Interview with Cynthia Alberto

This week I interviewed Cynthia Alberto, founder and director of Weaving Hand. Weaving Hand is a studio, gallery, and healing arts center focused on weaving. They are located in Brooklyn and recently moved into Pratt's Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator (BFDA).

Cynthia was born in the Philippines and moved to the United States with her family when she was 13. She recalls watching people gather to weave baskets in her town. Her grandmother taught her to mend her socks and crochet, but she didn't consider herself a crafter. "Now these things are considered artsy, but really they're just basic", she said.

Before learning to weave, Cynthia was a painter. She was inspired by the work of Alberto Burri who used fabric in his paintings. Once she started sewing onto her canvases she decided to move from California to New York to study Textile Surface Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). There she learned to weave and has been weaving almost every day since.

Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting (The Guggenheim Museum, 2015)

Weaving Hand Studio

Cynthia started Weaving Hand nearly a decade ago in 2007. She says it grew organically into the multi-faceted community that it is today. "We're weaving and healing. We're doing fashion. We're working with international weavers."

Along with teaching classes and taking commissions, the studio works with fashion designers such as Jussara Lee and Tara St James, who both focus on sustainability and social responsibility in their process. Weaving Hand is working with Tara St James on her line of zero waste fashion. Zero waste fashion's goal is to cut down on the amount of fabric that gets thrown out after a pattern has been cut, by either reusing scraps or making pattern pieces that fit together like a puzzle.

So much goes into the process of making garments and collections, but Cynthia finds it exciting to be part of it. She loves how fashion designers get to create a "real fantasy, but at the same time people buy it and people wear it". She has had the joy of seeing some of her studio's work on the runway. Though runway fashion is not accessible to everyone, she also believes that clothing is inclusive and human.

"Clothing is so personal, but at the same time so basic. We all should be able to relate to it because everybody wears fabric of [their] body."

Weaving to Heal

Along with her work weaving commissions, collaborating with fashion designers, and teaching classes in her studio, Cynthia hosts weaving programs for people with developmental disabilities. For the past 6 years she has been working with government agencies on her day programs, which bring adults ages 21 - 60 to come weave as a group in her studio. She also works with students on the autism spectrum in a satellite studio at AHRC Middle/High School. She describes the healing affect of weaving to be about both the process and being part of a community.

"I've been doing this for a while now where I can really see how it affects them and how the repetitive motion - they're engaged to it. The mind is always busy, but then when you focus into something, it quiets down so you're just focused on the motion of going back and forth and weaving."

The healing affects of weaving are also really valuable to people who have experienced trauma or are suffering depression, but this is not a new idea. Cynthia told me about how in World War I there was an Occupational Therapy (OT) weaving program for veterans returning from war at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Cynthia is currently curating an exhibit that will highlight work from that program alongside her studio's programs and work.

Cynthia also talked about how OT used to be very arts and crafts based. People learned to weave, make pottery, etc. In the late 80's, she says the "social fabric changed", and the programs started focusing more on talking than doing, "then the machines came", she describes. The making and crafting aspects were phased out. Occasionally Weaving Hand gets interns from OT and Arts Therapy programs, but her focus is leisure time weaving, as opposed to an intentionally clinical practice. Cynthia seems optimistic about the comeback of crafts in these fields, and in society.

"I'm trying to figure out how to bring it to a larger community without being over bogged down, because I don't want to be a big institution. I just want to do things that I love and help people and, you know, weave. You have to weave."

I found it very inspiring that while Cynthia is organizing these programs, teaching and taking commissions, she still weaves side by side with her team. She believes that no matter how big a studio becomes, if she is not actually connected with the craft it will deplete her mission.

Feminism in Craft

When I asked Cynthia about how she views feminism in crafting she talked about how women from Victorian times through the mid-twentieth century needed men to give them an identity and a role. They had to learn to craft for these men. Now women can define their own identities and make their own garments if they want.

"Now women can have everything. We can have a job. We can have a baby. We can knit. We can have a business. We don't have to have a husband. We can be power women."

Crafting also helps us connect to women of the past. Cynthia inherited a collection of weaving tools from a few women who passed away. Her shuttle and weaving hook have special meaning to her.

"When I weave and I use these tools I feel that [...] I am connected to their past and they're passing on this knowledge, or whatever, the spirit of it."

One woman who passed also donated a couple looms to the studio. When she is weaving on one of those looms she feels that the woman is part of her and that she is giving new life to the loom. She says "it's the same equipment, but in a different time," and that's part of how we preserve the craft.

Preservation is very important to Cynthia. While she is not opposed to new technology such as smart phones, there is no way to pass these down the way we pass down crafting tools and knowledge. In our lifetimes we'll watch thousands of devices emerge, then become obsolete, yet hand tools retain their shape and their usefulness. I mentioned that technology such as wearables (my own field) might become so ingrained in our lives that we won't be thinking about it. "But then how will we preserve it?", was her response.

The Value of Craft

There is value in learning a new skill because it is something you can carry with you for a long time, and it is something that you can even use to make money. A vocational school education may be considered less valuable than a 4-year college, yet these jobs are essential. At one point in time crafting would have been placed in the same category as plumbers and electricians, because people are using their hands to make a living.

At this time learning a craft is considered a specialty. Even in Brooklyn, an epicenter of artisan studios, access to the crafts can be cost-prohibitive. Cynthia still believes that it's important for people to understand how textiles are made, which is why she works to get government subsidies to provide classes for underserved communities.

Ultimately it seems Cynthia's goal is to preserve the craft. She says people are finally rediscovering the importance of these skills all over the world. In Australia and the Philippines there is a movement of going back to the indigenous way, "removing the excess", and giving the indigenous people a voice.