Kamma Zethraus

Erin Dowding

“Weave as much as possible” is the first line of responsibilities assigned to Kamma Zethraus (1898–1988) on an internal list of roles given to the Textile Department of Dorothy Liebes’s San Francisco studio (Fig. 1). [1] Weave, and weave beautifully, as much as possible, is exactly what Zethraus did while working with Liebes and throughout her life. On that same document, “Bed of Roses” is listed as one of Zethraus’s jobs. Bed of Roses, completed in 1952, was the name given to the dramatic and elegant commissioned draperies the Liebes studio created for the SS America’s grand ballroom (Figs. 2, 3). Handwoven by Zethraus, the length of the fabric drapery in total was a phenomenal eighty yards, with each panel featuring a large singular rose in deep reds and fuchsias woven in rya technique, lending each bloom texture and vivid three-dimensionality (Fig. 4). A job of this size and scope was put in the capable hands of Zethraus, considered by Liebes to be one of her “most talented weavers” who brought a passion for weaving and profound technical skill to the studio. A large audience of readers didn’t have to go to sea to appreciate Bed of Roses. It was displayed on the cover of the April 1944 issue of House & Garden magazine, which featured a colorful sweep of textured Dorothy Liebes Studio fabrics (Fig. 5). One of these panels now is housed in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.  

After immigrating to California from Denmark in the 1920s, Zethraus was part of an active Scandinavian community in the Bay Area, much of which centered on the cultural events hosted by Swedish weaver Valborg “Mama” Gravander and her husband out of their Mill Valley home. Gravander, a fixture in local craft fairs, promoted Swedish culture by organizing folk festivals, hosting dinners, and teaching traditional Swedish weaving and spinning techniques—often while wearing traditional Swedish dress. Skilled in Scandinavian textile techniques, and no doubt introduced by Gravander, Zethraus was one of the first weavers Liebes hired as she set up her San Francisco studio in 1937. Zethraus became one of Liebes’s most relied-upon weavers to handle challenging jobs. She could incorporate texture into her work with flowers, similar to the knotting style used in Bed of Roses, which became a signature look for her (Figs. 6, 7 & 8). Liebes’s influence on Zethraus was lifelong as well, as Zethraus’s adding a glint of metallic threads into her own tapestry work can be directly attributed to her time in the Liebes studio. 

Zethraus, with her superb weaving ability and her broad knowledge of fibers and spinning, was instrumental in helping Liebes set up her San Francisco studio. As business demands and public engagements took Liebes out of the studio for long stretches of time, Zethraus assisted with maintaining quality control, working with the other studio weavers to develop the look of fabrics on the loom. Through Liebes’s process of establishing her New York studio in the early 1950s, Zethraus was a steady presence on the West Coast, maintaining order and ensuring projects were up to Liebes’s standard. “Kamma is so loyal to the studio and you,” Louise Fong, one of Liebes’s most trusted employees, wrote to her, updating Liebes while she was away. “You can always depend on Kamma and I to keep an eye on everything so don’t worry” (Fig. 9). [2]  

From the early days, the Dorothy Liebes studio was open to studio workers’ families, as it was a small and close-knit group. Zethraus’s daughter, Ivy, grew up coming into the studio, and Liebes took time to inquire after the health and well-being of Zethraus’s husband, Carl Louis. In 1952, Zethraus and Ivy came to New York, where they stayed in an efficiency attached to Liebes’s apartment, to help with the move and manage the transition of projects. That summer, Liebes wrote to studio manager Ralph Higbee in San Francisco to tell him that she and Kamma were “going to do a lot of weaving and designing” during the Fourth of July holiday and, that although her secretary had fallen ill and she was left shorthanded, “Ivy Zethraus is helping me out at the moment.” [3] Zethraus, having worked collaboratively with Liebes from the start of Liebes’s career, was there for her boss when needed, coming to New York to work on large projects that required her skill and expertise (Fig. 10). The friendship and professional rapport between the two lasted throughout their lives, and their friendship and professional understanding of one another could be seen in their work (Fig. 11). When Liebes dedicated herself to producing items that would be more affordable to a wider audience, she turned to Zethraus to help her problem-solve. Liebes believed that creating the look of handloomed fabric on machines started with the yarn. Writing about the process in her memoirs, Liebes states that Zethraus “went to work on her Swedish spinning wheel” and developed a boucle yarn that gave an “undulating look” that could be easily replicated by Goodall’s spinning machines. [4] 

“Extravagantly proud” of the work created by weavers and “alumni” of her studio, Liebes was an avid advocate of the talent of those she worked alongside. [5] Liebes invited the weavers who worked with her submit designs to exhibitions she was curating; she acknowledged their skills, encouraged experimentation, and urged them to find a voice and style in their own work. Zethraus’s weavings were first exhibited in 1939 Golden Gate International Exhibition, for which Liebes directed and curated the Decorative Arts Pavilion. In 1955, Zethraus won Best in Show for a Swedish-style flossa rug included in the Contemporary Handweavers of California 6th Biennial Exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, California, and was featured in the November/December issue of Craft Horizons magazine. [6] In 1958, Zethraus’s work was exhibited in the Nylon Rug Designs show, organized by Liebes for the DuPont Company, that was shown at twenty different US museums through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services. Leading weavers, including Anni Albers, Marion Dorn, Trude Guermonprez, Jack Lenor Larsen, and Marianne Strengell, were supplied with DuPont’s nylon yarns to create sample rugs that demonstrated the material’s beauty and durability. Zethraus’s white cut pile rug with green and chartreuse lines was included in the exhibition catalogue boasting a collection from “the best designers and weavers that we knew of in the carpet and rug field.” [7] Liebes wrote to Zethraus repeatedly over the years, sending her love to her and her family and congratulating Zethraus on the awards and prizes she won for her work. Zethraus shared Liebes’s spirit of mentoring young weavers and held teaching positions at Dominican College (now Dominican University of California) and at Richmond Art Center and demonstrated how to spin and weave at San Quentin State Prison. [8]  

With a tapestry needle and yarn in hand, Zethraus is featured in Dorr Bothwell’s playful drawing “Hello to Everybody!”, an illustration that is both a sweet love letter to the Dorothy Liebes Studio employees and a documentation of the diversity that defined the community with which Liebes surrounded herself (Fig. 12). Bothwell draws the collection of studio employees together in a row, all in identical blue smocks, the unofficial uniform of the Liebes studio. Bothwell characterizes each member by a few symbolic traits: Jean Beauchamp with yellow notepapers stuck to her outfit, Lorraine Har with a set of straight pins attached to her jacket, Ruth McKinlay adorned with a brooch. In the illustration, Bothwell, a dear friend of Zethraus, depicts Zethraus holding weaving supplies, close to her friends and colleagues, with a peaceful smile and a look of calm contentment, not unlike how she approached her day-to-day life working in the studio (Fig. 13).


[1] The duties of the Textile Department were clearly defined by a list correlated with each member’s name in a two-page document titled “Assignment of Work.” Zethraus’s job outline was three lines: “Weave as much as possible, consult with Ralph as to the ‘look’ on the loom. Responsible for ‘Bed of Roses.’” Series 5, Box 12, Folder 37, Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 

[2] Louise Fong, letter to Dorothy Liebes, February 1, 1952. Series 5, Box 12, Folder 33, Dorothy Liebes Papers. 

[3] Dorothy Liebes, letters to Ralph Higbee, July 3, 1952, and August 9, 1952. Series 5, Box 12, Folder 34, Dorothy Liebes Papers. 

[4] This work of altering the machines to manufacture fabric that gave the appearance of handloomed fabric was thought to be impossible to achieve. Liebes writes in her unpublished autobiography about how she went about establishing trust at Goodall and working on their machines hands-on to develop a method that not only used these new fibers demonstrated by Zethraus but also changed “the cadence of the power looms, breaking their even rhythm to achieve the slightly uneven look characteristic of hand woven fabrics.” Series 4, Box 4, Folder 10, Dorothy Liebes Papers. 

[5] Along with Zethraus, textile artists Tammis Keefe and Daren Pierce are mentioned by name in the profile, which notes that many “outstanding people now in the textile field” held their first jobs with Dorothy Liebes. “Dorothy Liebes,” Handweaver & Craftsman (Spring 1960): 56–7. 

[6] “De Young Museum Weaving Show,” Exhibitions, Craft Horizons 15, no. 6 (November/December 1955): 44. 

[7] From the promotional materials and catalogues for the Nylon Rug Designs, Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition documentation. Series 5, Box 8, Folder 24, Dorothy Liebes Papers. 

[8] Information provided by Betsy Wellington, Kamma Zethraus’s granddaughter, in an interview conducted on May 10, 2023. 

Black-and-white image of a woman in profile, sitting, facing a floor loom, holding a weaving shuttle in her right hand.

Fig. 1 Kamma Zethraus at the loom; Photo courtesy of Betsy Wellington

Black-and-white image of a ship’s ballroom with curtains at the windows, each featuring a red rose.

Fig. 2 The interior of the SS America with interior designs by Smyth, Urquhart & Marckwald featuring the Bed of Roses draperies sweeping the expanse of the Grand Ballroom; Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Black-and-white image of an entryway to a room on a ship; curtains with a large rose are on the left side.

Fig. 3 The entryway to the SS America’s Grand Ballroom, with the Bed of Roses drapes on the left; Dorothy Liebes Papers

A woman standing outside holds up a panel of a curtain that shows a white background and a large red rose with a small stem and two leaves. On her left, a child kneels; another stands on her right.

Fig. 4 One of the Bed of Roses curtains held up for display; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Cover of a magazine with the title House & Garden in white at the top and a spread of colorful fabrics displayed on the front with a corner of a light-gray chair in the right corner. A large portion of the bottom left side is filled with the pink fabric and red-looped woven rose.

Fig. 5 The April 1944 issue of House & Garden magazine featuring Bed of Roses on the cover; Condé Nast Archive

A color photo of three women together at a table looking down at a collection of textile samples, inspecting one that is woven with images of flowers on it.

Fig. 6 Tammis Keefe (left) with Dorothy Liebes and Kay Geary looking over Zethraus’s flower designs; a sample of Zethraus’s work creating large-scale roses is seen in the front; Dorothy Liebes Papers

A colorful spread of woven textile samples showing different patterns and techniques, including a flower design with texture and dimension.

Fig. 7 Dorothy Liebes Studio weaving samples, including flower work showing Zethraus’s skills with rya technique; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Close-up of a blue weaving. The background is stripes in light blue, and in the middle is a textured flower showing a variety of weaving techniques.

Fig. 8 A blue flower showcasing Kamma Zethraus’s weaving skills and ability to create texture in her work; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Black-and-white photograph of three women smiling at the camera.

Fig. 9 Louise Fong (left), Kamma Zethraus, and Dorothy Liebes in the San Francisco studio; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Black-and-white image of an extra-wide floor loom with three people at the back and three people at the front, working on weaving window blinds collaboratively.

Fig. 10 Dorothy Liebes, with Kamma Zethraus to her right and Ralph Higbee on her left, working on an extra-wide loom for woven blinds and screens, in Liebes’s East 63rd Street studio, New York City, circa 1963; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Color image of two women in the middle of the frame smiling, posing for the camera, in a New York City apartment.

Fig. 11 Kamma Zethraus and Dorothy Liebes in Liebes’s New York City apartment; Photo courtesy of Betsy Wellington

A illustration of ten people, all in blue coats, who have different objects or facial expressions. The name of each person is written vertically to their left.

Fig. 12 Members of Dorothy Liebes’s San Francisco studio in "Hello Everybody!" by Dorr Bothwell; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Black-and-white photograph of a collection of people standing behind a table of food at a party.

Fig. 13 The members of the Dorothy Liebes Studio in San Francisco, gathered for a party; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Erin Dowding

Erin Dowding is an MA candidate in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program at Parsons School of Design. She is a curatorial capstone and research fellow in the Textiles Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.