Interview with Rachel Breen by Sheila Regan
Rachel Breen brings together her commitment to social justice and activism with art-making, with the help of a sewing machine. Working with textiles, Breen’s art has critiqued ways that the fashion industry harms workers and the environment in projects like “The Price of Our Clothes,” created collaboratively with Alison Morse, at the Perlman Teaching Museum and “The Labor We Wear,” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Those works found connections between the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911 and the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013.
In 2022, Breen earned a Fulbright Fellowship to support further research into textile making labor history and to travel to India to research its textile industry. She spent time diving into the archives at the Kheel Center for Labor at Cornell University. She spent 5 months in India, meeting with designers and clothing makers who are finding new and innovative pathways to sustainable fashion. Breen draws on those experiences for her two Wakpa Triennial projects, one of which will be on view at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, and another at East Side Freedom Library in Saint Paul.. Her sewing-based sculptural installations and interactive performances envision new ways to think about solidarity through the lens of clothing.
Did you grow up sewing from an early age? When was your first introduction to the sewing machine?
When I was in sixth grade, I took a sewing class at a Singer sewing machine store and started learning how to sew clothes. I did sew a lot of my own clothes. My family often times couldn’t afford to buy the clothes that I wanted to buy, so I learned how to sew and did that, and then stopped in college. I bought a lot of used clothing. In Minneapolis, we went to Ragstock when Ragstock was bins of really old used clothing. I didn’t sew for a very long time. The day before graduate school, I bought a used sewing machine at a garage sale for $3 and thought, well this would be fun to have in my studio. That year, I started working with the sewing machine as a drawing tool. I had been doing that for many years, and then the Rana Plaza factory collapse happened. I started making these connections between my sewing machine and what was going on in the world.
Can you just describe your project for the Wakpa Triennial?
I will have two projects. Well, three projects, if you include the public performance project that I’m doing. At the Weisman Art Museum, I’ll be displaying these banners that I made. These are very large banners. They’re 36 feet long. The banners were inspired by really two main things. One was that last year I went to The Kheel Center, which is a labor archive at Cornell University. It’s the largest labor archive in the United States. I was researching that Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, but also the founding of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. In the archive, they have these amazing banners. There are these huge red satin banners that are embroidered with sewing machines and cornucopias. They’re stunning. And they’re huge. And they have tassels and trim. They’re spectacular. They would be used and carried at Labor Day protests and marches and also just hung when they would have meetings. I found them very inspiring, just as a form like this, and that so much attention was given to the idea of a banner. It wasn’t just like a scroll on a piece of paper. It was clearly very carefully made. I decided to make banners.
And then in combination, when I was in India, on my Fulbright, I was thinking about this particular tradition of block printing. In India, the blocks that are used for printmaking come from the traditions and the cultures in India and have a lot of meaning—a lot of them come from architectural sites of significance. When I realized that I could design my own blocks, I became really interested in how I might start developing my own kind of iconography or vocabulary that speaks to the issues that I’m interested in.
For instance, one design is a whole circle that is divided in half. This was my idea of solidarity, which is yearning. I think of it as a yearning for wholeness. We’re divided from people. I have this deep desire, which very much comes from my Jewish identity, to make things whole and to see things be more fair.
I see this as a symbol of connection. The fact that 95% of humans on the planet wear clothes made on a sewing machine. It’s the symbol that we all have next to our skin. It is a symbol to me of how we are connected.
I made these banners in response to thinking about those two things, working with these really beautiful traditions that I learned about in India, working with natural dyes, but then also being being inspired by these beautiful banners from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and seeing these kind of as as overlapping concerns and interests that unionization efforts that really were born out of early sweatshops in the United States came from Jewish immigrants who immigrated from Eastern Europe. Those were my people, as a family of immigrants at that time. Then thinking about how strange it is that the majority of factory work in this country for making clothes has shifted to the Global South. These union rights that my people worked so hard for don’t exist, because those factories have gone to other countries. I’m thinking about the flow of history and how these issues are still really prevalent today, and wanting to connect through history, but also across geographic borders— to say, these issues are important.
We’re connected to them in that we wear clothes made by these people. It’s kind of amazing to think that maybe the underwear or the jeans that you’re wearing right now were held in somebody’s hands on the other side of the planet. That is significant. I really seek to make that visible in these banners and acknowledge that I want to show support for the workers who are so far away from us.
Then at the East Side Freedom Library, I’ll be showing solidarity pennants. They’re parts of shirts—they’re the yoke on a buttoned down shirt. It’s the back part of the shirt that kind of comes right up to the collar. I’ve taken them apart. I’m interested in this idea of taking things apart as a way to get people to think about how they’re made in the first place.
I think there’s some irony to this work in that they’re colorful. It’s a kind of a play on those pennants that you see if a new store opens and they put up these kinds of celebratory pennants. Usually they’re plastic and they’re hung outside the store to say, oh, there’s a new place opening. Mine are celebratory, but they’re also meant to be serious. The idea of a yoke is also a constraint that’s put on an animal. I think the ways that the garment industry treats workers unfairly is also part of this work.
Then also at the East Side Freedom Library, I’ll be doing the Garment Solidarity Project, which is a project I’ve done many times, but this time, I’ll be inviting 10 other people to work it with me. We’ll be sewing together outside, and we’ll be sewing the common clothing of the garment workers in Bangladesh, which is the shalwar kameez, which is kind of a loose fitting tunic and loose fitting pants.
This project originated when I realized that the people in Bangladesh who sew our clothes don’t wear the same clothes that they’re sewing. I found it very ironic that these people are working for us making our clothes and they don’t even wear the same things. This is a gesture of solidarity, bringing attention to the fact that what so many people don’t realize is how much of our clothing is made overseas. And that many of the workers are working in very unsafe and unfair working conditions. This is a way to bring attention to that and show solidarity and appreciation for the workers who are making our clothes. It’ll be a large scale, outdoor public presentation. There’ll be a conversation and opportunity for people to sit down with all the sewists to talk about these issues about overconsumption, what kinds of solutions exist, how we can take action, and understanding the impact of the garment industry on climate change.
In relation to your visit and research in India, in Jaipur, can you talk about some of the people or that you were learning from some of the institutions or groups that you were working with?
There were so many amazing and generous people that I met. It was really an honor and a privilege to just meet so many people who are just doing beautiful work, thinking really intentionally about how what they make is affecting the environment right around where they live. I was in India to investigate the intersection of sustainability, textiles, craft and social enterprise/fair trade. I was looking for alternatives coming from people in India, to the global garment industry. I met so many people being thoughtful about material processes, such as dyes, weaving, and block printing. People thinking about circular design–everything from no-waste design strategies, to people who are working with taking scraps from garment factories and turning them into new garments.
For instance, In Jaipur, Bhaavya Goenka of Iro Iro (https://iroirozerowaste.com) is doing amazing work of taking scraps and working with weavers to have the scraps woven into new fabric that can be then turned into new clothing. Or Kriti Gupta and Avinash Maurya of Wabi Sabi projects (https://wabisabiproject.com/) that’s working with natural dyes and being incredibly thoughtful about how the dyes that they’re using impact the environment. I hadn’t realized how incredibly horrible a lot of the dyes are in our clothing. You get a beautiful bright shirt and you think, Oh, it’s so pretty. And a lot of times, these are the worst of all the kinds of steps along the supply chain, the dyeing is one of the worst, most environmentally harmful aspects of the garment supply chain.
Meeting people who have this incredible knowledge about what kinds of natural plants or roots—or even rocks— can be used in order to make natural dyes for fabric was really fascinating. One woman I met, Hetal Shrivastav, runs Rasleela (https://www.raasleela.co.in/) in Ahmedabad, which does hand stitching on dye-free and bleach free fabric, said to me, “You know, really the most sustainable thing is we should all be wearing clothes that are not dyed at all. That would be the best thing of all. But people want to wear clothing that is really interesting and beautiful. And so that wouldn’t satisfy people. But there are ways that we can make our clothing beautiful that are much less harmful to the environment.” That was really, really clear in India, how much people are thinking about that and working for that.
There was a really amazing organization called Saheli Women (https://saheliwomen.com/) in Johdpur, that works with really low income women in small villages. They do a lot of working with used saris and turning them into other kinds of garments that are resold, giving women incredible skills and financial support, which translates into being able to send their children to school. They’re doing this incredibly kind of sustainable repurposing project, which is such a dynamic change to the ways that most of most brands work in terms of how the workers are treated, and where the materials come from.
Rangsutra, (https://rangsutra.com/en-us) based in Bikaner, is another incredible organization that is owned by over 1,000 artisans. The founder, Sumita Ghose, invited me to their annual meeting, where I was able to witness hundreds of these artisans voting on their company’s decisions. Despite the fact that many of these women cannot read, they still have a critical say about their livelihood. These are important models for us to know about in the U.S.
Besides these innovations that you’re learning about, were there traditional techniques that you learned as well, while you were there?
Yeah, the block printing was one of them. I did a lot of research about all these different techniques, weaving, embroidery, different kinds of printing techniques, dyeing techniques, different kinds of tie dyeing. In the area of Kachchh, there’s bandhany, which is a particular kind of tie dye that’s done that’s amazing. And the different kinds of blocks that are designed, depending on different cultural or religious backgrounds that people originate from. I learned a lot about different techniques. Block printing is the main one that I learned about along with natural dyes. The one I fell in love with the most was dabu, which is a mud resist technique.
It’s kind of similar to batik. The mud protects the fabric so that you can put it in the dye and get this kind of a technique. But just working with mud was so lovely and earthy to me. I just really, really enjoyed it. And the actual technique of making mud in a way that it can be used was fascinating to me. This kind of cultural knowledge that goes back generations was amazing to watch the artisans make the mud, and sometimes they got in there with their feet, and we’re stamping on it to mix it and the ingredients. Realizing these block printers are like chemists. This is very highly sophisticated knowledge that they have grown up knowing about and put into the making of the project, which is the process, which is really fascinating to me.
How does the knowledge you’ve gained about innovation around making more sustainable clothing get translated into these three different iterations of your project?
I guess it in a couple of ways. One is, this is a visual thank you and also an acknowledgement of the work that these people are doing in India, and also a nod to the work that garment workers are doing in Bangladesh, places where I’ve traveled and met people. It’s a way for me to say—I see you, I acknowledge that the work that you’re doing is really important. In some ways, with the research of my Fulbright, I have yet to really drill down to think about how that experience is going to show up in my work beyond these banners. This is going to be a whole series— these are just the first ones that I’ve completed.
I have blocks that I designed that I brought home from India that I had carved there that have not been printed with yet because I haven’t had time. It’s been such a busy year teaching. I’m really looking forward to the summer and having some time to just start trying to kind of reflect on my experience with the blocks. Part of what I need to figure out is the kind of the environmental conditions that allow one to make the work. The mud for instance that is used with dabu printing in Jaipur is different from the mud that I can find here. How do I recreate similar techniques and conditions so that I can work in similar ways as I learned there? I haven’t yet had time to, like really do that, but that’s a question, because these techniques are based on everything from the pH of the water, to the particular minerals and plants that can be found in these areas.
The other thing that I’m about is this idea of design. How do we talk about models that are non-hierarchical and non-exploitive? I’m trying to think about designs that speak to cooperation and speak to different kinds of arrangements where solidarity, where mutual aid, are considered. It’s not like a pyramid, a corporate scheme where there’s one person on top and all these workers on the bottom. How do we envision different models where people are treated fairly? What can that look like visually? How do I show that—whether it’s designing blocks, whether it’s in a drawing, whether it’s working with used clothing— how do I create sculptures that speak to that? A lot of my work up until very recently has been about the critique— critiquing capitalism, critiquing the garment industry and talking about what’s unfair, and I want to look at solutions.
I think that’s what the Wakpa Triennial is really about. There’s a lot to complain about. There’s a lot of horrible things, but how do we start envisioning and planning for what we want to build? What are the solutions? What do they look like? How can we envision a more just society? How can we envision trade in a way that happens fairly, where everybody is respected? I’m not sure, but I think that there are some models that we can look to in India, and I also think that we just have to start envisioning and making that visible in order to bring it into reality.
I hope that the projects that I show at the Wakpa Triennial can contribute to that kind of broader effort to envision ideas of solidarity. The word speculative is a word that gets used a lot. Adrienne Maree Brown talks a lot about that—how do we think about the speculative future? How do we imagine it?
We’re coming up on three years after the murder of George Floyd, and the unrest that followed in Minneapolis and St. Paul. We’ve now passed the three year mark of beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic. And national conversations around white supremacy and what we need to do to address it. As a non black artist, engaging with this material, any thoughts about how your work as an ally can enter that conversation?
I have worked really hard to think a lot about the ways I carry my privilege, how I think about my role as an artist, as a white artist, as an educated person, all these aspects of who I am and understanding that— what that brings into any conversation. I’m also thinking about my responsibility as a Minneapolis resident in thinking about racism, and thinking about police brutality, and what I can do to support efforts that are going on in our communities to address those things.
I feel like I entered this conversation in a lot of different ways. I’m a community college professor at a community college that is incredibly diverse. It’s a place where class issues are to me very clear. I think a lot about class and the intersection of class and race and my role as an educator, and what I can do to support students, and encourage students and empower students to be respected and believe in themselves and have confidence in who they are and in their voices. So that’s a really important role.
For me, as a Jewish woman, I think a lot about both my pivotal privilege as a white Jewish woman, but also about rising anti-semitism and about that as a dynamic. More than anything, I believe in the need for alliances across differences in order to address white supremacy. And absolutely, I think that white supremacy wants to pit Jews and people of color against each other. It’s really essential for us to build strong alliances so that we can fight anti-semitism together. That’s the only way that we will address it. In some ways, in the past, I maybe haven’t talked a lot about being Jewish as an artist, and I think that I need to talk about it more vocally. People who are Jewish know it, but not a lot of people who aren’t Jewish. That’s something that’s important to me, to talk about anti-semitism and the need for me to have connections with people who are not Jewish, and who are thinking about solidarity.
Any partners that you would mention that are going to be part of these three iterations?
Partnering with the East Side Freedom Library is really exciting, because I think their work is so community based and very much about their thinking about labor rights, and they’re thinking about all kinds of social justice issues. I’ll be bringing in 10 other artists, so that will be a collaborative effort.
I am really excited to be a part of the Wakpa Triennial because, to me, it’s so much about the kinds of things I care about right now. I’m seeing it really as a launching pad for my next body of work as I put together my experiences from India, and my Fulbright, and reground here and think about the interconnections of all these issues— in particular climate change. I think climate change is becoming a bigger aspect of all these issues. I am feeling a lot of urgency around addressing that issue, but also, in making people understand that to address climate change, we have to treat workers fairly. They’re not separate, that they’re deeply interconnected.
I notice you have this beautiful Indigo shirt. Do you have a favorite color? Is it something that you’re like looking at in the way you dress yourself?
That’s so funny because my favorite color is this color, but that was before I even knew to call it indigo. Turquoise has been a color that I’ve worn forever, and indigo has kind of replaced that as my favorite color. In some ways, it’s maybe kind of only natural, that this was a color that I gravitated to and love. It’s really interesting. I did a workshop with an amazing Malian artist named Aboubakar Fofana a couple of years ago— it was an indigo dyeing workshop. One of the things that we did at the workshop is he gave us seven scraps of white fabric and we had to dye each one in varying degrees of blue from light to dark. That was the project for a whole day— dying and trying to get the colors to all shift in a very smooth way. It was so satisfying to work with this blue color on my hands. All day that’s all we were doing. It was the first time I’d really worked with Indigo. And it was definitely kind of a very visceral physical experience. Indigo has all this all kinds of meaning. It has a very harsh history as well, because of how slaves were brought to work with Indigo, and a lot of slave clothing was actually dyed blue. It was not considered a beautiful color for a long time. Then it was and just has a horrible history as well as a beautiful history. It is a color that I’m really attracted to.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you would like to mention?
Sometimes it’s tricky as an artist, because you don’t, on the one hand, you don’t want your work to be too literal or too didactic. There’s kind of a fine line between creating an aesthetic experience for the public and the need to make my work be about something that’s going on in the world right now. I don’t feel like I could just make work that’s interesting to look at. I want it to be both. That’s just always a question for me— how do I juggle those two things that are important to making the work aesthetically interesting and compelling, then also that there’s a message that is connected to it, and meaning that I hope that people get from it. I guess viewers can tell me what they see. I do feel just really honored to be a part of projects where my work gets to be seen, because I think that’s part of the work — engaging with the public. I am excited about being able to do that.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based journalist and arts writer. She contributes to the Artscape column for MinnPost, writes about dance for the Star Tribune, classical music for the Pioneer Press, and frequently contributed radio stories for KFAI’ Minneculture. Her byline has also appeared in Hyperallergic, Washington Post, The Guardian, First American Art Magazine, and more.