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accents on english | fall 17-spring 18

One Stitch at a Time: Fiber Artists in the Department of English

To create one's own world in any of the arts takes courage.

—Georgia O'Keeffe

For most people, the term spinster usually denotes an older, unmarried woman, but the original meaning of the term, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a  woman (or, rarely, a man) who spins, esp. one who practises [sic] spinning as a regular occupation.” While those who spin yarn using a wheel might seem a rare breed, or at least highly unusual, to many people, there are a number of fiber artists who frequent the corridors of Ross-Blakley Hall on a regular basis.

As a fiber artist myself, I was curious to see how many people enjoy working with yarn, thread and floss, and was pleased when my query was answered so enthusiastically by many in the department. Fiber artists tend to be, pardon the pun, a close-knit group willing to share their love of fiber with others. Many learn from family or friends who share their passion and teach others different skills, forming a kind of fiber arts family tree in the process of passing down their knowledge.

My knitted "Shoot Straight" shawl close up My knitted blue socks for Tim

Projects and interests are as varied as the folks in our department. Instructor Elizabeth Hamm knits a little of everything, but enjoys knitting for children, particularly her niece, and knitting socks.  

Elizabeth Hamm's niece models her baby sweater

Elizabeth Hamm’s knitted baby mobile

Instructor Andrea Dickens also loves knitting socks, and admits that she brings her socks with her to knit whenever she has a chance, even to department meetings.

Andrea Dickens's crocheted snowpeople Andrea Dickens's sock projects Andrea Dickens's baby blanket project

Professor Tara Ison knits and crochets intricate details into her projects, such as her lace socks and sweater, or her crocheted amigurumi Jane Austen.

Tara Ison’s knitted lace sweater Tara Ison’s crocheted amigurumi Jane Austen figure Tara Ison’s knitted green lace shawl

Professor Maureen Goggin is an avid crocheter, works amazing needlepoint designs with vivid color and detail, and has begun learning to quilt.

Maureen Goggin's embroidered work in linen Maureen Goggin’s crocheted scarves

The talented quilters in the department showcase their talents in competitions or public displays. Lecturer Susan Bernstein formally studied the arts and mixed media design, participating in Occupy Wall Street prior to moving to Arizona. Her quilted doll, “Baby,” won an award in a community show in Athens, Ohio.

Susan Bernstein's "Baby" quilted doll poses on a bench in Queens

Bernstein's quilts have been displayed in shows in the Phoenix area for the last two years. Most recently, her quilt titled “All of Our Grievances Are Connected,” part of the #blacklivesmatter movement, was on display at the Live on Central Gallery in March 2016; her “Quilt of Many Colors” was designed and created with students from the Gila River Indian Community in 2016.

Susan Bernstein's "All of Our Grievances are Connected" quilt, part of #blacklivematter project Susan Bernstein's "Quilt of Many Colors" created and designed with Gila River Indian Community students

Lecturer Ellen Johnson’s quilts have also been displayed, such as her contribution to the #welcomeblanket exhibit at the University of Chicago. She is interested in the public nature of fiber arts, such as craftivism, yarn graffiti (also known as yarn bombing) and the political intersections with the fiber arts, including the #pussyhatproject, for which she knit 40 hats for strangers and friends.

Ellen Johnson’s #welcomeblanket contribution visit for information on the display Ellen Johnson's #pussyhatproject contributions

Many fiber artists love knitting or crocheting for others in the form of gifts or as charitable donations. Valerie Fazel, instructor, and Ellen Johnson both knit for charity, donating their handmade goods to various causes, such as hats for the homeless or for Hospice patients, and “knitted knockers” for mastectomy patients. Others enjoy gifting their work to others, knitting socks, children’s clothes, blankets, accessories and other items for loved ones.

The fiber arts have also gained scholarly attention in the form of material cultures research, which is a focus in Goggin’s scholarship. Her scholarly interests grew out of her personal interests in needlework, specifically how a textile is a literary text, and how the doing and producing of that work is gendered. Historically women had been seen as consumers of these artistic forms rather than creators of them. Her research is especially focused on gendered representations of fiber artists and the arts, such as her publication on the impactful work of Elizabeth Parker, whose 1830 needlepoint sampler recounts being raped and her struggle with suicide.

Fiber arts also have a different place in scholarly work, since the rhythmic, meditative acts involved in many fiber arts create a relaxed, yet focused state of mind that many find conducive to concentration and perception. Elizabeth Hamm said that knitting while at lectures during graduate school permitted her to focus on and absorb the material more effectively. She says that as her skills developed, so did her patience and ability to concentrate.

Socks by Elizabeth Hamm

Tara Ison mentions her familiarity with studies that show how a person’s brainwaves while knitting are similar to those of someone in deep meditation, and how knitting is a kind of escape for her—and for many knitters. The rhythmic nature of spinning yarn, either by wheel or drop spindle, also creates a focused mindset and a different form of artistry as a fluffy puff of fiber becomes yarn in the hands of the spinner. The fiber arts provide an outlet for stress, allow for greater meditation on ideas and thoughts, and even allow for a creativity that might be otherwise absent in the artist’s everyday work.

Tara Ison's crocheted eyeball for an ophthalmologist friend Tara Ison's knitted lace socks

The tactile nature of the fiber arts enhances the enjoyment for artists. Ison says that the texture of the yarn in her hands is important to her engagement with the textural nature of stitchwork. She is drawn to more complex designs, and how knitting has its own language in reading a pattern and understanding the algebra behind a design and how to customize a pattern if need be. Many fiber artists also have preferences for the kinds of fibers they work with, many being particular about natural fibers, like different breeds of wool, cotton, linen and more exotic fibers like silk, alpaca, cashmere or angora.

My knitted "Stardance" lace shawl

Don’t be surprised if you see folks stealing a few moments here and there to work on a new favorite project or to knit a few rows between grading papers—and don’t be shy about stopping and asking what they’re working on. You might just find yourself getting a free knitting lesson.

Dana Tait

All images courtesy of the artists.