Thursday, October 15, 2015

Surface Design Association conference 2

Another presenter whom I enjoyed getting to know at the SDA conference was Laura Sansone, who teaches at Parsons The New School for Design and has started a project called The Textile Lab, intended to raise awareness among fashion students and the public about natural dyes and local textile production.

Here's Laura taking her setup to a New York City greenmarket, where she and her students proceed to collect various castoff materials like carrot tops and cook up pots of dye.

In addition, she is trying to encourage local textile production among small farmers along the Hudson Valley north of the city.  New York has many alpaca farms, as well as sheep, and leather can be made from the hides collected at meat slaughterhouses.  Laura sees many similarities between the local food movement and local textiles, to improve quality and foster economic development and environmental sustainability.

Laura wants to encourage designers to become more aware both of local production and of reuse and recycling.  Her classes work closely with Green Eileen, a venture that collects and resells Eileen Fisher garments; a favorite activity is to use (locally produced, of course) wool roving to needlefelt over holes in garments as a combination of decoration and functional mending.

Laura is a smart and dynamic artist and teacher, and I liked hanging out in her workshop and playing with needlefelting.  Here's my (sadly) unfinished work of art.

But I can't wholly buy in to the cause.  Just like local foods, local textiles are a tiny niche activity that may deliver fine quality and lots of romantic feelings, but also is expensive and self-limiting.

You can't feed the United States from local truck farms, nor can you clothe us from local sheep.  (Among other things, we probably don't want to wear all that much wool, especially in the summertime.)  And even if we could produce enough stuff to go around, most of the people couldn't afford the clothes or the food unless the farmers worked for slave wages.  Nor do I suspect that most of the people in the US could afford to buy resold Eileen Fisher clothes, even though they cost less than they did the first time around.  (The website provides no price info, just says they're "affordable.")

I hate to be so cynical in the face of such vigor and enthusiasm but maybe I'm just too old to get thrilled at hey-kids-let's-put-on-a-show projects.  I know that change often starts with small local efforts and sometimes gathers enough momentum to have much larger impact.  But I don't think all the carrot tops in the world are going to ever replace Procion.  Whether we should even want them to is another issue.

What do you think?  Am I being too curmudgeonly?


  1. I’m totally with you on this subject! Def. not too curmudgeonly…..just realistic and self-confident enough (a very good thing) to say it out loud!!!!

  2. Curmudgeons unite! Mass numbers mean mass production in most areas. Hooray for the small, individual, local creators, but we need the 'big guys'. Glad the world is still big enough for all of us!

  3. It makes me happy to see thought being taken at that level of design, even though at this very moment I am wearing a pair of acrylic knee socks that my aunt gave me in either December of 1966 or January of 1967, so I'm not exactly the target audience. I grew up wearing clothes that were mended with Art (my mother would patch the knees of my overalls with appliqués of cats or lions or butterflies) so it does make me feel cynical to see people just now Getting This.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky, born Curmudgeon

  4. I shop local supporting small farmers, only buying from a store what I cannot get here. Years ago corporate big-shots got too greedy and relocated industry to China to use cheap labour. I quickly realized we were now paying the same price for crappy goods as shirts for my husband fell apart in 6 months, so I started making shirts for him that now last for years. I wanted to buy a locally built recliner and was told by all the box stores that everything was coming from China, well I found a place in Alberta that still made recliner chairs, and guess what: it was less expensive and way better made than the crap coming oversea. I believe that people who listen to big corporate companies who say goods made in North America would be too expensive have bought their B.S. hook line and sinker. We need to support our local farms, craftspeople, artists, etc. Invest in your local community and its markets and you invest in quality and you invest in keeping your community alive and healthy. I bought socks from big box store, paid about $4 per pair, they wore through in 3 months, poor quality made in china. I bought $9 wool socks knit by a local craftsperson and they lasted 2 years. No question in my mind where the better deal is found.

    1. Tess -- I wish I believed that you can get good quality, low cost plus a decent wage for a local worker.

      I don't knit but my expert knitter friend tells me it costs between $4 and $10 to buy the yarn for a pair of socks, plus ten hours of knitting time. I don't know how your person is able to sell a pair for $9. Maybe she's willing to do that once or twice but you certainly can't supply the whole province of Alberta on the labor of people working for nothing.

    2. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between our hopes and our reality. I do think that we all need to do our part, whatever that is, so I would heartily encourage the Laura's of the world. But I also think that corporate greed will undo itself in the end and I can only continue to hope that some of us will remember how to do these things when/if the world needs these skills again. But, even on a more personal level, that we practice these arts and crafts can only help to promote the kinds of simple satisfactions that promote personal well being as well as gets some of us into community with others. Nothing bad can come of it...only good.

    3. I'm not sure corporate greed is a big player in this game. Yes, companies like and need to make money, but whether they're greedy or not, how can they possibly compete on price with foreign manufactured goods? Pay their workers $38 a month, the average garment worker wage in Bangladesh?

      I wonder how many American consumers would buy American-made T-shirts when Bangladeshi T-shirts look almost as good and cost way less? Many manufacturers seem to have tried to stay in business with U.S. production, but failed because they couldn't withstand the price competition. .

      I don't think there are easy answers.

    4. I'm not referring to corporate greed in the US only. These are multi-national conglomerates that determine both prices and wages here and there. There is no real competion between countries. These corps are the one and the same who pay slave wages in Bangladesh. It;s completely artificial competition. The same players are reaping the profits. It's only the workers who suffer.

  5. "Curmudgeons" are people who burst balloons by doing the math. A rather mixed metaphor, that, but unless we all want to spend all our waking moments growing subsistance food, and making one subsistance garment per person per year, we buy from Target and Macy's and Kroger grocery stores.

  6. Kathy, I'm with you. Thanks for writing this today.

    For a long time I've wanted to tell you that I enjoy your writing very much. I read your posts in a feed reader which is a convenient way for me to follow favorite quilters, artists, bloggers. I'm mostly a traditional quilter, hand applique, and also 'liberated' patchwork from Gwen Marston's books. I have learned a great deal from your blog posts. Thanks! (and I receive QuiltArt messages in the digest).

  7. You aren't wrong, but it is nice to see people enthusiastic about their work~ I must be too old too~ :)

  8. A free market economy means that companies, both big and small, have to compete to survive. Sometimes there's a market that enables the company / local business to provide goods at a higher price because buyers' perceive there's an added benefit to that unique product and are willing to pay for it. However, let's face it; not everyone's wallet is the same size. So there's also going to be a market for items that sell for lower prices, though that doesn't always mean inferior quality. I just don't feel it's entirely fair to malign big US companies for trying to stay in business by looking for ways to keep costs down. I'm not sure there's an easy answer, but I agree with Kathy as far as the limits to what local providers can do. It's a rare thing if they have the capacity and infrastructure for volume output that would make them price competitive.