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November 15, 2018

Because Earth is the Only Place Where All of Us Can Live: The Textile Art of Claudy Jongstra

Claudia Newell

Choosing healthier materials requires an inquiry into material origins and processes throughout the product life cycle; sustainability-minded designers investigate material ingredients and product impacts to humans and the environment while maintaining an innovative process. In this spirit, Parsons Healthy Materials Lab was delighted to recently host Dutch Textile artist Claudy Jongstra, whose work has a radical transparency of source and process.

Ms. Jongstra’s commissions include clients in the educational, corporate, governmental and private spheres. Her handmade fiber works intersect with the worlds of art, architecture, and fashion and include collaborations with Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, Hella Jongerius, Maharam and Maison Margiela with John Galliano. Across these diverse disciplines, her creative practice is integrated with environmental sustainability, cultural heritage, and the education of future artists and designers.

Ms. Jongstra’s farmstead atelier is located in Friesland, a province in the northern Netherlands roughly 100 km from Amsterdam. The most sparsely populated province in the Netherlands, Friesland has its own culture and language (Fries) and borders the UNESCO Wadden Sea world heritage site. The singular area fuels the deep locality of Jongstra’s craft; in her own words, “working in it and harvesting makes it so you’re really connected to the material.” A living example of this ethos is the herd of 250 Drenthe sheep that provide wool at her farm. This endangered heritage breed requires the natural heathlands of Northern Europe to thrive. She elaborated on the practices of the shepherds who tend them as a form of traditional land management and cultural knowledge transmission: “in fact what he does is knowledge in him, coming from his father and grandfather, passing by and working with these sheep on that land makes that the land has an incredible quality and balance of biotope that immediately reflects to the quality of the wool.”

The flora of The Netherlands also play an important role in Ms. Jongstra’s practice. After working for a decade in the wool’s natural colors, she began to experiment with natural pigments like weld, madder and indigo, connecting again both to the local biosphere and to cultural heritage: they were used by the Dutch Master painters. In Jongstra’s bold designs, the vivid hues take on a contemporary environmental urgency: “(v)ery often we will hear that people never saw these colors because they’re not in our environment any more”, she explained.

Ms. Jongstra also likened her work with natural dyes to a “bridge between legacy and future generations.” Collaborating with universities has allowed her atelier access to historical dye recipes and allowed her to create new, healthier alternatives. For example, working with the University of Utrecht has given Jongstra access to 15th century dye recipes - she was able to replace the toxic iron used for black for walnuts, innovating an intense new warm black.

Ms. Jongstra’s interest in growing her own dye crops also extends to an environmentally-minded social enterprise within her own rural region. “We harvest, we grow, and then we work together with …a corporation of 8 to 10 farmers in the north. And we do that because first it’s very important to not only to connect directly to the material, to the sources, but also, where we live and work, there is a lot of monoculture, and by working together with these farmers and to motivate them to grow different crops with not only dye qualities or medicinal qualities but also how can you stimulate biodiversity in that land we live in is just making it really visible for the farmers to have an interest in maybe alternative crops.“

One of the most radical aspects of Ms. Jongstra’s practice is its relationship to time. Jongtra’s works both reveal the variations of natural cycles and embrace time-intensive practices of growing and making. She estimated that her pieces are 90% handmade with 10% created through a mechanical felting process. Describing the wool she sources for large commissions, “you can see in the quality how they have lived that year, was there stress, or have there been many transports …you see it immediately it reflects back on the quality of the wool …The shearing is the most stressful moment in the year because I think you can imagine if you have this protector with you all year and it’s taken off all of a sudden you are in a completely different constellation. And our shepherds they keep the sheep then in quarantine…(b)ecause they need to have the time to adjust to this new you know, circumstance and atmosphere. So taking care of that process of shearing… not feeling stressed by time, and time-consuming processes, that’s something which is really important in what we do. An audience member wondered about the effect of climate change on the dye plants; Ms. Jongstra compared the seasonal variation in dye colors to wines of varying vintages.”When we have a wine from a certain year, people accept that it has a certain quality…some flowers that are very sensitive to light….So I think it’s all about …giving an insight into these processes that we cannot control everything. And I think if you accept that it’s also beautiful additional value to the product I would say.”

Ms. Jongstra first visited Parsons at the Aftertaste symposium on Interior Design in 2010. The symposium was a series of lectures and roundtable conversations dedicated to the critical review of interior design and was intended as an expansive meditation on the concept of the interior environment and its constituent elements. Ms Jongstra continues to connect her practice to the education of young designers. Claudy Jongstra Studio welcomes international students to work with her who very often return to their own country and start small ateliers. Queried by the audience about the scalability and wider impact of her practice, she stressed the importance of developing an awareness of ethically sourced natural materials within educational settings. “By using the materials you can have a big influence.” Ms. Jongstra’s sensibility deeply resonates with the work of the Healthy Materials Lab, where the selection of healthier materials is central to our mission, supporting human health, environmental health, and transforming ideas of what is possible.

Watch Claudy’s presentation here:

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