Schacht: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your interest in textiles.
Deb Brandon: I carry many labels: mother, mathematician, writer, textile artist, ethnic textile aficionado, and more. None of these labels define me, but they do help describe who I am, providing an introduction to my story.
My love of textiles began when I was a child when my mother taught me to knit, and continued into my adulthood as I learned a variety of textile techniques, including sewing, embroidery, spinning, and weaving. Learning all the disciplines was fun and I enjoyed applying them, but weaving was special. The first time I sat at the loom, I felt as if I’d found my true identity. I was a weaver; I’d always been a weaver. It was as if I’d been a weaver in a previous life.
I fell in love with the weaving industry, at home and across the world. I took advantage of every opportunity to learn new techniques, new patterns. Along the way I met kindred spirits and discovered a vibrant community.
S: What was the premise or inspiration behind this book?
DB: I am a member of WARP (Weave A Real Peace), a networking organization of like-minded people. Our mission is to help textile artists from communities in need improve their quality of life through their traditional textiles. Many of the members (including me) are passionate about ethnic textiles.
Two years after I joined WARP, I decided that I wanted to be more actively involved, and I agreed to write a regular column, “Textile Techniques from Around the World,” for the WARP quarterly newsletter. I had a lot of fun conducting the research, learning about the techniques and the people.
During one of our annual meetings, the WARP board suggested that we publish a compilation of these articles to sell to WARP members as a fundraiser. As we started working towards this goal, I realized that I wanted to think bigger than a photocopied booklet stapled together available only to members. The project evolved into “Threads Around the World: From Arabian Weaving to Batik in Zimbabwe”—a full-color, hard cover book filled with photographs (many by the wonderful photographer Joe Coca) and 25 updated and expanded articles.
S: Is there a particular textile from the book that resonates with you?
DB: Bhutanese backstrap weaving is definitely the one, partly because of the technique and the aesthetic, but also because of the stories I associate with it.
My first encounter with Bhutanese textiles was at Convergence 2006, where two Bhutanese weavers, Leki Wangmo and her daughter Rinzin, had a booth. Rinzin was demonstrating the Bhutanese version of backstrap weaving. Mesmerized by her work, I sat down on the floor next to her and asked numerous questions. We’ve kept in touch ever since.
I also love the fact that Bhutanese culture is still deeply imbued with textile traditions. Not only is traditional attire still expected at formal events, but it continues to be worn by many Bhutanese, of all walks of life, on a daily basis. In addition, during important religious and secular celebrations, guests are expected to follow the age-old Bhutanese custom of presenting the hosts with gift packages containing traditional textiles.
Rinzin demonstrated the packaging and presentation rituals, which include a specific way of folding the textiles for gift giving. Each package must include a khata (the Buddhist silk ceremonial scarf) as well as handwoven textiles of the quantity and quality dictated by the presenter’s affluence.
When I saw Rinzin and Leki the following summer, I bought a gorgeous silk piece Leki had originally woven to present to the king of Bhutan for use as a hand towel. Fortunately for me, needing to subsidize her trip to the US, Leki brought it with her, hoping to sell it—I’m glad I could help. (I don’t use it as a hand towel!)
S: What do you hope that people get from this book?
DB: I hope that it will carry an important message to a broad audience: that textile traditions are important. They help us maintain connections to our past and our ties with to other. They allow us to sustain our humanity.
S: Is there a particular textile art that you haven’t tried, but would like to?
DB: Indigo dyeing! I have had the opportunity to observe and appreciate the process. I have even dipped a blank scarf in an indigo vat and watched the magical transformation of the color from an unappetizing yellowish green to a gorgeous blue as I pulled it out of the vat. But I have yet to prepare a vat myself and dye textiles in it to my heart’s content.
S: How have textiles affected your life?
DB: Textiles are my life, or at least a huge part of it. Through textiles I started shedding my mathematician’s socially inept persona. I am now very much a part of the handmade textile community. Weaving and close friends from within the weaving community played a significant role in my recovery from my brain injury that resulted from brain bleeds and subsequent brain surgeries.
If it weren’t for this community of ardent textile enthusiasts, I would not have learned of WARP, an organization that changed my life. Not only did the WARP mission and membership fill a hole inside me that I had been unaware of, but it also made a passionate ethnic textiles aficionado out of me, enriching my life immeasurably.
S: How can people read more from you?
DB: Check out my website and follow my blog. I also post regularly on social media—Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I still write my regular column, “Textile Techniques from Around the World,” for the WARP quarterly newsletter. My memoir “But My Brain Had Other Ideas: A Memoir of Recovery from Brain Injury” is available through bookstores and Amazon and will be available as an audiobook later this year, too.