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Annie Zirin uses two types of looms in her Evanston home studio. First, there are floor types used for pattern weaving like one that you might see at a heritage site such as in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
These weave linearly and tend to be used to make more functional items with colorful horizontal and vertical stripes. Pattern weaving looms can be as large as a piano for the more complicated designs. Zirin’s oldest loom was manufactured in the 1940s.
Zirin is a weaver and artist who creates functional items including table runners, scarfs and decorative wall items. Her art background is in painting but she was drawn to textiles, and today she creates colorful, highly textured works using the ancient art of weaving.
The second type of loom is used for weaving tapestries and can produce incredible detail. Tapestry looms vary dramatically in size and can be floor standing or sit on a table. Finished tapestries do not have to be linear and are not created in purely horizontal lines. Like pattern weaving, tapestries have a base of vertical threads called the warp, but the design can be in blocks of colors and shades that build atop each other and not linearly.
In Zirin’s studio, there is a wall of yarn which is, as she says, “my paint box.” The yarns are sorted by color, size and weight, and texture. She also has a bin of miscellaneous yarn of unknown fiber. She purchases some of the yarn, but much is donated to her from students. Occasionally she spins strands of stable fiber together to make her own yarn.
Zirin uses only all-natural materials in her work including wool, cotton, some expensive silks and others. Yarn for weaving tapestries is distinct from knitting yarn since it cannot be stretched.
With her studio located in her home, she can more easily carve out time around her family responsibilities and teaching schedule. She often stays up late working on her time-consuming art pieces. Recently she spent eight months finishing a tapestry commission, since some days she was only able to complete a few inches over a few available hours.
Physically, weaving is much like playing a piano, where one sits on a bench and moves both hands and feet. Zirin says, “I like how it involves all of me.”
Tapestry and pattern-based weaving both start by developing a drawing or painting to decide on the image and colors to be woven. For a tapestry, Zirin creates a cartoon or line-based drawing or painting. Once she is satisfied with the image, she tapes the cartoon to the loom. Then she “dresses” the loom with vertical warp threads.
Then, starting at the bottom of the image, she picks short lengths of yarn of specific colors that she twists together to get the color shade she wants. This is analogous to mixing paint. While the yarn colors stay separate, by twisting them, our eyes interpret only a single color. This is called optical mixing. Slowly, bit-by-bit, Zirin weaves and builds up the shapes in areas, one row at a time, a time-consuming process.
Once the full tapestry is woven, she finishes off the ends, presses and steams the piece, and sometimes adds finishing on the sides. Then the tapestry is done and ready to be displayed.
Over a year, Zirin usually completes five to 10 smaller tapestry and pattern pieces including small samplers along with three to four larger pieces.