NORTH ADAMS -- Phyllis Criddle conjures up fashion through unexpected material that most people would find useless, but in context of her long association with Mass MoCA, it would be more remarkable if she didn't.
Criddle's creations are part of the Alchemy Initiative's third-annual Earth Day event, taking place tonight and Sat urday at 40 Melville St., Pittsfield.
Criddle's material of choice is the discarded and unused wristbands used for visitors at the Solid Sound Festival at Mass MoCA. Criddle, already known around MoCA for her dress-making talent, was ap proached about refashioning some of them as a dress.
"It wasn't really my idea in the first place, I just really liked the idea and I was all for it," Criddle said.
Joe Thompson thought so as well, and Criddle set to work designing a dress. Given the size of the source material, intricacy was inevitable, from the initial drawings to the final creation, and Criddle had to discern what designs seemed desirable versus what was actually practical in the real world.
"The first one I made had little flaps along the bottom of it. I love the way it looks, but it takes forever," she said. "The first design that I wanted to make isn't actually going to happen. I wanted to make one that was entirely made out of those little flaps, and then had a woven bodice, but those three rows took so long and so much more wristband material to cover a smaller area that I didn't think
Criddle went with the simplest plan, sewing the wristbands down in rows to create the patterned dresses, since the actual physical work of putting together the dress was intensive. The first dress is for sale in Hard ware, the Mass MoCA store, with others to follow as Criddle finishes them, along with a vest, a bag and a belt which was originally a jacket, but frustrated Criddle too much.
"I want to do some sort of accessories with the little black toggles that come on the wristbands," said Criddle. "I have a bin full of those. I haven't started working with them yet, but this dress has straps made of them, and then belts and bracelets, but I haven't quite gotten there yet."
Criddle works from dress-making patterns, so the initial dress was made to her own size, but she has expanded her output to other dress sizes. Regardless of who the dress fits, its completion brings forth issues particular to making clothes out of cloth wristbands that she couldn't have anticipated. She uses a base layer of cloth for the garment and then sews the bracelets, and that is a delicate process.
"When you sew the wristbands down, it shrinks the fabric a little bit, and I learned this the hard way," Criddle said. "The belt actually came from a piece I was making that I got really frustrated with because the pattern pieces kept shrinking and they didn't fit together properly."
"What I started doing is cutting out the shapes half an inch to an inch bigger all the way around and then sewing down the wrist bands. I've been trying to conserve them and get the best use out of them, so I've been sewing them down and when I put down the pattern piece this little edging gets trimmed off."
The wristbands are laid down randomly with a general plan ned pattern -- one red, three yellow -- that allows for some surprises thanks to the red and blue writing.
Prior to the wristband garments, Criddle had made a dress entirely from discarded Mass MoCA T-shirts
"I didn't actually use a pattern for that, I just pinned the fabric to the form and started that way," she said. "A lot of the T-shirts were my dad's, a lot were mine, I bought a few new ones, and one of the girls who used to work at the store with me, she had worked here for many years and she accumulated a whole two bags worth of T-shirts that she brought me and she said, ‘These don't fit right anymore and I hardly ever wear them -- here!'"
"The woman who bought it came back wearing it about a year and a half ago. Appar ently, she and her husband come to the Bang on a Can marathon every year and she came back wearing it and she looked amazing. She said she gets compliments every where she goes and people ask, ‘What's Mass MoCA?' It was really nice to meet her because I wasn't here when it was sold."
Criddle first started sewing when she was 8 years old, taught by her mother, artist Debora Coombs. Almost from the beginning, Criddle was attempting to make clothes for herself.
"I remember the first dress I made, I physically couldn't get it on," said Criddle. "It didn't occur to me at that point that you needed fastenings or a zipper, or buttons or something like that, so I cut out the shapes of a dress front and back, sewed them together, and couldn't get them on. It was intended to be a night dress. I actually took the time to sew all these little z's along the front, so I was incredibly frustrated when I couldn't get into it."
Criddle's first dress to be utilized by someone other than herself -- this one was bought by a family friend -- was made out of cloth and hardware, just prior to creating the Mass MoCA T-shirt dress.
"I made it out of metal and brass mirror-hanging hardware held together with zip ties, and there were bolts coming out of the shoulders," she said.
Criddle grew up in Reads boro, Vt., but the culture of Mass MoCA has been a huge part of her education and experience. Her father, Rich ard Criddle, is the chief fabricator for the museum, and he began to work there when Criddle was 8-years-old.
"I started working here when I was 16, once I was legally allowed during school breaks," she said. "I worked here for my dad originally, and I was 18 when I switched and started working in Hardware."
"I like Mass MoCA and it's provided a lot of really cool opportunities like this. I don't know if I could do that somewhere else, even if I went to a big city, even if I got a job at an art museum. It's almost like a little community, a family."
Criddle has found a place for her talents amidst other Mass MoCA events. For the museum's gala in New York this year, Criddle was asked to design the tablecloths. She came up with a Katherina Grosse motif and accentuated them with the Wilco wristbands, making a total of 36 of them. She also wore one of her Wilco wristband creations at the event.
Most recently, she has been invited to be part of the Alchemy Initiative's Earth Day Designer Auction, which gave Criddle the opportunity to use some of the lessons of the wristband dresses while moving on beyond that material.
"I started by sewing strips of fabric together -- I was going for a spectrum from head to toe," she said. "I just went through all my bins and I had enough for the full panels for the skirt. There's this little strip of piggies is from some bedsheets that I had when I was about 3 years old and I had just cut into them for the first time for this project. They're pretty thin and ragged at this point. I had to put another piece of fabric in there behind them. That was sentimental."
Criddle's plan is to just keep making dresses and other garments and accessories, and selling what is made each time Wilco hits town -- once this sum mer for the special concert, and then the summer of 2013 for the third Solid Sound Festival -- while pursuing a few non-Wilco concoctions as well.
"In the long run, I really just like making things and selling them," Criddle said. "And wearing them and not selling them. Most the things I make I want to keep and wear."