Weaving Them Softly With Her Warp and Weft

A new exhibition of the work of veteran Israeli fabric designer Neora Warshavsky seeks to restore honor to her and her profession, which she says is ranked unjustly low in the fashion hierarchy.

Neora Warshavsky’s name is almost unknown among those who aren’t familiar with what goes on behind the scenes in the Israeli fashion world. “Ha’arig Hatzalul” (“Clear Fabric”), an exhibition of the designer's work that opened recently at the Periscope Gallery in Tel Aviv, is aimed at restoring the honor of both her and her textile designs.

Warshavsky, 86, worked at Maskit, the legendary Israeli fashion house, from 1959 to 1987 as the head designer and the manager of the weaving department.

“In the female troika of Maskit (Ruth Dayan, Pini Leitersdorf and Neora Warshavsky), Neora was the third, bottom side, with a definite rhythm, a meticulous eye for detail and discipline,” writes Katya Oicherman, head of the textile design department at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition. “She’s a witch, of course, a whiz at quantities and timing.”

At the show, curated by Gali Cnaani and Yeshayahu (Ish) Gabbai, dozens of different fabrics are on display, among them those designed by Warshavsky for leading designers and fashion houses in Israel and abroad, including Pini Leitersdorf, Gideon Oberson, Jerry Melitz, Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan for Dior, and so on.

“Textile designers are always ranked low in the hierarchy, and unjustly so,” says Warshavsky. “When fashion designers are presented with strong and unusual fabric, it sometimes scares them. It’s not easy to work with material that dictates how it should be used, that can’t be cut too much, or on which stitching is not recommended. You have to know how to avoid creating too much thickness and or making the fabric stiff. In the fashion world, and certainly when it comes to solid-color fabrics, you can see certain cuts, pleats and clever ideas ... But woven fabric is a different story. Not every fashion designer knows how to work with all types of fabrics.”

Warshavsky was born in Haifa and grew up in its Kiryat Haim neighborhood, and during the War of Independence joined a group that underwent hakhshara (agricultural training to prepare for kibbutz life); she was drafted into the Palmach pre-state commando force, and settled on Kibbutz Yiftah. From there she moved to Jerusalem where she studied weaving at the Bezalel School of Arts and Design, from 1951-1954. She began her career by teaching at what was then a vocational school for girls, run by the Women's International Zionist Organization in Haifa.

When the first exhibition of Maskit designs wandered from Tel Aviv to Haifa, Warshavsky was asked to lecture there on weaving. Over time she became friendly with Erika Kluger, a textile designer who was on the WIZO board of directors and had connections to Maskit. Kluger introduced her to Ruth Dayan, the founder of the company, and Warshavsky was hired. She also eventually began to teach in Shenkar's textile design department, continuing until 16 years ago when she decided to retire.

Neora Warshavsky. Photo by Tomer Apelbaum

The current exhibition shows the wide range of Warshavsky's work: On display are various swatches of fabric, in textures and colors that are surprising in their relevancy even decades after they were created.

“I had enough sense or intuition, or whatever you call it, to keep a piece of every fabric I designed," she explains. "Over the years the samples piled up in my house and filled the closet.”

More relevant than ever

“The older materials look newer and more up-to-date now than ever,” writes Sari Paran of the Periscope Gallery, in the catalog.

And Warshavsky’s fabrics really are relevant even today. Indeed, not long ago, entrepreneur Lily Elstein and architect Irene Kronenberg turned to Warshavsky in a search for fabrics for the Mivtahim Hotel in Zichron Yaakov. Elstein decided to turn the place into a combination art center and hotel, and when designing the rooms chose to include Maskit fabrics designed in the 1970s.

“It gives me a wonderful feeling, knowing I’m relevant even today,” says Warshavsky now. “At the opening of the exhibition people told me, ‘Neora, it is as though the fabrics were from today.’ It’s wonderful.”

This 1960s photo shows a model wearing a creation by Marc Bohan for Dior, made out of fabric designed by Neora Warshavsky. Photo by Courtesy

The octogenarian admits, however, that she doesn’t know what it is specifically that makes her designs up to date: “I designed in the conditions that existed at the time. As mentioned, many things came from intuition. There’s also no question that all the courses [I took] at Bezalel were influenced by the Bauhaus [school of design], and that sunk in very strongly.”

Can you learn something about Israeliness from the exhibition?

“Defining that is a problem for me, saying what is typically Israeli. You live with colors that influence you – textures, light, heat, cold – and the most basic elements, including what is available in the place where you work in terms of raw materials. In that sense the samples displayed at the show are definitely a local sort of expression, but to say that this makes it Israeli wouldn’t be precise. After all there are lots of ethnic groups, influences and tastes at play here.

“You also have to remember that it all started from nothing, and the moment something with daring and new ideas appears in such an environment, while the world surrounding us is still closed off – people notice it immediately. That’s what gave Maskit its unique quality. Buying a Maskit dress wasn’t cheap. It was a big deal to say you had a Maskit suit.

“Pini Leitersdorf [who was hired by Dayan to be the head designer at Maskit] ‘had what it takes.’ She had an exceptional spirit of daring. I always knew that if Pini took a fabric into her hands, she wouldn’t fight it, she would go along with it. The truly unique designs were created during the period when I worked with her.”

Fabrics designed by Naura Warshavsky displayed at the exhibition at Periscope Gallery. Photo by Tomer Apelbaum

How was it to work with her?

“It was wonderful. You have to remember than in the 1960s there were no fashion journals that forecast what would happen in another two years. Often we relied on intuition, it was a large part of the business. Still, the work I did with European designers for an Israel Bonds fashion show propelled me forward. I knew I had to design fabrics that would be worn on the catwalk, that the audience sees only from a distance, so they had to be fabrics with a very visible character.

“You want to design something modern, and the work for these fashion shows gave rise to many fabrics, some of which later were used regularly by Maskit: The strips of leather, bits of velvet – everything was mainly due to a shortage of materials. It was an amazing challenge. And the less we had, the more we were challenged to make something better: We used remnants from the Beged Or leather factory in Migdal Ha’emek; we sat and cut the strips at home and glued them at night. Another time we took decorative ribbons from girls’ dresses and created a new fabric from them, just so we could innovate at the next fashion show.”

Do you keep up with the textile design scene in Israel today?

“Are there textiles in Israel?” Warshavsky asks with a smile. “There’s no industry, and that’s why there’s a transition to artistic textiles, which wasn’t common in the past. After all, Shenkar was founded by industrialists in order to train people for industry. Today textile design is much more varied, much more open. There are computerized looms, more complex materials that change the look of a fabric during printing. You can achieve a far more complex fabric [now] than what I could achieve.”

Today, she notes, people don’t even know what weaving is. “It’s important for people to understand that this is a basic, initial process in the creation of clothing: to take two groups of threads, straw, or anything else, to combine them with one another, and to create a texture that is later called a fabric. To this day the basis of the technique is the same.

“It all begins with what you do with it, what you do with the warp and weft and how you combine them, how you put together colors, the thickness of materials. Threads behave almost like human beings: Each one has its own character and you have to know how to work with them," Warshavsky declares. "You can’t force yourself on the thread: The thread will have its say. What remains is to be flexible and to get the most out of it."

Ran Arda