A view of Soraya's loom in the studio.
This year has forced us all to do things a little differently, every day feels a bit like a new journey. Our showroom on 12th Street was designed to be a place of inspiration, a studio to showcase the creativity of textile artists, and to even see these artists in action. Soraya Shah designs our collection of Handwoven fabrics, and to meet her in person is like taking a plunge into a pool of brilliant originality. I recently spoke with Soraya about how she is altering her creative process, and I'm excited to share more of her uplifting advice and thoughts with you all.
A collection of swatches, inspiration, and tools.
How long have you been weaving and what first drew you to the art?
I took Intro to Fibers while attending SCAD in 2002, that’s where I learned the foundation of weaving and that I myself was very much a weaver. I never looked back after that! I took as many weaving oriented classes as possible and was even co-president of the department club, The Fibers Force. But it was much earlier that I fell in love with weaving, when my family moved to Quito, Ecuador in the early 90’s. We would spend weekends piled up in the car driving around, visiting neighboring towns and cities, seeing everything we could. I’ll never forget the Otovalo Market, I was in awe of all the carpets and tapestries made from brightly dyed wool, they looked like drawings made from yarn, stories on cloth. I was only 9 but that memory has stayed fresh in my mind all these years.
Over my 15 years of knowing you, I always love to see how others are drawn to you and inspired by your creativity. Can you tell us a little about where you grew up and how travelling and moving to different countries has impacted you as an artist?
My parents are from Trinidad & Tobago, my sister was born in the UK. Shortly after my mom and dad got married, the three of them moved to Brazil where my brother and I were born. We moved quite often and never stayed at any one place for more than a few years. After Brazil it was Ecuador, Venezuela, then Colombia. I attended high school in Bogota, then made my way up to the US to study at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
After college I made my way up to the northeast, where there were some short-lived stints in Boston, New Hampshire, and Maine before I arrived in New York City. I’ve lived in five different countries and more than nine cities, grew up speaking three languages, and have met incredible people from all walks of life. It’s definitely shaped me as a person and has had a deep impact on my work. The feeling of impermanence from all the moving really tied in to weaving for me, and it became like another language. All my fabrics carry some stories in them and are often named after places I’ve lived in or people I’ve come to know. The personal history embedded in me from all the moving is like the impressions that the threads of a warp and weft make upon each other when woven together. They interact and create cloth; if taken apart they resume being threads but are left with the impressions of each other upon them.
A combination of gold, ochre, and natural swatches (left); more handwoven samples being prepped for delivery (right)
Your fabrics are produced in the US and made by a small team of women artisans. Why is this so important to you?
Weaving was a dying art in this country around the early 2000s, when a lot of mills were shutting down because work was being sent overseas. Historically, weaving jobs were predominantly done by women and people of color (POC). I’m not American but I am both a woman and a POC. My fabrics are all made to order and made by hand. I care very much about not just how or where they are produced, but who the people are that produce them. I strongly believe that good design is nothing without good production. What I design on my loom wouldn’t matter if I’m not working with people who take the same kind of pride and care about weaving as I do. The women I work with are all incredible individuals. They live in different parts of the country but I have a unique relationship with each of them. Weaving can be isolating and everyone has their own way of doing it, I love learning about their perspective on wovens. They all have such varying love/hates with the process.
New fabrics on display in the showroom
If you could sit down for a one on one with another fiber artist who would be your top pick and why?
There are so many artists that I would love to meet! Magdalena Abakanowicz blew my mind when I was in college, her work fascinated me. Erin Riley makes powerful tapestries with hand dyed wool. But I have a feeling Sheila Hicks and I would have a grand time sitting at a bar drinking whiskey and talking late into the night about art.
How has working from home over the past few months due to Covid altered your creative routine?
It was rough at first to be honest. Aside from weaving I am also a burlesque and drag performer, so my already chaotic home studio suddenly became a battle zone of glitter, wigs, and luxury handwovens. I missed my loom terribly and the order of my weaving studio. Over time I’ve been able to create a nice balance, and though I haven’t gotten much time on my loom I have been able to do much more than I thought possible. I’ve been making lots of new weaving drafts—plans for new fabrics and how to execute them—and mood boards, and have become a bit of a spreadsheet queen. The creativity has not stopped, it’s just altered. The vacuum cleaner is always at my side because as we know, glitter never leaves you.
An inside look at the making of a new design.
A few year's back you and I took a rug hooking class at Make Workshop in Brooklyn. If I recall, your finished piece was way cooler than mine! Any tips for us craft lovers in regards to some fun at home projects to get us through the rest of 2020?!
Yes that was so fun! Rose Pearlman was such a great instructor. I went on a rug hooking rampage after that class. Since I’m not getting to see my loom often I’ve spent some time making weaving drafts, either by hand or on a weaving program. Otherwise I’ve been messing around with my sewing machine and painting with watercolors. Caitlin McGauley posted some helpful info about painting supplies for beginners on her Instagram stories, and I just went for it. I don’t think it’s so much a matter of the medium but more about your frame of mind. Don’t overthink it, just let things happen! I’ve been listening to audiobooks while I paint and am always surprised with what ends up on the paper.