Making your own yarn?

Following up on my post last week from the Portlandia episode featuring the material culture of the 1890s, I thought I’d tell you about a little historic side-project I’ve been working on for the last month: Learning to spin wool into yarn.

What? Why would anyone want to do that when there are so many fabulous stores to buy yarn in already? Well – I’ll tell you – it’s not something I went out looking to do. By happenstance, I got a spinning wheel as a hand-me-down from a cousin (who found it in the garage of their newly purchased house), and for Christmas, my sister gave me a bag of fleece from a farmer friend of hers in Oregon. Suddenly, I had the materials I needed – so why not learn?

Of course, I had to do some research (yeah!) and started off with a few books from the library, some video’s on youtube, and trying to understand how the machine worked. These methods helped get me started, but I didn’t get very far. I clearly needed a class, and thankfully the Piedmont Yarn shop had one available. So, for the last month, I’ve been taking a once-a-week wool spinning class from Lou Grantham, of San Francisco Fiber.

I’ve learned about washing the wool (not too much soap, not too hot, don’t put the water down the drain); preparing the fiber (using paddle carders, flickers, dog-brushes and even a drum carder), drop spindles and spinning wheels, worsted and woolen, and the most fun (for me anyway) is the difference between long draw and short draw (long draw for short fibers, short draw for long fibers).

It’s like magic to watch this messy ball of fiber to into a nice sooth piece of yarn! The only thing I haven’t quite mastered is plying – but I think with some practice I’ll get there (and I do need to learn how to dye it). Thankfully, I still have three very full bags of fleece (yessir-yessir, three bags full) to practice with.

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Surface Design Association seeks Executive Director

Ready to apply your business skills to an art organization? Then SDA needs you! We are looking for a high-energy member who is ready to collaborate with staff, contractors, volunteers and the Board to lead the organization poised for growth and expansion. You need to bring demonstrated management, planning and organizational skills and most importantly, the enthusiasm to make a difference. The position requires dedication, sensitivity to and tolerance of differing views, community-building skills and above all, a sense of humor. In return you can anticipate being part of a team of like-minded individuals who contribute much more than what is expected and who want to move SDA forward. Position application opens February 7, 2012 and closes February 24, 2012. Position start date is Monday, March 26, 2012 and requires attendance at the Spring Board meeting in Philadelphia April 1-3. All inquiries and applications may be directed in confidence to:

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Portlandia and the 1890s

(Yes, we realize that's a 1920s flapper's a part of the joke)

In case you missed the latest episode of Portlandia (on IFC), be warned that it is a marvelous example of history and popular culture repeating itself, and repeating itself again. Apparently, the 1890s are a growing trend in Portland and this episode satirizes the mutton-chop wearing, meat-grinding, modern pre-industrial men and women of Portland. I’ll admit, these things are all pretty hip here in the SF Bay Area too – I know a good deal of canners, knitters, beard-growers and straight-razor-users.

Cheers to costume designer Amanda Needham, who won an Emmy for her work on the show last year, for creatively capturing this unique and comedic version of the steam-punk(ish) trend (though it’s admittedly more utilitarian and less glamorous)! Enjoy the clip if you haven’t had a chance to see it:


*Image via OregonLive

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The New York Times on Trends: Yarn Bomb decor

"Do Knit Disturb" room at the Hotel Pelirocco.

Urban legend suggests that when a fashion trend hits the New York Times – it’s the beginning of the end. This past Sunday a brief piece in the Times by Lena De Casparis (Knitty Gritty) lightly suggested that “wool is popping up in everyone’s wardrobes this season. (Chalk it up to all those knitting clubs and yarn-bombers).”

But more to the point, her article also suggested that ‘knits’ are appearing in more unusual places – such as in hotel decor (with clever room names such as “Do Knit Disturb“).

While all this is clever and seems new (though iPod and coffee cup cozy’s have long been popular with the crafty kids and etsy sellers alike), I can’t help but remember Iola of the 1980s TV Series Mama’s Family and her fondness for hand-knit cozy’s ( I vaguely remember a knit tissue-box cozy that seemed pointless to my teenage self). Iola’s character was supposed to be old-fashioned and a little odd (and her making cozy’s for things was meant to reinforce this idea).

Knitted Tea Cozy's from the 1950s (via etsy)

Knitting covers for objects has also always felt more like a British phenomenon to me (and noticeably, the hotel highlighted in the New York Times is in the UK). I’m thinking specifically of tea cozy’s here. Joanne Turney’s book Culture of Knitting notes that “The tea cozy epitomizes the domestic history of knitting as an aspect of women’s dainty work and taste.”

But, going back to the notion that this ‘trend’ for knitted interior decor and fashions in general is influenced by yarn-bombers: What do you think? I’m not convinced that there is really a link between the current crop of knitted fashions and yarn-bombers (I’m sorry New York Times, but wearing a knitted sweater doesn’t mean that Yarn bombers are influencing fashion – yet). However, the notion of covering or encasing everyday objects in any kind of textile, yes suggests yarn bombers, but a broader influence might have been Christo and Jeanne Claude, who (for the unfamiliar) are best known for creating large site-specific works where they wrap large physical structures in fabric. I’d suggest that Christo influenced Yarn bombers and the two combined are beginning to influence home decor.

But, I digress: What do you think about this trend? What historical references do you see and where do you see it going?

The Pont Neuf bridge wrapped, Paris 1985 by Christo and Jeanne Claude


Turney, Joanne. The Culture of Knitting, London: Berg Publishers, 2009 (pg 3).

Strawn, Susan M. Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage From Warm Socks to High Art. Minneapolis: Voyageur Press, 2011.


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Anatolian flat-woven kilims,15th – 19th century turkey

Kilim, 18th century, Turkey, Anatolia. Wool, cotton; slit tapestry weave. 56 x 138 inches. The Caroline and H. McCoy Jones Collection. Gift of Caroline McCoy-Jones (FAMSF, de Young Museum)

Opening September 10 and running through June 10 at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young Museum, The Art of the Anatolian Kilim: Highlights from the McCoy Jones Collection includes two dozen of the finest examples of design types and regional styles. More importantly, these kilims are a part of the de Youn’gs permanent collection and are considered to be the most important group of Anatolian kilims outside Turkey.

Kilim, 18th–19th century Turkey, Anatolia Wool; slit tapestry weave 335.3 x 180.3 cm (132 x 71 in.) The Caroline and H. McCoy Jones Collection Gift of Caroline McCoy-Jones (FAMSF, De Young)

from the Press Release:

Curator Jill D’Alessandro explains, “The first presentation of works from this collection in 1990 signified a breakthrough in the appreciation of this weaving tradition. Not only was it the first time a Western museum had mounted a major exhibition dedicated to Anatolian kilims, but it was also the first time that kilims of this age, rarity and fragility were seen by the public; subsequently, the Anatolian kilim entered into the pantheon of the textile arts. With more than 20 years passing since this important collection made its public debut, many visitors, scholars and textile enthusiasts will be able to enjoy and study them for the first time.”

Curator Emerita of Textiles Cathryn Cootner will give a related lecture on October 15, titled Discontinuing Wefts: The Brilliance and Beauty of Anatolian Kilims—The Caroline & H. McCoy Jones Collection.

Ms. Cootner will illustrate how these kilims, once used to furnish houses, tents, and mosques, embody the architecture of color. Basic to this function is slit-tapestry’s huge capacity for color expression and the special character of each individual shade. The wonderful patterning only emphasizes the compelling interactions between and within colors.”

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Knitted Lace of Estonia (Lacis Museum in Berkeley)

September, 17, 2011 to February 4, 2012 at Lacis Museum of of Lace & Textiles

The Fall textile exhibit will focus on THE KNITTED LACE OF ESTONIA and its manifestations in relation to the alternate Estonian knitting disciplines, as well as the knitted lace in the cultures of Russia, Shetland, Germany and other geographic enclaves where lace knitting became the spirit of the soul.
Nancy Bush, sharing her love of Estonia, will be taking a curatorial role and will develop educational programs coordinated with the exhibit.  September 17, 2011 to February 4, 2012, with a Friday evening opening party on September 16.

An invitation is extended to lace knitters, who have ventured into the cultural knitted laces of the exhibit and who would like to share their accomplishments, to submit photos of their work for consideration as to inclusion in this exhibit.

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Books in Brief: “Unravel: Knitwear in Fashion”

Bathing suit by Elsa Schiaparelli, c. 1928 (c) Condé Nast Archive / CORBIS

Lannoo Publishers recently released a new book on the history of knitwear titled, Unravel: Knitwear in Fashion by Emmanuelle Dirix. Dirix teaches costume history at the fashion department of the Antwerp Academy and the book was published to coincide with an exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp (on view through August 14). Articles on the exhibition have already come out from A Shaded View and Dazed Digital. For more on the exhibit, check out this interview with MoMu’s curator Karen Van Godtsenhoven.

The catalog, however, is a hidden gem that could easily slip under the radar of many a fashion historian. It is printed in both English and Dutch, and includes a dozen essays covering various aspects of knitwear history as well as interviews with current knitwear designers and artists (including Sandra Backlund) . I am particular fond of the essays “Drop One, Pick Up Two, Drop One” by Emmanuelle Dirix ,  “Knitting for Victory” by Jane Tynan and “Twinset and Match” by Alistair O’Neill.

Swimsuits on exhibit from 1910-1955 (including McCardell, Gernreich) See below for close ups of these suits.

Dirix’s essay traces the history of knitwear from home knitting and ‘hobby culture’ in the arts and crafts movement through Chanel and Schiaparelli and Patou’s use of knitwear for sportswear and into the use of surrealism and trompe le’oeil sweaters of the 1930s. Her research continues through WWII, post-war era of refinement and into the youth rebellion designers of Mary Quant, Rudi Gernreich and Biba (among others). Her essay leaves off suggesting that the 1980s and 1990s held the “most shocking and subversive knitwear chapter in history” due to the ad campaigns by Italian knitwear label Benetton and its use of racial politics, the Aids epidemic and child labor to shock viewers.

Jane Tynan‘s essay “Kniting for Victory: Military Chic in Fashion Knitwear” tackles one of my favorite topics – knitting ‘comforts’ during wartime. Of particular interest is a booklet discussed in her essay titled “Women & War: How to Knit and Crochet Articles necessary to the Health and Comfort of our Soldiers and Sailors” (1914-1918). “In Twinset and Match: The Culture of the Twinset” by Alistair O’Neill, addresses the development of the iconic image of the woman in a twinset – including the work of Pringle of Scotland, hollywood starlets and the pre-war and post-war context of the sweatergirl. I should also mention the essays by Lydia Kamitsis (“Knitwear in French Fashion: From Gabrielle Chanel to Sonia Rykiel” and Joanne Turney: (“Dressing Like Grandad: Geek Chic and the Significance of the Cardigan in Contemporary Menswear.”)

This book is a gem, and features excellent writing by a number of authorities from an amazing array of viewpoints. If like me, you can’t make it to exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp before August 14, the catalog makes up for it in spades:









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Mary Tuma: Fabric, The Body and Mariano Fortuny


Jennifer Heath, a UC Press author (The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics and Land of the Unconquerable) recently turned my attention to contemporary artist Mary Tuma. Having only seen a photograph of her ‘tall fashions,’ and knowing that her work stemmed from in interest in liberating women, I became intrigued and wanted to know more.

A native of Oakland, CA she earned a BS in Costume and Textile Design from University of California – Davis.

Her artists statement notes:

internal systems III, 2008. poly-satin ribbon, yarns and string. variable. By Mary Tuma.

“My work addresses the issues of the transformation of the body and the spirit through the use of clothing forms applied to found objects or placed within a contextual environment. The use of old fabrics and found objects is important in creating a work or environment that evokes a feeling of loss, or distant memory.”

Not surprisingly, given her interest in crochet and sewing, her work reminds me of Ruth Asawa’s basket-like sculpture. Heath filled me in a little bit more on her recent work, Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice: “[It’s] huge. . .  but based on the fashions of Marino Fortuny, the kind of Greek revival dresses that helped liberate women from corsets. To Mary, these are meaningful in terms of  the Arab Spring (she is half Palestinian). The Three Pillars just went to a show in Kuwait. . . .  Mary teaches fibre arts and fashion at UNCC.” Mariano Fortuny’s designs (worn by the likes of Lillian Gish and Isadora Duncan) and their influence on Tuma’s work seemed a unique connection. Happily I had a chance to ask Tuma about her work directly:

Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice (Kuwait) By Mary Tuma (Photo Via Jennifer Heath)

Fashion Historia: What is the significance of fashion history in your current piece, Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice?

Mary Tuma: “Fashion is a human rights issue. One can see this clearly in the current debate over the right or requirement of women of Islamic faith to wear head scarves. Mariano Fortuny’s work has always stood out in my mind as a great example of the fashionable un-corseted natural body of woman— a celebration of unaltered human form. For me, his work speaks volumes about woman’s right to exist in her natural form apart from cultural shackles. Of course Fortuny’s Delphos dresses (on which I based formal aspects of my piece Three Pillars) were inspired by ancient Greek statuary, which serves as a reference to a culture involved in early experiments in democracy. So, for that reason, the Fortuny model seemed very appropriate for a piece about the current “Arab Spring,” which is what Three Pillars addresses. For me, democracy is also a feminist issue, and is meaningless if it’s not. As the Arab World changes, it is my hope that women will step up and take an increasingly integral role in forming new governments and creating policy. So Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice (which also spells LUV by the way!) is my way of hoping to inspire feminism in the face of changes and to inspire women to stay in the dialogue.”

Fashion Historia: How did your education at UC Davis help prepare you for your work as an artist ?

Mary Tuma: “My education at UCD Design prepared me in many ways to function as an artist working in fiber materials and methods. Apart from learning to work with dyes, garment forms, etc., I took some very important classes that directed my thinking. History of Costume (with JoAnn Stabb) was one of these and it was where I first learned about Fortuny and his amazing work.

Homes for the disembodiednext piece, 2000, remade 2003. 50 meters of continuous fabric, fallen trees, thread, stones, wire. approximately 10' x 25' x 7' (dimensions variable)

I have been fascinated since then with the mystery of the permanently pleated silk. Three Pillars was my first experiment in playing with permanently pleating silk after a student brought me an article from the web on how to “fake” it! The other two very influential classes were Textiles of the World 1 & 2…. These three courses have influenced my direction with my work in a sort of constant way. I did go on after earning my BS in Textile and Costume Design from UCD to study Women’s Fashion area at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] and Costume Design for Theater at Humboldt State University. Of course all of these experiences contributed to my knowledge base and have given me a unique perspective from which to work. My MFA is in Fine Art from the University of Arizona, where I studied Fibers with Gayle Wimmer. It was at the University of Arizona where I began to feel the difference between Art, Craft and Design and where I was able to negotiate between these areas to develop my practice.”

I’m thrilled to be able to share this unique use of fashion history in contemporary art. I think Mary Tuma’s work a new iteration of the 1980s ‘art to wear’ movement (which holds strong ties to California). I’d love to have your thoughts and comments on her work.

Additional Resources:

For more on Classicism in fashion see the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s online exhibition Goddess (2003).

For more on Mary Tuma, please see the Institute for Middle Eastern Understanding.

*Image above is of a Mariano Fortuny Delphose dress (1930) via the MET, CI (2009.300.2606, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of the estate of Mary Boocock Leavitt, 1974)


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Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Socks to High Art

As many of you know, I’m an avid knitter. I’ve previously written about knitting from a variety of perspectives: ‘vintage’ inspired pattern books (Ohio Knitting Mills); the new(ish) street art trend for Yarn Bombing, as well as crafting and gender. Though I’m amazed by the work of avant garde designer Sandra Backlund, I really don’t know if it’s possible to emulate her patterns. In contrast to Tove Hermanson‘s cry for more modern and experimental knit patterns, I crave historicism and ‘vintage charm.’

My "Hush Hush" 1920s knitted nightie (of lace Merino)

And so, for the last six weeks I’ve been knitting a 1920s shift dress with a lovely feather and fan pattern detail and some ribbing.  It has been slow going – small needles and tiny yarn with lots of details. I just finished it this week and I have to admit that it’s satisfying to have come this far. About half-way through the project, I received a copy of the paperback, Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Sock to High Art and so wanted to start reading it immediately. I resisted the temptation, and now that I’m finished with my dress, I get to explore the book!

Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Sock to High Art by academic and knitter Susan M. Strawn (formerly of Interweave Press, and now a professor at dress and culture at Dominican University), is thoroughly researched and includes a good index, resources list and detailed endnotes. It is heavily illustrated (300+) with paintings, photographs, posters and vintage advertisements. It covers “The First American Knitters” (Chapter 1) of the 1700s through “Knitting Redefined” (Chapter 12) which brings the book up to 2007.

Not surprisingly, a good portion of the book connects women’s and children’s knitting to military activism and patriotism (especially during the Civil War, WWI, and WWII). It includes fascinating posters and slogans such as “Remember Pearl Harbor, PURL HARDER” and the red cross campaign slogan,”Our Boys need Sox, Knit Your Bit” (seen below). After thumbing through it, one really gets a clear message that the perception  of knitting transforms frequently in American popular culture – though it always seems to have been found valuable. Knitting America includes a few paragraphs on Native American knitting, and interestingly, that the popularity of knitting seems to have wained in the 1920s (it seems that due to the high demand for hand-knitted items in WWI, people were just burnt out on it by the 1920s).

Page 98-99 (From Chapter Six "The Knitting War")

The book also includes 20 historical knitting patterns, including various military socks, baby clothes, a particularly intriguing purse from the 1890s, as well as mittens, scarves and ties. The patters seem to be based on both actual historical garments (the Zoar Mittens below are from the Ohio Historical Society) as well as historical printed pattern instructions. covers the idea of knitting in American history with amazing breadth – everything from Civil War Reenactment Knitters (pg 49) to the emergence of ‘art knitting’ (pg 192) to Native Alaskan Qiviut Lace Knitting (pg 71) to Amish and Mennonite Knitting (p6 65) and even includes a photograph of Sojourner Truth knitting in 1864 (pg. 40).

Page 60-61 (Chapter 4: Traveling Stitches) including Pattern for 1880s Zoar Mittens

Of the 20 patters included in the book, I have my sights set on either the 1950s Men’s argyle socks (164) or 1930s Baby Soaker (pg 127) reprinted from the The Farmer’s Wife, March 1939. If anyone has tried out any of the patterns, I’d love to hear your feedback.

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Teaser Tuesday: Craft in America

Premiering tonight on PBS at 8pm is Craft in America, and from the trailer it looks like it will offer some inspiring stories on handcrafted objects and their role in culture. The companion book is available for sale : Craft in America: Celebrating Two Centuries of Artists and Objects

Watch the full episode. See more Craft in America.



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