Handmade: Fiber artists take advantage of business idea

Jocelynn Brown, The Detroit News 12:07 a.m. EST December 25, 2014

When opportunity knocked, Mandisa Smith and business partner Leslie “Najma” Wilson, both fiber artists, welcomed it with open arms.

After learning about the 2013 “Revolve Detroit” competition, a collaborative program of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation designed to “foster the evolution and vibrancy of Detroit’s neighborhood business districts,” the business-savvy artists entered the contest and were named among its winners.

“We had the opportunity to move into a pop-up space for three months,” Smith says. “After the three months, we signed the lease, and here we are. We’ve been open since September 2013.” The two opened their pop-up space under the name Detroit Fiber Works on Livernois, just south of West Outer Drive in Detroit, an historic area once known as the “Avenue of Fashion” during its time of financial growth.

The women have both garnered an impressive career in the world of fiber art and beyond. Smith has worked in numerous mediums, including textile design, painting and marbling on fabric, papermaking, bookmaking, glass fusing and bead making, jewelry design and metalsmithing. Her work has been featured in the Grosse Pointe Art Center’s National Fiber Show, and sold at Savvy Chic, Dell Pryor Gallery, Arts Extended Gallery, Lawrence Street Gallery, Michigan Artisans and the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center. She was also featured in Hour Detroit magazine.

Wilson, a fiber artist for more than 30 years, studied at the College for Creative Studies, where she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts. Currently retired, she worked in education for 18 years in the Detroit Public Schools system, and spent two years teaching children in Ghana, Benin and Senegal. A board member of Arts Extended Gallery, Wilson has had her fiber work exhibited in Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C.

As co-owners of Detroit Fiber Works, Smith and Wilson showcase not only their work, but also that of other artists, including those who come to town to do trunk shows at their gallery, where small gift items are also available. “We have work in all genres on the wall. Our goal is twofold,” Smith says. “We want to have a space filled with beautiful things, but we also want to offer things made by other artists.

“Business has been steadily improving,” says Smith, who was a craft finalist for the 2014 Martha Stewart “American Made” contest. “People are getting to know we’re here by word of mouth, and we’ve built up a pretty good email list with over 1,500 people on the list.”

Detroit Fiber Works was recently named among winners of the Knight Arts Challenge, which through the Knight Foundation “invests in artistic excellence, funding arts projects that engage the Knight resident communities in collective cultural experiences.”

Plans for the new year will include a list of classes to help individuals learn different fiber art techniques.

Detroit News Staff Writer Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150 or For more craft news and giveaways, visit her blog at


Contact Detroit Fiber Works (19359 Livernois, Detroit 48221) at (313) 610-5111 or visit



Detroit Fiber Works WINS The Knight Arts Challenge!

To push the limits of fiber as an art material by hosting free fiber art workshops for all ages.

Founded in 2013 as a way to help revitalize Livernois Avenue the city’s “Avenue of Fashion,” Detroit Fiber Works shows and sells handmade artworks by Detroit artists across mediums, with an emphasis on fiber.  In addition, Detroit Fiber Works offers community “Fiber Art Parties,” or workshops teaching fiber art techniques in a no-pressure environment. The space seeks to expand awareness of fiber as an art medium, beyond traditional quilting and needlework to include wet felting, nuno felting, fiber sculpture, papermaking and eco-dyeing. With challenge funding, the center will host a series of interactive community workshops for children, teens and adults that culminate in an outdoor fiber art exhibit on Livernois.



Martha Stewart American Made Finalist 2014

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Tell us about your business.

Detroit Fiber Works began in September, 2013. We are located in Detroit on "The Avenue of Fashion" which was once a thriving area of luxury retail establishments. We won a local competition to help revitalize the area, which gave us the opportunity to "pop-up", and now we are permanent! Our "brand" is handmade, one-of-a-kind, and local. We show and sell our own work, as well as the work of other artists. We also operate as a gallery, with exhibitions of "wall art" that change monthly. And last, but not least, we teach fiber art techniques in a fun, no-pressure atmosphere, in an effort to answer the question many people have: "What IS fiber art?" Detroit Fiber Works is a magical space, filled with beautiful objects. Our goal is to bring more beauty to our community. Our product range is diverse, but felted objects take center stage. The felting process involves merging wool fibers together, or into other fabrics (usually, for me, silk gauze). Each piece is unique.

Tell us about your workspace, shop, or studio.

Detroit Fiber Works is located in an area known as “The Avenue of Fashion,” once a top regional destination for luxury shopping. Here you will find artwork by local artists gracing the walls and locally made clothing, jewelry and home accessories. The space is inviting and relaxing, and at the same time, stimulating and intriguing. There is a found-object chandelier that captures everyone’s attention, and painted graphics on the walls reminiscent of vintage Scandinavian floral designs. Through a door behind the gallery/boutique is our studio space, where we design and craft our work, and where we hold our “Fiber Art Parties,” teaching fiber art techniques to small groups. Our offerings have included Felted Scarves, Felted Wish Bowls, Felted Pouches, Painted Pillows, etc. In addition to showing and selling one-of-a-kind artwork, and teaching about fiber, Detroit Fiber Works is also a community space, hosting occasional gatherings and discussions.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by nature, by other artists, by music, and by this force inside of me that compels me to be a maker. I am inspired by the colors of flowers and leaves and sunrises and sunsets, by the shapes of shells and stones, by the rough texture of tree trunks and the smoothness of a baby’s skin. I am inspired by great designers, especially those whose work is elegant and timeless. I am inspired by music, especially jazz, because in many ways, my work is very improvisational – I like to go with the flow, and while I do begin with a design in mind, I love to let my work take me where it will. I am inspired by the knowledge that there are many creative people who, because of unfortunate circumstances, have no opportunity to create, and I am inspired by the people who find a way, despite unfortunate circumstances, to create anyway. I am inspired by my Dad, who is no longer physically here, but who influenced me immensely by his great love for making.

What makes your business stand out?

Our business stands out because we are the only shop in Detroit where you will find exquisite products that are exclusively handmade, exclusively by Detroiters. We are also the only shop that is a combination gallery space/boutique/learning center, with a focus on community enrichment. And last, but not least, we are the only shop where fiber art is primary.

What advice would you give an aspiring creative entrepreneur?

Seek to learn from others, but never be afraid to follow your intuition. Be brave enough to try – you just might succeed! But that can only happen if you TRY.

What does American Made mean to you?

American Made means made by Americans, in America. American Made means made with integrity, ingenuity and commitment to the highest quality.



BUILD INSTITUTE: Mandisa Smith-Detroit Fiber Works


What is Detroit Fiber Works?

Detroit Fiber Works is an art gallery, boutique, and place for learning. We show and sell one-of-a-kind handmade works by local artists. We also offer classes on fiber art techniques. Our mission is three-fold: to educate the community about fiber art, give local artists an opportunity to show their work, and be a part of the revival of the Livernois Avenue of Fashion. I grew up in the neighborhood and can remember what the Avenue was like. That makes it extra special for me, because I know what it has the potential to be.

What was your experience in Build Institute?

What was most valuable was the opportunity to get to know other people who were at the same stage of business development as me. It was comforting to know others were dealing with similar questions, and it made me more aware of the things I needed to know. By going through the business plan process, I was able to really put meat on the bones of my business. I was taking Build while simultaneously working on a proposal for a pop-up with Revolve Detroit. The timing was perfect and I was so lucky to have everything fall into place.

“What was most valuable was the opportunity to get to know other people who were at the same stage of business development as me. It was comforting to know others were dealing with similar questions.”

What are your most recent developments?

After taking Build I had the opportunity to do a three month long pop-up with Revolve Detroit on Livernois. Things went really well and we decided to go for it and negotiated a lease. This space wasn’t our first choice, but it turned out to be a perfect fit. We finally have a website now, and I’m receiving marketing assistance from TechTown. We also have our schedule for the year planned out, with exciting new artists and events in the pipeline. We’ve joined the Avenue of Fashion Business Association and we’ll be participating in an event called Jazz on the Avenue on Saturday, August 2nd. Our most exciting news is that we are a finalist in the Knight Arts Challenge! Whether we win or not, it’s such a tremendous honor to have our proposal make it this far.

What’s in the future for Detroit Fiber Works?

I hope Detroit Fiber Works can become known as an art destination in the community, a place where you can go to buy beautiful handmade objects made by Detroit artists. We want to provide something new and unusual every time someone walks in. I also want to grow a sustainable business, where I can support myself fully and show everyone that fiber art can be more than just a hobby. I’ve been making fiber art and jewelry for a long time, but I never had a studio or outlet for my work. I hope we can provide this for others.



Detroit Economic Growth corporation: REVOLVE Livernois

By ArtPlace America DETROIT, MI



Lori Maher (wife of recently elected Detroit mayor, Mike Duggan) with Mandisa Smith, owner of Detroit Fiber Works

The First Lady Shops the Avenue
Lori Maher, wife of recently elected Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, did her last-minute holiday shopping with some of her friends on the Avenue of Fashion. Her appearance increased the visibility of existing and new small businesses on Livernois. These include: Detroit Fiber Works, Good Cakes and Bakes, Voigt’s Soda House, Art In Motion, and more. “We shopped until we dropped,” she said.

Temporary to Permanent
The year started off with good news: Detroit Fiber Works, a fiber art studio that is focused on community enrichment, launched permanently on Livernois Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. The art studio initially launched as a pop-up on September 20, 2013 during the Detroit Design Festival. Since then, owners Mandisa Smith and Najma Wilson, have had a good deal of success building clientele, hosting workshops, and featuring local and world-renowned artists.

Love Travels Imports, a fair-trade shop featuring handmade items from artisans all over the world, has started a Booster campaign. The campaign is selling shirts to provide more work for artisan groups in South Africa. These groups hand make quality bags, scarves, and other items. Five hundred shirts sold; $6,410.00 of which will go to handmade product costs. The hope is to continue fair-trade practices, keeping local business in Detroit, as it is one of very few shops of it’s kind in the city.

Future Projects
REVOLVE is currently focused on 2014 planning, centered around two major construction projects. These projects involve working with developers to engage the community in the redevelopment process through the arts, temporary uses, and events. These activities will illustrate future permanent uses or vet prospective uses and activities to determine long-term feasibility.


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Leslie "Najma" Wilson

Najma Ma’at Wilson has been a fiber artist for over 30 years. Initially her interest in traditional African textiles impelled her to study fiber design at the College for Creative Studies (CCS). There she studied weaving, dye techniques, silk screen and jewelry and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts. Upon graduation, Najma established her own design business, Hand and Spirit, creating fabrics for body adornment and interiors. Many corporations feature her wall hangings: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Sinai Hospital, Crittenden Hospital, Henry Ford Hospital, Compuware of New Jersey as well as private galleries. During this time, Najma also presented fiber workshops and was asked to be a consultant to the Detroit Public Schools. Her love for children and her true desire to give back to the community lead her to a Master’s Degree in Education from Cambridge College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Najma worked in education for the past 18 years for the Detroit Public Schools. She is currently retired but taught art as an adjunct professor in the Art Education Department at Wayne State University. Her past teaching experiences include Fashion Illustration and Performing Arts at Cass Technical High School, as well as Designing the African American History art and cultural program which has proven to be effective and elevating academic achievement and self esteem in Black youth. Her teaching experience has also taken her to Ghana, Benin and Senegal, West Africa where she educated children for 2 years.

Her fiber work has been exhibited in Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Washington D.C. She is a board member of Arts Extended Gallery, past secretary of National Conference of Artists Michigan Chapter, as well as a member of National Art Education Association (NAEA), Detroit Art Teacher’s Association, and Surface Design Association. Currently Najma is co-owner of Detroit Fiber Works gallery located in the historic Avenue of Fashion.




Mandisa Smith

Detroit Fiber Works

 Mandisa Smith has explored the arts since childhood. She has worked in many mediums, including textile design, painting on fabric, marbling on fabric, papermaking, bookmaking, glass fusing, glass beadmaking, jewelry design and metalsmithing.

For the past five years, Mandisa’s focus has been felting. This is a unique fiber art, practiced by only a few artists in the Detroit metro area. Mandisa creates wet felted wearable art as well as wet felted home accessories. The primary felting techniques that she employs are Wet Felting, which uses 100% wool, and Nuno Felting, in which wool is fused with another fabric. (Mandisa prefers silk gauze.) These are very labor intensive techniques, which result in beautiful garments and accessories which can never be duplicated, not even by the artist herself! Frequently, she dyes her creations using plant materials, another non-repeatable technique.

Recently, her work has been included in the Grosse Pointe Art Center National Fiber Show. Her work has been shown and sold locally at Savvy Chic, 14 East Cafe, Dell Pryor Gallery, Arts Extended Gallery, Jo’s Gallery, Mac Galleries, Lawrence Street Gallery, Michigan Artisans, Naka, Birmingham-Bloomfield Art Association, The International Bazaar, The National Conference of Artists Gallery, The Birmingham Temple, Detroit Institute of Arts, Tulani Rose, and Detroit Artists Market, and has been featured in HOUR Detroit Magazine.

Mandisa has expanded her felting expertise through workshops with Vilte Kazlauskaite , of Lithuania; Irit Dulman of Tel Aviv, Israel; and Leiko Uchiama of Japan. She is a former member of Lawrence Street Gallery in Ferndale, MI. Academically, Mandisa holds an MBA from the University of Michigan and worked in the automotive industry for many years.