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March/April 2002


Focus on Process: 5 Jackets
By Sunita Patterson

The jacket offers a large space for creativity to shape. We chose five jackets and asked the artists to describe their inspirations and methods.

Black Sunflower; silk organza jacket and silk georgette tank dress; jacket discharge paste printed and dyed with brushstroked wax resist. Photo: Wit McKay.
Ellen Marsh & Robin McKay: Coast to Coast

Ellen Marsh lives in Redwood City, California, and Robin McKay lives in New York City. The women are sisters and collaborators. In their jackets, Ellen's surface design is paired with Robin's collage-style piecing. I asked each to describe their approach to creating this jacket from their Transparencies Collection.

EM: I mix together a lot of African and Japanese symbols (the sunflower design is African in origin). The fabric itself inspires me. Each type of silk has a surface design application that it is best suited for. It is my job to discover through experimentation what that technique happens to be.
For this jacket, starting out with black organza, I used a discharge paste and screened it onto the surface of the fabric, which removed the color; then I used an acid dye to overdye the images where the color was removed. The brushstroke designs were made using a Japanese technique called shiki-biki ("coarse brush trailing"), in which hot wax is applied with a special brush to create interesting patterns on the surface of the fabric. (See The World of Rozome: Wax-Resist Textiles of Japan, by Betsy Sterling Benjamin [New York: Kodansha, 1996]).

RM: Every package of fabric that arrives from California is an inspiration. I work by examining the various pieces and collaging them together in such a way as to create a story. The various images and textured surfaces of the fabrics are juxtaposed to produce a floating canvas in motion when the finished garment is worn.

In this piece, the sleeves are different, but there is balance in the asymmetry. They provide an anchor for the floating effect of the shiki biki. The black sunflower provides the naturalistic balance for the abstract and geometric nature of the rest of the fabric. The back of the jacket is more of a complete canvas, and the front is more simple so that it doesn't distract from the person's face -- the wearer has expression of her own.

Erica Spitzer Rasmussen: Wearable Sculpture
A Coat for Two Occasions; mixed media with handmade and Chinese joss papers; rayon lining; 60 by 31 by 5 inches. Photo: J. Tittle. Courtesy of the Gage Family Art Gallery, Augsburg College, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Minnesota artist Erica Spitzer Rasmussen made A Coat for Two Occasions in 2000 to wear to her funeral and cremation. Although she started as a painter and drawer, for the last six years she has been working more with handmade paper and garment forms. She also uses such materials as tomato paste, hair, sausage casings, tea bags, and fish skins in her work.

How were you inspired to make this coat?

ESR: I bought packets of Chinese joss paper by the hundreds years ago because it was just so beautiful. Then I discovered that it is burned ceremoniously at funerals. Each sheet is invested with a prayer for the departed. I often look at historical and cultural garments because they provide aesthetic and conceptual input. I thought that by building a coat that is Chinese in shape and adorned in modified sheets of joss paper, I might be able to address some of my anxieties about death. By stipulating in my will that I would like to be placed in this garment at the end of my life, I will be able to burn the joss for myself, somehow giving me a bit more control over my final rites.

How did you make it?

A Coat for Two Occasions (detail)

ESR: I created yardage of handmade mulberry paper by piecing small sheets together. The coat was cut and sewn from that paper. I then cut the gold leaf centers out of hundreds of sheets of joss paper. I laminated them to a heavier weight handmade paper and then burnished and washed them with acrylic paints to encourage tonal variation. Those "plates" were cut into smaller sections of differing widths and hand sewn, one by one, to the coat. After I finished attaching the plates, I soaked the entire coat in a walnut stain to darken any exposed mulberry fibers. Last, I fitted a rayon lining to the interior.

That represents about five months of part-time work for me [Rasmussen teaches at Metropolitan State University by day]. It's all very slow and methodical work, which I think is really appropriate to my conceptual concerns, because I used this time for reflecting.

Ann Clarke: Family History

To translate her ideas into garments, Ann Clarke uses an electronic knitting machine. Clarke is an assistant professor who coordinates the fibers program at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. Her project "Connected Voices," fabric pinwheels with children's drawings that arose from summer workshops she teaches, was described in our Nov/Dec '01 issue.

What inspired this jacket, and how did you make it?

Quilted Jacket of Monks; machine-knit, felted/fulled wool embellished with needlepoint, embroidery, other handstitching, and pearls and garnets. Photo: Dave Revette. Model: Jacqueline Jager-Muench.

AC: It was part of a series of jackets called "History Lessons." There is a Robert Bly poem, "Depression," that talks about the "padded robes" of very "old Tibetans" and gloves working "fingers to fingers." The form of the garment and the idea of using a lot of maroon really came from that poem and the idea that garments carry stories in them, even in the way one remembers when a used movie stub is found in a pocket.

Each pattern represents a family member. There was a pattern from a newspaper clipping on my grandfather that I abstracted and put into a repeat, and there's one from my grandmother, and on the front there are alphabet pieces that represent my children. The lattice pattern around the hands is from Spanish moss, representing tying things together from the past and the present and that all things are connected. And the hands in the center -- I'm an identical twin, so there're these two pairs of hands meeting.

It's almost the idea that -- Walter Benjamin said that to live life is to leave traces -- if you could see the traces of your life on your clothing, these messages would be there.

Do you work with these designs on the computer?

AC: I was a painter originally, and I do use technology -- I do scan images and drawings and use photocopiers, but I still tend to work more directly with my materials. I did photocopies of the hands and cut them up, and I did drawings of Spanish moss. My knitting machine scans the images and will knit the drawings.

How did you construct the coat?

AC: I made a large blanket from the knit panels. I fulled the blanket (washed it in warm water, blocked it, and repeated), then treated it as yardage and cut it up to be made into a coat. So there are layers of function, or layers of history, within the coat. After it was assembled, I embellished it.

Isa Vogel: Planned & Unplanned

Isa Vogel's fabric-creating philosophy can be summed up in the title of the 1992 book she coauthored with Pat White: Planned and Unplanned: Creative Approach to Handwoven Clothing (Loveland, CO: Interweave). As she weaves and dyes, mistakes guide her as much as her initial plans do. Throughout the process, she aims for a clarity and simplicity of design. She spoke to me from her "loom room" in Martinsville, New Jersey.

Tell me about this kimono.

Virginia's Kimono; silk; eight-harness satin weave, warp painting, dye, discharge, katazome resist. Pieced and sewn by Lorrie Ostroman. Collection of Virginia Davis (who excited Vogel to explore the possibilities of combining weaving and dyeing). Photo: Pat White.












IV: I made it six or seven years ago, and it's a favorite. I work mostly in eight-harness satin weave because it's two-faced and I like the idea that you can do something entirely different on the outside and inside. The outside can be warp-faced, and the inside can be weft-faced.

I started with black and white silk. The pattern was graduating vertical stripes -- the black increased as the white decreased, going across. The faint stripes perpendicular to the darker stripes are a shadow of the horizontal stripes on the weft face. I painted the warp with liquid Procion dyes. I like amorphous colors -- the way the colors blend -- that I get by painting before weaving.

[The piecing] on this kimono came about because I didn't like the material. I got this fabric off the loom, and I thought, 'It's awful, absolutely awful.' In order to save it, I decided to cut it up. Then I realized that I could make something like a quilting pattern. I have a neighbor who's a talented quilter -- Lorrie Ostroman -- she did the piecing and sewed the kimono. But the first time we did it, somehow it was in reverse, and a bullseye landed on the tush. She had to take it apart and redo it.

Then I worked it some more. I discharged -- took the color out -- and stenciled on it. I had to have it lined so that the seams wouldn't show. The lining is shibori dyed, and I think I stenciled on it with paint as well.

I start with a very fixed idea as to where I am going -- and I never get there. Mistakes, dead ends, frustrations -- the unplanned -- are what ultimately lead to the finished garment. The problem then becomes a solution.

Gina D'Ambrosio: Art & Science

Gina D'Ambrosio of San Antonio, New Mexico, began as a painter and moved to weaving and surface design almost 20 years ago. She creates a limited number of pieces each year: complex surface-designed fabrics with layers of colors and images. In the last year, her fiber art practice has evolved as she's returned to school to study such subjects as web design, editing, writing, and geology.

Gina, tell us about this jacket.

Modern Landscape. Body: Handwoven silk and viscose; ikat warp painting, discharge printing, layered overpainting, pigment printing. Trim and cuffs: dye-painted, hand-printed velvet. Photo: Doug Merriam. Location: Santa Fe Opera. Courtesy of Santa Fe Weaving Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
GD'A: The name of the piece, Modern Landscape, was inspired by the jacket's color blocks and contemporary imagery. First I painted and ikat-dyed the warp, and then I wove the fabric using complex twill structures. Afterwards, the finished woven fabric became the canvas for the surface design layers. Stacked layers of discharged or printed images were then mosaiced on top of one another on the fabric surface. With vat dye-discharge, one is able to add and remove color at the same time. Pigment accents are oftentimes the last surface layer. The velvet trim was also surface designed to coordinate with the piece. The jacket can be worn with the cuffs rolled down or up to show the velvet.

This was a very sumptuous velvety fabric. Its wonderful hand and drape came from the combination of the twill weave structures, the silk warp, and the viscose chenille and silk weft. I like the play of the different fibers and the different textures. The silk and chenille react differently to dye and discharge systems, which I learned from Joy Boutrop in her first master class at Penland School of Crafts. She opened our eyes to what we as artists can do if we understand our materials and chemicals -- the science of our art. Partly because of Joy, I've gone back to school to work with science.

Has returning to school affected your textile art?

GD'A: I'm working toward a degree in technical communications, with a minor in geology, at New Mexico Tech. I've been weaving for 20 years, and it was physically getting harder to spend long hours in the studio. I wanted another way of making a living -- also because I wanted to do more textiles for myself. Before, experimentation kept my spirit fresh and alive, but there was always the influence of the marketplace in whatever I created. Although galleries supported my explorations, I knew what styles and colors sold. For now, I'm only working with flat pieces -- shawls and panels. There are many considerations when you are making art-to-wear garments -- they must be wearable, durable, cleanable -- and they must have exquisite hand and drape for their intended purpose. You also must consider how much you put into the pieces you create, especially if you intend to make a living from them. I want to be able to just play in my studio now and truly experiment, with the idea of going back to doing exhibition work, which I have not had a chance to do for many years.

Another reason I went back to school is curiosity, interest, and the challenge. I'm a naturalist at heart; I love to get out and explore. I have drawn from nature since I started with art. Art is part of nature, and it continually generates ideas for me.

I don't have a lot of studio time now while I'm in school, but I have a lot of ideas incubating. I've been collecting and archiving patterns from thin sections of rocks and minerals and from electron micrographs. The field of geology is full of visual ideas that I have been using in my work now for a few years. In the past, I used images for the sake of design, but now I enjoy knowing exactly what that image is that I'm using. For me, surface design is a lot like the stratigraphy I study in geology -- overlying layers of design.

This article first appeared in:

Mar/Apr 2002

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