For the Love of Textiles

For this month’s blog, we have a special article! WARP Member, Deb Brandon, shares the story of her book, Threads Around the World: From Arabian Weaving to Batik in Zimbabwe, published by Schiffer Books. What began as a regular column for the WARP newsletter (which Deb has been writing for over a decade), grew into a beautifully published collection of chapters on textiles from 25 different countries. In the backstory below, Deb tells the trials and triumphs of creating this book. In Threads, Deb’s fantastic writing includes personal narratives, cultural background, and treats such as the recipe for Sadza Batik paste from Zimbabwe. The vibrant photos by Joe Coca provide in-depth process scenes of the various weaving, stitching, printing, and dye techniques, as well as luscious detail images of the featured textiles. To purchase your own hardback copy of Threads for $25, please contact us at info@weavearealpeace.org. All proceeds of book purchases from WARP go directly to our operating expenses, including our quarterly newsletter, which features Deb Brandon’s column “Textile Techniques from Around the World.”


On this visit to the Old City in Jerusalem, I actually had a specific goal in mind. This time, instead of wandering through the Arab Market aimlessly, hoping to discover unexpected treasures, I planned to search for—and find—a high quality sample of Palestinian embroidery. Embroidery with that characteristic red-rich cross-stitch saturating a black background, the textile I’d written about for my very first WARP newsletter column.

Since childhood, I have been surrounded by ethnic textiles: Bedouin rugs, Persian wall hangings, embroidered blouses from Mexico. They have always been a part of my life, a part of who I am. My appreciation of textile traditions grew after I joined WARP (Weave A Real Peace), a networking organization whose members value improving the quality of life of textile artisans around the world through their textile traditions. My interest leaped to an even higher level a couple of years later when I started writing a regular column for WARP’s newsletter, “Textile Techniques from Around the World.”

My first article was about Palestinian embroidery. I was a college math professor with no writing experience beyond research articles and lesson plans, so I mimicked the format of a few non-scientific articles I found. I dove straight into the topic without preamble or context:

“Palestinian embroidery is a form of cross-stitch that involves prominent use of red threads, where many of the patterns are geometric in nature.”

My second essay was about Scottish tartans, the third about mudcloth. Since then I have written about the molas from Panama, Swedish twined knitting, Faroese shawls, and many other techniques practiced in many countries.

Author Deb Brandon (right) with WARP member Lola Faturoti at this year’s WARP Meeting.

I relished the research I conducted for my essays—I spent hours scouring the internet and poring over books. A maker myself, I enjoyed learning about new techniques and incorporating them in my own work.

A few years and many articles later, at the 2006 WARP annual meeting in Guatemala, Linda Temple, the newsletter editor, suggested we publish a collection of the articles I’d written, to be sold to the WARP membership as a fundraiser. We assumed it would be a copy-and-paste job with minimal editing; I envisioned a small booklet, with photos provided by WARP members who had visited the textile artisans whose work I’d featured in the articles. Shouldn’t take more than a year, maybe two, to complete, I thought, knowing that I could work on it only part-time.

Instead, the journey to publication took more than a decade and the humble, homegrown booklet I had imagined evolved into something much grander and more significant.

The change began a month later, with a major plot twist in my own life story. I have tangles of thin-walled blood vessels scattered throughout my brain. Two of them bled, turning my life upside-down: debilitating headaches, loss of balance, relentless seizures, and more. I couldn’t work, couldn’t weave, couldn’t be the mom I’d been and wanted to be. Most days, I barely functioned; my life shrank to mere existence. The only known treatment to prevent future bleeds was surgical removal of the two bleeders.

Three brain surgeries later, I felt lost and afraid. I couldn’t grasp the enormity of what had happened to me. I had no idea where to begin my journey towards recovery. Would I ever be able to rejoin humanity, to reclaim my place in the world?

I started writing an account of my experience, hoping that it would help me navigate my way through the obstacles strewn across my path. I also hoped my story would help other brain injury survivors. I soon realized that I wanted to reach a broader audience, too. For that, I needed to improve my writing skills.

Backstrap Weaving from Bhutan, photo by Joe Coca.

My neurological deficits prevented me from participating in writing workshops. Instead, I worked with writing coach and now friend, Judy Fort Brenneman. Under her tutelage, I grew from an “eh” journal writer to a skilled storyteller, and my account evolved into an award-winning book, “But My Brain Had Other Ideas: A Memoir of Recovery from Brain Injury.”

The more I wrote, the more my writing improved, and the more I wanted to write. I discovered the storyteller in me. I wrote not just about my recovery, but also about my past and present—my childhood in Israel and England, my trips to Colorado and Iceland, my adventures in dragon boating and weaving. And I continued to write the column for the WARP newsletter.

As my writing and my recovery progressed, I grew as a person. I let the world in as I never had in my past life. I became more passionate and compassionate. My interest in other people increased and with it, my ability to listen. I connected better with my surroundings. From the shy introvert I used to be, I grew into an extrovert.

My growth as a writer became apparent in my writing, of course—but I also noticed that the content shifted. Instead of focusing on techniques, I now paid more attention to the stories, the traditions, the communities, and the artisans themselves.

One consequence of my post-surgery transformation was that my dedication to WARP and its mission took a higher place on my list of priorities. I was even more determined to make a significant difference, and I returned to my WARP writing project, the article collection Linda and I had discussed a lifetime ago.

I began by rereading my articles from past columns, and soon realized that they needed more than a light dusting to work the way I wanted them to. The original pieces were mere skeletons; there was so much missing, so many stories untold. I found myself using my old work only as references and placeholders. I dug much further into research than I had the first time around: more articles, more books, more in-depth conversations with artisans.

Kilt Hose from Scotland, photo by Joe Coca.

The photos I had collected from WARP members wouldn’t do justice to this more extensive version. Judy consulted with a photographer friend of hers for advice. What was considered a reasonable price? What timeline should we expect? Did he have any recommendations?

She reported back that, “Joe Coca said he’d do it. At a reasonable price. He said he liked WARP.”

“Wait. What? Joe Coca? Are you serious?” Not only did I appreciate his work, but Joe was the textile photographer in the country. And the price for photographer of such renown was more than reasonable; it felt like a gift, one for which I am eternally grateful.

I put the finishing touches on 25 textile techniques to include in the book, gathered samples, and flew to Colorado for the photo shoot at Joe’s studio (then in Fort Collins).

I always enjoy watching people competent at their trade at work, whether they are electricians, chefs, or teachers. I am intrigued by the choices they make, their focus, their technique, and their confidence. The same was true watching Joe at work in his studio—the photo shoots were a joy. I admired his skill and appreciated his patience and willingness to answer my numerous questions, some serious, others joking. He was good company. His photos were (and are) fabulous.

At this point in the story, I was still thinking of self-publishing. But on the off-chance that a traditional publishing house might be interested, Judy sent a query and book proposal to Schiffer Publishing. To my surprise and delight, Peter Schiffer responded quickly with an enthusiastic “Yes!”—provided I would include photos of artisans and process in addition to the textile photos. “Images of process will elevate it to another level,” he explained. The cost of finding and licensing those images was on me; Schiffer offered no advance or help with the image research.

But I felt confident about the project and about Schiffer as publisher, so within the month, I had a signed contract and was busy tracking down professional-quality photographs for 25 textile techniques—a much more daunting and time-consuming task than I’d ever expected, but definitely worth it. Peter was right; the book is stronger with the additional imagery.

Three-dimensional Embroidery from Peru, photo by Joe Coca.

Picking which techniques to include in the book was no trivial matter. My first elimination round was based on the writing quality of the existing articles. Next I considered the availability of reliable resources to expand content. And finally, what samples were available? In the end, some were my own, and many were borrowed from Judi Arndt’s extensive collection.

My pick for the first chapter was clear from the start: Moroccan flatweave created by Berber weavers. The Berber believe that the process of weaving represents the life cycle of a male child, from birth to death. Once the textile is cut off the loom it dies, and the weaver performs death rites on it, as she would for a person. As the dead enter the afterlife, the textile is reborn into its next life in its intended home. I found this story so compelling that my original title for the book was “Birth and Rebirth: Textile Techniques from Around the World.”

I decided early-on that the last chapter would be about the three-dimensional embroidery made only in one studio, which is owned by the Oncebay family from Ayacucho, Peru. I had met two of the family members at a WARP meeting: Saturnino, the weaver, and Vilma, the embroiderer. They explained that their three-dimensional embroidery was an ancient, pre-Incan technique they had recently revived. My resources for that chapter came first-hand from the Oncebays’ account of their research, and the anthropologist who worked with them.

But I didn’t include a chapter on Palestinian red cross-stitch embroidery. That article didn’t even make the first cut—though it did illustrate how much my writing has improved over the years! More importantly, I didn’t have any good samples to photograph. For the next volume—and yes, I hope to write a sequel—I plan to have a sample of this beautiful, enduring technique. The expanded essay might even make the cut for opening chapter.

From the initial plan of producing a simple homegrown booklet, this project morphed into a full length book, a book with incredible images accompanying well-written, interesting stories, a book that’s won multiple awards, a book I am proud of.

Shisha Embroidery from India

Raising money for WARP and increasing WARP’s visibility attracted me from the beginning, and still does. Sharing my love of ethnic textiles by immersing myself in the stories, from early drafts through research, rewrites, photography, and publication, appealed to me and helped me persevere through all the challenges. But I always felt there was more to it, that something more was driving my dedication to this work. It finally clicked as I worked on the introduction—the “big why” underlying my conviction that textile traditions are important.

Textile traditions are more than a connection between past and present. Their importance is greater than the facts of their beauty and construction.

Ethnic textiles and their traditions form ties between us, weaving diverse people and cultures together in often-surprising ways. Stories are inherent in textiles, stories about the makers and their communities, their cultures and traditions, and their relationship to society as a whole.

The stories behind the textile traditions are universal, bringing to light our commonalities, helping us recognize our ties with each other, no matter where we reside in the world and what our place is in society. These textiles and the stories they represent prevent us from losing our humanity. In a way, they save us from ourselves by celebrating our humanity.

And that’s a fundamental step toward peace and a better world.


Deb Brandon is a weaver, respected textile artist and enthusiast, and writer. She’s been an active volunteer with WARP (Weave A Real Peace), including serving multiple terms as a board member as well as writing the long-running “Textile Techniques from around the World” column for the WARP Newsletter. Brandon is a popular speaker on textiles and other topics. She’s an avid traveler and has competed nationally and internationally in dragon boating, and she’s been a professor in the Mathematical Sciences Department at Carnegie Mellon University since 1991. Her other books include the memoir But My Brain had Other Ideas, and her essays have appeared in several publications, including HandEye Magazine and Weaving Today.

Book signing at this year’s WARP Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

 

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