Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Spinning Some Yarns at Fancy Tiger Crafts

Now that our museum-wide exhibition Spun: Adventures in Textiles has officially launched, all of us who were working so frantically right up to opening day can finally take a moment to fully inhale, exhale, and reflect. This is a good moment for us to look back on some of the highlights from our experience developing the Nancy Lake Benson Thread Studio on the Level 6 of the North Building.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of this process, from the perspective of a staff member, was actively engaging with the creative community here in Denver. A natural starting point for us our local neighborhood craft store, the cheerfully hip Fancy Tiger Crafts on South Broadway.

Walking into Fancy Tiger will inspire the crafter in anyone. A kaleidoscope of colors and patterns abound in every direction you look and draws you deeper into the space. Even if you couldn’t tell the difference between knitting and crocheting if your life depended on it, you will no doubt find yourself reaching for and touching different skeins of yarn and imagine yourself wearing a soft, handmade sweater made with heirloom Romney wool (Romney is a breed of sheep, by the way). After striking up a conversation, either with a fellow craft traveler or someone behind the counter, you’ll want to stay forever.

Here in the education department of the DAM, many of us are great admirers of what our friends Amber and Jaime, fancy tigresses extraordinaire, do at their store and we jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with them. Members of the Thread Studio project team knew we wanted to focus part of the space on fiber sources and spinning yarn, so we decided to drop in on Fancy Tiger’s monthly Open Spin Night . Every first Thursday, a message is sent out into the community:

“Join us for a night of creating community around spinning yarn. Bring your own wheel or drop spindle and fiber and we will hang out and spin together. See what yarns people are making, talk about different techniques for plying, or just make new friends that love making yarn as much as you do!”

The idea behind this collaboration was that objects from the DAM’s collection would serve as inspiration to create art yarn. Each skein of textured art yarn is unique and every spinner has a particular working style. We were curious to see how these spinners would respond to images of well-known paintings currently on display on the walls of the museum as well as three dimensional sculptures and other art objects, some as big as our immersive Fox Games installation and well-known Mud Woman Rolls On sculpture. We didn’t know exactly what to expect, but we were definitely in for a really fun and eye-opening evening. Stefania Van Dyke, master teacher for textile art and special projects, and I brought images from our broad collection (downloaded from the museum’s teacher website, Creativity Resource ). We spread out these pictures on a large wooden table, gave a brief spiel, and let the spinners go at it!

Everyone was so excited with this “challenge” and started to work straightaway rolling out bats of fiber on the drum carder and firing up their spinning wheels. Magic was in the air that evening as we grooved to some tunes by Marvin Gaye, the Rolling Stones, and the Supremes and chatted about a delightfully random array of topics. 

There was a healthy amount of laughter going on, but interspersed between the giggles were moments of collective silence. Many spinners liken their craft to meditation practice, and it was inspirational to actually witness people in such a deep and seemingly not entirely intentional calm. 

Although the process was amazing to witness, it was the end products that blew us away. Here are some marvelous examples of how these spinners used color and texture to recreate aspects of paintings and sculptures.

For me, it opened up a whole new way of looking at our collection. Objects that I previously thought I knew suddenly came alive for me in a different way. Looking at the skeins produced at Fancy Tiger, I noticed things like subtle color combinations that I didn’t see in the original painting or a certain playfulness that wasn’t as apparent in a two-dimensional image. One example that really surprised me was seeing delicate little golden sparkles in one of the skeins inspired by Karen Kitchel’s American Grasslands series. I had never really thought about the way that bright sunshine makes grass glisten in the summer until I looked at this art yarn and looked more deeply at Kitchel’s highly detailed paintings.This was part of the delight that we discovered when we combined very different mediums.

Coincidently, that same day, I had stopped at the Denver Public Library and picked up a copy of The Knitting Sutra: Craft as a Spiritual Practice written by Susan Gordon Lydon. It was the perfect book to start reading, since this memoir’s basic premise is that “the simple work of our hands can liberate our hearts.” After spending an evening at Fancy Tiger, watching all these folks concentrate so deeply and lovingly create these gorgeous pieces of spin art, it’s no wonder that Zen centers across the country are offering classes on spinning as spiritual practice and that modern healers are touting the benefits of spinning as an activity that promotes peace of mind, lowered heart rate, and patience. You can see some of the finished products now on view in the Thread Studio on the Level 6 of the North Building. Come on over and get inspired yourself!

Djamila Ricciardi is a special projects coordinator in the education department of the Denver Art Museum. Djamila has had some of her most formative work and life experiences at the DAM and started working in her current capacity in spring 2011. Her favorite type of art invites engagement, audience participation, and wonder like Roxanne Swentzell’s installation Mud Woman Rolls On in the American Indian art gallery. When she’s not at her desk or walking through the museum, you can find Djamila at any number of local coffee houses, art spaces, or music venues.