Obituaries
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    Randall Darwall, 69, weaver of museum-worthy clothing

    Randall Darwall in 1984.
    Globe Staff/File
    Randall Darwall in 1984.

    Though best known as one of the nation’s premier weavers of fabrics, Randall Darwall was equally proficient at braiding metaphors to describe his creative niche.

    “I originally wanted to be a painter. But somehow all my colors blended into mud. Weaving is a way to set up conversations among them instead,” he told the Globe in 2002.

    For those more comfortable using sculpted glass as an analogy, there’s this: “Contemporary craft is not just making patterns, but giving people something to think about. It’s the difference between Dale Chihuly’s glass and Tiffany’s.”

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    And in a weaving journal, he once wrote: “I can’t hear all the subtleties of sound, but I can ‘hear’ color.”

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    Mr. Darwall, who taught for many years at the Cambridge School of Weston before turning to weaving full time and creating museum-quality clothing, died in his Harwich home of cancer Jan. 13, a day after turning 69.

    Shawls he wove might have fit as comfortably on gallery walls as they did on the shoulders of clients, but Mr. Darwall firmly believed his art was principally meant to be worn.

    “There are few artists in the world that are really worth looking at. The rest of us are craftsmen,” he told the Globe in 2015. “I think that as an educator, a craftsman, and an artist myself, there’s art in each of us, and for me, making functional items puts art into the context of daily use. I don’t feel like my cloth becomes fully alive until it gets purchased and becomes part of a life.”

    That emphasis on functionality didn’t stop others from wanting to admire and study his work in more formal settings. One fan donated an item he created to the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And Anne Whiston Spirn, a professor of landscape architecture and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used his work in her classroom. She also included a reverential passage about one of Mr. Darwall’s shawls in her 1998 book “The Language of Landscape.”

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    “The finished fabric of my shawl shimmers, not alone from the silk threaded through, but from the play of hues; threads transforming color, brown at one end, slipping through to green, to purple at the other end, many stories or one story line with many phases; the shawl ends in a palette of knotted twists,” she wrote.

    Speaking with Globe art critic Christine Temin for a 2002 Globe Sunday Magazine profile of Mr. Darwall, Spirn said simply that his “scarves aren’t accessories. They’re the main event.” Mr. Darwall, Spirn added, is “revered among younger weavers.”

    Mr. Darwall was much admired for his sure hand at dyeing fabrics, and combining colors. Dozens of hues danced in each scarf or shawl. In the 2002 Globe interview, he quipped: “Why use five colors when 50 will do nicely?”

    “He is a glorious colorist. His pieces look like Monet paintings,” the late Carol Sedestrom Ross, then senior vice president of the American Crafts Council, told the Christian Science Monitor in 1991.

    Nowadays, the decades-long arc of Mr. Darwall’s creativity can be viewed in a single glance, thanks to pieces created by his husband, Brian Murphy. “I started using fragments of Randy’s cloth that he had woven right from the beginning and put them into history quilts of his career,” said Murphy, who added that three of those quilts are in museums while others are in private collections.

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    A former clinical social worker, Murphy collaborated with Mr. Darwall over the years, as he explained in the 2015 Globe interview: “Randy is the weaver and the colorist. I take what he weaves and I make clothing.” Mr. Darwall crafted scarves and shawls; Murphy made jackets from his husband’s cloth.

    Together they displayed their wares at craft shows. Mr. Darwall participated in nearly 200 after launching his career. He also taught throughout the country and in places as distant as Australia and New Zealand. “We traveled the world, which is an amazing part of our personal history,” Murphy said several days ago.

    Born in Alexandria, Va., Mr. Darwall grew up in Texas, a son of the Rev. Robert Lester Darwall, an Episcopal minister, and the former Mary Asbury. “He was, as he liked to say, a PK — preacher’s kid,” Murphy said, and that inevitably meant moving from church to church as his father’s assignments changed.

    He began high school at Texas Military Institute, an Episcopal college prep school in San Antonio, and would later tell friends about the day he and other cadets saluted John F. Kennedy’s motorcade when the president visited the school in 1963, the day before he was assassinated.

    Mr. Darwall finished high school at Cranbrook, a Michigan prep school “that was an amazing part of his education,” Murphy said, and which became a steppingstone to Harvard College. “He said when he got to the East Coast, he felt like he was home.”

    After graduating from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in art history, Mr. Darwall went to the Rhode Island School of Design, from which he received a master’s in education. Art, Murphy said, always provided a refuge to Mr. Darwall. “Knowing that you’re different at an early age, art was something that gave him a sense of freedom,” Murphy said. “He felt safe through his art.”

    Mr. Darwall taught for many years after graduate school, principally at the Cambridge School of Weston, and he continued to offer workshops even after leaving the classroom behind. “He was an educator, which is another big part of his life,” Murphy said. “He really believed that it was a way to freedom. It gave someone a personal liberty that carried them through the rest of their lives.”

    They met in 1986 while participating in a 12-step program — “We both had resolved something troublesome in our lives,” Murphy said — and married in 2004.

    “We had 30 years together — 30 years of a great partnership, and we really had fun,” he said.

    “The part I loved the most about Randy is that he was the most liberal Democrat I’ve ever met, living day by day with an open heart and an open mind.”

    In addition to his husband, Mr. Darwall leaves his brother, Stephen of New Haven, Conn.; his sister, Mary Santangelo of Hawaii; two stepsisters, Janna Bartlett of Kalispell, Mont., and Chris Bartlett of California; and a stepbrother, Marvin Bruce Bartlett of Kalispell.

    A memorial gathering to celebrate Mr. Darwall’s life and work will be held at 11 a.m. May 20 in his home on Cape Cod.

    For Mr. Darwall, creating beautiful fabrics and clothing was as much a way to offer life guidance as it was a way to make a living.

    “I’m trying to get people to realize that cloth can have that kind of spiritual, emotional, and artistic content,” he told the Christian Science Monitor in 1991. If an artistic scarf or shawl “fits into your everyday life,” he added, “then it has that kind of ability to spiritually elevate everyday life.”

    Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.