As a 21st-century alchemist, Crispina ffrench gives discarded textiles a bold new purpose.
By Annie Graves
Dec 27 2019
Crispina ffrench in her Becket, Massachusetts, studio. Her unusual surname is thought to be an artifact of medieval calligraphy, in which a capital F was often written as ff.Photo Credit : Pat Piasecki
Crispina ffrench had me at “alchemy.”
We are standing in a cozy, low-beamed room that evokes the Middle Ages, with its well-worn wooden floors and stone fireplace. The small space holds a jumble of creativity—some of it dangling from hangers, some draped over a tabletop, some of it barely contained on shelves. With her close-cropped hair and sparkling energy, the woman in front of me seems capable of imagining almost anything, as we cross the threshold into her newly completed workshop in Becket, Massachusetts. It is a building Crispina knows well: Her husband grew up here, and it was their home until just a few weeks ago, when they moved their family down the street. The chaos is semi-over. The alchemy is about to begin. Yet again.
The notion of transforming the commonplace into something rare is irresistible, whether you’re talking medieval magic or its modern-day equivalent. In the case of Crispina’s “upcycled textile alchemy,” it can take the form of old sweaters, washed and felted, morphing into colorful quilts that glow against the stark winter landscape. Or thick, lumpy potholder rugs made from scraps and begging to be walked on. Clothing crafted from other clothing. And Ragamuffins—eccentric little pieced-together creatures made of recycled wool sweaters that started it all, in 1987, when she was an art student in Boston.
It helps to have creative parents, Crispina says. Born in Ireland to a father who was a renowned ceramicist and a mother who was a painter, she admits, “I got super lucky in the family department.” Raised without TV, she and her sisters “would sit around and make stuff.”
That foundation, plus art school, stoked a third crucial element: The creator of this recycling experiment also happens to be an avid environmentalist, one with some startling numbers to share. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the U.S. generates about 25 billionpounds of textiles a year, or roughly 82 pounds per person. Of that amount, only 15 percent is recycled; the rest ends up in landfills. Several years ago, when Crispina did the math, she figured that her company had single-handedly rescued a whopping 1-million-plus pounds of material.
Back in the early days, “I would go to Goodwill and buy every wool sweater, throw it in the washer and dryer, and shrink it,” she recalls. And with a twinkle: “My palette erred toward bright.” Two years after Crispina graduated, she had 40 employees creating blankets, sweaters, backpacks, and toys, and she’d found a supplier who could provide bales of garments that she would sift through to find the perfect materials (her preference is cashmere, but she even uses such fabrics as denim and corduroy).
With her zero-waste policy, Crispina went on to forge links with designers like Eileen Fisher, sell her handmade items to shops like Fiorucci, and write a book on creative textile recycling called The Sweater Chop Shop, with jacket blurbs from Carly Simon and Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s.
“Is it art or craft?” she shrugs. “It’s just what I like to do.” But the stress of production and the upkeep of the massive old cathedral in nearby Pittsfield where she made and sold her work brought Crispina full circle, back to the roots of how she began: hand-making. “I never questioned the idea of growing,” she says. “But it was time to downsize and get back to actual making.”
The evidence is everywhere—bright quilts, strings of felted hearts, rugged clothing. These days, Crispina’s trusty team of five pitches in on everything from sewing to videography (in a new series of how-to videos, she has begun sharing the secrets of her recycling alchemy). Off against a far wall, a rainbow of sweaters, shading from rose through aqua, waits to be reimagined, in the shadow of a vintage sewing machine. And a small stray cat from Ireland, named Oswald, winds his way through, and out the window. One more little piece of magic.
To learn more, go to crispina.com.