Sources of inspiration for textile art by Barbara Shapiro

Sources of inspiration for textile art by Barbara Shapiro

Barbara Shapiro is a textile artist and educator living in San Francisco. Her love of textiles was clear from an early age, but she began weaving in NewYork City in 1975. Barbara’s work is fuelled by a vast understanding of historical and ethnic textiles which she combines with masterly technical knowledge of surface design and weaving. Having worked in costume design and having been involved in the Art to Wear movement in the 70s and 80s, her practice moved towards wall textile art in the mid 80s. For the past ten years she has concentrated on basketry and indigo dyeing.

We’re thrilled that an artist and writer of such talent and experience has agreed to contribute an article. This piece was written by Barbara especially for and is an exploration of finding inspiration for textile art and discovering your ‘true voice’. Barbara’s insights into her own processes are fascinating and provide a great source of inspiration in themselves.

A gradation of indigo dyeing by Barbara Shapiro

A gradation of indigo – Barbara Shapiro

Materials, techniques and concept

Indigo dyeing plays a big role in both my woven and basketry works, and I have taught many indigo workshops.  Recently I started offering a workshop called Sources of Inspiration during which I help students better understand their own creative impulses through a series of hands-on exercises.

Barbara Shapiro dyeing with indigo

Barbara Shapiro dyeing with indigo

Artistic inspiration, especially for textile artists, can come from materials, techniques or concepts. Materials are what inspire most beginning weavers, the yarns themselves being so seductive. As we grow in our mastery of various techniques, our work becomes more complex and interesting. Eventually, when the techniques become second nature to us, the personal rises to the surface and the conceptual underpinnings of our work shine through the other two elements, now part of our vocabulary, to speak in the artist’s true voice. At least, that is how it worked for me. I offer my students exercises in materials, technique and concept and encourage them to find what moves them into producing fresh, personal and meaningful work.

Find out more about Barbara’s workshop Sources of Inspiration.

Mali Basket by textile artist Barbara Shapiro. Coiled indigo dyed raffia, 2007

Mali Basket – Barbara Shapiro. Coiled indigo dyed raffia, 2007

Four Weavers: Contemporary Expressions of an Ancient Craft

I recently exhibited a large body of work in Four Weavers: Contemporary Expressions of an Ancient Craft at the Petaluma Arts Center in California, January 11 to March 10, 2013. Three of my dearest friends also appeared in this exhibit: Candace Crockett, Suki Russak, and Ulla de Larios. It was a joyous experience to work together.

For Four Weavers I created two new series of works, one exploring the liminal space which for me is that controlled seepage of the indigo in a clamp-resist indigo dyed hand woven cloth. In Four Square, the first of the series, I dealt with pure technique, but by the time I finished Sea Change, the last in the series, I was dealing with larger concepts of water, ecology and conservation, inspired by conversations with artist Linda Gass whom I had interviewed for a Textile Society of America Symposium paper.

A piece of fiber art made by dyeing with indigo by Barbara Shapiro

Four Square – Barbara Shapiro

Read Barbara’s TSA Symposium Paper

Testing Testing

The evolution of Testing Testing, the other new series I created for Four Weavers exhibit, is a more personal saga. I had saved all the indigo dyeing test strips, little scraps of fabric used to determine how the dye was working, from over 25 years of maintaining the indigo vats at San Francisco State University. I always said I would do something with them when I retired from my volunteer position at SFSU, and now I have.

I had assumed I would weave these bits of cloth in varying shades of blue into some sort of sakiori style rag weave, but this concept did not really interest me. Then one afternoon, I visited Cathryn Cootner, former Curator of Textiles of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Among many beautiful ethnic textiles and baskets she owns, I came across a humble 1920’s American coiled rag rug, and I knew just what I wanted to do. Coiling is one of the techniques that I often use in my basketry work, and so I began coiling large disks using my now precious indigo test strips. The disks are about 13 inches in diameter, and the long wrapped tail curls down creating an interesting visual line on the wall.

American coiled rag from Catherine Cootner's collection - Catherine is former-curator of Textiles of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

American coiled rag coiled rug Southern USA 1920s. Catherine Cootner collection. Photo B Shapiro

Artist friend Lucy Arai suggested that I not finish off the disks as circles, but leave this indication of technique as part of the work. She was right.  I created 5 such blue disks. Yoshiko Wada, Textile scholar and president of the World Shibori Network, asked me: “Why five?” Five is a common number in sets of domestic linens like placemats or cups in Japan, Americans always sell even numbered sets. I thought about this and realized that for about 30 years, before we started collecting son and daughters-in law and grand children, we were a family of 5. Five meant that all my children were home safely tucked in their beds. Five was a comforting number as I drifted off to sleep.

Fiber artist Barbara Shapiro created this piece using indigo

Testing Testing, In Progress photo, detail. Barbara Shapiro. 2011

A piece of textile art by artist Barbara Shapiro

Testing Testing – Barbara Shapiro. 2011

(I support the World Shibori Network and recommend its Symposium and tours around the world.

Testing Testing II

In creating Testing Testing, I was thinking about the passage of time, the creative possibilities of recycled materials, and the universality of indigo. That latter idea about indigo’s pervasiveness in much of the world led to a second series, Testing Testing II, in which I incorporate small scraps of colorful multi-colored cloth from the rag bags of friends who have lived or traveled extensively in countries where indigo has a presence. Each disk contains a bit of cloth coming from one such area.

Barbara Shapiro - Testing Testing II France. 2012

Barbara Shapiro – Testing Testing II France. 2012

Although I continue to use mostly my own indigo dyed strips, these colorful bits punctuate the blues and symbolizing and the gift of friendship. I have completed disks representing USA, France, India, Indonesia, and West Africa. Japan is in progress, and I have scraps waiting for disks referencing China and Sweden. I have to admit that some of Indian scraps were purchased in France, where brilliant torn sari strips were for sale in a lovely mercerie I visited with my best friend in Paris. A few others Indian print scraps were given to me when I taught at Maiwa in Vancouver. Maiwa produces a stunning line of textiles to wear or for the home printed in India using sustainable practices while putting traditional artisans in charge of their own economic and cultural future. They conscientiously save scraps for teaching purposes. By the way, Maiwa’s outstanding annual Symposium is worth the trip to Canada!

Testing Testing II is an on going series. I get great pleasure in thinking about the stories my friends have told me about the garments their scraps came from as I slowly coil them into a new and unexpected use. For me, Indigo dyeing, recycling and friendship are all coiled into the circle of life.

Barbara Shapiro - Testing Testing II France, 2012 detail

Barbara Shapiro – Testing Testing II France, 2012 detail

To find out more about Barbara Shapiro and her work visit

Barbara Shapiro, © 2013

Textile Society of America’s 14th Biennial Symposium

I would like to anyone passionate about textiles to consider attending the Textile Society of America’s 14th Biennial Symposium New Directions: Examining the Past, Creating the Future which will take place in Los Angeles at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) Tuesday, September 10 – Saturday, September 14, 2014.  Abstracts can be submitted until October 1, 2013.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, let us know by leaving a comment below.

Wednesday 06th, December 2023 / 06:36

About the author

Joseph Pitcher is the son of textile artist Sue Stone. He is an actor and voice-over artist and has worked at the RSC, the National Theatre, West End theatres and several other leading regional venues across the UK. Find Joe on Google

View all articles by Joe



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2 comments on “Sources of inspiration for textile art by Barbara Shapiro”

  1. Debra Howe says:

    Thank you for this.

  2. Karin Newby says:

    Great article,very informative! Enjoyed the different weavings! Thanks for sharing!

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