Interview with Margot Handwoven
In the Northeast, we mark the calendar less by the procession of days than by the blossoming of life. I saw what could have been orioles on a high wire and smelled the distinct perfume of a skunk on a sunny morning walk. What has been held aloft in our wintering season is only starting to shake loose from the cold.
As we come back to the table to imagine, design, and craft, where can you lean in and where can you lean back? Listening to the stories of creative processes from our makers reminds us the path back is not a straight line, but a series of challenges and solutions to those challenges.
We spoke with Margot Becker of Margot Handwoven on the shifting nature of art versus design, leaving space for grace, and the joys of sitting down to create.
How did you find yourself in the Hudson Valley? What was that journey like for you?
I went to Bard college as a studio art major and graduated in 2009. After graduation, I moved to New York City with a backpack looking for work. I was working in retail, in a big department store, which I found really demoralizing. I hadn’t fully understood the realities of the amount of textile waste and lack of respect for workers that is inherent to a business which prioritizes only the bottom line. Seeing people taking textiles for granted and the fast fashion turnover firsthand was startling.
I wanted to find other options and better ways of working with textiles and clothing, because I truly love textiles. I briefly worked with vintage clothing and then for a small designer, who was sending all of their production overseas. I came to the realization that you can't really know how a labor force or laborer is being treated unless you are that person, unless you really know firsthand what goes into making an object. I became obsessed with this idea of making a textile from start to finish and what that would look like. I was also extremely interested in the hyper-local and moving away from all of the huge shipping lanes that happen in the textile industry. If a garment tag says “made in Los Angeles,” it means that the piece has been sewn in California but you have no idea where the fiber came from or where the different pieces of the garment were put together. I became really interested in this lack of information and filling in the gaps for myself.
I moved to Hudson in the winter of 2010 or 2011. I moved here with the knowledge that the fiber that can grow here, in the Hudson Valley, is wool, mohair, or cashmere - animal fiber. I had a vague hope that I could find a sheep farm which focused on wool. It was serendipitous that I happened to move to a town which had a solar and wind powered fiber farm only 30 minutes away.
I came here with this idea of looking for a sheep farm to understand animal care. I thought that I would piece the rest of it together, but was lucky to find a place that did the process from start to finish and had a fiber mill. It was a small farm with a small team. This enabled me to have firsthand experience in every part of the process. I stayed with that farm for eight years. I really learned the ins and outs of animal husbandry and mill work and my perspective really changed through that.
I came up here with a lot of bravado, “I’m going to do it all! Really change the industry with one perfectly ethically, environmentally sound textile.” Before realizing just how much work and expertise goes into each step of that process. I have now come full circle and back to the realization that it's not a bad thing to focus on one part of the process.
What do you feel like is ideal in these production cycles? What would they look like to you?
I still feel like happy and healthy workers who are paid well at each step of the process is key. There is a tendency to cut costs back down the production line, rather than build based on the true cost of each step.
A lot of us: makers, crafters, shoppers, designers, are operating from a scarcity mentality. It’s seen as “good business” to find ways to cut the cost of our goods, at whatever environmental and human cost. We’ve been programmed to consider only ourselves and our own profit margin rather than checking in to make sure we are charging enough and paying enough to support our sourcers. Of course this is easier said than done, I really recognize that we are all trying to survive and create in a system which is not on the side of the maker.
For now, I think transparency is a key first step in altering this system. It's hard to know what you are supporting if you don’t know where or by whom your materials are made. Often designers and makers aren’t necessarily trying to cover up their production line, it has been made near impossible to to follow the thread from its origin. The dream long-term is for designers, such as myself, and makers to easily and truly know where that thing came from so at least we know what choice we are making.
Right now, for example, I use linen from a mill in Sweden which I chose partly because it has an environmental stamp and ethical dying practices, but it is still hard to find out exactly where the flax for that spool of linen is grown. I've retired the dream of only sourcing local, partially because of the limitations on fiber availability and the desire to experiment with other things like cottons, linens, and silks. With each new project and new fiber I am considering its social and environmental implications. It’s never simple.
We work with you as Margot Handwoven, which would be the maker-designer portion, but you also have an art practice and you’ve just returned from grad school. Where do you see those two sides of yourself working together?
For a long time I felt like there was a sharp dichotomy between myself as an artist and myself as a brand. I struggled with that for a long time. I think now that I've taken time out from branding myself and focusing on the practice, I've realized those two things are not as far away from each other as I thought they were. They can share a space and have very similar vocabulary. It's simply that I'm either weaving art that people use in their homes and on their bodies in a functional way or weaving something that goes on a wall or is a conceptual piece. I use the term weaving very broadly there, because my work branches from actual textiles to drawing, video and sound pieces.
There is an obsession with the dichotomies between craft and art, between design and fine art. Often these worlds are thought of as separate social spheres, but actually craft is a method by which you create concepts, right? And maybe that concept is something that belongs in somebody's home as a functional object, or maybe it's something that will live fully in the thought realm.
One thing that has changed recently is that I no longer feel as concerned with trying to bend myself to a perceived market, which I was doing when I first started Margot Handwoven. I put so much pressure on myself to make my brand work financially that I wouldn't take as many risks because I had a narrow idea of what could sell or not. That mentality was stifling and counterproductive. I’ve realized that in order to continue to engage Margot Handwoven and continue that line, it has to have the same freedom that I allow myself as Margot Becker, the artist. That's one thing that's come together for me and made all of my work much more fun!
What has the journey been like for Margot Handwoven? I'm sure it looks very different from when you started till today.
It's been a wild, experimental, anxiety provoking, and comforting all-at-the-same-time endeavor. While the idea of weaving my own textiles and making things from start to finish was born in 2010, it took until 2016 to launch Margot Handwoven and conceive that as a specific project. In the last five years I’ve turned around and over the project a few times, sometimes centering it in my art and making practice and sometimes letting it be for a minute.
There have been moments when I felt a lot of pressure, as in really pressuring myself, to make it grow as a business in a way I perceived a successful design business from the outside. I’d go for every opportunity, search for the brand ambassador, figure out how to do it in that way, in the way that I saw or perceived other people to be making their brands work. When I was operating from that place it never felt right or good. And honestly, every time I back off and give it space to breathe, opportunities come in that are right for me and work for the project. Those are the things that keep it going and keep it alive. Backing off has meant sometimes having other jobs to support myself while doing this. That way I can have the room to say no to things. It has also meant making sure I always have the time or can make the time in my schedule so that when the exciting projects come in, or I’m energized by an idea, I can take the time to make those things and fulfill orders.
Overall it’s been a journey of listening to myself, my capabilities and my interests and prioritizing my own voice and needs over concepts of success which are not my own.
Everything you just said reminded me a lot of just the creative process in general. I think so often we try to put all these limitations on ourselves as creative people to do a certain thing a certain way, but if you step back and give it some space– it can really bloom.
It's funny. You emailed me the question to prepare for this conversation: “what are your dreams for the brand?” And it put me in a tailspin. Then I realized that in the past, when I've had set ideals for what I thought this should be, often those came without the experience. The things that I thought I really wanted, turned out to not be interesting to me very quickly. I learned to be in the present. Now the dream is to continue to allow myself the space to make the things that are most interesting to me at present and stick with that alone. It's less tangible. I think in the past, when I first started this, I had been very specific, "Oh, I want this many followers, this many orders.” These very practical, and tangible things that we use to measure ourselves in competition with each other. I’ve realized I can't force my work into those models I find deeply depleting. So now, I allow my work to be, and then allow new models to be formed around that work.
We’ve talked about the physical process of weaving from start to finish, but I love what you just said about the ethereal part of the process, of just allowing space to form and then playing with that space and learning from it. Maybe take one of the pieces that you have on the site: what does that process look like from the initial seed until finish?
In the past I've had a specific idea and then made or bought yarn with that idea in mind. Nowadays my weavings are emerging from the stash of yarn and fibers I have leftover from these projects. So, all the animal fiber is from the farm where I worked or locally sourced. I start pieces by warping the size of the finished cloth and I pick a threading pattern that speaks to me at that moment, and based on what I think will work well with the thickness of the fiber in the warp. I weave in an array of materials intuitively. The weft I choose is in response to the materiality of the warp and then to itself as the weaving is underway. This leaves a lot of room for experimentation. I can show up to the loom, however I'm feeling in that moment, and create a piece that's an aesthetic record of that emotion. Sometimes I am in the mood to do this really asymmetrical work sort of wandering sketch with thread, and then sometimes I come in and I really want to follow the threading pattern exactly. These pieces are a real hodgepodge conglomeration of many different materials and moods and I just let it all happen. It’s a total joy to work this way!
I love that. It is a record of your experience making it. It seems handmade pieces are a narrative of the hands that made it. What are some challenges that come up for you while you're making a piece?
While I'm in the making process, once I've started weaving, it usually feels pretty good. Sometimes the loom can act up or the tension gets weird. That isn't really a huge problem for me because I'm weaving everything one at a time. There's a cumulative effect in fiber: the step before is only as good as the step after, the step after is only as good as the step before. You can make up for things when you have fewer steps, right? When you're weaving yardage or in making yarn, when you're making a ton of yarn, small discrepancies in the beginning can explode into huge problems that you have to figure it out and sometimes can't in the end. Because I can incorporate whatever tension issues or whatever might be considered problems into the design or into what I'm doing, that sort of solves that challenge.
Once I sit down at the loom, it feels good and I can do it and figure out whatever practical challenge comes my way. The real challenge for me lately, especially this fall and winter, is getting myself to the loom. I think this is partly because of the larger political, social, and global environment, plus a lot of transitions in my life. Honestly, it's just been a little hard to allow myself to dive into and engage in the work.
It's true that you make a lot of the yarn that you use for the weavings, right? You spin the yarn?
I do! Well, there’s the yarn that I made with the mill equipment on the farm. I also use a drop spindle to spin small skeins of unique yarn for these weavings, which is really fun. I have Angora, wool, and mohair fiber I’ve collected over the years and as I'm weaving a piece, I'll suddenly be like, “Oh, I need more gray in this!” and I'll get up from the loom and spend a night drop spinning wool to complete an idea. I appreciate that I have given myself the space to do this. I'm not holding myself to a specific production schedule. I can let things breathe, and if I need to stop and spin more yarn to complete an idea for one of my pieces, then I do that.
Words + Illustrations: River Wharton
Edited by: Lila Holland & Stella Yoon