Three years ago this fall, Chicago Textile Week connected the city’s textile designers, artists, industry workers and creatives to the city’s influential textile design history. Featuring art exhibitions, panel discussions, pop-up shops, opportunities to network and tours of textile-based exhibitions at museums around the city, the weeklong event’s spirit lay in three things: quality, design and ingenuity, as Kat Neary puts it. The event founder and director, whose background spans design, manufacturing, research and development—and sales in the fashion and textiles industry, including at Knoll, Holly Hunt and Carnegie fabrics—also teaches Textiles for Interior Architecture at Columbia College. She tells us about ways to build support and opportunity within the textile world, the significance of the medium for the city past and present, and Chicago Textile Week serving as a reminder that skills still exist.
How did you become interested in textiles?
My grandmother taught me to sew at a very early age. And I’ve always been an avid vintage clothing shopper. My favorite period was the forties and fifties when synthetics were replacing the naturals. I learned a lot about fabrics that way. Then I was lucky enough to land at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science and the rest is history!
Chicago Textile Week highlights the historical significance of textiles as well as the importance of community. Can you talk about what the medium means to the city—then and now?
That is one of the most interesting questions as it tells the story of what was and what might never be again. Think about Sears, Spiegel, Hart Schaffner Marx—legacies in retail and manufacturing… Gone, neighborhoods destroyed. It makes me sad that so much of our making went overseas. Feels way out of balance. Chicago Textile Week serves as a reminder that skills still exist. Leading design is still possible with makers and manufacturers that live here in Chicago.
My favorite example is The Weaving Mill run by Emily Winter. She took over a table-linens manufacturing space with industrial looms that went out of business. The looms are now running, making products that are sold on her website and she recently captured a few clients like Starbucks. Envision, the social services agency, is housed in the same building and with the addition of hand-weaving looms, the participants have learned to weave, make products and get paid a portion of the sale. It’s coming full circle: reviving a mill, teaching people skills, serving the community and encouraging commerce. There are many more examples of Chicago history like Good Design at the Mart which was done in conjunction with MoMA back in the day. I believe in skills. It’s the old adage, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”
What inspires or informs your work?
I have been focused on the commercial textile business for over twenty years. When I started teaching Textiles for Interior Architecture at Columbia College, I realized how alive the textile world is. Textiles as Art, Textiles as Architecture, Technical Textiles. Like a real invisibility cloak, teaching forced me out of my comfort zone and I wanted to share all the possibilities and potentially inspire the students to look at fabric differently.
What are you personally most excited about?
What excites me most are the connections that people make through all the programs. The artists that are featured are mind-blowing. A few, like Melissa Leandro and Hope Wang started with me three years ago and to see how their work has morphed is a beautiful thing.
How can we collectively build support and opportunity within the textile world?
First, follow Chicago Textile Week to get to know who is out there making work. From slow fashion designers, like Jamie Hayes and Anna Brown, to experimental weavers, like Olive Stefanski and Bryana Bibbs—they are all doing it big-time. Quality, design and ingenuity. Go to the fairs and galleries and learn. The Art Institute of Chicago has a textile gallery. Go!
What are you hoping the visitors will take away from this experience?
Everyone will no doubt be inspired and will make new friends.
Chicago Textile Week runs September 25-October 1.
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