Fulbrighter and textile artist Wendy Weiss talks about her experience of documenting ikat textiles in Gujarat.
Artist, weaver and ikat specialist Wendy Weiss is a professor emerita of textile design at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. As part of a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholar award, Weiss traveled to India in 2009 and again in 2014-2015 to document ikat textiles from an artist’s perspective. Her travels to India resulted in numerous achievements, including a new technique she developed by combining text with textile patterns. She has exhibited her work, solo and in group shows, across North America, Europe and Asia. Currently, Weiss is working on a group show, called “A River Runs Through It,” for the Museum of Nebraska Art.
Excerpts from an interview.
Please tell us a bit about your work as a textile artist.
The natural environment and power relationships, in combination with textiles and patterns, drive my studio work. Primarily a weaver and natural dyer, I work with other materials such as digitally-cut vinyl, to create installations. In August 2014, when I taught an ikat workshop based on my research in India, at the Strzeminski Academy of Fine Arts in Poland, I was inspired to create a 17-panel ikat weaving about the Litzmannstadt Ghetto. The resulting weaving, “Litzmannstadt Getto, 1940-1944,” was exhibited in the 15th International Triennial of Tapestry at the Central Museum of Textiles as part of the American contingent, as well as other international exhibitions in the United States.
What is ikat and how do you use it in your work?
Ikat is a method of using bound resist to dye the weaving threads in a specific pattern prior to weaving. Ikat can be single, where only the warp or the weft is dyed, while the other thread is a solid color. In double ikat, both the warp and weft threads are dyed in a specific pattern and must match when the weaver sits at the loom to weave the weft into the warp threads.
In my earlier work, I painted dye, which is a wet process, on my warp yarns when they were already on my floor loom. When I converted my loom to become what is called an electronic dobby—I installed electronics to my loom to allow me to connect my computer to the loom—I decided it was no longer possible to paint dye directly on my loom and endanger the circuits. I started to dye the warp threads before I put the yarn on my loom, according to my planned design. I realized, when I began working seriously with warp ikat dyeing, that I wanted to study with a master weaver. My 2009 Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholar award allowed me to document warp ikat from an artist’s perspective.
You like to cultivate and collect natural dyes locally. Could you tell us about this process?
I have been exposed to natural dyes since I first began weaving as a teenager, but I did not seriously take it up until I had an opportunity to develop the dye garden in 2001. My primary plant is madder (Rubia), known for the rich reds found in carpets and ajrak prints of Gujarat. I also grow flowers, including the orange and yellow cosmos plants, which produce a vibrant orange, and weld, a plant historically used to produce bright yellows. I also have other dye plants in the garden. For example, barberry, sumac and elderberry. Each plant has a specific time for harvesting and processing. I pick the cosmos flowers daily and dry them, I cut the weld stalks in late July to save for later use, and I dig the madder root when it is dormant and follow a lengthy process of cleaning, grinding and drying of the root before I use it as dye.
Please share your experiences from the Fulbright research work in Gujarat.
With help from Anjali Karolia of the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (MSU) and colleagues at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Gandhinagar, I was fortunate to identify a master weaver, Vaghela Vitthalbhai, in the Surendranagar district of Gujarat. He allowed me to document his process for preparing warp threads for ikat binding. I worked closely with him and his family, and developed a relationship with them that allowed me to return in 2014-2015 with graduate students and research assistants from my host department at MSU.
On the second Fulbright project, our team completed training in two areas. First, we created a series of design classes and introduced a software program that provided options for creating ikat patterns and colorways that could be used for developing new designs and communicating with clients. Second, we trained the family in the use of fiber-reactive dyes on cotton yarn because the master weaver wanted to create a line of products that were less costly than the traditional silk products they make.
Another aspect of the work I completed in 2014-2015 was to apply what I had learned about ikat to my own work. I developed a technique to integrate text with pattern using bound resist on the warp.
What projects are you currently working on?
My husband and I are working on a project for the Museum of Nebraska Art for a group show, called “A River Runs Through It.” The curator, Teliza Rodriguez, has asked us to respond to the Platte River, which flows into Nebraska from the Rocky Mountains. Paul Johnsgard describe the Platte as “a sinuous tracery through the native prairies that has been followed for millennia by both men and animals.” I am using plants I have harvested from my dye garden, combined with a technique I learned in Gujarat, to use iron to alter the color. My hope is to create an impression of the river tracery at sunset through the dye methods and weave structures I use. My husband, Jay Kreimer, who also worked in India, documenting street musicians on a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholar award project, will create sculptural and sound components to complete the installation.
Natasa Milas is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.