The new exhibition “Woven: Art and Industry on Martha’s Vineyard,” at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, is sure to get you thinking about the historic importance of weaving here, beginning with the ancestors of the Wampanoag Tribe.
The introductory panel sets the stage, telling us that weaving is one of the oldest crafts still practiced today. This single medium allows associate curator of exhibitions Kate Logue to tell a number of stories, drawing heavily from the museum’s collection.
Walking into the small gallery room on the right, we immediately learn about textiles’ historic relationship to industry, both here and off-Island. Covering an entire wall is a photograph of the 19th century satinet mill in West Tisbury, which today houses the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club. In front of it are two impressive pieces of industrial equipment that were used to perform different aspects of creating textiles — including carding, spinning, and weaving, as well as fulling, in which cloth is taken off the loom and washed and beaten with water-driven wooden paddles to transform the loosely woven woolen fabric into a softer, tighter final cloth.
The area to the right in the large gallery investigates the historic items needed to transform fiber into fabric. The carding combs, spinning devices, and loom represent the process of turning wool or flax into cloth. Next up is a section titled “Warp and Weft,” starting with mannequins dressed in fascinating outfits evoking fashions from the late 18th and 19th centuries. Extending to the far corner is an array of textiles, including a tablecloth, bedspread, blanket, table runner, and more.
“Because a textile was such a labor-intensive item to make, it was one of the more valuable things in your household,” Logue says. “So if it got a hole, you patched it.” You can see this in the large, ornately designed blue-and-beige bed covering. “With something like sheets, if it got enough holes, you would cut it down into napkins, then into rags or diapers. You got as much use out of it as possible. With clothing, you would recut it into a new style, rather than getting rid of it, or you would hand it down to someone who was smaller.”
There is a table with a fun hands-on activity, with boxes that rotate to illustrate how to make either plain, twill, or satin weave patterns that you can try yourself by weaving the colored fabric strips in and out on the simple, small looms.
On the opposite wall is a large woven work from 2013 by Island artist Julia Mitchell that depicts an abstract grouping of tree trunks. The rest of the pieces illuminate how beauty and utility can go together, such as the beautiful Wampanoag woven shoulder bag with its captivating, colored, horizontal design. There also are examples of woven objects made with nonfabric materials. Logue’s choice of baskets from the collection exemplifies how weaving connected us to the greater world. They hail not just from the Vineyard, but Alaska and China, too. “We had Islanders who went to sea and brought them back, or there were foreigners who brought items with them from their homeland,” Logue says. My favorite woven piece is a 19thcentury church collection basket that has an immensely long handle to reach people sitting all the way down the pew.
In the final room, there are objects you might not be familiar with — quite large, funnel-shaped eel traps woven out of wooden slats and pine roots. Historically, eels were an abundant and important source of food for Vineyarders. Fishermen fashioned their traps during the winter, or when a storm kept them at home. They would then either use the traps or sell them off-Island.
Before leaving, be sure to contribute to the community-made tapestry. Select one or more of the brightly colored fabric strips and weave them into the enormous, floor-to-ceiling, interactive tapestry loom. And you can grab the take-home instructions for a circle weaving, using an embroidery hoop and yarn.
“I really wanted the show to be an exploration of the medium itself, how important it was in the past, a craft that is still practiced today, as well as a chance for people to try it themselves,’ Logue says. “Weaving is something that at its starting point is very simple and anyone can do, and then it can get infinitely complex.”
“Woven: Art and Industry on Martha’s Vineyard” is on view through May 14 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Vineyard Haven.