In COVER 66, Editor Lucy Upward takes a look at the trend for tufted homewares and art and speaks to four dedicated tufters about the joys of the craft. Many of the new tufters we can see online are followers and clients of artist and Tuft the World founder Tim Eads, who has earned himself the name ‘King Tuft’. Driven by a desire to share his knowledge and offer better accessibility to tufting materials, Eads set up his Tuft the World business and regularly shares tips and demos online on the company website and on platforms such as TikTok. Here he speaks to Lucy Upward about his discovery of tufting and the craft’s meteoric rise in popularity during the pandemic.
What inspired you to take your artwork into the realm of tufting? I’ve been around textile arts all my life. My family raised angora goats for mohair, my mom is an avid quilter, and I’ve worked in fibre arts since I moved to Philadelphia in 2009. That’s when I started working at The Fabric Workshop and Museum as a Project Manager helping other artists realise their artistic projects using sewing, felting, hair braiding, screen printing, and many other material processes.
How did you learn the technique? Mostly it was trial and error. Kate Garman, Head of Creative Communication at Tuft the World told me about tufting originally. She had been a carpet designer at Scott Group in Michigan and had seen folks use tufting machines to design and make custom rugs. Once I had seen their videos, I found a manufacturer and bought one to experiment with.
There were only a couple of videos on YouTube that demonstrated people tufting but no technique videos so I learned by trial and error and failed a lot. I tried every yarn and cloth possible figuring out which materials performed the most consistently and got the results I wanted. Once I upgraded to coned yarn that was ideal for rug tufting and the tufting cloth that I import now, my tufting improved significantly.
What were the qualities that tufted pieces brought to your art? My artistic practice has ranged from ceramics and installation to design and printing. For my first all-tufted art show I created a deep shag cotton rug that was installed on the floor walls and ceiling of a room that visitors could completely enter into. In other works, I have applied the techniques of pattern design while using the materiality of yarn to soften and enhance what might have been a 2D work into something much more tactile and expressive.
What is your most recent tufted work about? I’m working on an ongoing series where I tuft gerrymandered maps of different cities. They portray subtle political ideas without being offensive. Like a lot of artists, I’m fascinated with the abstract nature of maps and find that pulling the organic shapes from them can highlight parts that might be overlooked.
What led you to set up Tuft the World? I’ve always been interested in sharing techniques and teaching others so Tuft the World started as a way to teach others what I had learned with tufting. In 2019 I travelled all over North America and taught well over 500 people how to tuft, which gave me so much pleasure. I love seeing others get excited about a new skill and see immediate results. As I got deeper into the process and improved my technique, I realised finding the machines, yarn and cloth was nearly impossible. Offering them to others seemed like a natural extension of teaching.
How did you become ‘King Tuft’, and centre of an online tufting community? It actually started as a joke, to be honest. I was teaching a workshop somewhere and someone said I was King Tuft. At first, I was really offended by the thought of being a king of anything and was way to humble to accept the title. Over time it stuck and continues to give me joy and a gross feeling so I guess it will stay. My wife, Tiernan, has also become a 50/50 owner in the business and her email is Mother Tufter. It gives everyone a good laugh and grounds the nature of the business a bit.
What has happened in the last 4 years that led the company to grow? Since it started in April 2018 Tuft the World was on a pretty steady trajectory but the lockdown presented insane growth. We grew 5 times in 2020 and doubled that again in 2021. It was crazy hard most of 2020 because my part-time employees weren’t coming in so Tiernan and I were filling all the orders, answering all customer queries and doing customer service. In August 2020 we moved into a warehouse and hired a few folks to help. I think at the end of 2020 we had around 16 full-time employees and couldn’t seem to catch up. We had maxed out our manufacturer’s capacity and were buying stuff from several vendors to keep up. We just hired our 31st full-time employee and aren’t showing any signs of slowing down.
What is it about tufting that has so many people hooked? I think it’s how immediate the results are. In our workshops someone can pick up a machine and have a tufted piece in a few hours. There’s not that many art or craft techniques that are that immediate in nature.
How important is sustainability? It’s critical to Tuft the World and one of our core values. We take it very seriously and practice sustainability where we can. Some ways we’re being sustainable are: We partner with Ecologi to plant a tree with every order. In 6 months, we have planted over 15,000 trees in Madagascar, 90% of all cardboard boxes we receive gets shredded and used as order packing materials. As a consequence, we no longer buy virgin packing materials. We don’t use plastic. From our tape to wrapping materials we only use paper or certified compostable materials. We recycle all plastic we receive with a local company called Rabbit Recycling. We only use compostable paper flatware, plates, and cups for our staff and we have a local compost pickup with Bennet Compost. Our yarns are either recycled or produced in the US to support local economies.
What is happening next? We’re launching some new products this year. We have some yarns in mind as well as products to make tufting better and easier. We have some new and exciting education projects on the horizon. Outside of teaching tufting workshops we are expanding our offerings to all textile methods.