For Mary Zicafoose, tapestries are more than just faded tribal designs hanging in the back of smoke shops.
Zicafoose, a Michigan native, has been weaving since 1980. Some of her most recent work will be displayed on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus at the Robert Hillestad Textiles Gallery from Dec. 2 through Jan. 17. Zicafoose’s “Mountains & Ghosts” exhibit includes both Ikat tapestries and prints. She will be on East Campus at the home economics building at 6 p.m. on Jan. 15, offering a public lecture on these ideals and extrapolating more specifically on the current exhibit being displayed.
“The theme of the show is basically exploring and elaborating on the archetypal shape of a triangle,” Zicafoose said. “You can call the triangle a temple, you can call it a pyramid, you can call it the trinity, but it’s that three-pointed shape that I’m filling up and decorating.”
Her passion is making textiles, and her love of making tapestries has been many years in the making. She attributes the beginning of her love affair with fabric to a piece of Ikat cloth she received as a result of an aunt’s trip to Indonesia. Ikat is a dyeing technique similar to tie-dye.
“It was just an incredibly beautiful fabric — there were so many layers that interested me in it,” she said. “It was the first I had ever thought of cloth as art. It really impacted me so I kind of filed it away.”
Even though it was then that she discovered Ikat, it took many years for her to finally connect this to a lifelong career. One undergraduate art degree later, Zicafoose still felt like something was missing.
During this time, she had moved from Chicago to Nebraska, following love. While working on a bachelor’s degree in clay, she observed a fellow student in the college who was working with a loom. It was then that everything clicked, as Zicafoose realized what had been missing.
“When I started weaving I was a carpet weaver actually,” she said. “I was sitting at the loom one day, and I just kind of threw down my shuttle and went, ‘Ah, this just isn’t it. I want to make cloth. It’s much more transcendental.’ And that’s when I thought of that Ikat cloth and finally made the connection,” Zicafoose said.
Although she had reconnected with her childhood love of fabric, things still didn’t instantly come together.
“I went to the library to get a book on Ikat and nothing had ever been written.”
After much searching, she was able to find a small pamphlet that had been published by a graduate student. While it was only six pages, it was enough to inspire Zicafoose to attempt to finally pursue her passion and work with this undocumented fabric.
“I took a board and put a nail at one end and a nail at the other,” said Zicafoose. “I stretched some yarn, I cut up a garbage bag, and I wrapped some of the fiber with the garbage bag and I put it in a dye pot and that was it. That was the start of it.”
While that description makes the process sound very simple, the actual process of preparing to weave is nothing short of tedious. Before sitting down at the loom, it’s not uncommon for Zicafoose to have invested more than one hundred hours of preparation.
“It is kind of like very complicated, sophisticated tie-dying,” she said. “But it’s not like a big cloth that is already woven, I’m taking it thread by thread and wrapping it, dying it, and then unwrapping it. Then when I weave it all together if I’ve done my math correctly, the pattern falls into place.”
Even though she loves doing this, she always has a studio assistant to aid in the prep work. Zicafoose always tries to find an assistant who can benefit from this kind of work in their future endeavors.
This was exactly the case for Anna Greer, a former assistant who now owns her own clothing store. While she said she loved the experience she gained working with Zicafoose, sometimes tasks were more grueling than many would assume.
“The worst parts of the job were when your fingers turned numb from wrapping Ikat for three weeks straight, or when you wove a few lines too tight and had to take out a bunch of weaving,” Greer said.
Greer does not work directly with textiles currently, but she hopes to purchase a loom in the future and pursue her love of textile making. She loves textiles, but can understand why there has been a decline in textile making in the past centuries.
“As the world gets faster and faster, it’s harder to rationalize spending months and months on a single piece,” Greer said. “But that’s why it’s so special: It involves more care and intention than anything gets anymore these days.”
Zicafoose is optimistic about the future of textiles. Through traveling, she has studied other cultures forms and functions with cloth and observed the techniques of indigenous people. It is from these observations that she believes humans will always strive to wear and display beautiful works of cloth in their home, and thus the future of textiles is bright.
Although Zicafoose is hopeful that textiles will thrive in the future, she is certain the art of tapestry making will always be preserved.
“Textiles have always been a benchmark of the consciousness of a civilization and I think that will continue to be the case,” Zicafoose said. “You can’t hold the human down. The human has a propensity to embellish and wants to be surrounded by opulence and that comes in the form of cloth.”