History of The New York Guild of Handweavers

charter membersFor more than half a century, The New York Guild of Handweavers (NYGH) has been a magnet for weavers and other fiber artists in the metropolitan area.  The Guild has endeavored to improve the quality and promote the recognition of handweaving by offering inspiration, information, and fellowship to professional and recreational weavers alike.  Having never had a permanent home, its history is still being assembled from various archives and accounts of past members in the hope that a more complete picture will emerge as the guild celebrates its 60th anniversary in the year 2000.  The documents that have survived attest to the vitality and commitment of our guild's pioneers.

The Guild's story begins with Berta Frey.  Like many of her contemporaries, Berta was introduced to weaving through her work as an occupational therapist (OT).  During World War I, Frey worked in a U.S. Army-sponsored program at Walter Reed Hospital.  A Texas native, she moved with her family to New York City after the war. She worked in the city's textile industry and ultimately opened her own design studio where she also taught weaving.  The New York Guild of Handweavers was established on November 11, 1940, at an organizational tea at Ms. Frey's studio, an outgrowth of an informal study group that had been meeting there monthly.  Most of the Guild's original members held textile-related jobs as teachers, designers or occupational therapists.  The first year's programs featured a special view of Native American weaving from a princess of the Cherokee Indian tribe; an examination of industrial practices by a representative of Pacific Mills; as well as visits to exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Teachers' College.

In 1941, Ms. Frey resumed her OT work with the army and stewardship of the guild was assumed by Mrs. W. W. (Doris) Dodge, who had been chair of the Program Committee during the guild's first year. Even though the Guild's Board passed a motion in 1951 to set up permanent organizational files, the current archives contain no information that would illuminate the period between 1941–1947.

After the war, Ms. Frey returned to play an active role as Chair of the Guild's Program Committee. Because of her talent and experience, Berta was often a meeting presenter, offering instruction on particular weave structures and explaining the guild-wide weaving challenges she developed. The April 1963 newsletter introduces her as that month's speaker: "...Berta Frey....nationally and internationally known author, teacher, lecturer and personality. The subject she has chosen is not yet known to us, but, with her vast knowledge and experience combined with her inimitable wit, charm, modesty and naturalness, whatever she chooses to say is sure to be delightful as well as informative."

Throughout her life Berta continued to exert her influence on the proliferation of handweaving. She was a frequent contributor to Handweaver and Craftsman, a national magazine that was launched the same year the guild was born. In 1951 she traveled across the country visiting many local guilds. Consequently, the NYGH's monthly meetings occasionally featured speakers from other guilds and inter-guild activity was encouraged. It will, therefore, come as no surprise to learn that Berta was instrumental in the formation of the Handweavers Guild of America (HGA)1 in 1969 and, along with another NYGH member, Claire Freeman, served on its first Board of Directors.

For many years the NYGH searched for a permanent meeting place. In the 1940s and '50s they met in Wanamakers' Club Rooms, a famous department store located in lower Manhattan; the Men's Faculty Club at Columbia University; the YWCA's Studio Club on East 77th Street, where Jack Lenor Larsen was a guest speaker; and the Architectural League on East 40th Street. Membership was limited to those who were sponsored by a voting member and could then pass the careful scrutiny of the Examining Board. Having one's work evaluated as a basis for membership remained a practice of the organization until 1977, when the by-laws were amended to grant active membership "to persons interested in the art of weaving upon payment of annual dues."

To maintain active membership, one had to attend meetings regularly and take part in the weaving challenges that were the backbone of the guild's programs. Rather than routinely bringing in outside speakers which the annual dues of two to three dollars could not support, the guild built their organization through the valuable exchange of samples and information among members. Together they would spend a year weaving wearing apparel fabrics with separate months devoted to men's wear; children's wear, outer wear, etc. The next year they'd explore home furnishing fabrics. Since a large percentage of the members were textile professionals and teachers, they were able to offer solutions to each other's weaving problems and valuable critiques of the work. Many members were also well traveled and would present interesting talks on their explorations of weaving in other countries and at craft schools throughout the country.

These were very productive years for the Guild. In 1953 a guild library was begun and housed at the Arts Cooperative Service, where one of the members worked. In 1954 the first official Bulletin was published. It included a weaving sample, book reviews and a weave structure to try—components that have continued to distinguish the guild's newsletters over the years.

At its fifteenth anniversary in 1955, the Guild received a critical present: an invitation to hold not only their monthly meetings but a juried show of their work at the Cooper Union Museum in Greenwich Village. The museum felt that the public's interest in handweaving was growing and they were, in turn, eager to support the work of the guild. Subsequently, the museum purchased some of the guild members' pieces displayed in the April 1956 juried show for its permanent collection. The Cooper Union Museum accommodated the Guild's meetings and shows throughout the 1960s. In 1963 the Guild began to assemble its own sample books. Members would contribute a fabric sample as well as detailed instructions on how it was woven so that the rest of the guild could profit from each member's experiments. This collection has been a valuable resource to guild members through the years and has grown as new members contributed their samples.

Exhibition 1977For most of the 1970s the Guild met at The Craft Students League and showed their work at various venues in the city. As membership numbers increased, so did the guild's ability to hire the best practitioners to teach workshops and present programs. The scope of these programs expanded beyond weaving to include basketry, knitting, knotting, computer-aided design, and textile conservation. This effort to attract all fiber artists resulted in a swelling of membership and activity. Through the years the NYGH has sought to maintain the dialogue among handweavers, the textile industry and the art community. Some of the most important names in textiles, including Dr. Stanley Bulbach, Virginia Davis, Elizabeth Freudenheim, Julienne Krassnoff, Arlene Mintzer, Elke Kuhn Moore, and Else Regensteiner, have been active members of the NYGH. Two of the three judges of Urban Textures were at one-time members of the NYGH: Nabuko Kagitani, Conservator-in-Charge, Textile Department, Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Libby Kowalski, Professor, SUNY-Cortland and owner of CTD Studio in Manhattan. We are very proud to share the expertise of woven accessories designer and entrepreneur Fern Devlin; F.I.T. Professor Lene Hougaard; teacher and scholar Desiree Koslin; tapestry artists Joan Pao, Ann Rosenthal and Betty Vera; and colorist, author and lecturer Nell Znamerowski, to name a few.

Diane Kirschner