“As I weave a textile, every so often pausing to gaze at the emerging patterns, I feel as if I am breathing life into it, and when I free it from the loom, I am releasing it into the world as a living entity — a textile is born, with a story yet to be told.”
These are the opening words of the latest book by Deb Brandon, an author, a mathematics professor, a brain injury survivor, and a passionate amateur weaver. Although Deb wears many hats, her love for textiles is easily the oldest one, dating back to her childhood.
In “Threads Around the World: From Arabian Weaving to Batik in Zimbabwe,” she discusses the connection between textiles and culture; describes the colors, textures, and patterns of traditional clothing around the world; and shares the stories of several international artisans. It’s a fascinating journey that begins with the Berber flatweave of Morocco and ends with the three-dimensional embroidery of Peru.
We recently caught up with Deb to learn more about her inspirations, experiences, and insights. Here’s what she had to say.
What sparked your interest in ethnic textiles? How has that passion evolved throughout the years?
I learned to appreciate ethnic textiles from my parents, who were both lovers of anything Indigenous — from Indian food to Syrian inlay boxes and Druze rugs. My father often traveled abroad, returning from a trip to India bearing a sari for my mother and from a visit to Budapest with a Matyo-embroidered apron for me. Since I grew up in Israel, we would periodically stop by the nearby Druze village and occasionally visit the Old City in Jerusalem, where we would add to our wardrobes and home décor.
My appreciation of traditional textiles was augmented by the many techniques I learned throughout my life, from knitting and embroidery as a child to weaving and felting as an adult. After 9/11, I felt compelled to do something, to make a difference. I knew that the key to peace was education, and I wanted to somehow contribute in that sense. That’s when I came across Weave a Real Peace (WARP). The words “Weave” and “Peace” jumped out at me, and I knew I’d found my niche.
WARP is a networking organization whose members work to improve the quality of life among textile artisans in communities in need across the globe. The members include textile makers and aficionados — kindred spirits. As I was exposed to a wider range of ethnic textiles, my interest leaped to new heights.
A couple of years after I joined, I started writing a column, “Textile Techniques from Around the World,” for the WARP quarterly newsletter, which further fueled my love of traditional textiles.
What led you to write “Threads Around the World”?
Three years after I joined WARP, the board suggested that we publish a compilation of my articles to sell as a sort of fundraiser. I thought the project would merely entail some editing, but I soon found myself rewriting and expanding the articles. As I reworked them, my focus shifted from the actual techniques to the stories about the artisans and their communities, about their traditions and folklore.
The project evolved into a full-color, hardcover book filled with photographs (many by the renowned photographer Joe Coca) and 25 updated and expanded stories.
What did you learn while researching and writing this book? What surprised you most?
As I researched the textile techniques, I learned about the artisans, their traditions and beliefs, and also the role that traditional textiles play within their communities. Going into my research, I expected to discover that patterns would hold meaning, which was indeed the case, but I didn’t expect to find that the act of weaving itself had significance.
Among the Berber weavers in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, the entire weaving process symbolizes the life cycle of a son — from birth (when the weaver first constructs the loom) to death (when she removes the finished textile from the loom). The idea that weaving ends with the death of a textile surprised and disturbed me — to me, cutting the finished piece from the loom always felt more like freeing it. But it also challenged me to dig deeper. I was delighted to discover that the Berbers’ belief in an afterlife applies to woven textiles, too: it dies when it’s cut from the loom but is reborn to a new life in its new home. They even perform the same end-of-life rituals for textiles as they do for their loved ones who’ve died.
In your opinion, what do textiles teach us about art, culture, and humanity in general?
Textiles celebrate our humanity, from individuals and their communities to society as a whole. Textile traditions help us maintain connections to our past and honor our various cultural identities. They also speak of individual artisans’ skills, artistry, preferences, accessible materials, and geographic locations.
I’ve found that the stories surrounding textile traditions are universal, meaning that they bring to light our commonalities and help us recognize our ties with each other — no matter where we reside in the world and what our place is in society.
Your book highlights 25 textile traditions from 19 different countries, so it’s safe to say that your research spans many diverse cultures. Have you noticed any common threads (pun intended) among the textile traditions you’ve studied?
Many weavers across the globe practice backstrap weaving. Though the details in the structure of the loom are different across cultures, in all of them, the weavers use their bodies (by leaning forward and back against a strap that connects them to the frame) to create tension on the warp. Additionally, I found the similarities between patterns in various countries to be intriguing. For example, block-printing in India, Berber rugs from Morocco, and batik in Zimbabwe all hold similar motifs, with analogous meanings. And there are also a lot of similarities in several aspects of dyeing techniques, embroidery stitches, knitting styles, and felting methods from around the world.
In addition to your passion for textiles, you’re also a mathematics professor. Where do you fit weaving into your life, and what do you think other people — no matter their profession — could learn from the art?
Teaching mathematics, as my full-time job, is a constant in my life, as is writing. Weaving is one of my extracurricular activities, which I practice during my downtime: on days I don’t teach, or after I have completed my daily writing.
I believe that everyone should spend a decent chunk of time doing something outside of their profession. It’s beneficial to one’s emotional health and outlook on life.
Weaving is both challenging and meditative for me. Designing the textile taps into the creative skills we all have. Prepping the loom requires patience and can be mentally challenging. And best of all, the rhythm of throwing the shuttle to and fro while weaving is relaxing — it is a time to reflect on creation and how it fits into our lives. As an added bonus, the act of learning to weave from others forces us outside our comfort zones, which is always good.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Writing this book has added a new dimension to my life. I have learned more than I could have ever imagined about people, traditions, and society. My community has grown in unexpected ways, and I have formed new bonds and stronger ties because of it.
In short, it has been a wonderful journey.