Threadwinners is a collaborative crochet art team based in Southern California comprised of two awesome women: Alyssa Arney and Liz Flynn. They both took their own journeys to identifying as artists and found their way to fiber art on their own but their visions really came to life when they joined up as a team. Together they work to fight against patriarchy and the status quo by using art forms traditionally considered “interior / inferior” to explore and conquer stereotypes about what it means to be female / feminine. In this interview, we learn more about their projects and the issues that matter most to them.
Kathryn: Can you each take us on a journey of your individual paths towards careers in art and how they ultimately came to intersect with each other?
Alyssa: I grew up in rural Indiana, surrounded by cornfields, in a small township called Pimento under the umbrella of the city of Terre Haute. We had a lot of backwards thinking people surrounding us, including my own family. My mother was Japanese and my dad was a European mutt. I had a brother who was nearly ten years older than me, so I basically was like an only child and very much a loner who learned to amuse herself by playing outside in nature and reading a lot of books. My parents kept me in daycare for an unusually long time (up until I was 12 and probably because of aforementioned backwards-thinking people) and since I was older than the other kids, I distracted myself with drawing. I’d always been interested in art ever since I was little but this was a mechanism I used to ignore the other kids around me.
Throughout K-12, my classmates always considered me a really good artist and elected my best friend and I as most artistic in our high school yearbook. I involved myself in community art projects, shows, summer camps etc. and the encouragement from my parents really solidified my interest in pursuing Printmaking as my major in college at Herron School of Art and Design – IUPUI, Indianapolis. After graduation, I only had one small show at a coffee shop in Broadripple because I was too busy working 60+ hours a week in a serving position. I did that for around 2 years after I’d graduated and wasn’t really focusing on my art for a few reasons. My car had just died after I graduated from college and my parents weren’t going to help me financially, so I had to save up a ton of money to buy my own car, pay off student loans, rent, bills etc. and was in a really horrific and emotionally / mentally abusive 5-year long relationship.
But fortuitously, I broke up with that person and re-met my high school sweetheart at a party in Indy. After a few months together we made a big decision to move out to California because
- My brother was out here, so we had somewhere to stay while we looked for an apartment.
- My boyfriend is a Web Developer, so opportunities were endless on the West Coast and he’d already secured a job.
- There would be more opportunities for me as an artist and curator.
- Crazy ex-boyfriend was stalking me and behaved dangerously, so it seemed like a good idea to leave.
I began my life in California as an intern at OCMA in Orange County and met Liz there.
Liz: I have no formal background or training in the arts, but I’ve always produced creative work as an outlet for stress relief and entertainment. I didn’t formally label myself as an artist until this year, actually. I always considered my work to be “just for fun” and I left art production to the “professionals”. I’ve always loved art, though. I studied art history in college and became fascinated, not so much in the pure aesthetics of artistic production, but in the societal, cultural, and personal power that art holds. I originally began college thinking I wanted to become a curator or a private collections manager or something like that, but I fully realized my desire to share the excitement of learning about art and realized that I wanted my career to focus on art education. I minored in education, toyed around with becoming a special education teacher, and then decided to pursue my dream career goal of working in a museum. Right after graduating in 2013, I became an Education Intern at the Orange County Museum of Art, where I met Alyssa on our very first day of orientation. From there, we became friends.
Alyssa: We got to know each other over the year-long internship and after it ended, I curated an exhibition back in Indiana with former classmates and invited her to participate.
Liz: I began crocheting in the summer of 2014, and I was immediately hooked. At some point Alyssa shared with me that she was knitting, and I gave her my opinion that crochet was way easier, and from that point on we’ve both been crocheting basically nonstop! Our artistic relationship has grown and flourished, and Threadwinners was born!
Kathryn: And what is your goal as Threadwinners?
Liz: Burn down the patriarchy!! Just kidding (kind of). Alyssa and I are both concerned with feminist issues, and that comes out in both our individual and collaborative works. Threadwinners aims to bring crochet and the notion of female-gendered craft to the forefront. We are interested in pre-conceived notions of what “fine art” is, and how gender plays a role in the formation of that notion. Through our collaborative works that are displayed either as public yarnbombs or within a gallery, we aim to explore societal expectations and stereotypes of what it means to be female and practice an art form that has historically been relegated to the interior/home.
Kathryn: Did either of you see crafts in the home growing up?
Alyssa: My mother was a needlework genius. As a child I always watched her make these beautiful doilies that she would attach to pillows. She would make earrings or scarves, sew handmade dresses and matching mother/daughter holiday vests, and she also embroidered holiday sweaters. We also had some outstanding projects that she made before I was born: a macrame plant holder and embroidered footstool.
There was constant creative inspiration around the house and I was always fascinated and eager to learn. She tried to teach me some of these crafts unsuccessfully when I was a child. I wanted to learn but I was intimidated. When I moved to California, I decided that I wouldn’t be intimidated any longer, and I would learn to knit. My personal resources included YouTube and reading patterns on Ravelry and other similar websites, oh, and A LOT OF PRACTICE. About a year later, Liz suggested crochet. So I watched more YouTube tutorials, read patterns from Ravelry and practiced A TON to get the basics down.
Liz: My initial desire to crochet was also sparked by my mom. Her grandmother crocheted these beautifully intricate doilies that we have framed and stashed somewhere in our hallway. I remember being around 8 years old, admiring them and being amazed that someone related to me had created something so well-made and intricate that it looked like a machine had made it. My great-grandmother had taught my mom the basics of crochet at one point in time, and one day my mom bought a crochet hook on a whim and tried to remember the skills she had been taught. I decided to learn alongside her, and I fell in love with it. I’ve always loved art projects that involved repetitive actions, such as cutting or gluing, so crochet was right up my alley. My mom and I found an easy pattern for a blanket, so we decided to collaborate and crochet the project together. Through that first crochet experience I learned different stitches through YouTube, taught myself how to read patterns, and learned how forgiving crochet can be in terms of correcting mistakes. Creating the blanket together was so fun and rewarding. We named it Lumpy.
Kathryn: So now you both crochet together; tell us a bit more about that collaboration.
Liz: We’re very close friends as well as collaborators, so we basically talk everyday. We’re constantly sharing ideas about projects, talking about things we want to individually make, and sending each other Obama-Biden memes and pictures of yarn. Once we both agree that a project would be a great fit for our schedules and shared mission, we go forward with a general idea of what we will create and split up the work accordingly. We’ll get together several times a week to crochet together, assess our progress, and make adjustments as necessary. Creating pieces for Threadwinners has never actually felt like “work”.
Kathryn: What advice do you have for crafters who are intimidated to go from following patterns to making fiber art?
Alyssa: Honestly, just go for it. I did because maybe I’m confident and ambitious. I wanted to manifest cute things from my head into reality and I just went for it. To be fair, there are a lot of great patterns already out there, but Liz and I would tweak them to make them our own. And don’t worry, I got a lot wrong in the beginning and made a lot of ugly things, but when Threadwinners started doing exhibitions together, I was in some weird-freakout-I-work-better-under-stress mode and didn’t have time to make mistakes. As Tim Gunn would say, MAKE IT WORK. And you know if something REALLY isn’t working, then take it out of the design and throw it away. Threadwinners embraces a really modular approach to producing things, and what I mean by that is, we make a bunch of individual things and throw them together, so we have a lot of room to tweak the composition. It really allows for a lot of forgiveness and freedom in how we work and the end results of our pieces.
Kathryn: How has your education in art influenced your path as an artist?
Alyssa: I was a Printmaking BFA and that’s a really inaccessible medium. Materials are incredibly costly and somewhat dangerous; I was working with stuff like ferric chloride and nitric acid on a daily basis, and a lot of the printmaking inks have other harmful ingredients in them too. One time a girl in my class dropped a bottle of nitric acid on the floor and it burned a stain in the cement! It’s also becoming more obsolete as the limited amount of Bavarian limestone has basically all been quarried and that’s the primary material for making lithographs. After college, I sort of gave up my dream of being a printmaker for all of those reasons. I can still do lino and woodcuts from home, but needlework crafts are so affordable and accessible.
That said, what college taught me was to think outside the box, be adaptable, allow for mistakes to happen and work with them or around them. I also learned to learn as much about everything as you can so that you’re able to integrate new techniques into old mediums and keep pushing art forward.
Liz: I think my background in art history has trained my mind to always think about the ‘bigger picture’ of artistic production. I’m always thinking about the larger social/economic/political context in which my art is made, and what kinds of messages can be sent through my production of a certain work. I’m always consciously thinking about how society and my own personal experiences have shaped my work and my artistic process.
In addition to that, I’m always looking at what other fiber artists are creating, and how the culture and production within the fiber arts community is influencing my thought process and production. Which artists am I most influenced by? Who set a certain precedent that many others have imitated and followed? How can I integrate influence while still creating original work? These are just a few of the questions that my time studying art history has trained my brain to do.
Kathryn: And who are some of the artists that you are influenced / inspired by?
Liz: Frida Kahlo is and will always be my favorite artist, hands down. In regards to the crafting and yarn bombing community, there are so, so many talented people out there – and they’re all on Instagram! I admire Twinkie Chan (@twinkiechan), London Kaye (@madebylondon), Naomi RAG (@naomirag), Jenny Brown (@hijennybrown), Alexander Reynoso (@alexcreates), Hannah Nance (@hannahnance), and Rebecca of Crochet Butter (@crochetbutter).
Alyssa: I also admire them, especially Twinkie Chan, and I’ll add Olek, Miller and Shellabarger, Liza Lou, Emma Mattson and so many others. Instagram puts you in touch with so many fabulous artists and makers!
Kathryn: Yes, there’s a great online community. What about your local arts community? What is the arts/ crafts scene like where you live currently? Any favorite places makers should know about?
Alyssa: Obviously Los Angeles is thriving with artists and makers and one of my personal favorite places is the Craft and Folk Art Museum, but Liz and I live in the OC and Riverside counties and it’s a ways to drive out there to check out monthly/weekly exhibitions. We mostly involve ourselves with the online community of artists, makers and craftivists through Instagram because it’s so much more accessible. We can talk directly to the other artists (locally or internationally) and send work for collaborations.
I personally want to reclaim the hermit artist who has some representative go out and talk to the museums, galleries, curators etc. for me because I’m too awkward and self-conscious in person. I honestly hate networking events and if I go out to see art shows, I like to quietly observe and be more introspective. That being said, I am an extrovert at heart and can talk to people if it’s necessary, but it’s not my favorite thing to do. I feel like my job is being the artist, and the outreach is a whole other position that I’m not the most comfortable in.
Liz: Many who live in southern California will know that Riverside isn’t exactly considered a bustling hub of artistic culture and innovative production. However, there are still plenty of creative people in the area, and there has been a fostering and growing of the Inland Empire artistic community in recent years. The Guild and The Orange Space (a co-working space) in Redlands is doing some pretty cool work, and there are several coffee shops in the area (such as Augie’s, Lift Coffee Roasters, and Back to the Grind) that are always welcoming local artists, musicians, and students to utilize their space. Despite the Inland Empire’s dreary reputation, there’s a maker and artist community present, you just have to dig a little to find it.
Kathryn: Alyssa, you mentioned this pull a lot of artists have with wanting to show the work and maybe not talk about it so much. But you’ve also done curating; what’s that like for you?
Alyssa: It’s fun to do from time to time, but not nearly as rewarding as making the art. I have actually stepped back a lot from curating exhibitions in order to focus more on artmaking. I did release a co-curated digital exhibition on November 16th, 2016, entitled Shame Wrapped in Repulsion, which was inspired by Burger King’s limited-time-only item, Mac N Cheetos.
But yeah, I’m not in love with writing and that’s a lot of what curating is as well as befriending and nurturing the artists, researching a lot and organizing. I feel like I’m not super academic so I’m not as confident in my writing as I am in just creating the aesthetics and experience. For me, it got kind of exhausting after a while, especially in dealing with the reliability and punctuality of the artists.
I guess as an artist, when you approach the galleries, museums and institutions you do have to self-curate either through your brand as an artist or the themes you want to explore. My process with Threadwinners has been talking to Liz about what direction and projects she wants to work on next and we find the spaces that accommodate that vision.
Kathryn: Going back to that vision … What social / political / justice issues are currently of most concern to you?
Liz: Phew, where to start. Well, with the recent presidential election here in the U.S., we both feel that our work needs to advocate for social and political activism now more than ever. Alyssa and I both view and analyze the world through a feminist lens, and I personally feel that inherently comes out in our art. We are currently donating works to the Pussyhat Project, which aims to arm 1.17 million marchers participating in the Women’s March on Washington D.C. with handmade pink cat-ear hats. This project aims to create a visual sea of femininity and solidarity, and we couldn’t be more proud to be participating! We are concerned about the upcoming Trump administration, and we hope to speak out, create and foster a community, and hopefully open minds through our artistic production and love of crochet over the course of the next four years.
Alyssa: Here’s my list of sundry isms and systems that interest, inspire, and concern me: Donald Trump, Republicans, Feminism, Patriarchy, Western Hegemony, Domesticity, Social and Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Environmentalism, Industrialism, Anti-Capitalism, Capitalism, Consumerism, Body Positivity, Body Politics, Body Hair, Makeup versus No-Makeup Cultures, Religions, Rituals, Ceremonies, Gender Roles, Gender Theory. We have been making more political and environmental work as of late especially with our Revenge of the Pussy!!! sculpture, our River project, and our most recent collaboration with the Pussyhat Project for the Women’s March on Washington. Our previous exhibition Pleasure Objects concerned gender roles and the historical significance of women’s craft as a form of artistic expression and reclamation, body positivity, consumerism, gluttony, sexuality, public interaction with art, and accessibility of conceptual art.
Learn even more about Threadwinners’ art through their amazing interview with Craftivism author Betsy Greer.