Anything but a Luddite: Conversation With a Fibers Designer

When most people think of design, they think of plastic and metal. They don't always think of fibers. I sometimes think fibers designers are the most attentive, most inventive designers of all, accounting for the smallest and most disparate details and bringing them together in the whole. Cayewah Easely is the chair of the fibers department at SCAD. When she was younger, she first wanted to study engineering, then architecture, then interior design, then furniture design. "I kept being drawn to smaller and smaller objects," she said, "and finally to the substance that made those objects." That's what led her to fibers.

PW: What do people say when you tell them you teach fibers?

CE: They stare, blankly. The thing is, textiles are so ubiquitous, we don't even notice them. Clothes, curtains, carpet, couches, chairs, carseats, trivets, potholders, bedclothes, blankets, rugs, toys, shoes, even lampshades and light fixtures. That's all fibers and surface design. The only time we're not in direct contact with fibers is when we're in the shower.

PW: And then there's the shower curtain and the washcloth.

CE: You can't escape fibers. We're everywhere.

SCAD fibers
A fibers student on a recent off-campus trip to visit studios in New York.

PW: On a tour of your building last quarter, I heard you reference the link between fibers and early digital technology.

SCAD loomCE: The Jacquard loom, which used punch cards, was pretty much the first computer. For the work of the loom, a tiny hole in the card represented over, and the absence of a hole meant under—which essentially translates as yes/no or one/zero. That same century, Charles Babbage applied this same punchcard design to the concept for his "Thinking Machine." Just look at the loom, and then look at Babbage's computer.

PW: So essentially, fibers designers helped create the first programmable computer.

CE: In a way, yes. What's funny is, we get the word Luddite from this whole period. The Luddites were textile artisans who protested the development of machines like the Jacquard loom, which were putting them out of work. And now, this is kind of happening all over again. In the U.S., the bulk of textile manufacturing is already gone, heading overseas, so companies over here are crying foul, wanting to bring back the glory days of U.S. manufacturing. But that's the past. We have to adapt. We can't be Luddites. What's great is that the Jacquard loom down the hall can be operated by hand, but it can also be operated digitally. Students can scan in the bark of a tree and then sew that pattern. This way, students learn the value of handwork and technology, all at once.

PW: The range of jobs available in fibers is pretty astounding.

SCAD fibers
Ruben and Isabel Toledo meeting with fibers students in New York.

CE: We had a student a few years back who switched from interactive design to fibers in his senior year. I'll be honest—his parents kind of freaked out. They were asking, "What are you going to do with that?" Well, now he's an associate manager of knit research and development at the Gap. I've got former students at Carter's, Macy's, Target, Tai Ping, OshKosh, JCPenney, those kinds of places. We also encourage students toward creative entrepreneurship, like two recent graduates, Trish Anderson and Maureen Walsh. They have a studio called Domestic Construction, where they create clothing, home accessories, even custom interior installations.

PW: I love Trish and Maureen's work! They really are the darlings of the design blogs. While we're on the subject of former students, what's been your proudest moment as a design educator?

SCAD camperCE: Last year, we designed a project to teach the students how to listen to clients. We wanted to work with Union Mission, the homeless shelter in Savannah, and we kicked around ideas. We decided to work on concepts for bedding, because sleep is a pretty big area of concern for the homeless. Their biggest challenge is to keep it private and comfortable. So the students designed prototypes for sustainable bedding that the clients could then construct themselves, with materials from a secondhand store. The work was accepted for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, and we actually ended up being voted as Best Design School at the fair. The Urban Camper we created was a big hit.

PW: Any fibers or textile pieces in your home that you especially love?

CE: It's not a fibers piece, per se. It's an old antique Parker Brothers knitting kit for kids. I love toys that teach, and this is one of my all-time favorites.

SCAD knit
Antique Parker Brothers knitting kit.

[Image 2: The Jacquard loom at Pepe Hall; Image 4: The Urban Camper at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair.]

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Paula Wallace is the president and co-founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design, which was established in 1978. Over the last three decades, she has served as the university's academic dean and provost and was appointed president in 2000. Since that time, Wallace has led the university in unprecedented growth, transforming SCAD into the most comprehensive art and design university in the United States—a nonprofit, accredited institution with more than 9,300 students and 1,500 faculty and staff.

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