Knowledge through the Hand

Camille Ann Brewer

The “hand” of a textile communicates the cloth’s physical feel—its crispness, bounce, dampness, weight, and/or silkiness. In response to a reporter’s question “Do you find fabrics a big problem?” Willi Smith responded, “I do. . . . These fiber people have people coming up showing me absolute cardboard, telling me it’s brushed flannel.”1

Veronica Webb in Willi Smith for WilliWear, 1984

Arriving on the fashion scene with a discerning hand, Smith identified early on in his career a preference for fine textiles. His former professor at Parsons School of Design Ann Keagy noted in a 1982 Women’s Wear Daily interview that Smith’s student work was elegant and well designed, and that he selected expensive fabrics to complete his projects.2 Within his means, he chose fine textiles to act as the canvas for his designs. Through the knowledge in his hand, Smith understood the importance of a soothing, comfortable, tactile experience providing the material support for the design and creation of his fashion line.

A multigenerational knowledge of a sound textile hand came to the shores of North America, and subsequently the antebellum South, via African farmers, spinners, dyers, and weavers. Enslaved craftspeople with textile construction knowledge commanded higher prices on the slave auction block. Their knowledge was needed because not all of the fiber material generated in the Southern United States was shipped to industrial textile factories in the Northeast and Europe. From the farm field to the ginning and weaving houses, Southern-made cloth was produced by hand with raw fiber, which was seeded and pressed, carded, spun and wound, woven, and sometimes dyed. The cloth makers’ repeated actions of handling cotton, wool, or silk fiber developed an innate knowledge of finely crafted textiles. Through the oral histories of formerly enslaved Americans collected by the Works Progress Administration (later named the Work Projects Administration) in the mid-thirties, we learn that a majority of antebellum households had a working handloom in the domicile. Many of the interviewees reported that, as children, they would fall asleep at night to the sound of an active, beating loom located in an adjoining space.3

This affinity for and knowledge of fine, well-made textiles was retained in the hand and mind, passed down, and embraced by subsequent generations of African Americans. Garments constructed with fine textiles signaled to all viewers that the wearer of such fine clothing had a sense of self and pride, which projected style, elegance, and knowledge of how to “put it together.” Smith revealed in a 1973 interview that his mother and grandmother were very fashion conscious,4 and it was this exposure to beautiful cloth and thoughtful, purposeful fashion styling that informed his textile and fashion design sensibilities.

When Smith traveled to India in 1976 to explore the idea of designing and manufacturing a clothing line with Laurie Mallet, he arrived in a textile-rich culture with a centuries-long history of cotton textile production specifically designed for export for use by foreign consumers in global markets.5 India’s flexibility in working with foreign markets provided Smith with the opportunity to employ direct agency in the design of the textile itself.

India’s dedicated use of natural fiber materials in its textile manufacturing industry aligned with Smith’s philosophy of fiber use, as he keenly understood the physical relationship between cloth and the body and preferred to use natural over synthetic fibers, which began flooding the textile industry in the seventies. As he stated in a 1980 interview, “I use natural fabrics, not for a snob reason; I just think they’re healthier for you.”6 As we currently assess the polluting effects of textile production and waste on our natural environment, it’s clear that Smith’s vision for fiber use and garment construction was decades ahead of its time, well before the early-21st-century slow fashion movement. Smith’s execution of his signature loose-fitting silhouettes in natural fibers echoes contemporary zero-waste pattern design, which produces minimal textile fallout waste.

Smith sought out and used fabrics that were in many cases built through hand processing, hand carding, hand spinning, hand weaving, and hand dyeing. By directly handling and manipulating the material through each construction step, a craftsperson’s repeated touch on the cotton fibers adds layers of patina to the fiber threads. This hand patina relaxes the individual cotton fibers and creates in the textile softness, suppleness, smoothness, and beautiful drape. The hand-constructed cloth afforded physical comfort and ease, billowing cloth movement, and an elegant surface aesthetic Smith sought out in his singular design vision. Each garment’s textile hand spoke for itself down to its most basic elements.

Camille Ann Brewer

Camille Ann Brewer, MFA, MLIS, is a hand weaver and an archivist based in Detroit, Michigan.


  1. “Designer Round Table,” Women’s Wear Daily 127, no. 40 (August 27, 1973).
  2. Mark Sullivan, “Ann Keagy: Honors for a Special Teacher,” Women’s Wear Daily (October 19, 1982).
  3. Federal Writers’ Project, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 2001).
  4. “In the World of High Fashion, His Name Is at the Very Top,” Ebony Success 2 (1973).
  5. John Gillow and Nicholas Barnard, Traditional Indian Textiles (London: Thames and Hudson, 2005).
  6. “Willi Smith’s Message to Retailers: Clothing Should Be Fun.” California Apparel News (August 29, 1980).