As I reflect on who and where I am today, I can say that at every turn in my life, there was always a new opportunity. Like stepping stones leading me on a path, each opportunity was a journey to discover the extraordinary world of textile design.
When my girls were young, I bought a small Swedish children’s loom for them for Christmas and figured out how to thread the loom so it would be all ready for them on Christmas morning. But, truth be told, I kept it for myself. That was the beginning of my weaving career.
I focused my weaving creativity on designing handwoven clothing, and was soon giving workshops around the country. In 1981, I published “TREADLED TOGS: A Pattern Book of Loom Fashioned Clothing.” The book did well – even selling internationally, leading to a second printing a few years later.
While teaching a workshop in Pittsburgh, I was introduced to a technique called “pulled warp.” I took this technique to new levels, using it to design darts, right angles, flaring skirts, circular capes and coats, as well as a series of wall hangings. From this work I published the portfolio “Applying the Pulled Warp Technique to Loom Fashioned Clothing.”
I began teaching weaving at the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) in 1986. As part of an ESL (English as a Second Language) training for Hmong refugees, I taught weaving to the Hmong women. This was my first exposure to their incredible “story-telling” through appliqued and embroidered wall hangings that documented Hmong life and struggle during the Vietnam War.
In a chance meeting in an elevator in 1989, I met Pat Conway. Launching a nonprofit project in Colombia to replace cocaine crops with sericulture, Pat had secured sources for the mulberry tree and silk worm, but was missing the fiber and textile-making expertise. A few months later, I headed to Colombia (one of many trips over the next four years) and co-founded the Silk for Life Project with Pat.
In 1991, I became Director of Silk for Life Workshop (SFLW). Funded in part by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and Campaign for Human Development US Catholic Conference in Washington, D.C., SFLW was a job training program for battered women, ex-offenders, and the Hmong women trained to weave at MATC. Our signature product was a narrow silk scarf with an embroidered butterfly cross stitched by the Hmong women, and we created demand for handspun Colombian silk in the U.S. through the support of non-profit fair trade customers including Pueblo to People and SERRV International.
In January of 1992, I traveled to Indonesia for two weeks to research batik textiles and potential artisan partners for Serrv. I studied the incredible batik technique firsthand, and was introduced to ikat weaving. Ikat tells stories with thread, and seeing the detailed process of wrapping threads for resist dyeing, warping the loom and weaving patterns was unforgettable. On leaving Indonesia, I thought I’d brought home enough ikat textiles for a life time, but not so!
By late 1993, the SFLW in Milwaukee was facing funding and marketplace challenges, and staff shortages. Though a difficult decision to close the workshop, we were able to donate our looms and equipment to Multiweave, an income generating project for SFLW Hmong women to weave liturgical stoles, sponsored by Ascension Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. As a consultant, I helped them with setup and training.
In January of 1994, my move was to Guatemala to work with Pueblo to People. I was tasked to help artisan groups around the country develop and export baskets, clothing, recycled glass, paper and, my favorite by far, textiles. It was humbling to see extraordinary brocade weavings woven on backstrap and floor looms – and the Guatemalan ikat or “jaspe” technique (often done along the roadside) that involved extending the warp for hundreds of yards while tying threads. I was in heaven surrounded by these gorgeous textiles, and the indigenous women’s beautiful “huipils” (traditional blouses) that lent intense color to the lush Western Highlands of Guatemala. These colorful fabrics are unlike any other and I began collecting my favorite examples.
When Pueblo to People closed in 1997, many artisans lost their source of income. But over the years, I’d kept in touch with Bob Chase, CEO of SERRV. The catalog retailer was soon purchasing Guatemalan- made handcrafts to sell in the U.S., and I became their representative in Guatemala.
In 2001, I was hired by SERRV in Madison, Wisconsin as Product Development Coordinator. During the following 17 years with the organization, I had the opportunity to visit nearly all of their artisan partners in close to 30 countries, fueling my lifelong love of travel and my obsession for global textiles and handicrafts. In 2018, I left my position as Senior Buyer, but took on a part-time role as SERRV’s Artisan Development Coordinator.
With more time on my hands, I’ve embarked on a new career! My textile collection is dear to my heart, and it won’t sit in the closet any longer. I’m pairing up these fabrics to create one-of-a-kind pillows, and it’s my hope that those who appreciate the extraordinary handicrafts of textile and surface design will treasure these creations. They are pillows with a soul.
What does Villamaga mean?
It was in Colombia, in 1989, that my friend Gerardo Agredo introduced me to a poem that I’ll never forget. Written by Rita Linares, Villamaga describes an enchanted place, home to poets, painters, artists and all those who love, dream and create. I’ve kept this poem close to my heart because it describes the place created in my own mind for all the talented artists and makers I’ve met over the years.