Handmade: Operating engineer is talented textile artist
When Michael Fitzgerald isn't busy fulfilling his work duties inside a boiler room at Wayne State University (WSU) in Detroit, chances are he's somewhere flexing his muscles with one of his favorite pastimes -- knitting, crocheting, weaving or spinning.
Fitzgerald was first introduced to the world of fiber art when he was a small child, often watching his paternal grandmother crochet and knit. "Crocheting was the one I started with at 5 years old," he said. "I watched my grandma, and asked her to teach me how to do that, and she did! She was a very patient woman."
Two years later, she taught him to knit. "Grandma would always work three or four (of the beginning) rows, and I didn't learn to purl until I was in my teens," he recalled.
The art of spinning and weaving didn't come to him until much later, at age 42 when he was 'married with children.' He said, "We (he and his wifeHelen of 36 years) were raising the kids on the eastside of Detroit, and we decided to make a move to the suburbs. We picked South Lyon. As long as we were out here, I decided to get the girls involved in the 4-H Club. There weren't too many who knew how to knit or crochet. While I was teaching them, I had to make it interesting for myself, so I learned how to spin."
Later, he and his eldest daughter took a couple weaving classes from a gentleman who runs a weaving studio nearby, and who attended Center for Creative Studies (now known as College for Creative Studies) "back in the '30s."
Fitzgerald, who in 2000 received his degree in anthropology from WSU, was inspired to learn to weave after trips to Africa -- one in 1998, 2000 and 2002. "When I was in Africa, I studied with a family of drum makers in a village, where the primary way of making a living was weaving roofing material, as well as cloth. I've been interested in how people work, and how we train folks to weave -- the knowledge and the things you have to learn to consider yourself a master weaver."
Fitzgerald, 57, said he worked "many, many" years with Detroit Public Schools before accepting his current position as a stationary (or operating) engineer at WSU, where he's taken advantage of the "one hundred percent paid tuition" program offered to its employees. "I started out with textiles and weaving (classes), but lately I've been doing painting and drawing. When you take a studio class, if you want to do well, you only take one class. I'm always there after work," he said.
He goes back and forth with his different fiber skills, but admits he's not doing a lot of crocheting these days. Although it was his first love, he now prefers knitting because of the characteristics of the finished piece.
"I believe knitting produces a much more superior fabric. It's thinner, and uses about 30 percent less yarn. It's also stronger and it doesn't have the holes (space between stitches) in it, unless you put them in it. And, knitting is very flexible. (But), I do like crochet to make like Iris crochet, where you can crochet motifs and such, and I do like crocheted doilies."
No matter the project -- whether it's knitting, crocheting or weaving -- Fitzgerald said, "The yarn has got to be right. A lot of people like to work with chunky yarn these days, (but) I'm not a 'thick and quick' kind of guy. With weaving, the more picks (insertions of yarn) the finer and stronger it is. It just makes a better fabric."
Luckily, he's able to spin most of his yarn, and as a gardener, he said, "Right about now, during the harvest, I end up inside a lot, so I'll do spinning if I don't have yarn for a project. He enjoys "engineering a yarn" by dying and then blending the fibers together. Several years ago, he purchased "a used, but expensive Polish Kromski spinning wheel, made in Poland." He said, "It's known for super high workmanship with real ornate turnings."
And, as a member of the Spinner's Flock in Chelsea, he said, while many men tend to shy away from knitting, crocheting and weaving, "spinning is something men can kind of get into" because the mechanics of the wheel "appeal to a male mentality quite a bit." But he usually gets different reactions from guys about his fiber work. Some think it's "cool," he said, while others are "incensed" by it. He said, "It's almost as if I was asking them to do something."
After learning about the Detroit Knitting and Crochet Club, Fitzgerald recently joined the popular group, which (usually) meets every fourth Saturday of the month at the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, from 1-3 p.m. And, thanks to longtime member Gregg Burrell of Highland Park, who brought Fitzgerald to my attention, I had the pleasure of sharing bits and pieces of his impressive fiber art story. (What a guy!)
Detroit News columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade.
Contact Michael Fitzgerald on Facebook. Email: email@example.com.