From the Newburyport Current
Thursday, September 29, 2005
Take it or weave it
Roberta Horsman at the Carry out Café in Newburyport where her works are on display. (Staff photos by Nicole Goodhue)
Roberta Horsman at the Carry out Café in Newburyport where her works are on display. (Staff photos by Nicole Goodhue)

Roberta Horsman picks up three long stalks of wheat from the plastic windowbox where they have been soaking. She holds them in a single bunch near the heads and begins braiding energetically, bent at the waist to stay clear of the splaying stems. Within minutes, she has plaited the stalks into a column and twisted it into a love knot.

The High Street resident is one of the few modern practitioners of wheat weaving, one of the most ancient and universal of art forms. Traditionally, farmers wove the last few stalks of wheat in the field into amulets or cages to hold the spirit of the wheat field and keep it safe until the next season.

With the rise of mechanical harvesting and the demise of the family farm and the traditions that went with it, wheat weaving fell by the wayside, kept alive in the work of a few dedicated enthusiasts. Horsman learned the craft after a chance meeting with one such enthusiast, and has not stopped since.

One reason for the demise of wheat weaving is the adoption of the mechanical harvester, Horsman says, because mechanical harvesters cut the stalks of the wheat too short. To be useful to a weaver, the wheat has to be cut close to the ground, leaving a long stalk. Horsman used to have the wheat grown locally, and she would cut it herself with a scythe and hang it in her house to dry. Now she orders it from a grower in North Dakota.

Horsman combines ancient and universal motifs such as crosses, wreaths, and shapes from nature, to make new works of art that look traditional and yet startlingly modern. She uses special wheat that has a golden stalk and a black awn, or head, to bring color to her work, and she often incorporates other materials, such as feathers or stones, into her weavings.

Wheat weaving is at least 5,000 years old, Horsman says. We know this because the ancient Egyptians pressed the woven designs into wet clay, making lasting impressions. Some scholars think it may be 8,000 years old, and may even predate farming.

The tradition, which was followed in many countries, is closely linked with the harvest. "The belief was that there was a spirit that lived within the wheat field," Horsman says. "As the grain was cut in the fall, the spirit would move around. In order not to be taken away from the field, the spirit was in the last sheaf of wheat, and when it was harvested, many times it was woven right in the field in an attempt to capture the spirit of the wheat field.

"Many house blessings would be woven into the sheaf," she says. "The weaving was into the home and placed over the hearth, which was the center of the home, to bless the family through the winter and also as a reminder of the sun coming again, life coming again. In the spring they would take the weavings down, disassemble them, and plant them as a way of returning the spirit to the field."

Harvest queens

There were other traditions associated with weaving grain. Some, such as the love knot, had their practical side. "When a young man was courting a young woman, he was asked to weave a love knot for her as a way of keeping his hands busy, something that would be considered constructive," Horsman says. "If a couple was planning to marry, part of that process would be the two of them making a love knot together, an elaborate love knot, to see how well they were able to cooperate, give and take."

If the courtship survived the project and the couple married, the love knot would be placed on the altar and on the banquet table at their reception, as a symbol of two people coming together and creating new life.

In olden times vintners hung a weaving of a spoked wheel, the Austrian ring, outside their stores to show that wine was sold there. Horsman wove hers with 12 spokes, to represent the zodiac and the months of the year, but she says the number of spokes could vary.

Horsman's repertoire also includes two traditional English weaves. John Barleycorn has two linked loops of different weaves, attached at a central column; it expresses the joy of life, Horsman says. Corn dollies are small grain idols woven in the shape of a spiral column. (In England, "corn" refers to the most important grain in the area, usually wheat.)

This is one of the most ancient weaves, Horsman says, and one of the most difficult, as the stalks of wheat have to be inserted intermittently to keep the column from tapering. Weavers were judged by how well they could do the spiral weave.

Horsman's sources of inspiration span the globe. "I have designs from England, and Scandinavia, Mexico, Morocco, Ireland, Austria, Wales, Poland, Russia, Lithuania," she says. Many of the traditional motifs are found in several cultures. "This is Irish," she says, picking up a figure called a triskellion, "but I have people from Sicily say, 'This is our symbol,' it is so ancient, so universal-the number three, the maid, the mother, the crown, the trinity."

Her work has a traditional look because she often starts with traditional motifs and then combines them in unusual ways or adds them to her own designs. She points out a weaving of a pineapple, a traditional sign of hospitality.

"I was weaving this as a straight line, and I was going to hang a lot of different weavings off of it," she says. "I it went into a teardrop shape, and I thought, if I turn it upside down with sprays coming out it looks like a pineapple. Then I wove the spirals with lavender go down the middle of that." While the shape is traditional, she says, her way of weaving it is not.

Horsman points to a piece based on an ancient Moroccan design called the "bride of the corn," which could also be described as a snowshoe or a fish. "Many times, the wheat weaving would be woven in the shape of a female figure because we represent life, rebirth, fertility, the continuance of a species, and that was honored," she says.

A place in the home

Even weavers who work with traditional weaves and motifs will bring something of their own to their work, Horsman says, and her own work has changed quite a bit. A friend once commented that she had seen a wheat weaving by another artist in Ipswich. "I said 'No that's my work,'" Horsman says. "My work looks so different now it looks like another person did it."

Recently, Horsman has been varying the tradition somewhat by adding materials other than wheat to her weavings. "I started doing more shields and medicine wands, so that sort of adds to the purpose of using them for protection and healing purposes," she says. "I started adding stones, different stones that have different healing qualities, as well as shells and herbs and feathers."

Horsman sells her work at art shows, pricing individual pieces anywhere from $10 to $900. "I like weaving affordable pieces, and I like selling them," she says. "I love when people want to have one of my pieces in their home."

Therapists hang them in their healing space, she said, and love knots fit into little nooks and crannies in the house. She recently sold a piece for a baby's room that was based on a protective amulet that the Huichol Indians of Mexico weave for their children.

The spirit of the harvest may be a thing of the past, but Horsman has come to see that there is a universal quality to her motifs, even though they are drawn from different countries and cultures.

"I have thought about the geometry in nature and the shapes of flowers and petals, and I see so much mirroring," she says. "They are all very symmetric. I love that. It mirrors what is already there in nature. That is probably why they feel so connected to the spirit as well."