23 November 2015


I recently had the opportunity to travel in the Washington, D.C. area. If Rome can be described as a place with a church on every street corner, then Washington, D.C. can be described as a place with a museum on every street corner. So many to explore! If holiday travel takes you near our nation's capital, may I suggest spending a couple hours at the National Museum of Women in the Arts?

I'll start with the premise you are using the trains, as why would anyone want to drive in Washington, D.C.? Disembark at Metro Center (red, blue, orange, or silver lines). Follow the signs to the 13th Street exit (it is at one end of the Red Line platform). Turn right as you exit onto 13th Street and walk two short blocks to the museum. You'll see the short end of the museum -- it is built on one of those funky wedge-shaped lots so ubiquitous in Washington, D.C. -- and need to walk around to the New York Avenue side to enter.

The museum building is a beautiful example of classical architecture. (You can tour it virtually here, as part of Google's Art Project.) The entrance area is fairly cosy, and you'll need to enter the gift shop to purchase your ticket ($10). Once past the main desk the interior opens into a great hall with chandeliers and the sorts of staircases you find in old movies populated by beautiful women making grand entrances in couture gowns. Yes, I like Beaux Arts architecture.

If you've read my résumé, then you'll notice near the bottom my master's thesis was "Women in Art: Documentation and Discussion of Their Inclusion in Art Historical Texts from 1900 to 1991." Walking through the permanent collection galleries here is like visiting old friends or meeting for the first time people you've only read about. But I'll surmise that maybe you don't know these names. May I suggest you head to the special exhibitions space and take in Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today?

Pathmakers (on exhibit through 28 February 2016) focuses on the role of women in design. As such, it has a lot of decorative arts -- really awesome, fabulous decorative arts from mid-20th century to today. There is plenty of fiber art, although most of it is weaving rather than spinning, knitting, or crocheting. Alas, the museum does not permit photography of special exhibitions, so I'll have to give you a taste using their materials and plenty of links. I should state right up front that their press kit did not focus on the items that most interested me.

Ruth Asawa holding a “form-within-form” sculpture,
1952; © 2015 Imogen Cunningham Trust;
Photo by Imogen Cunningham

For knitters, Ruth Asawa's work is intriguing. The item in the exhibit is Untitled (S. 407) from about 1952, and is similar or identical to the one in the picture. The sculpture hangs from the ceiling, dangling. The copper wire mesh looks like drawing in three dimensions, drawing in the air. Because of the twisted stitches, I am not sure if this is twisted-stitch knitting, or sprang, or nålbinding, or something else. The sculpture is human-sized with forms inside of forms. Are the smaller forms caged in? Or are they safely protected from a dangerous world? The layered forms create lighter and darker areas similar to lines and cross-hatching in an India ink drawing or traditional engraving or etching.

Don't know what to do with old knit or crochet blankets? You may recall Marietta Museum of Art made them into a building-sized yarn installation. Michelle Grabner has come up with a different solution. (When you follow the link, look for the images that are untitled from 2014, mostly white, with enamel on panel.) She stretches the afghans across panel, then applies black spray paint. She removes the afghan, leaving a sort of negative print. Then she over paints most of the black areas using high gloss white enamel paint. The resulting images are geometric without being hard edged. They are somewhat ghostly, almost as if the blanket decayed into dust and left behind the marks on the canvas. The enamel adds subtle texture -- gloss versus matte as well as slightly raised (like a thin pebble) versus flat.

For knitters the real highlight is three works by Mary Walker Phillips. Wall hanging (the link takes you to an interactive image) from 1965 is a small black lace arrangement. It looks a little like a deconstructed shawl. I found Rocks and Rills from 1966 to be especially intriguing. (See a small image here, when it was in a previous exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.) The work includes double-knit pockets enclosing pebbles. There are also small bobbles or knot stitches, some lace, and a surprising number of horizontal chain stitches. I am not sure how the horizontal lines were made -- did she bind off and then pick up stitches? (Edit update: Creative Knitting: A New Art Form by Mary Walker Phillips explains how the horizontal lines are made. In the 2013 new & expanded edition, she calls it "Horizontal Stitch" and explains it on pages 74-75. She credits Trude Guermonprez with the innovation. Work a left-crossing 1 over 1 cable. Then put the last stitch on the right needle back on the left and repeat.) Unlike the first two hangings, which are smaller pieces about the size of easel paintings, For Paul Klee from 1963 is a large hanging on the scale of tapestry or history painting. It uses a lot of condo or triple (quadruple? quintuple?) wrapped stitches that I think are then twisted several times before being knit. The final design resembles weaving with its rectilinear grid, but also architectural elements such as an ironwork door.

Olga de Amaral, Hanging #57,
ca. 1957; Hand-spun wool,
87 x 43 in.;
Museum of Arts and Design;
Gift of the Dreyfus Foundation,
through the American Craft Council,
1989; Photo by Eva Heyd
If you are a spinner or weaver, there are several items worthy of your attention. Olga de Amaral's Hanging #57, ca. 1957, is made from handspun wool. The tapestry(?) weaving has multiple overlapping and intertwining layers. There is quite a bit of weaving by Dorothy Liebes, including swatches and samples illustrating her design process. I was particularly struck by some large-scale weaving involving shiny fibers such as Orlon and Fairtex or even aluminium. Polly Apfelbaum has a large-scale installation inspired by Marguerite Porter Davison's classic book of weaving patterns. And Hella Jongerius's work on the North Delegates' Lounge at the United Nations is also thoroughly represented, with a reproduction of part of the curtain and lots of woven samples and color swatches.

Before I end here, let me include a side note about The Textile Museum on the George Washington University campus. Right now they are running two exhibitions. The photography exhibit takes up two floors. The photographs of China from about 1870 will give you a broad sense of place — landscape, culture, and people from a variety of socio-economic classes. However, it only has a few (albeit spectacular) textiles on exhibit. The basement-level exhibit of paintings and textiles from mid-Asia were okay. I do not believe I saw any knit or crochet on display. The focus on photography and painting was disappointing to me. I plan to visit the museum another time, and perhaps will see objects that are more exciting to me. For this holiday season, if you want to see splendid textiles go to the National Museum of Women in the Arts first and then to The Textile Museum if time permits.

10 November 2015

Worst Needlepoint Stitch Ever?

Back in my teens and twenties, I was not knitting. Instead, I was working cross stitch, embroidery, and canvas work. All of these are slow techniques, with canvas work often being very slow. There are several reasons for this. First, the entire canvas is often covered. Even if you only worked say, five stitches per inch, that would be 25 stitches in every square inch. The squared part of the equation is not your friend. (Area = side × side) It multiplies up fast.

Secondly, canvas work is sometimes done with novelty threads but sometimes worked in silk or cotton stranded floss. When worked in floss, the directions usually specific a specific number of strands to hold together. These strands are stroked into place so that they all lie parallel on the surface of the canvas. Every up and down of the needle is more like up, down, stroke into place, tug gently to settle. Not fast. But because the threads are highly directional, the effect is multiple subtle tints and shades of the same hue. The directional sheen thrown off from this technique can be spectacular.

Years ago my mother purchased a small canvas work kit, "Strawberry Trellis Pincushion" at Winterthur museum in Delaware. It is based on a pocketbook inscribed "Henry Row 1794" in their collection (accession # 1964.0811.) The colors matched her living room. I agreed to make it up for her.

Normally, I am happy to do this sort of work. I recognize the slow pace, but I also find it can be meditative. It is nice to get lost in the steady progression of a beautiful piece. It is nice to enjoy the beauty your own hands can produce. Many canvas work pieces also have a variety of stitch patterns or thread types. About the time you are bored with one area, you change threads and pattern and move onto a fresh, new, exciting section. Let me state for the record, that is not this piece!

I was reminded of this piece this week when I attended a program about American embroidered samplers at Textile Appreciation Society of Atlanta. Dr. Lynn C. Tinley, independent scholar and adjunct history professor, Oglethorpe University, was the presenter. Dr. Tinley showed slides of beautiful samplers. Many of the samplers used cross stitches counted across unbelievably fine linen. But some of them also used queen stitch, which is the stitch used throughout the strawberry trellis pincushion.

Why is it called queen stitch? First off, it uses lots more thread than regular stitches. You might need to be royalty to afford it, particularly if you were using silk imported from halfway around the world. Because stitches run in both directions, it produces a lovely, subtle sheen reminiscent of silk velvet. And it covers the canvas quite completely on both the right and wrong sides. But it is a royal pain to work. As you can see in the detail, the stitch is a diamond shape. There are four long vertical stitches tacked down with four small horizontal stitches. What makes this stitch a special pain is there will be places in the pattern with ten(!) sets of threads in a single hole. It is even slower to work than counted cross-stitch.

 One of my goals for 2014 (last year) was to finish abandoned projects. I can not even tell you what year I started this thing, as there were times it sat untouched for at least a year or two, clamped into the embroidery stand in the corner of the living room. It was about half done when I picked it back up in the summer of 2014. I made it a point to work on it while watching Crossbones (the pirate show starring John Malkovich on NBC that only ran 9 episodes). I continued to work on the dang thing while watching evening newscasts. I'm not sure how many hours are in this project, but I would guess between 50 and 100. (For scale, the whole project is about 4 inches on a side, or just over 6 inches across as displayed en pointe. The detail above is one inch high by two inches wide.) Also, as the entire project is the same stitch worked in the same pattern over and over, there was nothing to break up the monotony.

By the time I finally completed this annoying little thing, my mother had redecorated her living room and changed the color scheme. She had the piece for awhile, but then gave it back to me. I haven't decided if I should frame it or mount it in the top of a box or turn it into a pincushion. A good project is one that looks beautiful and, ideally, is less work than it seems. Even if it takes time, the time spent is pleasant because the journey is enjoyable. This project is the opposite. It looks okay but not spectacular, and no one who hasn't worked queen stitch will have any idea what a pain it was to work or how boring or how much time it soaked up. Hence, I am wondering is this the worst needlepoint stitch ever?

04 November 2015

SAFF 2015

This year was the year of the big change for Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair. For as many years as I have attended — I think my first was in 2008  SAFF has shared the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center with a tractor show. SAFF attendees entered the fairgrounds on the Fanning Bridge Road (north) side of the grounds; and SAFF used the McGough Arena as the main vendor area and the Sales Arena as the overflow, with animals in the various barns. This year the main entrance was Gate 7 on Airport Road, which is at the southern-most end of the fairgrounds, just as Airport Road turns west and becomes Boylston Highway. Animals were in McGough Arena and the Sales Arena with some overflow to the barns, while vendors were in Davis Arena with overflow directly next door in Barn F. The fleece sale had its own space in the Boone Building -- a large log cabin. About the only area that didn't change was the Expo Center still hosted workshops.

I taught my usual hectic schedule. I am deeply grateful that I still get to teach at a show that now has teachers like Abby Franquemont, Franklin Habit, Judith MacKenzie, John Mullarkey, Esther Rodgers, and Nancy Shroyer. The range of classes is fantastic — spinning, knitting, weaving, dyeing, felting. On Thursday I saw a class outdoors in the parking lot dyeing fabric and yarn with an indigo dye pot. My Friday afternoon class did not make, so I had a few hours to walk around and shop. I did not get farther than the vendors and the fleece show, which meant I missed seeing all the adorable animals. Ack!

What got me stuck was I walked into the fleece show while Judith MacKenzie was judging the wool.
(Apologies for the awful photo, at left.) If you are either a spinner or a shepherd and you ever have a chance to watch Judith judge, drop everything, sit yourself down, and listen. Each fleece she checked for breaks and consistency. She talked about what made a fleece good or bad for hand spinners. She also talked about the categories for fleece — fine, medium, long, and primitive/double coated. Sometimes Judith would state that a particular fleece had been entered in the wrong category. Several times she mentioned that a fleece was a lamb's fleece and wasn't dense and full across the back, but stated that the fleece showed good characteristics and should be shown next year. The grand champion was a black Gotland that won not only because it was a beautiful colored fleece, but because there are fewer Gotland genetics, making the combination of color and good fleece qualities especially difficult to achieve. The reserve grand champion was a black medium fleece with perfect block-shaped staples and tight crimp. I gasped audibly when it was brought out, even before Judith began judging it. Fortunately or unfortunately, I was too busy teaching on Saturday to run over and bid on it. I was also very well-behaved in the market because my Majacraft order had arrived at the shop and I knew I needed to pick it up on Tuesday. I don't see the results of the fleece show listened on the SAFF website, which is a shame as I am already hoping to stalk the reserve grand champion shepherd next year. By the way, I bumped into Esther on Sunday. She was leading a group of newly-trained tail spinners in choosing fleeces. Esther purchased the gorgeous black teeswater that won Judge's Special Choice. I walked away knowing the beautiful fleece went home with a first-rate spinner who will show off its winning qualities.

The Skein and Garment show was in the Davis Arena, just across the hall from the vendors. There was very little weaving entered this year. Weavers, where are you? I did not write down the names of anybody; and unfortunately they are not listed on the SAFF website as far as I can tell. I show these possibly blurry photographs to give you an idea why when you attend SAFF you should be sure to duck into the Skein and Garment show!

 Felted art. Starry Night got a blue ribbon, and the landscape on the left got red.

Skeins of handspun, after judging. The overall winner is the bulky, multi-colored art yarn piled with black. Core spinners, take notice! The yellow-pink-violet-turquoise gradient lace weight in the foreground was impressive, too. Perhaps it will show up next year as a finished shawl?

Best in Show was this felted coat. Again, apologies for the picture quality. There was no shortage of impressive felting, including a 3-D felted swan and a 3-D felted carousel horse with beaded embellishments. There were also some knitted items, especially circular lace shawls. In general, I thought the felters ruled the Skein and Garment show, followed by the handspinners.

Now that SAFF is over, I have a break in my schedule over the holidays. I didn't get into any of the spring shows, other than South Carolina Knit Inn. But that doesn't mean that I don't have decisions to make. Most of the spring events open registration in November. Decisions, decisions.

South Carolina Knit Inn, Greenville SC, 5-7 February 2016. Class listings on 16 November. Registration opens 30 November. This one fills up more or less immediately.
STITCHES South in Nashville TN, 31 March through 3 April 2016. Registration opened 2 November. Early bird registration (better prices) ends on 29 January 2016.
Interweave Yarn Fest, Loveland CO, 31 March through 3 April 2016. Registration is already open.
PLY Away, Kansas City MO, 21 - 24 April 2016. Registration opens on 11 November.
Unwind, Blowing Rock NC, 29 April through 2 May 2016. Registration opens on 8 November.
Maryland Sheep and Wool, West Friendship MD, 7 & 8 May 2016. I'm not yet sure when registration opens, as it looks to me as if the class listing is still from last year.

Speaking of Unwind, they held a reunion party on Saturday night at SAFF. It was great to see Nancy, Sue, Marie, and many other familiar faces. With a little luck this might become yet another annual reason to drive up to North Carolina to enjoy the turning of the season and the gathering of the fiber lovers.