Material Justice: in the Studio with Amy Keefer

Written by Valerie Yep and photographed by Paige Green

When I met with designer and artist Amy Keefer on a grey and drizzly Thursday morning, I was greeted with the complete opposite of what it felt like outside: a warm smile and hot cup of sweet-smelling tea. Immediately, I was overcome with a sense of comfortable familiarity. It took a few minutes before I recognized her as the knitting instructor at my local yarn shop, A Verb for Keeping Warm, and we shared a laugh at the fact that we were already acquaintances.

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I learned that Keefer’s love for fiber and textile arts spans 15 years. In 2009 she moved from Arizona to the Bay Area to attend California College of the Arts where she received her MFA in Textile Arts. At the Fibershed Fashion Show in 2013, she worked with Myrriah Resneck to produce a look for the runway together, and Amy designed a hand knit cowl inspired by zebra stripes using Mary Pettis-Sarley’s Twirl Yarn line. Her patterns for handknitting using fibershed materials are teaching tools in her Bay Area knitting classes and are popular downloads on ravelry.

It was Summer of 2013 when ideas for Keefer’s most recent project began to start swirling. She met cotton farmer, Sally Fox, while helping her pick cotton for seed selection in the Capay Valley. Keefer and was so inspired by Fox’s work and passion, that a few cones of Fox’s 18/2 cotton yarn made their way home with her. Essentially thread, such fine yarns are traditionally used for weaving, but Keefer’s creativity immediately gravitated elsewhere. “Almost intimidated by how special the material was,” Keefer knew she wanted to incorporate lace making while doing “justice to the local materials.”

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“I think it’s not something that is always addressed in the Fibershed community. Things that seem really opulent or classified as using an excess of materials can still make a large statement; [it] can still be a political move,” she explained to me.

Much of Keefer’s focus has been on knitting instruction and knitwear design (under BlaerKnits), but most recently her focus has been on lace. So much so, that she has deemed 2016 the year of ‘Local Lace’. Not the stuffy Victorian lace of yesteryear or the stretch lace that we all rocked in the 80’s. No, Keefer draws much of her inspiration from the rich history of the first American Lacemaking industry in Ipswich, Massachusetts as well as Irish crochet, both of which she studied while getting her MFA. Both styles of lace played integral parts in empowering women, as making lace provided a way for women and girls to generate income and support their families in an era when men were traditionally the providers.

Keefer wondered, “What would local lace for the Bay Area look like? How can Sally’s cotton translate into what the people of Ipswich and Ireland [did] around those times when they were establishing independence and making something that was totally their own?”

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Immediately, I can tell that Keefer has immersed herself in all things lace. Books line her shelves on the subject. A crocheted doily that her mom made, used as her own wedding décor, is spotted elegantly decorating a side table. Spools and cones of thread are conveniently placed throughout her studio, ready at the waiting. A station for making bobbin lace is set up in the middle of the room where the best light can be found.

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In her studio, she showed me a perfectly crocheted replica of a chili pepper flower. She explained that the peppers contain a chemical called capsaicin, which can provide relief for muscle soreness and is often a main ingredient in medicated patches used to help soothe aches and pains. Coincidentally, it is also the main ingredient used in pepper spray. She loves the “idea of a woman wearing lace, which is supposed to be provocative, but then pictorially it is actual pepper spray. A lace motif that is about sexual consent or about protection.”

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Compared to mechanized lace, making lace by hand in the traditional way “is incredibly slow.” Each flower takes anywhere from half a day to a couple of days to complete using a stainless steel crochet hook less than 1 mm in diameter. Through a series of carefully planned of knots, Keefer’s intricately crocheted pieces evoke a sense of quiet beauty and silent protection. Just as knitters, sewers, and weavers will often put good thoughts and love into every stitch or throw of a shuttle, Keefer intertwines silent protection like a whispered incantation, into each pepper flower she creates, providing each wearer with a protective shield of pepper spray.

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Always pushing herself artistically, Keefer has also been experimenting with arnica, catnip and other medicinal herbs. A lot goes into the creation of a piece. Plants must be carefully studied to discern their intricate patterns and shapes. Leaf rubbings are made and fill Keefer’s sketchbook. Meticulous planning goes into deciding which stitches will be used to create the complex twists and turns of the three-dimensional plants. Several iterations are completed before Keefer has gotten it just right. By carefully honing her craft, Keefer is continuing the legacy of many women before her.

Just like the radical women of Ipswich and Ireland, Keefer’s work helps us to examine the shift in how clothing and embellishments are made. “Everything I do is by hand,” she notes. “It’s a strange way to work, to have the material be the standard and let the idea come from there.” I am hopeful that someday soon, that the tides will shift and regional textiles will be the norm.

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As we said our goodbyes and parted ways, the drizzle let up and the clouds shifted just enough so that I was able to make it home relatively dry. With the sun threatening to peek through the clouds, it was hard not to share Keefer’s same hope. In the meantime, we will all be wearing our pepper flowers.

Amy Keefer is an artist and designer based in Berkeley, California. In collaboration with Fibershed, Keefer will continue designing patterns under the name “BlaerKnits” as well as produce a boutique line of ready-made pieces. Look for “Local Lace” in 2017. You can learn more about Amy’s work on her website www.amykeefer.com, find her patterns on Ravelry, and email her for collaborations at amysusankeefer [at] gmail.com

One thought on “Material Justice: in the Studio with Amy Keefer

  1. Wow your work is inspiring, When you get your arnica lace perfected I would love to see and perhaps make a purchase. I love the artistic expression of the medicines!! What about dandelion??

    Blessings,
    JoAnne

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