The Value of Stitches

More about the Little Black Overdress

In my previous post about the Little Black Overdress, I described noticing an impatient feeling while backstitching the gathers of the skirt onto the bodice. I kept thinking – this is taking too long. What disturbed me about that feeling, that thought, is the fact that I really do want to enjoy every stitch. This is a goal. And mostly I enjoy my stitches, which is why that agitation surprised me when I became aware of it, which I almost didn’t. We become used to such back-of-the-mind thoughts. Or at least I imagine I am not the only one who has the experience of gauzy thought-feelings moving behind the surface tension of other more front-of-the-mind thoughts. I have come to think of this sensation as something like clouds moving slowly across the sky, casting shadows on the ground, somewhere else, so we barely notice.

As I mentioned before, I realized I was valuing different stitches differently. My embroidery was the most valuable. My visible seam stitching was next on the list. My pretty interior stitching was third, my invisible stitches were fourth, and my covered up practical stitches – in this case the backstitching to hold the gathers in place and connect the skirt and the bodice, and later covered with a ribbon – came in fifth. As I was reflecting on this hierarchy I saw different aspects of my own labor were starting to relate to the value of women’s labor in global markets, classed labor here in the United States. Fast fashion garment workers’ labor is not valued. If the clothes are disposable, then the labor and materials that created them is viewed as disposable. Even couture seamstresses are referred to as ‘hands.’ My impatience over my backstitches was in this mix.


Here is what I wrote about this in my journal:

May 16, 2021

This image shows the gathering but not the finishing I describe below.

Yesterday I attached the skirt to the bodice, gathering the back stitches worked on the skirt side from left to right, until I got to the straight-stitched section, where I switched to working on the bodice side and continued right to left, which is more comfortable for me.

I trimmed the seam when I was finished.  I would have liked to bind the gathered edge with the bodice seam allowance.  But I didn’t want to stitch on the skirt and I hadn’t left a long enough seam allowance on the bodice side that I could wrap the skirt seam allowance and still have fabric to turn under and stitch in the ditch. So I sewed some of my grey ribbon onto the skirt seam allowance and then top-stitched that on the right side of the bodice so the appearance of the seam is very similar to, but not identical to, the other seam.

I like the way this looks on the front but not on the back.  I can see my stitching line wavers on the ribbon – the black thread stands out on the grey ribbon.  On the right side the stitching line does vary in distance from the first top-stitched line, but that variation is not really noticeable because it’s black thread on black fabric and also because the relationships I’m focusing on – one stitching line in relation to another – are consistent. The ribbon was not as carefully arranged on the back and I was adjusting to a mild fluctuation in the gathering line, which I then supplemented with a lone of top-stitching on the wrong side of the bodice.

Maybe this discussion is not important.  But maybe it is. One of the things I have been thinking about is how Brenda Dayne talks about her projects.  To a great extent her podcast is a discussion, or rather a narration, of her problem-solving.  She charts her decision-making.  She is always tweaking and experimenting. She talks about what she tried, whether it worked. If it didn’t work why not? If it did work, is she happy with the result?

The other thing I have been thinking about is how layered and constant the decision-making is at this stage. I imagine that as I become better at this, that more of what I do, the decisions I make, will become automated (is this right?). I’ll learn techniques that will start to feel natural in their execution. I won’t spend so much time trying to work it out in my mind. Or at least that is my fantasy – that it will get easier and faster.

I just wrote faster and that raises questions for me.  As I have been working on different parts of the Little Black Overdress, I discern a sense of urgency that sometimes emerges for me. I notice that I have had the thought that what I’m doing is taking too long.  The taking-too-long feeling doesn’t come from any external constraint.  It’s not as if I don’t have something else I can wear. There is no deadline. I would like to wear the dress this summer but not yet.  The weather isn’t quite there yet. I am enjoying the sewing.  I am enjoying the embroidery.  I’ve been going back and forth between the two – garment construction to embroidery to garment construction to embroidery again.

This image was taken June 19. 2021, when Brood X of the 17 year Cicadas had hatched and were everywhere, on everything, their collective soughing a soundtrack that was sometimes so loud it drowned out birdsong. Or maybe they just gave up trying to broadcast the boundaries of their territories. In this image you can see that I had thread-traced stitching-lines on the plackets (embroidered to match the cuffs) and the bodice.

The fact that this sensation / anxiety about speed came up alerts me to the cultural bias toward efficient execution. Get it done. It reminds me of my Dickensian Coat, which is so beautiful and deliciously comfortable. David asked me why was I taking so much time to mend a coat?  Wouldn’t it be faster just to buy something new? Wouldn’t it be faster?

Bruce (Instagram: @bruce_falkinburg) asked me the same question about the Little Black Overdress. Wouldn’t it be faster if you sewed it on the machine? Yes. The answer is yes, it would be faster. But I don’t want it to be faster.  Observing the feeling of anxiety, then, is interesting and points out how much work there is to become aware of all the ways this cultural value manifests, and also how to have an intentional response to it.  I don’t think that’s quite right. What I’m trying to think about is the conscious development of a counter-narrative and a personal methodology.

Feelings like this, we are taught, are individual [here you can start to tell I’m an anthropologist].  To the extent they are individual, when you have a feeling that is contrary to the goal, or which even obstructs, you have failed.  There is a moral failure – a lack of discipline, a lack of knowledge. But the feeling is actually cultural. If I seek to change the goal to enjoyment of my stitches over speedy execution of the task, then I have to grapple with the feelings that arise.  I have to make the feelings part of the method.

My contention is that the making itself should be enjoyable. My contention is that slow-making should be enjoyable.  Slowing it down will draw out the enjoyment. But if the cultural value system is that a little dress should not take too much time – after all it’s just a little dress – then slowing down and putting a lot of time into the dress would be anxiety-producing. That which I have posited should be enjoyable, that is slow-making, becomes fraught.

So my personal theory and practice has to include a strategy for re-thinking making, re-feeling making. I need to understand where all of the feelings are coming from.  What are they about? I need to be able to read and interpret the feelings in terms of the economy of waste and haste.

We have elevated being minimally skilled. It is a cultural value to be able to produce something useable/wearable with minimal skill.

As I have been writing, I have been having another parallel line of thought about the fabric I’m using. I thought it was cotton.  But the way it glitters and the way it smells when I iron it, makes me think it could be a cotton/poly mix. I just took a flame to it.  It does not melt. The steady fast burn with a yellow flame and no smoke suggests cotton.  If it does have polyester it’s not much.

Somehow the fiber is making a difference to me. There is a way in which I feel like devoting this much time to a ‘cheap synthetic’ is not justified.  So here I’m bumping up against another prejudice I have to grapple with.
Issue: expense or value of materials
Issue: style of project – what am I making?
Issue: mode of use – where will I wear it?  Is it fancy? Is it for wearing every day?

There are hierarchies of value here that are really old and have been delivered to us historically and culturally and need to be re-worked in order to get to a new place with making.

When I wrote the above, part of me wanted to mock the observation as so obvious as not to require statement. But it does require statement in order to examine it in more depth and figure out how it’s operating here and how to counter the narrative that says that the Little cotton Overdress does not warrant the time I am spending on it.  Are sumptuary laws at play here? Class hierarchies? Race hierarchies? Social evolutionary frameworks?

The value of different kinds of labor. I’m thinking of inexpensive, hand-embroidered cotton things from India. In that instance, the embroidery is rustic, probably executed quickly. The ornamentation is not high-value.  It’s not refined (this has nothing to do with the skill of the embroiderer.  It has to do with the use to which it’s put, the requirements of the buyer, and the compensation for the work). There is a relationship between the value of the labor and the way we value the result of the labor.

I finished the dress in July.

A few final photographs of the finished dress . . .

I am fortunate to work with Bruce on photographs of my makes. This shoot just felt like pure joy. I love wearing the Little Black Overdress: I feel pretty and glamorous. I wear it, now, when I travel because I feel protected. I recently wore it to the theater because I feel stylish. I want everything in my closet to feel like that.

Little Black Overdress

I decided not to buy clothes anymore.

Then I decided to put my sewing machines in storage and only to sew by hand.

The Inspiration – Little White Overdress in Cuba, December 2018

I found the little white voile overdress pictured above in a shop in Cuba in 2018. I have worn it often ever since in the way you see above, over a simple white, gauzy FLAX dress I found at a second-hand shop. The little white overdress is one of my most favorite pieces of clothing. So I decided I wanted another version in black. White, as a color, is vulnerable and the lightness of the voile feels summery, even though the style of the dress does not confine the design to a particular season.

The little white overdress worn in the wild and reflected in the window of a gallery in Porto, Portugal, during a trip with my photographer-friend Bruce Falkinburg. It’s a covert selfie of the two of us. I was also after that message on the gallery wall – “Fuck Art Lets Eat”

I thought about the black version I wanted to make for a long time before I started. At one point I took detailed measurements and plotted them on a drawing, but something else snagged my attention and I wandered off and it took me a long time to wander back.

The next time I approached the project, I started with a decision about material. I have a bolt of crinkly cotton that I got very inexpensively years ago; because I have a lot of it and because it was cheap, it is a low-stakes fabric that I have used before as an alternative to muslin in design experiments for which I needed better drape than muslin offered. In addition to deciding not to buy new clothes, I have decided not to buy new fabric when something in my stash will serve the purpose well. In sum, the crinkly black cotton is black, inexpensive, and I already had it, so the little black overdress would be made in the crinkly black cotton.

Finally, in April after at least a year of intention and deliberation, I traced a pattern from the existing dress, chalked the pieces onto my fabric, pinked them out, pinned, and started sewing – by hand. I did not document my process. The first image I have is from May 5 when I was sitting outside in back of my house gathering the skirt onto the bodice of the dress and feeling like I should post something, anything, to Instagram. In the image below, I had already sewn the bodice and sleeves, attached the sleeves to the bodice, and constructed the skirt. You can see the side seam of the bodice in just about the center of the image. and just above the middle of the left side of the image you can see the seam joining the sleeve to the bodice.

The story this image is trying to tell has to do with the joining of the bodice to the skirt. On the left you can see my thread-tracing on the stitching line of the bodice. Coming from the lower left, you can see where I have basted my skirt gathers and then pinned the skirt onto the bodice.

As I was back-stitching the skirt onto the bodice, I noticed something very interesting. Before I tell you what it was I will give you a little bit of context for why I decided not just to sew my own clothes, but to sew them by hand with a needle and thread.

I have sewn since I was a child. My first projects were dresses I designed and sewed by hand for my dolls, cutting pattern pieces free-hand based on existing shapes and stitching them up with a needle and thread. By the time I was in college I was making almost all of my own clothes using a machine, most of them my own design. I didn’t have any training. I worked intuitively and no doubt did many things wrong by industry standards. But I was only trying to please myself, to make things I wanted to wear.

After college I got a job stitching in the costume shop at the Arena Stage Repertory Theater in Washington, DC. There I learned to flat pattern and began to learn couture sewing techniques. I loved the long days of sitting at big tables sewing by hand, talking to the other women in the costume shop. We only sewed long seams on the machine. Everything else was done with needle and thread. During a brief gap in between shows when we had finished checking the costume archive for moth damage, I made a sloper for myself and took a first pass at my perfect jacket. I’m including a recent picture of myself in that jacket below. It still fits well and feels pretty incredible to put on (and I need an image to break up this post lest you stop reading!).

These photographs are by my dear friend and collaborator Bruce Falkinburg (Instagram: @bruce_falkinburg) and were taken in his amazing studio. He was practicing lighting configurations on me and I got some pretty terrific shots of this jacket out of his experiment. (Please ignore the folds; I hadn’t gotten it out of the closet in a long time and didn’t get it pressed before the shoot.)

I did not succeed in making my perfect jacket, though at the time I felt it was closer than I do now. The armscye is too big and the sleeve cap too tall for what I want now. There are no drag lines when I stand with my arms down. But I want better range of motion without distorting the body of the jacket and changing the feeling of the bodice.

I didn’t stay much longer after this jacket at the costume shop. Arena didn’t pay well enough for me to support myself so I got another job. But I kept sewing, went to graduate school in Anthropology, stopped sewing, started chain-stitch embroidering during a post-doctoral fellowship in Australia, kept embroidering after leaving academia until arthritis made it too painful. Now, 30 years later, I am returning to this long-neglected passion for hand-sewing, having forgotten many things. At the same time I am rekindling my embroidering, having largely resolved the pain of arthritis by shifting to a non-inflammatory, plant-based diet.

In so many ways I feel I am starting again at the beginning. I often think – I don’t know how to do this! And then I tell myself, usually saying it out loud – Ok, Laura, so you don’t know how to do it. Do it anyway.

I love to sew. But I don’t want a lot of things. Sewing by machine, then, is too fast for me, my me-made equivalent of fast fashion. If I want to exercise my passion in an on-going manner, I will produce too much, outpacing my need. My production becomes consumption. My making suddenly bleeds into waste and I don’t want to create waste. I don’t want to consume more than I need. I don’t want to participate in fast fashion. I don’t want to make things and then question whether I should have. I don’t want to feel crushed that I have cut into fabric too hastily.

And I find working with a needle and thread to be meditative, contemplative, pleasurable, good for thinking. To me, sewing garments I design for myself, that fit my body and are creative expressions that emerge from my life and reach toward the life I want to have, represents a poetics of intention. It’s slow. And I want it to be slow. I want to sew because I love to sew. I want every stitch to be pleasurable. I want the making to be a slow and emergent joy in the practice that starts with the idea, changes into a new kind of sensuous appreciation at that first wearing of the final garment and is renewed and extended every time I put it on.

So what to make of the fact that, when I was backstitching the gathers of the skirt to join them to the bodice, I felt impatient? I noticed the feeling and, as I mentioned above, thought – now that’s interesting. What is that about? I realized I was valuing different stitches differently . . .

In a dream I decided to stitch a mile

Early this morning I had a dream in which I made the decision to hand stitch a mile, piecing together scraps to raise awareness about waste, about the need for us to re-claim not only material, but skills we have slowly surrendered, as a culture and as an economy, over the past century or so.  The idea is in the genre of efforts like walking across the United States, or sailing across the ocean, to call attention to a problem.  Of course this is smaller, domestic, and it can contribute to the problem it’s seeking to mitigate.

In the dream, the project was specific.  I decided to Stitch an American Mile.  The American was important.  I’m not sure why, exactly, except that I am here, in the United States.  Others could choose to re-claim material and re-claim skills in a similar manner in other places, and decide to join me in stitching a mile by hand and documenting that distance.

As I worked on the idea in the dream I rejected the notion of creating a pieced example of stitching that is a mile long.  While that would be interesting, I have no room in my house for over 5000 feet of material.  And there would be no utility unless it were to become an installation somewhere.  For my purposes, that approach, itself, would be wasteful, one of those moments when consumption masquerades as production.

I went in a different direction and conceived the idea of making vegan shawl cuffs from strips of cotton jersey scraps hand-sewn together.  The dream-plan went like this: I would measure my progress along this mile by making 12×12 inch panels with unidirectional lines of stitching so I could document the squares, count the number of feet of stitching, and then indicate, on each cuff, where I was in the mile when I made that cuff.  It would be the very slowest mile I have ever traveled.

Business in the Time of Covid-19

I sent the content of this post out to my email list on March 23 so some of you may already have seen this content.  For those of you who do not receive JUL emails (or don’t read them; we understand and don’t judge), we wanted to share with you how we are approaching the current unprecedented challenge we all face.

* * *

Right now, we are well and continue to fulfill all wholesale and retail orders
using recommended precautions. 

Since our orders have dropped off due to the new economic uncertainties we all face, we will be using the time we are not at our cancelled shows, and not making so many shawl cuffs and closures, to develop new content for you that we will be sharing here, as blog posts, and Instagram stories (which I will finally be learning how to do
with the help of my son Julian) via @jul_designs.

We are all facing challenges in this extraordinary time.
Our efforts at JUL are oriented toward survival.
We want JUL to survive as a business. We want to live through this. 
We want to stay connected to you – our readers and customers. 

We are committed to taking care of you.
We are committed to continuing to support everyone who works at JUL. 

So in case you don’t know who is part of our creative family, I want to take this opportunity to introduce you to my son, and my Balinese creative partner Agus, through the video below.  And I want to give you some background on Agus and his wife Indah.  You can click either on the link button or directly on the the photo below to see us in creative action.

Please forgive the fact that I have not yet translated my conversations in Indonesian.and the sound is just terrible because of the workshop noise.

Video taken in Bali Indonesia by Giuseppe Cimmino

Since 2007 JUL has been an international creative partnership between me (Laura), my Balinese creative and business partner Agus, and every now and again my son Julian (pictured above with Agus in 2018 in Bali)

In the past 13 years my son Julian has grown up and begun to contribute to JUL with original designs, and production assistance. Now he has begun to help with marketing and social media while he is at home trying to figure out how to take furniture design and metal fabrication studio classes on line after his on-campus classes at the Maryland Institute College of Art were cancelled because of Covid-19.

During the past decade Agus started a family – marrying Indah, who now works for JUL as Agus’ assistant – and became the head of his extended family compound when he unexpectedly lost his father to a massive heart attack several years ago.

Agus now has responsibility for his wife and son, his mother, his brother, and his brother’s new bride who is pregnant with their first baby.

Covid-19 is threatening Bali too. They have not yet reported many confirmed cases (the first being a British woman) but there are likely some people who have been infected but don’t yet know they are sick. Based on my past experience with the public health system and the hospitals in Bali, they are terribly equipped to deal with this challenge. 

In my most recent video chat with Agus I counseled him to stop smoking, as this puts him at higher risk if he gets sick from Covid-19. We discussed a new medication that can help him quit and I told him JUL will buy it even though it’s really expensive. 

I cautioned him not to go shopping in the market and instead place an order with the woman a few doors down who goes to the market early and then sells what she buys to people who live close by. 
He described that he stays in as much as possible, limits his contacts,
wears a mask, washes hands, disinfects product components as he picks them up from our artisans (our current inventory in the US was produced months ago).

I told him that sales here have fallen off, that fiber festivals and shows are being cancelled, that some of my wholesale customers’ shops have closed, that the economy is coming to a near standstill, we don’t know for how long.

Then I told him that I will make sure I pay him and his wife their regular salaries
no matter what. They should not worry that they will have no income.

When my confidence is challenged and I doubt myself, I think of my son.  I think of Agus.  And I press on. Not getting through this as a business is not an option.

I am posting this because I want you to know about Agus and how committed I am to him and his family.
And I want you to know how committed I am to you.

Poppy & the Carpet Beetles

A couple of years ago I found that Poppy, the tiny knitted red bear my sister made for my son, Julian, when he was little, had been eaten by critters – moths or carpet beetles, I don’t know which. I had found the little bear in some box after losing track of it for a long time and sat her on the shelf above the counter in the kitchen where we have a collection of treasures from different times and places. Some time later I found she was full of holes and I put her in the freezer. She has been there ever since. Now every time I get some ice cubes, I see Poppy, lying there in the drawer, her tiny scarf around her neck, her stuffing coming out through her side.

I saw some carpet beetles on the windowsill of my bedroom over the summer. My historic community doesn’t allow screens on the windows, as they are considered to disrupt the historic look of the community (though I suggest cars and electricity lines do that handily and more obviously) so bugs come in. Seeing the carpet beetles concerned me at the time but I didn’t find any evidence of damage until recently when I put on a wool skirt I rarely (never?) wore. I saw light through a constellation of holes in the fabric but saw no critters themselves.

Seeing the holes made me panic. My house is full of wool – clothes, carpets, yarn, fabric, embroideries. I started to search and found a tiny felted purse (made by my sister Noni) on my desk had been ravaged. A ball of yarn was lying in a shatter of fiber dust. A large tote I had embroidered showed small areas of damage. I felt agitated and sick with fear that there was more I couldn’t see being made by critters still too small to detect. I put the tote and some other embroideries in the freezer with Poppy, put a pile of carpets on the porch in the cold and started looking for internet resources on repelling and killing moths and carpet beetles.

Oil & Alcohol: Eucalyptus, Clove, Cedar & Neem

Based on what I found, I have begun to use essential oils – 10 drops suspended in a cup of isopropyl alcohol and sprayed over vulnerable woolens using a misting hand-pump: the efficacious essential oils are eucalyptus, clove, cedar & neem.

carpet beetle remedies

The oils I purchased came from https://www.bulkapothecary.com/standardized-and-commercial-grade/

A few online resources with detailed methods for managing infestations and controlling beetle populations can be found here:

15 Quality Home Remedies To Get Rid Of Carpet Beetles

https://www.wikihow.com/Get-Rid-of-Carpet-Beetles

http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7436.html

BEWARE: Lavender, my sister found, attract critters instead of repelling them and so should be avoided (A shearling coat showed damage around the label where she had hung a sachet of lavender on the neck of the hanger; not the desired outcome!).  Borax sprinkled onto fabrics and brushed into the fiber is supposed to kill the destructive beasts.

Despite these new measures, I also made a mistake. I pitied the skirt full of holes and didn’t throw it away right away. Now I have found some damage in a piece of knitwear I recently finished and which I worked on such tiny needles for so long that I damaged my left hand. And now before I have even woven in the ends I find that there is a hole and I feel stupid for pitying the material of a skirt I had really never worn. That pity – the thought that I could mend it or salvage parts of the material – has resulted in damage to things I care much more about. I didn’t think far enough ahead. I couldn’t see the critters in the skirt so I didn’t properly assess the threat keeping it posed. Looking at the shawl, I know I can not make it over given my injury. I can only repair it.

Since writing the paragraph above, I have thrown the skirt away, and resumed the process of inspecting everything else in the room for holes. I need to re-spray with eucalyptus, dust with borax, wash, repair, protect, purge.

Synthetics

Substituting natural fibers with synthetic fabrics is one of the recommendations for avoiding carpet beetles described in the different articles to which I have linked above.  It’s also the solution I (and probably you, dear reader) am unwilling to try for multiple reasons  Many of my wool things are beautiful examples of handwork – handmade carpets, embroideries, handsewn garments and knitted accessories. I won’t give them up as I am committed to them, invested in them as repositories of memories, of stories, my own time, labor, pain, love. The handmade fabrics made by others are beautiful in themselves and their beauty is justification enough for preserving them.  At the same time, to me they represent social lives, even if I don’t know what those lives were before those textiles came to me.  They were witnesses to particular truths and moments in the lives of their makers during their production, truths and moments that are unknowable to me. And the things I have made have similar social lives that are largely known to me, but not wholly.  These social lives have a romance, a poetry, a history that should be guarded, shepherded into the future.

The beauty and value of textiles made in natural fibers is not the only reason I want to keep my natural fibers.  Shrinking my carbon footprint is another that has an increasing urgency.  I want to minimize the extent to which I use petroleum-based fibers and materials.  I want to minimize the extent to which I use fibers that shed micro-plastics into our water supply.  I want to minimize the extent to which I use fabrics that will never bio-degrade.  I have always preferred natural fibers, over synthetic ones, for their sensuous qualities. Now I value them, too, for how they sequester carbon.

The Biography of a Shawl Pin: The Making of the Runa Penannular Brooch, Part 1

For those of you who have purchased a JUL Designs shawl pin (and have read the information on the packaging), you know that most of them are “Handmade Fair Trade in Indonesia” in White Brass (the rest are made in the USA).  But what does this really mean?  In this first installment of a biography of a shawl pin I start to tell you, and more importantly, to show you by sharing with you videos and images I took during a month-long trip to Bali, which is the location in Indonesia where I have JUL knitwear and body jewelry designs made.

The objectives of this month-long trip in July were three-fold.  First, I had product-development goals to launch with Agus, my Balinese collaborator and a critical partner in the creation and production of JUL knitwear and body jewelry designs.

Agus
Agus Astradhi – co-designer and creative partner at JUL Designs

IMG_20180711_143428
Agus with metal flasks used for lost-wax casting

Second, I wanted to meet our new artisans, whom I had not yet met given that the last time I was in Indonesia was five years ago!  And third, I wanted to document the product development and production processes for you as I worked with my son and my creative partner and artisans.

IMG_20180711_141052
Julian (left) and Agus (center) recording the creation of waxes that will be made into metal shawl pins using the lost-wax casting process.

I want you to be able to see how many hands touch each piece you purchase.  And I want you to be able to see the relationships I have with my creative partners and artisans.  I speak the language(s).  I understand the culture. I have deep connections to the place going back over 20 years. I have dear friends and family there. I don’t just broker through a third party.

For JUL, Fair Trade is not a vague notion of doing business directly with producers.  For us, Fair Trade is specific. It means we are committed to people we care about. We have collaborative relationships with artisans we have been working with for years.  Having such long term working relationships means they understand our designs, which are mostly not conventional jewelry, and can work with us to develop creative solutions to the production and design challenges we encounter. Fair Trade means we know exactly how our products are produced, under what conditions and by whom. It means our artisans determine what we pay them for the products we ask them to make, based on how complex the designs are, how much time and effort each one takes, and what they need to support their families. Fair Trade for us is truly fair.

So how do I show you these relationships, these production processes?  We tracked production of one product – the Runa Penannular Brooch – from start to finish using photographs and videos.

This mosaic of images above gives you a sneak peek at what I will be describing to you in some depth over the next few posts.  In the upper left is the wax for the ring part of the Runa.  Upper right shows flasks of plaster molds for the Runa being vacuumed to remove air bubbles that can damage the casting. Lower left shows metal being heated to pour into one of those molds. Center shows raw Runa components after they have been cast. Lower right shows a Runa ring component being cleaned up and smoothed during the finishing process before the stick has been added and soldered in place.

This production process takes the Runa Penannular Brooch through twelve pairs of hands just to come into being, and ultimately to adorn your knitwear.

IMG_20170227_160326_796.jpg
The Runa Penannular Brooch after the two separate ring and stick components have been soldered together and the piece has been given its beautiful satin surface finish.

Next installment: From Wax to Raw Metal.

 

The Second Scarf

In my last post I told you about my knitting experiment.  I wanted to re-create my first scarf.  So I did.  It had its challenges like any new project and required me to develop new skills.  Being random, or at least appearing random, intentionally requires effort and control.  I developed a technique.  I got better at it.

In this image you can see the uneven quality of the knitting:img_20180609_102741_904

Not only did I vary my stitch length and tension.  I varied the number of stitches in the rows, adding and subtracting to create a varied profile. It was simple knitting. No purling.  No rib. This sort of knitting-every-row knitting can boring.  Instead, it was interesting and I started to to control the inconsistency. I know this goes against the stated project but I did want to achieve the look of the child-knitting I sought to re-create.

Then I styled it.  The first styling I did (and which I show you here) I have used before with a long rectangle.  I think I love this one in particular because it transforms the long rectangle so completely that it is often a revelation to the knitters I talk to.  There is a kind of knitting epiphany  that can happen on multiple levels.  First, that a plain old long rectangular scarf could take on such a dramatic shape.  And second, that my screw-in pedestal buttons and closures can take you out of the button box, so to speak. This one unique styling of a simple shape can lead to the realization that these styling tools can take any simple shape to a different level.  Simple shapes can become dramatic, sculptural shapes that show-off the knitting (why would you hide it after working so long) and show off you! 

To follow is a series of images of the first styling from different angles.  What can you do with your simple rectangles and a little JUL?  I would love to see your images on Instagram.

Tag @jul_designs / #juldesigns so I will see your images.

Use the coupon code FIRSTSCARF for 15% off pedestal buttons and the Cordoba Series closures.

Front:

front

Front right:

right front

Back:

 

back

Side back:

right side back

Don’t forget: I want to know what you can do with your simple rectangles and a little JUL?  I would love to see your images on Instagram.

Tag @jul_designs / #juldesigns so I will see what you are up to.

Use the coupon code FIRSTSCARF for 15% off pedestal buttons and the Cordoba Series closures.

More stylings coming soon . . .

 

 

 

First Knitting

I was seven when my mother taught me how to knit.  She learned from her aunt Elma. I don’t know exactly what the kinship arc was that connected my mother to Elma and made Elma my mother’s aunt and for this story it doesn’t matter.

I don’t remember the learning-to-knit part.  I remember the first project once it was done.  It was white wool, a short scarf, and very uneven and badly shaped in the way first knitting projects can be – wide at the start and loose, narrowing to the center and way too tight, then widening again as I tried to rectify the tightness in the center.  Some stitches were too big, others too small.  It didn’t look like my mother’s even knitting.

I gave it to my father as a gift.  It was soft and I guess I must have been proud enough to have made it that I could give it to my dad even though, when compared to fine knitting, it was clearly no good.

My father wore it.  That amazed me.  That he wore that no-good first-knitting little white neck warmer totally amazed me.  He would fold one side over the other to cover his neck.  The narrow part fit at the back of his neck.  The two wide ends came down to the top of his chest.  Then he’d put on his coat.  As I remember it, he wore it alot.  And even if that is a bit of hyperbole my amazement wrought, I’ll take it.

I decided to re-create that first scarf.  My motivation was simple enough.  I thought about how, if it is sufficiently inept, a first project can alienate one from trying again.  When we face real difficulty in achieving a goal of mastery, we may decide we are no good at it, are lacking in some fundamental talent that other people clearly have but which to us is inaccessible or elusive.  We hold our first-starting-out selves up against those with years of experience and find ourselves so lacking that we lose hope and lost interest.  The thing is no good.  It’s no use.  It’s unwearable.

The fact that my father wore that badly-knit scarf his little daughter made gave me the confidence to execute the next project, which was better.  Even if the scarf was unwearable to me, it was not unwearable to my father.

But I contend that an unwearable scarf -from the perspective of even tension and a consistent number of stitches – can become wearable if it is styled well.  The unintentional can be wrestled into submission to intention with the right approach and good tools. The first scarf can take us from ambivalent about the issue of our first efforts to more than proud: stylish.

This transformation is what I work for.  It’s my job.  I design and produce accessories. The justification for my work, my company, is my need, your need, for tools to turn handmade fabrics (knitted, crocheted, handwoven) and purchased garments into beautiful wearables that show the fabric off and make the wearer feel beautiful in addition to looking stylish.

My closures should make your life in fiber-wear easier.  I want the same things you want.  I want to look good without thinking about it too much.  I want to go about my days undistracted by difficulties with my clothes.  I don’t want my scarves falling off and catching in drawers when I bend over.  I don’t want my shawl to slide off one shoulder and require re-arranging many times a day.

I felt sure that I could take a first scarf, of the kind I made when I was 7 years old, from wonky to wonderful with a few screw-in closures.  So I cast on.

img_20180608_103939

It’s hard to return to a pre-control moment when you can’t achieve an even tension, have trouble discerning where a stitch begins and ends, and haven’t yet learned to purl. I got better at inconsistency and wonky as time went on.  Well, that’s not quite true.  Because I was working toward inconsistency, in a sense I became more consistent in my achievement of inconsistency.  Even naive execution contains the possibility of mastery.

img_20180618_153544_403

So I finished it. The end with the cast-on yarn trailing, is where I started.  The increase of stitches to make the scarf slightly wider was fairly subtle.  I wanted it to be more extreme.  My inconsistency in tension was not enough.  I pushed it harder.  By the time I finished, I felt I had begun to master the first scarf.  If I make another, I’ll do even better at bad knitting.

Now comes the interesting experiment – adorning the first scarf so it becomes an enviable style piece, a fabulous example of hand-knit art you might expect in a high-end chic boutique. This is my goal.

What is your first-knitting story? I would love to hear it.  You are welcome to tell me about it in a comment.

If you want to start growing your style toolkit, go to juldesigns.com

Check out my instagram @jul_designs to see how I have styled this Simulation and get 15% Off the Pedestal Buttons and screw-in closures in the Cordoba Series when you use coupon code FIRSTSCARF.

 

Shared Birth – The Beginning of a Reflection on Mothers and Sisters (and believe it or not . . . knitting)

The approach of my birthday, Mother’s Day and making room for my son to return home from college became an occasion for reflecting on family and creativity.

My twin sister Nora – of Noni Designs – and I were born at the beginning of May in 1967.  Our poor mother thought she was having one big boy.  Instead she got two tiny girls born six weeks early.  We were incubator babies, supposed to be Gemini (the doctor predicted a delivery date of June 12) but instead born Taurus.  Did that change everything?

We would have been Daniel if we were a boy and Nora if a girl. So my sister, who was first, is Nora.  May name Laura was hastily selected; I am named after my mother’s maternal grandmother.

This is what we looked like when we were born. Nora is on the left (I think). I always look at the lips if I am in doubt.

Brand new

 

In later pictures it’s easier to tell us apart.

AGED THREE?

I have no idea who made these matching sets of ponchos and tams.  Maybe it was my paternal grandmother, who was an avid knitter in the English style.  But they could also have come from one of the aunts on my maternal grandfather’s side, who all knitted continental, having emigrated from Sweden. (UPDATE: Since I wrote the above, my mother has commented that she thinks they were made for us by our Auntie Jo.  Jo was fictive kin and an important creative figure in my life, and probably for my sister too.  Auntie Jo was the first artist I knew.  That is, she did more than knit and sew like the other women in the family.  Auntie Jo painted.  She made wood carvings.  She was in gallery shows.  And she made phenomenal pecan pie.  She was not a pretty woman. She would tell you this herself.  But she was beautiful to me and she had black hair until she died.)

My sister was a cherub.  I often appear mischievous.  In the picture below, knowing that, you can guess I am on the left. We must have been about 3.

in knitted or crocheted ponchos and hats

PART OF THE EXTENDED FAMILY

You can pick out my sister easily if you look for the cherub.  She is on the right in my uncle Al’s lap (father’s brother).  To the left of him is Nancy, his first wife.  My mother is to Nancy’s left next to me.  And I’m on my father’s lap looking sullen. I like this picture.  It was taken in Boston before the family moved to Maryland when we were four.

3-ish with the family

And here are just the two of us during that same visit:

aged 3

Me less intense, my sister distracted by one of my parents?

STARTING TO REFLECT

I started looking at these photographs because I had to empty the beautiful creative space I made for myself and about which I wrote some months ago. The reason: Julian is returning home but I’ll tell you that story in a different post.  The room was spare but full of treasures and I took my time compiling and moving, looking at each thing, letting the objects evoke past adventures, most of them with Julian. And I found an old book of photos, from which came most of the pictures here. The moment for reflecting on them was perfect because it was only days away from my sister’s and my birthday.  So I thought about my sister and our mother. I thought about our father.  I thought about my son and what it has been like to be his mother and to mother him differently than I was mothered, to raise him without a father.

And I thought about my first knitting project, which I gave to my father.

 

 

The Shinshoji Collection – First in the Silk Road Series – Part 1

The first time we visited the Shinshoji temple we only got a little taste of the rich ornament that has now become the inspiration for the Shinshoji Collection – JUL’s first collection of sterling silver jewelry.

My son and I first visited the Shinshoji temple in Narita, Japan almost 16 years ago when he was just five.  We were on our way back to the United States from Australia so I could defend my PhD dissertation and had a long layover in Japan.  The airline put us up in a hotel near the airport, close to which there just happens to be a very beautiful and old temple complex.  Rather than take what we were warned was an arduous and long train ride into Tokyo, we opted for the short trip into Narita and followed the route on the photocopied map. We walked from the little station down the old main street of the town to the entrance of the temple where a huge lantern hung over the gate.

It was raining that day but my intrepid son had (at 5!!) researched where the shuttle stopped in front of the hotel and learned we could borrow umbrellas for the day from the concierge.  If it had not been for his persistent game-for-anything personality we might have stayed in and had a very boring day.  But instead we went out and had a wonderful multi-course adventure.  Thankfully it was only our first encounter with the Shinshoji. The next time we went the weather was fine and we spent many hours investigating the temple’s old and new buildings and their magnificent metalwork, some of which you see on the roof-line of this amazing building below.

117_1723.JPG

When we visited the temple again some four years later, I focused my attention on this metalwork and took many photographs of the pierced and chased metal panels on railings, eves, lintels, and columns. I’ll tell you much more about that second visit in my next post as I have many more images and some videos from that visit which I would like to share with you.  Because of the rain on our first visit to the temple, and limited time to explore, I don’t have many photographs of our initial foray.  We didn’t get very far past the main gate and didn’t have any idea until later how extensive the complex is.  But our curiosities were aroused and so when we next had the opportunity on another day-long layover, we went straight to the temple, determined to spend as long as we liked there.

Building the Shinshoji Collection Out of Three Elements

My aesthetic meditation on the Shinshoji metalwork and its ornate botanical motifs, juxtaposed with simple profiles, became the three foundational components from which the Shinshoji Collection is compiled: the roughly 50 pieces of handmade, satin-finished sterling silver necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and pendants were created by combining these three architecture-derived shapes – Pierced Acanthus Lantern, Lotus Window, and Peony Door – in different combinations using silver chain and links of different sizes.

ornament earrings without beads.jpg

Above: Acanthus Earrings No. 2 – show the Pierced Acanthus Lantern component

necklace with flowers above.jpg

Above: Peony Necklace No. 2, in which the Peony Door is the weight at the bottom of the drop and the Lotus Windows form ornaments that fall at the collarbone and create the transition from the necklace to the drop.

The Shinshoji Collection is an Opportunity to Create a Personalized Ensemble

What we have sought to achieve by combining three components to create an expansive collection of silver and blackened silver pieces is a range of jewelry items that can be assembled into hundreds of individualized ensembles for a range of aesthetics.

Because the collection is so big, we have decided to release it in stages while the first production run is underway.  We know you will want to put together individualized ensembles.  That has been the whole point behind offering you such a range of different and related pieces.  But you will also not be able to select your whole ensemble right away.  You will have the delicious pleasure and deferred gratification of pulling together your total look slowly during our special pre-order period.

white metal collection on the brass tray no 1.jpg

Pre-Ordering Your Personal Ensemble

While we are the pre-order phase, during this first production run, we are offering two special opportunities to our retail customers.

  1. We will have free shipping on all the jewelry during the pre-order period so you will have no penalty buying your ensemble in stages.  It will ship as a single wonderful look when the jewelry arrives from Bali in about a month.
  2. Every time you make a jewelry purchase, you will be entered in a drawing for a free pair of earrings of your choice to be given away at the end of the pre-order period when all pre-orders ship.

With these opportunities in mind, we have two different proposals for how you can take advantage of the pre-order period to build your individualized look.

  1. Purchase the pieces you love as they appear.  Each purchase, remember, will enter you to win a free pair of earrings of your choice.
  2. Start a wishlist to keep your favorites together as you build your look. We will give you the heads-up a week before our inventory is ready to ship from Indonesia so you can purchase your ensemble(s) all at once and still qualify for the pre-order free-shipping offer and be entered in the drawing for a free pair of earrings.
  3. Start picking out what you love from our Stage I release right now at juldesigns.com.

117_1717.JPG

If you look closely at the metal work on this building, you can see the pierced designs of the Acanthus Lantern. In my next post, I will delve deeper into this metal work and how it inspired a series of metal pieces that I pictured in my Instagram quite some time ago now, and which have now become part of a broadly accessible jewelry collection, no longer consigned only to my private collection of handmade-for-myself pieces.

It is thrilling to be able to share, with you, shapes, that have so long rolled around in my mind’s eye.

Coming Soon . . .

Images and videos of my son’s and my second visit to the Shinshoji temple will accompany the release of Stage II of the Shinshoji Collection later this week.