I grew up in a home with my father’s academic library on the top floor and my mother’s windowless sewing room in the basement. He was an orator, a man of the word; she a couture-worthy seamstress and homemaker.  I perched in-between. Early on, I followed my father’s path into the study of religion at Harvard Divinity School, veering into congregational ministry rather than the classroom.  For fifteen years, in Maine, in California, and finally South Carolina, I stood at a pulpit each week interpreting sacred texts and, wondering, always, how a text shining with a woman’s mind might have differed.  What values would she have held close, what stories would she have recorded?

Somewhere toward the end of those years, I longed to stop talking about ideas and to learn about the world with my hands.  I returned to school at Savannah College of Art and Design and learned to dye, print, stitch, quilt, spin, weave.  My hands were awkward and untrained in the art of working with things.  It was a steep learning curve, indeed, but it led me into a contemplative practice of weaving.

While at school studying traditional textiles, I had an “aha!” moment so shattering that it changed my life.  Of course, women’s stories weren’t collected in written texts, I lit up to realize because for most of human history women couldn’t read and write!  But women were spinning, weaving, dyeing, and embroidering their stories into cloth.  Textiles, I saw at that moment, are a woman’s sacred text.  Her way of illuminating the things, otherwise not recorded, that matter to her.

I began traveling and collecting old remnants of a woman’s language, delving into the different regional accents of palette, symbol, texture. I learned that while, of course, men weave in Africa, in India; still, there is a preponderance of women’s fingerprints all over textiles.  I began buying vintage pieces with a total absence of self-control (while otherwise a practical, frugal person), and when I had no more room to stash them, offered them for sale, passing on the stories as I did.

Traveling, I met women who still carried in their hands the textile skills I admired, and who could weave with more brilliance than I would ever achieve at my loom. I came to a crossroads in my life.  Do I continue to weave my own original pieces or do I put my energy into creating a market for women who have none?

The women won.

Of course, without fully realizing it at the time, I was returning to bring my mother out of the basement room where she brilliantly created but was never paid or valued for her creating. It became simple and clear – what I want to do in this life:  1) to put money in the hands of women who possess remarkable skills but no income; and 2) to preserve their languages of cloth.

About that time, I stumbled onto the magic of Santa Fe and the incredible Folk Art Market celebrating, training, and sourcing artisans the world over. I wanted to be a part of that!  Each summer, I reconnected with women I had met in my travels and met new women, marveling in the miracle of what happens each July. 
In my home city of Charleston, South Carolina, I opened a shop to offer the work of women artisans, a studio for designing with them, and later, a non-profit aiding women in expanding their markets.  A few blocks away, at home, I am surrounded by the vintage textiles which shape the context and inspiration for my work.
 In my dining room pictured here, I feel a certain soaring happiness each time I see the vintage Uzbek ikat coat over my piano, purchased 15 years ago in Mehmet Çetinkaya’s Istanbul gallery.  Beside it, a Tekke Turkmen wedding cap and a cloth I coveted (and wrangled) from Patricia Cheesman’s collection in Chiang Mai.

I often throw silk or cotton saris over my table – ones I’ve ferreted from piles in India’s markets. Spilling from the bowl at the table’s center are textile fragments from India, Peru, Laos; and over one of the benches, a striped weaving found in Morocco. The candlesticks are painted by hand in Turkey. Even the table and chairs are artisan-made in Charleston – designed and painted myself.

On the loveseats are my favorite cushion covers from the Swat Valley, along with a silk dupatta from India. The urn holding a palm is one I saw on the side of the road in rural Morocco. Amazingly, it is now with me here.
In the adjoining living room, hanging a mirrored dress I found in Gujarat on a hand-carved screen becomes a focal point.  A Santo from Guatemala lives alongside Thai mythical bird altarpieces, hats, and Nandi from India, inlay coffee tables from Fez, cushions I made from saris and embroidered Phulkari and Bagh from Punjab on my grandmother’s sofa.
Living with Folk Art, for me, is living with stories rarely told, but felt.  It’s a practice in listening to the hand, the soul, the heart of things.  It’s about elevating real women of the cloth and the beauty they create.  It’s about becoming my mother’s child.
Susan Hull Walker founded Ibu in 2014, a movement collaborating with global women artisans to design apparel/jewelry/accessories, and offer them to a western market.  Ibu’s hand-crafted collection is offered in their showroom in Charleston, SC, through a full online store, and at national trunk shows. (ibumovement.com)

Prior to founding Ibu, Susan was a studio weaver and dyer of cloth herself, and before that, served as a congregational minister for 18 years in Portland, Maine, San Franciso, and Charleston.  Her studies at Harvard Divinity School prepared her in cross-cultural studies which still form a foundation for her work today.