A conversation with Amanda Rataj

V: As you already know i have been admiring your work for such a long time Amanda so it is making me very excited to have this interview with you. 
To learn more about both you and your beautiful work. You are among other things an artist and handweaver. Based in Hamilton, Ontario.
Maybe we can start with you sharing a bit about yourself with us?  

A: Hello Vibeke! Thank you for inviting me to a part of your interview series - it is very kind and thoughtful of you to think of me. 

I am, as you note, an artist and handweaver, but I’ve practiced many other things besides weaving. I became very interested in photography in high school and ended up majoring in it during my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. I was always very attracted to the magic of working in a darkroom and making physical photographs - while digital photography certainly has its conveniences, the physical nature of the photographic image was something I spent a lot of time exploring during my degree. I  (unofficially) minored in papermaking and taught myself a number of 19th century photographic processes like cyanotype and albumen printing, combining my handmade paper and photographs to make very material, tactile artworks.

Outside of my work as a visual artist, I’m also an educator at a museum in Toronto. I facilitate educational programs for kids, youth, and adults, and I love it - you are always hearing different ideas, thoughts, and interpretations and are constantly learning to see something in a different way. 

V: What are you passionate about?

A: Learning! I love to learn new things - I am very curious so I end up wanting to know more about things that intrigue me.  Recently I ran into an old colleague who had taken a gilding workshop over the summer, and that incredible process is still turning over in my mind - it has really made me look at frames in a new way!

V: Did you grow up in a crafty family?

A: Yes - my mum knows how to sew, knit, and weave, and she taught all these skills to my sister and I. My dad is very interested in architecture, and built the family cottage with his parents and siblings when he was a young man - he has great skills when it comes to making 3D things or fixing things around the house.

V: Why did you end up choosing hand weaving as your craft?

A: After graduating university I learned how to weave from my mum - I had been interested in craft practices during my degree, but only took a few technical and theoretical courses. In the years afterwards I had more time to try new things, and weaving quickly became a better way for me to explore the artistic ideas and concepts I had floating around my head. I am much more interested in making craft that’s meant to be used than I ever was in making something that was to exist solely on the wall - which is especially true when it comes to textiles, which are such an active part of our everyday. 

V: What sort of techniques did you most want to learn when you started weaving?

A: I don’t know if there’s anything in particular that I wanted to learn - I was just interested in seeing where it lead me. I’ve spent time learning about specific techniques (more about that later!), but I think I’ve always been most interested in process and materials when it comes to weaving. 

V: Do you have some knowledge on the history of weaving? I would love to hear.

A: That’s a hard to answer in one go! Because so many cultures and places ‘invented’ weaving around the same time, I would suggest reading the wonderful Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, which brings forward some of the enormous contributions that women - and the invention of string - have brought to the world. Textiles; The Whole Story by Beverly Gordon is also a favourite - it speaks more to the ways in which people around the world have used textiles, and also refereres a number of traditional stories and teachings about its invention from different cultures. 

V: Do you still remember/have the first cloth you ever made?

A: Yes! My first weaving project was scarf out of some Noro Kureyon yarn. I still have it and wear it too!

V: Can you take us through the "typical" process of the making of a weaving?  

A: It depends on what the end use of the cloth will be. Sometimes I reference samples or old patterns I’ve saved, other times I start with a texture or a drawing. I usually like to create samples to test out new materials or ideas, and sometimes these samples come back later as different textiles. For example, my most recent weaving pattern, the Dash Tea Towels, started from a cloth I made a few years ago, which included a repeated pattern of a single raised thread. I started with that idea and then incorporated some other things I like, like checks. Sometimes I know what I want to weave from the beginning, but weaving itself can also change what I have in mind. I also always leave space to play at the end - this usually leads into the next project in some way. 

V: "I am attracted to the material and tactile nature of cloth as well as its ability to be activated by the human body, whether it be through movement, use, or as a visual signifier or metaphor. I most often make or reinterpret simple, everyday textiles like tea towels, rugs, blankets and scarves; my work aims to be both art and craft, utility and practicality.
My cloth is meant to be used: stained, dirtied, washed again and again, it becomes an integral part of how we experience and interact with the everyday, and in how we think of ourselves".

I really enjoyed reading these words of yours that i found at your website. Can you share some more about what you are expressing here?

A: Yes! When I think about what I like to weave - and why I like textiles - it is often everyday, ‘simple’ textiles - the sort of things that we use and don’t even think about. My boyfriend and I have been collecting the photographic equivalent for a number of years. Back in the early days of home photography, folks would take pictures and expose them on small pieces of photographic paper pre-printed with a place for a stamp and space for text - a photo postcard. 

We love the everydayness of these vernacular, unprofessional, and often wonky images and text. They are charming, beautiful, and reflect an intangible moment in someone’s life. Craft objects often play important parts in these images, whether they are treasured objects, clothing, homes, or, in the image of the sewing club, a social connection built around the work of hands. 

The same impulse that made our elders take photographs and hold them in wallets and pockets and books and save them for decades is something that I feel is reflected in contemporary craft objects and plays an important part in my craft work. I’ve always been strongly interested in materiality and believe our physical connection to objects and the act of making things by hand is a key part of our humanity - what do things mean when they are anonymized through mass production? ‘Things’ - whether they be pots or scarves or tools - are a defining feature of human civilization and experience, and I feel strongly that craft objects play an important part in connecting us to one another and our daily experiences. 

V: Any fibers and materials you especially enjoy working with and if so why this/these?

A: Wool and linen are my two favourite materials to work with right now. While I can’t source 100% local fibre all the time, I’m very interested in the Fibreshed movement and am always trying to bring my practice more in tune with its values of supporting local and regenerative textile production. Wool and linen are both very interesting and varied materials - there is a lifetime of things to learn from both of them. 

V: Since you have been doing a custom order for me we have talked a bit about different weaving patterns. Could you share a about some of them with us and also if there are some specific ones that you have a weakness for?

A: There are many different weaving techniques, from plain weave to lace to floatwork to twill and more. For your custom order, you were very interested in some work that I had recently made using a floatwork pattern. Often called ‘overshot’ by weavers, these are relatively simple weave structures that make use of a pattern thread that ‘floats’ over a ground of plain weave. Plain weave is the most basic of weaving structure - under one, over one - and if you cut out the pattern thread in a floatwork textile, you would be left with this plain cloth. 

This type of floatwork has a long tradition of use in North American settler textiles - it’s thought that folks who came here from Scotland and England in the 18th and 19th centuries brought this technique with them. It was mainly used to make blankets for beds - because it doesn’t require fancy equipment, it enabled folks living outside cities to still have beautiful and colourful patterned bed covers - even if they couldn’t afford the expensive jacquard woven ones. To me, they’re about utility, beauty, use, and frugality, all wrapped up in the humblest and perhaps most important of textiles, the blanket. 

I’ve been reading about and weaving various floatwork patterns for a few years - I like how simple and clever they are, and the varied textiles you can get from them. 

V: I know you also teach weaving workshops. What do you especially enjoy about that?

A: It’s fun and also challenging to teach weaving - when you know something very well, it’s often difficult to articulate with words what your hands just seem to know. I value every opportunity to teach in part because I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of great knowledge and assistance over the years. Teaching is one way that I can give that knowledge to others and put creative agency in the hands of someone new. The more we ALL connect with our hands to some sort of material practice, the better I think we all are. 

V: Can you tell us a bit about the Artist Residency you did in Island in 2015?

A: In May of 2015, I spent four weeks at the Icelandic Textile Arts Centre in Blonduos, Iceland. I spent the month swimming, walking, staring at the clouds and ocean, and, of course, weaving and spinning. I went with the intention to spend my month in research-mode - I wanted to get a better handle on drafting, designing, and learning to use a more complex loom than what I had at home. I made two small blankets using a technique called summer and winter, which produces a textile with one light side and one dark side. I based the motifs off of lopapeysa - Icelandic sweaters - and their distinct motifs. I was particularly enthralled by the weather in Iceland, and the resulting blankets, a work I called Veđur, reflects that. 

V: Do you find weaving to be a meditative craft for you?

A: Yes and no. Weaving can be very relaxing, but it’s also my work, so sometimes I feel very frustrated or impatient or unhappy with how something is turning out. There are parts of the process I don’t always enjoy, and often there is a lot of uncertainty involved. There’s also the administrative side to it - applying for grants, writing artist statements, applying for exhibitions, doing small business taxes, etc, that is absolutely not meditative at all. That all being said, I gain a lot of personal satisfaction out of making physical things for my living!

V: Where do you have your weaving space? 

A: I weave at home - I use a big and somewhat oddly shaped bedroom, in which I have two looms, two desks, a bookshelf and an old library card catalogue. Two desks is a luxury I got used to at my old studio (which was much bigger) - one desk is actually a drafting table, which I find very useful when it comes to winding warps. At a beginning of 2019 I got a second loom, an old Bergå Savonia, made in Finland by Varpaapuu. I’ve wanted a big old countermarch loom for a long time and was very excited to find someone selling one locally!

V: And how do you like to have it around you when you create? 

A: I like to listen to podcasts and audiobooks when I weave (as long as it’s not something that needs my attention), but I also enjoy silence or the sounds of the birds outside of my window. As a photographer I’m addicted to good light - my studio has two windows and I dream of putting in a skylight to get it even brighter. 

V: Apart from weaving what you enjoy using your time on?

A: I do other textile crafts like knitting and spinning as hobbies, and I love to be outdoors on my bike or walking. I am also a big reader - I love books of all types, often reading a book (or two) a week, and I love my local library branch. 

V: Are daily routines something that are important for you 
and are there any that are important for your wellbeing?

A: I would like to be more of a routine person, but I have a very variable schedule, which makes it difficult to set a routine. I like to have a quiet hour to myself in the morning, I don’t like having to rush. I do the same at night - I spend at least an hour reading every night. 

V: We are in the winter season now. How is wintertime in your Ontario?

A: It can be +30 in the summers and -30 in the winter, so there is a huge range of weather here. They are predicting a long and cold winter this year, and we’ve already had one big snowfall and January-like temperatures! 

V: What do you especially enjoy about winter?

A: The best part of winter is that I get to wear all my wooly sweaters!! I don’t really like being cold - I have poor circulation in my fingers and so am often very uncomfortable and stiff, even indoors. 

V: Does the different seasons have an impact on your creativity and maybe also energy/wellbeing?

I don’t usually weave a lot in the summer months - I want to be outside and enjoying the sunshine and garden - so I do value the quieter winter months when I’m more inclined to work indoors all day.

V: Routines that you incorporate in the winter season?

A: Warm wooly socks + hot drinks to stave off the (literal) chills that I get! 

V: Any other crafts you enjoy doing?

A: As I mentioned, I do knit and spin! I am a slow knitter and an even slower spinner, but I do enjoy sitting down in the evening to enjoy these crafts. 

V: If you were to learn a new craft what would that be and why?

A: My friend Deborah has been teaching a group of friends to basket weave - and I love it!!! Maybe not an entirely ‘new’ craft since it IS weaving (in a sense), but I’d love to learn more - and get better - at it. 

V: Where do you find inspiration?

A: Everywhere and everything, sometimes for a long time, sometimes for a very short time. I realize this is an unsatisfactory answer - but this is a question I find very difficult to answer!

V: Is there a specific quote or saying that holds a very special meaning to you? And/or maybe you have found a new one lately?

A: I just finished reading Glenn Adamson’s book Fewer, Better Things, and I liked the way he speaks about ‘good’ objects: “An object can only be good for someone. Its ‘goodness’ is not essential to it, but rather arises through the relationships that it brings into being. Thus the real test of an object’s worth lies not in its efficiency, novelty, or even beauty […] but in whether it gives a sense of our shared humanity.”

V: As a closing i would love to ask you what you are most grateful for in your life these days?

A: My friendships! I feel like I have made the most extraordinary and generous friendships in the past three years, and since I am inclined to stay inside and be by myself too much, I really value how they get me out of my own head and teach me so many new ways of looking at the world.