Professor spins the dreaded weed into art
By William Inman
Junco Pollack, associate professor of art, weaves kudzu fibers on a four harness handloom.
Here in Georgia, kudzu, that omnipresent, climbing and coiling vine that “ate the South,” is often considered an unstoppable menace. But to Junco Pollack, associate professor of art, kudzu fibers are a sustainable material for making art and producing fabric.
It turns out, Pollack says, that some of the oldest woven fibers known to humankind were extracted from the kudzu plant, and its first use by the Chinese dates back to Neolithic times. In her native Japan, there is a rich and ancient tradition of hand-weaving kudzu fibers into fabric.
“When I came to Atlanta in 1992, I saw kudzu plants taking over the landscape,” Pollack remembers, “and I thought this is a resource I must use in my research and teaching.”
Pollack teaches the art of kudzu weaving in her textile classes. Her students begin by harvesting the plant, cooking it and processing the fibers. Then, from the kudzu fibers, they make baskets and weave sandals using an ancient weaving device called a backstrap loom.
Pollack says her classes also use other ancient and natural methods for making textiles, including using bark from the Mulberry tree to weave into fabric.
“My students learn the ancient technology of a bygone era, and the new development and interpretation of the technology in the modern life,” Pollack says.
Pollack also works with kudzu in her studio in Lakemont, Ga., where she has an abundant supply nearby. She holds workshops with other artisans, demonstrating how to extract the fine fibers from vines to weave into clothing, tablecloths, purses and more. Recently, some of her creations were added to the Materials Collection of the Francis Loeb Library in the Graduate School of Design at Harvard.
Introduced from Asia in the 1870s, kudzu has since spread across the eastern United States, particularly the Southeast, and is considered an invasive species. Pollack notes that since efforts to eradicate kudzu haven't worked, then why not use the plant for practical purposes?
“People just don't think anything good can come from it,” she says.
In China and Japan, Pollack says, kudzu is not only made into fabric, it is eaten, used to treat alcoholism and used as a remedy for hangovers and colds.