Have you ever started collecting something that caught your eye for no apparent practical purpose? Ok, I have an excessive hoarding tendency and the results of one particular collection has forever kept me feeling vindicated in this otherwise expensive vice. While I've since curbed my thrifting pastime a bit, in 2013 I was still elbow deep in the local thrift store bins rummaging for treasures and occasionally coming home with a vintage DIY macrame pamphlet. While I held down day jobs in retail, I was continuing to work on my illustration drawings and paintings (while hustling a little vintage on the side). I had never even considered the fiber niche in the world of art, paying it little mind outside of occasionally viewing a piece at a museum or in a book. It wasn't really on my radar simply because that world had not yet been opened to me, but the small peripheral peeks I got through vintage fashion and interior design books left deep impressions. I knew what I liked, but not yet knew what I liked was already a 'thing-- Does that make any sense? I didn't know why, but I was deeply drawn to these DIY macrame pamphletes-- before I even considered actually making one myself. Sure I was already a hobbyist knitter and crochet-er, but had never considered making non-functional art objects with these skills. Once I finally began to pore over my ever-expanding pile of macrame pampheltes, I quickly exploring fiber art in all its layers from kitsch to fine art and getting some cord to try my hand. I started searching out books and museum shows and deeply enjoying the plunge into this new (to me) world.
Around this time I was working a day job in retail at a legendary Berkeley store called By Hand, that was originally formed in the 60s around a collective of women sewers who made every piece in the shop by hand. By the year 2013 when I started working there, the last original shop owner was ready for retirement and the shop was mostly ready-to-wear independent, smaller label boutique brands that matched the style and lifestyle of the clients they had grown up with. As I worked at By Hand, I studied fiber techniques on the side, and eventually created my own line of fiber based jewelry and wallhangings utilizing knotting, wrapping, tasseling and other techniques, my circle expanded to learn about other young women discovering this world too, hungry for photos and resources for past fiber art, and sharing images and references we found online-- along with our own work. One such online connection I made was to Kate Steffens who had begun to curate a site and social media account called The Family Acid based around slides of her father's photos from the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Her father Roger Steffens was (and still is) such a charismatic, curious, creative person that not only seemed to make friends with everyone he met, he also loved to document every day of his life on film, experimenting with portraiture, double exposure, iconography, photojournalism and landscapes.
Kate, living in Los Angeles, reached out to me to ask if I had ever crossed paths with an artist named Janet Lipkin who she believed was still living in the Bay Area, and was one of the many people her dad had crossed paths with briefly in the late 60s and he bought a handmade vest from her. This wasn't just any vest though-- this vest is Steffens family lore. Kate's mother met her father while he was wearing the vest at a festival, and so to this day he is known affectionately as Crazy Vest Man by Kate's mom. I flexed my internet sleuthing skills until I finally found my way in the most unlikely way... the sly facebook friend route. I was so excited to finally have a mode of direct contact with Janet, I composed a DM probably starting with something like "Hi, you don't know me, but someone I know knows you and took about 20 photos of you over a few weeks in 1970..." and included attachments of the photos you can see below Roger Steffens took of Janet. To my delight she responded, and with amazement, we all connected soon after.
Janet opened up a new world for me introducing me to her legendary circle of fiber artist friends such as Jean Cacicedo, Candace Kling, Lori Goldman & Analisa Hedstrom. As I began to research more about the shop I worked at, By Hand, I also learned more about the Bay Area as an epicenter fiber arts, and began interviewing the artists I had recently met who have created innovative and inspiring pieces of art, some of which graces the pages of the books I had started collecting and hangs in museums.
Meanwhile, after a couple years of keeping in touch, Kate made a permanent move to the Bay Area and I would consult her occasionally with the idea of the project. The name weighed on me for at least two years, haha. Then one day I was walking with her in Berkeley in and she said, "What about Wovenutopia? Woven and utopia put together." I hadn't thought of anything better.
Ok, now the story has come full circle.
Photo above & photos below courtesy Roger Steffens & Kate Steffens
Janet Lipkin, Roger Steffens & Friends.
Taken in Berkeley, Ca., 1970
ˈwōvən/ past participle of weave
form (thread) into fabric by interlacing.
make (a complex story or pattern) from a number of interconnected elements.
an ideal place or state.
Wovenutopia celebrates fiber as a mirror to past, present, and future, reflecting how we live(d) and the dreams we have through clothing, fiber sculpture, objects, & wallhangings.
The hope of this space is to connect generations of fiber artists and admirers through inspiration, studio visits, interviews, resources and platforms for dialogue, paying homage to the historically overlooked women behind the medium and the power of fiber arts to reflect and inspire social change. Based in the Bay Area, an epicenter for counter-cultural fiber arts in the 60s and 70s, Wovenutopia pays special homage to local Bay Area histories and influences in the fiber medium, as well as the deep ancestral roots of fiber around the world.
For so many years the visionary artists who have created innovative works in fiber, have been marginalized within the art world as "just a craft" and in large part due to being a female-dominated medium associated with domestic wares and hobbies. These artists were doing more than simply knitting, they were weaving a new world in a subtly subversive way. With wearable garments and wallhangings drenched in delicious, playful colors they were seducing us to imagine what the world could be. What if you could completely love yourself and embrace all the colors of who you are... What would you wear?
With renewed interest in fiber art in recent years, imitation, hobby tutorials, and design repetition has also flooded the internet. This site seeks to be a resource to connect fiber enthusiasts to the history of the medium, celebrate its past innovators around the world, highlight the elders and other contemporary artists that elevate the medium to new and inspiring heights.
Through historical research, studio visits, interviews, community forum space, events, and educational resources, Wovenutopia is a space to celebrate the women past and present who reimagine our world in fiber.
Around 2014 I conceptualized this project, began doing studio visits, research, and interviews. Slowly over the last four years in the precious free time I could scrape up, I started to edit the photos, write interview transcripts, schedule more studio visits, etc. My intention is that this site serves as education, inspiration, and connect for generations of fiber artists and the legacy that precedes those of us who are here on earth today-- but maybe most of all, I want to celebrate the many innovative women artists whose groundbreaking works in fiber have spanned decades but have been marginalized within the art world and uncredited in the craft scene. In addition to elevating innovative fiber arts, I want to show the love and labor involved with slow fashion and textile work in general, as well as paying respects to our ancestors around the world for the technical foundation they have laid for us.
If you have a recommendation, resource, or simply connection to a fiber artist that you would like to see profiled here, drop me a note at Wovenutopia@gmail.com. There are so many artists entering their 60s, 70s, and 80s that I would love to profile here but have not been able to find contact information for.
Lise Silva Gomes
For more about me and my personal work,
you can visit www.lisesilva.com
You can also follow @thefamilyacid on instagram
to see more of the magical world of Roger Steffens.
His photography books are also available on