By Regina Connell.
It was designer Steven Miller—no slouch in the taste department—who first showed me the work of Jenny Hacker, a San Francisco-based textile artist. It was a blanket—black on black—with two different textiles fused together, one side organic cotton and the other, felted wool. A triumph of texture and form, and dramatic, organic, sophisticated, sensual, it was one of the most beguiling pieces of functional art I’ve seen of late.
But why had I never heard of her? I had to track her down.
Doing a little background research for the interview was no mean feat. At a time when so many tread the same art-meets-craft sales circuits and tend their Instagram feeds with greater passion than their craft, this woman was mysterious. A minimalist website was all there was. Even better.
A trip out to the deliciously un-hip Excelsior District in San Francisco (it makes me nervous to even mention the area for fear of changing all that) was a good start. So was poking around the garage-turned-workshop: a vat of something brewing in the corner, a few bottles holding another experiment (homemade dyes from flowers in the yard), tatami mats on the floor, vintage Knoll chairs, a drool-worthy assortment of books on fashion, Japanese anime figurines… Oh, and an old letterpress nestled beneath a work table.
In the middle of the room, the tools of her trade: raw wool, a sewing machine, bolts of fabric, a large work surface with something half formed, organic, and unidentifiable on it. Part chemistry lab, part art studio, completely charming. The collection of artifacts hinted at a restless, inquisitive, interesting spirit with a rich history.
Artist Jenny Hacker epitomizes that rather unfashionable phrase, “still waters run deep.” Soft spoken and unpretentious, what strikes you first is her intellect, curiosity and self-confidence that lets her keep following what fascinates her and what she finds beautiful. Along the way, the disciplines she’s explored—in her case, wood working, print making, fashion, and fiber, start to draw on one another—which is what makes her work so deep, layered and original.
Seattle-raised Jenny comes from a family steeped in design and making. Her father was a Boeing engineer who nonetheless found the time to make ancient instruments (lutes, dulcimers, and harpsichords) on the side; her uncle is an architect; another is a creative director at Herman Miller. She grew up working with her father on home renovations (old houses being rife with those opportunities) and in a studio of her own. Such are the foundations of creative courage and fluency, and a lifelong fascination with the possibilities of material and process.
Fast forward. Jenny went to California College of the Arts for an MFA in printmaking, and after graduating, showed her work San Francisco (including shows at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco Center for the Book and Southern Exposure Gallery), and also showed at the La Jeune Gravure Contemporaine in Paris, the respected group that stages exhibits and shows on printmaking.
But all along, she’d been nursing a fascination with clothing and fashion. Not banal fashion, but clothes in the hands of Japanese designers like Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, and Issey Miyake where originality reigns and material is the heart of it all. “I admire Kawakubo for the pure audacity of her mind that is just awe- inspiring. With Yamamoto, it’s his breath-taking construction and thoughtful use of form. And then there is Miyaki’s mind blowing exploration of fabric manipulation. It’s not throwaway fashion, but art, craft and design all rolled into one. These are clothes that make a mark on the world.”
So she followed the muse, but again, in very much her own way, and as ever, inspired by her love of process. “I found a book on Inuit caribou coats that fascinated me and I started first making small versions of them and then I made myself a coat and soon other people wanted the coats and at that point I found myself more interested in making clothes and working with fabric than making prints.” And why caribou coats, of all things? “I think what intrigued me is that the construction is like a puzzle. It was the challenge of matching together pieces of hide by hand to create something that is both beautiful and protects you from the elements. I love figuring out how things are constructed.”
Growing concern with the environmental impact of textiles (particularly when they’re mass produced) led her to research local and organic options, and she soon found herself intrigued by the properties and possibilities of wool, and in particular, felting.
About 3 years ago, she started creating blankets—which have many of the same protective, soothing properties as coats—felting the wool and quilting it onto silk or woven wool, integrating the properties of the two textiles in a way that works with their own distinctive properties to. She felts the wool by itself then pieces together the silk to follow the contours of the felted wool: “a bit like fitting clothes,” notes Jenny. Then she quilts them together.
More recently, she added nuno felting to her cache of techniques. Nuno became popular in the craft world in the early ’90s, and became popular on the craft show circuit with its distinctive look and crafty vibe. But Jenny saw other possibilities and began the process of re-interpreting the craft to create something more sophisticated, modern and artful. The technique bonds loose wool into a sheer fabric such as silk gauze: the result isn’t just the felt, but this extraordinary, organic texture on both sides of the piece, a completely new substance. The fibers can completely cover the background fabric, or they may be used as a decorative design that allows the backing fabric to show. Jenny then quilts on top of the new material.
Felting is not for the faint of heart (which is why it’s perfect for Jenny). It is physical. (Think rolling a piece 400 times in different directions to get the fibers to fuse.)
It involves enough plastic sheeting to make Quentin Tarantino smile. It is messy and wet and cold (those tatami mats I mentioned at the outset? They can be rolled up to accommodate all that wetness.) In the felting process the wool shrinks 40%, so it takes 6.5ft x 10ft of fiber for a 4ft x 6ft blanket. It is slightly magical, this fusing of multiple fibers using nothing but water, force, and persistence.
It’s no surprise that the quilted blankets take up to a month to make, and the nuno blankets can take up to two weeks to make.
For Jenny, the process is revelatory of the stubbornly organic nature of the textiles and that is the wonder: each time, the outcome is different. “In all these endeavors what I found most interesting to me is the challenge of allowing the material I am working with to guide the form of the final product.”
While much of her inspiration comes from process, it’s also mightily infused with the independent spirit, rigorous construction and idea-based aesthetics of the Japanese designers she so admires.
The fact that she’s able to bring that to life in something as utterly humble and cozy—yet noble—as a blanket is pretty miraculous. And balm to the soul whichever way you look at it.