Get a Loom!

Everyone’s doing it — weaving puts your hands to work, quiets the mind, and connects you to a rich tapestry of local history and new friends. 

Photo from Phila Guild of Handweavers Facebook

Our first question when contacted by the Philadelphia Guild of Handweavers was “Are you calling from the 18th century?” followed by a whole lot of eating crow once we got schooled on the importance of “fiber arts.”

From weaving fishing nets to spinning cloth to building bridges — humans have worked with fibers since the dawn of time. Fiber arts have also provided an important means of expression, ornamentation, and display.

Up the road in Manayunk, the Philadelphia Guild of Handweavers works to foster the art and craft of weaving and other fiber arts.

Photos from Phila Guild of Handweavers Facebook

Their classes and workshops are open to the public, and they also meet regularly to share skills & know-how. There’s a lot of history in fiber arts, especially in NW Philly where the city’s biggest textile mills churned out fabrics and upholstery from the early 1800’s thru the 1950’s.

In East Falls, many neighbors still remember when JeffU was “Textiles,” a reflection of our heritage as an industry hub. If you’ve enjoyed knitting & crochet, if you’ve always thought you’d make a mean weaver, winter’s a great time to explore the rich and fascinating tradition of fabric art.

MEET A WEAVER! Judy Donovan in nearby West Mt Airy gives us a personal spin on her favorite obsession.

Why weaving? I got my first taste of weaving in 1995 while working at Moore College of Art, in a class called “Weaving 101.” The last week of the semester we were told that our pieces had to be finished and removed from the looms or they would be trashed. I was so sick with flu that week, but still made it in to the studio to weave. It made my pain go away and I just fell in love with the meditative nature of it.

What’s your favorite part of weaving? Warping the loom, which is a tricky process requiring lots of concentration and care. But there is a rhythm to the process, like a dance. As you handle the fibers you spend several hours anticipating the beautiful cloth that will come off the loom. Much like planning for an exciting trip!

Do you teach? Yes, I primarily teach basic rigid heddle weaving which I like to call the “gateway drug” to floor loom weaving.  It’s very simple and even school children can learn it to make cool stuff. Teaching is spreading joy. Those who have the most difficulty are my favorite students because when they “get it,” it’s a fireworks celebration.

Photo from Phila Guild of Handweavers Facebook

How does loom weaving connect us with our history? Humans have always needing clothing and cloth, so weaving has been around in some form since ancient times in all cultures. Before weaving there were other ways to bend string into cloth like knitting, crochet, sprang and many other techniques. Today people have no idea about how things are made, so weaving draws them in and invites many questions about history.

Are there fibers/materials in this area that have been historically favored for weaving? Philly is famous for its wool. Many of the historic Navajo rugs in the Barnes Foundation (I used to work there) were made from wool from Germantown (the wool here was considered the best!).

Favorite thing you’ve created? I guess it’s an art-to-wear ensemble that I was invited to design for a traveling runway fashion show back in the mid ‘90’s which kind of established my reputation as a fiber artist.

The ensemble was called KissMyAxe and was essentially a sexy dress bearing an electric guitar (which, by the way, fits the human anatomy perfectly even if made with cloth). It got published in many places and even ended up winning a fashion competition at the Hard Rock Café here in Philly.

What’s your weaving secret weapon? I have a cloth junkyard of weaving bits that went wrong or weren’t big enough to do anything with that I always seem to figure out a way to incorporate them together into a really nice wearable.

How would you describe your personal style?  Tribal, funky, flashy and free-form!

Any connection to East Falls? Oh yes. We love dining at Fiorino and InRiva.  Almost bought a fixer-upper mansion on Indian Queen Lane before we settled here in Mt. Airy – the old “Hohenadel” brewing family’s mansion! I heard it’s been restored to glory by the young couple who own it now.

What’s the most important thing you’d like our readers to take away from this interview? I hope it inspires curiosity about textiles and fiber and how much creativity comes from working with it.     — Judy Donovan, January 2018

Philadelphia Guild of Hand Weavers
Classes, workshops, events, and more dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Fiber Arts. Meetings usually held on 1st Thursdays, from September thru June. 

3705 Main Street, Manayunk

Give Handweaving a Go! 

Portable Fibers is a group without an agenda, other than getting together and doing what they love — spinning, weaving, braiding, knitting, felting, crocheting, dyeing or whatever new fiber project is in progress.

“Portable Fibers” meets every Tuesday from 10AM til noon — beginners (and all other skill levels) welcome. Good company, good conversation, new and tested ideas as well as ongoing teaching and learning are just a part of the fun.

Members of the Portable Fibers group made chic cross-body purses from donated materials for the Mid-Atlantic Fiber Association conference.

The group is called Portable Fibers because the projects are carried into the Handweavers’ Guild House. A great opportunity for new and experienced weavers and fiber artists to stop by the Guild House to experience a wonderful environment of creativity and sharing. Open to the public — membership in the Philadelphia Guild of Handweavers is not a requirement.

If you have questions about Portable Fibers contact Kate O’Hara.

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful article! Thank you.
    I’ve been a PGHW member for many years and there is always something interesting and new going on. Judy has several exciting classes scheduled.

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