Digital loom weaves new opportunities for Praxis Fiber artists

In March, Haumed Rahmani, 27, a programmer and doctoral student in materials science at Kent State University, became the first resident of Praxis' Digital Weaving Lab.

In March, Haumed Rahmani, 27, a programmer and doctoral student in materials science at Kent State University, became the first resident of Praxis’ Digital Weaving Lab.

With the opening of the Digital Weaving Lab at Praxis Fiber Workshop last month, the Waterloo Arts District in Collinwood added another jewel to its already glittering crown. It is the only such training center with a digital loom that offers professional residencies on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. 

According to Jessica Pinsky, Praxis’s executive director, the only other program with residency opportunities is the Icelandic Textile Center in Blönduós, Iceland.

Although there are approximately 50 such computerized looms in the U.S., they are all located at colleges and universities that make them available only to students. Once those individuals graduate and become artists, teachers, programmers, designers and so on, they no longer have regular access to the equipment.

Last year, Praxis took out a $35,000 loan to help pay for the $50,000 piece of equipment, the Thread Controller 2 (TC2) computerized Jacquard loom manufactured by Tronrud Engineering in Hønefoss, Norway. Encountering a lack of interest from commercial banks to support their arts endeavor, Praxis partnered with the NoteWorthy Federal Credit Union that was founded by The Cleveland Orchestra in 1960 to help musicians obtain loans to purchase instruments. NoteWorthy considered the digital loom an essential piece of equipment for Praxis. The loom arrived on December 13, 2020.

The TC2 loom operates every thread individually. While manual looms are restricted to a repeat pattern, the TC2 can weave any combination or image and never repeat, so artists even have the ability to weave a photograph. The TC2 is the only loom where the artist is still controlling the weaving but the computer automatically tells the loom which threads to lift or lower. 

Residencies start at $500 per week; interested candidates are asked to fill out a short application form including a statement of purpose. 

“It was a big push for our board and a big investment, so it’s exciting to see this vision actually happen,” said Pinsky, who’s been working on opening the DWL since purchasing the house behind their workshop facility at 15301 Waterloo Road for that purpose in 2018. Like many arts organizations, Praxis lost revenue from memberships and classes during Covid-19 and Pinsky sees the digital loom as part of their path forward. “There’s nothing like this on the entire continent for an artist interested in renting time on this piece of digital equipment, so we can fill that void in our fiber arts community.”

First resident started in March

The Digital Weaving Lab’s first resident, Haumed Rahmani, a programmer and doctoral student studying at the Advanced Materials and Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State University, arrived on March 1; the second was scheduled to start on April 1. The DWL provides a COVID-safe space because the resident lives and works alone in the house. Praxis received enough applications to fill residency slots for the entire year. Currently, the organization is in the process of hiring an intern to work in the DWL, Pinsky said, and should have someone in place by summer. Praxis also offers digital weaving classes.

Residents new to the TC2 can take a virtual class on file design prior to starting a half or full month residency. Although Praxis recommends it, no prior weaving experience is required.

“Receptor” by Cathryn Amidei.

“Receptor” by Cathryn Amidei.

To direct the DWL, Praxis hired Cathryn Amidei, an extensively experienced weaver and digital loom operator from Michigan. She commutes a couple times a month from Ann Arbor, where her husband teaches at the University of Michigan. Amidei has worked closely with Pinsky and Praxis over the past couple of years to plan and develop the comprehensive training center. 

“With the residency program, we’re going to provide the technical support so the residents are not just locked in a box on their own with this heavy-duty tool,” said Amidei, who estimates that she’s had a hand in installing more than 40 of the digital looms at colleges and universities in the U.S. “They will have the ability to consult with seasoned technical experts who can help them figure out their work because this loom is very specialized.”

The perfect person to direct the DWL

While a graduate student at Eastern Michigan University about 20 years ago, Amidei met the inventor of the digital loom, Vibeke Vestby, and the two became fast friends. Amidei taught at EMU for 15 years, and then took a sabbatical in 2013-14 to spend a year at Tronrud’s production facility in Norway helping refine their product and process testing while weaving her own works. 

When she returned to Michigan in 2014, she became the U.S. representative for Tronrud, and provided installation, support and training for people who purchase the TC2 equipment. She also teaches weaving workshops throughout the U.S. and works closely with the Jacquard Center in Hendersonville, NC.

After teaching a workshop at Praxis in 2018, Amidei had asked Pinsky if she could be involved with the DWL when she learned about plans for the lab at that time. As part of their rollout for the lab, Praxis launched online virtual file design classes taught by Amidei last October that have become quite popular, Pinsky said. Recently, a woman from Denmark even signed up for a class that started in mid-March. Praxis plans to return to in-person classes in 2022.

“The DWL provides what I have long wanted for our weaving community — a place where people could do residencies, workshops and conferences and where we could have exhibitions and all of the different functions, experiences and connections that a true training center has,” Amidei said. “It’s very exciting for all of us, and it’s going to be a global draw.”

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