Textile designs celebrate sentiments of special occasions
By Alison Rooney
Set along that curve in Beacon, where Main Street curls off into East Main, textile designer and dressmaker Gwenno James has set up shop where that stretch is infused with late 19th- and early 20th-century history of the manufacturing era, when everything from hats to bowling alleys gave economic sustenance to the area.
Now, in an antidote to the industrial age, James is doing things by hand — literally, painting and silk screening, pattern-making and dyeing her own line of garments and homewares in her eponymously-named store. And rather than the sooty gray of yore, James’ handiwork is color-abundant and floaty, inspired by nature rather than its factory antecedents.
James’ trajectory, from her upbringing in Wales to her life in Beacon now, is this century’s updating of the classic immigrant’s tale. Interested in sewing from early high school onward, she was encouraged there by a helpful teacher who not only taught her in classroom settings, but during lunchtime sewing club sessions. “At the time you could choose it as your specialization,” James explains, “and I started making my own clothes, buying fabrics from local stores, then buying patterns, and then learning to alter the patterns … I had a collection of my own clothes by the time I entered art school.”
In the first of several fortuitous turns, a headmaster at James’ school knew she was interested in fashion, and he “happened to come across [famed British designer] Laura Ashley at a conference. It turned out that Laura Ashley wanted to sponsor a fashion student from the area, as their first store as well as their first factory were located about 30 miles away from my home in Wales,” James said. “I applied to interview for the scholarship, which had as a condition that winner must study at Central St. Martins School of Art, where Laura Ashley had gone. It was a big move I wouldn’t have considered otherwise, and it was supported by Laura Ashley, a person who started out by painting tea towels in her own kitchen.”
Traditional textile techniques
At St. Martins James studied fashion and textile design, learning how to dye and silkscreen along with more “pure” fashion design. “It was a very creative time,” James recalls. Straight after college, after exhibiting in a group textile design show in Germany, she was offered a place in a studio at Gabriel’s Wharf, London, a crafts shopping redevelopment along the Thames. After a year James moved on to work for a fashion company in London, doing general jobs, including cutting garments. She also began designing hand-painted greeting cards, eventually commissioned for a whole range of them.
With money earned from that, James decided to venture to New York, where she had been urged to go for many textile jobs. She found one of these immediately, hand painting textiles for different markets. She took to New York right away, soaking in the buzz of the city, exploring the Lower East Side and Chinatown, living in the East Village. The company she worked for sponsored her visa, extending her stay.
She moved on to the Calvin Klein company, spending a couple of years designing prints for knitwear and T-shirts to go along with their jeans line. It was fortuitous, as James explains: “Around that time textile design was transferring to digital. Calvin Klein trained me to learn the software; it was great training, during a time of change. After that I worked for the May Company, which owned lots of department stores. They were opening a new division for a new venture. I learned the American market and a commercial market for things that would sell … I was able to apply for a green card as an ‘artist of extraordinary ability’ using recommendations from all of these companies.”
Green card granted, James found herself with a hunger to do more by hand, on her own, so she went freelance again.
“I tried out various ideas to explore what my own voice would be,” she says, “and I ended up finding I really enjoyed the things I did in college: putting my hands in water, putting my gloves on; seeing the unpredictability you don’t get in digital. It was an exploration over a period of years.”
During that time James met the man who became her husband, and they began searching for a home in Brooklyn where “I could be messy — I needed space for a screen print table and a yard for dyeing fabrics in a garden,” James explains. It was in 2008, 10 years after landing in New York City, while looking at home listings under “B” for Brooklyn that James noticed one in Beacon. Having visited once before, and in possession of a car for a weekend, the pair returned and, feeling that Beacon was a good fit for them, moved up.
‘My designs seem to lend themselves to special occasions, celebrations, sentiments being exchanged.’
After enjoying a good response to her work at a Beacon Open Studios, James opened her store, enjoying the benefits of a location directly across from the Roundhouse. She sells largely women’s wear, working on silk charmeuse, chiffon, voile, and 100 percent organic cotton, which she buys in white, then dyes. She also makes jackets from silk velvet and wool.
Her designs utilize various techniques: etching, blueprinting, marbling, discharging, and sometimes hand printing directly on the fabric. Customers can come in for a fitting, which is done in muslin, and, in bespoke tradition, is then kept for future garments. “Once I do the printing, I drape the fabric on a mannequin and think what I’m going to emphasize, considering the scale of the print and the silhouette of the garment.”
James loves having both shop and studio in the same upstairs/downstairs space. “It allows me to both work and meet my customers, which I really enjoy,” she said. The customers are a mix of locals and people visiting Beacon and the region.
“They are walking around, come in and browse, and often see something, and realize they need something for a wedding or other special occasion. Because I do custom work, if they spot something I can make it in a different size or color and they’re happy to have something unique,” she said. “And they wind up telling a friend — I have great word of mouth. Local people also know I’m here. I do scarves and pillows and people come to buy them as gifts — as tokens of appreciation. My designs seem to lend themselves to special occasions, celebrations, sentiments being exchanged. I’m very happy to be a part of an occasion, a part of that picture. I like the engagement with a person. It’s a conversation; I show examples and the colors bounce off of people in different ways. I can create different colors, all from scratch.”
James, who heads back into the city regularly to teach at Parsons (she also teaches at Marist College) says she has been inspired by her move to Beacon, citing long walks with her dog at Denning’s Point, picking up leaves and feathers along the way, as a source.
James’ work is sold exclusively from her store, 17 East Main St., Beacon, open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and by appointment. For more information visit gwennojames.com, visit the Facebook page, or phone at 845-202-3224.
Photos by A. Rooney