It really is no wonder the contemporary textile arts scene, which is broadening its accessibility and appeal to amateur textile artists and sewn arts enthusiastists, has its home base in the Bay Area.

“There are small communities of weavers and dyers in most cities,” said Sierra Reading, who teaches dyeing and garment making to high school students, “but the big names are all here in Oakland and the Bay Area.”

Like chef proponents of the slow food movement–another Bay Area export–many garment artisans connect their craft to larger political values and view it as a tool for social change. Textile arts have been presided over by the fine art world and experts of the ancient science basically since industrialization. But in recent years, more and more textile artists have turned to face the public with their work.

In the very Oakland spirit of championing local, DIY and ecologically-minded consumption in order to divest from unsustainable corporations, many local textile artists say that they want to restore our sense of reverence for the process of textile and garment making.

“I really believe that this will change,” said Sierra. “There will always be a Costco for food and a Walmart for clothes, but eventually more people will be aware that it matters where your clothes come from.”

Oakland’s sewn art scene is a hotbed of creative innovators. Kristine Vejar’s Verb for Keeping Warm is a fabric and yarn shop and community studio in Oakland’s Golden Gate neighborhood that she feels represents the alternative to the disposable fashion industry.

“For the Old Navy to sell $5 tee shirts,” said Vejar, “let’s follow that back. In order to raise cotton, water it, chop it down, package it, ship it to the factory in China, get it spun, plied, knit and dyed, then shipping it all over, and most of the cost just goes to marketing– it just can’t be. Somebody’s not getting paid.”

Vejar’s yarn and fabrics are hand dyed using all-natural dyes produced from their dye garden. Unassuming green stalks and shrubs make brilliant blues and magentas. Avocado pits and skins make pink, onion skins are an almost neon yellow. Some may argue that Vejar’s alternative to fast fashion–spending $80-$100 on naturally-dyed yarn and upwards of thirty hours hand-knitting a sweater at one of Verb’s classes-is not viable for most of us.

Hiroko Kurihara, founder of the slow-food and slow-fashion work/venue space, 25th St. Collective, rejects the idea that slow fashion is a luxury for the privileged.

“The fast fashion cycle is built on seasonal trends that require you to constantly update your wardrobe,” she begins, “an inventory-based model that encourages everyone to dress the same way, and cheap construction. For example, a lot of the big manufacturers don’t even back-stitch; that makes for a kind of planned obsolescence. They also lure you into buying things you don’t need simply because they’re selling them for so cheap,” Kurihara went on. “So yes, buying a minimal number of garments that you love and that are made to last will end up costing you less.”

She’s also excited about the idea of community closets or wardrobe sharing, in which people split the cost of, say, an evening dress, or leather jacket or pair of shoes, and schedule rotating ownership.

According to Kurihara, 25C is all about diverting from textile waste (which makes up 9-14% of landfills) and divesting from an industry based on geopolitical exploitation. “We want to move away from a inventory-based model, towards a made-to-order model,” she said. “In order to do that people need to identify (1) what do I really need, not just want; (2) who am I and how do I want to express that in dress; and (3) what kind of economy can I really buy into?”

25C member Dustin Page of Platinum Dirt sews leather jackets from salvaged car skin leather. Bridget of Ghetto Goldilocks sews garments from salvaged Goodwill fabrics. 25C has been so successful as an incubator that two of the members have moved to expand out into bigger space. (Note: that means two, 10×12’ studio spaces with access to sewing and First Friday and all those perks are available for applicants!)

Sierra Reading, who was trained at CCA, has turned to community-based art making out of frustration with the high-art world. “I’m all about doing everything for free. Dyeing from wasted food scraps, sewing from salvaged fabric, growing my own food and dye garden.”

This Urban Homesteading approach is a long way gone from the insulated fine-art traditions revered by more traditional artists, and certainly a long way from H&M.

Sierra says the East Bay’s community of artist/makers came into its own in a new way at the the Berkeley Art Museum’s current exhibition, The Possible. The exhibition, she explains, brought together a host of local artists in a radical curatorial experiment.  By providing raw materials and crafting stations, The Possible invites the audience to collaborate with visiting artists. In this way, The Possible exhibits not finished content, but process. It could be said that it also dethrones talent and expertise to celebrate community and collaboration.

There is no question that Oakland is the place to be if you’re looking to participate in a sewn arts maker community.  In addition to the classes at Verb and 25th St. Collective, Rock Paper Scissors, a volunteer-run community workshop and exhibition space for arts, crafts and performance, also has sewing classes for all ages.

Anyone with serious interest in the innovations being made to the ecological and economic terrain of garment making should check out Permacouture, a Bay Area educational institute co-founded by a CCA professor.

Owl n Wood has a great mix of locally-designed and vintage selected fashion, Myrriah Knit features sustainable fine knitwear, and McMullen is another of Oakland’s community-engaged and socially responsible garment boutiques.

So take a second look at the back of your closet, maybe between that, a pair of scissors and your kitchen scraps you have everything you need to reinvent your wardrobe–with the help of some of Oakland’s sewn arts and artisan makers.

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