An Interview With

Sarah Fortin

August 23, 2018

Sarah Fortin is a professional weaver, designer, and teacher. She produces elegant, handwoven women’s clothing that she describes as practical, wearable art.

She became a juried member of the League of NH Craftsmen in 1985, weaving and sewing women’s clothing, throws, and blankets. Sarah has taught weaving extensively in the Northeast and across the country. Her work has been awarded many times at the League of NH Craftsmen’s Fair, New England Weavers Seminar, NH Weavers’ Guild Exhibits, HGA’s Convergence and The Blue Ridge Handweaving Show in NC with several of her pieces receiving recognition for excellence in craftsmanship and creativity. Work appeared in Convergence’10 exhibits (2nd place in the Fashion Show) and ‘12. Her coat,” Wine Country” received 3rd place at the recent HGA Convergence Fashion Show, and yardage “Shuttered Reflections” was Best In Fiber in the Living With Crafts Exhibit at the 2014 League of NH Craftsmen Fair. Other work has been published in Handwoven magazine. Sarah continues to explore and expand in her art with new techniques as she teaches and exhibits in the area and around the country.

Interested professionals may contact Sarah at:  fortinsarah1950@gmail.com

What initially attracted you to weaving? I was a student at Washington State University in Clothing and Textiles. It was a required course to take, a weaving class. I took my weaving class and I fell in love with it. All the linear aspects of it, the design, the yarns, the colors, everything about it appealed to me. I then moved to the east coast for a job. I took a couple of workshops but was also able to borrow a loom from the state craftsperson at the extension service where I worked. When you moved east, where did you move to? I moved to Milford, NH. I was working as a 4-H extension agent for Hillsborough County. I have been sewing since I was eight or nine years old with my grandmother and my mother through 4-H. What were the things you made on your sewing machine? Mostly clothing, I have a fun little story: My sister would only make one thing a year, she was four years younger than me, but she would only make one thing a year for the 4-H fashion show. I would sew all the time, and she always won, and I never did!  Oh well. Your early upbringing had a lot of influence on you. Photographer parents, I grew up on a farm. It was a dairy farm at first, then my Dad couldn’t raise four kids on 20 dairy cows, so he switched to photography, he had always had that as a hobby. When I was about 10, he built a studio and a dark room, and he and my Mom did all the work.  But growing up in the Palouse Hills of Washington state has influenced my work — when I post pictures on Facebook of the hills and the harvest season, people will say, now I see where your palette comes from. Sometimes true, but not always. When other people think about your palette, what do they think of? People seem to think now that I have a lot of autumn colors in my palette. Partly because I think people were using a lot of jewel tones, for many, many years. I tried to switch myself away from that to create something different. That is why I was using more the colors of autumn and the qualities of the hills. Speaking of jewel tones and autumn colors, how is your personality reflected in your weaving? I think I am rather quiet. And, we as weavers work alone, a lot, most of the time. So, for me to get out and teach is a stimulant really, because then I come home inspired to actually weave some of those weave structures again. I am not flamboyant, I don’t create garments that people can’t wear most any time.  I am probably somewhat conservative in my outlook, especially in the art world. I have this thought that I won’t teach color.  I could, we could do yarn mappings, scatter paper, and do all that stuff, and play with color and the color wheel, and teach the hues and vibrancy and other color theory, but I don’t think that people learn color until they experience color in the medium in which they are using it. I believe that our inspiration comes from the five senses. I teach a class on that, it is a lot of fun. I don’t want the piece of pineapple that you smelled or the taste of the piece of chocolate. I don’t want you to draw a picture of that, I want you to draw pictures of the memory it creates within your mind. For me, the smell of new-mown hay or grass around here just takes me home to the hills and the hay fields. I used to play house on the hay-wagon when I was a little child. How interesting, you teach a class relating what you experience in the senses through to weaving and fabric. What I do is, with blind-folded students, to pass out little tastes or smells, or  have them listen to music or have them read a piece of poetry, then take colored pencils and draw what colors of the memory of that creates, and then from there, we try to find a weave structure that fits that memory, and yarn that might fit that memory. I had an older woman, who took my class.  I passed out baby powder to blind-folded students, the memory that came back to her was of when she was a small child, and her mother was going out somewhere, her mother would come into her room in a blue and white polk-a-dotted dress smelling of baby powder. We thought about a weave structure that would fit that.  It is a fun class.
Tell me a bit more about your process, do you first envision through the senses, through memories?

Through memories, or sometimes it might be yarn colors that inspire me, especially painted yarns and I’ll look for solids that might go with them, then maybe a weave structure that would create the look that I want.

So, you start envisioning something from the colors.

…Or from pictures. I save a lot of pictures that give me color ideas. For color especially, I don’t use a computer to design; I know how to use a computer program to record what I do. But especially with the 3-dimensional work, it doesn’t show anyway, and with double weave it would show each side, but it doesn’t show up well. For example, one of the jackets I made was based on the colors of a photo of glaciers I took in Alaska and created the jacket “Flying over Glaciers”. The colors and the waviness looked remarkable, which is why I used Turned Taquetè as the weave structure.

Even someone as skillful as you must have creative blocks now and then?

I do, and sometimes I will scan through my photographs, or look over my yarns, because obviously, I have a stash! Sometimes I forget yarn that I have, so it is helpful to look through it. Even going outside for a walk by myself will do those things. It is helpful to change your environment.

Do you read for inspiration?

I read a lot of fiction for relaxation, although I have a wall-piece that was based on the poem “In Flanders Field”. Just knowing, or remembering, sometimes moves you to create something.

On the technical side, are there particular weave structures that you prefer or stay away from?

I’ll tell you what I am not. I am not a structure person. I mean, I do a lot of structure, but not to recognize one lace versus another lace, I would have to go look it up. I don’t teach structure classes, because I would have to really go back and study them. I have never done a master’s program. To have to go through it and make specific little samples of structures does not interest me, just my personal opinion based upon 40 years of weaving knowledge, and knowing the pieces I like to do.

I really enjoy working on double weave. I only have eight shafts. My Macomber has 10 shafts, but one can’t do another block with only 10.  I am trying to do a lot of shading and two-sided cloth in double weave.  I also am trying to push the limit with the 3-dimensional fabrics having pleats and folds and gathers.

Why don’t we talk about the 3-dimensional projects.

I love doing the 3-dimensional work, now including the ply-split basketry. I learned to do that from Linda Hendrickson, she is an Oregon person. I went to the Long Beach Convergence and took a class with her there.  I felt it was something I could take with me easily and be able to do it on my own as long as I had the cords made. But, as far as the fold and pleats, some people are doing pleats now, (Susie Taylor does the Origami folds) she has two layers for her section, but she uses a different technique, not the double weave horizontal folds like I do.  I am enjoying experimenting with all the different 3-dimensional projects.  Also, I am trying to take my looms to the capacity of their mechanical abilities.

Interesting, have you seen “Tim’s Treadle Reducer” (website), you might need 14 treadles for a piece, and the program comes up with a skeleton tie-up for all of it.  I have done two- three- and four-layers,

I enjoy working with different yarn: the silk and steel, the glass-reflective yarns. The silk and steel yarns may show hard-to-remove creases in the yardage with handling – no squishing.

What do you think are some of the most interesting things happening in the weaving community these days?

  • I think the Jacquard weaving is very interesting. It is not for me, but it is really taking off. The looms are very expensive. It is handwoven and hand-threaded, but computer assisted.
  • Inga Dam, from Ontario, is doing Card Weaving in her fabric. The cards are in her heddles, she turns them as she weaves.
  • The new weavers are expanding to use fine threads more quickly than we did years ago. I have been weaving for 45 years or close to it. It is perhaps because the fine threads are available now.  When I was starting out, they were difficult to find for a small studio weaver.

You are a well-respected teacher, what are three essential things for students to learn that would help increase confidence in their own process.

Aside from all of the mechanical things – learning to dress your loom, learning about color, I still stay, you have to do color in your weaving to learn color, about the way color reacts with different weave structures.

I think that students need to loosen up a little.

I just did a class a shadow-weave class up at Harrisville Designs. I gave them a base color; each student was assigned a draft.  They were to design three color gamps that had the base color as the as the constant, using three different colors in the warp gamps. I had a hard time getting them to loosen up, to try many different colors for the wefts. I think that shadow weave is so wonderful, creating different shadows just using totally different colors than what’s in the warp. It gives the warp a totally different look and may create different colors with shadows.

So, loosen up.

  • Experiment with color. Don’t be afraid to experiment with color
  • Experiment with structure.

But the most important thing for me is to loosen up, and not be so constricted by guidelines, and what has been done before. I know that Handwoven magazine provides projects for people to copy. But I would hope that people will move away once they have seen the patterns. I love Handwoven Magazine, but I will never use the same yarns or same setts on a design.  Loosen up and be less constricted by directions.

Last question…Does your current vision for weaving include possible future directions for you?  You are so thoroughly involved in double weave and 3-dimensional projects, what is next?

I still want to do those but I think also trying finer threads and more smaller pieces, rather than doing the yardage. I won’t take a structure and a yarn and just put on a sample, especially for garments one does not get the feel of the drape and design.  I always put on the whole piece and always put on warp enough to experiment with the color changes and treadling changes. That’s another reason why I don’t want to use a computer, because you are then restricted to whatever you put into that computer, even with the dobby heads, you are restricted by the pegs, and I change treadling all the time. I don’t want to be restricted by that.

The baskets are still an interlacement, so they are still a weave structure. I am especially enjoying the ply-split baskets.  I use the paper raffia and waxed linen.

We are at the end of the interview, is there anything you would like to add that we haven’t touched on?

I think we covered a lot…

I want to thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for Wovenful.com and its audience. We appreciate the time you spent with us sharing your stories, insights, and ideas.

All work on this page is by Sarah Fortin, Images are Copyright, Wovenful 2018 – all rights reserved.