Holyoke workshop project weaves a community of support

  • The inventory of donated T-shirts at ArteSana is abundant. The nonprofit provides opportunity and paychecks to women who might not have had either in a long time. Stephen Fay

  • Diana Rodriguez, who manages ArteSana, holds up a long strip of yarn that was once a T-shirt. photos for the gazette/Stephen Fay

  • ArteSana’s Diana Rodriguez cuts into a black T-shirt.

  • Master weaver Peggy Hart, right, explains the process as ArteSana at a recent workshop at the Dwight Street nonprofit. STEPHEN FAY

  • Master weaver Peggy Hart shares a laugh with her workshop class at ArteSana, a Holyoke nonprofit that teaches women weaving and helps them create and market fiber arts. Stephen Fay

For the Gazette
Published: 10/27/2019 11:20:50 PM

HOLYOKE — A T-shirt becomes a rag, the rag becomes a ball of yarn, the ball of yarn becomes a pillow case and the pillow case becomes a source of pride.

This alchemy occurs each week at ArteSana at 362 Dwight St., a nonprofit enterprise that provides opportunity and paychecks to women who might not have had either in a long time.

Diana Rodriguez manages the 5-year-old initiative. She said ArteSana engages with women, teaches them weaving and helps them create and market fiber arts. Participating women produce colorful bags, pillow cases, table runners, baby mats, potholders and decorative pieces out of donated T-shirts. In gaining mastery of the loom, they gain confidence in themselves, Rodriguez said.

The production cycle begins with the harvest of T-shirts. They come from all over. Trader Joe’s and print shops are regular donors. Shirts left over from road races and charity walks come in by the batch. End-of-semester discards are shipped in from Smith College dorms. Individuals drop by to drop off. State Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, contributed his aging trove of rock concert T’s. The wardrobe became a multicolored table runner.

The T-shirts and other used garments, washed and clean, are cut in such a way that the result is a single strip of fabric several feet long. These strips are stretched and rolled into balls of yarn that are woven into products. The weaving is done on ArteSana’s hand-operated looms. A couple of the looms — like the craft itself — are quite old. Most have nicknames that indicate their donor (“Betty”), their contrariness (“Patience”), their size (“Baby Loom”) or their place of origin (“New Hampshire”).

Within this supportive community, women have opportunities to learn as well as earn. Leadership development, entrepreneurship, English instruction, grocery shopping and financial literacy work their ways into the easy-going curriculum. This has been the goal from the start, that is to say, since 2013 when Katy Moonan created a program for immigrant parents. Her community-based weaving project was initially known as Tejo Holyoke, before incorporating as a nonprofit with the name ArteSana, Spanish for “woman artesan.”

Workshops held twice a week are equal parts education and socialization. Master weaver Peggy Hart patiently explains the working of the loom. She guides the women through each step, introducing terms such as warp and weft. Rodriguez provides good-natured encouragement as each woman takes a turn at the unfamiliar loom.

“Once they learn how to weave,” Rodriguez said, “we pay them.”

The pay comes from product sales as well as philanthropy and grants.

Rodriguez, 32, said she “grew up super poor in Vieques,” the island off Puerto Rico’s eastern coast. She and her siblings had to catch their own fish and forage for mangoes if they wanted to eat. It was a hard life, she said, that caused her to grow up “way too fast.”

That experience of hard times informs her work with the women who come to the workshops. Success is witnessing the emergence of self-esteem as a newly hatched weaver says, “I can’t believe I made this beautiful thing.”

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