Solid Sound Festival memorabilia and other items made into unique clothing.
Photo by Jake Borden
A cursory glance inside Phyllis Criddle’s home studio in North Adams reveals her passion for using recycled material in her work. Every corner is filled with stuff she has found, whether it’s a collection of buttons or old velvet curtains or piles of T-shirts that she can transform into one of her sewn creations. There are some strange items as well that have yet to reveal their usefulness.
“This is full of acrylic doweling,” she says, pointing to a long box on the floor. “I don’t know what I’m doing with that.” In the far corner is a blue plastic box, holding something unidentifiable. “That is full of fishing line and rolls of clear plastic,” she explains. “Down in the basement I have a massive contractor’s bag full of maroon shoulder pads. I feel like they’re begging to be made into scales on a crazy big dress that I don’t know what you would wear it to.”
Criddle’s biggest score has been the detritus from the Solid Sound Festival at MASS MoCA—specifically the little wristbands that attendees wear, as well as T-shirts worn by the volunteer staff. She has taken these materials that have no further use for the museum and transformed them into dresses, bracelets, bags, and even a formal gown that echoes the Victorian era. To give the dress more poof, she’s working on an underskirt made from thrift-store bed sheets. Though she usually strives for functionality, lately Criddle has found herself adding more aesthetic value, regardless of its practicality.
“I just wanted to make the gown for fun,” she explains. “I don’t expect it to sell, just because it’s an obscure thing. I mean, what would you wear that to? I don’t know, I have no idea. It doesn’t fit me, it’s a couple sizes too big. Even a Halloween party, it’s a little over the top. It was more something that popped into my head that, even though I knew it was going to be a lot of work, I just wanted to make it for sheer enjoyment.”
As the daughter of stained-glass artist Deborah Coombs and metal sculptor Richard Criddle, art-making has always been a part of Criddle’s everyday life, and the materials to do so were always sitting around, waiting to be used. Her mother taught her how to use a sewing machine when she was eight—and she’s been sewing ever since.
“I remember the first dress I made when I was nine, I physically couldn’t get it on,” Criddle says with a laugh. “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 nightdress. I actually took the time to sew all these little Zs along the front, so I was incredibly frustrated when I couldn’t get into it.”
As Criddle got older, her fashion creations got bolder, including a dress made of hanging metal and brass hardware held together with zip ties and featuring bolts coming out of the shoulders. A brief foray into art school proved to her that clothes-making was her true artistic purpose in life. For a paper-cutout and popup class, she made a dress out of paper and wore it there. For painting class, she made a dress out of canvas and painted it. “I kept tailoring the classes to the fashion that I wanted to make.”
Criddle returned home to work at MASS MoCA—first with her dad, the museum’s chief fabricator, and then in the museum’s Hardware store, where she’s now manager. Her position at MASS MoCA and her family ties—she practically grew up inside the place—have given her access to interesting materials. Eventually, Criddle was given permission to make and sell her creations through the museum store. As a way of paying back MASS MoCA for the materials, Criddle gives the museum a cut of her sales.
Her work was also noticed by Wilco, the alternative rock band that sponsors Solid Sound. Wilco’s merchandising wing sent Criddle a pile of Wilco/Xu Bing T-shirts from the last Solid Sound two years ago, and she is planning to use them for a dress in time for this year’s festival, which runs from June 26 to 28.
Although the wristbands continue to be plentiful, there are still all those other materials crammed into Criddle’s studio that are calling to her. She’d like to do a gallery show of some offbeat creations—ones that aren’t hindered by any kind of practicality. And she has more sewing plans, too. “I want to make things for my own wardrobe,” she says, “but that’s at the bottom of my priority list.”