‘Building a community’: Rug-makers and artists to converge at TuftCon in Philly

Tufting rose in popularity during the height of the pandemic. Now, Philly’s TuftCon will celebrate the craft in person.

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A tufted carnival figure is shown.

"Carnivalesque," by Cathy LeVitre, on display at Pile Paragons, an exhibition of tufted artwork curated by Qualesha Wood, for TuftCon ’23. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A new convention is coming to Philadelphia — one organizers say is the first of its kind for crafters who tuft.

Using a handheld machine, tufters create pieces ranging from wall hangings to pillows, and even sculptures. Think soft, fluffy piles of colorful yarn that form a design of words, images, or patterns.

The artform rose in popularity via social media during the early stages of the pandemic. Now, organizers have set out for TuftCon 2023 to be a space to celebrate the tufting community in person for the first time.

Two tufted artworks are hung on the wall.
“All the Power to the People” (left) by artist Tara Jamesl, and “Koi Pond” (right) by Elise Stamper on display at Pile Paragons, an exhibition of tufted artwork curated by Qualesha Wood, for TuftCon ’23. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“There is something wonderful about getting together with other people who are interested in what you’re doing, sharing information, and looking at each other’s work,” said co-owner of craft supply shop Tuft the World Tiernan Alexander. “It’s always inspiring.”

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Alexander and her husband, Tim Eads, were born in Texas, but met at a clay class 20 years ago and moved to Philadelphia when Alexander was in graduate school at University of the Arts. Partners in life and in business, the pair have called Philly home for the last 14 years.

Tim Eads and Tiernan Alexander sit together on a sofa. Tufted artworks are hung on a white wall above their heads.
Tiernan Alexander (right) and Tim Eads (left), are the owners of Tuft the World where they help people learn the craft of tufting. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“We still like each other,” quipped Eads. “It’s amazing.”

During a teaching stint at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture, Eads met carpet designer Kate Garman. That was when everything changed.

Not many average people “had heard of tufting outside of the [carpet and flooring] industry,” said Eads, despite the craft having been practiced at home for over 100 years. “The Industrial Revolution just completely took it over.”

Eads was enthralled by it.

He bought tufting machines, took them apart, put them back together, and learned how to use them. Since they came without a manual, he wrote one himself.

Then he began to instruct others, traveling across North America to teach workshops. His fascination with and knowledge of tufting eventually led Eads and his wife to open Tuft the World in 2018.

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Tim Eads demonstrates tufting technique.
Tim Eads demonstrates the tufting process in the Tuft the World studio. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Through education and tools, Eads says he and his wife helped to introduce tufting “into the home craft market.” The shop doesn’t only sell tufting supplies — it prioritizes sustainability and hosts workshops, too.

“There’s such a great difference between a company where you make things to sell, which is lovely and really fun, or a company where you’re giving people the tools and teaching them to make their own art,” said Alexander. That feels more “like building a community,” she added.

Community is the main reason the couple wanted to host a convention. After all, other crafts like knitting and quilting have them.

“TuftCon has been a big dream since the very beginning,” said Alexander. She says it’s a way not only to bring crafters together, but to highlight experts in the field. Her husband agrees.

A light-filled room shows different tufted artworks, and a neon sign to the left reads "Tuft the World."
Pile Paragons, an exhibition of artwork by tufters, is on display inside the Tuft the World Studio inside the Bok building in South Philadelphia for TuftCon ’23. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It’s really fun to be around people who are interested in the same things as you and connecting with people that way,” said Eads.

The three-day-long tufting convention kicks off on Friday, March 24 at Asian Arts Initiative, featuring tufting workshops, demos, lectures, and more. On Sunday, March 26, the event moves to the Bok Building for an opening reception featuring an exhibition called “Pile Paragons” that showcases the work of different artists.

Alexander and Eads hope the convention will be the first of many, with a goal to host one every other year, and even travel to different cities.

For those curious about tufting, fear not: The conference includes a beginner workshop. Classes are a great way to break down the barrier to entry, Alexander says, and figure out if it’s something you enjoy.

“Anybody can do it,” said Alexander.

And for those who can’t attend the conference, the couple is working on a book all about tufting that’s set to be published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2024.

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