Idaho Arts Quarterly » Cover Artist

Sarah Swett


Weaving, it is said, is one of the oldest human art forms. From a time just beyond humans spraying outlines of their hands on cave walls, fibers were woven together to create blankets, then clothing. At some point, the colors of these fibers-animal hair sometimes enhanced by colors from plants-were arranged in patterns, then later, pictures. Once the beauty of a woven piece of fabric transcended its usefulness and became art, perhaps even telling a story, the tapestry was born.

Sarah Swett practices this art that transcends craft. Her subject matter may seem provencial at first, but delve deeper into the weave and the story, and her tapestries' mysteries unravel, unveiling much deeper meaning and thought.

"I have been a textile person all my life," says Swett in her artist's statement. "From my earliest crumpled needlepoint squares, to later embroidery and my ever-present knitting, I have tried to tell stories with fiber. Not until I was in my late twenties, however, did I learn to weave. My years of messing about with textiles prepared me well for the process of making tapestry. Living and working as an outfitter, carpenter, camp cook, weaving teacher, trail crew foreman and, not least, mother, has given me endless material from which to draw."

There's not much modern society has added to the technology of weaving. It is still done on a loom, using fibers-threads and yarn-in the same traditional way. Swett creates her own looms, unique in size and shape for each tapestry, recycling galvanized pipes from older looms. She dyes her own wool acquired from local sheep ranchers using six natural dyes, combined to create the entire spectrum of colors. And while she has spun her own yarn from wool in the past, she doesn't do all her own these days.

"It's a pleasure of understanding your materials," she said, "as an artist, knowing where [the materials] come from."

When asked how long it takes to complete a piece, Swett answered as if she gets asked that question the most. "My tapestry professor told me to tell everyone that it takes three days," she said. "Then people laugh. Tapestries are an immensely slow process. They take months. I produce three, maybe four pieces a year. But I hate to lay it out that way because ... gosh, how patient you must be. And I'm impatient to know what happens next."

"A tapestry," she said, "evolves."

The act of creation is usually not considered by the end viewer. Consideration of the evolution of a story embedded within a tapestry is second to the actual story. But more so than in other art forms, consideration must be given to the evolution, for the story to give the end viewer a much deeper meaning of the final piece.

In the Greek tale of Philomela, who was raped and her tongue cut out so she couldn't tell of her attacker, the loom became her voice. Philomela weaves the story into the design of her tapestry and her sister Procne understands the story Philomela is telling. The women take their revenge.

Tapestries have embodied magical powers in literature and myth throughout history. Swett's piece The River Wyrd (on the cover of this issue) at first may seem like three hot mamas having a good time on some Idaho river like the Salmon. A little more contemplation, recalling a little Greek mythology, and you realize they are the three Fates, who were spinners and weavers. They were the daughters of Nyx who decided the fates of men and gods alike: Clotho spinning the web of life, Lachesis measuring its length and Atropos cutting it.

The process of weaving tells a story, says Swett. The work evolves, and the mythology and magic that people impose upon the work are "not such a secret" as people make them out to be.

"I don't know why other people see that-the magic. It's my job, the everyday thing that people do every day ... cooking eating cleaning. I weave," she said.

But other people do see the magic in the tapestries, and Sarah accepts that.

"I think the magic is involved with the rhythm, the time and the life that you weave into it, each day being at the loom, putting colored threads into it."

"In a sense you're building images that evolve slowly, like a person's life. You can't work on a small corner. You have to just be in that moment completely. That, in a sense, builds the magic."

"I was thinking the other day about Odysseus," she said. "His wife Penelope kept busy weaving and unweaving to keep her suitors away. In the same story, I think it was the goddess-turning the men into pigs-she and her maidens were weaving the tapestry of Odysseus. He could go look at the weaving, seeing all the things he had done on his travels. But the future was uncertain. It hadn't been woven yet."

Swett believes it is that feeling of weaving life as it happens that people find magical.

-Bingo Barnes

Sarah Swett, in addition to many group and solo exhibitions of her works, was selected to be in the 2004-2005 Boise Art Museum Triennial Exhibition. See more of Sarah Swett's magical works at