Bumping into The Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia

In mid-February, I attended the Buyers’ Market of American Craft as a buyer for Iowa Artisans Gallery.  As we prepared to leave, we discovered our flight was canceled and rescheduled for late in the day. What to do in this lovely city? Our answer was to meander, walking the streets in ways we’d been unable to do prior to this point. Next thing I knew, I was literally bumping into The Fabric Workshop and Museum, a stone’s throw away from the Convention Center, where I’d attended the show for 15 years.

The Fabric Workshop! I’ve been reading about this venerable institution for more than twenty years. Articles have always pinpointed the Workshop’s focus on screen printing, and I’ve been an enthusiastic screen printer for years. Naturally, I’ve always wanted to visit.

The Fabric Workshop was founded by Marian Stroud in 1977, both as a place to train apprentices in the field of textile design and to work with mature artists interested in fabric and unconventional materials. A Decade of Fabric and Art  celebrates the 10th Anniversary of the Center. This publication points out the 1960s connections of major artists like Alexander Calder, with the making of fiber art pieces, tapestries in Calder’s case. This precedent led Stroud to invite artists like Louise Nevelson, Robert Morris, Robert Kushner, Jun Kaneko and Ned Smyth into the Workshop early on. 150 artists in all were served during the first decade.

As a screen printer, I gasped with pleasure at the long tables and deep space of this printing studio.

The Fabric Workshop refined its mission in 1996, adding Museum to its name. Artists are still offered the chance to work as Artists-in-Residence with unconventional materials, not all of them fabric or textile-related. The screen printing areas serve at-risk youth in Philadelphia schools, as well as high school-, college- and postgraduate-level apprenticeships. Current artists in residence at the Workshop are profiled on the website.  The Workshop is housed on several floors of a building, with exhibition halls, screen printing production studios, administrative offices, and conservation facilities for its 5500 objects made by 400 participating artists. It also houses a museum shop where screen printed items are sold in addition to books and other goodies.

During my visit, I viewed New American Voices II, an exhibition of contemporary sculpture, installation and wall works by Robert Pruitt, Jim Drain, Jiha Moon and Bill Smith. Vastly different in concept and execution, these works will challenge anyone looking for a more traditional approach to fiber art. I was especially drawn to the work of Robert Pruitt. His website does not do his contemporary work justice, so I won’t cite it here. I am not able to share images of those exhibits with you.

By becoming a contemporary art center, the Fabric Workshop has invested in its future by insuring two grant-funding streams: contemporary art, plus under-served populations. I hope that it continues to capitalize on its roots in fiber art in its appeal to artists, providing them a truly unique opportunity to make works not otherwise easily made. If you’re in Philadelphia, don’t do what I did and wait 15 years to visit this inspiring and provocative place.

interesting way of preserving samples
a wall display shows images from early years
Screen, test piece and drop cloth
The Fabric Workshop & Museum is located at 1214 Arch St in Philadelphia
the front window of the building showcases items fabricated from FW&M fabrics, for sale in the Museum Shop
My $12 purchase, a bag with two interesting sides, a difficult choice with so many patterns to pick from
The Fabric Workshop and Museum is located at 124 Arch Street in downtown Philadelphia. For contact and membership information, please visit this link.