“Cloth was our first shelter,” she told the Structure and Surface group. “Cloth functions as division, separation, ornamentation.”
Shepard has a reverence for historic cloth-makers, which she considers her own forebears. She sees their work as “technically astounding – it’s an immense amount of handiwork I greatly appreciate.” Her goal, she told the group, is to highlight pieces of cloth – which are often relegated to drawers of homes – and bring to awareness their beauty and history.
She made large lace tapestries that hung from doorways in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in its 2011 “Lost in Lace” exhibition, and showed the group an example of one. Its intricate design was hand-cut with an exacto knife, dyed to make it appear netted, and hammered out to give it the look of a three-dimensional sketch.
“I think about it as drawings in space,” Shepard said. “You cut away the background, and are just left with evidence of the artist’s hand.”
She is paired up with Wayne Mills, which specializes in narrow fabrics. “Most of our products are functional, not really artistic,” said Martin Heilman, president of the company. “Piper’s going to have her hands full with us.”
Wayne Mills has been around since 1910, and Heilman said “For a company to exist for so long, you really have to reinvent yourself several times, which is what we’ve done.”
They worked in the zipper trade into the 1960s, moved on to apparel until the 90s, and now specialize in industrial products: narrow fabrics like handles for Animal Crackers, red tape for wrapping asparagus, drawstrings for hospital gowns.
“We don’t make an end product, we make a part of someone else’s product, but there is quite a bit of value added from one end to the other,” Heilman said.
Their 4.5-acre facility, located adjacent to SEPTA’s Wayne Junction regional rail station, used to be occupied by Glen Echo Mills, blanket-manufacturers that used to operate along the Wissahickon Creek until the economy picked up after the civil war.
Wayne Mills became a tenant in the early 1900s, bought the property in 1976, and currently use 30% space for themselves, leasing the rest to tenants – including a handful of artists. Heilman said that, despite the lagging economy, business for them has been steady.
“For the last three or four years, every year has been a record year for sales,” he said. “We’re very fortunate.”