Shuttle in Her Hand: A Swedish Immigrant Weaver in America
Reviewed by Daryl Lancaster on August 24, 2010
by Marion Tuttle Marzolf
250 pages, Swedish-American Historical Society, 2010
I love historical fiction. I love living through a different time and place through the eyes of a fictional character, and Lisa Lindholm, born in 1911 in Rättvik, Sweden, was the perfect fictional character to take me on a wonderful journey exploring the origins of the handweaving movement of the early 20th century in the United States. Lisa would have been only four years younger than my Swedish mother in law Margaret Olson, master lace maker, spinner and handweaver.
Lisa learned to weave at her mother ‘Mor’s’ knee. Mor spent a lifetime keeping the Swedish handcraft tradition alive, traveling around Sweden to historical venues, examining historical textiles, and advocating for more training of the traditional handcrafts. Lisa accompanied her mother on many of these textile adventures, growing to love and appreciate the weaving tradition in Sweden. But it was through her father who owned the bookstore downstairs, that she learned to speak English, and dream of going to America, where to Lisa, the future was bright with possibilities, and traditional ways and methods would give way to modern design and techniques.
Lisa received an opportunity to live her dream in 1931, when she accepted an invitation to teach weaving at the fictional Little Mary’s Landing mountain school in Appalachia, NC. Only 20 years old, Lisa began her life in America, “building a life that incorporated aspects of both the new and the old homeland”. Lisa knew that “change must come” and that she “wanted to be part of that change…”
During Lisa’s two year tenure at Little Mary’s Landing, she had the good fortune to participate in a Weaving Institute in a place called Penland, where Miss Lucy Morgan was building a craft center. Lisa would be studying with the famous director of city vocational programs for the Chicago public schools, Mr. Edward Worst.
May I say here how much I enjoyed having the real heroes of the early weaving movement in the United States, placed into context, giving a face to the authors of many of the books on my weaving shelf. Who doesn’t have a copy of Edward F. Worst’s ‘Weaving with Foot-Powered Looms’ published originally in 1918, reprinted by Dover in 1974.
The Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 set the stage for Lisa’s continued quest to reach into the future for the modern in architecture, design, especially for textiles and furnishings. Lisa demonstrated weaving at the fair, absorbing glimpses into the future yet keeping her pulse on the traditions that had served her well. Lisa met other weavers, like the Swedish women from Cranbrook Art Academy. Her marriage to furniture designer Lars Larrson, furthered her interest in the new and modern, like Chicago architect John C.B. Moore, and furniture designer Herman Miller.
Lisa’s journey paralleled the events of the time, as the country moved from the Great Depression, into World War II. Gathering other weavers together to support the war effort by weaving blankets for the troops, Lisa got her first taste of racial disharmony in the United States. After the war, Lisa returned to school, to obtain her teaching degree, studying at the famed Art Institute of Chicago, with new weaving professor Else Regensteiner, who taught at Black Mountain College with Josef and Annie Albers. The Albers’ trained at the Bauhaus in Germany, escaping to North Carolina when the Nazi’s closed the renowned design school. (It was with renewed interest that I pulled all three books from my library written by Else Regensteiner, including her ‘Weaver’s Study Course’ published in 1975. I also pulled out a volume on Bauhaus Textiles, and the women artists who made up the weaving workshop.)
I learned to weave in 1974. All of these weaving greats are part of my training. Lisa’s connection to Mary Black, and Mary Meigs Atwater, Marli Ehrman, and Anna Ernberg who started Fireside Industries at Berea College in Kentucky, all brought to life the history I was taught, and gave a context and voice to what had previously been only names in a book.
The craft movement, especially handweaving in the United States, in the mid 1900’s brought changes to how crafts were taught, and how the world viewed fiber in general, not as the art form that Lisa longed for, but as a source of functional textiles steeped in the traditions of those who came before. Her rejection from an art gallery, not interested in selling crafts, to the sad revelation that many colleges and universities were pulling their funding for hands-on skills in favor of more liberal arts training gave voice to the current trends and observations of the time. Lisa’s job teaching at the fictional Rivertown College in 1949 lasted less than two years when the entire department was eliminated, and looms were sold off.
Lisa experienced the changes in how we view traditions, how we view fibers, how we learn about them, and how we study the joy of handweaving. Lisa began her own fictional summer weaving program on the Leelanau Peninsula on Lake Michigan. For twelve summers she taught design, weaving, dyeing, drawing on the natural beauty of the site as inspiration for not only her own work, but encouraging her students to select objects from nature to use as genesis for their own ideas and designs.
Lisa’s own transparent tapestries and rya wall hangings paralleled that of the contemporary fiber movement of the 1950’s, until she began to see work from renowned contemporary weaver Dorothy Liebes. Lisa questioned her own validity and the directions of the fiber arts in general. Her internal debate and insecurities in her own work were brought into the light by a visit to the new Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City in 1963, where an exhibit of weaving featuring works of Lenore Tawney, Alice Adams, Sheila Hicks, Claire Zeisler, and Dorian Zachi, “all seemed to be expanding the boundaries of weaving, away from tapestry and into three-dimensional art, as if they followed some inner voice, caring little about what the public might make of their work.”
Marion Tuttle Marzolf was a professor at the University of Michigan, where she taught journalism, American Studies, and Scandinavian Studies from 1967 until her retirement in 1995. Her vast knowledge of the traditions of handweaving in Sweden and in the United States, and her breezy writing style, make for a wonderful read, full of the giants of the day, I found myself cheering as I read references to names I knew, and reaching for Google for the names I didn’t know. I found a small reference at the end of the book that gave a brief note as to what and who was real, and what and who was “imaginary but realistic”. Her seamless blending of the two made it hard to tell at times.
This book opens up discussion of the traditions of handweaving on so many levels. Having experienced the rejection of fibers as a valid art form so many times, I found myself inwardly just as devastated as Lisa when the gallery owner dismissed her work as craft and not worthy of his gallery. The closing of fiber programs in academic institutions continues even today, where only a few years ago, the program where I learned to weave in 1974, at Montclair State University in NJ, closed its doors.
I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the traditions of the handweaving movement in the United States, the influence of many of the Swedish trained handweavers, and the struggle of one woman with a vision for the future through the work from her own hands.
The book is published by the Swedish-American Historical Society, and may be ordered online at www.swedishamericanhist.org. $15.95 plus $4.00 shipping and handling.