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Frau Fiber’s Subversive Stitch: Sewing As An Act of Rebellion

Frau Fiber and the global wage awards | John Michael Kohler Arts and Industry Residency
Frau Fiber and the global wage awards | John Michael Kohler Arts and Industry Residency

She doesn’t have a closet and the last time she purchased an article of clothing was two years ago – and that was underwear. She is Carole Frances Lung, a self-proclaimed artist/academic/textile superhero whose alter ego is Frau Fiber. Lung, a tenured associate professor at Cal State Los Angeles who has been teaching fashion and textiles to both undergraduates and graduate students since 2008, was recently named a Fellow for the Public Good by the college.

Born in 1966, Lung is also Frau Fiber’s biographer and archivist, having created the persona in 2006 after spending a semester working in Weimar, Germany, as part of an MFA program from the Art Institute of Chicago. She said that she decided to assume an alter ego after participating in Burning Man, reading about Andy Warhol while living in New York City, and from growing up in San Francisco watching Clark Kent turn into Superman.

Frau’s biography, Lung pointed out, is also ever-evolving: “As I continue to research the history of socialism and the women who were activists related to social justice, she is kind of following in the footsteps of women like [activist] Mother Jones, [philosopher/revolutionary] Rosa Luxemberg and Jane Addams from Hull House [the "mother" of Social Work who founded the first settlement house in the United States].

Frau Fiber’s lookbook table. Social Fabric exhibition | Craft and Folk Art Museum, 2013
Frau Fiber’s lookbook table. Social Fabric exhibition | Craft and Folk Art Museum, 2013

“Frau is performative to me, but she is performing as these agents for change, by organizing spaces and in the context of her public and participatory sewing performances, the Sewing Rebellion," says Lung.

Her home is also her studio, what she refers to as Frau Fiber’s headquarters. It is an experimental factory in downtown Long Beach called the Institute for Labor Generosity Workers and Uniforms (ILGWU), a riff off of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, whose acronym is also ILGWU.

And while the Frau also gives performances – including sitting in the window of ILGWU, sewing blouses to commemorate lost garment workers – as well as hosting a monthly radio show on KCHUNG, the Frau, curiously, does not have a German accent.

Frau Fiber’s Uniforms. Social Fabric exhibition | Craft and Folk Art Museum, 2013
Frau Fiber’s Uniforms. Social Fabric exhibition | Craft and Folk Art Museum, 2013

“Frau is performed through the uniforms she wears – basically she creates a different uniform for each project - and the contexts in which she is engaging. It doesn’t seem like the accent is important, but it’s more about context and action and clothing and creating identity through those elements. I’m not interested in acting, so having a fake voice is more about acting than context and action.” 

For the Frau’s first KCHUNG program, which aired November 9, 2016, the day after Trump won the election, a uniform-clad Lung brought her Bernina Sport 802 sewing machine and actually sewed on the air, giving instructions on how to make a casserole cover from an old T-shirt. This segment, with the machine’s whirrings and the Frau’s soft voice, proved a surreal, if informative listening experience.

The program also featured Frau speaking of her - no pun intended – fabricated history: Born in Apoloda, Germany in 1966, she told of working in local garment and knitting factories until the wall came down in 1989, when she and many of her comrades lost their jobs to China. The Frau also spun tunes, most of which were labor-related, including John Lennon’s “Working Man’s Hero” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory,” before ending the hour with a pledge: to continue her efforts to be “an informational resource on the progress or lack thereof of the local and global garment and textile industry.”

To say that Lung is on a mission would be an understatement. According to her blog, she is someone who “utilizes a hybrid of playful activism, cultural criticism, research and spirited crafting of one of a kind garment production performances investigating the human cost of mass production and consumption, addressing issues of value and time, through the thoroughly hand-made construction and salvaging of garments.”

If that sounds a bit heady, Lung is nevertheless as personable as she is forthright, her lifestyle an extension of her activism. In other words, she knows from whence she speaks, having worked in the fashion trenches for a number of years, out of which grew one of her many ongoing projects, the Sewing Rebellion workshops, which began in Chicago in the fall of 2006.

“The original concept was acknowledging the lost art of sewing, and that fewer and fewer people have that skill. For myself, that was one way I wanted to express my creative practice through these skills I had as a seamstress,” said Lung, who moved to Southern California from Chicago in 2008. “I sat behind a sewing machine in a factory for 14 years in a company that manufactured bridal gowns.

“Bridal is not quite as hard as T-shirt labor,” she continued, “and I also did other things. I was a production manager, I worked to design the gowns, I designed embroideries, I traveled to China to assist with manufacturing, and then, ultimately, my job was outsourced completely to China.”

 Lung said that she lost her job after September 11, and subsequently moved to New Orleans, where she spent carnival season making costumes. “This was another element of inspiration in the creation of Frau – that I wore costumes, which is really using the social aspects of dress and creating identities through what you wear.”

Preferring activist work to having her own fashion line, Lung noted, “I design through the projects that are created for the Sewing Rebellions and through the performances that Frau does.”

 Frau Fiber’s activity archive. Craft and Folk Art Museum 2013 | Carole Frances Lung
Frau Fiber’s activity archive. Craft and Folk Art Museum 2013 | Carole Frances Lung

To that end, Lung owns 12 sewing machines, including electric and hand-cranked, and by having the Sewing Rebellions and instructional workshops, she has been raising consciousness about the abuses of global garment manufacturing.

Her crusade is made even more poignant given her chosen home base of Los Angeles, in many ways still an epicenter of apparel manufacturing. The Los Angeles fashion industry accounts for $6.4 billion dollars in worker incomes according to the California Fashion Association’s 2014 report. “Living in L.A. has influenced my work, because things are happening here - the minimum wage, the immigration policy at the moment, and the industry is also shifting, changing and moving. Because of the increase in minimum wage, garment companies are moving out of L.A., and it affects the work in that I’m allowed to see it first hand. It also affects the research, which is what feeds the performances, the language and the objects.

“Frau did a performance at L.A. Municipal Gallery in 2015 where she knocked off an American Apparel T-shirt, when that company was filing for bankruptcy,” Lung added. “She took the T-shirt, made a pattern, and taught people how to make one. This opened up a discussion about how much machine operators are getting paid in L.A., where a lot of workers get paid piecework, four cents, and a lot of garment workers here don’t even make $5./hour because they’re paid a piece rate.”

The Sewing Rebellion, which is free and open to anyone, is hosted by Frau Fiber and what she calls her army of “Faux Fraus.” At these “sew-ins,” the Fraus dispense knowledge of the garment industry, pattern making and sewing, and encourage the reuse, renovation and recycling of existing garments and textiles in order to create unique items tailored to individual tastes and body shapes.

The Rebellions are offered monthly on the second and third Saturdays and Sundays, and are dark in August and December. But on August 6, Frau Fiber is participating in the Long Beach Zine Fest at the Museum of Latin American Art, and on August 9, she’ll be hosting another hour on KCHUNG radio.

As for Lung’s in-studio Rebellions, they accommodate only six people, all seated around a single 4 x 8-foot table. “That’s intentional,” she said, “because we like to think it’s about small training squadrons. It’s intimate and people get more out of it. We’ve done Sewing Rebellions with 30 people at other locations, but it’s chaotic and people don’t really learn.”

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Lung added that there are regular attendees who come to multiple locations and that she and her Faux Fraus provide everything. “There’s a mobile Sewing Rebellion cart and everything gets loaded into it and goes wherever it needs to go.”

Although the gatherings sound a bit like quilting bees, the Frau is adamant that they are not. “Contemporary quilting bees have a lot to do with privilege – people that have the time and the resources to go to fabric stores and buy materials. Most of the people who come to the Sewing Rebellions are doing it out of economic necessity. They need to fix their own things or their kids’ things, because they don’t have money for anything new.”

Lung does agree, however, that there is a social aspect to the Rebellion, “a sense of building a community and getting to know people. The Rebellion attracts a diverse crowd of people [with regards to] age, religion and background,” she acknowledged. “Everybody is tolerant and all are welcome.”

Lung/Frau, whose residencies have included a three-month stint working in a Wisconsin iron foundry, where she labored alongside the company's technicians and explored new ways of thinking about her practice, has also presented academic papers at conferences such as “The Subversive Stitch Revisited: The Politics of Cloth,” at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013.

 “If you think about the way that clothing is currently consumed and the amount of labor and resources it takes to make clothing in the supply chain and the disposability of it all, it’s the fast fashion system,” Lung said. “It turns over new things every two weeks and wants you to keep buying things.

“To stop buying things and take those articles of clothing and refashion them or mend them – sew a button on a garment, hem them, make them last a bit longer - in my opinion, it honors the labor behind the label. Also,” Lung added, “I’m not going to consume as much, and then I push back against the system.

“When I lecture about Frau’s work, there’s a question that comes up often: ‘What about the people making the clothing? ‘We should really be paying more for the clothing that we’re wearing. That’s who’s getting left out of the supply chain.”

Institute 4 Labor Generosity Workers & Uniforms. Store front view. 2015 | Carole Frances Lung
Institute 4 Labor Generosity Workers & Uniforms. Store front view. 2015 | Carole Frances Lung

Lung went on to say that the cutting and sewing aspect of garment production is extremely labor intensive. “The public knows more about T-shirt production – that the agriculture in growing cotton is automated, the spinning and the production of textile is automated, but the cutting and sewing is not so automated. If people were willing to pay a bit more – in my utopian, idyllic mind - it would trickle down at some point to the workers.”

Lung said she’s been thinking more about cooperatives and the coop system of business ownership, and wonders if it would be possible to have a cooperatively-owned fashion system.

“That’s when workers would benefit,” she exclaimed. “They would become part of the decision-making process. Most fashion is top down. It’s linear, and people at the top are making the most profits and people doing the labor are being abused. It’s been happening ever since the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.” [New York’s deadliest industrial disaster that caused the death of 146 garment workers -123 women and 23 men – in 1911.]

Indeed, one of the uniforms Frau wears is what she calls her “Triangle Shirtwaist” uniform. Made from men’s shirts and suit trousers, with the pants fashioned into a high-waisted skirt, the silhouette reflects what was worn in 1911. All of her uniforms, including her teaching and Sewing Rebellion ensemble, the latter made from old 501 Levis, were exhibited at the Craft & Folk Art Museum in 2013.

Having worked in the States, Haiti, Ghana and Germany, Lung continues to foster grassroots production, simultaneously raising awareness about abusive working conditions and providing alternatives to consuming mass-produced clothing. If one were to pay a visit to her studio, the evidence of her life/work/art ethic is on full display.

“You would find Frau working on a project,” said Lung, “maybe doing some research about organizing. There are also portraits of the Faux Fraus, and you would basically find a functioning sewing studio. There’s also a lending library where people can come in and borrow books - about sewing, mending, sweatshop labor, how to weave, and textile and laborer books. You would also see patterns and sewing machines – not treadles, though,” she laughed, “because they take up too much space.”

 Frau Fiber and Faux Frau’s after 12 hours of triangle shirt waist production. Thank You For coming, 2016 | Carole Frances Lung
Frau Fiber and Faux Frau’s after 12 hours of triangle shirt waist production. Thank You For coming, 2016 | Carole Frances Lung

From working with L.A. garment workers and trying to provide them with a platform, to creating installations, videos and performances that also address these issues, Lung is a force in the fiber field. Never idle, she is also an accomplished writer, having contributed a chapter, “Frau Fiber’s Action Encyclopedia,” to an upcoming book by Lisa Vinebaum.

In November of this year, the Frau will be in residence for a week in Santa Monica. Beginning on Black Friday (the biggest shopping day of the year), the performance will be part of an installation for Camera Obscura.

“I believe Frau is going to open a tailoring shop, where people can come in and have things altered and tailored. I won’t be doing things from scratch, and it’s definitely not Saville Row,” Lung quipped, “although Frau has done that type of garment before.”

With Lung/Frau’s ongoing commitment to the cause, she said she’s always on the prowl for discarded textiles. “I’ll find fabric at a yard sale or an old tablecloth, and make it into a dress,” she explained.

“At home I have a garment rack and one shelf that has T-shirts, socks and underwear, which I usually buy online, organic cotton, naturally dyed. I don’t buy it very often,” she added, “because it’s expensive, and though I’d like to go back to making my own underwear, time is an issue now.”

For more information on the Sewing Rebellion visit the site.

Top Image: Frau Fiber preparing for production at "Factory to Factory: Cut, Sew, Dye" | John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan WI 2015

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