CraftedSystems: Hope in the Making

CraftedSystems: Hope in the Making


Small pendant light, 2010; waterjet-cut and handwoven wool felt; 9 x 9 in.

In October, three homeless women in their 20s gathered in a common room at a YWCA in Portland, Oregon, for what Aurelie Tu, founder of CraftedSystems, calls a "weave." Over a few hours, the women learned a craft, connected with each other, worked with their hands, and earned a little money - all while helping designer Tu create lampshades, rugs, vessels, and more.

Tu's business model is perhaps as inventive as her craft. For two or three consecutive days every couple of months, she conducts a weave, and women from the Y's shelter are paid by the piece to construct the felt objects sold by CraftedSystems. The result is handcraft production that yields more than beautiful home accessories; it is also an occasion for training, community, even healing.

The women who live at the Y's shelter are transitioning from prison, recovering from drug addiction, or escaping domestic abuse. Typically three to five of the residents participate in each weave, but for larger orders there may be up to 10. "They start with a pile of parts," says Tu, "and after a while they have all these vessels around." Sarah, looking for work while she stays at the Y, says, "You get a sense of accomplishment after you see the shape take form. It's really neat and feels good." She's quick to speak, though she looks a little worn, as if she has seen more of life than others in their mid-20s. Her hands work with efficiency and determination.

Flat pieces of felt that have been locally waterjet- or die-cut into two-dimensional geometric pattern pieces are the only materials needed, and Tu teaches the women how to fit her designs together.

CraftedSystems hopes to do well by doing good. The company puts money directly into the pockets of homeless women (anywhere from $20 to $60 a day) and uses environmentally friendly wool felt. At the same time, the company stays true to its design aesthetic. Tu, who also runs her own design studio, maximizes the structural properties of felt while designing vase-like vessels and orb-shaped lampshades with 3D computer programs. "My interest in felt lies in this structural quality, its three-dimensionality, how the material behaves when manipulated in certain ways, such as weaving and interlocking. It's also completely biodegradable and inherently rich and warm," she says. CraftedSystems also sells bowls, rugs, tapestries, placemats, and table runners that combine industrially inspired geometric shapes, which, when constructed with felt, evoke a unique postmodern warmth.

Tu, herself warm and enthusiastic, is a wellspring of creativity. She gives the impression she can deliver on every idea that springs to mind. "I've always created from the time I could hold a pencil and draw," she says.

When she was an undergraduate music major and performing cellist in the '90s, she dipped into textile design for the first time. She recalls being fond of skinny pencil skirts that were impossible to perform in, and she set to work solving her wardrobe problem. She made wraparound skirts that fit her slender form but stretched while she played.

Making clothes for herself was Tu's introduction to design, which she explored in the industrial arena for her graduate work. But she still calls on her early experience for her Crafted­­-­Systems pattern-making. The vessels, bowls, and lampshades, in particular, require an understanding of three-dimensional assembly from a flat pattern.

She chose the YWCA for its clean, well-established, and well-organized facilities. She has long felt a drive to support "a cause greater than myself and my family," says Tu, who has a 3-year-old. With that impulse, she wanted to create "a sustainable mechanism that would bring an ongoing cash flow to the women's shelter." CraftedSystems makes regular contributions to the YWCA from its profits, and provides shelter residents with work experience. ("Anything to fill a resume these days," says Sarah.)

Tu's enterprise also leaves a small carbon footprint, as traveling distances for sales in and around Portland are short and don't consume a lot of gas. Looking forward, Tu notes that there are YWCAs in many cities. "I would like to see weaves happening all over the country," she says.

That's a possibility. CraftedSystems products are sold online and in shops that specialize in design and sustainability, but Tu has also received inquiries about big orders from furniture manufacturers who want to display the vases and tapestries in their stores. Balancing profit, helping, and sustainability is a challenge, but Tu is committed to her mission, the YWCA, and hand-assembly, no matter the city.

Tu's father, originally from Vietnam, was an intrepid traveler, and the family lived in England twice when she was a child. When she traveled on her own in her 20s to such places as Vietnam, Mexico, and Peru, she began thinking about partnering with - and empowering - artisans. "When I began working with textiles, it was only a natural connection to associate that activity with women," she says. Tu got in touch with Aid to Artisans, an organization that promotes collaboration between designers and artisans around the world, about six months before she started CraftedSystems. But she decided to try working locally in Portland, partly for the sake of convenience, but also because she thought it would mean more to empower women in her community. And she has seen emotional benefits firsthand. "Many of the women have used the word ‘healing' when describing their work
for us," says Tu.

At the Y, passersby who see the women working from the hallway pop in to comment on the objects they've made. "Those are awesome," says one visitor. "That's art!" says another. Tu's assistant, Rebekka Hannesdottir, a student at Northwest College of Art adds, "This has been happening all day." Dolly, a Crafted­Systems assembler who wears her parka zipped all the way up to her short, punky haircut, looks at her latest piece with satisfaction: "That one was my fastest - 40 minutes." By the afternoon there are about 20 vessels constructed. Tu looks pleased; she had allotted twice as much time.

"It's therapeutic," volunteers Melissa, in a voice that sounds almost painfully shy. "Yeah, something worthwhile instead of watching TV or something," adds Sarah. There is a palpable sense of community in the room; the women clearly enjoy spending time together and sharing a sense of accomplishment. They talk over each other and answer questions collectively in a familiar way. "Nowadays people expect so much independence from women, it's nice to spend time with the girls and hang out," says Sarah. Then she smiles and says, "And someday I may be walking past a store and be like, ‘Hey, I made those!' "

Elizabeth Lopeman writes about art from Portland, Oregon, and Munich, Germany. Dana Cuellar contributed reporting to this story.