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Better felting through chemistry

Canadice fiber artist’s workshop is part studio and part laboratory

You start with a career and retire into your hobbies. One or two of those hobbies, you might take on rather seriously. That’s exactly how life is playing out for Anne Fischer. 

After twenty-five years in Kodak manufacturing and development, corporate suits and international business trips are a thing of the past. These days, Fischer designs and makes timeless fashion garments. Her creative side drives her imagination, while her scientific background informs her choices of color and textures. It’s a good fit.  

Fischer’s studio in Canadice, Ontario County, is nestled in the hills near Hemlock Lake—a fairylike woodland setting perfect for the magical element she believes occurs in the felting process. 

This morning, she greets me at the door in comfortable jeans with a coffee mug in her hand. I have been to her studio before as a customer and own two of her short jackets. Today, I’m here for a different purpose: to glimpse her inner thoughts while watching her test a hypothesis.

“One thing that was always lacking in my former work was there was not a lot of spontaneous creativity. I did a lot of experimental number-crunching with analytical data to develop concepts. When I had free time on the weekends I would bury myself in my sewing machine. I started with quilting, and I moved into design when I left the work world,” says Fischer.

She shows me her new concept design—a reversible sleeveless tunic combining wool and silk, both natural fibers. It is called nuno felting and results in a fabric that is softer and drapes better than traditional bulky felt.

“My fiber artist friends say that I have a way more analytical approach to what I am doing,” says Fischer, whose background is process-oriented engineering. Her chief responsibility was quality management in Kodak’s worldwide color film business. 

Fischer’s close attention to her felting process gives excellence to the finished garment without allowing for holes or lumpy spots. “There are degrees of quality in handmade work, and a well made felted garment feels firm when rubbed between the fingertips,” she explains as she hands me one of the completed jackets on her clothing rack.

Fischer is constantly monitoring and adjusting in the design phase. She shows me a three-quarter length blue coat that uses her newest collage techniques. Velvet and lace pieces add unusual textures in parts of the coat. She is working in multiple layers, too, and this is where her quilting background comes in. Wool fibers stick up, giving an interesting texture to the fabric.

“The blending of the silks and wools determines the finished product. This particular coat started with a dominant blue silk. As I am designing, I throw out possible fabric swatches on my work table, trusting that they will work together,” she says.

Fischer knows from trial and  error that wool tends to shift colors like in a watercolor painting, a randomness that determines the final outcome.   Her pattern, twice the size of the completed piece, is on a big work table that leaves her little room to move around her studio. She puts down the first layer: a fine see-through silk in pinks and yellows. She places single six-inch pieces of hand-dyed fiber yarn around on the fabric.

Fischer begins a layer called shingling, like you would a roof, using hand-dyed purple merino wool. Her fingers pull a small piece from a soft strand, and she begins to cover the surface in overlapping strokes. She repeats the process with a second layer of wool, and, all told, it takes about an hour. At that point she lays a second layer of silk fabric over it.

Fischer’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Buffalo becomes one of her lifelong learning tools. Efficiency is highly important in engineering. Likewise, she dyes her own silks and wool, which she buys from Australia. Throughout the process, she makes careful scientific documentation, including a lot of condition notes, the specific amount of concentrates and water temperatures.

“Rochester has a rich fiber arts community,” says Fischer, who won the Canandaigua Christkindl Market’s fiber and clothing award in 2012.

Streamlining her working conditions is very important, and Fischer admits that she works as a scientist in that respect from her years of exposure to lean manufacturing, the Toyota Manufacturing System.

On the other hand, “I am having fun with wool and color,” she says. A full-length coat is a dream project sifting through her mind, and designing a wedding gown is not out of the realm of possibility.

Fischer begins a project with certain engineering assumptions. She knows exactly how much silk yardage she will need. She weighs her wool, and the leftover. Other than that, though, she does not work precisely, because she is not making reproducible clothing.

Once the back layer of the tunic is complete, Fischer flips it over wet. It is heavy and cumbersome for one person, but she has learned to manage. She lays out the front using the same shingling process always harmonizing the wool. She arranges a few pieces of round black silk dots across the tunic to vary the design.

“This tunic I am making for myself,” says Fischer, laughing as she points out how so many of her jackets are for others.

Within two hours, Fischer wets out her fabric and begins rubbing, using a plastic bag, olive oil liquid soap, and varying temperatures of water. She stops periodically to see if her silk is wrinkling and the wool is beginning to show through. Fischer uses a jacket template, or pattern, that she eases out from the tunic before rolling and throwing.

Then she wraps the tunic around a long thin tube that rolls the cloth in different directions to squeeze out the water for an hour while Fischer practices her yoga moves. She removes the somewhat soggy garment, bundles it up, and starts heaving and throwing it repeatedly onto the table, shocking the felting process into life. From start to finish the tunic will take two to three days in addition to the day of initial dyeing and drying of the wool.

Fischer says that her environment plays a large part in her creativity. A lot of her pieces are influenced by the combination of colors in the world around her. Just walking in her lush gardens provides a lot of resourceful ideas. Some of her completed artistic work is hanging on the walls. Wherever she travels, Fischer is on the lookout for silk clothing in secondhand stores and uncommon buttons for her coats.

It’s time for me to leave. My head is saturated with new knowledge after spending only a small portion of the day in the studio. Fischer, however, is heading back into her room for more adjustments and rolling to squeeze excess water from the garment. She admits that it will be hard to sleep at night while the felting continues to work its phenomenal wonders.

“It’s more about the fiber. It’s painting on wool. Each garment is meant to be a shimmering piece of clothing more artistic than functional.”

Kay Thomas is a freelance writer living in the Genesee Valley whose writings can be found at Thomas is the author of a book of essays called And One More Thing.

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