After many months of not posting anything, Tim Minchin's 2013 commencement address has inspired me. Minchin, I've just learned, is a famous Australian musician, composer, songwriter, actor, comedian, and writer.
It was Day 4 of my first week at Chateau Dumas, woad-dyeing day, so a Wednesday. I woke up early that morning and decided to finish hand-stitching my Alabama Chanin/School of Making Long Skirt before breakfast. I had finished sewing the pieces together a few weeks earlier, but hadn't yet found the time to attach the waistband. I reviewed my instructions for herringbone stitch, threaded my needle, and more quickly than I expected, I was done. Having stitched waistbands like this one before, I knew that to get satisfying results, I needed to baste it on first. I actually worked slowly and methodically, but because I didn't rush, I didn't have to spend much time untangling thread or reworking uneven stitches.
I began this project back in the summer of 2015 when I started learning a computer graphics program in order to design a stencil to be spray-painted onto the cotton-jersey fabric (and then serve as my guide for the reverse-applique embellishment). Last October and January I wrote about my progress on this blog, about the patience and vulnerability learning something new required. And today I am writing about how good I felt when I finished. I was lucky to be in France at the time. I was taking two workshops at the chateau and feeling so happy. Immediately upon tying my last knot and snipping the thread, I pulled on the skirt and went down to breakfast.
I am not usually eager to have my picture taken and, like so many women, I am always very critical when I see myself in photos, but after breakfast on this day, I was relaxed and comfortable. And I was excited to be wearing a skirt that held so much meaning to me. I managed a selfie of the skirt over my legs and then asked Lizzie, Chateau Dumas' kind host and proprietor, to help with a more complete shot. We started near the garden steps, then made our way to the courtyard and then the front entryway. It was fun and funny to play photo shoot and it reminded me of the joy of playing dress-up as a child.
When I look at the photos from our short session now—three of which I share below—I see how flattering happiness can be. I was happy because I had completed a project I really cared about and that required learning something new, because I was in a beautiful place with other women learning something else new, and because I had made time in my life for all of it.
I spent one week in India in September. As a guest of the Land of Nod team, I accompanied them on visits to factories where some of their products are made by hand and by machine, including quilts, sheets, rugs, and toys, and also on some special side trips. It was a week I will never forget, one that has enriched, educated, and inspired me.
Here is a gallery of photos from my two weeks at Chateau Dumas in Auty, France, last summer. Auty is in the southwest, about an hour from Toulouse. Most of these shots are of the chateau, but there are also a few of the nearby village of St. Antonin Noble Val. Week 1 was indigo and shibori dyeing with Jane Callender. Week 2 was textile collage with Mandy Patullo. In addition to our classes at the chateau, we took a couple of field trips (including St. Antonin Noble Val) and spent a day doing woad dyeing. Lizzie Hulme, the proprietor of the chateau, is planning to post the schedule for next summer in November. I happen to know a few of the instructors who will be on it. Very special! Very highly recommended! I am already dreaming of going back. (To view the gallery, click on the first photo to increase its size, then click the right arrow to move forward from there.)
I barely posted during the summer because I was really busy traveling and, in between traveling, trying to catch up with my work. In July I was on Åland, in the Baltic Sea, to take Lotta Jansdotter's printing workshop; in August I was at Chateau Dumas in southwestern France to take classes in indigo and shibori with Jane Callender and textile collage with Mandy Patullo; and in September I went to India with Land of Nod. Busy, beautiful, extraordinary. Here is a gallery from Åland. Galleries from France and India to come later this week.
Thanks very much to Gillian Brennan, Jenn Butterworth, Melissa Weisman, Deborah Fabbri, Megan Larson, and Nerissa Campbell for sharing their photos with me. (I'm still figuring out how to put photo credits in the gallery.) And thanks to Lotta for hosting such a unique and joyous adventure and welcoming all of us to her homeland with such warmth, generosity, and effervescence.
Lotta will be hosting another group July 19 - 23, 2017. Sign up and get ready for an extraordinary experience. Truly!
To view the gallery, click on the first photo to increase its size, then click the right arrow to move forward from there. )
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.
When I tried on my first hand-stitched cotton jersey Alabama Chanin dress, at a weekend workshop at the company's headquarters in Florence, Alabama, about seven years ago, I immediately knew that I had found a key piece to my wardrobe, one that would help me define my personal style. Not only was the dress beautiful and flattering, it was comfortable. Since then I have purchased a few Alabama Chanin garments and made many more (including the one in the photo above). I wear this clothing nearly everyday, choosing my shoes and adding layers based on the season and the occasion. I have literally worn the same dress to a fancy party, to work, and to weed in the garden (albeit not on my hands and knees).
I edited the four Alabama Chanin books—Alabama Stitch Book, Alabama Studio Style, Alabama Studio Sewing + Design, and Alabama Studio Sewing Patterns. In these books company founder Natalie Chanin shares the techniques she and her team use to create their cotton jersey clothing, everything from the garment patterns to the stenciling, hand-stitching, and embroidery and beading techniques. It's a generous open-sourcing that makes this very special couture clothing broadly accessible.
In all of the books Natalie encourages readers to take the styles and techniques she presents and adapt them to their personal preferences and she focuses on this topic specifically in the most recent title, Alabama Studio Sewing Patterns. I have adjusted the necklines and hemlines on my dresses, but over the summer I decided to go one step further and customize the stencil. I had, in the past, come up with a small, simple stencil idea and cut it out of pennant felt before having it sprayed onto skirt fabric, but this time I wanted to design a larger stencil and have it die cut.
Here is a photo of an early draft of one of my many stencil ideas printed on very large paper. I work on a 14-inch MacBook Pro, and the screen just isn't big enough to give me a sense of how the stencil will look in real size, thus the printout. I've done a lot of work on this stencil concept since I had this printout made and, about two weeks ago, on a day when I thought I was just about done with it and ready to send the file to the die cutter, Natalie sent me an email encouraging me to refine it further by examining the negative space and the scale of the motifs and how the motifs interact with one another. My design, she told me, wasn't "dancing." I was kind of crushed when I read her message—I had already put so much work into this—and I needed some time to process her guidance and to re-energize. I didn't want to quit but I didn't know what to do next. I felt like I was out of ideas.
Finally, over this past weekend, I re-opened the file—reluctantly. In order to see what I was doing from another perspective, Natalie had suggested that I reverse the artwork to make the negative space turn black and the positive space turn white, so I figured out how to do that and gave it a try. And, to my happy amazement, this new perspective helped me a lot. I've started revising and my motifs might, indeed, be dancing (or at least starting to).
This creative process thing, it's hard. It takes a lot of patience and commitment and an openness to feeling lost. As children, we are encouraged to explore, figure out what we like and are good at, and pursue it. As adults, we became comfortable in a life centered around what we do well. Moving outside of that zone of comfort is hard. But what do we miss if we don't start exploring again? And once we do start exploring again, how do we navigate how lost we feel in the beginner space?
It's funny—a few weeks ago I wrote here about a similar dilemma as I tried to learn to make leather bracelets. Then, last week (having lost confidence in my ability to design a stencil but still wanting to do something creative), I decided to make e a new batch of bracelets. As I pulled my leather through the strap cutter and beveled the edges and punched the holes, I felt satisfied. These bracelets were coming together much more smoothly than the first ones. I'm not a master—those holes are definitely still a challenge for me—but I am competent enough to make a bracelet I will happily wear. In fact, I'm wearing one right now.
So, I move forward hoping that one day before too long I will post a photo of a new dress embellished with a stencil of my own design and hand-stitched by me. One step (or stitch) at a time and without a map (pattern).
Over the weekend my friend Suzan and I watched Elke Bergeron's Metallic Leather Bracelet class on Creativebug and started making bracelets. Everything was going well on Saturday—together, we proudly figured out how to work the strap cutter and the beveler and happily painted the leather. But on Sunday morning, when it was time to add the button stud closures, we realized the button studs I bought weren't going to work because they were too short. I had to order new ones.
You'd think I'd be eager to receive the new closures in the mail and finish this project, but the truth is I'm kind of dreading it. That's because I really want these bracelets to turn out well and I know that this part of the process, when I have to punch holes in the narrow leather, is precarious. If I'm off by just a little bit, I could ruin a bracelet, or the hole and closure could look amateurish. Since Suzan had to leave, I'll be working alone. And, truthfully, making the bracelets with Suzan was so much more fun than making them on my own would have been. When I got frustrated or confused, she was calm and focused. And vice versa. When I didn't like the way my first painted bracelets were looking, she suggested a different way to mix the colors that turned out really nice. While we made them, we talked and laughed.
I've been thinking a lot about my fear of making those holes in the leather, taking that last step, and wondering how often I unconsciously avoid doing something because I am afraid of failing or just not being perfect.Read More