‘Color and texture:’ An Urbana weaver on the deceptive simplicity of her craft

Bobbie Johnston is one of those rare individuals who stumbled upon her artistic calling early on in life, giving her time to perfect her craft.

Weaving came after she graduated from college and as she began a family, but still she has more than 40 years to draw upon her interest in folk art as her weft and cross it with her love of textiles as the warp across three looms set up prominently at her home in Southeast Urbana.

Johnston admits to dabbling with crocheting and knitting, but while living in Rock Island, Illinois, she happened upon a new outlet that has placed her as a regular in local area juried art shows and fairs.

She recalls that a good friend to show her the “ropes,” so to speak, after on a whim she purchased her first loom secondhand.

That same loom is the first in a line-up of looms that greeted me to Johnston’s home on a sunny winter’s day this month. Each loom is in operation with projects of various colors and sizes.

Her studio walls are lined with baskets full of colored yarn neatly tucked away and organized as if it was a painter’s palette. The floor-to-ceiling shelving holds the baskets that are seemingly within reach of the loom bench. Reds, pinks, greens, turquoise, purple and all of rest of the rainbow plus white draws the visitor in to marvel at the artistic process.

“I started collecting baskets before I began weaving,” says Johnston, eyeing her yarn collection that is organized in large baskets in her studio.

Nearly every room in the house contains baskets for decoration and use. They are functional as a way to hold the yarn as Johnston loops it through the loom. Weaving’s allure is all about color and texture, she adds.

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A member of the Craft League of Champaign-Urbana as well as the Champaign-Urbana Spinners and Weavers Guild, Johnston can often be seen in the fall and early winter at the organizations’ art shows and fairs.

The Craft League’s annual fair has been set for Nov. 9 – 10 at the Savoy Recreation Center, while the Weavers’ Guild will have its annual show and sale on Nov. 1 – 2. Last fall, Johnston’s booth at the juried Craft League Fair was filled with scarves, hats, vests and even muffs in a variety of colors and patterns.

Back at her home, Johnston opens a tall wardrobe in the corner of the living room. Brimming with weavings, the cabinet shows a healthy inventory for future fairs.

She plucks out a “dyed in the wool” muff. Like the popular saying suggests the dying process is done with unspun fleece rather than after the wool is spun into a skein. The vibrant orange color is varied but stands out in its texture. The fleece remains wavy and tops the neatly folded pile.

Johnston describes the mechanics of her weaving as a simple over, under pattern. The simplicity of her patterns is deceiving, however, because it can take hours to line up the yarn on the loom once the colors are chosen. Those same vibrant colors mask her no-frills structure.

Currently, Johnston is working on a series of stoles. Her inspiration comes from traditional Japanese and Mexican folk art, which lines the walls of her home. She lived in Japan with her husband for a time and studied in Mexico in college.

Some of her work has made it as far as Japan, Germany and China, but most of her patrons are closer to home. She accepts orders with specific color schemes in mind, but often her customers will allow her to have free reign. Even after a project is finished, those who order from her are under no obligation to buy unless they are satisfied with the final product.  

She also prefers to keep the prices reasonable so that people can afford her brand of wearable art.

A scan around the studio, which is where a dining room would traditionally be, shows that there is enough yarn, some of which has been hand dyed and spun by her, to last a lifetime.

Johnston admits she may not use it all. Still, the first loom she bought on a whim for $50 all those years ago remains engaged. As does her imagination.

Music by TecknoAXE (CC BY 4.0)