In celebration of Women’s History Month, March Object of the Day posts highlight women designers in the collection. Today’s blog post was written by Lucy Commoner and originally published February 17, 2013. Ethel Stein died this month at 100.

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is fortunate to have in its collection three textiles designed and woven by Ethel Stein, a preeminent twentieth and twenty-first century American artist and weaver. Stein’s early design influences include studying in the 1940s with the Bauhaus artist and designer, Josef Albers (1888-1976). The threads of Albers’ teaching appear often in Stein’s woven works; her interest in color interaction and basic geometrical shapes, her exploration of order/disorder and positive/negative, and her mastery of technology and process.

As a weaver, Stein’s work was informed by her research in museum textile collections, a rich source of design resource material. Starting in the 1970s, Stein regularly studied and analyzed textiles in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. At Cooper Hewitt, Stein worked closely with former Curator of Textiles, Milton Sonday, and was exposed to the museum’s extraordinary collection of textiles, dating from ancient to contemporary pieces. Stein studied with Sonday, analyzing through the microscope the woven surfaces of textiles in the collection which she documented by producing drawings of the structures. The experience was crucial to Stein’s development as an artist and stimulated her interest in decoding how these historic textile structures could be produced on a contemporary draw loom.

One of the first structures that Stein studied at Cooper Hewitt was damask, a weaving technique that uses one set of warps threads and one set of weft threads to achieve a pattern through the visual contrast between two interlacing orders, one warp-oriented and one weft-oriented. In this panel, Stein combined the damask structure with double ikat, a resist dyeing technique in which, before the weaving process, the yarns of the warp and weft are dyed in a pre-determined pattern created by binding the yarns with a material that resists the dye. The preliminary process is complex; the yarn must be arranged precisely as it will be used during weaving. During the weaving of ikat yarns, the alignment of the pattern invariably changes slightly, resulting in the distinctive off-register effect in the final product.

Ethel Stein’s mastery of a variety of historical textile techniques gave her a wide range of artistic expression through the control of color and pattern. In this piece, Stein’s meticulous planning and craftsmanship allowed her to explore design issues revolving around geometry and spatial interplay, order and chaos, negative and positive, transparency and opacity. In this piece, Stein uses the damask structure and double ikat yarns to efficiently produce a variety of color mixtures and densities. The simple precision of the grids contrasts with the nervous energy of the ikat patterning within each square. In addition to being represented in Cooper Hewitt’s collection, Ethel Stein’s works can be found in the collections of many museums and private collectors, including the Art Institute of Chicago.

Lucy Commoner is Conservator Emeritus at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.


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