The magazine of material culture

Knot Appeal: Modern Macramé

Writing by Laura Palmer | Photographs by Nicole Franzen

“There’s a lot of physicality in making macramé,” says Emily Katz, noting how stretched and sometimes sore muscles in her shoulders, arms, neck, and back become when she’s working on the art of tying knots in rope to craft a planter, rug or wall hanging. “I joke about it being an exercise protocol. You do have to be aware of how your holding your body and that you’re stretching and that you’re breathing. I think that macramé allows people to pay more attention.”

Some of those paying attention (and probably feeling the stretch) were participants in the workshop Katz had just finished teaching. Dowels hung on s-rings dangled from modified garment racks. Lengths of cotton cord were set, measured and cut, then the looping began. Sinnets of square knots were tied. And half square knot spirals. And horizontal double half hitches. Over the course of two hours, the knots worked their way into various different undulating patterns and mesmerizing designs.
“I have a problem-solving mind; I really like solving problems and puzzles and those sorts of things, which is one of the reasons why macramé is so intriguing to me,” Katz says as loose curls of chestnut-colored hair resettle on her shoulder. “I like looking at where the rope goes, and thinking about how it gets there.”

Katz learned the craft of macramé from her mother, who made and sold macramé planters as a teenager. “We had a limited relationship from when I was 9 to when I was 30,” Katz explains. When her parents split up, her mom moved across the country and they weren’t often in touch. But at 30, Katz worked to rekindle the relationship. She had a memory of photographs of her mother’s childhood home full of macramé pieces and knew the story about her mother selling planters as a teenager. So, when Katz went to visit her mother, she asked for a macramé lesson. They bonded over the process of looping, knotting and tying. Several months later, Katz shared the art of macramé with a few others, then to make installation pieces of her own, then began teaching workshops.

Although Katz describes her father and mother as “gemstone energy medicine healing parents who were total hippies,” their can-do approach to life instilled an entrepreneurial spirit in her from a young age and generated an expansive sense of optimism that flows from her as she speaks about her work. “Even though my mom wasn’t around when I was a kid, there’s that whole nature/nurture thing: it turns out that we are really similar,” Katz reflects. “I’ve always been supported—not necessarily financially—but with the ethos that anything is possible.”

Katz, who was previously an independent fashion designer, has been at the forefront of macramé’s return to relevance in the past few years. Her recently published book, Modern Macramé, brings a craft that had fallen into obscurity in the 1970s back into the interior design limelight. In a publishing landscape that is increasingly constricting, Katz invested her own money to produce much of the photography for her book. “I could have put a down-payment on a house,” she said. “But instead, I made a book. In the end, I won’t regret it. This was just a way to prove, really, to me that we’re going to do this the right way,” Katz emphasizes her point with a swish of a lavender-manicured hand.  “I really wanted to make a coffee table book—first. I wanted it to be an interior inspiration book—first—that also was a very thorough macramé DIY book.” The result is a hefty hardcover brimming with step-by-step projects (such as the summer solstice mobile, dancing shadows lantern and sisters of the moon wall hanging) and exquisitely styled homes where those macramé pieces live.

 “The thing that was interesting to me about craft is that there’s often this oral tradition of passing it down,” Katz says, while a sherbert-colored slide slipps off her foot as she readjusts herself on the couch. “And I’ve really learned this as an oral tradition: I learned how to make macramé from my mom. And then I learned from books. From old books. And then I learned from researching textiles from around the world: from traveling and seeing knots tied in different places in different ways.”

“I’m not a scholar,” Katz admits. “I’m an art school dropout. And that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had an education in my own way. I just don’t think of myself as an expert. I think of myself as guide.” Katz sees the project of sharing the craft practice of macramé as a way to share connection more than anything else. Connection to one’s body, connection to a traditional art, connection to others, and to oneself. “I’m not an activist in a lot of ways, but I feel like I have this drive towards helping people be better versions of themselves,” she says. “So that’s my philosophy: that it’s not just about making something beautiful for your wall. For me, I’m finding that right now, macramé is the trail, or the thread almost, that people are following to find something deeper and greater in their lives. And that I get to facilitate that now is just such an incredible honor.”

“Hopefully the threads that are leading people to macramé eventually lead me to the next journey to be able to continue to share my hopes and dreams with people so that they can connect to what their hopes and dreams are.”

All photographs are from Modern Macrame, copyright 2018. Republished courtesy Ten Speed Press.