Maria Magdalena Ma and Black Birch Textiles

Photo: Marta Bras
Photo: Marta Bras "Project SIS: Polish women in Seattle" Maria Magdalena Ma

I came across Maria and Black Birch Textiles while browsing the net.
When I read the short description on her website I immediately realized I need to meet her. For I thought a girl who weaves has something I’m still lacking in – patience.
The moment I walked into her workshop time seemed to magically slow down and the reality seemed to be much calmer.  

Maria started Black Birch Textiles in 2016, a few years after she first sat at a loom. I’m constantly amazed by her calmness, knowledge, and persistence. The items she makes are small works of art.

As you say yourself on your Instagram you ‘come from this lineage of amazingly strong, brave, and wise women.’ Who are the women that inspire you in your family?

My mother moved to a whole new country, without anything (due to communism), with 2 small children, no knowledge of the language, and a loss of the profession she loved.  She continues to try to teach me to be patient and is the most selfless person I know.

My grandmother, who survived being an orphaned child in Warsaw during the war that destroyed the city, taught me how to knit, embroider, and cook as if the horrifying things she experienced and witnessed since childhood never stood a chance at breaking her.

I hope to grow to be like them one day, being able to shrug off the horrors of the past and focus on the important tasks of the moment, like making my work, or the best possible pierogi.

I also have been really lucky to come across many inspiring people in my life.  My high school art teacher who aside from teaching me art and theater tech, was the calmest, compassionate, and understanding person I ever met, made me want to start cultivating those traits in myself.

My performance art teacher in college not only survived my beginning performance work which was once described by another student as “the most painful thing they ever had to watch”, but inspired me to really dig deep and be honest with myself, instead of thinking constantly of what I “should” be doing.

The teacher I did my first Yoga Teacher Training with had this amazing talent of saying something directly that would be extremely uncomfortable to hear, but being exactly what you needed to be jolted by in order to open the door for change.

These are just a few examples of the teachers I have been inspired by in my life, and then there are the two amazingly strong, brave, and wise women without whom I wouldn’t exist, my mama, and my grandma. Neither of them would ever think of themselves in that way, but the actions and experiences of their lives prove it to be true.

I believe we often get inspired to what we do in our adult life when we are children. Do you have any memories like that from your childhood?

Photo: Marta Bras "Project SIS: Maria Magdalena Ma "
Photo: Marta Bras “Project SIS: Polish women in Seattle” Maria Magdalena Ma

I have had a peculiar attraction to fiber arts ever since I can remember, and have had to satisfy the need to make things with my hands for just as long.

One of my most vivid memories from childhood was visiting our neighbor’s apartment in Warsaw for the first time.
I was only about 5 or 6 and my grandma was good friends with our neighbor so she brought me over with her one day. The entire place was filled with the handmade craft work of our neighbor. Intricately embroidered flowery pillows and hand knit colorful blankets covered the sofa and chairs, hand-crocheted and hand-tatted lace adorned every table, artwork on the walls, rugs on the floor, even the bookmark she used to hold her place in her book was her own beautiful work.  The apartment was the most awe-inspiring thing I had ever seen and is still one of the “happy places” I go to in my head when I need a little dose of inspiration.

The neighbor obviously noticed my staring in amazement and offered to teach me how to make the type of embroidered spirograph-like designs that she used to embroider her bookmark.

The basis of the pattern was really simple, you punch holes in 2 lines that are connected at a right angle, connect one end to the right angle with thread, and move at tiny measurements in one direction. All the taut lines of the sharp lined angle create a perfect curve in the space opposite. My mind was so blown by this, this technique was one of the first things I explored with my spatial installation work in college, and I still continue to enjoy incorporating into my work today.

So did you include embroideries into your portfolio?

When I went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, my official portfolio consisted of mostly drawings and a few paintings, but due to the open curriculum, I tried almost every other discipline there was.  I still took a drawing class here and there but I quickly discovered that 3- dimensional objects and spaces were more interesting to me.  It didn’t take long before my screen printing work turned to printing on fabric that I used to make sculptural installations with, and even my performance art work often included important clothing or bed sheets.  The crafts I had learned early on and had continued to do as a hobby kept creeping back into the artwork I was trying to do. I eventually admitted to myself that I can’t stay away from yarn and string.  

But how did you come across weaving and how did you learn to do it?

I have also always had a minor obsession with weaving even before I officially learned how to weave on a real loom (not just cardboard) when I moved to Seattle about 5 years ago.  Seattle was the first place I lived that actually had easy – to – find beginning weaving classes.  

I was so excited, I immediately signed up to learn. Soon after, I found a used table loom on Craigslist and continued practicing and experimenting.  Not long after that I also joined the Seattle Weavers Guild and found that there is an almost absurd number of people in this region with a wealth of weaving knowledge and experience.  Many workshops and weaving projects later, my table loom had a new friend- a very large floor loom that is at least 50 years old.  The fiber obsession has since also grown to include various traditional Japanese weaving crafts, natural dyeing, and drop spindle spinning, which I once thought I would never get into but now find myself doing in between activities during my day.

You created a collection called the “Polish collection” of skirts and scarves, what inspired you to do it?

I am in love with traditional handmade folk clothing from all parts of the world and gain a lot of inspiration from it.  The techniques and materials used to make clothing aren’t so drastically different, and there is often a lot of crossover in styles when simpler techniques are used, but each culture or region often developed its own flavor.  I really enjoy how simple solutions to practical issues become part of a region’s aesthetic, and how much less wasteful traditional clothing production was overall.

I chose to make the Polish collection because I wanted to work with a traditional folk garment from my own culture that has always been a favorite, and I believe can fit into a range of modern wardrobes.

The skirts are inspired by the Łowickie costumes of the Mazowsze region in central Poland.  They are colorful and woven with wool.  Many people today shy away from wool because it’s pretty scratchy, but as long as you wear undergarments, it’s such a wonderful fiber for colder, wetter regions, like the Pacific Northwest.  It’s natural (and can be local), insulates well even when wet, and doesn’t require frequent washing because of it’s naturally antimicrobial qualities.  All you have to do is sit or crouch down, and it also feels like a portable blanket.

Many people must think that weaving is very feminine, right?

I often hear some of the other weavers mention how “natural” it often feels for people, particularly women, who start weaving or working with fiber for the first time.  And even though that was true for me as well, it always stings to hear things like that.

The history of weaving and fiber arts is similar to the history of cooking in much of the world.  Cloth making is one of the oldest crafts produced by humans and the process, although made faster and more efficient, hasn’t actually changed that much over time.

For most of human history, however, it has been considered “women’s work”, and most women not only learned the skills of spinning and weaving but usually worked at them all their lives creating items for the household, without ever getting paid for that work.

If men undertook these crafts in the past, they would often have a chance for recognition of their skills, be paid for their work, and sometimes start businesses.  The women, many of whom were most likely master craftsmen after a lifetime of experience, certainly also included those who found this work to be their creative outlet and created exceptional work.

History, of course, did not record the work of most of these women.  So even if these fiber arts are in some way deeply rooted or connected to women in some evolutionary way after such a long skill-building history, it’s also at the expense of taking much of the thousands of years of their work for granted.

Is there a future for handweaving?

There’s been a wonderful movement growing in the last few years in response to the “fast fashion.” It has become the norm in the last 50 years or so in much of the world.  Slow Fashion, sometimes called Slow Clothes, comes in many forms but is usually dedicated to a more ethical and sustainable clothing production process. There is finally a small but growing pushback against the typical overflowing closet full of cheap, usually not environmentally friendly synthetic fibers, made in factories with questionable pay and work conditions.  

I believe a minimal wardrobe of beautiful, high quality, mindfully selected garments made of natural and sustainable materials is not only better for the planet and future generations, but it’s better for our bodies and our psyche.  Well made clothing can almost always be mended or upcycled and does not need to end up in the already overflowing trash piles we create.

I hope that more people start to ask the same questions about their clothing that many people already ask about their food. Where was it made? Where were the materials grown? Did everyone in the production process earn a fair wage? Did everyone work in an environment that didn’t pose threats to their health? These are all questions we should be asking today.

For the first time in human history, we have gotten so disconnected from the lifecycle of the products we consume, there is a lot of room left for exploitation of people and soil, as well as for cutting corners.  I feel that doing the research is a small price to pay for the convenience of not needing to have a farm or produce your own clothing at home.

Is loving what you do the answer to staying focused on your projects? Is there any self-discipline involved?

For me the process of making and creating requires as much self-discipline as other parts of starting a small business.  I think the parts that require self-discipline are more about building good habits and just showing up. I’m still working on it when it comes to all the computer work involved that I dislike doing.

I find the process of making meditative when it’s slow and repetitive. It’s interesting when I’m learning or experimenting with something new, and challenging when a project takes a wrong turn or suffers a mishap.  I think the combination of all those things keeps me coming back, and because each day is different, I usually have at least 3 different projects that I’m working on at any given time. I daydream about one day, maybe in another 30 years, living in my dream home where everything from the textiles to the furniture are made by me.

Photo: Marta Bras "Project SIS: Maria Magdalena Ma "
Photo: Marta Bras “Project SIS: Polish women in Seattle” Maria Magdalena Ma