By Janet Kelly
THE 2021 Virtual Smithsonian Craft Show, “Celebrating American Artistry,” is now open. Until 10pm on October 31, you can purchase—or just admire—the unique work of nearly 100 contemporary craft artists.
“It’s one of the premier, most prestigious shows in the country for the quality of the crafts. If you want first-class objects that are gorgeous to wear or display, this is the place to get them in a wide variety of media,” says Trudi Hahn, co-chair of the show.
Speaking of gorgeous wearables, I recently caught up with textile artist Amy Nguyen as she was leaving for a retreat to practice tai chi. Frequently described as meditation in motion, the practice promotes calm through gentle, flowing movements. And the way they move is one reason behind Nguyen’s love of clothing, which she began designing as a child. Nguyen’s background is Welsh/ German, but she has an intense interest in Asian culture and arts for which she credits her Vietnamese husband.
“Still.,” her most recent collection of contrasty black-and-white silk and linen tunics, coats and jackets, is made with itjame shibori, “a method of folding fabric and using a clamp resist to create patterns on the cloth after it is dipped into dye and then unfolded.” This “old-school technique” appeals to Nguyen, because “you can sense the energy and soul from the fabric.” After the folding and dyeing process, she cuts, layers or pieces—to create texture—and then sews the garment together.
In an article in Ornament magazine, Nguyen points out, “The stitching is such an important element as it adds weight to create the drape of the cloth I’m seeking. I have the control to create the size and shape of the piece I want to end up with.”
Nguyen received a degree in studio art from South Carolina’s College of Charleston, but through a project she collaborated on with “amazing” batik artist Mary Edna Fraser, she fell into textiles. When Frasers suggested she put her paintings on fabric, she decided “to make things available off the wall.”
Japanese designers, including Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake, have influenced Nguyen’s work. Also, “Vionnet’s bias, Dior’s details, Yeohlee [Teng’s] minimalism, Worth’s silk draping, Delaunay’s geometry—they all inspire me in different ways.”
But don’t call her a fashion designer. She’s a textile artist who is passionate about clothing. During the past year and change of the pandemic we became accustomed to casual clothing. Now, “it’s nice when you put on an outfit—it makes you stand taller.”
Nguyen’s underlying driver is to create a sense of well-being. “What you choose to wear is important in terms of how you feel.” Some days, she says, you want to wear something protective—a coat with cocooning layers and a high collar. On other days, “you’re out there in the world and need energy.” In that case, something flowy and open would work.
The bottom line is Nguyen’s hand-dyed, handmade clothing is functional and beautiful, plus the skilled workmanship involved—the precision dying, the pleating and stitching the pieces into a whole—is impressive.
Prices, based on the treatment of the fabric, the dyes used and amount of sewing, range from $95 for a silk chiffon crinkled scarf up to $2,400-plus for a linen and silk organza coat. Remember the holidays are coming, and the show is only on for four more days. Some items are already sold out. So, don’t delay. Click here to visit Nguyen’s shop in the Virtual Smithsonian Craft Show.
Sponsored by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee (SWC), the Craft Show is a sale of the finest contemporary craft and design, handcrafted in America. Artists are selected from a competitive pool of applicants by a panel of jurors. Proceeds support grants to the Smithsonian for innovative education, outreach and research projects.