Monday, April 13, 2009

sarah swett saturday ~

The beginning of every month is like CRAZY busy for the fiber folks in the upper most northwest corner of Washington State. Typically within 12 days, three different guilds meet (often more than once with the different incarnations of weekday groups and weekend groups) ~ plus, there’s the weekly knitting groups too. Last Saturday, groups converged (SpinDrifters, Whatcom Weavers Guild, & NWHandspunYarns) at Nancy’s Farm. The convergence occurred due to the very special guest speaker scheduled for the day…Sarah Swett!
Who is Sarah Swett you (foolishly) ask?
~ in no particular order ~

  • Sarah is a tapestry weaver.
  • Sarah is a natural dyer.
  • Sarah is a spinner.
  • Sarah is a painter.
  • Sarah is a writer/author/novelist.
  • Sarah is a designer.
  • Sarah is a needle pointer.
  • Sarah is a rock star. And,
  • Sarah is so much more!

Sarah Swett

She’s a Rock Star ~ She’s Got Passion

Yes, I’m using the term “Rock Star” in its colloquial sense (as far as I know, Sarah doesn’t play in a rock band), but anyone who was at Nancy’s Farm on Saturday knows exactly what I mean.

Sarah isn’t the Idaho-living earth mother I thought she was ~ she is a woman with bucket loads of energy who has more than a simple flair for telling a story ~ Sarah is also a woman full of passion about her artistry and creativity. With her abundant energy, she is fabulous, simply fabulous!

Brooklyn born Sarah Swett talks like each moment is her only moment and possibly her last moment to tell her story. We were enchanted by nearly two hours of her stories last Saturday featuring her beautiful tapestries, dyeing, knitting, and creativity.

Knitting ~
As Sarah told us, she has knitted FOREVER. I was first introduced to Sarah’s knitting in Melanie Falick’s book Knitting in America, which I checked out from the local library a million times before I finally found a copy to buy.

I brought this book with me to see if I could get Sarah to sign her chapter ~ can you believe my surprise when I walked in and found that she was wearing her sweater featured in and on the cover of the book. At that moment I knew this was going to be a great day.

Probably the most wonderful part of Sarah’s knitting is that she does what she likes. She likes wool that can be next-to-the-skin soft; she likes using light-fast natural dyes; she likes the knitting to tell her what it wants to be.

She is obviously tickled by her own work ~ she samples and swatches to her heart’s content.

Sarah told us about how she knitted this coat in a manner that allowed it to tell its own story. Somewhat like freeform knitting, Sarah began to knit what she was inspired to do and kept adding, changing and modifying her project until it developed into the finished product.

Her Warp, Weft & Loom ~
The warp and weft of Sarah’s tapestries have a story too. As a spinner and dyer, she relies on her own handspun and hand-dyed weft for her work. The warp is (or can be) her own handspun, specifically handspun by others for her, or (if she's lucky) commercially spun wool that meets her specifications. Sarah only uses wool warp ~ she found that cotton and linen warp did not give her the permanence she needed.

As she explained to us, cotton and linen warp can allow the wool weft to shift and move a bit (or a lot!). Some tapestry weavers (like James Koehler) use the weft’s ability to move along the warp to their advantage ~ with a little tug and twist; the finished tapestry can be manipulated into alignment.

Sarah likes to use highly twisted, strong, wool warp. Wool keeps the weft from moving around and gives the piece more stability when the scales on the sheep’s wool warp and weft lock together.

She also likes to have great control of her weft ~ she spins and dyes her own weft yarns. By selecting her fleeces carefully and keeping meticulous dyeing notes, she is able to keep an inventory of a vast array of spun singles (one strand of yarn that hasn’t been plied with another strand) dyed to an exact color, shade, and tint.

Here Sarah shows us her notebook of detailed information on her dye process.

Sarah’s loom made everyone think that they could try tapestry weaving too! She essentially weaves on a loom that costs under $20.

Her loom is a modification of the Archie Brennan copper pipe loom. Sarah’s loom is made of PVC pipe and other pieces one can easily find in local stores. She also has detailed instructions in her Kids Weaving book (see bottom of story for references).

This loom is light weight and portable. It does have project size limitations due to its ability to hold a high tension warp, but for most practical purposes, this loom does it all.
So Sarah’s got the warp, weft and loom, next she percolates ideas and creates her cartoon. A cartoon is the master plan ~ the drawing that is used to guide the tapestry artist. It is often placed behind the warp threads as the artist weaves (see the image of Sarah’s loom ~ a small cartoon is behind her in-progress weaving).

Tapestry ~
With plans to study science with future plans to teach or be a vet, Sarah enrolled in the University of Idaho, Moscow. After taking a weaving class, she was hooked. Her weaving teacher suggested she take a tapestry class being offered by Joanne Hall. Although tapestry didn’t immediately “hook” her, Sarah found that once she did delve into the medium, she was under its spell.

Without the influence of constant classes and workshops (yes, you know who you are ~ workshop junkies), Sarah developed her tapestry skills on her own. She didn’t have a controlled learning experience like in Japanese Sumi Painting where the student sits and watches the master paint for hours only to graduate to the position of ink grinder after years of “watching.” Sarah’s hands were in the fiber working the weft right away.

Initially weaving from the front and allowing her weft ends to fall to the back of her piece, Sarah’s talent for discovery led her to move toward two-sided tapestry weaving. In this process, the weaver (still working from the front) skillfully lays the weft in and overlaps the adjacent weft thread. As Sarah described, this process really only works with broken (or pulled apart) weft ends ~ not cut ends. The weft fiber needs to be “feathered” out so that the thin end of the old weft and thin end of the new weft “commingle” to the same thickness of the normal weft pass through the warp.

Sarah’s weaving process is the complete opposite of Canadian tapestry artist Ruth Jones (see blog post from Friday, March 20, 2009). Ruth works her tapestry from the back on a horizontal loom keeping the weft ends on top (or front side) of the weaving, Sarah works on a vertical loom weaving in all her weft ends.

With an ability and fondness to tell a story, Sarah moved toward novel writing ~ three so far. In one novel, her main character was involved in weaving long lovely tapestries. “Margin Notes” are the outcome of Sarah weaving as her fictional character wove ~ lovely waves of color, simply being what they are with no specific purpose other than decoration.

In the work below (six separate small-scale tapestries), she shares storyboard style tale of a young woman knitting and knitting ~ note how time passes and the knitter’s hair grows long. This work shows the influence of Sarah’s recent reading of a book by Scott McCloud (Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels).

By discovering (or rediscovering) “Grandmother’s craft”, Sarah has ventured into the world of needlepoint (see the current issue of Spin Off magazine). She finds tapestry and needlepoint very similar in structure (i.e. structure of canvas compared to warp and ends per inch).
Like Kaffe Fassett and Alice Starmore who have ventured into needlepoint by drawing on their other talents, Sarah works her needlepoint in a manner like her knitting and tapestries. With handspun and dyed wool, she stitches narrative designs to continue her dialog with fiber and her audience.

Beyond the tangible activity of having her hands on the fiber, Sarah has also written about her work and weaving processes in articles and a book about getting kids to weave.

Kids Weaving, published in 2005 by STC Craft/A Melanie Falick Book, isn’t a book only for kids. This book has some wonderful beginning projects and detailed designs for her PVC pipe loom. Weave a rag doll warrior (aka Weaving Warrior) or a treasure pouch ~ Kids Weaving is inspiring!
Getting inspired is the first step in learning to weave or learning any other craft/fiber art. Don’t be shy, just get started!

As Sarah told us on Saturday, “ideas are sometimes shy.” By knowing that her ideas are shy, Sarah has kept pushing through shyness and worked through her ideas until they develop. Whether it is tapestry weaving, natural dyeing, spinning, painting, writing, designing, or being our Saturday rock star ~ Sarah Swett is passionately driven to create.

References ~
Sarah Swett's website:
Kids Weaving, published in 2005 by STC Craft/A Melanie Falick Book
Weavecast with Sarah Swett interview:
Spin Off magazine:
Handwoven magazine:

Below is the original cover of Knitting in America ~

The same book was reissued, retitled America Knits but not revised. The new cover is shown below ~


  1. Wow, that's a long blog entry!!

    You said she's not a "real" rock star but there's a string bass behind her. Does she play the bass (in a jazz ensemble maybe)? :-)

  2. Oh GAWD Juliettta! What a fabulous post- amazing work- What a woman!I knew that Saturday would be remarkable to say the least, but I had a thing to go to that day. I am blown away by Sarah's art! Whew! I hope your post makes it to the news letter.Well done , you!

  3. Shiela Swett

    I am Sarah Swett's mother, and I LOVE your enthusiasm for her creative experimenting, which she has been doing her whole life. I must say, I'm a pretty proud mom. I can barely knit, myself, so am filled with admiration for all of you who work with fiber in so many creative ways. WOW!!

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  5. Hi Shiela! Well, you did a wonderful job in raising your daughter. From the moment I walked into the venue for her presentation, I knew Sarah was going to be cool!

    Be sure to encourage your girl to keep doing presentations and teaching workshops. I hope to someday be lucky enough to take a workshop taught be her.

  6. Again i am just bowled over! Sarah's work is so amazing- it's so passionate, as is she. so , miss Julie, will you be weaving pretty pictures in the future? A bit intimidating- as a non weaver I don't understand how it is all possible- like knitting- I am in awe and totally without a clue...Thanks again for this post, I come back to it and marvel...also to listen to your music...

  7. I must admit, I'm amused to find I'm not the only one who uses the tube from a bottle of single malt Scotch for spindle transport! I think we even share the same taste in Scotch!

    The tapestry work is beautiful, and the whole event sounds like it was amazing. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I was just introduced to Sarah Swett. What an amazing person! Thank you for your wonderful description of your Saturday experience with her! Truly inspirational!