Local designer makes a triple debut with fine-art sweater coats
By Melanie McGee Bianchi
Photography by Matt Rose
When it comes to modern communication methods, Patte Vanden Berg dwells so far off the grid she might as well be living in a thatched-roof hut. Actually, the glass-artist-turned-fashion-designer resides in a smartly renovated ranch house on a leafy cul-de-sac in West Asheville. The lower level includes a tidy, serene sewing studio.
But with no website, Facebook page, blog, or even an e-mail address, Vanden Berg relies on reputation alone to get the word out about her theatrical “PatteCoats” — majestic robe-like pieces sewn together from intricate arrangements of recycled sweaters, many of them vintage.
“I get easily overwhelmed by technology. Spending time on the computer would keep me from being in my studio,” she says with a shrug, talking mission and vision over tea in her sunny kitchen. Vanden Berg is measured and thoughtful, a petite woman with wide blue eyes. One gets the feeling she shores up every scrap of concentration to pour into her head-turning creations.
This fall, her coats will make an intense triple debut: at the Handmade in America exhibit From Hand to Hand: Functional Craft in WNC, at the juried Project Handmade fashion show at Asheville Art Museum, and at the biannual Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands. (The Fair is an exhibition of members of the selective Southern Highland Craft Guild. The Guild inducted Vanden Berg with her first application — a rare feat.
In art school in Michigan, Vanden Berg studied both weaving and glass. For years, she ran a commission-based business, making stained-glass windows and other installations. When she journeyed south to attend classes at Penland School of Crafts and teach at John C. Campbell Folk School, her outlook rounded a major bend. In North Carolina, the artist found herself experimenting with weaving copper wire and glass into multimedia works.
“The marriage between the two mediums has always been there,” muses Vanden Berg, who’s made WNC her permanent home since 1998. Tiptoeing to a more adventurous plane, she began her fresh journey in fiber around two years ago. Not counting what she calls the “hunter-gatherer” aspect of her work — scouring thrift stores, garage sales, and flea markets for likely sweaters, laboriously cleaning and processing them — it can take a week or more to complete a PatteCoat. The garments are machine-sewn and meticulously hand-finished, often using rare buttons and other embellishments, such as a bejeweled butterfly liberated from an “old-lady sweater” and given a fashionable new home in a gridded black-and-teal coat.
Vanden Berg uses no patterns, relying on an innate feel for shape and hue to guide her. She drops a stunning statistic, citing a recent Time magazine article that claims 21 billion pounds of discarded apparel a year meets its fate in landfills. A frugal environmentalist, she’s doing her part to rescue and re-use quality goods.
But her labor-intensive coats, for which she considers only natural fibers such as merino, cotton, angora, silk, and cashmere — “I refuse to use acrylic” — hover at the highest level of eco-chic. One beauty is striated in a snow-queen palette. Vertical folds of cream and eggshell are crowned with a cabled white top panel and a ruffled damask hood.
Another coat dances with a black-and-gray argyle motif, ending in a cleverly fractionated geometric hem. Yet another is distinguished by Scandinavian clasps, a paisley trim, and fluted sleeves and lapel, yielding a Renaissance Fair look.
Certain works play within a spectrum, like a short coat done in luminous greens and grays. Or color can be riotous — lacy scallops of lime and plum cohabitating with woolly Fair Isle borders and shots of orange and fire-engine red.
Vanden Berg uses verbs like “choreograph” to describe the challenge of assembling these memorable pieces. But she’ll only sport them herself on days she’s feeling brave.
“I don’t wear them out if I don’t want attention.”
Project Handmade 2012, a juried fashion show of contemporary textiles, happens at Asheville Art Museum on October 25, 7:30-9 pm; projecthandmade.org. The Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands runs October 18-21 at the US Cellular Center. Visit southernhighlandguild.org for details. From Hand to Hand: Functional Craft in WNC is up through November 16 at Handmade in America (125 S. Lexington Ave.; handmadeinamerica.org). Patte Vanden Berg sees clients by appointment: 828-606-1495.