Samantha Verrone is rifling through a tin of rusty nails in her sunlit studio in Yonkers, New York, when I visit one summer afternoon. On an electric stovetop nearby, two pots are bubbling – one a rich saffron color and the other a pale pink.
The pots’ colorful contents are the tools of Verrone’s unique – and self-created – trade: using found (and generally unlikely or overlooked) items to create one-of-a-kind textiles.
Verrone is always keeping an eye out for materials, objects, and other ephemera that she might incorporate into her work. “I try not to look at my phone while I’m walking,” she quips. “But I’m still looking down – because I want to find stuff!”
That stuff – whose life cycle represents a very literal example of that old axiom about one man’s trash – Verrone brings back to her studio, where she wraps, sets, or rubber-bands the objects against fabric to create her singular type of dyed textile.
An assortment of rusted metal objects which Verrone will use to create patterns on her textiles.
Verrone’s unique process is a direct result of her belief in preserving, working small, and sourcing locally (or even better, from the trash). “The words ‘green’ or ‘recycled’ can be overused,” she observes. Still, she’s a veritable model for creative repurposing, thoughtfully devising new uses for abandoned things.
“I think about environmental issues, using what’s here, taking things that might otherwise end up in a landfill, and creating something new,” she says. And she means it: “I really don’t throw anything away,” she laughs. “I try to use everything. It’s not even a political statement – it’s just more fun to find ways of using everything. There’s a kind of freedom in having the limitation of that as opposed to being able to go out in the world and buy whatever you want. I just look around and think about how I can use what I have around me.”
So far, that has included anything from the aforementioned “rusty bits” to onion skins and avocado rinds saved from her own kitchen. “I’ll come home sometimes and someone will have left a bag of avocados on my door,” Verrone laughs. “My mother and sister live in France – they have a whole different type of avocado there. They always save me the skins.”
Verrone dips a rust-dyed fabric into a pot of boiling water with avocado skins.
As with any number of dyeing agents Verrone is experimenting with at any given moment (currently on her shelf, in neatly labeled jars, are oak nuts, peony petals, and aluminum sulfate), she boils the avocado skins in water, and then they are either ground into a powder or secured in a cheesecloth to produce a dye in which she dips, soaks, and wrings her textiles.
“I began collecting these old table linens and I noticed a few had rust stains,” Verrone recalls. “So I thought I could try to bleach the rust out, or I could use the rust. I didn’t invent it. I went online – you know, google everything,” she says. As it turns out, “there’s a whole community of people doing this. So that’s how I learned about tea, chestnuts, walnuts – those all have tannins, and that changes the color.”
Apart from Google, she’s learned much of what she knows through trial and error – and that’s just fine by her. “I’m always surprised by the things I get because there are so many variables,” she says delightedly. “I’m never going to get the same thing twice. I kind of like the idea of imperfection and ephemera. I like to see what happens with introducing heat and the passage of time with fabrics.”
Once the fabrics are dyed, Verrone might stitch on them or around the edges before turning them into napkins, pillowcases, or decorative wall hangings.
A group of pillows in front of one of Verrone’s indigo wall hangings, which she sells through ABC Home.
A dyed shirt hangs in the studio.
Verrone first became interested in textiles when she was a student in Italy, where she created silkscreens from rubbings of woodwork and metalwork in the streets and churches around her – the early iterations of her tendency to use what was available to create something new. “In Italy, I would dumpster-dive,” she recalls with a laugh. “The old Italian men would look at me like, What is she doing? But there’s great stuff in Italian garbage!” Many years later, after her husband (also an artist) gave her a book on Bojagi, a type of Korean patchwork, Verrone set down the path of working not only with found patterns and tools, but also with materials.
“Bojagi really inspired me, and from there, I turned to Japan, because I love indigo,” she recalls. “I discovered boro fabric – boro means rags in Japanese. I started collecting these rags and a lot of them needed work, needed repair, so I started doing that. I liked the idea of participating in the creation of these beautiful things that people patched and repatched; a lot of hands touched them. I liked the idea of time and memory and that the fabric kind of has a soul to it.”
As she talks, Verrone hovers over the two bubbling pots, stirring her brew and adjusting as necessary (“You know what? I’m going to put a nail in there,” she says after lifting one lid to find the pink not satisfactorily pink). “Two artists who really inform my work are Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse,” she says as she pulls a dappled piece out of one. “Whenever I’m wringing out fabric, I always think of Louise Bourgeois, because her family had a textile tapestry restoration business and she would talk about her mother wringing the fabric.”
Inside Samantha Verrone’s StudioView Slideshow
Textiles on a bench in Verrone’s studio range from canvas to linen to cotton, dyed with rust, zinc oxide, avocados, and more.
Eva Hesse, meanwhile, “used innovative materials, things that would change over time, wouldn’t necessarily last. I think about that when I’m using the dyes I’m using,” Verrone says. “The patina changes over time, and I think it’s interesting to see the imprint that the passage of time leaves.”
Credit it, perhaps, to the meditative nature of her craft, but Verrone’s work has led her to deeply examine her beliefs about capitalism and how small businesses take part in it. “My idea of small manufacturing went in this direction and I tried to learn more about it,” she says. “Thinking about building small, local businesses, seeing capitalism in a new way. The free enterprise minus the exploitation. It doesn’t have to be this destructive ideological force.”
“I think we’re ready for this kind of values revolution and attention to people, to local business, instead of expanding markets,” she continues. Verrone looks to hyperlocal, sustainability-focused companies of all sorts as inspiration; she cites operations as varied as the Nashville clothing company Elizabeth Suzann and Zita Cobb, founder of the Fogo Island Inn, as examples. “They’re both very much about creating opportunity, developing a workforce at home,” says Verrone.
Verrone herself is actively involved in her community. She volunteers frequently with with the Bronx outreach organization POTS and recently gave a workshop there as part of a career development program. Though she has no desire to turn her business into a mass-production facility (“I will always want to make short-run, one-of-a-kind, special things,” she says.), a long-term goal would be to grow just enough to employ a small local workforce. “My goal would be to have a studio in the Bronx and employ the people who live here,” she says. Until then, she’ll keep experimenting.