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Looming passion: How one man's tapestries tell a story

Alec Sutherland's richly beautiful, wool-and-linen tapestries find the balance between standing out and blending in

Alec Sutherland comes by his skill at making carpets honestly. As a child, he was obsessed with activities that involved precision and planning as well as more free-form art.

Alec Sutherland comes by his skill at making carpets honestly. As a child, he was obsessed with activities that involved precision and planning as well as more free-form art.

Alec Sutherland doesn't have the formal credentials to be a textile designer. He studied art at Concordia and attended the Centre for Contemporary Textiles in Montreal, the city where he currently lives. But he didn't graduate from either program. Being inventive in the often rigid context of a school just isn't for everyone. "It's the nature of the institution," he says. "Establish the rules, create within the rules."

The lack of schooling hasn't stood in his way. After less than a year of launching his rug line, Haut Beau, House & Home magazine named him one of Canada's top makers to watch out for. It's easy to see why when looking at his richly beautiful, wool-and-linen tapestries. Each one tells a story. Island, for example, depicts the sublime, expansive horizon of a still, breezeless lake and effortlessly captures the carefree feel of a summer day. Another, Walls, has a labyrinthine feel, with brick partitions snaking into the distance. It's uncannily architectural despite being flat.

Instead of school, it was Sutherland's personal and family background that set him on a strong path toward design. He started young.

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As a baby, one of his first words was symmetry. As a child, he was obsessed with activities that involved precision and planning – origami, for example, and Lego – as well as more free-form, spontaneous arts. As a teenager, he developed a love of knitting – his sister got him started – and took up the pursuit so fervently that he got in trouble for needling in his school instead of studying.

Sutherland still knits, and uses it as a way to chill out.

As a teenager, Sutherland's sister got him into knitting. His mom bought him his first loom.

As a teenager, Sutherland’s sister got him into knitting. His mom bought him his first loom.

"It's a very relaxing thing to do," he explains. "I've read that there are therapeutic benefits. You feel both focused and unfocused at the same time." But at the moment he's more focused on playing with warps and wefts, which is something his mom helped him get into: She bought him his first loom. It's similar to needle work in that he finds it calming ("I let my mind wander," he says). The difference is that weaving is a "little more technical," he says, "and you can't take a loom into a café."

Part of the challenge of rug design is finding the balance between standing out aesthetically while being subtle enough to blend in with the other elements of a home. Sutherland's rugs do that.

His Rippley has the visual excitement of a Vasarely painting with its undulating checkerboard surface, but it doesn't look busy or cluttered. "Striking that balance," says Sutherland, "is one reason designers keep doing what they do. It takes experimentation. Sometimes a design is way too wacky, or sometimes it comes off dull and boring."

Sutherland is also excited about experimenting with technical aspects of weaving. "All of the work that I've done for Haut Beau, I've done using one weave structure," he says. "But there are infinite weave structures. I can explore the options for years probably, just by changing the structures up … There's still a lot left to do." And so much more to learn.

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