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).