Ethel Stein, Who Created Intricate Textile Art, Dies at 100
Ethel Stein, a weaver who created countless intricate textile artworks and one particularly influential sock puppet, died on Friday in Cortlandt, N.Y. She was 100.
Her son, Carl, said the cause was complications of pneumonia.
Working largely out of the artistic limelight at her home in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., Ms. Stein resurrected historical weaving techniques and merged them with 20th-century Bauhaus design sensibilities.
“The result was something new and profound,” Daniel Walker, former chairman of the department of textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago, said by email, “seemingly simple patterns based on geometry and shading, whose apparent simplicity had been made possible only because of the technical complexity of the weaving. Stein’s artistic legacy is thus a unique one.”
A more lighthearted part of her legacy came from a side business that grew out of her penchant for repurposing things that others might have discarded. She turned old socks into puppets, first for her son’s nursery school, then for a growing body of fans.
She began selling them at a booth in a department store in Manhattan; a monograph published by her representative, Browngrotta Arts, says she sold 10,000. One wound up in, or on, the hands of a young puppeteer named Shari Lewis, who by 1953 was making a name for herself in children’s television in the New York market. Ms. Stein, the monograph says, designed several puppets for Ms. Lewis, who would later in the 1950s achieve national fame with Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and the rest of her puppet pals.
Ethel Levy was born on June 22, 1917, in New York City to Tanya Levy. Carl Stein said his mother never spoke of her father. She was reared by an aunt and uncle, Ella and Abbo Ostrowsky, and spent several years at the progressive Hessian Hills School in Croton-on-Hudson, where the teachers included the painter George Biddle and the sculptor Wharton Esherick. She did not attend college, but by the latter half of the 1930s she was working as an assistant at the Educational Alliance Art School in Manhattan, where Mr. Ostrowsky was director.
There she learned from the sculptor Chaim Gross, and after moving to Cambridge, Mass., in the late 1930s, she studied with Josef Albers and others associated with the Bauhaus movement. She also met her future husband, the architect Richard G. Stein, who was completing his master’s degree at Harvard. After his service in World War II, they settled in Croton-on-Hudson.
Ms. Stein was a sculptor early in her career but became increasingly interested in textiles, and in the 1970s her woven work took on a new level of complexity after she met Milton Sonday, then the curator of textiles at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She began studying the textiles in the museum’s collection, sometimes under a microscope, to see how they were made.
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