Even among the countless creatives and innovative textile artists we encounter through our shows, Suzann Thompson stands out for her unique and inventive approach to the art form.
Her TextileFusion techniques combine knitting, crochet, sewing, and embellishment in works that speak to this artist, author, and teacher’s creative refusal to “choose just one craft and leave the others behind.”
A selection of Thompson’s work will be on display at this year’s Quilt! Knit! Stitch! show in Portland, Oregon, where she will also be teaching classes. For this edition of Friends@Festival, we spoke with the textile talent about her lifelong love of knitting, her artistic development, and her inclination toward multi-craft inclusion.
ABOVE: Firewheel Meadow (20” x 20”) and detail
Media: Knitting, quilting, embellishment, stenciling; wool yarn, acetate backing and binding, trims, acrylic paint, buttons, beads
Friends@Festival: First, please tell us a bit about your personal and professional background.
Thompson: I'm a native Texan, born in Austin. As a child, I loved the illustrations in children's books, and wanted to be an artist. I was also fascinated by color and pattern.
Unfortunately, I trusted too much in the advice of others who assured me that artists have a difficult and penniless existence. So I earned a degree in biology from The University of Texas.
Unconsciously, I must have held on to the dream of being an artist, because I worked at secretarial and administrative jobs until learning that a person can earn money by designing knitting and crochet projects.
My first paid writing was a book review which appeared in Fiberarts magazine in 1990. Since then, I've published a couple of hundred craft articles and designs, as well as four books.
All that designing and writing helped develop my skill and eye for artistic effect. What I learned during that time came together in the mixed-media pieces that I call TextileFusion. My TextileFusion techniques are still undergoing changes and refinements.
I think my childhood wish to become an artist has come true.
My husband and I left Austin in 1996 with our then one-year-old daughter to live in Sheffield, England. I belonged to the wonderful Hallamshire Guild of Weavers, Spinners, and Dyers. The early days of TextileFusion happened in England, and I also had my first solo exhibition there.
In 2003, we returned to Texas, to be closer to our families. Charles is a consulting geoarcheologist. Our daughter Eva is a sophomore at The University of Texas at Austin. Ella, our younger daughter, is in seventh grade. Both girls knit and crochet when the mood strikes. We live in Comanche County, where the nights are dark enough to see lots of stars. Cows and coyotes serenade us by day and by night, respectively.
Friends@Festival: At what point did you begin knitting, and who taught you?
Thompson: My mother, Anna Wirth Thompson, taught me to knit when I was in second grade. Apparently, second grade was not challenging enough for a young smarty-pants like me, and I acted out my frustration at home. She thought knitting would help.
I knitted off and on throughout grade school and learned to crochet in junior high. During college I discovered Barbara Walker's A Treasury of Knitting Patterns and Elyse Sommers's A New Look at Crochet. These books and many others showed me the enormous possibilities of knitting and crochet.
My mom often says she taught me the basics and I taught myself all the rest. Maybe so, but she and my dad, Alan Thompson, taught me how to think critically and persevere, which are valuable skills in crafts, art, and life.
Friends@Festival: Your work incorporates a variety of media and techniques. How did you arrive at the idea of TextileFusion, and how would you define it?
Thompson: Two different tracks brought me to TextileFusion. First, there was a knowledge in me that knitting and crochet were or could be art media, just like painting and sculpting. Where did this knowledge come from? I can't remember. It seemed logical, though not everyone agreed with me.
As time went by, I absorbed as much as possible about textile arts. I noticed that quilters and weavers were turning their work into artwork, while still practicing and honoring traditional designs and methods. Surely knitters and crocheters could do the same.
Track number two started at a Hobby Industries of America trade show in the early 1990s. That's where I first saw a Fairfield Fashion Show. It was amazing. These were clearly art garments. I wanted to be part of it! I had to be part of it! Eventually, I showed two garments in the Fairfield Fashion Show—a highlight of my design career.
The Fairfield Fashion Show had two rules: 1) the garment must be size 10; 2) the garment must include a significant amount of quilt batting. I knitted the outer shell of the garments. In order to incorporate the batting…well…I had to do some quilting. So that was my first melding of knitting with quilting.
Quilting appeared to stabilize the knitted fabric. Hmmm…
With the knitting stabilized, I could make wall hangings that wouldn't stretch when hung up. Plus, I could decorate with all manner of buttons and beads and broken china, which would otherwise drag the knitting down and
stretch it out.
I started knitting art, calling the wallhangings Treasure Textiles in an early exhibition. Later, when looking for a name for my website, I wanted something that described the joining of several textile techniques. With help from Roget's Thesaurus, I came up with "TextileFusion."
TextileFusion melds knitting, crochet, quilting, embellishment, and sometimes more in each project.
Friends@Festival: What would you say to someone who
is strictly a knitter or quilter to encourage them to try their hand at mixed media or to allow their work to evolve into
a new direction?
Thompson: First, I would say that trying your hand at mixed media only requires a small investment: tuition for a workshop and a day or so of your time. Beyond that, you don't have any obligation to continue with it or even to like it. Just trying something new does not mean you have to commit to it.
But if you do try mixed media, it will open your mind to a new skill, to new ways of seeing and thinking. Even if you decide not to continue with mixed media, you will bring your opened mind back to your original craft. You will be more likely to see new ways of improving your skill and the products
of your skill.
If you decide to continue with mixed media, start small. Work on projects that can be finished in a reasonable time. Ask yourself if you have any craft-related issues that need to be solved, and how mixed media might help you solve them. Read broadly…you will find answers in unexpected places.
Realize that some of your work will not look as good as you want it to. That is normal. Donate your flawed piece to the nearest textile recycler. You'll do better next time.
Friends@Festival: In addition to having work on display at this year's Quilt! Knit! Stitch!, you will also be teaching. For you, what is the most rewarding and what is the most challenging aspect of teaching people your craft?
Thompson: The most challenging aspect of teaching knitting and crochet is having the time to make enough samples. Samples are so important, because they are not only a way to practice a new stitch or technique, but also a record of what you learned. I try to strike a good balance between learning new techniques and practicing them in samples. And I hope to create enough enthusiasm so students will do further research and sample-making at home.
The most rewarding aspect of teaching is when people proudly show me something they made using techniques they learned from me. Every now and then, I receive an email or letter saying, "You inspired me to…" Sometimes it's "You inspired me to try knitting with lots of color." And sometimes, "You inspired me to show my designs to a publisher…my book is now available on Amazon.com." Those letters make me so happy.
Friends@Festival: Finally, do you have a favorite or storied piece among your works that you feel is particularly interesting in either its conception, construction process, or its meaning?
Thompson: The iced water at the Café Rouge on Eccleshall Road in Sheffield, England, is practically an art form. A black straw refracts beautifully in the frosty, faceted glass. The bright lemon accent thrills. I first saw this beauty when I was eating out with some of my American friends. I absolutely had to try to reproduce it in a quilt.
First, I took my family and camera to the Café Rouge, and photographed
the lovely iced water glass before our food arrived. My husband and daughter were used to this kind of behavior. But photography wasn't enough. So on our wedding anniversary, with my husband out of town, I took myself and a sketchbook out to lunch to celebrate. Other diners seemed amused. While nibbling at my sandwich, I drew a still-life with the water glass, my plate, and a vase.
The wallhanging's background is knitted and crocheted from handspun (by me!) yarns. I made the glass with layers of netting. For shadows, I embroidered with dark yarn before adding the net. The bright accents are fabric appliqué. The straw and lemon are embroidered. The flower and the lettuce on the plate are crocheted.
Iced Water at the Café Rouge won a NQA CJ Merit Award for Outstanding Achievement in Quilt Making at the Threads of Texas Quilt Show (Stephenville, TX) in 2014. I think it's one of my best quilts ever.
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