Click here for photos of some of Carolyn Barrani's work|
Salt Lake Artisan Takes Needle Arts To New Levels
"I want to paint to document Libyan life." Carolyn Barrani
By Carma Wadley
Deseret Morning News
17 November, 2006
Crewel intentions — Salt Lake artisan takes needle arts to new levels
Carolyn Barrani admits she's in the midst of a far-flung romance — with fibers.
"I love fibers. I always have. They just thrill me." So, it's not surprising that fiber arts — things like crewel embroidery and needlepoint — have taken her on an exciting journey.
For more than 30 years, Barrani has not only stitched up pieces of her own, she's also designed canvases and kits that have been featured in major needle-arts catalogs and magazines and have been sold worldwide.
She loves coming up with new ideas. "I love to push the envelope and try new stuff." One of her latest innovations is a mosaic technique that gives needlepoint a rich textural look and feel. "If you're going to the expense of having a hand-painted canvas, why not let some of that color go through?"
She has designs that feature fruits, vegetables, butterflies and still-life objects. "The mosaics have taken people by storm," she says.
Another popular item: animal-shaped pillows that feature a wide array of crewel embroidery stitches. They come in varying stages of difficulty and offer up whimsical creatures that make you smile. "I have an English distributor for my designs, and she told me she always liked my work because I didn't do anything 'cutesy.' Then I came up with these. I can see why people do 'cutesy.' It makes you happy. These are just so fun to do."
Carolyn Fairbanks Williams Barrani credits some of her artistic ability to genetics. "I was born a Fairbanks." Sculptor Avard Fairbanks is her uncle. But her parents divorced early, and she was raised by her mother, Darlene, and stepfather, Wally Williams. "They were both into music; I was the artist in the family."
In fact, she thought about becoming an artist. "I was the first Sterling Scholar in arts at East High School, and I went to BYU on an arts scholarship."
However, she met and married her husband, Omar Barrani, and they went to his home country, Libya, to live for five years. About the time the political situation was deteriorating in Libya, Omar's father died, and he had to assume responsibility for his family. "My husband ended up in international commerce, and we ended up back here, and I was looking for something to do. My mother and I decided to open a needlepoint store." The Tapis-Tree was located in downtown Salt Lake City.
"My mother started me doing stitchery. She was doing it long before anyone else. I remember when I was 4 years old and was putting beads and decorations on my doll's dresses."
When they opened the shop in 1971, "needlework was at its height." Needlepoint and crewel were very popular pastimes; guilds of stitchers were being organized, and there was a huge demand for kits and designs. "I designed a couple of pillows that were featured in Woman's Day magazine in 1974; 10,000 of them sold in three months."
The store had a successful run, but eventually, some of the fire went out of the needlepoint flame. "Counted cross-stitch came in, and that became all the rage," says Barrani.
About that same time, her mother died, "and my daughter, who'd helped at the store, had gone into anthropology. So we decided to close out the shop. I kept on designing but working out of my home."
Since then, the needle arts have seen their ups and downs. Needlepoint is still very popular, "but all the big companies have gone away from crewel. But I'm stubborn about it. I'm determined to bring back crewel, if I have to do it kicking and screaming. I love it so."
Crewel, she says, is really just free-form embroidery. It sometimes intimidates people who have gotten into counted cross-stitch. "They're afraid to go outside the grid, afraid of making a mistake. But it's not easy to make mistakes with crewel."
For example, she has a pillow design that is all done in a chain-stitch, and she had three different women stitch it. "One did it in very loose stitches; she apologized for how loose they were. But it looked like a Van Gogh painting. Another's stitches were very tight, and it looked gorgeous. The third woman didn't know how to do the chain stitch, so she did the daisy stitch, and hers looked like Monet.
"So," she advises, "you should not be afraid to try new things."
She likes crewel because of the variety it offers. "I get bored just doing one stitch." She started out just doing crewel designs. Then The Stitchery catalog folks asked her to do some of her designs in needlepoint. "Then they wanted hand-painted canvases, so I went to that."
That has become the big thing in needlepoint, she says. "Needlepoint has gone to a new level," she says. "People will now invest in a canvas that costs hundreds of dollars and spend even more on the thread. There are so many different kinds of threads and yarns available now." She has recently tried doing needlepoint with ribbon, and "that's been a lot of fun."
Barrani's designs are available through needlework catalogs and also on her Web site, www.tapistree.com.
In addition to designing, she's been involved in other projects over the years. One involved lining up volunteers and coordinating work to restore Elizabethan bed curtains for the Sulgrave Manor in England.
This is the home of the ancestors of George Washington, "and they wanted the work to be a joint project between American and British stitchers." Barrani got recruited because she happened to be at a needle arts show in England, where the manor house had a booth. "They produced kits for the embroidery, and I had to find stitchers who would buy the kits, do the work and donate them back."
The project took six years, "but I felt so honored to be involved," says Barrani. "In Utah, we're so connected to the pioneers. But we don't always get into the colonial period. I now feel such a connection to George Washington and his family." In fact, Barrani, who still likes to paint, is currently working on painted portraits of Lawrence and Amphyllis Washington, the builders of Sulgrave Manor, that she hopes will hang there.
This year, she was also asked by the National NeedleArts Association to do a panel for a breast cancer exhibit that will travel around the country.
So, she says, there's always plenty going on. "Sometimes I think I'm ready to quit and just do my own projects. I'd love to paint great paintings and make great tapestries. I want to paint to document Libyan life. I've been saving up yarn for 20 years for a tapestry of bedouins I want to do. Then someone writes to say how much they like my designs, and they say, 'Don't ever quit; we need new designs,' and I realize I still have a lot more things in mind."
It has been, she says, quite a ride.