Design & Sustainability on

Lost in Fiber: Musings from an Environmental Textile Artist

— By: The Team at Nau
(Nested) Flotsam Fiber Form (photo: Abigail Doan)

This week in the Thought Kitchen, environmental fiber artist, writer, and Nau ambassador Abigail Doan shares her unique perspective on the intersection of natural fibers, culture, sustainability, and the beauty of art in the everyday landscape. 

Performance fabrics and fiber have had a long love affair. The earliest Paleolithic string skirts were essentially mini-aprons with seductive fringes of twined fiber strands that served as fashion. We now rely on both engineered and natural fibers to keep us ventilated and warm when we venture out for work and play, and the thoughtful crafting of our personal garments continues to demonstrate what makes us attractive and uniquely human.

This is why I chose fiber as an art medium and vehicle for expression. Even though I had previously worked in documentary film and explored a range of more traditional studio methods, I ultimately opted to work with fiber and textiles because of their versatile nature and the low-impact/non-toxic possibilities. As an environmental artist, I am an advocate for slow crafting methods, the advancement of sustainable design strategies, and the preservation of wide open spaces. I use simple strands of spun or delicately crocheted fiber to draw on the land for site-specific installations that are carefully deconstructed after documentation.

Ground Cover in New Mexico
A view from my studio’s terrace in Sofia, Bulgaria

Fiber has universal properties that connect us to cultures and regions in ways that are border defying and vibrant. My dialogue with artisans/designers in Bulgaria, Chile, Iran, Peru, and Turkey to name just a few locales, has been inherently rich and complex because of unique connections to place and the sharing of local knowledge. The historic transport of textiles and design of shelters in these regions often inspires ideas for nomadic and adaptable thinking – solutions that work seamlessly with the environment and the challenges of climate. This sensitivity is something that I believe should be cultivated as we search for better ways of interfacing with altered landscapes and shifting economies.

Flotsam Fiber Form (photo: Abigail Doan)

Sustainable textile initiatives have taken many shapes and forms over the past decade. In addition to the deeper scrutiny of ingredients, the study of products’ life cycles, as well as the implementation of waste reduction methods, I believe it is vitally important to look closely at self as a way to better understand what role we might assume in the resourceful flow of materials around us. I have spent the past several years creating sculptural fiber forms out of household fiber, recycled detritus from my day-to-day life, as well as flotsam findings from city streets. I view these objects as multi-dimensional diaries and records of the passage of time in my life.

Crocheted Snow in Central Park, NYC (photo: Abigail Doan)

Urban environments are not devoid of intimate interactions with nature, and I am particularly sensitive to trying to work in a manner that seems wildly adaptive even in the most neglected pockets of a city or neighborhood park. Outreach efforts that aim to expose city dwellers to community gardens and the local wisdom that might be shared is often facilitated by hands-on activities linked to plant cultivation, fiber preparation, and even the examination of clothing and wardrobe narratives.

A recent visit to the textiles program at the California College of the Arts in Oakland demonstrated how students are involved in ‘Soil to Studio’ practices as a means to explore regional offerings in ways that link us directly to the clothing on our backs. Friend Sasha Duerr has been a pioneer on the permacouture frontier for some time now, and her work with natural plant dyes and urban mapping has influenced how I view art making and the importance of losing oneself organically as a way to understand what the next step might be.

I am optimistic about how and why fiber will continue to play a vital role in our lives. It is important for me to help others to see why clothing and even the most frayed strands of existence might link us directly to a garment worker in a far-off land or a farmer toiling to produce local goods at a competitive price. It is the very act of making and doing that I am trying to keep alive in a world that is often looking for increasingly facile solutions. I am searching for cast-off finds and weaknesses in the rope in order to make repairs and gain strength as our collective journey unfolds.