Artist Highlight: Kaelyn Garcia on Bobbin Lace
I recently had the opportunity to visit one of our current Artists in Residence, Kaelyn Garcia, whose work ranges from more traditional mediums (knitting, weaving, embroidery and lacemaking) to working with light-diffuser film and digitally printed fabrics. To coincide with the idea of “labor” in textiles, Kaelyn shared with me her experience working with Bobbin Lace – the practice of creating intricately designed fabric by braiding and twisting threads. In this interview, Kaelyn sheds light on ideas behind “traditional crafts” and how they can relate to contemporary art.
What inspires you?
Lately I’ve found a lot of inspiration from colors. I’ve been working a lot with symmetry and the idea of a Rorschach test inspires me – thinking about how ink blots are used and the meaning behind them. I find [the ink blots] very beautiful and pleasant to the eye. I’m also inspired by music. I feel like music is a big thing for me since I did it growing up.
What did you play?
I sang. I went to school for opera for a year and then I realized I was not interested in being an opera singer when I was older. As a result I think I continually pull from the moods created by music and try to convey an emotion in each project I do.
What drove you to work with Bobbin Lace and where did you learn how to make it?
I’ve always been interested in lace – even as a kid. I loved girly things. I loved textures. I think I was attracted to “renaissance-y” things. (Laughs.) Renaissance fairs were right up my alley. Once I got older and worked with a few other textile mediums [knitting and weaving], lace was something I still wanted to experiment with and I just couldn’t find it anywhere in the city. I didn’t know anyone that was doing lace or even knew where you could take classes. It was very serendipitous because my friend’s mom is an amazing lacer and now volunteers at the Met helping to identify and repair lace. She put me in touch with a guild in New Jersey.
So you visited a lacemaking guild?
Yes. I learned from ladies in the Ridgewood Guild who offer a really great semester program. They gave me a very broad overview and taught me how to do basic things – but my friend was a very big influence on pushing me to go to different conferences. Personally I’m very interested in Czech lace – that’s really where I would like to research and explore more.
What sets Czech lace apart?
It’s minimal and a little more graphic-based. I would say Torchon lace [and other types of European lace] tend to be more floral– the trims are very ornate and detailed whereas with Czech or Russian lace they tend to be more graphic. They use a lot of triangles or rectangles or even just a very minimal use of stitches. They might use just one stitch for a whole piece or play with negative space between stitches. It’s a little more contemporary and [therefore] more interesting to me.
What is Torchon lace?
It’s sometimes called “Poor Man’s Lace.” The woman who taught me at the Guild in New Jersey was from Europe originally, and it’s what she learned as a girl and continued to learn throughout her adult education. It seems that people typically learn one type of lace and stick with it. I haven’t come across a lot of lacers who want to explore different variations – they often want to explore a particular style of lace more deeply. The women who belong to this particular guild are primarily Torchon lacers. It has to do with the trims and shapes they make with their patterns and the stitches they use.
So it’s almost like it’s own language within lacemaking.
What skills would you say are a requirement when it comes to Bobbin Lace?
Patience, and fine motor skills. It’s similar to knitting in the sense that once you find a rhythm it’s easy. When you first learn you might hold your work more tightly for fear of dropping it. Women who have done bobbin lace for years tend to just loosely hold [the work]. They have this amazing ability to clamp and release their grip, which creates a really beautiful tension between their fingers and the bobbins and the threads. Tension is a big part of it. But I think patience is the biggest requirement, because it’s so intricate and hard. At the end of the day, you have to be able to say, “I did an inch and I’m okay with that.” (Laughs.) It’s slow work and it doesn’t provide immediate gratification. But when I finished my first tape lace, I was so proud because you can see gradual improvement with every inch. As you go, your tension improves. Patience is the most important requirement.
What happens if you make a mistake?
When you make a mistake it’s really just being able to work backwards – you have to undo your knots. It’s taken me at least a year and a half to be able to recognize how to fix my mistakes. Most of the time you don’t really notice mistakes because they can be so small, so it’s not until you’ve made a lot of headway that they become apparent. But if you’ve already advanced three inches and then see a mistake that’s six hours of work [to fix it]. You sort of have to make a decision at that point – whether you want to fix it or not.
Is there room for spontaneity in Bobbin Lace, or does it require following a strict pattern?
I think there is room for spontaneity. There are a lot of contemporary artists who are doing really amazing stuff with lacemaking. I think there is a divide between generations [in lacemaking]. For me, I’m learning to make tape lace as a starting point – I’m not interested in making collars or little trims for my dish towels. In a bigger spectrum, there are certain restrictions lacers have to follow. But I’ve seen artists who use 2×4’s and nails as opposed to a pillow and pins. I think there are a lot of possibilities, but it’s a matter of working with certain restrictions and then building from them.
That’s a big interest for me too. [I enjoy] seeing how you can take this more traditional art form that is dying out to some extent – those skills and the beauty of it – and pushing it forward. Lace in itself is amazing, because it’s so delicate and little. It’s phenomenal how throughout history people were able to build huge tapestries of lace. I think the skills and the medium are important from a historical aspect, but I want to push it forward and change it into something else.