It all started as father-daughter fun time.
“I’ve been sewing all my life,” Kim Eichler-Messmer says. “My dad taught me how to sew, and when I was in fifth grade we made a quilt together out of old shirts.”
Eichler-Messmer grew up in Iowa City and studied engineering, Spanish and Portuguese before earning a bachelor of fine arts in drawing, painting and printmaking from Iowa State University.
“In high school I made my own clothes,” she says. “It was just a hobby until college, when I took a class in screen-printing yardage. We cut up the fabric and put it together, and it all clicked into place.”
She enrolled in the master of fine arts program in textiles at the University of Kansas and completed her degree in 2007. A yearlong residency at the well-known Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tenn., followed.
When she returned to Kansas City, Eichler-Messmer began teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute and took a studio at the Pressroom Studios in Kansas City, Kan.
Now the 34-year-old textile artist has turned a hobby into a multifaceted career. In the past two years, Eichler-Messmer has designed a quilt carried by Pottery Barn and had others featured in the West Elm catalog.
She has published a book, “Modern Color: An Illustrated Guide to Dyeing Fabric for Modern Quilts,” and she exhibits her own hand-dyed quilts at area galleries — watch for her work at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center this August.
And last fall, she joined a growing corps of Kansas City artist-entrepreneurs when she opened the Kansas City Textile Studio at 924 E. Fifth St.
The 600-square-foot storefront space in a tidy neighborhood in Columbus Park is a textile lovers paradise, offering workshops in quilting and dyeing and a fully equipped sewing and dyeing studio that artists and quilters can use for a small fee.
“Kansas City is open to this kind of (enterprise),” she says.
Apparently so. All of the workshops Eichler-Messmer has offered at her textile studio have sold out.
A natural with color
Eichler-Messmer’s quilts express her attachment to open spaces.
“I’m not really a city person,” she says. “My parents’ house was on the edge of town, and I grew up fishing, foraging and hiking. We’d go camping for the whole weekend. I miss being in the country.”
Her quilts record specific experiences of the landscape at home in Kansas City, as well as during visits to her in-laws in Iowa and her mother’s place in Arkansas.
“They’re inspired by landscapes in the Midwest,” she says, “the sky, clouds, fields, light and weather, shadows.”
Back in the studio, Eichler-Messmer works from photographs and memories to translate them into fabric and color.
Details of sun and sky, furrowed fields and country roads are abstracted and simplified into geometries that declare an affinity with minimalist painting. As an artist, Eichler-Messmer reserves the capturing of specifics to color.
“Color is the driving force in her explorations,” says Pauline Verbeek-Cowart, a noted textile artist and chairwoman of the fiber department at the Kansas City Art Institute. “Reproducing a color on cloth and understanding gradation dyeing … is something Kim has mastered. She has internalized this information to the point that she knows instinctively which combination of dye powders will give her a certain color.”
Verbeek-Cowart recently attended one of Eichler-Messmer’s Quilting 101 workshops, where she was joined by several colleagues.
“Six of the seven people in the workshop had MFAs, so you would think that we don't need a workshop,” Verbeek-Cowart says, “but the idea of stepping out of our comfort zone and immersing ourselves in a new medium was invigorating.
“The camaraderie, the dialogue and learning something new together was very rewarding,” she adds. “I believe (it’s) something that is appealing to a lot of people at the moment, so the Textile Studio is filling that need.”
On Third Fridays, the Kansas City Textile Studio regularly features exhibits of local textile artists.
In April, KCAI student Mariah Gillespie had her senior thesis show of hand-dyed and painted quilts at the studio; in May, Jaime David, a textile artist in the MFA program in textiles at KU, showed her quilts inspired by Bauhaus artists Josef and Anni Albers.
The studio also holds pop-up shops featuring the creations of Owl + Mouse, Peruvian Connections designer Tabbetha McCale Evans and other well-known area textile artists.
But the workshops are the engine of the Textile Studio venture, and the most popular one offered, Eichler-Messmer says, is one on shibori, the ancient Japanese method of creating patterns on fabric through dyeing.
The art of shibori
Ann Scott, a retired elementary school teacher, was one of six of us who signed up for a shibori workshop last February. “As a knitter I was interested in other kinds of fabric art,” Scott said, “and I was fascinated with the history of shibori.”
Shibori comes from the root word shiboru, which means “to wring, squeeze, press.” The technique dates to eighth century Japan and is used to create patterns on fabric by wrapping, folding, binding or tying cloth before immersing it in dye.
Think of tie-dye with discipline.
At 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning we gathered around a table, dressed to make a mess, at the front of the studio.
In short order, Eichler-Messmer, assisted by Mariah Gillespie, laid out the program for the next four hours. We would learn three shibori dyeing techniques and emerge with a half dozen samples to take home. The $100 fee for the workshop covered instruction, dyes and fabric, including a square of silk we would transform into a wearable scarf.
Within the first 20 minutes all of the participants were practicing the “nui” technique, involving stitching a simple pattern into a double thickness of fabric, then pulling the threads to make it gather.
“I think one of the most fun parts was the creation aspect, where you’re trying a new technique, and you only have a vague idea of what it’s going to look like,” Scott said. “It’s the thrill of the finished product after trying the techniques.”
With the nui technique underway, it was time to make a soda ash soak to prepare the fabric for the dye. Soda ash activates the dye so that it will bond with the fabric.
The group trooped to the dyeing area in the rear of the studio, donning aprons, gloves and masks. Once the soak was mixed and the nui samples dropped into it, pairs of students carefully mixed powdered dyes with water to make the colors of their choice.
Back at the table, the nui samples were removed from the soda ash soak and dipped in small plastic bins filled with different dyes. Next came “itajime,” a technique of folding fabric into a small bundle and clamping it before dipping it into dye, and then “arashi,” in which students wrapped fabric around a pole and secured it with twine.
“There are an infinite number of ways you can create a pattern,” Scott said. “We stitched, we folded, we wrapped. … With so much technology and computer-generated products, it was rewarding to do a hand-made low-tech process.”
“Besides the creation of the fabric,” she added, “it was knowing it would be usable art — you could make pillows, you could make scarves, you could frame it if you wanted.”
Through it all, Eichler-Messmer patiently coached, demonstrated, bailed students out of problems and offered encouragement.
She beamed with pride as the students hung their finished samples on a drying rack, while Gillespie took pictures.
Eichler-Messmer’s one regret is that her father passed away without getting to see the Textile Studio. But as she passes on the knowledge and enthusiasm he inspired in her, she honors him every day.
Coming up at the Kansas City Textile Studio
“Quilted Works by Hannah Johnston” opens with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Aug. 15
Quilting 101 Workshop: 6-9 p.m. Sept. 4, 11, 18, 25
KCTS Turns 1, Pop-Up Shop and Birthday Party from 6 to 9 p.m. Sept. 19
Beginning Fabric Dyeing Workshop: 9 a.m.-1 p. m. Sept. 13
Shibori Workshop: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Sept. 27
Fabric Dyeing for Quilts Intensive Workshop: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 11-12
Where: 924 E. Fifth St.; free on-street parking available
A breakdown on shibori
All of the workshops Kim Eichler-Messmer has offered at her Kansas City Textile Studio have sold out, but the shibori workshop is the most popular.
Below, Eichler-Messmer demonstrates the itajime (folded and clamped) technique of the shibori process.
Mix the dyes and prepare the soda ash solution; have a hot iron ready. Then:
1. Fold fabric into a small bundle using an accordion fold, ironing every crease to get a crisp resist.
2. Place the fabric bundle between two identical pieces of rigid wood or plastic.
3. Secure the bundle and rigid shapes with at least one spring clamp.
4. Immerse the bundle in the soda ash soak.