Fabric artist takes ‘slow clothing’ to a new level

Pictured above: Fabric artist Anne Fetterly and Bruce McFarlane. Lorne Eckersley photo

By Lorne Eckersley

Anne Fetterly, like many children of the 1960s, learned the art of tie-dyeing (a phrase that now “makes me cringe!”) at an early age, but as an artist she has taken her interest in fabric to an entirely new level. A four-year degree from the Alberta College of Art and Design and an insatiable desire to experiment and learn will do that.

Using traditional techniques for creating dyed patterns in fabric, Fetterly combines ancient practices with her own keenness for experimentation. With lengths of dyed and decorated fabric in hand, she then uses her expertise as a designer and seamstress to create a line of one-of-a-kind clothing items.

“Slow clothing, I call it,” she said at her home studio in Erickson earlier this month.

Fetterly didn’t set out to become a fabric artist when she entered the college program at the age of 50.

At the urging of her employer, a Calgary homebuilder, she began to think about what she would do in her “retirement years”.

“He knew I needed a change,” she said. “’What do you love to do?’ he asked me.” Art had always been a love, and soon she was making a plan to attend post-secondary school.

“I didn’t want to go into debt to do it,” she said. With the help of a friend, she secured a position as cook and first aid attendant in gas exploration camps in Canada’s far north—on Banks Island–working two seasons to finance her education.

She entered ACAD planning to specialize in pottery, but soon learned the physical demands were more than she wanted to take on. But she had seen what fabric art students were doing and the transition was an easy one.

With a degree completed, in 2010 Fetterly and her husband, Tim Hull, were ready to make the move to Erickson, where they had purchased a house—a handyman’s special—on a gorgeous Beam Road acreage.

Since the home renos gave her a bright, spacious studio in the above ground basement, Fetterly has been practicing her own version of alchemy, transforming lengths of raw white Chinese silk into unique and beautiful clothing. She uses traditional Japanese techniques (shibori), and variations thereof, to create patterns with dyes, which are, for the most part, natural. Embroidery, stencils and batik also enhance some pieces.

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Pictured above: World Blues is textile artist Anne Fetterly’s tribute to indigo dye, which came into use in Africa, India, China and Japan at roughly the same time. Lorne Eckersley photo

For some she folds cloth, then stitches it in patterns so the dye will not penetrate into some areas. The resulting patterns can be further enhanced by re-dyeing or using a block printing process to stamp patterns over the base image.

“I have hundreds of these, all imported from India—and they are not cheap,” she laughs, holding one up to show the intricate pattern carved in wood.

Natural has become something of a mantra.

“I don’t like chemicals. I really like not making a large footprint on the environment.”

Once a dye is used she stores the remainder in a sealed container to use on another day. She opens a cupboard door to reveal dozens of dye-filled containers, each marked with their contents and date of use. Materials used to make the dye extracts include wood chips, dried cochineal bugs (the bodies of which are about one-fifth carminic acid, which makes a variety of red hues), seeds, flower petals and so on. Adding iron to a dye made from dried marigold flowers results in green colours.

“I do collect quite a bit of what I use to make my dyes, but some things I have to buy,” she said.

“It is a special time of year right now, with all the coloured leaves falling to the ground.” She dries them flat in books and they can be laid on cloth for “eco-printing” and many of her finished items of apparel feature their patterns. Oak leaves can be laid on to a pre-treated (“Secret process!”) cloth that is then rolled up tight and left to sit for several days. The result is stunning.

The dyed material is post-treated salt solution to make it colourfast.

Like so many visual arts endeavours, making fabric art is often a solitary process. But Fetterly has found a way to weave a social aspect to her work. She founded a group of like-minded artists who rent the ACAD fabric arts department in the summer. For a relatively low cost they have access to the space and equipment, and the collaboration that comes with any group of people who share similar interests.

Last summer, with several others, she laid a variety of natural items—leaves, berries, etc.—onto a piece of silk, then rolled, twisted and tied it into a tight wad. The friends then headed to a park in Calgary’s northwest, where they buried their pieces in the mud bottom of a creek, moving rocks on top to hold them in place. They returned more than a month later to reclaim their creations and see the results of the experiment.

“One of them had floated away,” she laughed, “but we came away with some very interesting pieces!”

For some of her work, Fetterly uses a much simpler process to transfer colour and pattern to the silk. She lays rusty pieces of metal—gears, grates, wheels–collected at a friend’s farm on the silk and just lets it sit for days. The contact between metal and fabric transfers the colour and pattern to the silk. The results are startling.

Anyone who has attended a local art show in recent years has likely seen, and become smitten by, Fetterly’s shawls, blouses, scarves, jackets and other items of apparel. Colour combinations are impeccable and the designs are elegant and versatile.

“I try to make things that can work as well with jeans as with formal outfits,” she says. Her shawls, which can be folded and buttoned into a number of configurations, turn their wearers into walking works of art.

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