageur Press.

  • Knitting in the Nordic Tradition, by Vibeke Lind, Lark Books

  • Folk Shawls: 25 Knitted Patterns and Tales from Around the World, by Cheryl Oberle, Interweave Press

  • Stahman’s Shawls and Scarves: Lace Faroese-Shaped Shawls from the Neck Down & Seaman’s Scarves, by Myrna Stahman, Rocking Chair Press







I’ve always been intrigued by the ‘stans—Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Growing up, the names fascinated me. According to World Atlas, the suffix "stan" is an ancient Persian or Farsi word meaning country, nation, or land of.

As an adult, I was intrigued by them as homes of a wealth of textile techniques—stunning ikats, beautiful suzanis, hand-knotted carpets, felted rugs, and much much more.

A few weeks ago, on my way home from work, I was delighted to learn that my uber driver was an Uzbek. We spoke of the beautiful textiles of Uzbekhistan. Together we counted off the ‘stan’s. Was it five? Or seven? Seven. He nodded emphatically—seven.

But here I am, looking at book entitled Kaitag: Daghestani Silk Embroidery—another ‘stan? Why had I not heard of it before?

Brightly colored mythical beasts swarmed the glossy book cover. How could I have not known about this fabulous form of embroidery?

It was time to investigate the republic of Daghestan, part of the Russian Federation. It was time to take a virtual journey through the Caucuses Mountains, to learn of this Kaitag embroidery. Another article for WARP (Weave A Real Peace ) in the making.

Omar's Shop

This was my first time striding purposefully through the alleyways in the Old City of Jerusalem. During previous visits, I’d always strolled along taking in the sights and smells of the bustling market surrounding me, peeking into a pottery shop here, stopping into a textile shop there, pausing to breathe in the aroma of herbs and spices.

But this time was different—we were headed to Omar’s shop.

Jonathan, my older brother, knew it wouldn’t take much to convince me. “He has fabulous textiles, traditional ones, not like the newer shops—you’ll love it.”


As an ethnic textile aficionado and collector, it wasn’t a question of going or not going, it was a matter of timing—how soon could we go?

It took a couple of years, but we finally made it to Jerusalem, to Omar’s shop. I waited impatiently at the entrance to the shop as Omar and his brothers greeted Jonathan enthusiastically. Finally, it was time to cross the threshold.

As soon as we entered, my eyes popped out. Piles of pillow covers saturated with Palestinian embroidery, Druze designed place mats in earth tones. And what was this, suzanis? Pillow covers, wall hangings, embellished with the chain stitch embroidery in the Uzbek tradition. What were they doing in the region, in the Old City of Jerusalem? How did they get here?

Omar displaying a gorgeous suzani.

Omar displaying a gorgeous suzani.

After Jonathan told Omar of my interest in ethnic textiles, he pulled me away from the entrance to his shop, to guide me into a well lit interior. I forgot to breathe—wherever I turned, I saw stunning textiles. Even more spectacular suzanis, lively block-printed wall hangings from Persia, Indian mirror-work, and so much more.

Mouth agape, my gaze swept back and forth, not knowing where to start, until a pile of suzani pillow covers caught my eyes and held them. Unlike those in the entrance to the shop, these were silk on silk, the embroidery even, the yarns variegated in color… natural dyes? I was mesmerized.

I turned to Omar. “I don’t understand—these aren’t locally made.”

He smiled and nodded. “Suzani, from Uzbekistan.” then added, “You know textiles. Sit down and I will bring to you.”

And boy, did he. He disappeared into yet another room in the back and came back, laden with a pile of folded suzanis. He spread one gorgeous textile after the other at my feet. I gasped at each one. The colors… the designs…

The bigger ones, the most exquisite ones, cost more than a thousand dollars. Perhaps one of the smaller ones. But no, though less expensive, the prices were in the hundreds. Perhaps… No. I couldn’t. I’d set myself a one hundred dollar limit when we set out on our trip. I tried to rationalize—I could justify two hundred if I promised myself not to buy anything else. But I’d originally come here for Palestinian embroidery… Perhaps... No. There was no way I was walking out of here without a piece of Palestinian embroidery.

Omar saw my struggle. “I have some pillow covers you might like.”

He trotted out to the back room, and returned with his arms laden with beautiful suzani embroidered pillow covers. I breathed a sigh of relief—I’d be happy with a couple of those.

After choosing two of them, Omar unrolled a rug out on the floor. “You know textiles. Where is this from?”

I took a close look. “It looks like a Berber rug from the Atlas mountains in Morocco, but the design is not traditional.”

Omar beamed. “That’s right. It’s a modern design.”

I could see Jonathan beaming too. With pride?

I wandered around the shop, admiring the ikat woven coats from Uzbekistan. I looked at the prices and turned away. Maybe on my next visit.

I noticed a pile of the Palestinian embroidered pillow covers in the front room. I pawed through them but couldn’t find what I wanted. I approached one of Omar’s brothers and pointed to them. “Do you have better quality ones?”

Like Omar, he went into the back room. He approved of my choices. “You have good eye.”

I came away with four stunning pillow cases, a Persian wall hanging, a book about Palestinian embroidery written by Omar’s father, a goofy smile on my face, and the conviction that I’ll be stopping by on my next visit to Israel.



When I wore skirts or dresses, I walked differently, my hips swayed more, it was almost a floating sensation, as if… as if I was a girl.I felt awkward, ungainly, like I didn't quite fit in the role, like I wasn't myself.

I haven’t worn one in more than a decade. When I needed to dress up, I usually wore a nice top with slim fitting black pants, occasionally harem pants.

And now, I wanted to wear a skirt. I needed a skirt.

I was off to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market where I was to interview several of the artists, two of whom were Muslim. I thought that by wearing more modest clothing, i.e. a skirt rather than a pair of pants, or, worse, a pair of shorts, I’d reduce potential causes of unease. I also regarded it as a way of showing respect.

It was time to go shopping--one of my least favorite activities.  I wanted something that didn’t restrict me too much, not too expensive either. This was a one-time deal. Made in India should do the trick. Not an Indian wraparound skirt—I never liked those. A broomstick skirt, perhaps. But not too long—I didn’t want to get tangled up in it and trip.

I was surprised at the one I chose, the one that felt right. It was made in India, it was the right length—mid-calf. It had an elastic waist and gave me a full range a motion. And it was soft. But it was sparkly. I didn’t wear sparkly. Ever. This one had sequins. And it jingled with my every step, with each sway of my hips.

I loved it. It felt good. It felt right. As if a side of me that had been hidden for too long had resurfaced. I bought it. I also bought a feminine top to go with it.

The morning of the interviews arrived. I pulled the sparkly skirt off the hanger and the top out of the suitcase. I chose the most stretchy bra I could find—I had to find comfort wherever I could find it. Next knickers. I had a choice of Thor, Spiderman, or Superman. The choice was clear—superman. The Thor and Spiderman underwear were covered in comics. The Superman underwear just had the emblem on the front. I could be Superwoman under my feminine finery. In my mind I could be flying around, one arm outstretched the other bent at the elbow, toes pointed, one leg straight the other bent at the knee, and my skirt streaming behind me.

Yup. That would work. With a goofy grin on my face all residual doubts about wearing the skirt disappeared. Not only could I do this, but I would actually enjoy it, wholeheartedly.

The King and I

Hand towel to the king

Hand towel to the king

Rinzin pointed at her mother, Leki. “She’s a weaver to the king.”

Leki nodded and smiled. She didn’t speak English.

My friendship with Rinzin Wangmo, began in the summer of 2006 at a weaving conference, where Rinzin and Leki were selling their gorgeous handwoven textiles. Apparently, Leki is well known in Bhutan for her weaving. (She is a master weaver.)


The next time I saw them was the following summer. I was in Pheonix for a consultation with Dr. Spetzler, my soon to be neurosurgeon. Rinzin and Leki passed through there after participating in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. They just happened to be holding a trunk show shortly after my consultation. They had heard of my ill health from a mutual friend, and had lit butter lamps for me in their local (Buddhist) temple.

The textiles were fabulous, all woven by either Leki or Rinzin. But one stood out from the rest--an exquisite silk piece that Leki had woven on a backstrap loom. before Rinzin opened it up all the way, I thought it was a table runner--it was more than two and a half yards in length, beautifully patterned with stupas and human figures, Buddhist monks perhaps. Apparently, Leki had originally woven it as a Hand Towel to the King, intending to present itto the (fourth) king. I couldn’t begin to to imagine anyone drying their hands on it, royal or otherwise.

Between the beauty of the piece and the story that went with it, I had to buy it.

Only recently, more than nine years since I purchased the Hand Towel to The King, did Rinzin tell me why I got the towel and not the king. Apparently, Leki needed money for that trip to the U.S. so she brought it with her for sale instead of presenting it to Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king of Bhutan.

Ah... the king and I.

P.S. Druk Gyalpo means "Dragon King," which is the title that all five of Bhutan’s kings have held. An apt title for the kings of Bhutan, also known as Drukyul, or "Land of Dragons." (The people of Bhutan call themselves the Drukpa, meaning "Dragon people.")

P.P.S. Given the timing, Leki must have planned to present the piece to the fourth king just before he abdicated in favor of the current king, Druk Gyalpo Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.

To Market

The only direction that remained open was behind me. I wriggled through gaps in the crowd until I found myself against the railing at the back of the stage. A tad disappointed I wouldn't see the parade of nations as they made their way along the street, I took in my surroundings--the railing marked the boundary between me and a ramp to the stage.

Tuareg jewler

Tuareg jewler

Here I was, in a prime spot to watch the parade for the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. I was within an arm’s length of artisans from Italy, France, Laos, India, Ghana, and Vietnam. I was close enough to see details of their traditional costumes, translucent pina cloth from the Philippines, indigo dyed jackets from Nigeria and Thailand, and colorful bhandani shawls from India.

The next morning, before I entered the market, I promised myself I would act with restraint, unlike the last time I attended the folk art market. I'd only get a sample of pina and adire cloth, kantha embroider, and perhaps... what else did I need?

I wandered around, entering textile booths to examine the wares more closely. I kept performing the “weaver’s handshake,”  fingering hand woven cotton robes, fondling flowing silk scarves, running my hand over knotted-pile rugs. I breathed in the scent of indigo dyed cotton and caught whiffs of sericin emanating from handwoven silk.

I bought samples of textiles I wanted to write about, a chikan embroidered napkin, a handwoven table runner from Mynamar, and an adire cloth tote.  I splurged on two items—an oh-so-soft indigo dyed jacket from Laos with classic H’mong embroidery on the sleeves, and a gorgeous machine embroidered white blouse from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec.

I also bought a suzani embroidered wall hanging and an origami cap from Uzbekistan. Oh, also a felted cap from one of the other ‘Stans. And yes, a piece a of kantha embroidery. And a… I know there was something else.

But there was so much I could have bought and didn’t. Beautiful Mexican rugs, indigo dyed vests, hand embroidered huipiles, and handwoven jackets. I would have loved to buy one of Fofana's indigo dyed garment. And I managed to resist the Tuareg jewelry, consoling myself by having my picture taken with the artisan.

When it got too hot, I entered the folk art museum to cool down, where I spent more money, in the bookstore. I bought two books on textiles. Or was it three?

So yes, I came away with a much lighter wallet and a much fuller suitcase. But I had such a fabulous time indulging in two of my favorite vices—textiles and books.

Dare I attend next summer's market?


I hold up the bag. “How much?”

Saturnino holds up four fingers. “Fifty.”

Shocked by his answer, I shake my head. “That's not enough. Fifty is too low.”


I look to Hedy who is sharing a table with the Oncebays. Unlike me, she speaks Spanish. “No. Más.”

Saturnino looks at me askance. I nod. “Más.”

He turns to Vilma, his younger sister. After a brief whispered exchange. He turns back to me. “Eighty.”

I make eye contact with Vilma, who speaks no English whatsoever. “Okay, eighty.”

Saturnino points at her. “He... she make embroidery. I weave.”

I was attending a WARP annual meeting. WARP, an acronym for Weave A Real Peace, is an organization that fosters a global market network of enthusiasts who value the importance of textiles to grassroots economies.


I'd been meandering around the vendor hall, when the Oncebays' table caught my eye—Vilma's three dimensional embroidery on Saturnino's hand-woven fabric. Ants marching across bags, crocodiles engaged in... Combat? Conversation? I had to have one.

But the price Saturnino had quoted was far too low. If that had been my work, I would have been insulted. It didn't even begin to do the work justice.

I strongly believe in fair trade. I'll happily pay a couple extra dollars for fair trade coffee and twenty or more dollars for a beautiful ceramic bowl in a fair trade shop. But I have a particular weakness for ethnic textiles.

As a textile artist myself, I am very much aware of the difficulties in pricing handmade items, let alone works of art. How do you put a price on years of study, hours of hand-weaving and needlework? How do you measure skill? How do you place a value on invaluable work?

But I saw much more than skill, time, and effort in that lovely embroidered bag.

The Oncebays are indigenous textile artisans from Peru, who replicate textile techniques of ancient Inca and pre-Inca civilizations. The entire Oncebay family was involved in the making of the bag, in spinning the yarn, natural dyeing, weaving, and needlework. Every step in its creation was steeped in tradition and history.

Textiles are an important component of the human experience. Their history gives us a frame of reference—how can we know who we are without referring back to our past, who we were? We can't afford to lose our textile traditions.

Like many indigenous artisans, their work is their sole source of income. I want to encourage people like the Oncebays to continue their important work and enable them to earn a living through it.

When I handed Vilma the eighty dollars, I was sending a clear message that I value her work and all it represented. Perhaps I should have offered her ninety or a hundred.

After I left their table, the Oncebays raised their prices, and despite the price increases, their gorgeous textiles sold well—I was among like-minded people, members of WARP.

Flying High

Here I sit in the U.S. at my computer, yesterday my thoughts were on Ghana, today, I dream of Haiti.

I researched weaving in Morocco and the Philippines, and studied embroidery in Thailand and India. In Scotland, I learnt about kilt hose, and in Panama I found molas, the colorful reverse applique of the Kuna Indians.

When I mentioned a couple of my trips to a friend, he asked me when I got back. I laughed—I don’t travel in person. I wish I could.

I write articles about textile techniques from around the world. And now I’m working on a book, each chapter based on one of those articles. I have fabulous photos of the textiles. But I have none of the artisans at work. I want, I need such photos. For the book. For myself.

I wish I could travel as much as I do virtually. I would like to go to Morocco and hang out with some of the Berber rug weavers. If I could only watch the Jalq'a weavers of Bolivia in person, there's so much I want to ask them. To be able to get an up close look the double ikat weaving in Patan, India... I’d love to visit my friends in Bhutan, one of whom was a weaver to the king.

Marilyn shook her head. “But the altitude...”

But— But— I’ve wanted to go for so long. I was planning to go within the next few years. I hadn’t thought of the altitude. That ruled out Ayacucho and Cusco in Peru as well, both places I wish I could explore, where I have friends.

I was in the highlands of Guatemala when I suffered my acute brain bleeds. According to many members of the Angioma Alliance, high altitudes can trigger bleeds. Some members won’t travel by plane for fear of hemorrhaging.

I refuse to give up on traveling. It’s an important part of my life. I fly to visit friends and family in Israel at least once a year. Colorado is another of my regular destinations. A few months ago, I was in New Mexico. My brother lives in Massachusetts. I’m long past due a trip to England. And Iceland sounds good, as does Laos, and Ghana, and New Zealand, and, and...

Yes there’s a danger of a bleed, and travel is beyond exhausting fatigue exacerbated my deficits. But…

Maybe I won’t go to Peru, and hold off on Bhutan. But I will go back to Santa Fe in February, and Israel in March, and Iceland… sometime. I just have to watch myself, to pick and choose.

Most of the time I'm fine about giving up on my dreams of travel, but whenever I work on one of my textile articles, I feel a brief twinge. Then I remember the shemagh (or keffiya) that Ghofran brought me from Saudi Arabia, the piece of Assisi embroidery that Matteo found for me in Italy, and the gorgeous shawl Poonam sent me from India. And I realize, that really I'm very lucky. When I travel vicariously through friends and family, I feel fulfilled, especially when I know they've been thinking of me. I can feel the goofy smile on my face as I listen to them recount their adventures as they searched for the glorious textile they just presented to me.

There's something about a thoughtful gift from a good friend accompanied by a story that counteracts all the twinges in the world.

The How of Weaving

I am a weaver.

My loom is a support mechanism that holds everything together until the entire piece is woven. When I finish weaving, the fabric becomes an entity unto itself, no longer requiring support. I then free it from its temporary support, the loom.

My loom.jpg

The warp, the lengthwise threads that stretch along the loom, front to back, forms the foundation of the fabric. Warping the loom includes all the preparation to create a strong foundation. An effectively warped loom ensures that the weaving will proceed smoothly, resulting in a woven cloth that not only holds together, but is also beautiful.

Many weavers feel that preparing the foundation is tedious, but I’ve always enjoyed it. Yes, warping the loom requires several steps, some of which can be frustrating, and the potential for mistakes is always high, but I always reveled in the challenge of the trickier steps and found peaceful meditation in the more tedious ones. I might make a mistake or more along the way, but the mistakes are usually easily remedied.

When I warp my loom, I attach one end of the warp threads across the width of the back of the loom and tie the other end of the threads to the front of the loom, while creating an even tension across the warp. Between the back and the front of the loom, the warp threads follow a journey that determines the pattern in the weaving. I guide the warp threads through this journey by threading each thread along its individual path. Each warp thread is a part of a whole; all the warp threads together, following the entire set of pathways, form the overall pattern.

The weft is the thread that is used to bind the warp together. The weaver passes it across the width of the warp, over and under, back and forth, weaving, interlacing. As the weaver advances row by row, the pattern emerges, giving birth to the fabric.

The journey to reweave myself into being in the wake of my brain injury is ongoing. The beauty in the patterns emerges as I continue to pass my shuttle to and fro. I make mistakes along the way. Some are easy to remedy, others become design elements. My days are filled with surprises, some good, some bad. But overall, I am happy with the fabric of my life, my new life.

Weaving Life and Death

As I weave, I breathe life into a textile, and when I free it from the loom a textile is born to take its place in the world. The Berber of the Middle Atlas of Morocco also see weaving as a metaphor for creating an entity with an essence of its own. But to the Berber weavers, at its completion the textile dies.

I didn't understand—how could anyone possibly regard textiles as dead objects, let alone their creators. Each handmade textile I own comes alive with its own stories, the making of it, its previous life, and its place in the world, its ethniticity.  

My Mongolian rug evokes an image of it laying on the floor of a yurt. When I trace the pattern on my Laotian silk scarf, I remember the lovely lady from Laos who told me the mythological stories behind the patterns. And as I look at the wall hanging in my living room, one of the first textiles I wove, I think of my friendship with my weaving teacher, Nancy.

Photo by Thomas Quine 2006 (

Photo by Thomas Quine 2006 (

I couldn't accept the Berber belief. Dead was too final, too flat. There had to be more to the story. And indeed, after a good amount of research, I found that there was more to the picture. Much more.

Apparently, to the Berber weavers, weaving represents the life-cycle of a son growing up in a male dominated society. The preparations for the actual weaving embody the male child's years under his mother's supervision. The transition from boyhood to adulthood, marked by circumcision among the Muslim Berber, is represented by the final step in setting up the loom, when the top and bottom beams are affixed to the loom, the warp stretched between them.

A boy is male in gender only until he comes of age, which is when he also acquires a soul, a male identity. Once the weft first crosses the warp, the textile too acquires a soul.

As the weaver starts passing the shuttle to and fro, the young adult sets on his way through life away from his mother's sphere of influence,. No longer subjected to his mother's guidance, his life may go well, or not, as a weaving may or may not go smoothly. A broken warp thread or a delay in the weaving signify difficulties that cross his path.

I like the analogy between the progress in the weaving and the journey through life, the notion that the weaving itself is a story. And I love the idea of breathing life into it, giving it a soul, an essence. Though to me, breathing life into a textile I weave is not a sharp transition, but a process that starts with the first row of weaving and culminates when I cut it off the loom.

I also learned that in Islam, death is not an end, period. Death is merely the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end, depending on the viewpoint—it is just another transition into another phase in the human existence, into the afterlife.

As long as I can remember, I've seen textiles as live entities with a story to tell. But I never thought of the act of weaving as a story in itself. When a warp thread snapped, I sighed and fixed it, and when I was unable to progress as quickly as I had hoped, I huffed in frustration.

My weaving enriches my life, but as a contemporary weaver, I have no rich traditions of my own to draw from. Instead I live vicariously through others' traditions. I delight in stories about indigenous weavers, of Bedouin weavers in the Sinai Desert, of backstrap weavers by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, and of silk weavers in Gujarat, India.

When I sit at the loom, immersed in a rhythm of throwing the shuttle back and forth, I daydream of weavers across time and space, sitting at their own looms, advancing row by row, creating beauty. Now, I'll also daydream of Berber mothers telling their sons' stories through weaving.