In Clothing: Bruce Woods lets the yarn talk | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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In Clothing: Bruce Woods lets the yarn talk

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Bruce Woods is not a household name in the world of fashion and design. But then he doesn't aim to be. Working from his north-side apartment, he designs and crochets one-of-a-kind skirts, tops, dresses, jackets, even coats for individual clients. "Crochet" may suggest a kind of craft or folk art, but that is not what Woods does. His pieces are elegant garments that sell for $200 and up. And though he wishes he had a few more clients, he doesn't want to work any other way.

Back in the early 70s Woods was designing coats and knitwear for big companies, and he might have continued. But he kept quitting these jobs, always seeking more control over his own work--which brought him to crocheting. "I liked the idea of holding the fiber in my hand and working with one instrument and creating something," he says. "I liked the idea of having complete control of the piece."

As might be expected, Woods has very definite notions about what he creates. The pieces--dresses, skirts, and tops make up his spring collection--are quite simple in line and structure, but they shimmer and glow with an often subtle interplay of colors and textures. This is quite deliberate, Woods explains. "When you're designing something, you have to choose something that's simple--either in the structure of the garment or the fabric that you use. Something has to have some simplicity to it, so that you can explore from that point." He even keeps his stitching very simple, using only two basic stitches. He "lets the yarn talk." He chooses yarns carefully, often looking for those imported from Europe, where more types are produced. "Because the yarn--depending on the fibers, and the texture, and the colors involved--can really make a garment sing. And that's enough. So the busyness happens somewhere, but not everywhere. When the yarn is talking and the color is talking and the stitches are talking, you've got something--too complicated to be worn. Or it becomes craft, or it becomes trendy."

Trendiness is Woods's bete noire, as are clothes that incorporate what he sees as gimmicks. "A piece like that can bore you after a while, because there's too much going on in it. And you don't want to wear it after a while, because it doesn't have a function other than to make some very specific statement." He aims for a casual elegance that he sees as not only always stylish but more wearable. "The yarn's going to be what makes it exciting, and the structure is what's going to make it wearable."

For all his firm purposiveness about clothes, Woods's life has often been governed by accident and flukes. He didn't start out to be a designer. Living in Old Town in the late 60s, he acted and danced in some of the experimental multimedia performances of the period before moving to New York to pursue a career in either theater or dance. Once there, he found that his color (he's black) and his height (he's half an inch over six feet four inches) were barriers. Slender and distinctive, he just stood out too much, which doesn't work well onstage unless you're the lead. So he thought about turning his distinctiveness to good use by attempting to become a model--but his look was not what American advertisers usually wanted.

But Woods had heard that in Europe they liked extremes more, and the early 70s found him in Paris, modeling more regularly. It was there that he took up crocheting as a means of passing waiting time on shoots, learning its rudiments from another model. On a visit to Morocco he found men doing crochet work--even while they walked, a feat he hasn't been able to equal yet.

More accidental circumstances led him to work as a designer for large companies. He had returned to New York and was showing his crocheted wares in a small store he shared with two other designers, when he got a message that Revillon, the furrier, was interested in having him design coats. Actually the company called to see if he would make cuffs for their coats--custom piecework--and a shopmate garbled the message. But when Woods showed up with sketches of coat designs, Revillon decided to hire him.

Later he was hired by a knitwear company to design sweaters for its handmade section and worked with families who made the goods at their homes in Hong Kong and Taipei. He wanted to get to know them, and did. But he says he felt "overwhelmed by the fact that here I am in a country where the controlling company is American, and the people that are working for that company are another nationality. And they work incredibly long hours, and still none of this was really their own." Made more and more uncomfortable by these facts as well as by what he was paid in comparison with the workers, he quit.

In the early 80s, tiring of New York and seeking a slower, more comfortable place to work, Woods returned to Chicago--a town he thought "needed a little fashion." It hasn't totally worked out that way. The 80s, he says, "put everyone in such a cattle mentality." Chicago turned out to be more conservative than he'd thought it would be. Woods hasn't always had an easy time making a living from his work here. But he's persevered, making clothes that are "not for a moment," pieces that "should be able to last until you are tired of them, not because the style is obsolete."

Bruce Woods will show his spring collection this weekend, April 20, 21, and 22, from 1:00 to 6:00, at his apartment, 3740 N. Pine Grove. For more information call 281-6805.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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