Mt. Airy artist builds handmade garments business

by Len Lear
Posted 11/4/20

Nowadays new clothing always seems to be on sale, and there are thrift shops and consignment shops throughout the area, so it is not difficult for cost-conscious consumers (almost everyone, in other …

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Mt. Airy artist builds handmade garments business


Nowadays new clothing always seems to be on sale, and there are thrift shops and consignment shops throughout the area, so it is not difficult for cost-conscious consumers (almost everyone, in other words) to find clothing bargains. And it is hard to imagine that many years ago people (mostly women) made all of the clothing from scratch for their families.

There is at least one Northwest Philadelphia resident, however, who still makes superb wearable “art garments” from beginning to end, including jackets, dresses, tops, tunics, vests and men’s shirts.

Wendy Osterweil, 67, a Mt. Airy resident for 24 years who previously lived at three different locations in Germantown, was always drawn to clothing as an art form since earning a master's degree in printmaking from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1987. But she started making her own clothes with her junior high school girlfriends. Together they would shop for fabric and then make skirts at someone’s house.

Osterweil, who said she “can’t even count how many jobs I’ve had, definitely over 30,” worked her way through college in work-study and summer jobs. Eventually, she wound up teaching art at Germantown Academy in both the Lower School and Middle School for 14 years, followed by 15 years as an Associate Professor of Art Education at Tyler School of Art, from which she retired.

Wendy describes herself as an artist, hiker, gardener, explorer, gatherer, traveler, writer, surface designer, dyer, seamstress, maker, questioner, learner and teacher. She works by hand, by touch, by tactile and visual interactions with the physical world. Work by hand, she insists, is essential to how she understands the world.

In the late '80s to early '90s, Osterweil was the Artistic Director of Prints in Progress, a community arts organization that had five after-school neighborhood workshops in Philadelphia, where she learned silkscreen printing on fabric. She taught art at Germantown Academy after that.

Since they are time- and labor-intensive, Osterweil's high-quality garments, which she has been making for discriminating customers for seven years, obviously cost more than the mass-produced variety. When asked how she can possibly compete with the latter kind, she replied, “I am not in competition with any other clothing venues. I am a working artisan artist. I love making unique one-of-a-kind art clothing … 'Slow clothes' take time, and they take love, love for the materials and for the process of making by hand.”

As a textile artist now, Osterweil prints with fiber reactive and natural dyes on natural fiber cloth such as 100% cotton, linen and viscose and bamboo rayon. She designs imagery with papercuts or hand drawings to make prints with silkscreens in repeat on the fabrics.

When she begins work, she insists that she “takes time to play without having any specific purpose, project or predictable outcome. I love to create patterns and observe the serendipity that happens in repeating a motif or image through printmaking.”

Osterweil dyes cloth with natural dyes by collecting the raw materials such as acorns, staghorn sumac berries and leaves, marigolds, coneflower, indigo and onion skins. She then cooks the plant material to extract the natural dye and soaks the prepared fabric in the dye liquid before printing and sewing it into a garment. 

Each piece of her wearable art is a three-dimensional collage that she says “moves through the world on a human body. We still all have the need for beautiful things and to feel special, even though many of us are still working at home.”

Two of her recent exhibitions were “Confluence: Teaching, Making, Ideation, Innovation” at InLiquid Gallery near Northern Liberties and “How Green is the New Black” at the Kemmerer Museum of Decorative Arts in Bethlehem.

Osterweil welcomes visitors, one or two people at a time, to her studio at Herman Street Studios in Germantown. “The building is Covid-safe,” she said. “Everyone is required to wear a mask and practice social distance protocols.”

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