She was born in north Somerset in 1907, the eldest of the five children of Professor B.T.P. Barker of Bristol University (Professor of Agriculture and Horticulture), also the Director of the Fruit and Cider Research Station at Long Ashton. She studied for the Diploma in Textile Industries and Design at both Leeds University and Leeds School of Art; the two-stream course was created especially for her and she was the first women to study textile industries at Leeds, a lone female among some 75 men.
Although the course was devoted chiefly to industrial practice, Barker also took a craft specialism in silk weaving, a line of enquiry she followed throughout her life. In 1930 she joined the London contract design studio of the carpet firm John Crossley and Sons under the direction of B.C. Baltazanos. Among the carpets they created were fine Wiltons for the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Designs had to be painstakingly painted out in repeat and a precise, developed colour sense was required. At this time Barker threw herself into London life and was a keen follower of ballet, opera, music and the theatre.
In the war years Barker served as a paymaster in the WRNS. She enjoyed the responsibility and even the complicated calculations, adapting easily from her "other" life in a design studio. Her position as a Wren officer, she claimed in her autobiography (Tangled Threads, 1998), gave her the courage to challenge her teachers when she re-entered art school on a "demob" grant after the war.
Studying for an Art Teacher's Dip-loma at Hornsey School of Art in 1947, she found the weaving being taught dull and the grant inadequate; however, she was soon teaching evening classes there herself, the income from which helped her to survive. She soon became a member of the regular part-time staff.
At the age of 43 she began also to teach at Brighton School of Art, taking over a part-time job from the elderly Ethel Mairet, one of the Ditchling group of artists and craftspeople. Mairet's legendary "Gospels" workshop was the seedbed for many advanced textile talents, amongst whom were Marianne Straub and Peter Collingwood.
Barker, who was still living in London, visited often at weekends from 1950 to 1952, staying in the house-cum-studio and "working her passage"; she had an open brief to weave in her own style, using Mairet's collection of luxurious silk and wool yarns combined with industrially spun cotton. Elegant, gauze-weave stoles and scarves from the late phase of Gospels (1950-52) are attributed to her.
During the 1950s Mary Barker exhibited with the Crafts Centre in London, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society (now the Society of Designer-Craftsmen) and the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. In 1959 she moved permanently to Brighton and her abstract hangings in silk and wool began to appear in shows of national significance, including "Weaving for Walls", at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1965.
Down in Brighton the showed with the Phoenix Group from the late 1950s to 1982. Her output included embroideries, lithographs and paintings as well as hand-woven wall-hangings and one-off garments. Examples of her work accompanied her on lecture tours which, following retirement from teaching in 1970, took her to Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada.
Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and up to the late 1970s, she steered the production of the Quarterly Journal of the Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, often known as the "Weavers' Journal". She was twice Secretary and Chairman of its editorial committee over a period of 26 years while contributing news, reviews and articles to improve hand-weaving knowledge. The guild's exhibitions, both nationally and in her own East Sussex branch, included her work right up to 1998; she was also its President throughout the 1990s.
Mary Barker's services to her craft were recognised in 1992 when she was appointed MBE. She received this award accompanied by her nephew Christopher Round.
Mary Barker, weaver: born Long Ashton, Somerset 10 February 1907; MBE 1992; died Brighton, East Sussex 20 January 1999.Reuse content