top of page
_CK11569_edited_edited_edited.jpg

Cracking the Code:
A Spotlight Interview

with renowned Textile Artist

Noémi Speiser
by Hazel Clarke

081A8728_edited_edited.jpg

When encountering a legend in any field, the natural inclination is to observe, listen, and learn. Such was my sentiment when I had the privilege of meeting Noémi Speiser, a legendary figure in the world of textile art.

 

Effervescent and welcoming, Speiser invited curator and art historian Thessy Schoenholzer Nichols–a former mentee of Speiser–and me into her home nestled at the foothills of

the Jura Mountains in Switzerland. At age 97,

this Grand Dame has a graceful presence which is complemented by a diminutive, time-defying figure, affirming the adage that great things do indeed come in small packages.

 

With questions at the ready and recording button on set, we embark on a journey spanning nearly a century—a tapestry woven from stories, knowledge and profound experiences. And at the heart of this narrative lies the humble threat.

_CK11566_edited_edited.jpg

Childhood reminiscences

Speiser’s origins trace back to Surbiton, Surrey, England, where she was born on 11 August 1926, although her roots are firmly planted in Basel in Switzerland. The family returned to Aargau, near Basel after the tumultuous 1929 Wall Street crash.

 

“Both my parents were from Basel,” Speiser shares, her British English carrying a lilt of the Basel Swiss-German dialect. My initial questions probe into the early influences that seeded her enduring love affair with textiles.

We traverse the corridors of her distant memories–an infancy shared with an older brother and a younger sister in surroundings shaped by the feminine touch of their mother. Among these cherished childhood recollections, the captivating centrepiece was her mother’s “Ladies’ Day table”—a furniture piece that fascinated deeply.

IMG_1270_edited.jpg

And so, Speiser’s enchantment with threads began with this remarkable piece of furniture—a table with slanted legs, concealing two drawers brimming with brightly coloured threads and buttons. Whenever her mother opened those drawers, tilting the table to reveal the treasures within, young Noémi’s eyes widened. Beautiful silken threads, woven into braids, lay just waiting to be pulled out and used.

“It was always a special moment when my mother opened the drawer and tilted the table so that I could glimpse the beautiful, coloured, silk threads plaited into braids.” Recounting this memory excitedly, she conjures a tiny hand-made pouch, another relic from the past, reminiscent of her mother’s toolkit that secreted sewing essentials—tape measure, seam ripper, pins and so on.

In her hands, threads became a magical world—a realm where colours danced and imagination unfolded. Eager to hone her sewing skills, Noémi stitched dresses for her dolls, guided by her mother’s careful teaching. And then came her very own Singer Sewing machine, capable of chain stitching. She gestures her thrill of pulling threads after each seam had been sewn to undo the stitching,   certainly an act that left an indelible mark on her creative spirit.

IMG_4933_edited.jpg

Noémi Speiser (right)  with Thessy Schoenholzer Nichols (left)

The pattern catalogue was another source of intrigue for young Speiser which incredulously seemed to transform from a two-dimensional shape into a three dimensional garment–a pair of trousers, a dress, a blouse. “Textile work became my passion”, she expounds.

Her journey led her to study weaving and textiles in hometown Basel, where she delved deep into the craft. Driven by sheer ardour, she embarked on private research, unraveling the secrets of threads and their interplay. Speiser’s self-taught approach and independent thinking fuelled her desire to create mental order within this intricate world of threads and solidified a lifelong devotion to braids.

_CK11393.JPG

“Braiding is the only textile for which you control every single thread.” She exclaims. “Weaving on the other hand has a starting vertical set (warp) and an introduced horizontal element (weft). But with braiding, you have complete freedom. You have the threads, you make the order and you control them!”

DSCF0349.JPG
_CK11457_edited.jpg

Cultural Heritage

Hailing from an old patrician family, Speiser’s desire for a profound understanding of textiles is deeply rooted in familial knowledge and a genuine interest in the craft. Her uncle, Felix Speiser—an esteemed ethnologist—served as the Director of the Cultural Museum in Basel. It was through this family link that Speiser found an open ear in Professor Bühler, a former pupil of her uncle’s, who later assumed the role of Museum Director. Despite lacking formal scholarly credentials, Speiser’s provenance, knowledge and unwavering passion

granted her an attentive audience with

Professor Bühler, paving the way to future accomplishments.

_CK11573_edited_edited_edited_edited_edited_edited.jpg

From Weaver to Innovator

Speiser embarked on her textile career as a hand weaver. However, fate intervened when she developed tennis elbow, forcing her to relinquish the practical aspects of weaving. Undeterred, she shifted her focus to smaller techniques—like braiding—based around single threads.

The transition proved serendipitous. With her hands no

longer strained by the shuttle on a large loom, Speiser discovered a new

path: diagonal working. Here, she manipulated threads directly with her fingers, bypassing traditional throwing techniques. Braiding emerged as her canvas—a textile form where every single thread lay under her command. Unlike weaving, which adheres to predefined structures, braiding offered complete freedom. Threads became her palette, and she orchestrated their order with precision.

11 (8)A_edited.jpg
_CK11646_edited.jpg
_CK11569_edited_edited_edited_edited.jpg

Uncloaking Japanese Artistry

Professor Bühler orchestrated Noémi’s voyage to Japan, where she met a Japanese Ethnologist impassioned by textile lore. The connection was immediate. Recommendations and introductions to Japanese dealers in braids flowed.

“The dealer placed his orders to small Japanese workshops hidden in villages and cities, from whom he received the finished goods. I accompanied the dealer on one of his days visiting the braiding workshops and was simply spellbound. I found myself kneeling there in the style in which they worked at the little braiding tables, observing them in awe.”

DSC06588_edited.jpg

This was a hidden world. The craftsmen deftly manipulated threads to create intricate patterns while Speiser marvelled at their skills. Their techniques involved using weights at the end to anchor the threads. And this was no ordinary craft, Speiser informs me. Japanese weaving and braiding, especially for traditional belts, was a highly skilled occupation, demanding a rigorous seven-year training period to achieve mastery. Yet the secrets of this realm were soon to be unravelled.

Her distinguished connections opened doors. Craftsmen, once reticent, allowed access. Weeks turned into months, and the workshops divulged their mysteries. The invisible craft was finally unveiled and the knowledge unleashed to the outside world.

_CK11386_edited_edited.jpg

Pioneering Techniques

Speiser, whilst in Japan, did not braid. She was there to simply absorb. She took copious notes, capturing the essence of the hidden Japanese artistry. Back home in Switzerland, she reproduced what she had witnessed—pioneering techniques that sprouted from her observations that were hitherto unknown in her own continent.

“My visit to Japan changed the atmosphere. The spotlight on their practices opened up a new mindset on the artistry of the craftsmen.”

Credit: Alexandre Manuel

_CK11659_edited.jpg

Cracking the Code: The mathematical dance of threads

Noémi Speiser, a scientist of textile processes, defied conventions to unravel the intricate path of each thread within braids and plaits. In the 1960s and '70s, she embarked on a quest to decode hidden sequences governing the craft—techniques known to only a select few.

Creating her famous track plans, she revealed the paths of each single thread, and so she cracked the code. A mathematical feat for sure, a breakthrough in understanding of textile art, incontrovertibly.

Textile Exploration

While teaching braiding courses at the Museum of Culture, Speiser received a challenge from Professor Bühler to classify textiles that were stored at the museum. Taking on the challenge with gusto, she went about analysing braids, questioning their construction, and seeking ways to replicate them. Her passion to understand, demonstrate, and explain sealed her status as master craftswoman.

“To be able to explain, she emphasises, “you must know it better than one hundred percent.”

Creativity Unleashed

From our conversation, it is clear that creativity coursed through Speiser’s veins. She refused to be confined to the warp and weft of traditional weaving. Instead, she ventured into the diagonal—a canvas where she could be an artist. Her collection, inspired by little-known diagonal and oblique interlacing techniques, evoke the Breton song’s refrain: “Combien ta ceinture de lin? Combien ta ceinture de laine? Combien ta ceinture d’argent?” How much for your linen belt? How much for your woollen belt? How much for your silver belt? With this inspiration, she committed to creating belt collections in threes.

_CK11514_edited_edited.jpg

The diagonal interlacing technique revealed its unique magic: reciprocity. Braiding at one end automatically echoed at the other. But securing the middle posed a challenge. Speiser’s solution? A beautiful piece of beading.

_CK11586_edited_edited_edited.jpg

Over and Under

Within the collection lie at least fifty pairs of intricately braided slippers. These footwear marvels emerge through an orchestrated marriage of separate strings, woven together as one thread is passed through another—each pass an “over and under” is testament to her relentless exploration of braiding techniques.

_CK11523_edited_edited_edited.jpg

Geographic Influences

When I enquire about geographic influences, Speiser’s response is nuanced. Japan, for sure with its rich textile heritage, left an indelible mark on her yet European countries such as Ireland and Sweden whispered their secrets. “Wherever I travelled, people revealed new wonders that ignited my inspiration,” she tells me.

_CK11384_edited_edited_edited.jpg

Beautiful Braids, Beautiful Stories

Storytelling through braiding is Speiser’s intrinsic offering. She gestures to a beautifully braided brown and white cord. Here unfolds a tale of love–a man and woman entwined. The white cord cradles the brown, their affection plain to see. But life takes its course. Separating cords mark their parting. Yet, as we trace along the cord, we sense their enduring connection—the brown embracing the white until it envelops its partner completely at the other extremity. It’s a charming story which makes Thessy and me chuckle, but its source of inspiration, the intricate braid, mirrors Speiser’s technical prowess, and the sheer artistry woven into her work.

_CK11573_edited_edited_edited_edited_edited_edited.jpg
081A8863_edited_edited.png

Lifelong Learning and Knowledge Sharing

Speiser’s gift extends beyond threads. She simplifies complexities, communicates with clarity, and bridges theory and practice. Her journey unfolds on dual levels: a hunger for knowledge of weaving and braiding techniques–an heroic student’s quest despite her lack of scholarly recognition–and a zest to share, to teach and to communicate.

In her hands, threads are not mere fibres but vessels of communication, understanding and enlightenment. Her unique blend of skills positioned her as a font of off-loom weaving wisdom, seamlessly connecting the practical and the theoretical.

Guidance for Budding Textile Artists

What is Speiser’s advice to budding textile artists? I ask. Well, her response is both pragmatic and profound. She encourages apprentices to select a group of similar techniques and delve into them relentlessly. “Study these to the bottom,” she insists, “and stick with it.” But there’s more. “If something pleases you, dive even deeper. Explore every nook and cranny, uncover hidden possibilities, and experiment with colours to enhance the overall impression. And then—crucially—demonstrate your mastery in a clear, concise manner.That, she vows, “defines a true textile artist.”

A Legacy Unfolds

Nearing her 98th year, Noémi Speiser gracefully passes the torch. When asked about future conquests, she humbly replies, “No, I’ll leave it to the others.” Yet her legacy remains—an incredible book, “An Annotated Classification of Textile Techniques”, published by Haupt Verlag, a treasure trove of her knowledge and discoveries, amongst her many other published works. But beyond that, she leaves us with inspiration—a role model who pursued her passion with unwavering dedication. Her classification of off-loom textile techniques stands as her profound gift to the world.

“Demonstrating your mastery in a clear, concise way defines a true textile artist”, Noémi Speiser

The interview draws to a close, and incredibly my interlocutor’s spirit has not wavered for a moment. I am enthralled and find myself reflecting deeply on Noémi Speiser’s journey. This special lady exudes a tapestry of resilience, passion and boundless curiosity for her craft–attributes that have served her as guiding stars, illuminating a language of possibilities for us all.

  • Text credits:

    • Interview and written text by Hazel Clarke

    • Technical/sub edits from Thessy Schoenholzer  

 

  • Photography credits:

    • Portraits are from Ferdinando Godenzi

    • Black and white hand pictures are from Thessy Schoenholzer

    • Object and drawing  pictures are from Cyril Kazis (Praxis Gallery)

© Copyright Hazel Clarke 2024

Related article

Hundreds gather at the Praxis Galerie, Basel
to experience The Magic of Threads – with Noémi Speiser, the show’s dazzling luminary. SeeThe GAZE Editor's Blog to find out more. Click

bottom of page