Ann Hamilton learned the crafts of sewing and knitting as a girl growing up around the West Coast of Ireland. After coming to New York City in her 20s, she worked in a variety of clothing-related jobs and honed her considerable skills. In the 1990s, Hamilton set up her own business in bridal gowns. Her dressmaking talents extend to her textile art, in which she is able to incorporate objects from nature and also pursue her interest in fashioning garments from discarded items. Hamilton has exhibited her textile art in Ireland, England, and New York City.
Terry Stoller spoke with Ann Hamilton in June 2019 about her early lessons in handiwork, her freelance jobs in the clothing industry, her bridal gown business, her forays into textile art, her love of old things, her interest in using recycled materials in her artwork, and her appreciation of having learned how to make things on her own.
Terry Stoller: You wrote me that you’re from Ireland, and you started out working in a theatre.
Ann Hamilton: When I was in Ireland, in Sligo, before I came here I worked at the Hawk’s Well, the first real theatre in Sligo with a home. We did everything at the Hawk’s Well. I didn’t work backstage that much, but I worked in the box office, served wine, and occasionally was an usher. It was great. I worked there for a year or two, and I was in two plays, Charley’s Aunt and The Collector. Then I came to New York because the woman who did the costumes for Charley’s Aunt lived here. I came to visit her, and I was in my 20s. Long story short, I ended up staying.
Were you working on costumes at all in the theatre group?
No, but I have been sewing since I was 5, ’cause that’s what we learned at school. That was our art. We didn’t have art classes. When I came here, people were saying, Are you an actress? I did sign up for acting classes, but I didn’t pursue it because it was too difficult. I supposed it just wasn’t my calling.
It’s interesting that you came to visit the costume designer. Was she the one who got you thinking about making costumes and garments as a profession?
Yes, she was, and I did work with her part time on many plays, but I also did a lot of babysitting to support myself because I wanted to stay in New York. And I went to Parsons at night for a couple of years. I got my diploma there.
You went there to study fashion?
It was the easiest thing for me to pursue. I’d been sewing. I’d been making my own clothes since I was 12. It was the most practical route for me to take.
Were you expected at home to make your own clothing?
I’m one of six kids. The great thing about growing up in Ireland at that time was everyone was more or less of the same income bracket, unless you were a doctor’s daughter, which I really appreciate now. So when I was a girl, I thought, I don’t want to wear the regular skirt and jumper (a jumper is a sweater). I’m going to make my own clothes. I started making these slightly hippie-type things. My mother let me use our sewing machine. I took it out when I was 8, and I taught myself how to make dolls’ clothes. That’s how I started, and I’ve been making my own clothes ever since.
My father was an artisan; he was also a lighthouse keeper, so I grew up around the coast. We moved every four years. He always made things like shell lamps and crafts, and he sewed leather. He always had a workshop. I think I was influenced by, yes, you can make things. I came from that kind of background—just make it yourself.
Did you have a goal in mind when you went to Parsons?
I thought I wanted to work in fashion. I got my first job in knitwear. I had been knitting also since I was a girl. I bought a knitting machine here to do my own knitting. Not many people were doing knitwear, so I got the job straightaway. But it was very corporate, and it wasn’t very creative. I found it a difficult environment to be in. I was the assistant to the designer. I would make the swatches, and we’d send them down to Mississippi, where the mill was. And I would do the spec sheets, the sweater sketch and the style and the size and the colors. And then there would be meetings. I don’t mind working, doing, but I find the other end of it, the office environment, very hard.
After that, I went into freelance knitwear. I did freelance work for a long time. I worked with a bridal designer in SoHo for two years. I worked on costumes with a designer called Helen Rodgers. She did opera. I worked for her on and off for a long time. I worked in millinery. There’s hardly anything I didn’t do.
When did you begin your own business?
In the ’90s.
Why did you choose bridal gowns?
Because somebody asked me to. It came so easy and so natural, and it was a way of making a living. At the time the theatre was going into a bit of a dip in funding, and there was less work available, and I never wanted to work in movies. I had a friend who did, working at least 16 hours a day, and if you’re stuck with tough actors—. Movies pay very well, but I saw her suffer quite a bit.
When did you get into textile art?
I was always doing it. I did have a show over twenty years ago in New York. That was vintage clothes, and then I didn’t do anything until last year, when I had two exhibitions in Sligo.
You’re very interested in vintage material.
I’m naturally drawn to old things. I almost don’t want anything new. I don’t know where that came from. I will always try and find something old and used instead of new, whether it’s a machine or a table or a chair or vintage fabric. I admire the beauty and the workmanship.
Did you learn historical styles of stitching or knitting when you were at Parsons?
We did fashion history, but I knew all the stitches because we learned various hand stitching at school. We kept our sewing swatches in copy books with the name of each stitch beside each swatch. I wish I had those books now. Ireland is known for its Irish lace, Aran sweaters, and tweeds. My grandmother would knit and sew. When she came to visit once, she taught us how to crochet. She used to knit the Aran sweaters. I can do those, if I can remember. The Irish lace, I don’t do. It’s very intricate.
You’ve said that you have a fascination with 19th century embroidery and needlework. One thing that was popular in the 19th century was samplers. You made a dress that appears to have a sampler on it with a poem about mother.
I think my mother embroidered that piece. I had bags of lace and embroidered pieces and embroidered tablecloths that I brought back here when my mother passed. I was thinking, Are they going to sit in a box for another fifty years? I have people who bring dresses that have been in a box for fifty years, and they say, It’s going to just sit there. Let’s do something. I thought, I’m going to get those pieces out there and do something with them. I’ve got my mother’s runners and antimacassars, and I put them on the dress, and I went along with, let’s just do it. And some I had to cut into, and that was sort of scary ’cause you’re raised with things like, don’t cut them. I felt in a way, I was stealing the fabric or the tradition, but in another way, getting them out there. People are afraid to touch them. They don’t know what to do with them.
One particular dress, I cut around the embroidery, and I put it at the bottom of the dress. For some reason, it just struck a chord with so many women. I had the dress in the exhibitions in Ireland last year. I didn’t realize it would strike such a chord. People were fascinated with taking your heirloom pieces and cutting them up.
Can you describe more about how you made the Wild Swan dress with embroidered cloths?
It was the shell of an old dress that I’d taken all the lace off of. It was literally lining that also had tulle, and it was ready to be discarded. I put it on the mannequin, and I cut up the embroidered runners—there are probably four runners—and I placed them, with a different runner for the bodice. The placement took quite a while. I must have wanted to do this for years. And I put feathers on it. I got all these feathers, and every day I’d do an hour of attaching, glueing them onto the tulle.
You point out on your website that you use recycled cotton in your wall hangings. And there’s your dress made from umbrellas. Have you always been interested in recycling?
I think I grew up with it. I get a lot of inspiration from stuff that already exists: I could turn that into something, or I could make something with that. And there’s the environment, of course, and the fact that there’s so much fast fashion and new things being made every day.
You’ve written that you come across discarded objects daily. You’re not worried about bringing home bugs?
I don’t worry. I’m careful. I’m working on a project at the moment, maybe ten dresses, with discarded objects—umbrellas, newspapers, shopping bags, shells.
How did you make your umbrella dress? Is there an actual dress underneath it?
No. It’s just a base I made from an old shirt. There are about six umbrellas there. I found them in the street. Then I made a necklace out of the wire. I entered a competition this year in London, and I won in the GoGreen category. I went there with my daughter. It was the knitting and stitching show in Olympia London exhibition center. My sister-in-law had given me the information. I thought, I’ll try this. I just wanted to get my work out there. It wasn’t about winning.
That dress is wonderfully original. I like that you left the umbrella strap dangling from the bottom.
Have you noticed on the street every time there’s a rainstorm, there are umbrellas all over the place? For some reason, that fascinated me. And the things you do see on the streets in New York, it’s amazing. I don’t think any other city is like that. I’m not a huge traveler of the cities of the world, but I think New York is fairly unique in that way.
Would you talk about your shell dress? It’s very beautiful.
That was exhibited in Ireland. This is a dress I made over twenty years ago. Then I wanted to work with shells. I think I brought the shells back from Ireland. I dyed them to tone down the color. I worked on this on the mannequin. I glued the shells on and I drilled holes in them and I sewed them on. And I put on the feathers. I love seabirds, the way they fly around the sea and the sounds they make. They’re really part of the beauty.
What was the dress made for originally?
I remember it was a black wedding dress. I thought, Let’s try black instead. It was something for my portfolio. The shawl at the top is knitted. I was going to make it out of fishermen’s nets, but I couldn’t find the right ones. That’s my favorite dress. I don’t know why. I think it’s the shells.
You made your way to Westbeth’s flea market.
Bayan in Security introduced me to Christina Maile, completely randomly. I got a correspondence going with Christina, and she asked would I help. I’ve been going there for years. I had always felt guilty about not contributing, and I ended up enjoying it.
You’re currently working on a lighthouse project.
Yes, I’m doing small wall hangings with a lighthouse theme. I’m making them with watercolor, yarn, and appliqué on fabric. As I said, I grew up around lighthouses off the coast of Ireland. In many towns, we’d live beside them. Sometimes we’d live in a village where my father then would be stationed out on an island. I sometimes would run up in the lighthouse and turn on the light for my father. The surrounding area was quite scary in the sense of cliffs and gale force winds. We’d climb high up the walls for shortcuts. I recently went back to one of the places with my brother. I hadn’t been there in thirty years, and it hadn’t changed.
Do you miss being out in nature?
Yes, terribly. It’s really a struggle.
Your work has been exhibited at the Yeats Society in Sligo, and you’ve made a garment with Yeats’s image.
That dress was also in one of the exhibitions in Ireland. Sligo is known as Yeats country. I thought it would be funny to put his image on a dress. This is how I did it. I started with a drawing. I printed out copies at the photocopy place on Hudson Street. Then I put glue onto the fabric and turned the images onto it. I ironed them, and the black ink stuck to the fabric. It worked. His image is all over the dress. People liked it, but not the way I thought they would. They thought it was more like Pop Art.
On your textile art website, you have dresses that resemble bridal dresses. Do you see a crossover from the bridal work to your textile art?
Oh, yes. Delving into textile art or doing something different with dress art is something I want to do more of. I’ve been researching and studying it. The real difference in my textile art is that I can do shells or I can add old tablecloths or Yeats’s face or the lace pieces my mother had that somebody gave her.
One has to be quite slim to fit into your dresses.
I know. That’s a lot to do with the mannequins I work with. And it’s a bridal thing. They lose weight like crazy.
With your bridal work, you specialize in vintage gowns, but you transform them to a contemporary look.
A lot of the time I do, but sometimes I just restore them. It’s whatever the brides want because they often want to wear their grandmother’s dress or their mother’s dress.
I can see that you bring your artistry to your bridal gowns.
There’s a lot of artistry in the sense of where to place something, what you take off, what you add.
Do you give the client a sketch first?
I can, if they ask, but I like to just work on the person. I won’t take a sleeve off there and then, but they’ll know the steps. It’s hems that are the real problem. Once you cut a hem, it’s very hard to make it longer. You can’t unless you attach something. That’s where I have to be really careful.
Do you make any of the gowns from scratch?
Yes, if it’s a design or an idea that I’m interested in or if it’s to be made with old fabrics. I don’t like to do copies of other people’s designs.
You seem to have a style of fitted dress that you adhere to.
That’s the bridal influence. It’s almost like a rule in my head. I’m thinking of exploring other possibilities.
You’re about to go to Ireland.
I’m giving a workshop at St. Angela’s College in Sligo. I’ll show them how to do the shells. I’ll do another demonstration on an old dress and bring old pieces and show them how to attach that, just for inspiration. And they’re bringing in garments. It’s called upcycling there. The school wants to start giving an upcycling course in their program.
The workshop I’m giving is part of the Lily Lolly Yeats Festival. Yeats had two sisters, Lily and Lolly. They had a tough life. Their father was a gifted artist who struggled often unsuccessfully to support the family. They had to move homes a lot. The two sisters ended up helping to support the family by handwork, embroidery. One set up a printing press in Dublin, the Cuala Press. And they also had an industry with women doing embroidery.
You’ve been in Westbeth about 14 years. Does living here help with your work?
It’s amazing to have the space. I was in two winter shows here. I’m having a hallway exhibition downstairs at Westbeth in the autumn. I do feel part of the community now. It’s great to be in such a creative environment.
What are your plans going forward?
I want to keep doing more textile art. I would like to give more workshops. And I’m going to continue doing watercolors. I have been doing watercolors for the past ten years and not only do I love the medium, but I also find it frees me up with my other work.
Any final words?
Sewing, making things, is not a lost art, but I’m really glad I grew up with that. I’m somebody who needs to be working with my hands, making things. I sometimes feel that people would love to be doing this, but there’s almost no need to make things anymore. For me it was an outlet and a need, a skill that I knew how to do. I found school to be very difficult—I went to so many because we moved around. I think absorbing information was hard for me. It was almost a relief to just be doing. I didn’t have any struggles with working with my hands or sewing. And there’s also the freedom of, Oh, I can make that.
Photo credits: Headshot: Bridget Carey; Yeats dress: Justine Sweetman; 2019 bridal gown: Austin Trenholm; all other photos: Ann Hamilton or Bridget Carey. All images courtesy of Ann Hamilton.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2019 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council