In the space of seven minutes Pema Chödrön offers a reassuring perspective on faith, love, hate, awakening, peace, kinship, perfection, sanity, suffering, meditation, and happiness. Powerful ideas to contemplate in these hurtful times.
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.
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."
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.
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.
In this moving and ultimately uplifting video Amit Gupta, founder of Photojojo, reminds us all that "You don't get forever" and shows us how he is learning to live in the present and without regrets. Although Gupta was faced with a life-threatening illness that led him to change his life's course, the story he generously shares is important for all us, no matter our health status.
I realized a couple of months ago, a short time after I decided to leave my position at Abrams, that every day a soft voice inside of me tells me what I really want to be doing. While I'm going about my daily routine, It says things like "I'd like to learn how to make pickles" and "I have always wanted to see India." I now write down these whispers—which are quite different than the mental rundown of of chores and responsibilities that repeats in my head each day—and use them as a guide. I don't know if I will be able to embrace everything on this list and I'm sure the list will evolve over time, but I've realized how important it is to pay attention to the whispers (and to not let them be drowned out by the demands of my routine), to look for themes, to believe it is possible to transform what may at the moment seem like a fantasy into a reality
I started the list in May. Here's what it looks like today. (I've already started pursuing a few of these, and I even completed #11.)Read More