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.
Credit Tom Grotta/Browngrotta Arts
“Perhaps more than any other significant textile artist of the 20th century, Ethel Stein’s work grew out of her study of historical textile techniques that she decoded to achieve an extraordinary freedom of expression in her own woven art works,” Lucy A. Commoner, former head of conservation and senior textile conservator at Cooper Hewitt, said by email.
“Through years of research in world-renowned museum textile collections,” Ms. Commoner added, “she made permanent contributions to the academic study of textile structures while simultaneously informing her own work.”
That work could be colorfully geometric, like her “Red, Yellow, Blue, Green, Orange” series from 1995. It could be monochromatic, like “White Pinwheel,” a 1990 work that achieves a tunnel-like effect. It could be abstract or figurative, meticulously planned and diagramed or a product of experimentation and happy accident.
Credit Tom Grotta/browngrotta arts
Ms. Stein’s works were exhibited in group shows at institutions including Cooper Hewitt, the American Craft Museum in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as in England, the Netherlands and Switzerland. But she was not widely known outside the textile-art world.
“Ethel Stein did not shun an audience; rather, she sidestepped the pervasive marketing focus of others,” Jack Lenor Larsen, a noted textile designer and author, wrote in the introduction to the monograph. “She would rather just get on to the next project.”
Ms. Stein’s husband died in 1990. In addition to her son, she is survived by a granddaughter.
In 2012, Ms. Stein donated 34 of her works to the Art Institute of Chicago, which in 2014 gave her, at 96, what Mr. Walker said was her first solo exhibition. A video made for that exhibition shows her not only working a formidable loom, but also making the mathematical calculations necessary to achieve the patterns she was after, hand-dying the threads and more.
Mr. Walker put it simply. “She was,” he said, “a weaver’s weaver.”