Stop shopping, start sewing!
October 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
This is what I knew about the woman calling herself Frau Fiber: She was a former East German garment worker who went around town showing people how to repurpose clothing, like turning an old dress shirt into an apron. At times she used a bicycle-powered sewing machine that she brought to the site by, yes, bicycle. Also that last year, she opened a store front in Long Beach that she called Institute for Labor Generosity Workers and Uniforms, ILGWU for short.* Oh, and that she usually showed up wearing a uniform made of reworked denim that looked not a little like the old Girl Scout leader’s uniform replete with self-designed, embroidered badges.
Though curious, I wasn’t able to catch up with die Frau until last month when I received notice that she would bring her Sewing Rebellion (Stop Shopping, Start Sewing!) to Atwater Village. She promised to show us how to construct a knock-off of an H&M jersey dress.
At the appointed time and place, Thank You for Coming†, I arrived cradling my venerable Kenmore sewing machine with a cloth bag of bobbins, scissors, tailor’s chalk, etc. over my shoulder. There, in the flesh, was Frau Fiber along with three Faux Fraus, young women aides sporting the same denim cap as the echte Frau. The narrow work space slowly filled to capacity and the crowd was pleasingly diverse (though mostly women).
In a high, breathy, unaccented voice, Frau Fiber showed us a finished dress, pointed us towards fabric and copies of a brown paper pattern, and set us to work. Amidst a mixed level of skills and multiple projects, die Frau was a calm center, patiently answering questions and, as needed, sitting at a participant’s machine to skillfully solve a problem.
Although required to take Home Economics throughout junior high school and having made a number of blouses, skirts, and dresses, I’m not a confident seamstress. I prefer knitting garments to sewing them. Which perhaps accounts for the fact that after tracing and cutting out the pattern, of the three seams I sewed before quitting time, I had to rip out two because I had sewn the wrong pieces together.
The biggest lesson of the night, however, was learning that Frau Fiber is actually the alter ego of Carole Frances Lung, a fashion activist with a B.F.A. and M.F.A. in Fiber and Material Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a member of the Fashion and Textiles faculty of CSU-LA’s Art Department. Her c.v. is five pages long, filled with lists of exhibitions, grants, artist residencies, and honors. And she’s from North Dakota, not East Germany.
It’s easiest to let Lung explain. Her artist’s statement says that she created Frau Fiber in 2006 as a former East German Garment worker, whose textile job was lost with the fall of the Berlin Wall. . . . Frau Fiber represents the Lost Generation of workers, who failed to assimilate to the new united Germany and never had the economic success of the communist times. Embodied in the uniforms she wears and context in which she appears, Frau Fiber transformed herself into a textile activist, drawing attention to the labor behind the label of the garments we wear. Her work is grounded in generosity, commemoration, and gestures of work.
Fiber art as cultural criticism and social activism sweetened with sly humor: just my cup of tea!
Lung writes that she designed Frau Fiber’s various projects, such as the ILGWU and Sewing Rebellion, to deliberately expose the time, process, and labor that garment production requires. Using skills sharing and sewing instruction to foster micro-economies and provide an alternative to the global garment industry, asking participants to exchange their leisure time for production and mending of ones own textile and apparel goods. She reveals the collaborative aspects of piecework, and its ability to help create social bonds. These works are firmly connected to historical instances of organized labor, and are a vehicle to think about self-sufficiency, self-empowerment, communal experience and happiness in work, as well as a tool for fighting poverty and oppression.
I haven’t made much progress on the H & M knock-off since that night, but that’s okay. Frau Fiber said she’d be back and in the process I became reacquainted with my sewing machine, wondering for the Nth time, why I don’t get it out and plug it in more often, an inquiry die Frau would no doubt encourage.
*Readers of a certain age will recognize ILGWU as the acronym of the former U.S. needle trades union, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, whose label had to be in any clothes my union-supporting parents would buy.
†Thank You For Coming: Yes, that’s the name of the store front restaurant cum art studio (or art studio cum restaurant) on Glendale Boulevard in Atwater Village, just west of the railroad tracks. It will get its own blog post, just as soon as I figure out what it’s all about.