BY Sarah Buttenwieser | January 2, 2010
The witty reworked woollens of Crispina French
A paragon of vivacious efficiency, Crispina ffrench rather likes the fact that both her work and her personality can be described with the same words: resourceful, colorful, creative, and irreverent. Starting with what many of us have been conditioned to imagine as a utilitarian endeavor—recycling—ffrench creates textile art to marvel at, art to live with, and, in the case of her clothing, to live in.
She began in college by selling the friendly creatures she calls Ragamuffins. When she tired (quickly) of the time-consuming procedure of felting enough material to keep up with Ragamuffin production, her father suggested they visit the local Goodwill store together in order to find shrunken wool sweaters that would serve well as raw material for her creations. She says, “In those days, no one talked about recycling. There were still lots of wool sweaters available.”
In short order ffrench added other products to her repertoire using what she had learned about upcycling textiles – well before the word or the buzz about it existed. Sweaters became part of her line, as well as blankets and rugs. She says, “I really enjoy taking what’s considered to be garbage and discovering how it is actually still useful.” She adds, “With wool sweaters which were thought to be worthless, I could assure a whole other life ahead for them. That’s really satisfying.”
While ffrench’s sweater designs are often described as patchwork, erase any tightly constructed or vaguely symmetrical designs from your mind. Her designs have a loose, free, fun feeling. Don’t imagine the jauntiness to be at all haphazard, though. To watch ffrench at work— sorting through sweaters, scissors in hand —the adjective that would best describe her approach is decisive. Her confidence comes across in everything she makes.
Her business grew in ways that took ffrench by surprise. There were big “ups,” including a very large customer-- the J. Peterman catalogue --and there were some rocky waters, too, including the sudden end to that contract. She had as many as 40 employees at the height of production. Reflecting upon that incarnation of her business, she says she loved the people she worked with and felt very responsible for them. “It became all about management and business and less about my making or designing things. I missed the part that drew me into business in the first place.”
When ffrench was selling her products wholesale, she bought sweaters by the bale. These days, she works on a smaller scale: rather than having many employees execute her designs to sell to stores, she personally makes each sweater herself – and each sweater will find the right person to wear it. She now has just a couple of employees helping out, and she’s often got an intern soaking up all there is to be learned, both under her tutelage and by her example. She sells at some handmade fairs, including the Twist fair in Northampton, Massachusetts and a big Handmade Holiday Festival at her studio, and she has a shop on Etsy.
One result of the transition from larger scale to smaller scale operations is that ffrench is working her way through the leftover inventory from her wholesale days. Sweaters are piled up in bins around her workshop (a former church basement). She explains, “I want to use all the wool sweaters I have. I had so much raw material left from that era, and I’m probably about halfway through the inventory. My goal is to use all the wool sweaters I have this coming calendar year.”
Because she is making each individual piece, ffrench can rely more casually on a predetermined product sketch, look at each particular sweater at hand. There’s more creativity in the work now. She explains, “As a designer, I created samples for my employees to make into production pieces. They followed my prototype. When I’m actually making the pieces myself, I can look at the raw material, and then use the material from each individual piece more effectively and efficiently. I really get to figure out the best uses for my materials.” She adds, “For example, if I have a cashmere sweater, I’ll use it for the collar. I get to think about making sure the parts of the sweater that meet skin feel good.”
Earlier this year, frrench’s first book—The Sweater Chop Shop—was published. She was eager to share how she works to refashion the old into the new, and to tutor people about how to work with wool. With the book out, she says, “I’m glad that people are able to learn how to use those materials well.” It’s almost as if she’s passed on some secrets, and that’s liberated her. Once she makes it through her large sweater inventory, she imagines she might just delve into a new raw material. She says, “I’ve worked with wool for 23 years. I’m not sure whether I’ll want to explore something different or whether I’ll feel pulled right back to wool. But I am interested in material that no one wants, what people consider to be expendable, garbage. I think that might be t-shirts. I’ve started experimented with making dresses from t-shirts, which is really fun. Maybe creating things from t-shirts will be my next book.”
For more information about Crispina ffrench (and to shop!) visit www.crispina.com. Look for her book, The Sweater Chop Shop (ISBN 9781603421553) at booksellers large and small.
For more from author Sarah Buttenwieser, read her blog, Standing in the Shadows, at http://www.valleyadvocate.com/blogs/standingintheshadows.