Thursday, May 14, 2015

C!QA hears from Jean Williams Cacicedo, icon of wearable art

Jean Cacicedo shows annotated samples of some of her techniques at the May 9 joint CQA/SDA meeting in Seattle. (Photo by Christina Fairley Erickson)
As quilters, many of us dye various fabrics to get the colors and effects we want. While she's not a quilter, Berkeley artist Jean Williams Cacicedo goes even further--she first creates her own cloth! Cacicedo, an icon of the wearable art movement of the 1970s, showed samples of her unusual garments May 9 as she addressed a joint meeting of the Contemporary QuiltArt Association (CQA) and the Seattle chapter of the Surface  Design Association (SDA).
Cacicedo models one of her "pieced, felted, slashed" coats (Photo by Christina Fairley Erickson)

Closeup of the felted, dyed, slashed coat fabric

When Cacicedo was studying drawing, painting and sculpture at Pratt Institute in New York, textile art wasn't on her radar--there were no textile classes available at that time. She received her BFA from Pratt in 1970, in sculpture. It was viewing a tapestry at the Cloisters that inspired her to express herself in fiber and textiles, which became her media for the next 45 years. "Cloth is with us from birth to death, in every culture," she said. "We're beholden to our ancestors, who first tied threads from flax...then the history of spinners, weavers, dyers and so on."
One of Cacicedo's earliest crocheted pieces: fabulous butterfly coat.

Some of her first works were done in crochet, which at that time was somewhat "anti-establishment." Indeed the '60's and '70s were an era of counter-culture, and working with one's hands was a big part of the U.S. craft movement at that time--as it is in the more current "maker" movement of today.

Coat created for Wyoming Wool Growers' Association. Cacicedo's spinning, dyeing and crochet work.
An early piece: "Chaps: A Cowboy Dedication"

 During this period Cacicedo spent seven years in Wyoming, and fell in love with working with wool--spinning, dyeing, crocheting, sewing: "Wool is our first language," she says.

Chart showing the "toothiness" of various fibers, with the rougher fibers better for felting and dyeing. From left: Coarse wool, fine wool, alpaca, cashmere, silk, linen, cotton, polyester.
Closeup of a Cacicedo piece, showing internal layers after a "burn-out" type technique. Wool layered with a single-knit poly jersey.

From crochet, Cacicedo began to work with layers or "substrates" of materials to create finished cloth. One of her first chosen layers was Melton cloth, a tightly woven, smooth-finish wool often used for overcoats. Later she came to use a lot of wool jersey that, unfortunately, became harder to find. To each of these fabrics (and later selections of wool and other fibers) she would add a layer of a fine gauze that would shrink when hot water and pressure were applied.

A "pre-coat" shape of shrinkable gauze, to which Cacicedo will add wool or yarns for subsequent shrinking.
Closeup of gauze. Cacicedo's chosen version, from Japan, is all wool and shrinks 50%.

 The gauze she now uses is a high-twist, pure wool from Japan...that costs $38 per meter and has a 50% shrinkage rate! She can create near-felt with these layers through the application of water, pressure and agitation. She warned that in this method it's best to do the shrinking process before any dye is applied as the dye will prevent some of the shrinking.

Stitching with a heavy white thread is added to a layered scarf.

In 1997, Cacicedo attended an international shibori symposium, and was delighted to discover new techniques to apply to her work. While many of us think first of "tie-dye" when we hear the word shibori, to her it's more the process of the stitching that's the hallmark of this craft. She will stitch heavy wool into the lightweight gauze, often using the stitching as a resist, drawing up the threads and then dying (and shrinking) the result. Sometimes she will stitch polyester to wool to achieve the designs that occur as the wool shrinks and the poly does not.
This felt-like coat includes hand dyes and printed motifs.
Printed and dyed, this coat is of Asian motif.
The scarf (above) and coat (a closeup below) appear printed, but the dark areas are actually tissue-thin from a "burn-out" type process.

Her garments can be described as "pieced, sewn, slashed, felted, dyed." Some of her work includes printing on the final cloth, and her method involves the use of sodium alginate as a print paste (often including dye). Once totally dry, the printed material is then immersed in an aluminum sulfate (alum) bath so the water and alum attach to the sodium alginate, then a water softener is used to remove the alum.

Cacicedo extensively documents each  of her methods, including experiments with various types of yarn and fabrics, with annotated samples. She finds the documentation process as exciting as making the final pieces themselves.
(Above) Attendees at the meeting survey Cacicedo's extensive array of annotated technique samples. Closeup of one technique below showing her layering method.

Cacicedo states that "Art is not about fashion. We are pawns of the fashion industry, but wearable art can differentiate the wearer....can transform the spirit of the wearer. The art we wear can tell stories of journeys both real and spiritual." She reminds that "There is no art-making that can take place without first having craft," and that "there is no one way to approach design...we all go in different doors."
"....stories of journeys both real and spiritual..." (Above) Part of Cacicedo's "Down Under" jacket. (Below) "Red Sea" coat.

Among Cacicedo's most recent design explorations is "notan," the Japanese design concept of the use of black and white in the dynamics of positive and negative space. She has begun conducting workshops involving this principle.
"Reveal Handbag," above, a sculpture of black wool stitched with white wool and shrunk. Inside is an armature of reed.
A beautiful visual pun, this "Raincoat," now in the de Young Museum in San Francisco, is full of punched holes!

Her work has been exhibited in museums and galleries throughout Western Europe, Japan and the U.S., and in 2000, the de Young Museum in  San Francisco mounted a 30-year retrospective of her work. She is the author of the book "Jean  Williams Cacicedo: Explorations in Cloth," published in 2000 by the Museum of Craft and Folk Art. For more on Cacicedo and her work, go to

(Thanks to Christina Fairley Erickson who contributed notes and photos to this report.)