Weaving in the Local with Marianne Fairbanks

Marianne Fairbanks poses in front of a colorful wall of yarn Marianne Fairbanks is an assistant professor in the Design Studies department at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

Walking into the classroom and studio spaces in the School of Human Ecology is enough to excite and stimulate the mind with a dynamic spectrum of colors, cloth, fabrics, and patterns. It is no wonder that Marianne Fairbanks creates such creative and innovative designs that draw the eye and capture your attention. As an Assistant Professor in the Design Studies department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Fairbanks balances her time between teaching students, researching, and working on collaborative projects, all of which help to mobilize the Wisconsin Idea. 

How does the Wisconsin Idea animate your work?In 1915, the Home Economics Department at the University of Wisconsin had a Weaving Laboratory where students learned the craft of weaving. A century later, I created Weaving Lab: Plain Cloth Productions as a way to create and engage the community and to ask new conceptual questions around the process of weaving, a practice I call speculative weaving. Weaving Lab combines two points of entry into weaving: one considers historical models of local production and asks whether access to looms as a social destination within communities might create a contemporary analog to the “fireside industries” of old. The other is conceptual, asking participants to approach the act weaving as an end in itself, and to consider time, rhythm, meditation, and materiality.

As an artist, my practice has long included collaborative and community-based work. From 2000 to 2010, I worked collaboratively with Jane Palmer under the moniker of JAM to make projects that were participation-based. From 2003-2010 I founded and co-ran Mess Hall, an experimental cultural space in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. Weaving Lab combines lessons learned through those long-term practices and combines them with the disciplinary concerns of craft, making, design, and art, resulting in a new production of skill, community, and conceptual engagement.

I first proposed this project to Lynda Barry in 2016, who in turn allowed me to use her space in the WID to site the lab; I was particularly interested in positioning this project within the WID because it is fitting that weaving be considered within the spectrum of science, math, and engineering. The following year, she invited me back and provided funding to help staff the lab. The project has run over the summers of 2016 and 2017 engaging children, the campus community, and the greater Madison public, counting over 700 visitors this year alone.

I am also doing research in the local clothing and textile economy in Wisconsin with Professor Giri Venkataramanan to promote sustainability. With globalization, fast fashion has become the standard for textile and apparel manufacturing often resulting in disposable, cheap consumer goods. Inspired by the success of the local food movement, this project looks to create a viable, sustainable alternative to the current globalized economy of clothing consumption. “Ecofriendly” and “organic” choices have become widely adopted by consumers, but now the time is right to focus on closing the loop and creating the goods we consume within our local environment. This collaborative research will explore and identify opportunities for engineering, technical, and infrastructural innovations that can enable a Wisconsin based movement in growing, designing, producing, selling and consuming locally-made clothing and textile goods. Once we identify the players we will bring them together for a symposium, begin the conversation about how we can work together to create networks, and share knowledge and spur production. As well, we will create a website database with our collected research that will reflect the consortium of makers, growers, farmers, and industry partners around the state. The project will lead to pathways for university and community partnered innovations at a larger scales in the future.

How has your research and teaching path changed the way you think about the world? I know that traveling internationally for my research or for conferences has always helped remind me of the bigger broader implications of my research.

How does your research tell a larger story about Wisconsin and the world? The local textile economy research is asking how we can spur more local production. With textiles so much of the manufacturing has gone oversees, but we do have some processing and production happening in this state. I am asking how that can be expanded, much like the adoption of the local food movement, so that we all might select locally made goods, investing into more jobs and a new culture that values the cloth and clothing we can make in this state. All cultures has some sort of textile production, supporting more of our own connects us into the world traditions. The story here relies on what fibers we can produce like wool, probably the most abundant, although there is a push to legalize hemp for fiber production. What we develop within this climate becomes part of our story of the state.

What do you love about the University of Wisconsin-Madison?I love connecting to researchers around campus for interdisciplinary collaborations. There is so much potential that can grow out of these conversations that cannot happen within more limited settings. While it can be hard to get out of the silos, I have had some chances to meet and work with some incredible researchers from engineering and chemistry.

I love the campus, Madison is so beautiful. I really appreciate the proximity to lakes.

What or who inspires you? Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, Anni Albers, Shiela Hicks, Buckminster Fuller, Olifer Elliason, Mona Hatoum, El Anatsui, Gee’s Bend Quilts, Ruth Asawa.

What has been one of your favorite courses to teach? I love teaching Introduction to Textiles because I love all of the processes I teach from knitting, embroidery, to dyeing and weaving. I enjoy being able to share these processes with students but also the concepts and theories that link to making and designing. This allows them to connect with makers and traditional textile processes from all over the world and build a vocabulary to tell their own story through cloth.

What are three books that have influenced you? Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and On Weaving by Anni Albers. As well as Weavers of the Southern Highlands by Phillis Alvic.

Originally from Holland, Michigan, Fairbanks studied Fibers at The University of Michigan School of Art and Design to earn her B.F.A. in 1997. She then attended The School of the Art Institute of Chicago to earn her M.F.A. in Fibers and Materials Studies in 2001. Fairbanks’ work has been shown nationally and internationally and emphasizes a focus on the intersectionality of weaving, mathematics, and technology. She participated in the Wisconsin Idea Seminar in 2015.


Hello, Wisconsin! Stories of the Wisconsin Idea is a profile series that highlights the remarkable ways Wisconsin Idea Seminar alumni, collaborators, and others are animated by the Wisconsin Idea on and off campus.

Answers have been edited for length.