Marilyn Stewart, weaver
In modern America, where kids are more likely to say “Wal-Mart” than “a cow” when asked where milk comes from, most people no longer think of thread when they think of fabric.
“Most” doesn’t count Marilyn Stewart. An artisan weaver, what Stewart does with lowly thread and yarn is about as close to magic as you can get: napkins, wall hangings, clothes and tablecloths, all bursting with Stewart’s often whimsical sense of color.
In terms of geography, Stewart is the Arkansas artist who almost wasn’t. To get to her golf-course-side home north of Bella Vista, you actually have to drive into Missouri and then double back into the state. The trip is worth it. Her walls are hung with large textiles she has made, some dark and moody, others swimming with bright color.
When she and her husband were close to retirement almost 30 years ago, Stewart said she wanted to take up a craft to fill her time, but couldn’t decide whether to be a potter, a spinner or a weaver. “I reckoned that there are lots of good potters — everywhere I went, I saw good potters — but I didn’t see very many good weavers,” she said. “So, I chose to be a weaver.” She weaves only; “I don’t think there’s enough time in the day to spin the yarn, dye it and weave it,” she said.
Stewart took some beginning classes on weaving, but is mostly self-taught. Her education got a big boost soon after she started weaving, when her husband bought her a loom from a company in Maine. Situated in a room just off her living room, the loom is a Rube Goldbergian dream — a blond-wood contraption strung with cables, stretchers, pulleys and treadles. With a large piece of nearly finished fabric stretched across it and Stewart pushing and pulling the beater and flicking the shuttle back and forth while her feet work up and down on the treadles, it must look like one of the crazy attempts at a Victorian-age flying machine, a mechanical marvel, not quite airworthy.
Right now, Stewart is working on the last of three panels for a large screen, all adorned with colorful hot air balloons. When we spoke, she was working on the black outline at the top of one of the balloons, a fairly simple weave. Before she’s done, however, she will have to keep seven different colors of thread straight, all while pushing treadles and working the shuttle and the beater, and all while thinking a few steps ahead in order to keep the shape of the balloon running how she wants it.
“This is a square grid and I’m trying to weave curves,” she said. “I have to rely on the idea that when I get it all done and hang it up, the eye is going to make curves out of straight lines.”
Stewart said the physical and mental activity helps to keep her sharp. Weaving is a craft that requires both constant thought and constant exertion, and though she has had to switch to a smaller shuttle (a boat-shaped piece of wood that holds a spool of thread) in recent years, she’s still able to enjoy her work.
“You’re working your legs and your arms and your head all the time — thinking, thinking, thinking,” she said. “It’s good for me because it does keep me fit, and it does keep my mind going. Once you sit down and have nothing to do, your mind just sort of shuts down. I hope I’m 99 before that happens.”
Stewart also teaches classes on weaving at the local community college. Many of her students remember their grandmothers having a small rug loom or weaving loom, and want to learn.
“They want to push it beyond the rugs. They’ve seen something that I wove or they’ve seen something that somebody else has woven and they say, ‘How’d they do that?’ ” she said. “This was almost a lost art. I teach because this is an old, old craft, and if weavers my age do not replace ourselves, it’s going to die out, and it’s too important to the American heritage to just let it die out.”
Stewart sells her weavings at craft shows and art fairs, though she said she can’t really get people to pay much more than the replacement cost of her yarn. For instance, she’ll sell a placemat that takes 15 to 20 hours to create for around $20. The only thing she really makes money on are liturgical items she makes for churches. A set that includes a stole, an altar cloth, a lectern cloth, and two runners for the communion table goes for around $900.
Though the work isn’t profitable, Stewart says it’s something she’s driven to do. “I have to do this. I just have to,” she said. “Why spend the money and the time to make a woolen throw? The yarn itself costs me more than the ones you can buy at Wal-Mart and Target for $29.95. It has to be the fact of how much enjoyment I get from doing it.”