Globalization usually spells disaster for American industry, and so it did for the defunct Chicago Weaving Corporation—a textile manufacturer established in the 1940s that sold tablecloths, placemats and table runners to the also-defunct Chicago-based department store Marshall Field’s (it’s now operated as Macy’s), which replaced them with a supplier from China. In the process of closing down in 2005, Chicago Weaving Corporation partnered with Envision Unlimited, a social services agency serving adults with disabilities. They moved the remainder of their equipment to the agency’s workshop and offered a job-training program to its clients while continuing a decreased production of tablecloths. But the partnership didn’t last long. “In 2014, the program was petering out, and the opportunity to try a new studio model in the space opened up,” recounts Emily Winter, at the time a studio assistant at the Envision Unlimited Arts Studio. Holding an MFA in Textiles from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Winter joined forces with fellow graduate Matti Sloman in 2015. Together, saving all the industrial looms from the scrap heap, they founded The Weaving Mill. “In graduate school at RISD, we shared a common interest in how to continue making work in experimental ways outside of the academic context,” says Sloman. “We both felt the pressure of losing the resources found within an institution, and knew we were not alone in this anxiety. We were also interested in the idea that a studio is a place to make work, but the shape of the studio can also be explored as part of the work itself. We were excited to build a practice together that continuously tested and reflected our experiences in making.” And making they did.
They cleaned out the space, learned how to use the inherited industrial equipment, and figured out how to structure classes with Envision. They also began their own wholesale design and production, which has been picked up by big-ticket brands such as Rejuvenation, Unison Home, Rebecca Atwood and Ace Hotel. They also make limited runs of unique items sold directly on The Weaving Mill website, sometimes in collaboration with other artists. There are two community-oriented programs as well: the Envision partnership, W.E.F.T. (West Town Education for Textiles), and W.A.R.P., alluding to their West Town Artist Residency Project—both acronyms forming a wordplay on “warp and weft,” two basic components in weaving.
In its most recent installment, W.A.R.P. hosted multimedia artist, curator and writer Andreana Donahue. “These programs are evolving with each iteration,” says Winter, “but the basic principle is that we aim to provide meaningful programs for Envision clients and to create opportunities for person-to-person interaction and engagement in the studio that put ability and disability distinctions aside and allow for people to approach each other as equals and learn from one another.” As for the healing properties of the craft, the designer ponders: “I think that the act of making, whether it’s painting, drawing, ceramics, whatever, is often therapeutic because you as a person are making decisions about materials, color, shape, etcetera, that are only your own—that process can be very grounding. For a lot of people, the repetitive and rhythmic aspects of weaving can be calming or meditative. But often weaving can be pretty frustrating and not so fluid at all, so I think a big part of being a weaver is learning how to fix problems calmly, and how to work with the materials and equipment—not against them. So ideally that encourages some amount of self-awareness and creativity, and a sense of self-confidence or trust.”
The result of these efforts is impressive, since the products they create with frugal means have a luxurious feel and look naturally tasteful. “A lot of what we do at The Weaving Mill revolves around available materials,” says Winter. “We try to be resourceful with leftover, donated or dead-stock yarns, and recombine them in ways that push them into a new and unexpected life. A lot of our work is about setting up simple systems (black-and-white stripes, color relationships, gradation) and working into those systems with color and material. We use operations of chance in our design work and we use the limitations of our equipment as starting points for workarounds. We think a lot about how a fabric functions in its life as a fabric: Not every fabric can do everything, some fabrics are better suited to certain uses than others. We also try to understand how fabric can be used as a material and medium in art making. How you can use it in ways that push it outside function in an interesting way.” As far as their aesthetic influences go, Winter cites Bauhaus weavers, Mazandaran kilims from Iran, and work by Italian conceptual artist Alighiero e Boetti.
Holding an undergraduate degree in history, Winter approaches weaving in a wider context: “I think the process is really inexhaustible in its variety,” she says. “I like how you can set up limitations in a very tangible and literal way and come up with solutions and combinations you wouldn’t expect. To me, it feels like a good working-through medium and provides a material access point to all sorts of different kinds of questions—especially historical ones. You can get a lot of real information about a place or a time or a people by looking at how textiles were made, thought about, dealt with, etcetera.” To Sloman, a painting major, textiles initially became an interest because of the materiality of fiber in contrast to paint. “Weaving, for me, is most exciting when we think about the life of the textile,” she says. “I love making edits to our designs that ensure a useful, personal relationship to a home and household. Textiles are wonderful to admire, but what drew me to it as a medium was its inseparable connection to application and function. After learning more about the field, I realized it also tapped into my desire for a more collaborative studio. What brought me to weaving was The Weaving Mill,” she says. “Weaving is the foundational medium of my practice with Emily, but the work we do together expands to writing, drawing, installation and beyond.” That includes multiple exhibitions in venues like Elastic Arts and Comfort Station, and in academic settings such as Wheaton and Columbia colleges.
As if they weren’t busy enough, this summer the duo is working on a bag project—bags made with textiles produced by their W.E.F.T. program, developing another bag collaboration with local brand 1733, and creating a new churro blanket with New York-based studio Sharktooth, available this fall. Plus, as usual, they will be hosting various open houses throughout the season. “And we try to take the trash out and recycling,” jokes Winter.
Journalist Isa Giallorenzo was born in São Paulo, Brazil and has elected Chicago as her beloved home since 2009. She runs the street-style blog Chicago Looks and wants to see this town become one of the fashion capitals of the world.