The art of macramé has been hanging by a thread since its popularity waned at the end of the 1970s. The hanging planters and owls were ditched at the nearest garage sale three decades ago. But the fiber art’s half hitches and squares have been working their way into the hearts of a new generation.
Macramé veteran Andy Newcom first heard rumblings of its re-emergence through trendsetting national retailer Anthropologie. “Once they’ve done it, it gives the OK to others,” Newcom says. “It cracks me up that it’s come back again.”
He learned the craft from a Kansas City Art Institute instructor when he was in the sixth grade. By eighth grade he was turning a profit selling macramé belts to junior high girls, then large-scale weavings at markets as his skills advanced.
People today are most comfortable with macramé as an interior design accent — say, a pillow or wall hanging. Updated materials make the product more trendy.
In the ’70s, most macramé pieces were made of jute, you know, “the brown stuff that gets up your nose,” Newcom recalls. Today, those who macramé often use clothesline or conso, a soft cotton piping that comes in any thickness and knots well. “A lot of people who like macramé today like the white,” Newcom says. “Macrame used to be very earthy; now it’s cleaner, more graphic and simpler.”
No one in the fiber department at KCAI does macramé anymore, but Newcom says simply, “They will.” He’s starting off teaching the next generation by running workshops for fellow Hallmarkers who want to learn the craft as part of the company’s My Five Days program, which encourages employees to take time off to learn new skills.
Newcom, a photo stylist and former teacher, grants that these particular students — as artists arriving to class with prepared sketches — are above average, or “freakishly good.” One student twisted piping around a tree branch to hang in her hall, another wrapped a cord to a light fixture. Several incorporated things found in nature.
During the most recent workshop, the participants all had different reasons for wanting to learn macramé. Image retoucher Lisa Hampton wanted to get off her computer and do something manual.
Dianne Hanlin, an editor at Hallmark, knew how to knit and thought macramé would be a neat extension of that skill. Lindsay Tippett, a senior designer wanted to take the workshop to benefit from Newcom’s experience.
“If you want to become more advanced, he’ll push you,” she says.
Newcom also teaches beginner workshops to the public. Golden & Pine shop owner Stephanie Agne hosted one this summer. Requests for workshops have even reached the senior set.
“My dad has asked me to come teach at Brookdale (Assisted Living),” Newcom says. “It’s gotten so crazy. I’m not trying to make a second career out of this.”
Most macramé is done by the hobbyist at home rather than purchased from a fiber artist because of the number of hours that go into each project. “If you were charged for time, the price would be astronomical; that’s why most of what you see for sale on Etsy are five big knots and some fringe,” Newcom explains.
Moreover, the hands-on nature of macramé provides an outlet for the tech-weary.
“When you work with your hands, you get something to show for it that’s not like anyone else’s,” he says. “There’s a greater sense of accomplishment and creativity.”
Macramé is a simple craft using just your hands and variations of two knots: the square and the half hitch. You can create twists and patterns and incorporate beads, metal accents or colorful threads. And if you don’t like how it looks, it’s easy to undo the knots and start again.
“Everybody has had to redo something,” Newcom says. “It’s part of learning.”
Depending on the complexity of the design, a macramé wall hanging could be completed within a day. Newcom says it’s easiest to work vertically, with your rod on the wall and rope dangling down instead of on a flat work surface, where the strings could get jumbled. “If it has any size to it, gravity will help you,” he says.
He adds a warning that your shoulders will probably be sore after the first day, but emotionally, you may be taken to a new place.
“It becomes a meditative experience standing there working intently,” Newcom says.
The challenge of the craft is up to each individual — the scale of the piece, the tightness of the knots and the spaces in between. You can macramé something as small as a necklace or as large as a stairwell hanging. That’s how Newcom likes to work.
“It’s how you put it together in a cohesive way or combine knots in a creative way that gives it a beautiful form,” Newcom says. “The reason I respond to macramé is because I love the physicality. I like expression and I do that with really big pieces.”
While he doesn’t have much time for personal macramé projects anymore, he strives to make time to enjoy doing something creative with his 87-year-old father.
“I love the idea of cross-generational activities,” Newcom says. “That’s why I also like working with millennials. They teach me and help me evolve.”
His style still retains that bit of retro that got Newcom to the throne as macramé king, but it feels sweeter to him this time around.
“It’s like an old friend coming back,” he says.