The Chatham Arts Council is investing in artists through our Meet This Artist series, introducing you to 12 Chatham County artists each year in a big way.
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Take a look. Meet your very inspiring neighbors. Meet This Artist.
To meet fiber artist Sue Szary is to meet someone with as much energy as the wheels that she spins on. Her stories will take you around the world and back, and her passion for building and fostering a sense of community for artists is infectious. Her store on N. Chatham Avenue in Siler City, Twin Birch and Teasel, is not just a place to buy beautiful knitting needles and yarn; it’s a maker space with rooms and rooms filled with looms, fibers, baskets, needles, and wheels. Read on to learn more about this talented fiber artist and recent recipient of an Artist Support Grant!
Tell me about yourself.
I was raised in the suburbs of Chicago, on the south side. My dad worked in the steel mills, and my mom was really creative. She could do just about anything – weave, quilt, you name it. My parents did whatever they could to help us all get through. After they retired and moved to Arkansas, they were both able to truly express their creativity. My dad was always a woodworker, but after he retired he took up fine woodworking and wood carving, and mom had the opportunity to really embrace weaving.
My mom always told me that you were either a spinner or a weaver — you can’t be both. I beg to differ. She was an amazing weaver. I’d go down to visit, and she and her lady friends would go to this hundred-year-old schoolhouse, where they had their quilt frame. They’d drop it down from the ceiling to work on it, and when they were done, they’d put it back up. They would always say, “Since you’re here visiting, you have to stitch with us.” My mom always told me that my stitches were too big. “You’ll get your toenails stuck in it!” she’d say. I’m sure that the minute I left, they probably re-did my work.
How did you and your husband meet?
I’ve known Richard since I was 16. We got married in 1971, while he was in graduate school. His first job was in Washington, DC, at the Smithsonian. We lived in the Baltimore area and raised all of our kids there. Our kids probably still grumble about how many homemade things they had when they were growing up. When you’re in middle school and Halloween comes around, you just wanna have a store-bought costume. One year I made a Bavarian pretzel costume for my youngest, including the little pieces of salt. She looked at it and said, “Mom, I was thinking about going as a cheerleader.”
Richard was at the Smithsonian for 13 years, and then an opportunity came up at Yale to be the university archivist. I got a job managing graduate painters and sculptors at the Yale School of Art. Richard was on one end of campus at the main campus, and I was at the other end, at the art campus. We always said that we had no adult supervision because it was just me and 35 painters. It was so much fun. I liked seeing what they were doing—it kind of worked its way into my brain, just watching them. There were no rules; there were only guidelines, suggestions, and techniques. I’m not a painter, and I can’t draw worth a darn. I’m tactile. During the summers, when most of the graduate students were gone, I had the entire building almost to myself. I’d take over a studio, and I’d spin during my lunchtime.
After we left Yale and the kids were all out of college, Richard was approached by a headhunter about a job at UNC-Chapel Hill. He told me to take a trip down with the kids to see if I liked the area, and if I did, he’d apply for the job. So we took a road trip down, and I fell in love with it. He accepted the job as the director of the Wilson Library and worked there for about ten years before he retired, which was about five years ago. We fell in love with the community here in Chatham County and the fact that I could move our livestock down and have a farm on our own property.
How did you end up in Siler City?
When we moved here about 16 years ago, we met someone at a shop in downtown Pittsboro who told us that we had to go see Siler City. We fell in love with it. This building used to house Walden Sound Systems, owned by Bill Walden. They did a lot of installation work for events. The front section was retail, and in the back was a professional recording studio. The room where we have all of the fiber used to be their vocal studio, with baffles on the walls. The loom room was where their mixing board used to be, and the very back was where the band was. I was talking to Bill for years, trying to convince him to sell me the building. I eventually talked him into it. At the time, we already had the building around the corner, where all of the production of the needles is done.
Where did the name of your store come from?
When we acquired this building, we named the shop Twin Birch and Teasel. Twin Birch is the company name for the birchwood fiber art tools that Richard makes, and teasels are little fierce-looking plants that are used for fulling fabric. When we were working in the south of Spain for a few months, we took a trip to Morocco and went to the textile area. Someone came up to us, pointed to a teasel, and said, “Do you know what these are?” When we said no, they started telling us all about teasels and how historically they’re used for fulling fabric. Later, when we’d gone back across the water, we went to a textile museum, and sure enough, there were teasels set in tracks in the huge drum of a machine. They would turn the whole drum for fulling the fabric. After I saw that, I thought, “You know, that’s what we’re gonna name the store.”
How did you get into fiber art?
Well, our bonding experience with the youngest was through 4H. We started with goats, and then I got into fiber animals. So from the fiber animals, of course, you have the fiber, and what are you gonna do with the fiber? I’m gonna spin it. And what can I do with my spun yarn? I can weave it. It just kind of snowballed.
What types of equipment do you have for fiber artists to come in and use?
We have so many different types of looms and weaving materials. If somebody comes in and says, “This is what I did in college…” or “I’ve always wanted to learn how to do this…” we have most of the equipment they’d be able to use. They can come in for a half a day, a full day, a week, a month, you know, whatever. If they want to bring in their own floor loom, we’ll make space. If I don’t have a studio open, I’ll make a studio — I’ll scoot something to the side and make room for another loom because that’s how we learn from each other. I keep trying to make the space more workable. I’m almost there. I’ve got the ideas, I’ve got the energy, but I can’t quite go far enough. But I will.
Is there a big fiber arts community in the area?
There are seven different yarn stores in the area, from Mebane to Seagrove, to Southern Pines and Greensboro, and we do what they call a “yarn crawl” in July. Each one of us on the tour has a different passion, and every shop has a different specialty. Many of the other stores carry a lot of different commercial yarns with a huge inventory, so we don’t need to duplicate those efforts. They’re knitters there; that’s not where my passion is. My passion is in the creation of materials and playing with fibers.
What kind of art did you do when you were growing up?
When I was a child, we had to take “Home Ec.” We were supposed to make clothing, and I was always dismal at it. My mom would just look at me and say, “Alright, I’ll do this last section for you so you don’t fail this class, but I’m not doing the next one.” It wasn’t like she’d be creating all these lovely things that I was just staring at her thinking, “Someday, I’m gonna do what you do.” I was too busy doing other stuff. But she was so creative, so calm, so patient, and so appreciative of traditional crafts. I think perhaps that’s what introduced me to it. It was this appreciation of handwork. I was not about to sit there and hand quilt—that was way too much work—but I could appreciate it. I asked her to make me a white-on-white quilt, which she never finished, but I draped her coffin with it anyway. And now I have an unfinished white-on-white that’s never gonna be finished because I can just picture her saying that my stitches are too big. I think the gift that was given to me was not technique, but rather an appreciation of the work.
What do you love about fiber arts?
People have been doing this for so long. I think that’s what I like about it — that connection to the past. I think about the hands that created the cloth so long ago and the science of preserving that cloth. It’s about the everyday weaving—someone weaves a garment, then passes it along to a family member who patches it up, and passes it to the next family member. It’s not disposable.
I’m really interested in heritage crafts; how many thousands of years have people been using different types of equipment like this? It’s like when I watch a movie with Vikings and I look at the sails on the boats and I think, “Who do you think made all of those sails? Who did all of that invisible work?” Somebody had to craft those uniforms, too.
When we were at Yale, Genevieve got engaged, but our family members were all spread out so planning a shower was tricky. Richard had all these marvelous manuscripts, including one from Thomas Jefferson, when he was Secretary of State. He had written a letter to Eli Whitney, asking him about his invention of the cotton gin. I was fascinated with that letter, so we took the letter—very, very carefully—and duplicated it onto vellum paper and sent it out as the invitation for the “Cotton Gen,” asking people to send Genevieve something cotton as a shower gift.
There’s so much history to textiles. Every Tuesday at 4pm, the Handweavers Guild of America hosts a Zoom talk called “Textiles and Tea.” They’ve been doing it for almost two years now, interviewing different fiber artists each week. It’s fascinating. Some interviewees are more traditional, but some are pretty wacky, like the guy who wove fabric out of bullet casings.
Have you ever gone to weaving or spinning workshops in other countries?
Cindy Edwards, who was married to the musician Tommy Edwards, is a terrific weaver. I’ve known her since we moved here. We worked at the Incubator together, and she and I also went on an adventure with four other artists to Oaxaca, Mexico to study weaving. While we were there, we toured all different kinds of handcrafted and traditional craft studios and saw inkle loom weaving, wood carving, natural dyes, and indigo baths. It just was fascinating.
I came back passionate about the idea that I can make dye out of just about anything. I connected with a group called the Piedmont Fibershed. The Fibershed movement started in California to educate people about the production of their clothing, from soil to garment. Instead of having a closet full of disposable items, you have five really good cotton t-shirts that you love and that are gonna last 10 years.
Who inspires you?
(“Besides me?” says Richard, from across the room.)
He actually does, because his work ethic is incredible. For me, if I’m gonna devote 10 hours to one project, it better be saleable. But I also like to be able to make mistakes, learn from my mistakes, and give myself permission to make mistakes.
That was basically the premise of my grant application for the Artist Support Grant I received.* Thanks to that grant, I’m going to the Vävstuga school of weaving in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts next month. The arts councils were generous enough to say, “You go for it, girl!”
What do you see as the future of this maker space and shop?
We talk about that all the time, about how we’ve got ideas for how the business is going to evolve. As far as this space goes, we’ve realized that in this day and age, if you want something, you click a button and Amazon gets it to you tomorrow. So there’s that. We do enjoy the interaction we get with the shows. It enables us to meet people who appreciate handcrafted things. It’s good for Richard because when he’s making $10,000 worth of knitting needles for a store in California, he’s down in the shop for months on end, so it’s gratifying when he meets people at the shows who tell him that his products are their favorites.
I’m thinking about opening this space up more to other people. Maybe people who were weavers in college but don’t have room for a loom, or for people who want to learn. We’ve got the resources, the tools, and the knowledge. I can sit and make my own yarn from my own sheep, darn straight. We’ve got people who teach you how to do this and that. This is a space to enable people. That’s what I see.
Each one of us who is here to make it work in Siler City is very generous. We have keys to each other’s stores. We feed off of each other. We have happy hour in the alley. That’s why we’re all here, to support each other in the community.
I mean, who would believe that years ago, when we started this business, that a woman would come through the door, talk with us, go home and tell her daughter about it, and the daughter happens to manage one of the biggest yarn stores in New York City? And it turns out the owner of that big yarn store in New York (and in California) was one of my students at Yale. Such a small world! After that chance meeting, they ordered so many needles from us. Everybody’s got a story, and people like to share their stories, you know? It’s so much fun.
Photos by Andrea Akin
*The Chatham Arts Council is a partner in Artist Support Grants. This project is supported by the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County and the North Carolina Arts Council, a division of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.