When artist Jeanne Akita wants to create a jacket, she has to start by making an “enormous, gigantic” jacket, she says. As in, 8 feet long and almost 8 feet wide.
But as the garment goes through an ancient textile-making process called felting, it will shrink twice, down to a size that can be worn by the average adult. (Picture what happens if you accidentally put a wool sweater through the dryer.)
Using felting techniques, Akita creates “wearable fiber art” that ranges from cozy everyday outerwear to avant-garde runway-ready fashion in her Sugar House home studio, called Illusion Lab. She takes animal-sourced fibers like wool or silk, adds a small amount of soapy water, then uses her hands to agitate the fibers (like a “massage,” she says) until they come together into a cohesive, compact fabric.
Akita forms her seamless, reversible clothing as soft 3D sculptures, essentially, then hand-dyes and paints them. One of the more expensive items on her website, the “ice lava breath” jacket, has spiky red and white fringe along the shoulders and arms, with each spike sculpted individually.
Soon to be featured in the Smithsonian’s environmentally conscious “Craft Optimism” online market and craft show, Akita’s work is “180 degrees opposite to the idea of ‘fast fashion,’” she says.
The “fast fashion” industry, or the mass production of clothing that’s cheap, low-quality and trendy, is a growing ecological disaster. Mostly made with synthetic fabrics, these clothes release thousands of plastic microfibers into the environment whenever they go through the washing machine, polluting the world’s oceans. And they’re treated as disposable.
In 2018, the U.S. dumped 9,070 tons of discarded textiles and footwear into landfills, according to the EPA.
But unlike synthetic fabric such as polyester, which won’t break down for up to 200 years, wool could decompose within a couple of years.
And unlike a cheap T-shirt that wears out after a few wash cycles, a scarf or vest felted by Akita could last as long as leather, she says. And it won’t go out of style. Her clothing, which she describes as “the slowest fashion possible,” is not only made with sustainable and sometimes upcycled fibers but is also designed without catering to current “fashion rules.”
“It’s like wearing a painting. And it’s timeless,” Akita says. “Usually people wear them for years and they can enjoy them for years.”
Check out the “Craft Optimism” art show and makers market online from April 24 to May 1. The Smithsonian exhibition will feature about 100 artists whose work addresses an aspect of climate change and includes recycled and reclaimed materials. Visit smithsoniancraftshow.org for more information.