Common Threads – Fiber Arts in New Mexico

Quilt by Norma Koelm

Quilt by Norma Koelm

Anita McSorley has been making her own clothes since she was 10 years old. “My mother taught me how to crochet and how to embroider and how to sew,” she says. “I’d go shopping with [her], and I’d fall in love with something, and she’d say, ‘Well, you can make that.’ It was a cost-effective thing when I was growing up.” Today, that financial dynamic has changed, and handcrafting practical items has gone from necessity to a form of self-expression. “It’s definitely the reverse of what it used to be,” Anita says. “Anyone going out to make a garment now, you’re going to spend three to four times what you’d spend back then.”

Still, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed over the years: Anita’s love of the fiber arts and all the ways they can be used as vehicles for creativity. Anita’s talent has expanded to encompass many facets. “I’m interested in quilts—mostly art quilts—and I do polymer clay,” she says. “I do mixed-media, I paint fabric, and I dye fabric. I make mono-prints on fabric and paper.” She’s also a member of the Albuquerque Fiber Arts Council and the director of its 11th biennial Fiber Arts Fiesta.

The AFAC got its start in 1997, when seven local guilds began organizing to display their work to the wider community; it now comprises 20 guilds. According to Anita, the number of entries for this year’s event has surpassed those in the past, and a total of 670 works will be on display. The call for entries goes out nationwide, “as wide as we can get it.” The farthest away participant? “This year, it’s Brazil. There’s a young lady who does lace work,” Anita says. “One year, we had 12 entries from Taiwan: 10 quilts and two mixed-media [pieces].” Considering the size and scope of the event, it’s not surprising that it requires a fair amount of lead-time. “It takes about a year and a half to get the fiesta put together,” Anita says. “It’s kind of like herding cats.”

Embroidery by Linda Littman

Embroidery by Linda Littman

In addition to providing a venue for artists to show their work in knitting, beading, quilting, weaving, spinning, lace-making, crochet, polymer clay, embroidery, rug hooking, doll-making, silk painting and mixed-media, the fiesta offers a variety of opportunities for people of all ages and skill levels to try their hands at those various mediums. Each of the member guilds staffs a booth, and there are 60 vendors that participate; some sell raw material, some sell made objects. “Fiesta’s a good opportunity to see what the vendors bring to us,” Anita says. AFAC Treasurer (and fellow quilter) Barb Striegel says the presence of vendors means visitors who form an interest are also “be able to buy something relatively inexpensive to get started in it. It’s convenient.” Indeed, convenience is a priority across the board at the Fiber Arts Fiesta. “We want people to come and spend the day, so we have food available,” Anita says. “We also have a place you can set your bags if you want to walk around unencumbered.”

Each fiesta features a fundraising component. As Anita notes, “We have made up to $7,000 for the charity in previous years.” This year, AFAC is providing support, in the form of an information and donation booth, for Susan’s Legacy, an Albuquerque nonprofit that gives emotional, psychological and life-skills assistance to women in the process of overcoming addiction. “For every $5 donation you give to the charity, you can pick a Doo-Dah,” Anita says, referring to the name the AFAC came up with for the small craft items guild members contribute as thank-you gifts for attendees who donate. A Doo-Dah can be anything from a fabric ornament, small scarf, bookmark or embroidered tea towel, to a baby bib or wall hanging. “It’s a huge variety of things, because there’s no restriction on what you can make,” says Barb, noting that the items also give novice fiber artists a range of reference points for what a relatively easy entry-level project might look like. “Plus, she emphasizes, “It’s handmade. Where else can you get something handmade for $5?”

Mixed Media, Marta Burckley

Mixed Media, Marta Burckley

As an all-volunteer organization, AFAC knows firsthand the value of service, and that ethic is a thread that runs through its participating guilds. “Each of our guilds are community-oriented,” Barb, who is herself a member of the Thimbleweed Quilters in Rio Rancho, says. “We donate quilts to a juvenile diabetes clinic; we donate to various homes, sometimes creating lap quilts for people who are ill. I like knowing that I’m part of something that gives to the community, and it’s things I enjoy. You do artistic things for yourself, but it’s a way of sharing.” She adds that AFAC as a whole has given a little over $8,000 in scholarships. “That’s pretty exciting to me. That’s incredibly rewarding.”

The theme for the 2017 fiesta is “Growing Future Artists.” That topic is a departure for AFAC, but Anita says it’s one that’s necessary to preserve continuity in the various crafts. “We’ve never done anything to focus on the kids before. We just know that if we don’t get younger people involved, it will die out.” To that end, she continues, “We started doing classes about three fiestas ago. They fill up pretty fast.” The AFAC aims for as much diversity as possible in their educational offerings, and the projects don’t have to be difficult to be rewarding. According to Barb, “There are many things young sewers and working moms can learn,” such as how to produce a small wall hanging. “What’s so important to me is that we make this available. I think our kids are terribly creative. They have the ability to do this, we just have to put it in front of them.”

Sewing, L Ashcraft, Day Glow Green - Envy 121

Sewing, L Ashcraft, Day Glow Green – Envy 121

“Quite a few members of our guilds work with children,” Anita says. “A group from Highland High School, called the Crafty Dogs, will be assisting kids with craft projects.” (Those older students were initially taught to knit and crochet by the people at The Yarn Store at Nob Hill.) And, she says, “The lace makers, for instance—they work with homeschooled children.” Lacemaking is one of the smaller guilds, a distinction it shares with others like rug-hooking, bead-making and polymer clay art. Those last two might seem like outliers in the organization, but it doesn’t take much imagination to recognize them as sort of “fiber-adjacent” crafts, since the resulting pieces can be used as buttons or embellishments for clothing, quilts and the like.

By far, quilters are the biggest group represented at the fiesta. “We have five quilt guilds,” Anita says—quilters represents the largest membership and the largest number of fiesta entries. It’s also a group that attracts lots of new and innovative talent. “One of our quilt guilds is the Albuquerque Modern Quilt Guild. Quite a few [members] are younger. They are not stuck on the traditions; they don’t have any rules. The are going way out of the box.”

A number of guilds meet on weeknights or weekends to accommodate people with work schedules or young children, and Anita knows firsthand what it’s like to gain a foothold in the fiber arts while navigating family life. “When I first started quilting, I was a stay-at-home-mom in California,” she says. “I didn’t know there was any place to meet with people until I was in New Mexico. I think I would have gone further faster if I’d had somebody to hold my hand.” She has found that the benefits of being part of an artistic community are huge. “Not everybody has the same ideas,” she says. “You might get an idea of what you want to do based on something they’ve done. It’s like eye candy—you see what other people are doing and it just blows you away.”

Barb concurs. Over the years, she’s seen enormous growth in “improvement of quality, workmanship, creativity” in the output of AFAC guild members, and she finds herself continually inspired by the ripple effect caused by exposure to different artistic mediums. “We never know how we touch someone.”

Ultimately, though, AFAC and its biennial event are all about sharing the results of a labor of love. “I want to help these artists show their work,” Barb says. “Much of what you see in the fiesta is not for sale; it isn’t like a gallery setting. This is just so you can put your work out there and say, ‘This is what I do. I like it—I hope you do, too.’”

The 2017 Albuquerque Fiber Arts Fiesta takes place May 19-21 at EXPO New Mexico in the Manual Lujan Complex. For more information, visit

Story by Eve Tolpa

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