After graduating from college with a master’s degree from Oberlin College - long ago - and teaching in public schools long enough to receive tenure, Uransky received a large grant to study weaving wherever she wanted and immediately began working with fibers in Berkeley around 1972.
She started with a multi-harness floor loom that is very complex.
She worked from pattern books, finally concluding that she wanted to create her own patterns. So she moved to a huge upright Gobelin tapestry loom. One started at the bottom and moved a wide board to sit on up and up by adding more and more bricks under the sides of the board. This was better, as the designs were all hers. But the result was a gigantic tapestry, five to six feet across and hard to market when one is just starting out.
Then Uransky decided to go to Mexico to study Zapotec backstrap weaving using hand-spun yarns and natural dyes. She wound up living in the tiny weaving village of Mitla, Oaxaca where she wove in the courtyard of a Zapotec Indian named Edmundo Chavez, who spoke some English. However since only men wove, he would only teach a male friend of mine, who did not weave, who would then try hard to explain to her what Edmundo had taught him. This arrangement didn’t last long, as Edmundo - with a pained expression - watched her try to do what her friend thought Edmundo had shown him. Finally, in complete exasperation, Edmundo pushed Uransky aside and - breaking with all of his traditions - showed her, a woman, how to weave.
So she did Zapotec-style backstrap weaving for quite a while in Mexico, and eventually in the hills and hollows of Tennessee. However, as an aside, you should also know that while in Mitla Uranksy also studied with a basket-maker. It was a bit too elaborate at that time in her life, as it required the skill of a true craftsman with many years of practice just to prepare the materials.
Who knew that basket-making would become her passion?
While she was in California a friend had shown her how to make a basket out of kelp. She liked it. It was direct, simple, and elegant in a very earthy way. And California drew her back out of the hills and hollows of Tennessee, and back onto the beaches of California to collect more kelp for baskets.
Then other materials and other styles of basketry presented themselves. Her most frequent style is called "coiling." Materials are collected rather than bought. Palm seed strands from Florida and southern California are the materials she primarily uses now. There are others like jacaranda leaf stems in their rich red-brown color, maidenhair fern mid-ribs in shiny black, pine needles stitched with cream-colored raffia, and her stitching fiber of choice, waxed linen from the flax plant. This she orders from Belfast, Ireland. And she often adds driftwood to her pieces from our very own Humboldt-Mendocino beaches.
You probably have guessed that her strong preference is to use only non-toxic, natural materials. This is better for her, who makes them, and for you, who may buy them and use them, and especially better for the environment.
Basket by Gayna Uransky