Prelude: Weaving consists basically of intertwining two or more separate yarns or threads at right angles to form a fabric or a cloth. The art of weaving according to Wikipedia has been around since the Paleolithic Era, as early as 27,000 years ago. The oldest known textiles in the Americas were made of plant fibers around 10,000 B.C. John Salamone is a local weaver who incorporates a variety of fibers into his work and he has been practicing this art for over 30 years. Many of his creative and beautiful textiles (mostly scarves and shawls) are created from yarn that he spins himself. He grew up in the Southside of Chicago; he studied Theater at Eastern Illinois University before getting into the Art of Weaving. So, you can say he has been ”Spinning his own yarn” both literally and figuratively at an early age…good advice for any artist who wants to be successful in life and in their medium of choice.
Brian: You have been weaving for over 30 years. How did you get started in it?
John: I was going to college at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois and my degree was in Theater with an emphasis in Costume Design Construction. We were working with a lot of fabrics and I was learning about cloth. I was coming toward the end of that time and I realized that I really hate big cities. I grew up on the Southside of Chicago and I just didn’t want to go back to the city, and that is where most theaters are located. I was thinking about what else could I do, in the arts. I was at an Art Fair and a lady was spinning yarn with an Angora rabbit sitting on her lap. I have always loved animals and here was this adorable rabbit, and here was this lady making yarn. In the middle of her talk she said this yarn could be knitted, crocheted, or woven. I thought weaving, I could make fabric with this and this goes to art. Fabric I knew and understood. The lady’s name was Gwen Buchanan. After she was finished speaking, I talked to her at length about spinning. I ended up getting a rabbit from her and I started finger spinning. When I graduated from college, I spent some of my graduation money on a Louët spinning wheel and some more rabbits. My loom here today folds up and has wheels so that I can easily travel with it. I have others but this one is small and very versatile.
Brian: Did you start weaving as a professional right out of college?
John: No, not right away. Before I started selling my work, I tried to perfect my skills as much as I could. I did it just as a hobby for 15 years before I started selling my work. I moved to Terre Haute in 1986 and I was professional groomer at Honey Creek Animal Hospital. As I said, I love animals and I enjoyed that until I started to develop nerve problems in my hands and shoulders and had to stop doing it.
Brian: How did you break into selling your work and doing it as a profession?
John: I started by entering juried fine art fairs in Chicago and other places. When I started, my work was sort of all over the place, I had no real focus. My work is much more focused now. I sell a lot of double weave that have more style. When I go to a show now, rarely do I take wool, although sometimes I’ll take work with Alpaca yarn because it is very popular. I do a lot with Chenille yarn. Chenille is a type of yarn. It is soft and fuzzy and feels really nice and is popular. Chenille yarns can be made from a lot of different fibers like cotton, silk, and other fibers. I like the Rayon because I like the feel of it. And I teach workshops, many at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. Most of my works today are scarves and shawls.
Brian: I noticed these scarves on the bench over here. Tell me about these.
John: Those samples are early American designs. They are Four Shaft overshot patterns that the colonists wove. These patterns were eventually replaced by Jacquard loom weaving on the East Coast. However, these overshot patterns were still being woven here in the Midwest, and in some places in Appalachia. The people in the Midwest kept these patterns alive.
During the Industrial Revolution the commercial weavers on the East Coast built factories and started using an industrial loom by John Kay, who invented a flying shuttle in 1733 that enabled weaving of wider fabric, as well as made the process faster. In 1803, the Jacquard loom was invented and it could be programmed with punch cards that enabled faster weaving of more complicated patterns. Many weavers like to say looms were the first computers. With those looms you could create eagles, the liberty bell and other intricate designs and larger fabrics that you couldn’t do on the early style looms. My loom doesn’t work like that way. I have to push treadles with my feet to lift up a series of threads.
These overshot patterns intrigue me because they are so beautiful, intricate, and complicated, and I was able to do all of these on this little Four Shaft loom. It shows the innovation of humans that we take can a limited thing and come up with such beautiful patterns. There are now computerized looms, but I prefer the hand-craft of working with the early style looms because I like the high skill craft of it and knowing that it was hand woven.
Brian: How do you get these amazing patterns with the double weave?
John: I weave two different layers of fabric at the same time. On this loom there is one treadle connected to one harness. The threads pass through the eye of a heddle suspended in the harness. As I depress a treadle with my foot it lifts up one of the harnesses, bringing up a certain color pattern. I will alternate lifting harnesses one and two to make the top layer of fabric and harnesses three and four to weave the bottom layer. As I weave the bottom layer (three and four), I need get the top layer (one and two) out of the way, at that point there are three treadles depressed at the same time. The basic understanding is that you are weaving these two layers of fabric at the same time. Then I can weave with harnesses one and three on the top and two and four on the bottom. There are six combinations like that and each time I shift to a new sequence of treadles, the color changes. It is very easy to get lost; I have to remember where my feet are as I am changing the layers.
Brian: The process is very rhythmic. It is almost like watching dance or someone playing music.
John: Very much so. Once you get going, you get into a rhythm.
Brian: What is the material you are using on this weaving?
John: This particular yarn is Tencel. I started working with Tencel because it closely mimics silk. Tencel is a rayon fiber and is a natural biproduct of papermaking.
Brian: How many fine art weavers are in this area?
John: There are about 15 to 20 weavers in the area. I belong to the Wabash Valley Weavers Guild. The guild members really like participating in Arts Illiana’s Tablescapes. The Op art pattern of this table runner was a section of the design for Tablescapes 2019. I love the effect of the Op art pattern and it is another example of a double-weave. We in the guild love to do Tablescapes because it pushes us to do things that we don’t normally do, and I love the collaborative effort of the group.
Brian: You sell some of your work in a gallery in Carmel, Indiana. Has the Covid-19 Pandemic closures affected that and the art fairs you attend?
John: There have been no art fairs and the galleries shut down. However, the gallery in Carmel did open back up. We are certainly not unique during these challenging times.
Brian: Is the gallery in Carmel just for weavers?
John: Oh no, it has all forms of art from painters, wood workers, jewelers, and print makers.
Brian: Aside from Gwen Buchanan, who else has influenced you?
John: Suzanne Halvorson is a nationally known weaver in Bloomington, Indiana. When I first started to sell my work, I went down to Yarns Unlimited to purchase yarn and to a weaving mill in Bloomington. Suzanne and I started talking and I told her I was looking to buy yarn for the art fairs that I was in. She told me to buy Chenille. She said, “Chenille sells, John.” I bought it and went home and wove it and finished it out exactly as she told me to do. There is a process for how you put it out on the loom; how you beat it, wash it, and dry it. She shared that with me with no reservations, and I was shocked by the openness of her advice. I went back the next weekend and bought as much as I could purchase. She was right; my weavings done with Chenille yarn sell well.
Brian: Why do people like it?
John: It is because of how it feels. A lot of people have problems with sheep wool; it irritates them and it scratches them, even the really soft wools. Alpaca wool can irritate some people, but, on the whole, it is a lot softer, but some people don’t like how Alpaca fluffs up. A lot of people have a problem with the natural fibers. However, there really is a market for every kind of material. When I do take wool out and it has some character, people are interested in it. Everyone likes the feel of Rayon Chenille and it comes in vibrant colors that can lead into some amazing results.
Brian: Have you tried to expand to other galleries or shops outside of the one in Carmel?
John: No, I’ll tell you that for me it is very difficult to keep up with production. I am not a production weaver. Production weaving means that you can put enough threads on the loom to weave up to ten scarves. I cannot do that. I can maybe do two. I cannot weave the same thing over and over, I tried it, but I thought I would go batty. It takes a while for me to do the intricate weavings that I do. I really like showing and selling at the Covered Bridge Festival at Bridgeton. I enjoy it and I have a lot of friends there. I also like showing small artist sponsored shows. I have done a couple of those in Indianapolis. Someone who is an artist, usually in their homes, hosts them. These have been successful. I have walked out having sold all the scarves I took.
Brian: I notice that you spin a lot of your own yarn. How long does it take to spin enough yarn to make a regular scarf?
John: If it is thicker yarn it goes faster like in maybe two days, fine yarns takes longer, and they may take me a week. A lot of my friends who are spinners have given up on spinning a nice smooth yarn. They’re just spinning thick and thin, and lumpy bumpy and they spin a mile a minute and have a great time doing it. I have bought some of their yarn, woven it, and it sells every time. I could spin that, but for myself I like a little more control. For most of the weavings I do, I need it to be a little more consistent or it will destroy the woven pattern. However, on some weavings the inconsistent yarns can be a lot of fun.
Brian: You obviously have a lot of love for this art form. What do you tell people who are interested in doing this?
John: I am always encouraging people who are interested. I tell them to stop thinking about it and do it. There are so many ways to go with it. From the spinning point of view there are all the plant fibers. Mostly we are talking about cotton that is very hard to spin, Flax, and Hemp. It is ridiculous the number of animal fibers you can spin. Most notably sheep’s wool and there is alpaca, and cashmere goats, etc. They all translate right to weaving, knitting or crochet or whatever people want to do. My friend Gwen never did anything but spin yarn. She had the rabbits and she made her own yarn.
Brian: What about the different colors? Do you color them yourself?
John: Sometimes I do and sometimes I buy them colored from several of my friends. A friend of mine, Donna Jo Copeland, in Mooresville, raises sheep and she dyes the wool. The blues are from my friend Carol Wagner in Wisconsin.
Brian: When did the art of weaving start?
John: Well, we absolutely know that in Egypt the wrappings on the mummies were handspun and handwoven linens. I believe when the “Ice Man” was found he had a spun and woven something. It was either a sash he was wearing or the straps that pulled his leggings on. Now, we know it was pre-historic, but we just don’t know much about it. You can start from Egypt because also in the tombs with the mummies were card weaving tablets. This was another fascinating type of weaving. There are four holes in each one of the cards. There is one hole in each corner of these square cards with different threads. They stacked them and turned them. Pictograms of weavers weaving were also found.
Brian: We are meeting here at your church, St. Stephen’s Episcopal, and I noticed that you have woven a number of items for the church and the priest. Can you explain some of the pieces you have done for them?
John: I have done several pieces for the church, mainly for our priest, Drew Downs, and our deacon, Deby Veach, to wear for different seasons of the church year. For instance, the pink (known in the liturgical world as Rose) is for the Sundays in Lent and Advent that are a little bit of a break from the penitence. This is a visual representation of lightening up on that day. My church is so great about letting me weave what I want. The only one that my priest talked to me about is a double weave, purple and black. Usually Lenten vestments are shades of purple. My priest said, however, he didn’t mind a little bit of black because there is a specter of death over Lent. On the other side of the double weave, this stole has more black and he almost likes that side better. So, occasionally, he will wear it showing the side with more black.
Brian: What do you love about this art form?
John: I love the tactile part of it. Also, there are so many ways to be creative; weaving incorporates all what we were talking about, plant and animal fibers, color, texture, and pattern. There are so many ways to put those together, from bulky rag rugs to the finest silk scarf. I am always following whatever catches my fancy at the moment. Originally, I wanted to weave all hand-spun, and then I realized that wasn’t going to work, but I was reluctant to try anything different. Then I discovered Chenille and I want bonkers because I loved it. When I was new to this, the intricate patterns totally intimidated me and I didn’t even care for them. Now I am absorbed in them and I think they are fantastic. As I change and grow, there is always something in the fiber world waiting for me. It is never boring, and I still feel that I haven’t even scratched the surface.