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Life on the Outside: Shelley Payne

Life on the Outside: Shelley Payne
Shelley_Payne_finalShelley Payne, a member of the university’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers, started weaving not long after she arrived in Austin as an assistant professor.

“I wanted something that I could easily do as a way to relax,” she says, “and I was fascinated with weaving and cloth and how you use a single material and yet get these intricate patterns to emerge. I like the mathematical aspects of it. It’s a creative process but driven by very basic principles.”

Payne, who studies the genetic and molecular systems of the bacteria that cause diseases such as cholera and dysentery, got started by taking a class at Hill Country Weavers. She’s still weaving 25 years later, though she’s graduated from a small table loom to a large floor loom that “occupies a large chunk of our bedroom.”

For Payne, weaving serves a few purposes. It fits well into her schedule. “I have very little free time,” she says, “so I like to have something that I can put on the loom and then work a little bit in the evenings when I have a few minutes.” She works mostly on scarves in part because she can finish them, even weaving only a few minutes a day, in a relatively short amount of time.

Weaving is also, for Payne, a kind of meditative activity. “You get very much in the zone,” she says. “You get the pattern in your mind as you’re doing the pedals and throwing the shuttle, and it becomes a very rhythmic process. It’s a great way to get my mind off of work. And I have complete control of it.”

Payne’s style as a weaver is understated. She uses simple colors and soft fibers—mostly silk and fine wools. Her fascination is with subtle variations, with how patterns reflect the light and how colors blend, and with the feel of the fabrics. The starting place for her designs is often a yarn that she happens upon in the store. “I’m not a shopper by any means,” she says, “but yarns I can get carried away with.”

The element of chance in the process also appeals to her scientific side. “You plan something out,” she says, “you analyze the structure or the data and then you do the actual experiment—in this case the weaving—and it may come out exactly as you predicted, or you may see something new that takes you off in a different direction.”

Payne’s scarves and blankets are mostly in her closet—she gets cold easily in the winter—but she’s made many over the years as gifts. One of her favorite creations is the off-white and peach cotton and linen blanket she made for her son as a newborn. “It had a nice feel to it,” she says, “very soft. Probably the reason I like that one is more just the idea of it, of making it for my child.”

Photo by Michael O'Brien
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Monday, 20 November 2017

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