Sally Fitch is a study in contrasts: a small-town girl who’s traveled the globe; a teacher who never lost the yen for learning; a collector of exotic fabrics who loves to share her finds; a frequent traveler to far-flung corners of the world with deep roots in the Yakima Valley. Now retired at age 72, Sally utilizes those contrasts in her new “career:” fiber artist.
Animated, effusive, articulate and funny, Sally punctuates her stories with smiles. As she relates details of her life, one has the distinct impression that she’s not just reciting a memory but seeing and hearing it play out in the space between her and the listener. In those stories she traces her path from child of the Plains to artist in textiles.
Sally was born at the eastern edge of Montana, daughter of a railroad man who worked for the Milwaukee Road and a teacher-mother. Her father’s work required relocations that took the family farther west with each move, eventually landing them in Yakima when she was 10.
As a little girl, Sally loved fabric. “As soon as I could handle scissors, I tried to figure out how to make cloth into something wearable.” Frustrated by efforts that looked “like paper-doll clothes,” she joined 4-H and learned to sew. “My mom wasn’t much help with technical things, but she always bought me good fabric and Jantzen sweaters to complete my outfits.”
Her mom was good at stirring Sally’s taste for travel. Every fall her mother used the employees’ free train privileges with other railroads to take her daughters to New York City. The girls could buy one dress and one pair of shoes each with their cherry-picking money. Some years later, when her mother was earning an education master’s degree at Columbia, the girls again went along. “We could roam the neighborhoods at will, but Mama told us don’t ride the subways!”
At the University of Washington, Sally’s first choice of study was anthropology. But at that time, the major wasn’t open to women. She opted for her next favorite, history, with a Spanish minor. She embraced academic travel during her junior year, participating in the Experiment in International Living in Costa Rica and Guatemala.
Sally says simply, “That was a life-changing experience.” She reveled in the rich cultural stew of Central America and discovered her passion for ethnic textiles. Browsing local markets, she bought colorful fabrics and handmade clothes. If she could afford it, she snatched it up.
Back home her dad said, “You’re going to have to make a living.” Rather than the history master’s she wanted, Sally picked up teaching credentials. She taught Spanish in Othello — “a community I loved, where everyone supported the schools” — followed by a year in Auburn. Then the next phase of her life began: she married Jim Fitch, her friend since junior high days in Yakima. They moved to California where Sally taught and Jim finished his tour with the Navy.
The couple then volunteered together for the Peace Corps. The Fitches were sent to northern Chile near the Bolivian border. Getting there was arduous — several hours by truck and mule — but their assignment was tougher: community development to counter misguided agriculture, severe water shortages and local leadership hostile to change.
Within a year, it was clear they couldn’t effect needed progress. Reassigned to southern Chile, they both taught at a Methodist school. Sally says with a smile, “I got the leftover classes, things I had no background in: Chilean history, folk dance, art, and all in Spanish.”
Following their two years with the Peace Corps, the Fitches moved around the U.S. in pursuit of graduate degrees and jobs. One of their children was born while the couple studied at Purdue University in Indiana; the other in Palo Alto, Calif.
Soon another adventure came along that was too good to pass up: Jim was offered a position as an agricultural economist in Cairo with the Ford Foundation. The family lived a few blocks from Tahrir Square, focal point of the recent Egyptian revolution, but in the late 1970s the city felt safe and hospitable to the Fitches.
Says Sally, “We learned the glories of Islamic culture, art, music, history, science, food!” During their three years there, the family traveled throughout the Mideast and northern Africa. “We could have continued the international life, but we wanted to have a place our kids could call home.”
They returned to Yakima in 1980. Jim opened his office as an agricultural economics consultant. Sally resumed teaching Spanish and history in the Yakima schools, first at Wilson Junior High (now Middle School), then at Eisenhower High and Stanton Academy. She retired in 2000, but returned to teaching a few years later for Washington State Juvenile Rehabilitation Services in Yakima, working with youth offenders on parole. “It was a challenging teaching environment because the student population was continually changing, but it was more fun because instruction was individualized and we could do interesting things outside of the classroom,” she says.
All the while, Jim and Sally continued traveling, seeking out tiny villages and out of the way regions still steeped with traditional cultures. And textiles. For Sally, there are always textiles to discover and acquire.
Sally retired for good in 2005 and returned to her lifelong interest in apparel-making, but with a twist. Inspired by the artwork of friend and mentor Ann Bowker, Sally saw that she could use her now-extensive collection of textiles as the launch point for art-to-wear.
However, just as she began exploring fiber art, Jim was critically injured. While retrieving an errant tennis ball, he climbed a wall using a bush for support. The bush wasn’t strong enough and Jim fell onto the concrete tennis court, crushing both wrists and suffering a compression fracture of the spine. Many times during the year of his initial recovery, Sally found herself worried and unable to sleep. Bowker counseled her to use those wee hours to sew.
“I’d get up in the middle of the night and cut pieces out. For me, making art-to-wear started out as a kind of therapy.”
Soon Sally found her artistic trademark: art-to-wear that extends the work of the craftspeople she encounters in her travels. “What turns me on is the work of ethnic artisans. If they can work hard, so can I. I want to honor their work through my interpretations of their textiles.”
Her creations usually start when something in her stash catches her attention. She pulls out other fabrics, sketches ideas and digs out a pattern. Gradually, the design emerges. The advice she gives others is what she practices herself: “Never mind the fear. Just play and have fun with a project!”
A fiction writer might characterize Sally’s evolution from teacher to textile artist as “an inevitable surprise.” The journey has been complex, but her adventures have led to where she is today: an artist expressing all that life has taught her, often with a laugh.