While kneading her fingers into the scarlet and saffron fibers, internationally acclaimed weaver Helena Hernmarck said she fell in love with creating textile art after being introduced to a loom at 17. “I thought ‘that’s it, that’s what I want to do’ and I never changed my mind,” she said.

The Swedish artist will have 20 of her tapestries on display at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield from Oct. 14 to Jan. 13 as part of the Helena Hernmarck: Weaving In Progress exhibit.

Richard Klein, the curator of the Aldrich’s new exhibit, said that most of the pieces that will be displayed are from Hernmarck’s personal collection and noted that she will be weaving on-site at the museum three days a week with her apprentice Mae Colburn on a five-foot-wide Glimåkra Countermarch loom.

Hernmarck’s tapestries are famous for creating luminous and colorful images that creates the illusion of a painting or photograph.

“Helena is an internationally known artist right here in our community and we would be remiss if we didn’t do a significant project with her. It will be intriguing to watch the progress of how something is made and also to actually meet Helena,” Klein said.

In addition to displaying Hernmarck’s tapestries, the exhibit intends to provide the public with an insight into every step of the weaving process by incorporating Hernmarck’s wall of skeins from her studio into the exhibit. Visitors will be allowed to touch and pick up the skeins of wool. Klein said the photographs and other ephemera that Hernmarck uses to create her art will be available for viewing.

“People [will] have a full sense of the process from inception, when the photographs are taken or acquired to make a tapestry,” he said.

Crafting art

Hernmarck was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1941 and launched her artistic career in 1964, after she received recognition for her work displayed in the Form and Imagination exhibition. As a weaver, Hernmarck said her art is mostly commission-based as she creates her large tapestries to fit into a certain space. “I had seen if you want to create large-scale tapestries, you have to do it on commission for a given space that needs it, you can’t just weave a huge thing and not know where to hang it. If there isn’t a wall, you don’t have a hope in hell,” she said.

At the time people discouraged Hernmarck from trying to make a living as a weaver because people saw it more so as a craft. “Because of the tradition of looking down their nose at [weaving] not considering it fine art, considering it an amaetuer thing to do,” she said.

In Europe, textile arts are viewed as fine art, while in the U.S., Hernmarck said work like hers was disregarded as a craft.

The art vs. craft debate is not a new one. Klein said that he feels the terms are too broad and fail to adequately define a piece. “I really believe, even though Helena obviously uses craft and is working in the craft tradition, that what she’s doing is art and any good craft is actually is art. Craft implies the way a thing is made, not the finished product necessarily,” he said.

Klein said that typically when someone thinks of weaving, they think of geometric shapes and abstract patterns, not the pictorial pieces that Hernmarck’s work is known for.

“Helena kind of crossed over in some ways, going against the grain or swimming upstream against the current of what was going on in the craft world,” he said. “There was a crossover of craft and art in what she did and I think the pictorial quality of what she does is remarkable and that is her significance in what she’s contributed to the world of weaving over the past 50 years. This idea of weaving being pictorial, which is singular in her case.”

Hernmarck said it was difficult when she began working in the U.S. because her art didn’t fall into a simple category. “We have a word called konsthantverk; it is a craft done with an artistic intent, there is no word for that in English, it’s either an art or a craft. So all of the sudden I’m over here and there’s no word for what I do that people can relate to” she said.


Weaving is a very physical process. “The best thing is we never sit, we stand. I’ve stood and worked all my life, or walked back and forth [from the table to the loom] so from that regard it’s a bit like a dance actually,” she said.

Hernmarck said she uses only the wool of the Rya sheep because it has a long fiber that gives the wool a glossy finish. Sometimes she adds linen and mercerized cotton to the wool to get the desired hue or tone. She uses only wool spun and dyed from Sweden, noting that the wool she uses almost died out due to the popularization of short fiber wool during the Industrial Revolution.

“I’m part of a very long chain of skills being handed down. My work, of course, is very personal, my imagery — but the idea behind it is very ancient,” she said. “People like to have textiles in their homes and later on in their offices because it warms up the place and it gives a nice feeling.”

While Hernmarck’s tradition might be ancient, her style is all her own. She often employs the use of neon fishing line and sheets of sequins to add a luminosity to her work. Hernmarck admitted that she experimented with using the sequins as a backing for the tapestry because she had rolls of them laying around from another project.

“Experimentation is a great thing to do, you discover things,” she said. “If you don’t experiment, then you don’t get anywhere.”

As for how she decides on the images to weave, she said she uses images of what has caught her attention or what she finds to be beautiful. Hernmarck’s tapestries are woven versions of photographs that she takes, but they can be anything, as she said one of her tapestries is of an invoice her accountant sent her.

“A lot of time is spent just mixing and matching [threads], trying to figure out is this what I want? Is this exactly what I want? Do I want it a little different?” she said. “And that’s the debate in our heads all day long.”

Colburn, who first began working with Hernmarck in 2015, and has been working with her full- time since July 2017 described the work as “rigorous” as training under Hernmarck includes archival work, client contact and plenty of travel on top of doing the actual weaving.

Colburn said Hernmarck has been “very generous” in her willingness to share her knowledge and skills. She also praised Hernmarck for the manner in which she trains her weavers. While Colburn is the only weaver currently training with Hernmarck, she has worked with many apprentices over the years and even outsources some of her projects to Swedish weavers who have been trained in Hernmarck’s style.

“This is the amazing thing — for Helena to trust other people to weave her tapestries and in her technique it means there’s something to it. This is not naive trust, this is a deeply felt and also learned trust. To know that someone can see things in the way that [Helena] does,” Colburn said.

Hernmarck noted that she provides the weavers with the design and materials and personally selects the colors used in the pieces and steps back to let them to do the work.  

Art’s impact

Hernmarck said she’s not sure what to expect while she is working at the Aldrich, but that she is excited about it.

“It is so nice at the end of the day, you can see what you’ve done — it’s visibly there. And the other great thing about this work is that you’re responsible for something from beginning to end and it’s really a happy thing, you know what you’ve done,” Hernmarck said. “There’s so many people that just do a little segment in the middle of a long chain of something and they never know where it came from or where it’s going.”

Klein said he hopes the exhibit will provide the public with more insight about weaving and textile arts. “I think people have an idea in their head what weaving is and people have maybe seen a little but weaving is a deceptively simple, but complicated, process at the same time,” Klein said.

“Once you see one of her tapestries it’s hard to forget,” he added.

Colburn said she thinks the exhibition will be a great tool to introduce others to weaving. “I believe very strongly that what Helena has done and her story is extraordinarily important as a tool to inspire to educate,” she said.

When asked if she hopes the exhibit will change the public’s perception of textile art, Hernmarck said, “I hope so. I hope more people will grab a loom and start enjoying themselves because it is a pleasure.”

For more information about the exhibit and the dates when Hernmarck will be on-site, visit aldrichart.org.