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To Weaver, It’s an Art of Muscle and the Muse

Imagine a weaver with 36 years’ experience at the loom and the inevitable stereotype springs to mind: A frail spinster shuttling threads.

Sixty-nine-year-old Kay Small is not a stereotypical weaver, however.

“Weavers may be many things, but those dainty little ladies in crinolines that you see on the postcards ain’t it,” said Small as she crawled under a large wooden loom to adjust some threads.

“There’s a lot of physical activity involved in weaving. Looms don’t come fixed all up with threads. You crawl under them and over them and move them. It simply takes a lot of vigor,” said Small, a Costa Mesa resident and a professional weaver in Orange County for 33 years.

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In addition to teaching a beginner’s weaving course at Coastline Community College for the past 10 years, Small holds a workshop twice weekly for a smaller, more advanced class.

Cloistered in a small business complex in Costa Mesa, her workshop, Webworks, is a tapestry of vivid colors and contrasting textures. “Weaving is all things to all people,” she said. “But to start at the top of the list, color, texture and the tactile feel of the yarns are probably what first attract people to weaving.’

Working at a loom intertwines the physical and the metaphysical: hard labor and intangibles such as inspiration.

Diverse Backgrounds

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Weaving requires as much muscle as muse, Small says.

“People come in here from very diverse backgrounds. I don’t know that much about my students personally. I try not ever to discuss, or let them discuss, personal problems or work problems. I try to keep this separate from the rest of the world. This is dream time for them,” she said.

Although Small terms herself a contemporary weaver, she makes certain her students learn the time-honored techniques. “She’s a very modern lady doing a very traditional craft in a traditional manner,” said novelist Dorothy McMillan of Santa Ana, a former student.

“That’s one of the best aspects of her teaching method. She insists her students learn all of the traditional methods to get the background. Also, she’s accepting of whatever speed her students work. Her main concern is that they get the pleasure and enjoyment of weaving.’

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Working intermittently in the dress trade most of her life, Small first learned the ways of weft and warp more than 36 years ago.

“Being involved with dressmaking, I was naturally interested in fancy materials,” she said. “At the time, I simply wanted something to cut up into a dress. I became charmed with the weaving process, and I’ve been fooling around with it ever since.”

Loom weaving is not as easy as it might seem, she says. “I figured I could do everything else (in sewing), so why couldn’t I weave,” she said. “I got a book. I got a loom. I got some thread. Then, I made the damndest mess you’ve ever seen.’

Small moved from Pasadena to Orange County in 1954, largely to study for eight years under the tutelage of Lee Barkley, an Orange Coast College weaving instructor. However, it wasn’t until her husband’s death 15 years ago that she turned to her loom full time.

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Confined to Workroom

“I needed something to fill my time, and I figured weaving would do it best. I don’t weave nearly as well as I sew. However, with sewing, you can be pretty much confined to a workroom, and I could be a recluse without any trouble at all. So, I figured this way it’d keep me out in the world. This is why I did choose to weave--the social aspects of it,” she said.

Small opened Webworks at its present location in 1972. Amid multihued skeins of yarn and cabinets chock-full of bobbins, she spins her textile yarns--rugs, tableclothes, cloth to be sewn and designs for industry. “I do a great deal of textile design, most of it for hobbyists but to some extent for industry. First, you have to figure out what you’re going to make. Then you pick out the materials and the colors. You put some 20-odd factors together and come up with a piece of cloth.”

Even in this age of high tech, the centuries-old craft of hand-weaving is the laboratory for new ideas, Small says.

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“The minimum run for a mill is 100 yards,” she said. “Very often, they need a small sample, maybe a couple of yards. For this, they will ask a hand-weaver to do a run, which would involve textures, colors and possibly weaves that they’re not sure of.

“They give me specifications or parameters and then they ask me to work it out from there. Sometimes it’s a negative thing. They want me to (test) something they don’t think will work. Sure enough, I can do it on my hand loom, but it’s not practical enough for the power loom (for mass production).”

Unusual Projects

Industry uses textiles for fabrics as well as wires, screens and grids, Small says. As a professional weaver, she has done unusual projects. One of her more challenging assignments was for the aerospace industry. “Probably my most exotic job was weaving a little ribbon of electrical wires. They had to be put together flat in order to go through a certain area in a spacecraft. I did a prototype for them and then the company worked out their own loom and method of weaving.”

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Designing is the most time-consuming aspect of her craft, Small says, pulling woven samples from a drawer. “You have to figure out what you want to do and that can run from eight hours to five years. Sometimes you have an idea, and you can’t get the material. Sometimes you get the material and you can’t get the idea.”

She tries to avoid anything that parallels or even suggests commercially woven fabrics--by the materials used, the way they are used and the hand detailing. “I think the mills are wonderful, but I don’t want anyone to think that my hand-weaves are commercially made,” Small said.

Yarn is the building block of the weaver’s art. But contrary to popular folklore, a spinning wheel doesn’t rest beside every hand loom. While many contemporary weavers do transform fleece into thread, the range of weaving options are far greater than wool for the modern artisan. Choices include cotton, silk, rayon, acrylics, mohair and linen as well as the traditional wool.

Small spins as well as weaves, however. “I don’t bother with spinning all of my own yarn simply because of the time commitment . . . but I do spin. I know how soothing it is . . . It’s almost mesmerizing. You get into it and time disappears,” Small said.

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Texture a Vital Part

Each type of yarn has individual appeal to the craftsman, she says. “I love the natural fibers, but I also use many man-made fibers. If you choose them for quality, there are some beautiful acrylics and blends that give durability with the feel of natural fiber. Texture is a vital part of weaving. Half of the charm is the feel.”

Like a painter, Small says, a weaver “sees” a specific color palette for each fabric. Lifting a skein of variegated indigo cotton yarn, she said, “I often dye yarns for the more artsy fabrics. I usually cannot find the exact colors I want.”

Small records her designs and the materials used, later selling the patterns to other hobbyists. In addition, she lectures throughout Southern California and is a member of the Los Angeles-based Southern California Weavers Guild and a charter member of the local South Coast Weavers Guild.

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Though weaving may appear to the novice to be a domestic pastime, for the most part it has been largely a man’s world, Small says. “The women in the mills do the pick-and-shuttle work, but the heads of the departments and the textile designers primarily are men. . . . The reason for that is that it’s mathematically based . . . it is mechanical and it takes a good deal of physical strength to weave professionally.”

Along with the physical and mathematical elements, there’s a mystical aspect to the craft--a rhythm of weaving that Small tells her students correlates with the rhythm of music and dance.

“No matter how long I’ve woven,” Small said, “there’s one thing I’ve always believed. Weaving is magic.”


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