A Weaver's Reflections: A Conversation with Pam Hiller
by Rue Harrison, Aug 5, 2010
I met with Pam Hiller during a break on a day when she was leading a team of women who had designed and were weaving a knotted rug in the traditional Turkish manner. Their work on this project also included a study of dyeing wool using natural vegetable dyes from sources such as redwood bark, madder root, weld, indigo and cochineal. Coincidentally, their weaving workshop is situated on property just down the hill from Marguerite Wildenhain's Pond Farm and in fact housed Wildenhain's students when she was teaching during the late 1950s through the 70s and into the 80s.-Rue Harrison
works: How did you learn how to weave? Who were your teachers?
Pam Hiller: Well, one thing that's very true of weaving is that it's not something that can be taught in the abstract. It's something that's directly transmitted from one person to another. I learned tapestry weaving primarily from Natalie Conradi. Then through the tapestry weaving, I was exposed to Oriental rugs. The Oriental rug restoration I learned from a man named Aziz Arwandeli, who grew up in Ardebil near the Caspian Sea and he grew up weaving Oriental rugs. He took me on as an apprentice doing restorations.
works: You found him through Natalie?
PH: I found him through looking for a way to actually make a living weaving, which isn't possible weaving tapestries. It's a wonderful craft, but even throughout history tapestries have all been woven for very wealthy people, so it's not really a way to make a living.
works: Did you look in the paper to find him?
PH: I went to the Oriental rug district in San Francisco and went shop to shop. Finally someone said there was a gentleman who had a shop where they restore Oriental rugs and said I should speak with him.
When I did, at first he refused. He said, no, this is too hard, I don't want to teach it. But I'll take your phone number. Then a few months later he called me back and said if you're still interested I will teach you. I apprenticed with him for about three and a half years.
works: And when you apprenticed, were you paid?
PH: Very little, minimum wage. But with each piece that I was given I was taught just what I needed to know to work on that piece, so it was a very gradual process learning the craft. It also gave the possibility of assimilating each new piece of knowledge.
works: You didn't have to see the big picture for quite awhile.
PH: I wasn't expected to. And I was even expected to make mistakes because I was told that's how you learn-by making mistakes and then by finding a way to correct them. He would never allow me to take out my mistakes. He said you have to learn to work from exactly where you find yourself and to work through it.
works: What was your feeling about this man, your teacher?
PH: I felt he understood both the craft of weaving and how to look at a rug and how to listen to the rug. When you think of a visual art, you don't usually think of such a thing as listening to a rug.
He explained that Europeans and Americans were very precise, that they want to be perfect. But he saw the rug as an expression of something that is living. He felt it was very important to be attuned to the living movement of life within the rug. By looking only for perfection, one can mar this attunement to the movement of life that has gone into the rug.
works: Did he care about speed?
PH: Not initially, because I was going through this process of learning. The thing about weaving is that it's so incredibly detailed, both in how you organize your thinking and in your relationship to the materials.
You have to learn the details. You have to pay attention to even the slightest question about how a process is progressing. You start off with an idea about how you are going to do the weaving, but if the slightest doubt comes up you have to stop and explore that, otherwise it goes completely off track. He was very good about that.
works: That's a very practical attentiveness, and leads to my next question which is about the inner aspects of the craft of carpet repair or carpet weaving, the role of attention. You've talked about having to be able to stop and think things through instead of going blindly ahead, but is there more that you discovered about attentiveness?
PH: There are several different aspects and, as I said, you have to be very organized in your thought because there is so much detail. You can't start jumping up and down if you've forgotten something, for example. You have to be very honest with what you're seeing. You can't be tense about it. You can't force anything.
Wool, and string in particular, is very sensitive to the emotions. When someone is learning to weave they literally tie the strings in knots. There's a reason I think that we refer to ourselves as getting knotted up in our emotions because that's the interior experience. For example, one thing Aziz would do if I was getting very tense and compulsive about a weaving, he would insist that we stop for a cup of tea. So it wasn't just paying attention with the mind; it was also listening with the body, the kind of state the body is in.
I guess the last thing is that when you're weaving you get into a kind of timeless space because you are so engaged with what you are doing that you can't be thinking about how long is this going to take to accomplish.
works: So for people like us, who are so used to following a schedule, that's almost like entering another world or entering the past. As we normally live our lives, we don't have access to that attitude.
PH: And you can see and feel different states in different weavings from different times in history, and from different situations. A rug that's woven commercially will reflect that there were time constraints, design constraints. A rug that was woven by a tribal woman for her dowry will have a completely different quality.
There have been times looking at rugs in museums, that I have felt that I'm looking at a tribal woman's subconscious--the weaving has a completely different vibration.
works: That's amazing. It gets into this realm of knowing through the materials. By this intimate knowledge you can get a sense of the person who made the rug. Is that what you are speaking about?
PH: Yes. I think that's part of it because weaving is a very time consuming and labor intensive craft, and the weaver puts her life in it. Her life force goes into it. But when I hear that phrase, I also think about what the material teaches you, and each aspect of the craft is its own universe. For example [she brings out two skeins of wool for me to feel] you can have a processed wool which is very European, very uniform, and then you can have a wool like the one we are using now that comes from the Taurus Mountains in Turkey...
works: Oh, it's beautiful....
PH: When you feel these two wools you can feel there's a completely different quality...
works: This is so different.
PH: And it's the same thing with dyes. If you are using natural dyes they are very vibrant. A chemical dye will be a pleasing color, but it's very flat. So the more you pay attention to each of these details and how it affects you, the more it's reflected in the weaving.
works: This one (from Turkey) feels more relaxed. It feels richer, as if it has more depth.
PH: We have this idea in the West about everything having to be perfect and uniform, and that's what we're striving for, but that can be dead if you don't have this other aspect of a relationship between the craftsperson and the material.
works: Could we say that since our culture is so head-centered, we can't easily grasp what needs to be going on in the craft of weaving in order for it to have this more inclusive quality? You talked about the role of attention, but I imagine in weaving there are tensions that appear in your neck, for instance. So in order to be a serious weaver you would have to come to terms with your body, not only taking good care of it, but also being aware of it.
PH: And the more aware you are of your body, the more aware you are of the rhythm of the activity. Because weaving is a very rhythmic activity, whether you are tying the knots or moving back and forth with the yarn. If you are tense it will absolutely show up in the work. You'll start making everything tight. You can see in a rug or tapestry that the weaver was dreaming here and it's uneven, or they were tense there and it's pulling out. You can read something about the person even if they were weaving a hundred years ago.
works: It seems very strong to me to be able to have an impression like that, that this other person touched this and wove, and now you can get a sense of their state and how it changed. It seems very direct. Sometimes I have an experience like that when I look at a painting. If I'm looking at a Van Gogh, sometimes I realize, "Oh, Van Gogh put that brush stroke there!" But usually I'm just thinking it. I wish I could have more of those impressions, but I can't. With all your training, when you're working on someone else's piece, do you get something like that, an impression of the person who wove it in the past? Do you think that's possible?
PH: It's especially true of the restorations because you are really trying to match something about the person who wove it. It gives you a sense of their lives and their sensibilities.
A weaving reflects a time and a place. You can have these very beautiful 16th and 17th-century pieces that were made by someone who studied sacred geometry, and they're very intricate and very ornate. A piece woven by a tribal person can have a completely different kind of balance, but can be just as powerful and strong as the intricate one. Again you feel it's because there is something very harmonious in the relationship the tribal weaver had with their environment-just as much as the weaver who was very sophisticated in their thought and study.
works: Working on a rug, what's important to see?
PH: The first thing is to get a sense of the whole piece. Then you look at the part that's damaged and focus in on finding the parts that are healthy enough to support the strain of being reconstructed. You have to have healthy material to put the new weaving into, so you begin to map that out. Matching materials is difficult. There are hundreds and hundreds of shades of blue. Different yarns reflect light differently. There are different materials to use in the foundation. You have to be as precise as possible, but again, you can't force it. You have to know the time to say, "this is good enough." You can't be so literal that you insist on your way with this rug. Sometimes what it needs isn't exactly what was in the original. Once you have a general plan you have to adjust it for the specific situation.
works: So that's a faculty that can only be developed through experience.
PH: Absolutely. And it's so interesting for me to watch people learn. They begin to make discoveries, to understand that if I change this it will have a different result. That's more important than making a perfect rug. It's a process of sensitizing yourself to the material.
works: I remember trying to weave and being so tense that I never got to that point.
PH: We can tend to think of details as burdens. We're so inundated with information and constant input of details that it seems chaotic. This is a kind of relaxing into the detail, and letting the detail open up into its own universe that you can explore. And again that takes practice and relaxing about learning to do it. To realize you can't do it in one sitting. You might not be able to do it in a hundred tries. But through a repeated effort, you can let the details speak to you.
works: That's lovely. Is there anything more aside from working on the rugs themselves that you felt the need to do in order to educate yourself about weaving and restoration?
PH: Again this is related to what we were just speaking about. One of the major aspects of weaving in general is about taking different elements and making a whole. All of the trips, all of the classes, any type of learning that I've done, has been about exploring a detail and letting it open up and to go further. It enriches my sense of the whole, either when I come back to creating a weaving or doing a restoration.
The trips that have touched me the most deeply were going to the Navajo Reservation and seeing the native weavers in their hogans weaving, and also a trip I took to the Turkish weaving villages-seeing these women on opposite sides of the world weaving without any design in front of them. It was completely coming out of this vision that they had in their heart and their head-these intricate, beautiful patterns.
works: How was that knowledge passed on to them?
PH: A lot of these people were taught when they were children. Maybe they were given a toy loom with little pieces of thread, or they might work beside their sister or their mother or their aunt. It's a direct transmission from one person to another. Just through this repetition they begin to learn how to create with small pieces of yarn like someone who is a painter learns to express with paint.
It's just so detailed and so organized that it's daunting to us. We see that kind of organization as a trap, another burden that demands perfection of us, and it creates more tension. Where for them, this level of organization gives them more freedom to express something because they have something very solid to work with.
There's a lot of mythology connected with weaving. One of the images I find particularly beautiful can be described by looking at this little weaving sample [she shows me a weaving that has only 2 inches of knotting on it so far, leaving about 12 inches of the warp visible]. These vertical threads represent universal principals and they're completely organized and precise. What happens going across horizontally, whether it's tying knots or laying in tapestry threads, that's the expression of the particular, subjective living, the pattern of the life at a given time. So that's what I mean by weavers in a traditional society seeing the freedom within these very precise forms.
works: So the traditional weaver has a totally different attitude towards weaving, not as a burden, or in the way that an ordinary Western person might see it. Can you say a few words about how that traditional understanding of weaving has affected your life?
PH: Probably the way it has most affected me is that now I can't use the excuse of giving up on something because it's hard. There's a sense of always having to look for a place where I can meet whatever the difficulty is. Sometimes that means walking away from it for a while and returning. I know that it's not going to untangle itself.
works: I've also noticed working with you on a design once, that it seemed you had cultivated a calm attitude towards just looking and seeing what's there. Tuning out a lot of the inner commentary. I think that's what any good designer does: looks, see what's there, takes things out and puts things in from a place of neutrality. Is that something that you feel has grown in your work with weaving?
PH: I would say so, because you absolutely cannot force it and there is a kind of emotionalism that, if you give into it, becomes a kind of violence against the material. When you're weaving you're going to break threads. You are going to tie your yarn in knots. You are going to be completely disoriented. That's where that kind of emotionalism tends to lead--towards disorientation. There's something about this type of focus that allows you to just keep moving! To keep moving with the process.
works: That seems to relate to what we were talking about with regard to striving with the mind too much towards perfection. You can also get off the trail by being too emotional about what's going on. Actually, it seems connected.
PH: Yes. But you do have to follow what's happening. One of the things I love about carpets is that a weaver will get two thirds of the way through the rug and run out of a color for the background, for instance, and they'll just replace it with another color!
I asked Aziz about that once. He said it was because the weavers felt it was more important to continue the movement than it was to stop and re-dye and get everything just perfect. It's the movement of life that you're trying to be true to, more than anything else.
To contact Pam Hiller visit www.hiller-restorations.com
About the Author
Rue Harrison is a contributing editor for works & conversations magazine.
Share Your Comments and Reflections on this Conversation:
On Oct 17, 2012 Loretta Flatrock wrote:
On Oct 15, 2012 Diana wrote:
I loved the article. I'm a surface design artist working with many different elements. I've experienced that space in time where I've been so involved with the piece that it is developing itself, as though it is coming through me I am not in charge. So my question is how is it possible that we have"art critics" when art is a feeling? You either feel it or you don't. How can you judge one's art?
On Oct 15, 2012 marsha wrote:
I'm touched by the artist's description of the physical aspect of the repair work, the need for an alive and attentive body, as well as the need for awareness of the emotions as one works, versus the head alone leading the effort. For that I suppose a knitting machine would serve? This is inspiring for me in my own artistic endeavors.
On Oct 14, 2012 Uzma Altaf wrote:
On Oct 13, 2012 Marlene wrote:
Inspiring. Relates to life on so many levels. True soul work. I feel blessed and nourished to have read it, and have shared it with many others.
On Oct 13, 2012 Colleen Friesen wrote:
"He would never allow me to take out my mistakes. He said you have to learn to work from exactly where you find yourself and to work through it."
Thank you for such a beautiful and thought-provoking interview. Such rich metaphors for our lives...
On Oct 13, 2012 Lisa wrote:
This was a delight to read. I took a weaving class many years ago and was grumping about a mistake I'd made in a blanket I was weaving. The teacher just smiled and said, "And that's what makes it YOUR blanket and not one from a factory. Love that mistake." She was so right.
On Oct 13, 2012 Mratibu wrote:
I think its good knowing what we talk about and who it does prioritizes..
On Oct 13, 2012 AXWESSOO SIAYI SOKO NICODEMUSTANZANIA wrote:
This a great work;it is not easy to stand for any answer;some are not for.They say it is great to TALK and its also strong to keep CALM and LISTEN.KEEP IT UP -LET US CLIMB MOUTA KILIMANJARO AND TALK OVER THERE...
SIAYI SOKO NICODEMUS
+255 757 800072
On Mar 25, 2012 Manisha wrote:
This conversation is so vivid, evolving, and beautiful. Certain words remind me of a textile that I saw in a museum once. It was a hand-woven red piece that was made by a woman from the Berber tribe. The story, as far as I remember it from the little placard in the museum, is that in the Berber tradition girls begin to weave a white tapestry when they are young (around puberty) and each girl works on her own piece for many years. The work involved in weaving this tapestry is difficult, detailed, and requires humility to learn, skill developed over time, and a lot of patience. When she is ready to get married, the families of prospective husbands will visit different girls' homes and decide who their son should get married to based on the quality and level of intricacy of the tapestry that the young girl has woven. And finally, for her wedding, the tapestry is naturally dyed a beautiful red, representing "the movement of life" that Aziz speaks about in this conversation.
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