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.