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The messy art of macramé: ‘I could make that myself’

I was recently flipping through a glossy magazine when an image of an oversized wall hanging suspended behind a bed like a headboard stopped me. The knotted tapestry looked nothing like the cliched rope owls that were popular in the 1970s and still hang in the living rooms of many aging hippies. The pattern was simple, striking and modern: No chunky bead embellishments, just crisp, white rope. Maybe, I thought to myself, something like this would look cool in my apartment. Then I thought: This looks expensive, but I could probably just make it myself. How hard could it be to master macramé?

I have uttered the over-confidant refrain "I could make that myself" before. It mainly occurs to me in art galleries, when I'm standing in front of an abstract painting flecked with little more than a few specks of paint. Usually, though, nothing comes of the impulse.

Making macramé – by definition, cord tied into decorative knots – seemed doable. No messy paints or toxic turpentine involved. I assumed it would only take a spool of rope (which I bought for a few dollars at a hardware store) and that font of knowledge: the Internet.

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I found an online tutorial that included both video demonstrations and written instructions for the various types of knots, such as square, half hitch and pretty, pretzel-like twists called Josephine. I started off keenly, unspooling and cutting off sections of jute. I put on some Joni Mitchell to set the mood. My enthusiasm quickly faded when the cheap, gristly rope made my fingers itch. Things got worse when every knot I tied looked as messy and awkward as a sex scene from Girls.

I decided to seek professional help.

Toronto's Laura Ayres-Selent makes macramé wall hangings and plant hangers that she sells through her Etsy store, The Vintage Loop. She has been familiar with the craft her whole life, but didn't start doing it herself until she tried to buy a plant hanger for her home and couldn't find one.

"Like most people, I Googled it," she says, describing how she began developing her precise technique. "Then I scoured second-hand stores for vintage how-to books and found some wonderful things."

Ms. Ayres-Selent is particular about the rope she uses. "As far as I know, jute was the most popular material used in the 1970s," she says. But "I try to keep jute use at a minimum because there are so many other great materials these days." Instead, she gravitates to a synthetic cord from the Pepperell Braiding Company called Bonnie. "I like it best because it holds knots well."

I tried my own project again using a synthetic cord. It helped. My knots looked distinct and less frizzy. I could see a pattern emerging. But it still didn't sing to me like my initial inspiration.

So I headed to California – Glendale, to be exact, where award-winning textile artist Tanya Aguiniga (her work has been featured in Dwell, Wallpaper and the L.A. Times, which described her as "the patron saint of the Los Angeles modern craft movement") makes monumental wall hangings that blend macramé and different weaving techniques.

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Ms. Aguiniga, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, invited me to her studio, a bright, converted factory full of inspiration images, sketches and yards of different kinds of rope, including alpaca cord from Peru and some vibrant twine made of candy wrappers she picked up in India. The expansive space allows her to create massive pieces such as a set of seven-foot-tall panels recently completed for the American Trade Hotel in Panama City.

"If you look at the macramé done in the seventies, it is really planned out," she said. "There's a very geometric formula to it. My work, on the other hand, is super loose."

Ms. Aguiniga doesn't use specific knots. Instead, she makes up her own. If that makes what she does sound random, it is in fact improvised in the same way as an intricate jazz performance, where the notes might not be written out in advance but all land beautifully on the ear. One of her more inspired wall hangings, for instance, incorporates an ombré dying technique and thick cotton rope that she frayed to give it a softer texture.

It was while Ms. Aguiniga was demonstrating her free-spirited approach that I realized I could never create my own macramé masterpieces. I just don't have that same creative sense. I need a pattern and instructions, and wouldn't be able to riff my way to something spectacular without worrying whether I was doing it right.

I asked her if she's a perfectionist about what she does.

"There is no right or wrong," she replied in a way only a true artist can. "If a knot looks nasty, you can just take it out."

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