Spotlight: Deb Brandon, Textile Artist

Deb Brandon

Spotlight: Deb Brandon, Textile Artist

When mathematics professor, writer and brain injury survivor Deb Brandon found weaving, she found her calling. A lover of traditional textiles, Deb incorporates those design elements into her own work. The author of Threads Around the World, Deb works to improve the lives of textile artisans around the world through her work with Weave a Real Peace, all while continuing the teaching that she loves.

Deb Brandon Portrait
Photo by Brendan Wiant

Which came first? Math or textiles? What sparked your choice of weaving as a medium?

My love of textiles began when I was a child, when my mother taught me to knit, and continued throughout elementary school when I learned a variety of textile techniques, including sewing, embroidery, and crocheting, and then into adulthood.

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I became interested in mathematics in high school, but decided to major in aeronautical engineering in college. But when it was time to think of graduate school, my interest in mathematics once more took hold—after I completed my Ph.D. in mathematics, I began my career in academia as a mathematician.

My interest in weaving was sparked when a colleague mentioned that his wife was a weaver. Several conversations with her later, I knew that I wanted to learn to weave. And when the opportunity arose, I arranged for lessons. Growing up, learning all those textile techniques was fun and I enjoyed applying them, but weaving was special. The first time I sat at the loom, I felt as if I’d found my true identity. I was a weaver, I’d always been a weaver. It was as if I’d been a weaver in a previous life.

Deb Brandon's Loom

How do you balance your personal life, work and creative endeavors?

As a brain injury survivor holding a full time job, most extracurricular activities tend to exhaust me. But at the same time, in my recovery, I came to the realization that supplementing my job as a college professor was crucial to my well being.

Teaching mathematics, as a passion and my primary source of income, is a constant in my life, high on my list of priorities. So is writing. Writing wasn’t on my horizon until shortly after my injury. I started writing about my recovery, originally to help me and my loved ones understand my journey. As my writing progressed, I wanted to reach a broader audience. To do so, I had to improve my skills as a writer, and the more I learned, the more my passion for writing grew.

I try to write every day. Sometimes, when my job gets in the way, I can only do a short five minute stretch here and there. Other times, especially on the days I don’t teach, I manage to devote decent chunks of time for writing. I consider weaving an add-on, second to writing and teaching. Now that I’ve developed a passion for writing, I only weave on days I don’t teach, after I have completed my daily writing.

How do being a mathematician and having a passion for ethnic textiles influence your work in fiber?

For many weavers, the warp calculations are the least favorite part of weaving. For me, the calculations were merely an inconvenience, delaying the actual weaving—my favorite part. During my early days of weaving, I viewed weaving as a break from mathematics—I always added an element of randomness in color and pattern transitions based on momentary whims. But I found that the mathematician in me crept in no matter what, mostly in the patterns I chose. I had no interest in plain weave and tended towards patterned weave such as twills and overshot, and I found myself modifying patterns and techniques that added a complexity to the weaving, both aesthetically and technically—I enjoyed the challenge.

My love of traditional textiles enriched my creations, adding ethnic elements in color and in pattern. I love figuring out how to translate traditional elements into my language, with a mathematical bent. For example, a Palestinian woven and embroidered skirt I purchased when I was in college influenced a skirt I later wove. The off-white background was the same color, and I translated the traditional Palestinian cross stitch embroidery into overshot in similar colors and patterns to emulate the embellishment characteristic of Palestinian needlework.

After learning the art of batik practiced in Zimbabwe, I used the same technique to embellish T-shirts and tote bags with designs inspired by their traditional motifs. I also used a bleach pen to embellish a black T-shirt with similar motifs and applied Australian aboriginal motifs on a couple of other black T-shirts.

Tell us about your association with WARP (Weave a Real Peace).

After 9/11, I felt compelled to make a difference. I knew that the key to peace was education, and I wanted to somehow contribute in that direction. I came across an ad for an organization named WARP (an acronym for Weave A Real Peace, The words “Weave” and “Peace” jumped out at me.

WARP is a networking organization whose members work to improve the quality of life among textile artisans in communities in need across the globe. As to be expected, financial stability increases accessibility to education—I knew I’d found my niche. Many WARP members are textile makers and ethnic textile aficionados. Through WARP, I became exposed to a broad range of traditional textile techniques. A couple of years after I joined the organization, I started writing a column, “Textile Techniques from Around the World,” for the WARP quarterly newsletter, further fueling my love of traditional textiles.

Wanting to contribute more to the organization, I accepted an invitation to join the WARP board. I became the president during my second term. Three years after I started writing the newsletter articles, other board members suggested that we publish a compilation of my essays to sell to WARP members as a fundraiser. I thought the project would merely entail some editing, but found myself rewriting and expanding the articles. As I reworked them, my focus shifted from specific techniques to the stories about the artisans and their communities, their traditions, and folklore. The project evolved into “Threads Around the World: From Arabian Weaving to Batik in Zimbabwe”—a full-color, hard cover book filled with photographs (many by the renowned photographer Joe Coca) and 25 updated and expanded articles. I’m still involved with WARP, still writing my column, still passionate about the organization and its mission.

What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your books, especially Threads Around the World?

I wanted my memoir, “But My Brain Had Other Ideas: A Memoir of Recovery from Brain Injury,” to increase awareness about brain injury. I started writing to help me as well as my loved ones understand my journey through recovery. The purpose behind my writing quickly evolved from journal writing with that intent into a project that would help other survivors addressing situations that commonly arise during brain injury recovery and, more importantly, to show them that they are not alone.

As I progressed in my recovery and my passion for—and skill in—writing grew, I realized that I wanted to reach an even broader audience, to raise awareness among the general public, to help us survivors to navigate the world at large. Whether you’re a brain injury survivor, a family member or friend, or health care provider, I hope the book provides guidance, insight, useful information, and an enjoyable story to read, too!

I hope that my textile book will also reach a broad audience, raising awareness about the importance of textile traditions. These traditions celebrate our humanity, from the individual and each community to society as a whole.

Textile traditions honor our various and unique cultural identities and traditions. They speak of individual artisans through their skill and artistry, their preferences, accessible materials, and geographical location. And the stories behind the textile traditions are universal, bringing to light our commonalities, helping us recognize our ties with each other, no matter where we reside in the world and what our place is in society.

Textile traditions don’t just connect us to our past and to each other; they prevent us from losing our compassion, our ability to listen, our humanity.

Were you lucky enough to travel to all of the textile-rich locations in your book? How did you decide what to include?

I grew up in the Middle East, where I encountered Bedouin weaving. Unfortunately, in most cases I had to travel vicariously and virtually, through others who have traveled to these amazing places and through my research. I didn’t make it to China in person, but several friends did, bringing back exquisite textiles. I plan to take a trip through India. But in the meantime, I listened to the stories told by a group of friends who visited a turban shop in Jaipur, in the state of Rajasthan in northwestern India, and to a friend who lives in Delhi, who promised to show me her beautiful country as soon as I can get there.

There was so much to learn from visiting international textile artisans at conferences and other gatherings—Nilda from Peru, Rinzin and Leki from Bhutan, embroiderers from Guatemala, a dyer from Nigeria, a knitter from Russia, and a weaver from Laos. I choose the articles for the WARP newsletter according to the interests of the membership. Since so many of the members are well-traveled, I write articles on techniques they may have encountered but want to learn more about, as well as on techniques I suspect none of them have seen and might be tempted to investigate further during future trips.

When it came to selecting which of the articles I’d expand and include in the book, I went for a mix, from both the point of view of the techniques and a variety of locations. In addition, I wanted to convey information I believed would be new and intriguing, and I made sure to pick articles I knew I could find samples of for photographs.

Deb Brandon
Reflections on the Water

If you had the opportunity, what creative person, past or present, would you like to work with and why?

I would like to learn Bhutanes backstrap weaving from Rinzin and Leki and warp scaffolding from Nilda, or one of her family members. In both cases, the techniques have triggered my curiosity. It’s one thing to watch it happen before my eyes and write about it, but quite another to actually do it myself. I want to learn from the source, with no adjustments and simplifications targeting a non-indigenous people. Another reason I would like to learn from these artisans is that I really like them as people.

You are very open about your brain injury, writing and speaking about it. Would you mind telling us what happened and what you have learned? How has it affected your textile art?

I have cavernous angiomas, clusters of thin-walled blood vessels, in my brain. Two bled, causing neurological symptoms that shattered my world and identity. The only known treatment to prevent future bleeds is to remove the bleeders surgically. Reclaiming my life involved three brain surgeries. The surgeries, while successful, left me with a number of additional neurological deficits.

Though my life is harder, it is also fuller. I returned to my full-time job as a college professor and also became a writer and public speaker. Along my arduous journey towards recovery, I learned a lot about myself. I’m a much more authentic version of who I am, compared to who I used to be, a much better person. I’m much more empathetic and compassionate.

My brain injury damaged some of my filters. All outside data flows into my brain with equal value, causing traffic jams in my neural pathways. On the flip side, I’m much more aware of the world around me. I am tuned into details I was oblivious to prior to the injury. This awareness makes the entire world more vibrant. It shows up in my creative work, too; for example, I am much more creative in my weaving than I used to be.

I first started to write to help me understand the new world I inhabited as a brain injury survivor, as the new me. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. I used to be primarily a linear thinker. I believe that having to learn different styles of thinking post-injury vastly enriched my world and my creative ability in both writing and textiles arts.

My newfound ability to note more details has definitely influenced my work as a textile artist. For example, I can now enjoy the gradual changes in the colors of sunset and the many shades of blue in the water. I couldn’t do that before. I didn’t have that kind of awareness, that kind of perception. In a way, it’s as if my perceptions rolled back to the way they were when I was a young child. That’s why I think of it as a change in my filters; over the years, we learn how to ignore many things. We filter them out of our awareness, for all kinds of reasons. The injury damaged my filters, ripping open holes, maybe even stripping some of them away. They’ve healed to some extent, but they’re still a lot more open than they were before the injury.

I discovered what a difference this awareness made in my weaving shortly after I returned home from hospital. It was then I wove a piece of yardage I entitled “The Reflection of Sunset on the Water.” I painted warp in varying shades of blue and orange. I also painted the weft to produce the effect of waves rolling down the yardage. The yarn I used was a shimmering silk to give the effect of reflections of light on the ripples. I chose to weave in a variety of twills to give the fabric drape. I also supplemented the warp with sewing thread to add a wavy texture. It’s a wonderful piece, and I could not have produced such a piece prior to the injury. I don’t regret what happened. Though I wouldn’t want to repeat it, it brought me to this new me, in this new world.

What do you learn about who you are through your creative endeavors?

In my writing, I learn a lot about myself. To understand who I’ve become in the wake of my brain injury, I’ve explored (and continue to explore) both past and present. I take joy in connecting with my past. Having had to learn to ask for help, I discovered that by exposing my weaknesses, I formed stronger bonds with people, and I became more open to friendships. I transformed from a socially inept mathematician into an outgoing person.

My world expanded in completely new directions. I love learning about people as individuals and have discovered that in fact, we all have a lot in common. There’s no us and them, there’s only us. I like myself better as a person. I am content. Discovering that, beginning to understand that, happens through my creative work first.

Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?

I’m convinced that both are true. Creativity does come naturally, yet it can die if we do not nurture it. I also think we can learn it through creative endeavors and encouragement. A good art teacher can bring out the creativity in their students, even in those who are reluctant learners. And I believe that the more you create, the more you learn, the more creative you become. If we have access to a wider range of tools, including techniques, and are exposed to a broader range of creative works, we have more to draw from, more opportunities to exercise our creativity.

Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?

When my son left home, I transformed his room into an office, which is where I write. The first piece of furniture I lugged there (with my son’s help) was a wooden desk I bought more than two decades ago. Much cherished, it has accompanied me through four moves. Until it found a home in my office, I had to share it with my now ex-husband and my kids. Finally, it is all mine, everything on it arranged the way I like.

The entire space is set up to be aesthetically pleasing and to serve my needs as a writer. My laptop is perched on a pile of books so the screen is at eye level. I positioned a separate keyboard so I can type with elbows bent at a good angle. A bookcase filled with books aids me in my writing (sources of information about ethnic textiles and about writing techniques). A printer is conveniently to the right of my desk. And there is a bed for my dog to lie beside me when I write.

The floor loom I weave on most frequently sits in a corner of my living room. I have it angled to give me the feeling of space around me. To the right of it I have a bookcase filled with books about practicing fiber arts, knitting, crochet, spinning yarn, felting, and surface design. To the left of the loom is a comfortable seat I can sink into when I knit or spin yarn. It faces the interior of room so I can be part of the activities around me. When watching TV or chatting with family and friends, I can knit and spin by feel, and divide my attention.

Are there indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?

indispensable tool for my writing is my laptop. Unless it is not readily available, I use it for all my writing. As a brain injury survivor, writing by hand causes me a variety of problems—like those with dyslexia, I have trouble rereading handwritten notes. Also my lack of organizational skills lead to messy use of a page—I fill every available space, between lines, off to the side, upside down. I usually start out well, but it quickly deteriorates, no matter how good my intentions. For those instances when my laptop is not accessible, I always have a nice pen that writes evenly with me, and I can usually find smooth paper lying within reach.

I usually work on several textile projects at any one time, which is why I have several looms. More precisely, I have two floor looms, two table looms, and a couple of rigid heddle looms. In addition, I own three (or is it four?) spinning wheels, a dozen drop spindles, many spools and shuttles, knitting needles, and crochet hooks. Most importantly, I have a wonderful stash of yarn in baskets and tubs all over the house. Some might believe that my stash is excessive, but I assure you that is not the case—you can never have too much yarn.

What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?

I have many such tools. In particular, I own a niddy noddy—I use it to wind off handspun yarn from the spinning wheel to measure its length and form it into skeins or balls of yarn. I make my own heddles out of strings  when I set up the loom and I’ve run out of heddles. When I need to weigh down supplemental warp, I use old film canisters filled with pennies.

For my writing, to bring the laptop screen to eye level, I place it on a pile of calculus books. In addition, just yesterday, I discovered that the screen is at eye level if I place the laptop on a breakfast-in-bed tray sitting on top of an open drawer (the middle drawer on my desk).

What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?

Because of my brain injury, I am easily distractable, which is why I prefer to work in silence, especially when I write. That is also the case when I weave or crochet, to avoid mistakes. But when spinning or knitting, I often go through stretches when I can continue by feel—during which I welcome conversation.

Tell us about your blog and website. What do you hope visitors will gain by visiting?

I have two blogs, one dedicated to brain injury issues and the other to ethnic textiles. The first is to raise awareness about brain injury and recovery and to help brain injury survivors and caregivers understand more about their journey, through my own experience.

The textile blog is more to give visitors a taste of the richness imbued in traditional textiles in the hope of intriguing readers further.

What’s next for you?

I have so many plans for the future. I’m hoping to give more presentations about both topics—brain injury and textile traditions. I have so much more to say.

The same applies to my writing. I’m in the process of writing another memoir, this one more about life with brain injury (rather than focusing on recovery), about acceptance and how it changed me. I’d also like to write a second volume about traditional textiles. Another project I’m working on is about my past, my childhood and young adulthood.

Interview posted April 2019

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