by Annemarie McDaniel

This interview is part of our ongoing SPARK Artists series. 

Dianne Lake is a current college student at Yale University, involved with consent and sexual respect education and a campus a capella group Shades, which sings music of the African diaspora. I have known Dianne for years, but I first learned about her interest in textiles only about a year ago, when she wore one of her first hard-woven scarfs to a seminar we are in. Dianne has now been weaving for almost two years, and has studied both at her university and abroad to learn the techniques and histories behind the craft.

Annemarie: I have loved seeing you wear your pieces around school for the past few years, and see how they’ve been getting more and more elaborate. When did you first start learning to weave?

Dianne: I’ve always been interested in sewing and creating clothes. I’m in Ezra Stiles College at my university, Yale, and we have a special fiber arts studio in our building. I saw it as I was walking by, and there was someone working there really late at night. When I saw their work, I just thought, “wow, this is amazing!” I began by meeting with our instructor, who comes in once a week for four hours to help you come up with an idea of what you want to do and figure out how to create that. This includes things like how much thread you need, how we need to wind it, and she guides you through the process without just doing it all for you.

I’d always been into learning how to create fabric and more so structured pieces, but I thought it was really interesting to be able to create a piece of fabric from scratch or make a scarf. There’s a difference when you’re knitting or crocheting from working the whole machine. There is this whole process to create a piece of work. So I applied to join the studio and now I’ve been a part of it for two years! I just absolutely fell in love with it. It’s something that, because there are so many different steps to the process. You’ve got to count all of the thread, you’ve got to wind it all out, you have to do it in a certain pattern so nothing gets crisscrossed with anything else and then you have to thread it into the loom. You tie little knots, one by one by one, you wind the machine, the tension has to be perfectly right for every single thread before you can even start. And then you can start the process of actually weaving. When you reach the end of the process, you feel so fulfilled with what you create.

Wow, there’s so many steps involved! I think of weaving as working on the loom, but it sounds like even just setting up the thread and the loom takes a lot of time and precision.

Yes definitely! Something that really inspired me to pursue the idea of creating things from scratch further was a guest weaving instructor our studio brought in. She lived in Peru and learned how to back strap weave there. Back strap weaving is basically everything you do with the loom, but with pieces of wood tied around your waist to a tree. Everything that the loom normally does, is all in your hands, using your body as the machine. She was telling us about how a lot of indigenous women in Latin America still weave in this way because they don’t have looms, and this is the tradition they have passed down for years. After her lesson, I applied for a fellowship to go to Guatemala because the handmade textile industry there is remarkable, and I got it!

That’s awesome! What was it like?

I went to Guatemala for about two weeks to attend a weaving school there, and I learned from two women that were a part of local indigenous tribes. They would ran the weaving school for people who were tourists, people in the area, and anyone who happened to stumble by, and also were a part of a weaving collective that had other women from different villages also contributing. The Guatemalan culture is so deeply filled with textile art as part of their tradition, as part of their daily wear, as part of their history, that you could see it everywhere.

I was in Quetzaltenango, Xela (pronounced Shela) for short. When you go to Xela, you see all of the women are wearing traditional attire called a huipil. The whole thing is hand woven, there’s a top and then there’s a skirt, hand woven embroidery everywhere. Every village or every tribe has a specific embroidery design that they use on their huipil. So if you were familiar enough with the culture, you would be able to tell which highland region this woman is from, depending on the type of embroidery on her huipil. That’s the amount of detail and intricacy that goes into creating these clothes.  When I was there, they taught me how to set up a loom, back strap weave, and create detailed embroidery.

What have been some of the reactions you’ve gotten from people when you tell them about how interested in weaving you are or tell them about your summer fellowship?

I’ve had a wide range of reactions, mostly positive but some a little patronizing. Most of the positives come out of the feeling of, “can you make me something?”

Good point. Speaking of which, Dianne, can you make me a scarf?

[laughs] Exactly! I love making stuff for people, so that’s OK. People are really interested in it because they think it’s crazy that I can just create things like that. But people also think it’s crazy that I’ve taken to it so much, that it’s become such an important thing about me. For example, when I went to Guatemala, people would be shocked. They’d say things like, “you literally went to Guatemala to make scarves,” and it just seems so crazy to some people. Even when I was there, there were volunteers at the weaving school who couldn’t believe I travelled all that way just to learn how to weave!

I wonder if it’s because some people think of weaving like knitting or crocheting, and so they can’t believe you’re getting money to travel and learn how to crochet but with thinner thread, in their eyes.

Literally! At one point in a conversation with someone, and I think this was coming more from a joking point of view, but they were telling someone else about how I went to Guatemala saying ,“Yes, Dianne got a fellowship to go to Guatemala to weave. There are people applying for medical fellowships to go treat people in need that don’t get funding, and she got one to go weave in Guatemala.”

Which what there saying is true! But there’s nothing I can really say, and it’s not that I’m doing is any more important than what other people are, but it’s something that’s really important to me and important to a lot of culture’s histories and current lives.

I feel like if an art student was going to Italy to study Michelangelo and they were painting like Michelangelo for a month and taking special classes to learn special techniques, people would respect them!

Right. People take it a lot of different ways; mostly people are just not familiar with hearing about this kind of art or knowing how to take it seriously.

How do you feel that learning to weave has helped you to grow as a person, in understanding your own artistic style, or really in any way?

I think it’s really made me appreciate the basic things that create things that create things that are very meaningful. The things people take for granted. It really makes me think about the other things in my life I take for granted and I know that, people don’t think about the thread in their clothes ever. But now I think about this all the time, because I’m always weaving. Weaving gives me time to think about these things.

I’ve also to grow artistically because it’s helped me realize that art doesn’t have to be defined by the usual standards. A lot of things that are art are overlooked. This could easily be seen, to some people, as something very domestic. You’re making clothes. But it’s so much more than that. The amount of skill and time and patience that has to go into a single piece says that. I feel like there are a lot of things like this that aren’t given enough credit for how artful they are.

I agree, and I think that so often the types of art that are overlooked most are the types of art that women are making, because it’s labeled as domestic. I think we see that with pottery, basket weaving, or just other work associated with women.

Right. I look up to my weaving instructor, Barbara Hurley, and the guest weaving instructor from Peru we hosted as well, but there’s no other people specifically where I look at all of their weaving work. I’ve noticed how it’s difficult to find people who are renowned for their weaving. This is something I should be thinking more about; learning more about the important people in the industry. But then again, it’s something that’s so widely done, and it’s not something people become particularly famous at, at least not in the mainstream. But there is a whole other culture of weaving and weavers; a whole other network that has each other’s information and art. It’s really about knowing where to look for that whole weaving scene, which isn’t appreciated by the mainstream.

What is your next project you’re working on?

I’m really interested in the process of making something from scratch. One thing the guest instructor showed us when she came to visit was spinning yarn from wool. While she was talking to us, she was spinning yarn from a drop-spindle, holding it in her hand and spinning thread. So now I’ve applied for another fellowship in Ezra Stiles. They’ve given me the opportunity to have another project where the weaving studio is going to invest in spinning wheels. Me and my instructor are working on this project–it’s going to be an interactive project with the whole college, actually. It’s going to be set up outside of the dining hall for people to contribute spinning the wool into yarn. Once it is all spun by our own students, I’m working on creating a tapestry out of that yarn that will be then hung in the college. It will be something created by students in the college or whoever is walking by. I want students to be a part of the process, and in the future, say “wow, I spun that thread now in this tapestry hanging on our college wall.” That’s something people will help create that will last forever.