A Storyteller’s Story


Jude Hill’s Spirit Cloth stitches global techniques into personal narratives
In the best tradition of folk artists, Jude Hill is a storyteller. Her textile work blends piecing, appliqué, kantha stitching, and embroidery into strong, organic whole cloths rich in imagery and revelation. The materials—raw fragments of fabric, always with a history—and the motions of repetitive hand stitching, are intimate and familiar; the concepts mythical, imaginative, evocative.

Jude calls her work spirit cloth, and writes a blog under the same name that has brought her technique and her interior world to thousands of readers. Often beginning from the simplest of concepts, such as a recent series on dots, works emerge and are chronicled on the blog, day by day and stitch by stitch. The finished textile pieces reference the natural world, textile history, and Jude’s own internal compass as it measures time, emotions, and impulse. “What if . . . “ is one of Jude’s favorite ways to start a sentence or a work session, and is also the name of a companion blog that focuses on the practice of asking that most daring question and exploring the infinite variety of possible responses.

With aspirations to be a children’s book illustrator, money concerns forced Jude to drop out of the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and take a job as a trainee handweaver in a textile company. After sewing as a child, learning to weave was something she’d always wanted to do. “I loved it,” she says. “I got very much involved in fabric. I got into woven fabric design and dropped everything else. I started collecting fabrics, and taught myself to weave and design them.”

On the daily train ride into the city, Jude began to stitch with needle and thread again, and the pieces of her spirit-cloth path began to come together as she embroidered small pieces of found fabric. The stitches became drawing tools, her work in the fashion and textile industry provided an endless supply of scrap fabric, and the long commute gave her time to incubate her ideas. “It took over my life,” she says. “I lost interest completely in [other things] I was doing. I didn’t think about it as art; I didn’t ask anybody if they liked it or not. It fed my creative desire for storytelling and it developed on its own without any pressure. It became very personal. I would just make these cloths that went on and on and on.”

If Jude’s approach was entirely intuitive, she brought years of an evolved design sense and stitching skills to the process. Her imagery—toothy lions, cracked hearts–sometimes echoes childlike or primitive forms, but like the classically trained musician who turns to improvisational jazz,  the execution is anything but primitive. Jude came to “the point of understanding that all I needed was a running stitch,” but could only come to that point with years of textile exploration behind her.

The soul of the cloth also comes from Jude’s eye for textiles that leaves no piece unconsidered. “Using existing fabrics was just common sense. I had a pile of fabrics [from the work I was in] and I’ve always been interested in ethnic textiles and collected pieces of fabric. I traveled around the world and studied different cultures and techniques.” Her intention was and is to give structure to these remnants, in a lasting, skillful way – to make them hold together, she says – and to tell a story in the process.

Jude’s work also tells a story of gifts given and received. “Someone told me I should start a blog, and I thought it was a good idea but didn’t know what to name it,” she says. “I had the notion that everything I was doing was a gift, and telling a story, and I was creating this thing from nothing and sharing it with someone, and sharing the spirit of it. In general it’s the spirit of the thing. Part of what I do is still gift-giving, and now people send me stuff from all over the world.” Spirit Cloth became not only the name of the blog but code for a slow and authentic approach to fiber and stitching.

The storytelling aspect of the cloth sometimes includes actual words, as in her gorgeous lion quilt (see accompanying slideshow). “I do think of the work as folk art, and have only considered it that way recently,” Jude says. “Folk art for me doesn’t have anything to do with copying a style that’s been established along the way. It’s something that develops on its own without any value or category attached to it. But because of the way the world is now, it’s got to be something that’s multicultural.”

Like many folk artists, Jude’s work is intrinsic to her life but doesn’t free her from financial concerns. “Right now I’m selling, so [themes in the work] are being repeated,” she says. “But the real development of my style is always separate from that. It’s a personal expression that contains everything that you know that’s practical and useful.”

The future of folk art will depend on education, in the absence of oral or family traditions that keep skills alive through the generations, Jude comments. She’s considering teaching workshops that encompass the whole of her spirit cloth philosophy. “It should be something that’s educational in terms of fabric and culture and examples. The work I see doesn’t have enough detail. It’s not connected to a person or a story.”

That connection is Jude Hill’s gift, not just to textile artists but to lovers of beauty and stories everywhere. In her commitment to the handmade object, the simple stitch, and the integration of fragments of fabric that could easily be lost, in her love of story and the constant expansion into the realm of what-if, Jude’s work is the very essence of spirit. Sometimes irreverent, sometimes concentrated into the purest of emotions or visual concepts, sometimes simply joyful in the making, it’s contemporary folk art at its best.

Visit Jude Hill’s Spirit Cloth blog: http://spiritcloth.typepad.com

Elaine Lipson is a writer, editor, artist and explorer. She is the author of The Organic Foods Sourcebook (2001) and The International Market for Organic and Sustainable Apparel (2008). She blogs about textile art, craft, culture, and her Slow Cloth philosophy at http://lainie.typepad.com