"A Loomful of Hues"

Jeanne Heifetz ’81 didn’t become involved with weaving until she was 14, but remembers always being attracted to traditional...

Jeanne Heifetz ’81 didn’t become involved with weaving until she was 14, but remembers always being attracted to traditional handicrafts. “I loved going to historic restorations like Sturbridge Village and seeing blacksmithing, glassblowing, paper marbling,” she says. “Some are more practical in a city apartment than others, so perhaps that’s why weaving was the one I chose.” Her parents helped pay for her first loom; they encouraged her talent, she notes, but also valued intellectual pursuits higher than artistry. When she was in high school, her father once came into her room while she was weaving and said, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Today Heifetz can say, “That reflects a societal bias against artisanry, as if hand and mind were unconnected, and handwork somehow mindless.” She herself believes in the benefits of a broad education, but calls her time at Harvard “a sort of a detour”: a study of fibers and dyes derived from plants that she did for one course in economic botany, and a project on tapestry weaving in medieval Burgundy for another course, were the only direct links between her undergraduate education and her current profession.

After graduation, Heifetz worked as an editor and earned a master’s degree in creative writing, “pursuing things that made sense for someone with a degree from Harvard.” She published two books: the mail-order guide to organic food, she says, had no connection to her weaving, but When Blue Meant Yellow: How Colors Got Their Names reflects her passion for color—“The richness and variety of color in the natural world are one of the great pleasures of existence.” But she came to realize there was a part of her that she had not given its due, the part that “felt enormous satisfaction in working with my hands, working with color, and surrounding myself with color.” Ultimately, Heifetz gave herself permission to become a weaver.

Today, the center of her work is the big loom that takes up half the space in her Greenwich Village studio. Unlike tapestry making, Heifetz explains, in which the weaver can move any threads in any order at any time, loom-controlled weaving requires the weaver to set up the loom for a given pattern and determine in advance which groups of threads will be raised or lowered together. “Designing within technical limitations can be a wonderful challenge, and very liberating compared to designing with no limitations at all,” she says. Her inspirations come from all over the world: Mediterranean tile floors, Amish quilts, Moroccan houses, New England brick walls. She aims to “create rugs with so much color that the eye is constantly kept moving over the work.”

The weaving is satisfying, Heifetz says, but two things bother her. One is practical: marketing isn’t easy (“Perhaps I should have gone to Harvard Business School,” she jokes). The other is philosophical: Harvard hasn’t “broadened itself to recognize the range of human endeavor, so that people who pursue nontraditional paths are as supported as those who go into more traditional fields.” She values the skills she gained in Cambridge that help her research new designs, but sees no need to express her knowledge through another book. “I could spend years working on a book that people could enjoy in a matter of days,” she says, “or I can spend a week making a rug that people can enjoy for years. That seems like a better equation.”   

You might also like

The Roman Empire’s Cosmopolitan Frontier

Genetic analysis reveals a culture enriched from both sides of the Danube.

Tobacco Smoke and Tuberculosis

Harvard researchers illuminate a longstanding epidemiological connection. 

Discourse and Discipline

Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences broaches two tough topics.

Most popular

Small-Town Roots

Professors’ humble beginnings, concentration choices, and a mini history of Harvard and Radcliffe presidents

Vita: Fanny Bullock Workman

Brief life of a feisty mountaineer: 1859-1925

Being Black at Work

Realizing the full potential of black employees

More to explore

Illustration of a box containing a laid-off fossil fuel worker's office belongings

Preparing for the Energy Transition

Expect massive job losses in industries associated with fossil fuels. The time to get ready is now.

Apollonia Poilâne standing in front of rows of fresh-baked loaves at her family's flagship bakery

Her Bread and Butter

A third-generation French baker on legacy loaves and the "magic" of baking

Illustration that plays on the grade A+ and the term Ai

AI in the Academy

Generative AI can enhance teaching and learning but augurs a shift to oral forms of student assessment.