''That's reptileskin, lizard skin -- what do you call it? It's not alligator; it's that other stuff," says Joan Koslan Schwartz, pointing to part of a red fabric picture. "And that part is made of kid, and here's some needlework -- no, not needlepoint," she says in a voice apparently accustomed to declarations. "It's work done with a needle. These are knots of tweed thread."
Texture in textiles. That is what stitchery expert and embroiderer extraordinaire Schwartz is all about. A thin woman with purple eyeshadow, three necklaces, and a half dozen rings, Schwartz described herself during a recent interview as the "best fabric artist around." Another declaration that may not be as immodest as it sounds.
Since she began working at her craft in the early 1960s, Schwartz has regularly pulled in "Best of Show" awards at craft events, and has had more than 25 exhibits. She taught contemporary stitchery at the Smithsonian for nine years, served as a director on the National Standards Council of Embroiderers and is listed as a master by the Embroiderers Guild of London.
Hers is not exactly the cross-stitching-on-tea-towels league. Schwartz tends toward large, often ecclesiastical, works. She is just finishing a work depicting the ark for the new Beth Ami Synagogue in Rockville. She also accepts commissions for wall hangings, clothes, drapes and furniture coverings and creates them at her home studio in Vienna.
Her favorite activity at the moment is covering chairs, which fulfills her idea that "fine art is to be lived in. People sit as much as they stand, and a person's chair -- particularly an executive chair -- should reflect his character and taste," she says, adding that it's just one way for "people to express their natural affinity for textiles."
Her medium, she believes, is "the one material thing that most people have an affinity for, because they're in touch with textiles from the moment they're born and put in diapers to the day they are wrapped in their shroud." It's this relation to fabrics, Schwartz says, that enables most people to approach an unusual wall hanging, when the same people might shy away from an abstract painting.
So she understands when people reach out to touch her work, "because they don't believe their eyes -- they only believe their hands." But she isn't always happy to see spectators running their fingers over her more delicate works. "Some of my pieces are extremely fragile, easily damaged. It's a tremendous problem."
Schwartz's works, however, almost cry out to be touched.
"It's a double texture," she says. "First, there is the texture of the thread itself, and then there's the texture of the cloth the thread becomes when it's woven. No other medium has that -- you can change the texture of paint, for example, but you have to add something to it. With textiles, the double texture is just there."
By the time Schwartz finishes one of her pieces, the textural dimensions have multiplied and the result is a work rich in diversity and fluid in line. Inspired mainly by the organic, her work has the kind of vitality that you find in the intricate layers of light on a forest floor.
Near a stairway in her home, a bumpy, gnarled "soft sculpture" sends up tendrils of brown yarn, "inspired by the way ginger grows," she says. Upstairs are two small hangings, green, bubble-like objects "inspired by electron photomicrographs of cells."
On her dining room wall is a fascinating piece of soft, colored circles stitched with fuzzy mohair: "The sun setting behind the clouds." As the lights dim, the sun appears to set and the surrounding cloth takes on the blue hue of a nighttime sky.
The possibility of textured sculpture and wall hangings first became apparent to Schwartz through her grandmother, who taught her to sew.
"I can remember running out of thread one day, and my grandmother gave me another kind. I said, 'But it won't be the same,' " she recalls. "She told me, 'Of course it won't be the same. Why should a symphony only have one note?' And, as usual, she was right."
Schwartz's other major source of inspiration was the stitchery artist Mariska Karasz, whose work she first viewed in New York City, her hometown. Later, as a young mother living in Hawaii, Schwartz heard of the artist's death and thought, "My God, now who'll do this stuff?"
She bicycled down to a fabric store and bought $47 worth of thread and fabric. With this she made her first major work, a wall hanging for the local rabbi.
But it was another rabbi in Monterey, Calif., who gave Schwartz her first real break. "They were trying to start a synagogue there, and I went to see this man at the regional office to see about doing a hanging for the synagogue. He took my work to New York and got me a show."
After that, "like Topsy, it just grew and grew." When Schwartz came east in 1965 she met someone at the Smithsonian and started teaching there, as well as in her Vienna studio, The Needle's Point.
Some of her students, she says, have gone on to win prizes themselves, but all of them, she hopes, have learned to use fabric as a means of communication.
"We all have a spiritual need to express our individuality," she says, "and this is the way I express myself best."