Fiber Art Installation Hands Crafting
Art Pulse,  In Your Store

February Media Focus: Fiber Arts 101

Check your Customer Engagement Calendars! This month we have chosen to focus on Fiber Art; read on for a detailed definition of the artform, complete with product links and demonstrative videos.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Fiber Arts! What exactly are fiber arts? Any art that uses natural or synthetic fiber; yarn, silk, muslin, rope, thread, fabric and straw. There is a line drawn historically between Textile and Fiber art, but your customers are likely using a combination of both in practice. As far as your staff should be concerned, fiber arts include weavings, rugs, sculptures, yarn bombed trees, woven baskets, large installations, wall hangings, scarves, tapestries, doilies, quilts, tye-dyed t-shirts, delicately embroidered handkerchiefs, and ugly holiday sweaters.

All practices that encompass the Fiber & Textile Arts world take a book to explain, and there are good ones out there. For this article, we’ve compiled some basics you can share with your staff when it comes to helping the fiber artist. You may not carry every (or any) color of thread, yarn or fabric—but you can help these artists in a pinch.

Dyeing & Fabric Painting

Even if you don’t carry a comprehensive selection of the fabric or fibers these artists are using, they are looking to you for mediums and dyes. Having an educated staff to guide them through the process will benefit you.

First, whenever dying fabric it must be clean and chemical free. There are soaps out there, like synthrapol, that are great for preparing your fabric for dye. What’s most important: don’t use scented detergents or fabric softeners on a fabric you want to dye. These chemicals, though they smell good, will coat the fibers in your fabric so it’s more difficult for the dye to penetrate. 

Just like painting, there are different types of dyes for different surfaces.

  • Acid dyes are used for protein fibers (protein = animals) like silk and wool, with some kind of acidic compound (like vinegar or citric acid).
  • Procion dyes are used on cellulose fibers (cellulose = plants) like cotton and bamboo, with a combination of soda ash or another mordant. 
  • There are additional dyes available that can be used on polyesters, wood and more.

Like all mediums, you need to understand the artist’s surface to suggest the proper tools. Just like in painting, dyeing encompases many mediums. 

  • Rather than gesso, artists will use alum or soda ash (mordants) to prepare their work surface.
  • Rather than a gel medium or a cold wax, an artist can use a puff additive to create dimension or use sodium alginate or gum arabic to thicken their dyes for painting. 
  • Instead of masking fluid or frisket, they use beeswax or gutta resist. 
  • Instead of a retarder, they use urea. 
  • Rather than a varnish or a fixative, they use an iron and an added chemical for heat or air setting.

Jacquard Products has a wealth of resources available on their website to learn more about what each of these mediums do.

Natural Dyes

Natural dying has risen in popularity in recent years. Artists are using flowers, kitchen spices and more traditional dyes like indigo and cochineal for clothing lines and household textiles. 

Indigo is one of the oldest dyes and is still commonly used today—your blue jeans are likely made using indigo dye! The process of indigo dyeing is relatively beginner friendly. We have documented the full process here in our Ruff Draft Demo on Shibori. Important reminders for your customers: wear gloves, prewash your fabric without any chemicals or fabric softeners, wear gloves, dip the fabric in the dye multiple times to achieve richer color, wear gloves, and most importantly: wear gloves. The dye is not toxic, but will very easily stain your hands a grey/blue color for up to two weeks.

Cochineal dye, made from small beetles, is not a dye for beginners (or vegans). For those who are willing to put the work in, cochineal can easily create a beautiful variety of colors from purple to orange depending on the level of acidity of the bath (achieved by using soda or vinegar). A customer interested in cochineal dye will likely have come to you with some research under their belt, but the history is fascinating. Check out this workshop from Oaxaca!

If a customer is looking to use flowers from their garden or kitchen scraps, they will likely be depending on YouTube or blogs for instruction. Depending on their process they may need to use urea, alum, soda ash, salt, or vinegar. If they are looking for advice on colors I have found the best results from the following.

  • Yellow—Marigolds and Dandelions
  • Orange—Turmeric, Onion Skins
  • Pink—Roses, Lavender, Beets
  • Purples—Blueberries (I discovered this, but not on purpose!), Red Cabbage
  • Green—Spinach
  • Blue—Black Beans
  • Black—Walnuts (a similar process to making walnut ink) 

There is little reason for a traditional art store employee to become an expert on this process—there are plenty of online resources—but it is a fun medium to explore!

Sculpture and Installation

Fiber art can be seen in museums, hotel lobbies, restaurants or store windows. The way these installations are strung up and structured vary greatly. An artist may use different levels of tension on different strands to affect an optical illusion. They may use fabric stiffeners or wires to provide structure to an otherwise flowing piece of fabric.

What’s important to know as an associate working with an artist in your store—there is no right way to install or create fiber art. This medium allows for exploration and unique inspiration. You can learn a lot from asking questions from these artists, and keep their advice in your memory banks to help others. Take the opportunity to be a problem solver, get your co-workers involved if needed.

Yarn and String Arts

Knitters, Crocheters, Cross-stitchers, oh my! These practices fall under the “Textile Arts” category and are trending upward with the “Cottage-Core” lifestyle trend that emerged through 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. These are novice-friendly activities with thousands of online tutorials available. If your staff are unfamiliar with knitting or embroidery, my suggestion is to start them online. Encourage them to find a YouTuber they like to provide a suggested resource to any curious customers.

Elevating Fiber Arts: It’s Time

I would challenge our community to rethink textile arts and remove them from the “craft” category. Just as a novice can attend a paint-and-sip night to try out acrylic painting, they can pick up some needles and yarn or thread to create a scarf for a loved one. However, there are artists and artisans out there who use these practices as their main medium to create stunning works of art. These are highly-talented, focused and dedicated artists that have traditionally been left out of museums for a myriad of social reasons. As a progressive and accepting industry, we can no longer discount their craft as “Craft.” 

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