Elvis on velvet? It's what garage sales are made of. Ok, so maybe it's not highbrow fare found in the Louvre, but, after all, art is in the eye of the beholder, and this particular genre is certainly part and parcel of the "velvet underground" that can trace it's roots of fiber artistry to the 14th Century in the Far East. Elvis may have left the auditorium decades ago, but, fiber arts is here to stay in the earth friendly hit parade of arts and crafts. It is a discipline, but such an individualized one it's a more free form free spirited craft, similar more to improvisational jazz than to a structured symphonic piece.
There can be no denying the fact that fiber arts and artisans provide the punch for one powerful ecological art attack. It's a green craft that has weaved itself throughout the fabric of history as it was woven and spun by hand and loom. One individual, Gandhi by name, was not only a proponent of homespun clothing as the simplest of statements (politically and ecologically), but this simple man brought an empire clothed in full battle dress to it's knees, while he himself was clothed only in homespun coverings. Now that is what I call a homespun victory.
Today, this diverse and specialized craft is pursued by purists around the world, and the old methods are meeting the eco-needs of the new world as some are taking trash and hard-for-Mother Earth-to-digest materials, such as garbage bags, and discarded audio and video tapes in order to transform these recyclable materials into rugs and textiles from salvaged plastics from the landfill Louvres of the world. An artist I know in Ann Arbor, takes tossed away and donated men's ties, then fashions them into artistic handbags, purses and wallets. She has mastered the art of turning neck wear into head turning attractive, hand-sewn green fashion statements. Some samples of her craft are even on display in some unusual places, including an off-beat dive diner in downtown Ann Arbor, where burgers and beer meet fiber and art in a head-on urban collision.
Fiber arts is not an easy arena in which to define parameters. Just as the mandala holds numerous illusions, the art of fiberists is a diverse discipline defined by the choice of material used. Today, that choice is simply that. Choice. However, the history of fiber arts shows that it was at times, a sociological weapon to separate the masses by class distinction, defining breeding pedigrees to show off their place in the societal food chain. In the days of yore, before the industrial revolution in small towns and villages, the art form was used to tell stories and tales to preserve folklore and the history of a people. Looking back to Neanderthal days of pre-history, cave carvings and later petroglyphs by native peoples preceded the woven weaving of tales to tell their stories.
Clothing was one of the first forms of fiber arts in practical use, and depending on the purpose, it could be quite distinct and attractive. In the 1300's, Europeans began a love affair with "tapestries" that served multi-purposes. Some experts follow the theory that the tapestries replaced paintings on the wall as an art form, and that is true, however, in some of the larger drafty castles of Jolly Olde England, the larger wall hanging probably had something to do with temperature control in a minor, yet attractive sense. Art as a weatherization tool, much like insulation, although not on that large of a scale.
While the Europeans were mastering the art of fiber wall hangings, in the Middle East, the Persians were perfecting the art of rug making. These rugs did not tell tales, tall or small, but used symbols and designs as art in a form referred to as Ardabil made from wool.
If you're a fan of "Antiques Roadshow" you know at least once a week you'll find the inclusion of quilts, a distinctively American folk art form of fiber art. Quilts are decorative and are collected by aficionado's to hang on walls today displayed in the home gallery. Early Americana is depicted in a lot of the older pieces and some regions, like Appalachia are known for the art of quilt making and are highly sought after treasures. Lest you think fiber arts are a politically incorrect, gender specific art form, think again. It's no longer a portrait of ladies on the loom for hours upon hours. It's a craft pursued by men and women, and although the females still out number the males, the guys are making in roads into the world of this craft. As a matter of fact, I have collected West Virginia quilts of varying ages for years when traveling through Appalachia.
Fiber arts aren't limited to the giant tapestries or Islamic rugs either. Other forms of the craft include the smaller scale, and perhaps more practical practices of knitting and macrame. Let's face it, all of us at one point or another has received a welcome handmade knitted scarf or hat for winter wear. The fact that it was hand-made and not storebought, gave it that extra warmth.
Fiber arts is about as organic an art form as you will find. Although synthetics have been on the marketplace for quite awhile, the purist opts for that derived from plants or animals in a non-intrusive manner. Silk is the east meets west material and highly desirable, while others prefer linen, wool or cotton. In the realm of exotica, alpaca is awesome as North America takes this endearing creature to heart in most states of the union. The suri alpaca is the most prized for fabric.
In the world of alpacas there are two breeds, The huacaya and the suri. The huacaya produces a springy, warm fiber while the erstwhile suri has a fiber that looks more like silk than wool and it is cool and smooth to the touch. that appeals to artisans and high fashion designers alike. The suri looks like a rastafarian with it's long dreadlocks, mon. It's popularity is exploding according to Jennifer Ely, an alpaca breeder in Washington state. "Demand for alpaca products continues strong throughout the fashion and home accessories markets. With steady growth in alpaca herds outside South America, the precious fiber is more readily available for alpaca and alpaca blend garments. Once reserved for Incan royalty, now everyone can enjoy this luxurious fiber," Ely explained in a recent visit.
Like all products, there are strengths and weaknesses to alpaca. Ely has been doing this for awhile and is cognizant of both factors. "It is warmer, softer and stronger than wool. Alpaca is compared to fine cashmere in it's appeal and wearability. Alpaca fleece contains no lanolin and can usually be worn next to the skin by those who cannot wear sheep wool. With twenty-two natural colors, alpaca fiber is eco-friendly. It blends beautifully with other materials. Many fine Italian designers consistently use some percentage of alpaca fiber in their fabrics to improve the softness and warmth of their garments."
It comes in colors and shades to create a fiber arts kaleidoscopic rainbow of hues from black and browns to maroons, peach, grays and whites and can be blended into a technicolor coat of many colors. It's also one of the best fibers to take and retain dyes without loosing it's sheen, it is lanolin free, lasts for a long time and is easy to care for. It's insular values are legendary and it doesn't retain water and it can resist solar radiation. Keep in mind too, supply and demand. It ain't cheap, and that according to Ely drives up costs. "Availability in the United States is a weakness. We only have about 120,000 alpacas in the U.S. right now. It would take a national herd of over one million animals to support one full time fiber mill."
I've confused alpaca's with llama's in the past and there is a difference says Ely. "Llamas and alpacas are both members of the Camelid family. Llamas are larger, and enjoyed as livestock guardians, and for packing and carting. Alpacas are primarily fiber producing livestock. They are considerably smaller than the llama, weighing 150 pounds on average. Alpacas have a straight shaped ear; llamas are known for their banana shaped ears -- an easy visual difference in addition to their size."
Another natural, but plentiful product is good old fashioned hemp. Happy hempsters note that fiber artists have known for a long time that hemp is more ecologically sound than all the cotton grown deep in the soil down deep in the heart of Texas. Hemp, is a prosperous cash crop elsewhere in the world, while it is preposterously illegal to grow the green in the dark soils of the red, white and blue. It is also one of the most versatile and durable fabrics supplied by Mother Earth. It's history in the U.S. dates back to the founding fathers who not only grew hemp themselves, but, the material made from it was sturdy enough to be used as sails in the great ships of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. When the fledgling country decided to expand ever westward, the pioneers plowed forward in wagon trains across the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails, and many a Conestoga covered wagon was covered with hemp cloth as it is one the sturdiest materials on the planet. The reason for it's widespread use then was it's overwhelming durability factor as a fiber.
It has a high breathability factor and therefore is great in humid climates and won't mildew. Lightweight hemp is great for clothing from skirts to shirts, and the heavier weaves are good for furniture coverings and such. It's also used for making bracelets, necklaces and other accessories for jewelry. The eco-bennies? Fertilizer and pesticide use is near zero as it can grow like a weed, unlike the constant chemical condiments required by King Cotton, so planet poisoning is non-existent, and it grows plentiful left to it's own natural devices. Of course, it's illegal to grow hemp in the United States so like our childlike dependence on foreign fossil fuels, so too, do we depend on the production of hemp grown overseas. Maybe that will change someday, and natural fibrists will shout from the mountaintops, hemp, hemp, hooray..
I am not a fiber artist myself, but I have discovered natural dyes to enhance clothing that could use a little artistic flair. Nature offers an abundant palette of hues and colors for material that screams for a little dash of color and personality. One discovered by accident is the sumac fruit that grows abundant in the Midwest where I am from. The Native American tribes in the Great Lakes region, among others, used the reddish fruit of the sumac to make a cold Koolaid like drink by boiling the fruit and straining it through cloth to remove seeds, stems, and other imperfections. What was left was a tasty, fruity drink that when cooled would offer up a thirst quencher par excellence. Being an avid outdoors person and experimenting with natural foods found in the wild I decided to make some of this tempting elixir. During the process, I managed to spill some on my t-shirt, one of those plain white no-message no-nonsense shirts. It stained it a light reddish pink in a spot, so I decided to stain the whole shirt and the results were a delightful light red color that took to it. So, I learned that day, that one persons stain, is another persons dye.
Most of nature will give you a Lucy in the Sky kaleidoscope of dyes including berries, leaves, and bark. Grapes and mulberries, rose and lavender and lichens. You name it, nature provides it. Native Americans who first migrated to the region of northern New Mexico quickly found how to extract dies from desert plants and cacti. When the Spanish arrived they brought dye imports such as tropical indigo. These imports were quickly assimilated into the the whole enchilada of Native fibrists who produced a wealth of art that was indicative of their history and culture, and that tradition has been handed down generation after generation to keep the native culture alive in a world of technology and science.
The oldest traditions of southwestern fiber artistry are still carried on to this day. Basket weaving, which dates back to the time of the Anasazsi (pre-700), and two later art forms called sash weaving and embroidery. Mostly ceremonial undertakings, Pueblo embroidery is almost entirely created from wool, and the yarn tightly re-spun to give more definition to the stitching. New Mexican weaving is world renowned, and most familiar is that of the Navajo people who's lands extend the length and breadth of the Land of Enchantment while there reputation extends world wide.
The southwest is the world champion heavy-weight when it comes to native peoples fiber art, and in New Mexico it is celebrated with art galleries, showings, and festivals, and along with the Fiber Arts Trail system developed by the New Mexico Department of the Arts in Santa Fe, it's a foray that weaves itself throughout the history and back country of the state. Art galleries of all types and stripes are plentiful in New Mexico, however, one stands out as one of the most unique. It's called the Double Six Gallery in Grants, New Mexico and is located on the main drag through town, lovingly known as The Mother Road, or Route 66, hence the Double Six moniker. It's funded in part by the Cibola Arts Council and features local and statewide artisans in all disciplines from sculpting to writing to painting to pottery. Last year saw the inclusion of a Fiber Arts Show and according to gallery director, Robert Gallegos, the response was well beyond his expectations.
"We hold many showings here and events from music, film competitions, pottery and one of our favorite events, the Lilliputian show that was various art forms in miniature. We also feature student art monthly but when he had the textile and fiber arts showing the crowds simply packed the gallery as there is such an interest in it in New Mexico. The fact that we lie in the shadow of Mt. Taylor, a sacred mountain of the ancient ones, is probably not a coincidence for our success with that particular event," Gallegos laughed. "You just never know."
The Fiber Arts Trail at last count included over 200 artists in 70 plus locations. These include galleries and private studio's tucked away off the beaten arts trail path where you can talk with the artists and watch them at their craft. The idea of the trail was inspired by a similar project in North Carolina and it's purpose is to showcase a purely unique cottage industry that is a source of tourism for the state, and dollars for the artists themselves. The Trails are divided into three geographic segments of the state and most will take you on a journey to not only the arts, but past stately volcanoes, old lava flows, caves, massive rock outcroppings, Ponderosa pine forests that all have ample hiking, biking and camping opportunities on your road to fiber discovery. To find out more about the New Mexico Fiber Arts Trail, you can contact them in Santa Fe, New Mexico at 1-800-879-4278.
So, the next time you see an Elvis on Velvet at a local garage sale, look at it differently. Perhaps its a result of basic urban arts evolution in the field of fiber arts, and not a mutant piece of pop culture kitsch. Maybe, just maybe too, you can close your eyes and picture ancient peoples at looms or by hand weaving and embroidering to leave a lasting legacy for posterity as they pass this form of art down, generation after generation.
Originally a product of the Motor City, Mike has lived in on the streets and on the beach in Hawaii, as well as in Haight Ashbury and the North Beach neighborhoods in San Francisco. Mike is also founder of the Experimental Theater Workshop, and The Spare Change Artists. He is journalist, Managing Editor of two newspapers in the Pacific Northwest, and a freelance magazine writer of green issues, gardening, pop culture, travel and history for numerous publications. He has also written four books about American Pop Culture and Travel.
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