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Embroidering: the Truth

Craftsman Textile Art Is Alive and Well in Pasadena

January 12, 2003|GINNY CHIEN

If you thought Craftsman design was all about those Greene & Greene houses, art instructor Ann Chaves has news for you. In her home studio at the majestic Duncan-Irwin House in Pasadena, Chaves teaches the techniques of Craftsman-style embroidery, a metier she's been perfecting since age 5, when her grandmother taught her how to knit and sew. "In Arts and Crafts embroidery, it's about color, form and good, strong design, not elaborate or fancy stitches," says Chaves. For more than 20 years, she and her husband, Andre, have been immersed in the aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts movement, which flourished in England and America during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The pair avidly collect the period's decorative arts and practice its ethos of lasting workmanship in textiles, furniture, book arts and other fine handiwork. (Andre owns Clinker Press, which prints books about the Arts and Crafts movement and sells rare editions from Elbert Hubbard's Roycroft Press.)

Stylized design is a defining trait of Arts and Crafts needlework, according to Chaves, an admirer of turn-of-the-century embroiderers such as Ann Macbeth, who taught at the distinguished Glasgow School of Art. Craftsman images were often conventionalized for consistent rendering, becoming almost geometric. "You sometimes can't quite tell what kind of flower or leaf it is," says Chaves, who specialized in textile design and weaving while earning a bachelor's in art education from Buffalo State College in New York. "But [Craftsman design] really lends itself to needlework and embroidery." For her own botanical designs in the Craftsman style, she sketches and photographs plants from gardens around town. When she was hired to make corn-themed pillows for the Gustav Stickley room at the Hotel Pattee in Iowa, Chaves fastidiously tracked down a friend who grew the vegetable, "not exactly an easy task in Southern California," she notes.

Initially, Chaves created textiles only for her classic Greene & Greene home, but she founded Inglenook Textiles after antique dealers and other visitors to the period-perfect house began inquiring about commissioned work. The one-woman business also offers do-it-yourself kits and customized pieces such as centerpieces and portieres. Her eight-hour classes are held about every other month and cover such topics as how to achieve a perfect French knot and the finer points of Belgian linen. Even novices can get a good start on a pillow embroidered with flower buds and leaves by the end of the day, she says. Chaves supplies quality cotton perle thread and flaxen linen for the classes. She occasionally weaves her own linen for commissioned pieces.

"People live in the fast lane nowadays, so things like needlework have become rare," says Chaves, who estimates that there are less than a dozen commercial embroiderers in the country producing Arts and Crafts-style textiles. "I would like to see this art continue on with young people. Hopefully it won't die out like other skills." Since knitting has recently surged in popularity among fashionistas and Hollywood starlets, maybe embroidery will soon have its day, too.

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Ann Chaves, (626) 792-9729.

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