This isn't your grandma's knitting. In the North, artists are making a statement with needle and thread.
Last autumn in an abandoned bank space in a Yellowknife mall, Sarah Swan faced a conundrum: where to hang the weird and wonderful fibre art that makes up Social Fabric, an art show she’s directed for the last two years? Should the anti-quilt—a patchwork of distressed denim sewn to commemorate the end of a relationship—be hung next to pipe cleaner art created by dementia patients, or would it look better kitty-corner to crochet parka-shaped can koozies?
“Things are getting heated out there in the world of subversive fibre arts,” says Swan.
What used to be defined as a craft, with visions of quilts or wall hangings dancing in people’s brains, has become so much more. The medium has grown to embrace any project using any kind of fabric, or techniques used for fabric.
“So [it's] threads, cloth, any kind of fur, any kind of hide, any surface that bends and folds, anyone who even uses the ideas of fibre in their work,” says Swan. “We like to show traditional work and work that’s far from traditional, we value all of this.”
No one knew how well Social Fabric’s first installation, put on in 2018 by the Yellowknife Artist-Run Community Centre, would go over, or if it would take off at all. The show ended up with 35 artists, and around 300 people at opening night (Disclaimer: this author's creations were part of the show). Over the following week, 500 more visited, rivaling the biggest art shows in the territory.
“It’s accessible. Everybody has a quilt. Everybody wears a sweater. People understand fabric more inherently than they might a painting on canvas. It’s less highbrow. It’s for everyone,” says Swan.
A lot of the work from the Social Fabric collection was submitted by people who had never participated in an art show before or even considered their hobbies as art, and is far from traditional. This isn’t exactly new though. Fibre art has historically always been used to spread a message: quilts created as fabric maps guiding escaping slaves to Canada; suffragettes using sewing circles as an excuse to meet and plot revolution; feminist art like 1979’s The Dinner Party, featuring embroidered place settings for forgotten women in history and myth. More recently, knitting website Ravelry did what bigger platforms like Facebook and Twitter said was impossible: it banned expressions of support for Donald Trump on the grounds that they promoted white supremacy.
The North has its own long history with fibre arts. Wall hangings, or nivinngajuliaat in Inuktitut, have garnered attention, with work by artists like Jessie Oonark featured in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, or Mary Yuusipik Singaqti's wall hangings at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Weaving and tapestry making combine scenes of northern life, both modern and timeless, into something beautiful. But the history of northern women creating incredible pieces of art with fibre goes back for centuries, both traditionally and non-traditionally (one artist who was a pioneer in innovative, experimental techniques melded with tradition was Elizabeth Angrnaqquaq, an Inuk artist with a painterly style who started making waves in the art world in the 1970s). And the Pangnirtung Tapestry Studio is renowned for its woven tapestries, since its first exhibition of work created by Inuit women in 1972 with work based on drawings by Malaya Akulukjuk and Elisapee Ishuluktuk.
“There used to be this omnipresent idea that art was superior to craft, because it holds more ideas. It was linked to the mind and to the brain, whereas craft was linked to the fingers, to skill. And because the mind is higher than the hands and the fingers, it was considered of more value. That’s totally changed now. I think they’re on equal footing,” says Swan. She’s big on stressing the layers of meaning worked into fibre arts. Those meanings, whatever they are, are art.
That’s what drew Erin Suliak. She’s been making quilts since she was a kid growing up in Yellowknife, and has participated in both Social Fabric shows.
“I felt like I had something to say and art is a way of expressing that. We could be writing, we could be dancing, we could be expressing ideas through so many different ways, and I found working with textiles... it’s something that feels really natural to me,” she says. “I can portray the things I think are important to communicate through this medium. Because a lot of the things that I’m interested in have to do with ecology and the environment and history and gender, it all comes together in this really tidy package.”’
She’s currently working on a quilt series about the legacy of mining in the North, wrapping old mining equipment with fabric so the rust can be transmitted onto the cloth “like a shroud” before being transformed into quilted art.
“The medium is the message ends up being writ large on what I end up doing,” she says. Women for centuries have been making beautiful art out of necessity and the literal scraps of fabric in their homes. But it wasn’t always necessarily seen as art. “It’s the typical old thing—men paint paintings and women sew,” Suliak says.
She continues this tradition, using thrifted materials, old clothes, and things scavenged from the dump. But for her it’s not necessity: it’s layering meaning, using found objects to create not just a quilt but a commentary on consumption and the world around us. “The thing that’s so satisfying about [fibre arts] is that it’s so intersectional, it’s so multidimensional, it’s just so human. There’s nothing artificial about it.”
She sees her art as a connection to the past, but fundamentally a feminist art form. “For me, it’s a direct connection to my great-grandmothers and my grandmothers who were really avid textile workers, artists in their own right, although they probably didn’t consider themselves that. I’m using a medium that is gendered, but in a way that I celebrate,” she says. “It’s like taking an old skill and making it look new and do things that people might not expect.”
Outside of the NWT, other artists are doing the same thing. In June, a new show hits the Yukon, featuring beadwork from Upper Tanana artist Teresa Vander Meer-Chasse and Stormy Bradley from Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, the Crow Clan. Both learned traditional beadwork from their elders but quickly branched out. In Vander Meer-Chasse’s case, to large scale beading projects on things like hub caps and pylons.
“I’m using the exact technique that my grandma taught me,” she says—but on found objects and on a much bigger scale. The men in her family have always been involved with cars, so it was an easy transition for her to embrace automotive parts, scavenged from her favourite dumps around the Yukon (including Beaver Creek where she goes with her grandfather) as art supplies. “It’s a way of connecting and honouring my mom and my aunt and all of my grandmas. I’m putting that onto pieces that are seen as more traditionally associated with masculine jobs.”
All these women see themselves as artists and their work—while using traditional techniques—as art, not craft.
“This is a big one for me,” says Vander Meer-Chasse. “I’m very passionate with trying to make sure that beadwork is seen (as art) because it’s still seen as ‘women’s work’ and anything that’s women’s work is always seen as lesser than, and often deemed as a craft.”
Back in Yellowknife, Swan is hoping shows like Social Fabric will help change that, one stitch at a time.
“There’s just as much content in my grandmother’s doily as there is in that white guy’s painting from 1954. There’s just as much content and ideas, and they’re just as equal,” says Swan. “Craft is no longer this marginalized quaint thing, that women do in their rocking chairs.”