Talks with Tairua weaver Kathryn Tsui

The Coromandel Peninsula artist crafts all kinds of custom pieces on beautiful timber looms.

Upping sticks with her family from Auckland to Tairua in 2016 got visual artist Kathryn Tsui thinking about learning to weave as an extension of her creative practice. She bought a basic loom off Trade Me to learn with — and she was away.

So, Kathryn, what do you produce? My practice oscillates between weaving custom pieces — predominately shawls and handwoven tableware — and works for exhibition; I recently produced a new series of tableware for Ā Mua: New Lineages of Making, an exhibition at the Dowse Art Museum in Wellington, which features 20 makers and explores the nature of craft in Aotearoa.
I really like to work collaboratively. My latest project came through Connect the Dots, an art mentoring programme that partners practising artists with older people in care homes.

TOP Avoiding synthetic fibers because of the pollution they cause, Kathryn uses wool produced in New Zealand, recycled yarn made out of leftover slivers from a textile mill in Napier, and second-hand yarn she inherits or finds in op shops. She recently worked with raw linen handspun by a friend and undyed soy silk, a by-product of the soy food industry, plus she’s started saving her own leftover yarn for her mother to use to knit baby clothes for charity.

Where do you find inspiration? My art practice comprises abstractions and observations drawn from everyday life. For instance, woollen blankets, patchwork quilts, patterns found on mass-produced objects and colours in my daughter’s art can all inspire me.
The universality of patterns is something I’d like to explore more. In a weaving commission for textile artist Rona Ngahuia Osborne, we used herringbone and twill patterns because they remind us of tukutuku panels and tāniko designs. I’m also interested to see if my Chinese heritage and Chinese textile history will surface in my weaving.

ABOVE Coming to weaving via her contemporary arts education and practice, Kathryn views the visual and textural aspects of the craft as she would a painting or drawing. Bauhaus artists Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl are an influence for their modernist approaches; “Their weavings are more like abstract paintings than decorative, functional textiles,” says Kathryn. The artworks on the walls here are by (from left) Denys Watkins, Guerrilla Girls, Iain Cheesman and Mark Braunias.

How long do your pieces take to make? I tend to set aside a week to a month for the weaving part, depending on the project. Fortunately, owning several looms means I can have multiple projects on the go.
My projects and commissions generally start with a design phase, during which I sketch out compositions and colourways in my notebook, and then I select and source the yarns. Weaving is quite technical, so my book is also filled with calculations and measurements that help me figure out the quantity of materials I need. The yarn then has to be prepared to go onto the loom — for this I use a warp board — then the next step is to thread or dress the loom with the pattern.
It’s always a relief to start weaving. For me, the most satisfying part of the process is seeing how the colours and pattern interact as a woven textile.
This is also when I’ll make changes and adaptations to the piece; I like to document and share this stage with the person I’m weaving for. Once the piece is hemstitched and off the loom, it’s  then wet finished and trimmed.

ABOVE Kathryn says weaving’s so labour-and time-intensive that she has to be disciplined to make the most of her hours in her home studio. She works from school drop-off to pick-up, often fits in another hour when her partner gets home from work, and weaves at night and during the weekend if she has a deadline coming up.

Is sustainability part of what you do? I try to make sustainable choices with regards to my materials, and mainly work to order, so I know the weaving has an owner before I weave it and  order only the materials it requires.
Social responsibility is also becoming an element in my practice. Last year, I started making tableware and donated a portion of the sale to food-based initiative Everybody Eats. For my latest series of tableware for the exhibition at the Dowse, I was able to donate part of the production fee to Eat My Lunch.

TOP Kathryn’s 1970s Jack loom is crafted from native timber, mainly heart rimu. It came with a bench seat made from kauri from a demolition yard. ABOVE MIDDLE This ceramic object is by Maureen Allison. ABOVE On the top shelf sit sculptures by Bronwynne Cornish.

During lockdown, you hosted hand-looming workshops online. What things around the house can be used to make a DIY loom? Because the online weaving workshops with the Dowse were during a time of staying home in our bubbles, mine used only materials commonly found at home. The main material for the loom was corrugated cardboard; it was good timing as many councils had halted recycling services, so most people had a stockpile of boxes lying around. To construct the loom, we used everyday stationery: cellotape, scissors, a ruler and a pen. Anyone without a wool needle made do with a bamboo skewer and tape.
These sessions were a lovely way to meet new people online. They were first-time weavers and it was great to see them enjoying the de-stressing and satisfying effects of weaving. It really reinforced for me the value of making something by hand. Even though we all followed the same process, each weaving was so individual, and that’s the beauty of handweaving.

TOP Kathryn recently collaborated with her mum, Doris Tsui, on a project that translated the tartan pattern found on mass-produced Hong Kong shopping bags into cross-stitch — seen here in the black frame. The adjacent painting is by Claudia Jowitt. ABOVE Photography: Hazel Redmond, courtesy of Ophelia Mikkelson Jones and Parlour Projects.

Any plans for future workshops? I’ll be hosting workshops on June 28 and July 11 — you can head to my website to book.
kathryntsui.com; @colouristweaving

Interview Alice Lines
Photography Ophelia Mikkelson Jones

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