Located on the bustling corner of Irving Park Road and Keeler Avenue, in the picturesque neighborhood of Old Irving Park, The Chicago Weaving School is an unexpected gem. A large and sunny space filled with yarns and looms, it is one of the few places in the country to offer ongoing individualized weaving lessons. Owner Natalie Boyett dreamed of such a business while teaching weaving at The Riverside Arts Center in the early aughts. She opened The Chicago Weaving School in 2004, when two of the local weaving centers closed. “I felt the city needed a place to learn, and I also wanted to offer what I wish I had had when I was learning to weave,” she says. She moved twice before settling into her current spacious storefront in 2012. At first, Boyett bartended to keep her business afloat, until she took the leap and quit bartending to devote all her time to the school. “That was scary,” she says. “At one point I was sleeping in the back of my small storefront on a little futon, then closing it up in the morning, showering across the street at the YMCA, then setting up for class.”
An artist with a background in painting and drawing, Boyett noticed her work was becoming more and more sculptural, and she started to feel a “craving for cloth”: “The day I looked into a studio classroom in the fiber department at SAIC [School of the Art Institute of Chicago], I was transfixed,” she recounts. “I said to myself, ‘I don’t know why, but I think I’m home.’ I was intrigued by knotted and woven objects. I wanted to understand every nook and cranny of these interlacements. It felt like unlocking the secrets of the universe,” she says. “It answered an old, old need that lived deep in the middle of my brain. Weaving felt like a memory from before I was born. I think this is true for many people. Weaving is such a human thing to do, and its practice connects us to each other—through space and time.”
Boyett went on to get a Masters in Fine Arts in Fiber at SAIC, when she remembers perceiving a dissent between the more conceptual approach from her alma mater, and the “hobbyist” weavers: “Rival gangs, like the Sharks and the Jets; ‘art weavers’ and ‘hobby weavers.’ I remember there being arguments in grad school about art versus craft. I felt neither side gave themselves time to look inward, and authentically engage with the threads themselves. I also felt they had wisdom to share with each other. I am curious what human beings can build when they are grounded in foundational knowledge, and given the time and support to explore and observe their own interaction with the materials. This is what I’m trying to provide at The Chicago Weaving School.” According to Boyett, her school is a long answer to that dissent: “Art and craft are inseparable, so there’s no sense in arguing. At its heart, everything we make is craft. It begins with people using their hands and tools to make things in a certain way, and they teach each other. Art is the flesh of the fruit that grows from this center heart.” Vulnerability is an important part of that process: “I’m very interested in the patterns of weaving, but also patterns in nature and humans. There’s this regularity, this idea of what the perfect weaving pattern should be. But then things go slightly awry—like a tree that’s grown into a chain link fence. We’re heading toward this ideal, and then we’re coming right up against the reality of material and the reality of our own limitations. And sometimes when you let some of that vulnerability in, it’s quite a beautiful thing.”
At the Chicago Weaving School, each student has access to a loom dedicated to their own project, and they work side-by-side at their own pace, in a spirit of encouragement and camaraderie. “I believe what makes the school special is its commitment to each individual weaver’s evolving vision. I need to have a very comprehensive knowledge of weave structures and approaches in order to work with each student. In the end, it’s not my objective to teach you how I weave, but to help you figure out how you weave. Nothing is cookie-cutter,” Boyett says. She is the primary instructor, but works with artist and weaver Kendall Schauder and The Weaving Mill’s Emily Winter, who started as a student and intern, and now is an occasional teacher and supporting presence at the school. Boyett offers weaving instruction to all levels of weavers, and in different time spans ranging from a two-hour class trademarked WeaveSpa, the Four-Week Wonder course, and the Eight-Week Discover Sampler. Moving forward, students can continue to attend classes—after the Sampler comes “Dreamweavers,” where experienced students attend weekly classes for technical help, artistic input, community or the discipline of a regular weaving time. Besides that, Boyett offers four-hour basket-weaving lessons, where all materials and tools are provided. She also occasionally teaches online courses about weaving theory and pattern drafting, color theory, dyeing and specific weaving techniques. “I teach seven days a week,” she says. “It’s a lot of work to sustain this level of engagement and manage a studio of 109 looms, but I am working with people who love what they are doing, so it’s wonderfully gratifying. Weaving is the goddess I serve. The school and my labor are my daily offerings.”
The Chicago Weaving School, 4201 West Irving Park, chicagoweavingschool.com
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.