"It was 1969,
a group of friends studying at
& sharing new information about
Artwear was born."
Janet's story is inextricably linked to that of her closest friends with whom she discovered the medium that would make up most of her life's work. They met, developed their aesthetics, shared discoveries, collaborated, and supported one another through all the ups and downs that life could offer. Children were born, spouses and friends passed away, and through it all they created wearable collections and wall art in a variety of fiber mediums and techniques that inspired the world. Together they created a movement that inspires generations of artists to reimagine the possibilities of fiber and body adornment.
By the early 60s, mediums like quilting, macrame, and crochet were seen as quaint hobbies of yesteryear. Popular in the victorian age, these textile mediums were associated with domestic work and largely unconsidered by the Art world. Ed Rossbach , an artist trained in weaving, began teaching at UC Berkeley and inspiring a new crop of art students to experiment with textile mediums. By the late 60s, they began to establish the Bay Area as an epicenter for studying innovative textiles. Simultaneously, countercultural street fashions in the Bay Area valued individual artistic expression through handmade clothing embellishments including embroidery, redesigned denim, and repurposed Victorian clothes. Native Funk & Flash by Alexandra Jacopetti Hart best documented the movement, which includes members of San Francisco drag group
Group 9, ca. 1991. Left to right, back: Jean Cacicedo, Janet Lipkin, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, Gaza Bowen. Front: K. Lee Manuel, Candace Kling, Marian Clayden. Not pictured: Ina Kozel, Marika Contompasis. (via Reflections on Artwear: Melissa Leventon and Jean Cacicedo in Conversation )
Janet with the doll she created in 1969 which is on display at the Philadelphia Art Museum from November 10, 2019-May 2020
Meanwhile on the east coast, in the late 1960s, Janet Lipkin a junior at Pratt Institute studying sculpture, became enamored with the crochet technique she had just learned from her friend Jean Cacicedo. She made long chainstitch forms which she transferred to her sculpture work. When she created some striking sculptural crochet pieces, her professors were intrigued and supportive of this strange new application of fiber and form where Victorian age craft technique met the wild color, mixed patterns, and amorphous forms of the psychedelic 60s. Her final project, a five foot tall doll (above), was critiqued by her professors as using the same criteria as an traditional fine art medium. Treating it with same criteria as fine art, allowed people to receive her unconventional medium without the preconceived notions surrounding domestic work or craft.
Textile and fiber are some of the most familiar materials, from the moment we are wrapped in a blanket at birth, and largely sidelined as domestic rather than artistic. From her first introduction to crochet, Janet wasn't concerned with the weighted notions and gendered aspect of the medium, she was enthralled with its portability, flexibility, and the vast options it offers to drape, stuff, sew, and embellish. The potential for color, pattern, and form was infinite.
When she, Jean, and other fiber artists moved to the Bay Area, it was well on its way to being established as a epicenter for innovate textile. Shops that carried handmade work like Obiko, By Hand, White Duck Workshop were being established and workshops for learning textile techniques such as Fiberworks and Pacific Basin Center of Textile Arts were making fiber accessible to the general public.
Author, Curator, and Historian Melissa Leventon defined Artwear as "handmade clothing made from handmade textiles by people who conceived of themselves as artists rather than fashion designers" The defining characteristic that separated ArtWear movement from the fashion industry is that it was comprised of artists who were trained in mediums like sculpture and ceramics who then took up textile materials, rather than classically trained seamstresses and fashion designers. Most of Janet's early pieces demonstrate her unconventional approach of designing with a close eye to shape and color on the body without concern for size, fit, symmetry, or conventional notions of clothing construction. An example of the type of work she was doing at this time is the vest she created for Roger Steffens below (you can read more about the story of their meeting and how it led to Wovenutopia here.) Each panel was made with individual attention to color and shape over the over-all symmetry of the final garment. Each piece she did in this era was completely one-of-a-kind, first for DD Dominick and later for Julie: Artisan Gallery. Julie Schafler Dale is a key figure in the Artwear movement (also referred to as Art-to-Wear, and wearable art). Her Manhattan gallery was an important patron and ambassador of the work. In 1986, Julie wrote one of the most important books documenting the movement called Art-to-Wear.
Julie Schafler Dale remarked, in her essential record of the wearable fiber movement of the 60s-80s, Art to Wear:
"The first two pieces I saw of Janet's in 1972 were quite unlike anything I had ever encountered before. One was a huge 'sack' that hung from shoulders to knees, crocheted in deep burgundies, golds, and greens, encrusted with a fat luscious cluster of three-dimensional roses. The other was a gray totem pouch with growth like appendages reminiscent of a tropical rain forest dangling and dancing from this cocoon. Both works radical in their nonconformity, embodying a spirit uniquely Janet's of unbridled creative energy that set into motion much of the early crochet movement to create clothing as an art form... Her work bespeak's a child's strength of vision: uncensored, unconditioned, unspoiled, ripe with possibility, sensuality, and ritual. It set the tone for the first wave of art clothing."
Left: Crochet Coat , 1973 / Right: Bird Vest (Crocheted Wool)
Custom vest for Roger Steffens (pictured) circa 1970
Jacobs Coat of Many Colors (Photographed by Roger Steffens) circa 1970
By the late 70's, Janet was exploring traditional clothing construction and production with a small team culminating in limited edition runs of a-few-a-kind of her designs. She partnered with friend and fiber artist Lori Goldman and Amy Rothberg to create a company called Chammilian designing colorful sweaters. While very successful, they soon learned that with all of the time, labor, and resources poured into the hand knit, dyed, felted and crocheted pieces, their business wouldn't be scalable to earn profit for several years down the road and could only continue to grow if they used commercial processes. Chammilian ended and all three artists continued creating their individual work.
In the 80s, Janet expanded production a bit more through her discovery of the knitting machine. Placing more of her focus on designing and hand-dying fibers, other aspects of the garment construction were delegated to other team members. She stated in her bio, "The knitting machine allowed me to create elaborate images, tailored and draped forms which married together to tell a story. I began to work in a series, much like painter. Dyeing all my yarn to create a rich palette, ikat dyeing skeins of yarn and dip-dyeing panels of black and white knitted images. I began exploring acid dyes to create my color palette." Rather than only one-of-a-kind, the knitting machine enabled her to do up to 30 garments or so of each design. Although she frequently limited her designs to just a few of a style in different colors. As the 80s ushered in more graphic styles, the knitting machine lent itself to the cubistic, bold, and even pixelated shapes of the 80s. A far departure from the amorphous organic curves of the 70s, her new work still incorporated her colorful palette, but with a modern aesthetic and in multiples.
By this time, one of her stockists was Obiko boutique in San Francisco, owned by Sandra Sakata, a major supporter of the wearable art movement. She was known in the Bay Area for her incredible personal style which could stop people in their tracks on the street, entranced by her beautiful jewelry and ensembles. She curated beautiful collections and window displays with the wearable art pieces she stocked at Obiko. "She had excellent taste and made our pieces look fabulous together as outfits where she would pair one artist's sweater with another artist's necklace and another artist's scarf. She had a unique vision for how to assemble the garments. She was an artist herself. She's the one that told me I should do more than one piece of a style-- it had never occurred to me before. She was very influential and always had ideas for us"
Poc-ka-dot Reversible, 1980s (Machine & Hand Knit Ikat Dyed) Left: Back, Right: Front
Bug Coat, 1980s (Back) Silk, Ikat Dyed
Left: Flow (Wool Hand dyed) Tibetan Tigers 2 (Wool Dip Dyed ) Right: Cats (Machine Dip Dyed)
As the craft boom of the '90s took hold, and the market was flooded with watered down copies of wearable art, many fiber artists with thriving practices in the 60s-80s began to explore other mediums or focus on wall art. After decades of labor intensive handmade work, many wearable artists turned to other techniques as a self protective measure when the repetitive movements involved in knitting, dying, or crocheting took a toll. Janet's life also changed in new ways when she married renowned photographer Barry Shapiro (who photographed the original Shelter series here) and had children. Balancing her art work and motherhood was tough but she always managed to find ways to keep creative work in her life over the years. She explored other mediums and themes through the 90s, such as paintings to process her family ancestry and the Holocaust. Janet returned to hand knit Artwear in 2005. When her husband Barry passed away in 2009, she took steps to preserve his legacy by seeing his photographs of Hunter's Point compiled into a book (A Dangerously Curious Eye: The Edge of San Francisco, Photographs by Barry Shapiro 1972-1982), having his negatives scanned, and his personal library of inspirational books donated to the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. She worked as an art teacher for adults privately and for children at Tehiyah Day School, continuing until her retirement in 2018. Most recently, she returned to exploration of dolls through paintings and continued to work with machine knitting, embroidery, and more.
When I met Janet, I was floored that an artist with pieces collected by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the de Young, the Oakland Museum, and the Museum of Art and Design in New York was teaching children full time with only her remaining hours after work to make her own art. She deeply loved her work as a teacher and the school community, but also acknowledged with a laugh and a wink that the children had no idea that an internationally renowned artist was teaching them to paint. Prior to meeting the women of the wearable art movement, back in 2014 (you can read more about my story of meeting Janet here), my naive assumption was that artists with such important cultural works were sustained and supported by the art community so that they could keep a singular focus on their work. I'd come to find that most of the artists behind wearables, a genre primarily made up of women, even those with work in multiple museum collections, were very much working artists who had a number of side jobs, part time jobs, and day jobs over the years to sustain themselves. The conversation surrounding race and gender in the art world should also extend to the way specific mediums are othered based upon the demographics of the artists that pursue them.
Although I have basically, informally interviewed Janet in many conversations over the years, I wanted to do a formal studio visit with her to explore her old work, new work, take photos of her beautiful house that mirrors her inspirations, and fill in the gaps with questions I had about various moments in her life. Her studio is situated inside her home in the Richmond Hills, overlooking the Bay Area's quilted landscape of hilly textures and foggy colors. We unearthed decades of eye-popping work she had stored away and she told me the stories behind them. Surrounded by her current works-in-progress, she drew a through-line to her current inspirations circling back to the theme of dolls, which are tied to childhood, family, and ancestry, as well as knit/crochet/mixed media wall art.
Studio Wall featuring Embellished Fair Isle Knit Wall Hangings
What was the retail scene like for handmade clothing? I know there was White Duck Workshop in Berkeley for example...
White Duck workshop was fabulous, they had their own in-house line of very tailored garments with a lot of appliqué, but they were more focused on producing their own line rather than carrying other maker's clothing. And there were some stores like that but really they were more focused on in-house lines rather than retailing other lines. It wasn't until Sandra of Obiko began carrying my work in the 80s that I had a boutique carrying my work in the Bay area. Obiko had been open since the 70s with artists like Alex & Lee and Kaisik Wong and her shop was a similar mix of gallery and boutique for the west coast like Julie's Gallery on the east coast. I showed her my early crochet work in the 70s that was bold and big and she didn't think it worked for her shop. Then, when I changed over to the knitting machine in the 80s, she loved it. So we only really had a couple outlets for our work and we mainly sold direct to a lot of individual collectors through word-of-mouth. You see, we [Janet, Jean Cacicedo, and other Artwear artist friends] became very public at a point as individuals. For example, I once got on United Airlines around that time. and in the in-flight magazine there was a huge write up about Artwear
In the 60s when the notion of unconventional handmade clothes and wearable art was new, which kinds of retail spaces would carry your work?
The first retail store to carry my work was DD Dominick, which was a boutique in New York City. They had vests I made when I was still in college... which, I wouldn't say even fit anyone! [Laughs] They were freeform [organically crocheted, not sized]. I didnt know anything about sizing or patterns then, I just made wild, asymmetrical pieces that I joined together to form a vest. Julie's: Artisan Gallery in NYC was the second location to carry my work.
Did retailers buy your work wholesale or consignment? How did you find them and/or how did they find you? For younger makers and artists who came into their careers in the internet age, I'm sure many are wondering what avenues were available to share your work and connect to new stockists and clients.
Mostly consignment in the beginning, but as they ended up selling more of our work, some of them, like Obiko, ended up buying wholesale. Susie Hollingsworth, who promoted the sale of our Artwear in LA, would buy out right for a roster of clients to make purchases. She also organized public exhibits. And then there were also quite a few shops around the country who would come out to the Bay Area on buying trips. They would get a name of a friend in our circle and that person would share other artist friends in the group. They would get a hotel room in San Francisco for the day and we would schlep our work in to show them. The pieces were usually one-of-a-kind and they would place an order for us to make one or two or three more for their shop. Everything was either one-of-a-kind or on a very limited run of just a few pieces. Eventually my work expanded to shops and galleries in a variety of cities like Santa Fe, Boston, New York, San Francisco, and LA.
Julie gave visibility to the Art-to-Wear movement. She saw the magic in your work very early on and seemed to have an amazing vision for highlighting artists and pieces. What was her Julie: Artisan Gallery like and how did it get started?
Julie was an art history major in college and Jean Cacicedo and I were artists studying sculpture so meeting her was very serendipitous because she wanted to curate and share art and we wanted to create art. Around 1970 or '71, Julie had an apartment on Park Avenue and painted it all white with white furniture. She would beautifully arrange the work in the apartment and invite private clients to come by and shop. In 1973, she opened Julie: Artisan Gallery on Madison Avenue. She expanded to carry more artists' work and a range of handmade figurines, jewelry, and clothing. When her gallery open to the public, the world really discovered her and those of us that she carried. Every so often when she received a new collection of pieces from us, she would feature them in the window, drawing the public in to see our work. [Note: The gallery closed in 2013, you can read more here]
You moved to the Bay Area a little later in the 70s. Did you connect to an artist community right away?
Oh yes, a huge community, especially around Fiberworks, founded by Gyöngy Laky. Fiber was just exploding. She began as a student studying textile under Ed Rossbach at Cal. Fiberworks was a school where artist came and taught techniques in short format workshops and Pacific Basin was very much like Fiberworks, but more geared toward weaving. There was a whole community of us twenty-somethings gravitating toward these place to take workshops, give workshops, have shows, see shows. There was a large interest in textiles but no one was really doing artwear there except those of us who came from Pratt on the east coast and K. Lee Manual, who was doing artwear before we moved here. Galleries were not showing artwear in those days either, it has been a huge struggle to get visibility. Now it is kind of common place, which is a good thing.
Obiko Window Displays
profiling us, so people could find us and when they contacted us we would do a private commission for them. Who is the big TV show actor who just went to jail? oh, Bill Cosby... Yes, once in the 80s, while I was doing knitwear, Bill Cosby's people contacted me and commissioned me to make two sweaters for him because they saw my work.
Janet in her living room under her monotypes, printed on BFK Rives paper and Tarleton 2002
Wow, his sweaters became a very iconic fashion item... Very infamous now. That is wild! I bet so many of your pieces got interesting traction ending up in unbelievable places. Do you ever hear about where your pieces ended up?
My African Mask garment was purchased by a collector named Muriel Newman. Muriel lived in Philadelphia and had a huge art collection including some of the first Jackson Pollack's and other big artists. She put in her will that African Mask would be donated to the MET when she died, but probably ten years before she died, she donated it, so it was accepted to the archives. I had no idea it was there until Melissa Leventon was curating a show called Fashion and Anti Fashion for the Legion of Honor and found out it had been accepted into the MET.
Once someone bought a vest of mine from Julie's and it ended up in the Woody Allen movie Play it Again, Sam. I was sitting in the movie theater watching the movie and say "oh my god, that's my vest". It was crochet around leather pieces with long yellow fringe but by the time it was in the movie, someone had cut the fringe off. After it was in the movie, I was walking around New York City and everyone was wearing it-- it got knocked off! Years and years later, I was in a thrift shop and the girl behind the counter was wearing the knock off! I should have bought it off her. I did ask her "Hey, where did you get that sweater?" and she said "Oh my mom just had it in her closet."
African Mask (1970), MET Museum gift of Muriel Kallis Newman
A few years ago, my friend [artist] Dina Knapp, was watching the movie on Netflix and set me screenshots of it! At the time the movie came out, it would be wise to have found a business person to partner with and put the sweater into production. But at that time, I was an artist that didn't even consider that and I was always on to the next design. When I finally did production later in my career, I sold to more places but the largest production I ever did back then was thirty pieces. The more I've learned about how the fashion industry functions the more I wanted to go in other directions, which is how I wound up teaching art. I spent twenty five years creating garments that had no limitation, that was my own voice. If I went into production, a lot would have had to be watered down. The things I wanted to make weren't going to be things that everyone wanted to wear or would be the most cost effective.
How do you feel about images of your work being so widely circulated on the internet now?
In fashion, copying happens all the time. An artist always has to be one step ahead, doing the next thing, rather than holding on to things. Some of the images that are up on Pintrest of my work are terrible quality because they might be very poor copies from old books or pictures of photos on screens. But you have to let go. Its a really Brave New World now with people wanting to profile us online, so that's a good thing.
You've created in so many styles and been so prolific over the years. Are there aspects of your journey that people may not know?
There are so many things in life you try but you never see all the way through to the end. I worked with importer and retailer Pamela Drake to see if we could create a line together that never quite happened. I prototyped a line for her and still have some of the pieces, but they never went on sale. I designed for a sweater store called Three Bags Full in San Francisco which didn't take off either. I've learned when I compromise my aesthetic to be a little more commercial, it ends up not really being something that looks like what I do.
What's one of the most interesting endeavors you've taken on in your career so far that served as a challenge and learning experience?
I had a company with Amy Rothberg and Lori [Hansen] Goldman called Chammilian from 1979-1981. We were very successful with that company doing all hand knits and crochet. We all designed it together and divided up tasks and the pieces were all hand knit by women in their homes all around the Bay Area. We found our amazing pattern maker by putting an ad in newspapers, Toshiko Sugata. She and I would go over my drawings together, measure everything on me, and then she would make a perfect pattern. I would take the pattern to the knitters with a diagram on the construction. I hand dyed all the yarn, we hand felted collars, and put a lot of handmade touches into every garment. Then we would take bags of the clothes down to LA to show them to the buyers. We would have to stand on line at Barney's for two days to wait to see a buyer... but that's what it takes. We sold to Saks, Bergdorff's, Neimans, and Barney's. Often our sweaters were shown in Women's Wear Daily. It only three years because one day we sat down to make a business plan to figure out how many years it would take us to earn a descent living and we realized it wouldn't be for another five years down the road until we could support ourselves. If we decided to become more commercial and lose a lot of the special touches to our designs we could have easily continued on, but we really didn't want to water down our designs. It wasn't really viable to scale up our clothing unless we simplified the designs to a degree that no longer made it interesting for us. The Oakland museum has a Chammilian collection in their archives.
Janet in her Living Room
That's so interesting. I don't think people discuss much just how many trials there are to get something right. Failures are extremely important.
Did you have day jobs in addition to your art and design commissions?
Yes, I had day jobs on and off. I sold everything I ever made so my work mainly supported me. I was very lucky in that way. When I had my son, I had expanded my business to the small production in a little studio out of my house where I did all the designing, did all the dying in my kitchen, and hired people to knit and sew for me.
You use such brilliant color and texture in your work. How do they enter into your process?
I began natural dying yarns to develop a richer palette. I mainly worked with natural dyes in the beginning when I was out of college, living in the country doing a residency and working on pieces like African Mask. I had all the time to pour into it and was able to have the space and time to dye everything naturally. Later, I got into the ease of Procion dyes, that offer a wide range of colors and flexibility. Texture is an important part of it too. When you crochet you can work on line and form and color and texture in such a freeing way. It opened up so many possibilities in my work.
Color and texture are ways I explore the symbols I am drawn to. When I look back at my first textile (a quilt) from 1969, I see that I have explored the same symbols for the past 50 years, such as birds, which represent freedom for me, and dolls, which connect to my love of clothing and culture. Everything I do is the result of getting inspired by something and making a series from it, then moving on to the next point of inspiration and building a new series off of that.
Dolls seem like such a natural extension of your
work. Could you talk a bit about what they mean to
you and why you have explored them in various mediums?
I didn't realize the significance of dolls as a theme in my life until years passed and I could look back. As a child I didn't really play with dolls, but I always collected dolls and made my own clothes for them. So there was always something in me from day one that wanted to make clothing. As I traveled, I deeply appreciated the culture and ritual connected to clothing and I began to collect dolls from where ever I would travel. I taught art to children for over 25 years and enjoyed teaching them how to make dolls as well because its such a universal theme. There all dolls in every culture around the world that contain so much love for the child. So, dolls are an opportunity to learn about other cultures. When I'm exploring dolls, I am essentially still involved in clothing but making it for the doll or painting it on the doll. Part of it is engaging in a universal story about humanity.
Did you intend to maintain consistent themes and symbols in your work or did you one day realize you are continually drawn to them?
I didn't realize it until around 20 years ago when I was giving a lecture, looking at all of these slides of my work revealing the same symbolism repeating over and over: the bird, the body, the clothing. Over time the symbols evolved and expanded, such as the bird which represented freedom to me took on a new layer of symbolism when my husband passed away. So the symbols have evolved with me.
What do you think about the distinction drawn between fine art and craft?
All of my life, my challenge was to make Artwear "Art". When we first created Artwear, it was considered clothing and it was not accepted by the art world nor were we allowed to show our work at the craft shows. Eventually, we did get accepted by the craft community and they treated our work with the same value as blown glass or a ceramic piece. Over the years, I went back and forth from working on the body to the wall trying to make a valid statement. On my website you can see how over the years I bounced between the body and the wall. Im at the point now that I think Artwear is finally accepted into the art world, but it no longer matters to me. It is just semantics that don't actually make the work more valuable. A lot of fine artists incorporate craft techniques into the their work and it is still considered art. The battle of the labels may always continue, but the art speaks for itself.
Can you tell us about anything you are working on currently?
I'm working on hand knitting wall pieces now. I have been graphing out my designs and fair isle knitting in the round. After I finish knitting, I cut them and have a rectangle. I embellish the pieces by hand painting, embroidery, and even adding the scrap cords from my decades making sweaters to frame the piece. I'm back to what's important to me, simple colors and graphic symbols.
Left: Inspiration wall in her studio / Right: Doll collection against Fair Isle knit wall hangings
Above: Janet in a sweater from her machine knit line Below: Close up of sweater
"I like to push beyond limitations.
wasn't formally trained to make clothing, I never felt I had to work within the limits."
Still of Diane Keaton in altered Janet Lipkin vest, 1972