Norma Smayda - Her Story / Our Interview

Updated: Oct 8, 2021

We are pleased to be able to present Norma Smayda as our next interviewee. We may know of Ms. Smayda through her authorship on several books (Weaving Designs by Bertha Gray Hayes Miniature Overshot Patterns) and Ondule Textiles: Weaving with a Fan Reed) or her weaving school in RI - Saunderstown Weaving School, or her many awards and work in permanent collections or simply through her beautiful work. Here is our interview, but not all of her story.

1. Living in Norway in the late 1950’s I happened into a Design Store and was fascinated to see a lovely blanket labeled ‘Handwoven’. Although I knit, sewed and embroidered, I had no idea until then that handweaving was possible. I found a summer weaving program, the looms were warped for us, and I wove off lovely Norwegian-designed textiles. A few years later, back in Norway, I took a year long class in floor loom weaving as well as related textile classes. There I was given a solid grounding in weaving with traditional fibers, weave structures and Scandinavian design. And was hooked!

2. Designing is my favorite part, beginning with researching the weave structure and doing a literature search. I line up cones and skeins of yarns in appealing colors, and slowly remove those that don’t work. At this point I mainly focus on color. Then I look for those colors in the appropriate fibers for the given project. The dining table will be covered with cones of yarn for days.

Winding the warp and dressing the loom are my 2nd favorite part of the process, as I am still imagining what the end result will be.

Another favorite part of weaving for me is teaching. I love to see the excitement a new weaver shares when she or he ‘gets it’. No matter at what stage they are in their weaving, there is always a newfound joy to share.

3. Ulla Hanson, my year-long weaving teacher at BHF in Norway was a huge inspiration and reason for my development as a weaver and as a teacher. Gwen McIntyre, in RI, became a go-to source for help as I continued to weave, and have questions. She introduced me to WGRI and WGB in 1974 and to so many capable weaving teachers and friends. And then NEWS where I met many more fine teachers.

4. Working with the fan reed has been a major focus in the last decade. I now own 3 fan reeds, each a beautiful tool. The beauty of the undulating warp going through a fan reed is a never ending joy to watch as ondulé textiles develop.

5. Pictures, magazines, photos, and cards provide graphic images that are easier for me to work with than nature, awe inspiring and beautiful as nature is.

6. See the photos.

Ondule textiles hold a special charm for me, and the Garden Tulip series was an interesting challenge. A William Morris pattern is the inspiration, summer and winter is the technique, and the fan reed is one I designed. It has a large area of straight wires and an equally large area of fans with two different dentings.

Desert Flower is a silk scarf woven in a two block six shaft twill. Photo credit - Norma Smayda

Anatolia is a kelim I treasure; I wove it after

returning from a textile trip to Turkey.

Photo credit: Norma Smayda

7. My students inspire me all the time. They often bring a different color sensibility and design sense that I incorporate into my own work. Their questions of ‘what if’ encourage me to explore new avenues.

8. This year a non-profit, the Rhode Island Weaving Center, was established. With a goal of offering weaving and related classes, and having studio space for weavers, it will eventually house the Saunderstown Weaving School looms and library. This is a comfort to me, knowing that when I am no longer here to teach, the school will continue as my legacy. Meanwhile as soon as I can reopen, classes will be continuing at the Saunderstown Weaving School for years to come.

There is an audio recording of an interview with Norma Smayda (1979) that is located at the Library of Congress.

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