Designing Weavers: Tien Chiu
Tien Chiu's Autumn Splendor Coat. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Sara Nordling (SN): Who are you?
Tien Chiu (TC): I’m a textile artist, a writer, and a recanted mathematician.
Well, actually, I didn’t quite recant. The last few years I’ve been focusing on art - weaving/dyeing/sewing/writing, and have had a good bit of success. My hand woven wedding dress is in a museum collection, my Kodachrome jacket was featured on the cover of Handwoven, and I’ve won various other awards at shows. I’m also the author of Master Your Craft: Strategies for Designing, Making, and Selling Artisan Work, released by Schiffer Publishing in 2016. I sat on the Editorial Advisory Board for Handwoven for several years, and I’m currently President of the Board at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.
But while I’ve shifted my focus to art making, I see art through a scientist’s eyes. I was raised by two scientists (a biochemist and an astrophysicist), and I majored in math at Caltech. I loved the beauty of mathematics. For me, an elegant proof is like poetry. It conveys a fundamental truth about the universe, as simply as possible. Every word counts; there is nothing extraneous or overly complicated. So I spend considerable time thinking about my art: is it as elegant, as lithe as the mathematics I used to study?
My belief about art - and particularly about teaching art - is that we need to use our full brains when we create art. We do not have a left-brain and a right-brain; we have onebrain. When we split that brain into left and right, creative and analytical, we create an artificial separation that cripples us, both as humans and as artists.
SN: Amen to that!
TC: A lot of people believe that making good art requires innate gifts - and that, if you don’t have artistic talent, you’ll never be able to make good art. That’s because art is “creative” and “intuitive,” so of course logical thinking doesn’t work when creating art. This thinking is seductive, but also damaging, and totally wrong. You don’t need God-given talent to design art effectively. What you need is skills and knowledge, and those can be learned.
SN: Why else do we have art schools? If it couldn’t be taught, then what is it I’m do both here and in the classroom?
TC: Exactly! But for people who have never been to art school and have no idea what they teach in art school, it's all a mystery.
What surprises me is that while there is a similar sentiment about the analytic arts (the first response a woman often makes to my telling her I was a math major is "Oh, I can't do math") the nature of the sentiment is totally different. With art it's "I don't have that magical understanding that art people have" whereas with math it's "I'm not smart enough". The underlying idea (usually wrong in both cases) is that math can be learned, though perhaps only by smart people, but you have to be born understanding art.
So my work as an artist and a teacher is founded on the idea that art makes sense.The way a viewer’s eye perceives a piece follows logical rules, behaviors rooted in both biology and culture. For example, being able to spot things - especially moving things - that differed from their surroundings was essential to survival during the evolution of early humans. As a result, if you create a piece with a uniform background and put in a strongly contrasting motif, that motif is the first thing your viewer will see. There’s nothing mystic about that; it’s biology.
And if you know these rules - and there aren’t that many of them - then you can understand how the viewer will see your piece. That puts you squarely on the road to composing strong, visually effective work.
One of the reasons I’m developing my online classes about color in weaving is that lots of weavers struggle with color, and they shouldn’t have to. 90% of what you need to know about color in weaving can be explained by four principles. Of course, it takes practice to figure out how to work with, and apply, those principles. That’s what the class I’m developing is about.
SN: I highly recommend subscribing to Tien’s blog (in addition to mine). She is an inspirational teacher. There will be a link at the end of this posting .
SN: How long have you been weaving?
TC: 11.5 years. I started weaving in October 2006.
SN: What looms do you own?
TC: A TC-2 jacquard loom, and an 8-shaft Baby Wolf.
Because I felt terribly isolated as a woman studying mathematics, and I think women in mathematics haven’t gotten nearly the attention they deserve, I name my looms after female mathematicians. The 8-shaft Baby Wolf is named “Lady Ada,” after Countess Ada Lovelace, who was a 19th-century mathematician/writer who is also credited for having written the first software program, for Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine. Previous looms were named for Emmy Noether, an abstract algebraist whom Einstein described as “the most important woman in the history of mathematics,” and mathematicians Sofia Kovalevsky/Sophie Germain.
Since the jacquard loom is generally considered to have been the first computer, I broke with the mathematician theme when naming my TC-2 jacquard loom. “Amazing Grace” is named after Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, a computer science titan who led the development of COBOL and shaped the early history of computer science. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Technology, among many other honors, for her contributions to computer science. The U.S. Arleigh-Burke class destroyer, USS Hopper, is named after her - a very rare honor for a woman.
SN: Do you use weaving software?
TC: I use Fiberworks PCW (Windows version) for designing drafts “from scratch” within weaving software. I use WeavePoint when working with Photoshop-designed weave structures. I use Arahweave to design for the TC-2 jacquard loom. And I use iWeaveIt on my iPhone and iPad – mostly to track treadling, tie-up, and threading, but sometimes also for editing colors in a draft.
SN: Where do you look for design inspiration?
TC: My usual process starts by tripping over an idea that might be interesting to explore. I don’t generally work with it immediately, though. My projects typically span many months, so I have far more ideas than I can put into projects. Instead, I keep a “compost pile” of ideas that I’d like to work with someday.
SN: I do something similar. One of the best ideas I got from grad school was to keep a book of images you are interested in. No comment, no sorting, just cut and paste the images. These are then used for inspiration. I also see trends developing. It’s a fun practice.
TC: As I near the end of one project, I start poking through my collection of cool ideas to see if any ideas have combined in the “compost pile” to produce something interesting. For example, my Autumn Splendor swing coat was the result of an “autumn” theme mixed with the urge to learn how to draft my own sewing patterns, and the idea of using multiple color gradients in weaving.
I can also be an opportunist. I have friends in a wide variety of fields. Sometimes that yields interesting possibilities. For example, a friend who works in the Machine Learning Research Lab at Google told me a few weeks ago that they have an artist-in-residence program. Who knew?? I asked him to check - they’ve suspended it for the moment, but if they start it up again, I might drop everything else to work with artificial-intelligence designed weaving. Not only do I keep an eye out for interesting ideas, I’ve taught all my friends to spot ideas, too.
You can find inspiration anywhere. In my book, Master Your Craft, I included an exercise for finding ideas in things. I included an example that unearthed twenty or thirty interesting project ideas in the most boring object I could think of - a tape dispenser that happened to be sitting on my office desk.
Finding inspiration, for me, is basically about combining new ideas. “Hey, that is really cool! I wonder what I could do with that idea/design element/theme?” And then see where else the idea takes you, and whether it combines well with other ideas you’ve been noodling on.
SN: How do you approach designing?
TC: I start by brainstorming a list of concepts for the new piece - themes like “rebirth”, potential materials, etc. Then I do preliminary sketches - thumbnails really - in Photoshop. These sketches are very crude. In fact, they look like they were made by a six year old. That’s because my drawing skills are pretty primitive. I felt self-conscious about this initially. Then I realized that it really doesn’t matter what the sketches look like - what’s important is that they capture the concept and give me an idea of the layout of the piece. Now I show them to all my students so they understand that crude is great.
Sketch for Tien's Autumn Splendor Coat, courtesy of the artist.
SN: What’s important in a thumbnail is to get the idea down so you don’t lose it. It can be refined later. As long as it works for you, who cares what it looks like.
TC: After I’ve done the first sketches, I start thinking about how to translate the sketches to something I can make. I think about materials, construction, and methods. My work is typically multidisciplinary - weaving, dyeing, surface design, and sewing - so there is usually a lot to think through. For example, in my swing coat Autumn Splendor, my sketch included two color gradients in the hand woven fabric, and a custom, asymmetric sewing pattern. Later I added a pattern of hand woven maple leaves to the fabric.
Once I have a rough idea of how to make it, I start sampling. I sample a lot. Samples are a way of managing risks to your project. You invest a small amount of time and materials to get information that could prevent a costly mistake in the finished project. The bigger and more expensive the project, the more important it is to sample. My projects typically take 300-1000 hours over 3 months to a year. That’s a big time investment, so I do a lot of samples. I wove four or five yards of samples for Autumn Splendor, and I sewed eleven muslins, each with a different design. Sampling allows me to explore design ideas without worrying about the finished product.
SN: The results of this effort show in the final work as well. They aren’t over-designed, just refined designs. Too often I think we (weavers) just want to get the thing on the loom and don’t want to take the time to work out the design.
TC: Often the design evolves radically during the sampling phase. Autumn Splendor started as a coat with a straight profile and an asymmetric collar. In fact, one of the reasons I started the project was to learn to draft an asymmetric collar. But the finished piece has no collar at all. Writers are often advised to “kill their children,” because frequently the part of the book you like best is the one that you have to remove. Often it’s a part that comes from the initial concept, but the book has evolved beyond it. That’s what happened with Autumn Splendor.
SN: One important part of teaching art is to teach your students that their work and ideas aren’t “precious” even if they have invested a lot in them. That is one of the hardest things to learn.
TC: Yes, Annie Dillard talks about this in her book The Writing Life.
(SN: Here Tien shared with me several very pertinent quotes from the book. However, to keep this post a reasonable length and include more of Tien’s words I would just recommend reading the book.)
TC: Once I’m satisfied with the samples, I weave the cloth and do whatever other work is needed to finish the piece. Construction of the finished piece is often the shortest part of the project. It’s also the part I find least interesting - for me, the fun part is in the design and sampling, and watching the vision evolve as I learn more.
I don’t have a strong attachment to my finished pieces. What I love is the design process, the dialogue between me and my work. Once the piece is finished, that dialogue is over. So it’s not hard for me to let go.
SN: What is important to you in your designing?
TC: I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what can be done with hand woven art. There are an incredible number of things I don’t know - theory, technique, and the artistic vision to direct those skills. I’ve achieved some success, but I really feel like I’m just beginning. So the most important thing for me is that a new design challenge me both technically and artistically. I like exploring new things, and I feel I need to grow a lot to make the kind of work I want to make.
SN: I hope you never lose that feeling. I too feel like I’m just beginning and that is not a bad thing at all. When I feel like I’ve arrived or don’t have anything new to explore, that’s when I may as well stop making because my work will be boring.
SN: Do you work in series?
TC: Some of my early work is in series - I did six or seven shawls exploring color gradients. My work from a few years back has generally not been in series. That’s because by the time I finish a nine-month project, seven months of which have been spent sampling, I feel like I’ve explored that idea fairly thoroughly and want to move on. I’ve essentially encapsulated the process of getting an idea and playing with it, developing it, etc. into a series of samples within a single piece rather than in multiple pieces. But it’s the same idea.
SN: In a way I guess that is a series, as you do so many explorations for one work.
TC: I expect my new work to be quite different from my current work, because I’ve made a radical change in equipment, that enables me to do a totally different type of cloth than what I’ve done so far.
SN: Do you have favorite weave structures?
TC: I like pictorial work, but I don’t enjoy tapestry, so in my previous life I loved tied weaves on 24 or more shafts. Ties in plain weave order only take up 2 shafts; you can create an image 22 pixels wide on a 24-shaft loom.
Now that I’m weaving on a jacquard loom, I’ve gotten very fond of 8-end double satin with multiple wefts. The 8-end satin structure gives many opportunities for shading, and the double weave structure makes it easy to create a complex image with no long floats. Using multiple wefts gives me lots of colors to work with.
SN: That is fun. I have done some designing and weaving with 8 end satins on a jacquard loom. The imagery you can produce is so fun to explore.
TC: Of course, it’s also much slower to weave. The piece I’m currently working on is in 8-end double satin in 60/2 silk, at 120 ends per inch, and 5 wefts/300 picks per inch. I’m a super fast weaver and I can only weave 2 inches per hour. It’s ironic - one of the reasons I got a jacquard loom was that I thought it would be faster than weaving tapestry.
SN: Well, Tien, it is. If you consider doing that sort of fine detail work by hand it would take you even longer.
SN: Do you have favorite things to weave?
TC: Fiber-wise, most of my work has been silk and cashmere. But I’m thinking of doing some work with cross-dyeing (creating a piece in a mix of cellulose and protein fibers, which take dyes differently), so silk and cotton might crop up, too.
SN: You may want to be a little careful with the silk and cotton combination, as silk will dye with fiber reactive dyes, just not as dark as with acid dyes.
TC: Actually, wool will dye with fiber-reactive dyes/soda ash, too! I was shocked when it happened, and emailed dye expert Paula Burch about it. She said that it takes the dyes in a fiber-reactive/soda ash dye bath just fine - we just don't do it because it harms the wool.
If I were doing cellulose/protein, I'd use Alter Ego dyes, which are a combo of an acid dye and a direct dye (I think) along with an agent to prevent the direct dye from bonding to the cellulose. However, direct dyes have a really poor rep for washfastness/lightfastness, so I'm exploring the idea of using synthetics such as polyester and nylon instead. I need to do more experiments with disperse dyes, and I think nylon might also work well with cotton (acid/fiber-reactive). Using synthetic threads would allow me to do cool stuff with crimp cloth (shibori + heat = texture), too. One of the things I liked most about Itchiku Kubota's kimono when i saw them last weekend was the amazing things he was doing with texture.
SN: So many things to explore!
TC: In terms of finished product, typically I’ve done art to wear. I’ve been doing wall hangings lately, but I want to move away from that because two-dimensional things leave me, well, flat.
SN: I can relate. This is why I have done work with double weave pleating!
TC: I don’t know what’s coming next, which is exciting!
SN: Do you have a website or blog you would like me to link to?
TC: Warp & Weave - my teaching website, about color in weaving. Informative blog posts, and links to my online classes, once they’re complete.
My personal website - - which contains my artwork, blog, and essays. (There’s information about my book Master Your Craft, too.) The essays are partly my musings on art and craft, philosophy and practice. But some are partly philosophical perspectives from my own life, both my experience working with organizations fighting domestic violence, rape, and sexual abuse, and my own experience with mental illness. (I have Type II bipolar disorder - fortunately, well-controlled thanks to modern medicine.)