How can textiles be used to reveal or interpret the multiple stories, histories and layers of the landscape in which we live? Students in a cross-disciplinary course called GeoTextiles: Weaving Restoration Ecology and Cultural Narratives along the Blackstone River are working together to answer that question and to investigate more broadly the ways that river conditions reflect our relationships with the land, natural resources and one another.
“The Blackstone River, which runs for 48 miles from its urban headwaters in Worcester, MA to Pawtucket Falls and into the Seekonk River, provides the geographical, cultural and ecological lens for this studio,” says Associate Professor of Textiles Mary Anne Friel, who is co-teaching the course with Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture Emily Vogler. “We’re exploring weaving techniques as both a metaphor for building community within post-industrial mill towns and a physical strategy for supporting diverse ecologies at the water’s edge.”
New England’s Blackstone River is famous for driving the booming 19th-century textiles industry (by actually powering the mills that sprang up along its banks before the steam engine was invented) and was dubbed “America’s hardest-working river.” Some 200 years later in 1990, the EPA described it as the nation’s most polluted river, clogged with untreated sewage, detergents, solvents, heavy metals, dyes and other industrial wastes. Additionally, most of the dams that were constructed to harness the river’s power have remained in place, blocking the passage of migrating fish like Atlantic salmon and American shad.
At the beginning of the semester, students literally immersed themselves in the river (see image, above) and learned about weaving techniques first-hand from visiting expert Howard Peller of Living Willow Farm in Roseville, OH. Working with willow rods and simple hand tools, they created a wattle barrier to prevent further erosion along the banks of the Blackstone in Cumberland, RI.
As Landscape Architecture student Vincent Gang MLA 22 explained during a mid-semester crit, willow is fast-growing and easy to cultivate, and it extracts heavy metals from the river. Gang’s community-based placemaking proposal, We Call It Home, focuses on farming willow and then conducting weaving workshops and festivals that engage local people in constructing new habitat for species along the river.
“Creative practices that frame a new way of understanding the social and ecological histories and futures of rivers are essential,” says Vogler. “In this class, we asked students to explore opportunities to address the health of the Blackstone River by bringing together the material practices of textiles with the social practices of reconnecting people to the river.”
Visiting critic Stacy Levy—an environmental artist whose sculptures merge seamlessly with the surrounding topography—was taken with the prototype Gang shared with the class. “The river’s edge was so important in the past, but humans are moving further and further away from that edge,” she pointed out. “I love the way your proposal brings us back.”
Grad student Yumeng Yan MLA 22 proposed site-specific architectural installations that would blur the boundary of land and water and “entangle” people in the new experience at the water’s edge. His hand-woven models of the installations were inspiring and described by Friel as “dynamic and poetic.”
Sophia Chen MLA 22 also focused on capturing the imagination of visitors, with the specific goal of inspiring improved stewardship of the land. Her proposal, Reverence Retrieval, aims to connect walking trails along the river’s edge to create a usable public space and then build a network of community-run organizations to maintain it and restore the natural environment for future generations.
Junior Natiana Fonseca 23 TX is weaving a tapestry that depicts the Blackstone’s “unwavering presence within the landscape.” They’re using cotton in the piece to acknowledge the labor that enslaved people contributed to the textiles industry, which is often overlooked. “My tapestry will narrate these histories by disrupting traditional cartography practices through the use of weaving and felting,” Fonseca explains.
Other student proposals focus on integrating woven materials with living plant material, mycelium and soil and developing new types of geo-textile materials. “Each student defined their own unique approach to bringing together textiles and landscape in order to reimagine the future of the Blackstone River,” says Friel.
Textiles students Mindy Kang 22 TX and Clara Boberg 23 TX teamed up to investigate the long-term effects of chemical dyes that were dumped into the Blackstone over many decades. Using a double-beam blocked floor loom weaving technique, they created two dyed panels, one using tap water and the other water collected from the river.
“By creating work that is connected to place, history and wildlife, we hope to engage the community in dialogue about the pollution of the river… and rekindle efforts for care and healing along the Blackstone,” they note.