Fibre Focus Feature: The Woven Path

The Woven Path: Story of a Handweaver - Dani Ortman

by Line Dufour

Featured Handweaver Dani Ortman

A profound longing for connection to the Divine is universal and we choose various and diverse paths and philosophies to embark on that journey. A whole chapter is dedicated to this quest and its connection to textiles in Beverly Gordon’s book, Textiles the Whole Story: Uses, Meaning and Significance: “Textiles serves as metaphors for transcendence; they are light, but tangible and material, and thus concretize an intangible, fleeting quality that we can’t quite grasp…..we use textiles to symbolize and further experience our most spiritual longings.”

Manitoulin Island is in Lake Huron, Ontario, Canada and has an area of 2,766 km. It is the largest freshwater island in the world. Its name alludes to ‘spirit’, and has been referred to as the ‘cave of the spirit’, or spirit island. Dani Ortman fell in love with it in 2013  and decided to move there and make it her home and studio at thirty years old. It’s deeply mystical and spiritual elements summoned her reverence for this environment that fulfilled a need for a quiet, contemplative and solitary existence.

Dani grew up in Regina and her love of textiles was prompted by her mother’s love of sewing, fabric and crafts. She was an excellent seamstress and Dani recalls spending many hours playing with the fabrics that stimulated her love of colour. Though her work today uses a mostly a neutral palette, as a child she loved colours so much she pretended she had a secret museum where she stored them all. Mother and daughter attended craft shows together and sifted through thrift shops when she was older which helped to develop her discerning eye for the quality of a fabric and a garment.

After graduating from high school, she had a two-year modelling career which enabled her to travel extensively. Upon her return, she thought she wanted to be a naturopath and enrolled at university. The lack of tactile interaction arrested her academic pursuits and  at 24 decided instead, to enrol at Selkirk College at the Kootenay School of the Arts in Nelson, BC. It housed a textile studio that encouraged self directed learning. Until then, she had never set eyes on a loom. She appreciated the instructor, Coby van der Gaast who helped her learn about dressing the loom with fine threads, Ortman’s preference. She kept the first sample she wove and it still hangs framed in a place of prominence in her home.

Ortman loved that she could make her own fabric from start to finish. From the first time she threw the shuttle, weaving resonated deeply with her, and this deep connection with weaving persists. The structured and ordered process is one of the things that appeal to her most.

She lived briefly in Montreal, and  then moved to Toronto in 2012. When someone mentioned Manitioulin to her at 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat she decided to investigate and hasn’t looked back. That same year she was accepted into the One of a Kind Show and started with a ‘buddy booth’. It was a test run for her handwoven products.

Ortman saw this as an opportunity to find herself: “I wanted to remove all outside influence. I wanted to know what I would create and what would come out of me. That’s why I moved to Manitoulin. “  Living there has reduced distractions and enabled her to focus more fully on producing woven scarves and shawls to sell at various craft shows. She found part time seasonal work giving her just enough money to make ends meet and off season she was able to weave full time. She equipped her studio with two Leclerc four harness 45” looms.  She experiments and designs with basic structures such as twills, birds eye, shadow weave and log cabin. Networks of lines have a hypnotic effect on Ortman, and are her greatest source of inspiration. “I love creating patterns with lines and lose myself in the lines as I watch the patterns unfold”, echoing the effects of sacred geometry. Ortman has a disciplined practice and works diligently and steadily over a prolonged period of time to have product to sell at various craft shows or have available for other opportunities such as at the Toronto Design Offsite 2018. The fineness of her weaving demonstrates attention to detail and the strong contrasting lines show her proficiency at precision. Over the last several years of her weaving vocation, she has risen to the challenges of producing and selling her handwoven’s and is evidence of her dedication to weaving.

No business model existed to help Dani figure out the logistics of selling handwoven products nor took into consideration the kinds of challenges that weavers grapple with.  Ortman had to figure out where to situate herself in the market. After putting together a business plan, she officially started her business in 2015. She is pleased with the sales of her handwoven, mostly one of a kind pieces and rarely does production in the true sense. Though she uses the same warp for multiple scarves, each one will use a different treadling or colour:  “people have been responsive and there is a desire for well handcrafted Canadian work.” Ortman has for the moment decided not to do wholesale or consignment. By choosing this option, she doesn’t need to raise her retail price in order to to be reimbursed adequately at wholesale. “I don’t want to inflate the prices higher “, an issue for many craftspeople.

Reassessing her direction these days, Ortman states that “The One of a Kind Show is too expensive for a real craftsperson especially a weaver. I have to sell of a lot of product to cover expenses, not only of the show, but living and making expenses.” Though craft shows have been successful and profitable for her, she says  “ It’s hard to keep up the momentum of production “. She admits that the stress of having to produce such a large quantity of work constantly does lead to burn out. “For a long time I felt that this was the direction I wanted to go, that I wanted to make things. My process limits how much I can make in a year in terms of production, and consequently, selling. “  Teaching opportunities have arisen and she sees this as another means to support her weaving practice, taking some of the pressure off her to produce as much work.

With this shift in her orientation, Dani is staying open to other possibilities that will enable her to keep up her weaving practice. This past year she’s enjoyed giving presentations to various guilds, as well as teaching natural dyeing workshops using wild flowers, foraged plants and extracts at the Elliot Lake Summer Art Retreat. She’s also considering the idea of forming a collective, a kind of weaving cottage industry. She doesn’t want to take on the role of an employer but contemplates taking on the role of a textile designer to harness weavers and spinners to produce handwoven fabric for Fashion Designers. She believes there is a demand for this with the ‘buy local’ trend.  Additionally, she offers workshops in sewing with your own handwoven fabrics, aware that many weavers are horrified at the thought of cutting into their laboriously produced yardages. Furthermore, she is a member, Vice President, and Board member for the Guild of Canadian Weavers and writes articles for their newsletter. In this role, she hopes to generate more interaction and involvement between the Guild of Canadian Weavers and local guilds in each province.

Honesty, truthfulness and authenticity, with herself and others, are threads that run through Ortman’s artisanal life. Woven through those structural threads are the wefts of a deep and reverent spirituality, in part from her love of math, physics and the Canadian landscape, and in part due to the nature of the weaving process, further reinforced by her habit of participating in Silence Retreats. The orderliness of weaving resonates with her own personal philosophy: “Weaving connects me to a deeper awareness. It is an old process”, an assertion echoed in Gordon’s book:  [The process of weaving] ….”brings……an awareness and oneness with deep internal structures”. Cultures have for centuries believed that creating fabric helps individuals summon and connect with their ‘divine’ nature. All cloth making, including weaving, involves incremental growth – thread by thread, row by row, stitch by stitch echoed in Ortman’s statement “I love the idea of the fabric of the universe. This idea of some force fabricating it. “

Before she embarked on her weaving path, Ortman could not picture herself in a conventional job and renounced the status quo. Neither did she ever expect that her destiny was to pursue a path as a weaver. Instead she choose a quality of life she could not find in the city and has chosen to live a rural life, rejecting stereotyped middle-class pursuits.  Perhaps others will see this as defiant, even foolhardy, yet it also demonstrates her flexibility, resourcefulness and adaptability. Dani is proud to have the courage to live a life that is meaningful for her and adding to that challenge is that she is single and supporting herself. By choosing the lifestyle she has, she has created one that allows her to always be in tune with who she is,  to live mindfully, opening the doors to insight, wisdom and growth. In turn this enhances her inner security and stability, which she believes comes from spending time alone as well as time spent in connection with others. Her Instagram page says: Free your mind and the rest will follow. Her advice to novice weavers ” forgive yourself for not being perfect or making things perfectly, persevere …..feel happy with what you do and do not measure yourself to someone else, nor try to be someone else. Find yourself. “ Perhaps finding herself was the spiritual quest she was on.

dani ortman