Stories of Scale, Selvages and Sublimity: Ethel Stein, Lenore Tawney, and Mary Atwater
The traditional English Dictionary describes yarn as a thread which is spun and is used for textile making (weaving, knitting, knotting, etc). Yet, a different definition of yarn also means to tell an informal tale or a story. The twofold character of the word yarn aptly describes the nature of making cloth. Considering the etymological character of the yarn, I ask when was the first time that pioneering artists Ethel Stein (1917-2018), Lenore Tawney (1907-2007) and Mary Atwater (1878-1956) were introduced to fiber art? How did they contribute and act as proponents of woven forms, a study distinct from other studio art practices? By yarning about relevant anecdotes of twentieth century female fiber artists, I focus on interesting textile making moments in this research piece.
Ethel Stein: Drawloom, Damask and Dynamicity
Born as Ethel Levy in New York City, Ethel Stein was 96 when her first exhibition of intricately woven textiles was revealed to the public. Although influenced by Bauhaus ideals of simplicity and repurposing, Stein’s weaves were a cultural melting pot of well-researched elements, techniques, and traditions. Stein also designed puppets for puppeteer, Shari Lewis, who was known for turning an “old sock into a superstar” with her puppet “Lamb Chop” in the 1950s and 1960s. To trace the purpose of her contemporary artworks, we need to understand that Stein was a sculptor before becoming increasingly interested in textiles. However, it was only in the 1970’s that her woven work took on a, “new level of complexity,” after she met Milton Sonday, then the curator of textiles at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. New York Times and the Art Forum notes that Stein studied under Bauhaus artists like Wharton Esherick, George Biddle, Chaim Gross, and Josef Albers at Hessian Hills School in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.
Art conservator, Lucy Commoner, who wrote Stein’s monograph reveals that Stein taught her to weave as a child and also introduced her to the fiber artist, Lenore Tawney. It was then that Commoner began exploring the value of fiber arts as a field separate from other studio arts.
José Picayo, a weaver who is part of the TAC community, recalls that he met Stein 20 years ago, but it was only recently when he began weaving that he understood the magic of making cloth under the guidance of Stein. When asked about Stein, he explains that, “her (Stein’s) mission was to weave, create and enjoy what she did.” He adds that Stein really mastered different forms of weaving, she would construct her own looms and even spin her own fiber. Fascinated by Stein, Picayo often visited Stein’s studio and continues to be inspired by her weavings, books and art collections.
“Master Weaver, Ethel Stein,” Film commissioned by The Art Institute of Chicago.
Likewise, curator Tom Grotta collaborated with his partner, Rhonda Brown to begin browngrotta arts in Wilton, Connecticut at a time when fiber arts “didn’t have any representation.” Browngrotta published Stein’s first monograph called “Ethel Stein: Weaver” in 2008 and continues to house Stein’s important works. When asked about Stein as a person in an interview with Crafts Council in 2009, Grotta added “I can’t think of anyone who qualifies more as ‘under the radar.’” It wasn’t that Stein was underrepresented or undervalued as an artist, instead she was one of the few weavers who “never sought for wider fame.”
Lenore Tawney: Cloth, Collages and Curiosity
Born as Lenora Gallagher in Ohio, Lenore Tawney was known for sculptural weaving. She travelled extensively around the world to countries including but not limited to Mexico (1945), North Africa (1949-51), Greece (1956), Bolivia (1965), and Colombia (1991). The pioneering textile artist is known for not only her work with fiber, but also personal collages, photo montages, and postcards. For example, some of Tawney’s drawings take inspiration from the functioning of a jacquard loom.
In Lenore Tawney: Signs of the Wind, art critic, Holland Cotter, makes sartorial connections between Emily Dickinson and Tawney. Moreover, he describes Tawney’s early life as:
Although Tawney studied sculpture under Alexander Archipenko, the medium did not give her enough freedom for “eccentricity” and “experimentation.” In 1957, she was almost 50 when she regarded herself as a post-war artist with her first major solo show at the Staten Island Museum, New York.
At a New York Textile Month event called “Lenore Tawney’s Handmade Garments” in September 2017, Kathleen, the executive director at Lenore Tawney Foundation narrated an anecdote about Tawney’s picture (image above). She stated that when Tawney was young, she chose to embellish her uniform with embroidery. Although her teachers were unhappy with it, Tawney was already transforming the textiles around her.
Mary Meigs Atwater: Aplomb, Authenticity, and Appreciation
Mary Meigs Atwater was born in Iowa, and travelled Europe and many other countries before starting the journey of hand weaving. She was with his son, Monty, when Atwater wrote about her experience as:
Atwater taught at several schools during the First World War and the Second World War. For instance, in The Shuttle Book of American Hand Weaving, Atwater expresses her emotions through weaving by stating that “weaving is so old. It has come through a million wars. It will come through this one, if a single pair of human hands is left alive.” For her, weaving meant more than work — it was part of her everyday life. America after Second World War was embracing the new and was evaluating the old techniques of production. At this time, Atwater made a case for ancient weaving and textile techniques.
Atwater continued to discover new aspects of weaving. For instance, she describes her first encounter with card weaving as:
Atwater enjoyed weaving by hand, and her weaving instructions were often followed by graphs and detailed illustrations. In addition, her weaving philosophies would always engage with weavers of all levels. For example, she advised novices to begin weaving on an overshot loom, and suggested that beginners would be “amazed by ‘seeing a little flower garden spring into blossom under one’s fingers.’”
Some of the books and shuttle-craft monographs that Mary Meigs Atwater wrote include Mary Meigs Atwater Recipe Book: Patterns for Hand-weavers Plastic Comb (1986), The Shuttle Craft Book of American Hand-Weaving (1947), Design and the Hand-weaver (1961).
To sum it up, Ethel Stein, Lenore Tawney and Mary Atwater were not just pioneering artists of the 20th century. Their individuality, and drive to innovate in and beyond the field of fiber art serves as a inspiration to everyone, particularly those who continue to discover and develop new techniques of making.
“Studied Beauty: Textile Panel by Ethel Stein.”
Lovelace, Joyce. “Ethel Stein: A Weaver’s Weave.” last modified March 11, 2009.
“Ethel Stein, Master Weaver.” The Art Institute of Chicago.
Ross, Jeannette. “‘Crazy’ Couple Celebrates 30 years in the Art World.” last modified April 20, 2017.
Genzlinger, Neil. “Ethel Stein, Who Created Intricate Textile Art, Dies at 100.” last modified March 12, 2018.
Cotter, Holland. Lenore Tawney: Signs on the Wind – Postcard Collages. Lenore Tawney.
“Lucy Commoner.” last modified March 29, 2016. http://www.bgccraftartdesign.org/items/show/42
“Lenore G. Tawney Foundation,” http://lenoretawney.org/
Reiter, Mary Jo. Weaving a Life: The Story of Mary Meigs Atwater. Interweave Pr, 1992.
Atwater, Mary Meigs. The Shuttle Book of American Hand Weaving. Shuttle Craft Books, 1986.
Picayo, José. (weaver) Interview with the author. 3 April 2018.