We were 20 women from six countries, ranging in age from our 30s to 60s, gathered on the private island of Silverskär, part of the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea, for a five-day Lotta Jansdotter printing workshop, and I believe that we were all basking in "the rapture of being alive."
“Nature does nothing in vain. Therefore, it is imperative for persons to act in accordance with their nature and develop their latent talents, in order to be content and complete.” --Aristotle
If making by hand is an important part of your life, I hope you'll take out a few minutes to tell me why. I'm doing research for an upcoming book and am hoping to hear from makers all over the world. Follow link for more detail. Thanks in advance for being part of this project.Read More
In 2012 I took part in the Yale Publishing Course, a one-week intensive classroom-based workshop for publishing professionals. I'm not sure how I found out about it, but when I mentioned it to the CEO of Abrams, the company I was working for, he encouraged me to attend. I was eager to try something different and liked the idea of spending a week at Yale meeting new people and hearing their perspectives on the state of the book publishing industry. Once I got there, I realized that the lecturers and attendees were much more focused on the business side of publishing than the creative side (which I should have expected given the program description, but somehow I didn't). Late one afternoon, when I was feeling especially lost amidst business talk, I was happily surprised when Nigel Holmes entered and gave a funny, passionate, interactive lecture about his career as a a graphic designer, art director, and illustrator. Holmes, internationally renowned for his ingenious work in information graphics (the art of distilling complex data and ideas into appealing, easy-to-understand visual forms), began and ended his presentation by showing us a simple wooden boat, which if my memory serves me correctly, he had made for his grandson. With that small handmade object he reminded us to never let the lure of technology or business overshadow our connection to our own hands. I departed the classroom quickly, walked straight to the bathroom, looked down at my hands, and started to cry.
Before going to sleep that evening, I wrote this email to Nigel:
I am taking the Yale Publishing Course and attended your lecture today. I am emailing to thank you. I actually had tears in my eyes when you finished. I have worked in publishing for over 20 years and, for the most part, have specialized in handcrafts. I have my own imprint at Abrams now and have always prided myself on the quality and beauty of the books we create. I'm a bit out of my element in this program because it is so focused on business, but that was part of my reason for taking it: I wanted to see publishing from a different perspective as I try to figure out how to navigate these challenging times. I have been asking myself many questions about the path I have taken thus far and the path I ought to take moving forward. After your lecture, I looked down at my hands and thought, perhaps the answer is right here.
Early the next morning I was happy to wake to a response:
What a nice message...thank you very much for taking the time to write (and at such a late hour!)
Like you, I feel a bit lost in conferences such as this one, and I know that I should really attend all the sessions as a participant (not as a nervous presenter, just waiting for the one before mine to end), but I have generally gone through life using intuition more than focused reasoning, and it seems to have supported me so far.
I very much like the feel of the books I can see on your site...you seem to be making beautiful books that encourage the kind of lifestyle that I was advocating last night: technology is a great tool, but it will never be a substitute for human work and ideas.
Keep looking at your hands.
Thank you again for writing.
All the best,
If you have read this blog before, then you may know that in May of last year I left my position at Abrams without a sure plan for what I would do next, feeling both scared and excited about entering the unknown. Looking back now, I think it was in the bathroom at Yale, after Nigel's lecture, that I began to truly understand that it was time for me to move on professionally. I was in tears because he had broken through the mental facade I had built to protect myself from facing the scary reality that I was in a job (in many ways a dream job) that would not suit me much longer.
I was reminded of my email exchange with Nigel this morning while preparing to write a blog post about about my new project, the one I hinted at here. I have just signed a contract with Artisan to write a book about the role of making by hand in our individual lives and our collective culture. It will involve about 18 months of research and writing and is tentatively scheduled to be published in the fall of 2018. My first book, Knitting in America, was published by Artisan in 1996. And, in some ways, this feels like a homecoming. I wrote a book 20 years ago, and that book opened up all sorts of opportunities for me and led me to my job at Abrams. And now I am returning home to the publisher that believed in me first, to a subject that is dear to me and always has been.
Thank you, Nigel. I am, indeed, looking at my hands.
A big new project begins. . . with a big pile of books (and a few magazines) to read. Dare I hope that the wifi conks out for a few days to help me focus and get immersed? Would I panic and head to a cafe or library or friend's house with internet service? Or would I be able to revel in the peacefulness of a few days of disconnection from the world wide web?
Late last spring when I left my job at a publishing house, I knew it was time for me to move on, but I didn't know where I wanted to go. I dreaded the inevitable question that people (almost everyone!) would ask when they found out I had quit my job. So, what are you going to do next? Even worse was their inevitable followup, which just felt like pressure: I'm sure whatever you do will be great.
My plans for the future were vague: Aside from freelance work that I had lined up to keep some income flowing, a two-week graphic design course, some family obligations, and an intention to spend more time in the garden, I didn't know what I wanted to do next. I just knew that I needed some time to be quiet and to let my mind wander. I knew that I had to have faith that wandering without knowing would lead me to a good place.
My wandering, as it turned out, included spending a lot of time making things by hand. I would call it therapy except that seems to imply that there was something wrong with me when I felt lost and, in fact, admitting I was lost was the most right part of what I was doing.
Aside from the stencil project that I wrote about here, which had a steep learning curve, most of the projects I chose were not too difficult to learn how to do, though they did require practice and patience. For example, I learned to use a strap cutter and a beveler to make leather bracelets and I inserted my first zipper when I hand-stitched Tyvec pouches. To my surprise, one of the most fulfilling projects was folding a paper box. Transforming a sheet of paper into a receptacle in which I could store something felt magical. It was so basic, almost primal. It was a skill that, like making my own clothing and growing my own vegetables (which give me great pleasure), could have helped me to survive if I had lived a very long time ago.
And that was it, I realize now: In my own way, I was seeking my own survival. I needed to stop focusing so intently on making a living and instead focus more fully on making a life. Even though I don't need to make my own clothing or boxes—or much of anything—these days to literally survive (keep breathing), I need that connection to feel whole, that is, to feel connected to my soul, to my community, and to the natural world around me. And, as a result of giving myself time to wander and to make, I no longer feel lost.
When I started this blog I wrote in the About section, "I decided to leave Abrams to explore new personal and professional possibilities. On this blog I am tracking my journey." And that is what I will continue to do. Because, as confusing as it can be sometimes and, as we all know but sometimes need to be reminded, the journey is the destination.
Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin wrote in a recent blog post about reading Brené Brown's book Rising Strong. I wasn't surprised because she had recommended the book to me during a telephone call a few days before and had also introduced me to Brown's first Ted Talk a couple of years ago. I went out and got a copy of Rising Strong and right away read these words in the first paragraph of the flap copy:
"[Brown's] pioneering work uncovered a profound truth: Vulnerability—the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome—is the only path to more love, belonging, creativity, and joy. But living a brave life is not always easy: We are inevitably, going to stumble and fall."
And there it was: A perfect synopsis of how I felt about the last few months of a project I was doing with Natalie. After leaving my full-time job last May, I had called Natalie and told her that one of the many things I wanted to do as I took some time off to think about my next move professionally was to learn Adobe Illustrator and to use it do design a stencil to spray on a cotton jersey garment in her DIY line. Her fourth book, Alabama Studio Sewing Patterns," which was all about customizing garments (and which I edited), had just come out and this seemed like a nice extension. In the book, she teaches readers how to personalize the fit and style of a garment. Why not, I reasoned, now suggest that they consider designing their own stencils as well? Natalie generously agreed that her studio would provide me with stencil-design guidance, that they would spray the stencil design onto the garment pieces for me to embellish and sew, and that they would offer my finished stencil as a free download on their website. I agreed to write about the process—from designing the stencil to embellishing the fabric to sewing the garment—on this blog. I felt like this "official" agreement with Natalie would provide me with some needed structure in my new less structured life.
The first step, of course, was learning Adobe Illustrator, which I had started at home watching videos online—but without a lot of progress. In July I took a two-week course on Identity Design + Branding at the Rhode Island School of Design, which fortunately included a teaching assistant ready to sit by my side and coach me in Illustrator, the program I needed to know to complete the assignments. I learned a lot about how Illustrator works but not exactly what I needed for my stencil project. A few weeks later I returned to Providence for a weekend, hired a student to tutor me for three hours a day, and began working specifically on my stencil-design skills. As a learning exercise, using a CD from a V&A Pattern book, I traced over the work of William Morris and some other amazing designers. Then, once I understood how to use the necessary tools, I started trying to design my own motifs. For inspiration, I looked in every kind of book you can imagine (art, textiles, costume, fashion, gardening, coloring, pattern, etc.), at photos I had taken, at garments and stencils in the Alabama Chanin collections, at buildings, logos, wallpapers, Pinterest boards, plants in my yard, even at the design embossed on my son's retainer case. Basically, I looked everywhere. I sketched on paper and I spent hours trying to transform my inspiration into my own design on my computer screen. Quickly I realized that what I would create would be, more than anything, dictated by my novice Illustrator skills. I began with the basic guidelines that Natalie and her design director Olivia Sherif had shared with me (available here). Then, I worked—and worked—and sent them periodic pdfs of my progress. I probably started about ten different designs but, at the end of October, we narrowed down the options to two: Circus and Falling Leaves (see below). And then Natalie chose the "winner:" Circus. I tested three different colorways (see above) and now I'm ready to start a Long Skirt in two shades of blue (top layer: navy; bottom layer: storm) and reverse applique.
While I enjoyed a lot about the time I spent on this project in last few months, overall, I found it to be more challenging than I had imagined in the beginning for many reasons, including:
--Illustrator is a complicated program to learn.
--Envisioning how a design on a 14-inch laptop screen will translate onto full-size garments does not come naturally to me.
--Sometimes designing means spending hours and hours late into the night on an idea that doesn't really work out. Sometimes that happens with a lot of ideas.
--Being a good designer is not just a choice, it is the result of talent and hard work and experience, all of which I need to earn. While this is not a revelation to me, this process has been a good reminder: Natalie and her team make what they do look easy, which is not because it is easy but because they are masters and work extremely hard.
--And now my nod to Brené Brown: I'm not comfortable feeling vulnerable. I didn't want to disappoint Natalie. I didn't want to disappoint myself. I didn't want to fail—or even stumble—in front of anyone. Accepting vulnerability—and the discomfort that comes with it—as a natural and valuable part of the learning process has actually been the hardest lesson of all.
But I continue. This week I will begin to stitch an Alabama Chanin Long Skirt with my Circus stencil design sprayed upon it. I will "love my thread" as Natalie has taught me and I will repeat Brené Brown's words like a mantra: "Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change."
Row 1: Wallpaper design by Lewis Foreman Day/Jeffrey & Co, from V&A Pattern: Garden Florals; an early version of my Falling Leaves stencil design. Row 2: Another early version of Falling Leaves; one of my sketches; a shadow with an interesting pattern in Greece. Row 3: A wooden cabinet with fanciful trim in St. Lucia; a logo on a shop window in Providence (the beginnings of Circus); a bouquet. Row 4: My Circus, Folk Music, and Falling Leaves stencil designs.
Like many high school students, my son is given a list of books to read over the summer. He always complains no matter the selections. Sometimes, both because I'm interested and because I feel like it might motivate him if he can discuss a book with me, I'll read a title he is assigned. Last summer one of the three books on his list was The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Set in late 19th-century New Orleans and published in 1899, it is the story of an unfulfilled wife and mother who seeks love and passion outside of her family life. Dismissed as morbid, vulgar, and disagreeable when it was released, it is now widely recognized as a landmark in American literature.
In the beginning, probably in mid-July, my son and I bonded over the fact that we both found the story to be very, very slow. Within just a few chapters he was ready to give up. I wanted to set a good example and keep on going, but every night instead of picking up the book off the floor beside my bed and reading, I would find something else to do—usually involving Netflix or my Iphone. Part of my problem, I quickly realized, was laziness. I had become so used to the instant gratification of the internet and to the passive comfort of swiping through photos and watching tv shows and movies on demand that I didn't have the "muscle" to pay attention to words on the page, to put them together to create a vision of what was happening in my mind and I was feeling in my soul.
Around mid-August, I thought to myself, I have to read this book. And slowly 10 pages a night turned to 20 and then more. I was getting used to the language and the pace. The story was creeping up on me and resonating.
Midway through Chapter 19, Chopin writes:
"It sometimes entered Mr. Pontelier's mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world."
That fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world? That could be our clothing, our makeup, our Instagram feeds, the choices we make to please others, the feelings we edit before sharing because we fear the that the full truth will be judged poorly.
And then at the end of the same chapter:
"There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why,—when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation. She could not work on such a day; nor weave fancies to stir her pulses and warm her blood."
Edna Pontellier was deeply depressed. She could not even pretend to be happy. She felt trapped in a life that didn't suit her within a society that couldn't understand her. While women in this country have many more options now than they did in the late nineteenth century, our full stories still often remain hidden. Chopin could have been writing about me or any number of women I know today—complicated women who struggle to figure out how to be true to their inner longings while, at the same time, lead productive, generous lives. Women who are uncomfortable wearing the garment of a "fictitious self" created by society's expectations. Women who deeply feel a broad range or emotions, some of them quite dark. Women who are reluctant to admit that the partner and children they love are not everything they need.
Just yesterday my son saw The Awakening in my hands again and exclaimed.. "Why are you looking at that book again? Do you actually think it was good? Yes. I think it was good. Yes, I'm glad I read it. Today I started poking around the internet to learn more about Chopin and found The Kate Chopin International Society, a rich resource. This passage from Norwegian author Per Seyersted's 1969 book Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, further piqued my interest:
Kate Chopin "broke new ground in American literature. She was the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction. Revolting against tradition and authority; with a daring which we can hardly fathom today; with an uncompromising honesty and no trace of sensationalism, she undertook to give the unsparing truth about woman's submerged life. She was something of a pioneer in the amoral treatment of sexuality, of divorce, and of woman's urge for an existential authenticity. She is in many respects a modern writer, particularly in her awareness of the complexities of truth and the complications of freedom."
The complexities of truth and the complications of freedom: that is a lot to think about. This curiosity rising in me reminds me that reading a novel can be like a meditation, a slowing down to reach a deeper place. It is a rhythmic, quiet process that can put us in touch with parts of ourselves that have been laying dormant within.