Carter Smith Does Tie-Dye During the ‘60s in America, tie-dye became a part of the youth culture. You might remember dyeing tied cloth in the bathtub of your childhood home or that of your friend’s. Or perhaps it was some class assignment? The project always consisted of an old white t-shirt and some ribbons, strings and rubber bands. You would wrap and roll those t-shirts and tie them in places – intricate or less intricate, depending upon the nimbleness of your small fingers. Or you’d create small pouches on the cloth by pulling at little pieces of the t-shirt and encircling those small snippets with rubber bands. At different stages of the tying process, you would dip your piece of cloth – in this case, the old t-shirt – into different shades of dye. After you’ve had fun exploring all the pretty colors, and you’ve watched white fabric turn gold, red or whatever colors you’d chosen, you’d rinse the excess dye with cold water before untying your finished product. This was always part of the excitement, too, figuring out what it was going to look like when you untied the cloth. And wasn’t it exciting when you’d unwrap your shirt and saw the amazing splash of colors? The discovery was so exciting, so unusual. The cloth was so unlike anything you saw in a store. Who knew you could create your own patterns on cloth. Yet, after a few runs at creating explosively colored t-shirts, the fascination wore off. Not knowing what to do next, those shirts became favorite weekend rags or were consigned to the back drawer of a lifestyle containing more sophisticated things. The tying and dyeing of cloth is neither new nor constrained to the U.S. In fact, its humble beginnings were likely in Asia or Africa, but who knows for certain. In America, tie-dye, itself, has become a kind of joke, a symbol of a bygone era with crazy kids who had wild ideas about ‘making love instead of war.’
Carter Smith makes does tie-dye too, and his beginnings are not unlike so many of ours. He learned the art of tie-dyeing as a craft project at school. Except in his case, it was in college and the instructor was his mother, an artist herself. “I started in 1965. That’s when the University of California at Santa Cruz started. I was going to the University of California at Davis. Davis was in the Sacramento Valley and it was hot and it was kind of flat. And that was the good weather. When it got bad, it was foggy and cold. I kept escaping to Santa Cruz where my father was the first Provost for UC Santa Cruz. Every time I came home, my mother was doing a sort of “Freshmen Greeter” thing. And the mode for that was tie-dye. So everybody would get together and we’d go to the Goodwill in Santa Cruz. We’d get anything that was cotton and we’d rush it up to campus to dye it with Ritt dye or Putnam dye. It’s just sort of how fate is. Every time I came home, almost every time, my mom was doing a workshop.” So, Carter learned tie-dye like most of us, through a school project. Likely, though, that’s where your tie-dye project and Carter’s would diverge. For in the cacophony of color and explosive design, Carter’s work took some unusual turns. “Everybody else did tie-dye, but somehow …I’d do a piece that would be really interesting. I’m thinking, ‘now how did that happen?’ I’d back-track it and figure out how I did it.” He continued along that path, experimenting and discovering. “I started getting unbleached muslin and bringing it up to campus. I started using bailing wire. That was sort of interesting. So I just kept playing with it. Essentially, I focused on three techniques and really developed those. A lot of people in the late ‘60s were doing it. But I started 3 or 4 years before that.”
Comment [A1]: ask if he wants to name his mother
He began developing his own art collection by trading for his designs. “My Mom had a gallery on campus. She had some pretty famous artists. And I would trade with the artists for drawings or prints.” As a junior in College he transferred to Santa Cruz from Davis, tiring of the monotony of life in California’s lackluster capital city. “I sort of had enough of it. When I transferred, I got to tie-dye just about every day.” Carter has continued on this path, being as much a geometrician as an artist, discovering intricate designs to create such complex cloth that it boggles the mind with its seemingly mathematical precision. When asked if he learned this design from the Japanese art of shibori which is what he calls his art – he replied, “I definitely figured it out on my own and there was nobody to teach back then. I took an independent direction. A lot of people said, ‘well, you went to Japan.’ I didn’t go to Japan until 1989. And I was already making clothes and I had already established the genre of dyeing that I was doing. I would say that for the first 20 years I did three techniques. I would say probably the last almost 30 years I’ve done thousands of techniques.” How does he create such repetition of pattern and placement on work that’s created, almost blind, and whose results are always a surprise? “One of the things about shibori is it gives you the flexibility and the space to play and create new concepts and ideas. But it’s really important when you’re creating, to have the ability to put the color down and to take the color out in a way that is going to guarantee success. You can have a brilliant idea and you can execute [it] poorly and it’s garbage. You can have an average idea and execute it brilliantly and have something really amazing. What you try to do is
Comment [A2]: maybe another way of wording this? I believe you used this phrase a couple paragraphs ago.
take your good ideas and execute them in a really meaningful way. You’re trying to make sure that you’re using the right chemicals, the right colors in the right way.” I asked Carter about his designs, how he creates them, and his basic take on design. He describes how he first began designing and sewing. “I had to make a bias slip dress in order to sell a coat. I got an order from Julie: Artisan’s Gallery (a recently closed store in New York that sold wearable arts for about four decades). A woman wanted a slip dress and the people who usually made the bias slip dresses were booked up for three months. The woman said, ‘I’m not buying the coat unless I get the slip dress.’ So I said, ‘okay, I’ll make it.’” “I had no idea what I was doing. But through a process of discovery, I started designing. But because I had no formal training, I had to make up the whole concept for myself. I think that after the first 30 days of struggling with it I had 40 designs. Within 4 months I had over 100 and I had to teach myself to sew because everybody told me you couldn’t make clothes that way.” “The process of design really became the process of learning how to deal with the fabric and make the clothes. I hired seamstresses to make clothes. When I started designing, none of them knew what I was talking about. I taught myself to sew, then I would make the clothes, then I would show them. I taught them how to sew my way. My bias concepts in sewing are all selftaught.” I asked him the order of his fashion design: cloth first and then article of clothing or the other way? Does he have an idea or client in mind first? “When I look at it, I decide what the fabric’s going to be. Sometimes I do have a client in mind. They want certain colors and I’ll do two or three pieces and take the one that’s most appropriate. The other ones will end up in other things and going other places. A lot of it is
decided by the fabric – you create it. And you open it up and it’s like, ‘wow look at this.’ There’s a lot of variable in the pieces, which I really like. Everyday gets to be kind of a different surprise. You don’t control it so much that you know what it’s going to be. You let it be what it’s going to be.” Carter, like a couple of fashion designers I’ve known over the years, received his art degree in sculpture. A fascinating phenomenon perhaps, as it seems these sculptors took what they had learned about the molding and shaping of the human form and translated this knowledge into the cloth that drapes the human form. Why not fashion design? Or textile design? “The sculpture was something I started doing as a junior in college. There were no textile degrees given other than in commercial textiles.” Not wanting to be in the business of the industrialized printing of fabric, Carter began the sculpture after he transferred to Santa Cruz. “I was also doing metal sculpture and wood carving. I switched from a History major to an Art Major and then graduated sort of with both of them.” He then went on to graduate school and received an MFA in Sculpture. However, he continued his dyeing of cloth. “I had determined that I was going to earn my way through graduate school tie-dyeing.” He did. Did he ever consider any other form of art? “Because I like the way colors flow and energy moves, if I hadn’t been a shibori artist and worked with silk and dye, I probably would have been a collage artist. That fascinates me also. The only problem with collage, as opposed to shibori, is when you’re through with dyeing a silk piece, you can fold it up and put it in an envelope and mail it across the country for a dollar. You can’t do that with collage. Maybe it was more fortuitous that I settled on silk and color and the fusion of color and fabric.”
This fortunate turn gifted us with his fashions, mostly in the form of beautifully flowing dresses and jackets. Lately, he seems to have moved into a more casual direction. “When I’m dyeing now, I do a lot of cotton. I’m doing leggings and thermal t-shirts.” Absent from his collection is a men’s line of vibrant clothing. No colorful or intricate ties or shirts in his lineup. When asked if he plans to incorporate any menswear into his line, he chuckles. “I’ve been asked that question a lot. People say, ‘why don’t you design for men?’ I say, ‘well, you know I think men are kind of boring.’” Is it, I suggest, that men don’t or won’t wear the colorful clothes or patterns or does he find the making of clothing for men dull? “No,” he states simply. “I really love women. To dress women is such a delight for me. Clothes can really bring out beauty in women. I’m not really interested in bringing out beauty in men. I don’t really want to date men. Why would I want to design for them?” He chuckles some more. Sometimes it’s the shop owners who haven’t quite decided how to approach the designs for men. “The thermal shirts that I’m doing are for men. A woman took them into her shop. She said, ‘you know, I tried these and women like them but I haven’t been that successful with them.’ I said, ‘well, how about men.” And she says, ‘oh, I didn’t think of that.’” “A woman will pay $3,000 for an outfit – actually, I’ve sold outfits for $12,000 to women. Try to get a man to spend $300 on a shirt. I’m actually more likely to sell to a man who wants to wear a dress (a cabaret star, perhaps) and pay a lot of money than to a man who wants to wear for himself. There’s just not enough markup for men. It’s a small studio. You have to get a certain amount of production when you’re doing less pricey things. I’ve sold some men’s shirts for around $700. But, the thermals are $300. And they’re comfortable, they’re cotton, they’re washable.”
So he has designed some men’s shirts. Occasionally, he can been seen wearing one of his own creations. But for the most part, it looks like a men’s line of shibori ties will have to be the venture of another artist. However, his line is expanding into other genres. While he has always done wall hangings, he is currently doing home fashions and some printed fabrics. He has created a line of carpets but says there’s a small problem with them presently: he doesn’t want to part with what he has left of them. “The rugs are derived from pieces of silk that I’d dyed. I took them to China. I put little sewing marks on the edge where I wanted the carpet to start. Each of those carpets took two women a year to hand tie. And the pattern alone took 3 months to make. At this point, I don’t have many left and they’re very expensive. I probably have six left at $100,000 a piece and I don’t want to sell them. So I’m not real inclined to push them.” “The price of silk has gone way up. It’s sort of outrageous what’s happened with silk. It’s tripled costs in the last 4-5 years. But the carpets are amazing. They’re incredible pieces of art that you hang on the wall. Sometimes, people put them on the floor, but the people who bought them in the beginning got tremendous deals. I just don’t want to sell them.” Carter explains the pricing of his items with the same mathematical precision that he uses for designing cloth. Perhaps this is why he’s been so successful. He seems able to find a complex formula, make it simple and make it work for him. He has his studio at home (which, no doubt, cuts down on some of the overhead) . Heand wants to keep a number of people employed in that studio. However, it has to balance with the amount of cloth he is willing and able to produce. So he figuresd out the amount of work he would have to create yearly in order to keep his art business thriving.
We shift into talking a bit about art markets and, like with most artists and everyone else, the economic crash did hit home. “Two years ago, the market was so dead and I wanted to keep my seamstresses going so I cooked up some projects for them besides clothes. The clothes are really what I make my living on.” The wearable arts market has seen its share of downsizing. Many stores (like Julie Artisan’s Gallery) have bitten the dust. Some have disappeared because of the personal lives of the shop owners. Others have been unable to perform in this declining economy. Not to mention that these shop owners have had to deal with a real estate market that’s seemingly disparate from the rest of the market – rising rents in a down market. “Each store will sell between $30,000 and $100,000 worth of work a year. But the problem is that I need about 10 stores to keep a healthy profit margin. I maybe had 20 stores. But I’d say 80% of my stores are gone now. They’ve gone in the last two or three years. And they’ve gone almost exclusively because of huge lease increases in their rent.” During our conversation, Carter was making his runs on Captiva Island off the coast of Florida. He has a shop there that carries his work and does well with it. “All I need is 6 or 7 stores like this and it’s good. But they’re all out of business. So now we have to find new places and you have to educate them in what you’re doing. A lot of people are afraid of the fabrics because they’re different. And, you know, a lot of women want to look the same. Where the real money is now, it’s more in labels. So, where the stores that have my work are still going pretty well with it, those stores have had a hard time.” I ask Carter if the market for his fashions has improved as of lately? He responds, “Fortunately, yes. It is picking up. And I’m finding some new stores, though, they’re hard to
find. It does create a dilemma on how to market your work. There are so many stores and so many people that don’t understand the work. So much of it is about education.” Carter Smith has always done well, creating new discoveries and reinventing himself, having appeared in the large fashion magazines like Vogue, Elle and Mirabella in the past. I wonder if this this why he moved into printed fabrics? Was he seeking a lower price point or a way to create a more readily mass-produced fabric? No, for as it turns out the printed fabric is just as intricately involved as the hand dyed cloth, since he creates the cloth himself. “I’m doing the printing myself. I’m doing the digital imaging myself. It’s something that I wanted to do, something different and something new. And it is quite different and it is quite new. But it was just – it had to do with broadening the horizon a little bit on the work that I was doing.” Carter has also shown his work in countless galleries and museums. Most of the cloth hangings are just that, naked cloth hanging from rods as banners or draped or stretched on the walls. “When I’m doing it [cloth] as an art form, generally, you can hang it as a banner or put stretcher bars together, cover the stretcher bars with fabric and stretch the silk over that. For the first 20 years, I stretched probably 30,000 pieces and sold them.” Was he concerned about their longevity? At the time he began selling them, it wasn’t something that worried him. “I had no idea how long the banners would last so I just did them. At that time, I couldn’t tell people. But there are still banners that I did 40 years ago that are still okay. They have a dowel on either end and they’re displayed that way.” In addition to creating, Carter is also teaching. Ten fortunate students will get to discover just a few of his techniques. Carter agreed to teach at the upcoming Silk in Santa Fe Festival in
July of this year. He’ll be teaching one day of dyeing and one day of bias-sewing. He says, “What I’m teaching is sort of a basic shibori vocabulary. It’s like, discharge dyeing. So put color in, take color out. We use a lot of black and then we use fiber reactive dyes and we set them with steam, so the setting of the dye only takes about 20 minutes. I like the immediacy of the medium” The Santa Fe class filled up almost as soon as it was announced at silkpainters.org festival website. He does also teach classes at his home studio. “I think, unfortunately, we only have a limited number of silk painters that can take this workshop. But they can come to my studio and do a workshop there. It’s just another venue for putting color, dyes on silk. Most silk painters are painting with dyes, not with pigment. I’ve got a lot of information and I can answer a lot of questions. Sometimes questions will come up that I don’t have answers for and we’ll create them on the spot.” “It’s a weekend for $2,000, which seems like a lot of money, but by the time we’re through, it actually is a bargain. We only do five students at a time. It’s a pretty intensive experience and everything is provided from lodging and meals to all the materials that we use. Think of it like the tie-dye or shibori spa experience. We’re pretty much inundated from Friday afternoon till Sunday afternoon.” He also indicates that, by the time a student is finished with his in-studio workshops, they’ll have produced at least $2,000 worth of cloth. The class could pay for itself, depending upon what the artist goes on to do with the fabric they create in class. So, for those who can’t get in at Santa Fe, take heart. There are other roads to Carter. In Santa Fe, there’s one day of dyeing. “A lot of what I teach is overlapping of color so the workshop is only dipping your toes in the edge of the pool. There’s a lot more.” The second day will be devoted to the bias sewing techniques.”
“We don’t do that many pieces in the workshop because we’re going from one technique to another technique. We’re doing a twist pleat; we’re doing all kinds of different products, discharge and dyeing. Basically, we’ll probably cover maybe 6 six to 8 eight techniques and the movement back and forth of color – see what happens within the bounds of the silk that’s tied and the cotton that’s tied. We don’t fix it till it’s open. So the element of surprise is an element that really contributes to the end result.” The class in Santa Fe will follow a simple path: day 1, you make some cloth and day 2, you make some clothes from that cloth. “If you bring along some fabric, we’ll make some clothes out of that fabric. And if we don’t have any other fabric, then we’ll just make something out of black or out of white material. So, it’s kind of interesting because the whole concept that I developed is very, very simple.” Those words seem to sum up Carter Smith. He manages to take something that seems very intricate and simplify it. His impetus for designing his clothing – using beautiful cloth to enhance and accentuate the beauty of women – follows that mode. “What I strongly believe is that when people put my clothes on, because of the energy that’s infused in them and because of the process that I go through, they can’t look better than if I hit it right on them than with any other clothes that they would wear. That sounds like it’s egotistical, but I’ve seen it over and over again. And that’s what the stores tell me. When the women get the right piece on, the women love it, the men love it. I’m in it for that element – of really seeing how amazing women can look in those clothes.” To see more of Carter’s work and his other offerings, including his DVD of bias sewing patterns, visit www.shibori.com.