Weaving Expression with Gather the Universe

Written and photographed by Koa Kalish

As Mary Diaz works at her loom, it’s not clear if she’s the one weaving or if it’s the large ornate spider on her arm that is weaving her. “Weaving is a great metaphor for my life, “Mary says. “To me, the spider humbly embodies the beauty in the action of weaving.” To Mary, weaving is bringing in different pieces, combining opposites, including variety, uplifting diversity, and joining them all together to make a stronger, more beautiful whole. “These are values I hold deeply,” she says, as the shuttle shoots back and forth between the shed. Fittingly, she calls her ongoing weaving project “Gather the Universe.”

Originally born in San Francisco, Mary grew up in Minneapolis, spent a chapter of life in Hong Kong, and eventually returned to Northern California to raise her two children. She lives in Graton and works out of her weaving studio housed in the Atelier One building. Her life in fiber arts began ten years ago, “I taught myself to knit instinctually before I realized I was pregnant with my daughter.” She has a background in fine arts, experimental performance, and poetics and love for conceptual philosophy and critique, all of which felt abstract and heavy in light of impending motherhood. “Turning to fiber was a natural impulse toward tangible, practical exploration. I started knitting baby hats and learning about wool’s absorption properties from diaper cover patterns. It was very straightforward, which felt good.” When she moved back to Northern California from China, she finally had space to take on weaving, which had always spoken deeply to both her heart and hands. “As soon as I sat at the loom, I felt that familiar surge of creative possibility and a sort of poetic resonance with the repeated action of bringing opposing forces (warp and weft) together. It felt like poetry, like dance, like concept and expression, building lines and layers and creating wholeness out of disparate perspectives.”  

Mary experimented with many different kinds of lap looms and eventually found the Saori floor loom that resonated with her the most. “What I love about the Saori loom is the freedom and expression it evokes. I’m not a perfectionist, and I’m not a technician… the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi is what lights me up. Evidence of the human hand, the mark-making, the imperfections… for me, this is where beauty occurs. My loom allows for that manner of expression.”

Inspired by primitive skills, it was her mother-in-law in Wisconsin who inspired her love of wool and taught her basket making and spinning. “She forcibly made me relearn to knit ‘continental’ style (‘picking,’ not ‘throwing’), which I am forever grateful for. She’s a master spinner, which I am mostly still too impatient to learn, but I do love the little cotton tahkli spindle she gave me.” She showed her how to skirt a fleece and take it one step at a time, seeing the whole process through from raw wool to a woven garment. “I love the fact that there’s a community of people here at Fibershed doing this kind of thing, inspiring and challenging our ideas of what’s possible.” 

Mary incorporates this ethos into her weaving by focusing on using natural materials as much as possible. “I love the naturalness and rawness of undyed wool. I think there’s so much to tell in the natural wool yarn even before you get to color,” she says. Using undyed wool from Bodega Pastures and Mary Pettis’ Twirl Yarn, Mary blends blacks, whites, and neutrals to create a uniquely monochromal-prismatic effect in her woven pieces.

“The thing I love about weaving,” Mary says, “is that it’s patient. It helps me slow down, which is not something that comes naturally to me. Weaving waits for me and lets me pick up where I left off, allowing me to build the story of the fiber, of the moment, of its complexity…and simplicity, without having to add anything else. Ultimately, it’s a practice of freedom.”

With each weaving, Mary builds a story, layer by layer. Creating a greater narrative around ecology and fashion is something that drives her. “I am inspired to scrutinize how our culture engages with ‘fast fashion,’ and mostly it impacts on our environment but also our aesthetic values. These days, more than 60% of our wearable fabric fibers are synthetic, derived from fossil fuels, and not designed to last in quality or style. That’s completely unnecessary, and I’d love to challenge that narrative. When I’m in my studio, even though it’s such a small scale, I dream about changing how we consider the way we clothe ourselves, the values we hold as a society, and the opportunities that surround us we haven’t taken the time to explore. That’s what inspires me so much about Fibershed. It’s all right here, so much we can do at the local level. And Sonoma County is just about the lushest place on earth, so I’m very lucky in that regard.”

Indeed, each of Mary’s woven pieces tells a tactile story about the purpose of place, reflecting her Fibershed. Often she weaves for commissions, bridging that story of a place with the story of the person whom her piece will be offered to. Mary teaches weaving classes and workshops, for which she includes a mahogany lap loom and beginning weaving kit that she designed. These days, she’s been knitting and crocheting with her now 9-year-old daughter Oona, who’s knitted herself a doll and is finishing her first crochet hat. Mary will be offering digital weaving workshops and other fiber tutorials, mailing out loom kits to her participants. She is also about to relaunch her online shop. Be sure to visit her website and Instagram account for updates.