Spinning Yarns with Ann Tilley Handmade
From her backyard studio in Julian, Ann Tilley is stitching the fabric of a ladylike revolution. The textile artist and seamstress uses traditionally feminine mediums of fabric and yarn to create irreverent artwork celebrating women in the New South. At the same time, her clothing designs are popping up in shops around the state. Tilley is forging paths into fine art as well as fashion, sometimes blurring – or felting – the line between the two.
Tilley has always identified as an artist. Her parents supported her love of art, but her fascination with fabric was self-directed.
“My mom was a teenager in the ‘70s. She didn’t want to be that housewife who did domestic arts,” Tilley explained. “Sewing was seen as women’s work. She was not at all interested.”
In an unusual form of rebellion, Tilley learned knitting, sewing, cross stitch, and more. She enjoys expressing emotion within the rigid framework of these homemaking skills.
“There are times when I’m off balance and don’t know what I’m upset about, but if I can go to art and knitting and crafting, it releases so much negative energy,” she said.
Also released in Tilley’s work is her wry sense of humor, which shines through in pieces like her delicate crocheted doilies emblazoned with phrases like ‘Tig Ol’ Bitties’ and ‘Ain’t That Some Shit.’
The Durham native finds her inspiration in symbols of the modern South. Tiny houses, cell phones, and solar panels are popular motifs in her work, and often appear alongside more stereotypical Southern images of pine trees and shotguns.
“I hate it when people talk about how the South is scary, and why would you want to live there? I want to express my love of living in the South, even though there’s a lot of darkness here,” she said.
Tilley attended the Savannah School of Art and Design’s fashion program, but maintained her connection with visual art through a minor in fibers. After graduation, she puzzled over how to combine her two loves of fashion and fine art. The pieces fell into place when Tilley met her now-husband, Adam.
“When I designed my first knitted art piece, I had to figure out how to frame it and mount it,” Tilley recalled. “Adam’s a woodworker. Literally the first night we met, he said, ‘I can make frames.’ He triggered me starting because I knew he could help me get to the end product.”
In 2016, Tilley received a grant from Arts Greensboro to turn her twin disciplines into a business. The grant enabled her to get several pieces of professional-quality used equipment, including two sewing machines and a knitting machine from the 1980s. The knitting machine works like a mechanized loom, allowing Tilley to create a whole row of knitting in one movement.
Tilley has used the machine to create larger pieces of artwork, including a set of 5-foot-high letters spelling out ‘BORED.’ The letters were appliqued onto a strand knit psychedelic background to create a massive piece of pop art currently on display in a Durham gallery.
On the other side of Tilley’s two-pronged business model is her clothing design. She originally planned to make, market, and sell highly couture clothing that would give those around her an alternative to the modern fashion industry.
“I’m really passionate about how environmentally and ethically damaging the fashion industry is. So I was really excited I didn’t have to support it,” Tilley explained. “I tried to start my own line as a way of helping my friends and family get great pieces while supporting alternate ways of doing things.”
Tilley soon found there were drawbacks to running a one-woman show. Marketing and management took away from the time needed to sew her made-to-order garments. It was also tough to strike a balance between cost and the value of time spent.
“The hard thing about getting into the fashion industry is you’re either making one off, really couture pieces, or you’re making mass quantities. You can’t get good prices otherwise,” she said.
To solve her problem, Tilley reached out to the North Carolina fashion scene. She found a local production house to bring her garments to life, giving her more time to design. She recently created a line of athletic pants to be marketed and sold through lifestyle brand Runaway.
It’s been a long and sometimes frustrating road, but Tilley has no plans to abandon art or fashion. In fact, she’s expanding both sides of her business. She continues making new pieces for galleries to satisfy her fine arts itch. On the fashion end, she is starting a new fashion line with Anne Schroth of Red Canary Studio, a fabric print shop in downtown Greensboro.
For Tilley, marrying her artistic passion with her job makes the most sense; she would be making the art anyway.
“I have so many endless projects and ideas I want to explore that I have to make a business out of it so that I can have a reason,” she laughed. “If I’m making money out of it, I have an excuse.”
For more information about Tilley’s work, visit www.anntilleyhandmade.com.
Mia Osborn is a Greensboro-based freelance writer who hails from Birmingham, Alabama.