April 18, 2023
A West Philly company has set out to prove that art is all around us — even underfoot.
Tuft the World is a textiles supplier that helped launch the trend of rug tufting, which refers to making a rug with a "gun" that punches yarn through a backing material in the form of a loop. The company is one of the latest additions to the Bok Building, where it will offer an expanded selection of classes that explore tufting, crochet, embroidery and screen printing.
"We had long wanted to have a locally centered space where people can come, take classes, do more advanced classes for people who've already started and then kind of expand it out into something of a big fibers workshop, because a lot of folks who love tufting also love screen printing or crochet or sewing, as we all do," Tuft the World co-owner Tiernan Alexander said. "We're all craft heads. And so we're kind of using tufting as the gateway drug to a life of craft."
Tuft the World will join over 250 artists and businesses that inhabit the 340,000-square-foot structure in South Philly. On Friday, April 21, the company will officially launch its new home at the Bok Building at 1901 S. 9th St. with an open house from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Staff will be on hand to provide demonstrations.
Rug tufting allows artists to pick colors and essentially draw with the tufting gun to make their desired shapes and patterns. It's grown especially popular on social media, leading some to dub tufting the "TikTok design trend of COVID-19."
"Once you start doing it, it's like this really enjoyable, almost addictive thing, just to have such an instant ability to make something that looks so good," Alexander said. "The process is really fun. It's really satisfying. And I want to say this in the best way, because I think there's so many incredibly creative people, but it looks good even when you're a beginner. Like it's an extremely forgiving art medium ... It's so easy to make something genuinely beautiful."
In 2018, Alexander started Tuft the World with her husband Tim Eads, who heard about tufting from his teaching assistant at Temple University's Tyler School of Art. Once Eads tried tufting for himself, he began posting his at-home rug-making endeavors online and gained a large following. He then traveled across North America teaching rug tufting, and his wife got into the rug-making habit as well.
"I just posted a couple of videos on Instagram, and people were just like, losing their mind," Eads said. "And it kind of took off from there in a way that ... was a completely different level. And then during that pandemic, we grew like 500 percent in 2020. I mean, it just exploded."
Though the craft has now skyrocketed in popularity, partially due to Tuft the World's offerings and social media, it wasn't always easy to acquire the necessary tools and materials. Tufting guns, described by Alexander as a "1950s ray gun kind of situation," were commonly used for industrial purposes but weren't largely available for consumers when the trend took off.
Alexander and Eads, both artists from Texas who met in a clay class, hoped to find a way to provide prospective tufters with the high-quality tools, materials and instruction needed to make their own artwork at home.
In 2021, the company opened a fulfillment center in Canada, and Tuft the World now sells all the necessary tools and materials, including tufting machines, frames, cloth and yarn.
Through Tuft the World, not only do Alexander and Eads live out their mission of making art more accessible, they also stay true to their values of equity and sustainability. One percent of every web shop sale gets donated to nonprofits, and Tuft the World launched Shred the World last year, which aims to up-cycle waste products that would otherwise end up in landfills.
While rug tufting may seem like an old-fashioned art form, Tuft the World brings it into the 21st century with modern technologies like a robotic tufting system that automates the process, which helps artists who have injuries or mobility issues, as well as rug designs generated by AI.
Overall, the pair enjoys giving artists the skills necessary to teach tufting to the next generation of makers, or to make a living for themselves.
"It's really grown up," Alexander said. "There's a bunch of other people who are also teaching classes, selling machines; like it feels like it's a real craft, it's kind of hitting the big time. And that sense that this is something that could really last and be more than just a TikTok trend, that feels really special. Because one of the things I really care about is that you can genuinely build a business off this."
Tuft the World is also bringing tufters to Philadelphia. The company hosted the first-ever tufting convention, TuftCon, last month at the Asian Arts Initiative center. The three-day event welcomed over 100 people for a lineup of guest speakers, demonstrations and workshops. Alexander and Eads hope to continue hosting the event annually.
"(TuftCon) was really rewarding for a lot of reasons, not the least of which because of the number of people there who said they'd never met another tufter," Alexander said. "They were building community."
Interested tufters can sign up for in-person workshops that range from introductory to advanced, and cover unique projects like tufting pillows or stools. The company also offers summer youth programs for kids and teens, as well as introductory online classes for those who have the materials at home.
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