SS – My name is Soraya Shah. I am a handwoven textile designer. I’m from Brazil, but I’ve been here for about 16 years now. I’ve been doing this professionally for the past 11 years. I moved to the United States to go to school at Savannah College of Art and Design, thinking I was going to study illustration, but I took a fibers class and never turned back. I fell in love with everything about it, screenprinting, felting, anything textile oriented. And with weaving, but I didn’t think I’d get a job in that industry, so I focused on other things revolving around textiles.
Before I moved to New York, I was living in my friend’s attic in Boston, and was kind of running out of places to stay after school. I didn’t have a job, didn’t know if I was going to stay in the country, that kind of thing. I was still kind of seeing someone that I’d met in Savannah who had moved to New York. I’d come visit them here and his dad was like, “listen, I don’t know what’s going on with you two, I don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re a good kid. I know you’re running out of places to stay, so if you want to come live with me until you get yourself up on your feet, you can do that. If you decide you want to stay, if you get a job, you can chip in for the rent.”
So I did, I moved here, and I went to FIT to visit the school, to see what was up, what my competition was, that kind of thing. I met this professor there who was telling me how amazing the school was, and all that good stuff. I was like, “dude, I already got a degree, don’t waste it on me! I just don’t have a job.” He asked if I knew how to weave, and I said yes, and he scribbled down this woman’s name on a piece of paper for me and said, “Her assistant just got hit by a car, she’s looking for some temporary help.” By the way, the guy’s totally fine I think. So I hit this lady up, and ended up working with her for a little over three years; it was like an apprenticeship for me. She took off to open her own studio, and I stayed at that company weaving for a while, until they shut down. Two of the women I worked with were starting a company of their own, a textile showroom named Studio Four, where we’re at now, and they offered me a job. I said, “if you can get me a job and help me with my visa, I’ll come on with my own loom.”
EF – So, this loom is yours?
This is Beth, she’s a 24-harness AVL Compu-Dobby. She was built for me, the company that makes these looms used to make these, but they stopped after a while. Most studio looms are 24” width, and production looms are 60” width, and they decided to start making looms like this, that are half-width of production looms. People weren’t really into them because they’re heavy. But anyways, when I started weaving my own line, there weren’t a lot of people making this kind of cloth, and it was hard to make a name for myself. The people that were doing it were already established, known, so I had to find a way to stand out. I decided to get this loom so I could do half-width production.
It was also when the economy was pretty shitty. People always associate what I do with being expensive and elaborate, and think it takes a long time, which it does. A lot of weavers have high minimums like ten yards, that kind of thing. So, I figured out how to make my minimum six yards, and I also offer 30” width fabric. That way if someone just wants two yards for pillows or something, I can make that happen. That’s actually what’s on the loom right now, it’s an order for a client who just really wanted four yards of this fabric to make pillows. Interior design, as an industry, there’s really a lot of money in that.
I’m a big weaving nerd, a textile nerd. Part of my reason for doing this was helping the regrowth of the textile industry here, because in the early 2000s, a lot of mills started shutting down, kind of around when I graduated from school. The textile craft trade was kind of dying out because things were being exported and being sent overseas to be made. A lot of people were just out of jobs, and I’d say the majority of people doing these jobs were women and minorities, so I wanted to support the regrowth of that too. I work with three weavers here in the United States who do production for me, and it’s all made by hand and made to order, so I don’t stock anything. It looks kind of like that, those fabric rolls.
Did you make these?
No, the production weavers made those. I do all the design work here, and small width production and samples, and they do the actual production for me. It’s cool, because some of the women that do it for me used to do it for a living and kind of had to stop, because the work wasn’t out there. They made their own goods, but not like this upholstery weight stuff. But one of the women I work with, she’s been able to make a living just doing production for me, and has been able to expand her business, she’s got a couple looms now. She’s doing something she loves.
Are they here in New York?
They’re in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. That aspect of it makes me really happy. There’s so many designers, and I’m not bashing them, but a lot of designers will conceptualize something, and send it off to be manufactured somewhere far away. For me, especially with the kind of work that I’m making, good design is nothing without good production. They’re both of equal value. So my skill, what I do here, is meaningless if I don’t have people to work with who are really skilled with production.
Besides this, I’m involved with the Weaver’s Guild. I’ve been the Vice President for the last few years
The New York guild?
Yes, it’s the second oldest guild in the country. I think it’s 76 years old now. I also do lectures and studio visits with a lot of schools. Parsons, RISD, schools from Mexico, little kindergartners will come in and weave on cardboard looms and we’ll make stuff. I like sharing.
I often find it weird that I’m drawn to this kind of stuff. In so much of my life, my tendencies are rather chaotic and disorganized, and crazy, but everything about weaving requires order, there’s no step of the process you can fuck around with, it shows in the cloth. Doing it for so many years, you can see it – maybe not everyone can see it, but I can. For example, if I start weaving something and I have an assistant finish it, you can see where I’ve stopped and she’s started. Or if she starts weaving something, I’m going to let her finish it, because her hand is different than mine.
It’s a challenge to work with other people, like the production weavers. I’ll send them samples to match, because they’re trying to match my hand, not just create a pattern. But it’s cool, you see the variations. It’s gotten to the point that I can differentiate fabric that was made by different production weavers.
It’s funny too, because weaving requires a lot of math, and a lot of patience, and an attention span and focus. I generally have none of those things. I’ve failed every math class I’ve ever taken, I’m really impatient, have the shortest attention span, I always joke I have the memory of a goldfish. But this process is the most grounding thing to me. It’s the thing that’s brought me the sense of order, the most peace.
I’ve moved a lot in my life, I’ve lived in five different countries, nine or ten different cities, I can’t even remember. I’ve gone to countless schools, lived in countless houses. There’s never been any sense of permanence. When I was in school, studying at SCAD, my grandfather passed away, and I found deep understanding of how life works, through weaving. I made a piece from all of this linen I dyed and I wove into a long plain woven cloth. I hung it from a high ceiling and then I put on the clothes that I wore to his funeral and sat there a long time just unraveling it. It was inspired by his funeral, because so many people showed up, and all of a sudden you realize what an impact he had on so many lives. Weaving had become a language to me, so I wanted to recreate that experience through cloth. You can have all of these threads interacting, some are parallel and some are intersecting, and when you take it a textile apart, when you unravel it all after its been woven, the threads go back to being individuals. But they’ve been impacted, and they carry marks of their interaction with each other.
So, I’m going to talk to you about your software for a second since you’re using it now.
It’s just like graph paper on the computer. It’s been a struggle because there’s not a lot of money in these programs, so there aren’t a lot of options, technology-wise, for this level of weaving. It sucks, because I’m working on a Mac, and every time I turn on the computer there’s like 15 updates. It moves so fast. And the weaving progams don’t, they can’t keep up. There’s little glitches. But, I kind of dread when the weaving program has updates, because I don’t like it.
You get used to what you know?
Totally. I’m just not a computer person either.
Yeah. so, basically what happens is that you have this, and it exports somehow to the computer on top of the loom?
This is my favorite part! That’s my pattern on the computer, I just drafted this little diamond. I like to think of myself as the translator between the loom and the computer. When I turn on the loom, you can hear them click and check each other. It’s the most satisfying sound.
Otherwise, everything about setting up the loom, the labor, it’s still the same. I still have to make my warp, I still have to sit there and thread it, wind it on, tie it on, and actually treadle it and throw the shuttle back and forth. But the difference is I get to make my patterns on the computer.
I’m noticing that you only have the two treadles, and that’s because it’s a computer loom?
Yeah, once I engage the loom and the computer, these little pegs on the side of the loom tell it which harnesses to pick up as I treadle. It’s pretty cool. I don’t have to do a crazy little foot dance when I’m weaving, which is awesome.
So now as you’re weaving, the treadles are coming up in different patterns because the computer is talking to it?
Yeah, I started with plain weave to allow the yarn to spread out and become parallel after I tied my warp ends on, to give it a moment to adjust and for the tension to balance out before I jump into a pattern, which comes from the computer. Every time I treadle, you can see in this little Compu-Dobby box, it’s telling me which harnesses are being picked up, and what’s coming next. It’s really simple stuff, but weaving technology was kind of what inspired the concept of coding.
I feel like weaving cards, the punch cards, everyone always says they’re like the first computers. Maybe I’m talking about it wrong, because I haven’t thought about it in a while.
No, that’s pretty accurate, that’s what they used to use for jacquard looms. Dobby looms, pre-computerized ones, were invented after jacquard looms, with the intention of being workhorse looms. They’re simpler, there’s more limitation as to the kind of weave structures you can have. Jacquard looms, you can operate threads independently, but dobby looms like this are cheaper, they’re easier to set up, and they get more done, faster.
I think I have a really nice shuttle at my house that was a gift, the same shape as yours, just shorter.
I’m curious if it’s a Bluster Bay.
It is, totally, I couldn’t remember the name, but that’s it.
This one is also Bluster Bay, it was a gift to myself, a birthday present a couple years ago. This shuttle, I specifically picked because I like things that have a weight of them, which is kind of silly for something so repetitive, because I have fucked up shoulders from weaving. But I like feeling weight, so I picked the heaviest wood they had. I like an open bottom shuttle because I use my finger to control the tension of the thread as it comes off the bobbin. It’s a process so full of movement, like a dance, that makes me really happy to be so physically in tune with. I’ll weave with other shuttles, but this really gets me in the zone.
Some people, not everybody, but some get really superstitious about shuttles.
I didn’t know that!
Yeah! I had several amazing professors in college, but the one I took the most weaving classes with, she’s very superstitious about it. She’d demo, and she’d say, “you can’t ever use my shuttle, it has my energy!” I feel almost opposite of that, if somebody is here weaving, like an intern or something, I want to share that energy. It’s about connecting. I like the collaborative aspect of things in general. Not that there’s a lot of that in actual act of weaving, but in my case, working with production weavers that are making the full width goods for me, there is a sense of collaboration. Otherwise, you get pretty isolated.
When I first started weaving my own stuff, my bosses would tell me, “look, the bright stuff is really cool, but you have to make some neutrals. People want light blues and browns.” The stuff is going on furniture, so I get it, and that’s mostly what we sell. But the bright stuff is what gets people’s attention.
That stripe over on the other side, the really bright one, that’s based off of some of my favorite Bollywood movies. I grew up watching a lot of those with my family when we’d go to Trinidad, it’s named King Khan, after Shah Rukh Khan, this actor my dad swears he looks so much like – surprisingly, he does.
Having a studio in the showroom that sells my stuff is kind of counterproductive creatively, but it allows people to see the process and understand the value of the fabric a little more, instead of just seeing the samples and saying, “why is this so expensive?” They actually see the hand in it.
I love working on custom projects with clients. They come in with their scheme, their carpet, wallpaper, all this stuff, and they get to sit there with you and pick out yarns and colors, make something specific for their project. They get to be part of making something that doesn’t exist yet, you’re making it together. Watching the excitement happen is very gratifying.
Because of the setup, I’m always sort of working at like 40% capacity during the day, and I often stay at night, that’s when I get lost in all of it. I like the pressure of having timelines too, I don’t think I ever want to work for myself, because I think I would either never stop working, or I’d just not get things done. But here, I like the structure. In essence, that’s also what I love the most about weaving, it gives me structure.
Soraya Shah is a weaver, designer, and performer. She was photographed at Studio Four on February 18, 2017.