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.


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


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?


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.



Starting over after 25 Years . . .

My first job, at the age of 14, was in a little fabric store called L.T. Henry fabrics, which was owned by a man from New York who sent things down that he couldn’t sell in his main store in the garment district.  It was one of those stores that was tidy but packed with things, some of which had been there for a long time because they were so unusual.

I used to wander around the store, when there were no customers, hunting, finding new things, hiding the ones I like behind and under the other bolts.  The store had the conventional broadcloths, tweeds, double-knits, seersuckers, light suit wool, tulle, flannel (in the days before fleece), interfacing, bias tape, thread, zippers.  But there were also extraordinary silks, brocades, designer fabrics in a little fabric store in a shabby strip mall with a KMart and a People’s Drugstore.

I used published patters at first and then I started cutting my own patterns, winging it really.  I habitually skipped the pressing and the interfacing.  I always wanted to wear it the next day so I cut corners.  But over time I got better and eventually got a job in the costume shop at the Arena Stage repertory theater in Washington DC.  There, I learned couture and custom tailoring techniques.  I learned to measure the body to make slopers and how to manipulate a sloper to make flat patterns. I got really good.  Before I left the theater I made a beautiful custom tailored blue brocade silk jacket.  It still fits magnificently.  This is not a good picture.  I’ll take a better one.  It doesn’t convey how beautiful it is.  It took a long time – all those tiny, invisible stitches to marry the interfacing to the fabric on the underside of the lapel that I shaped over a ham to create a sensuous rounded fold.

And then I stopped. I went to graduate school. The independent fabric stores had already begun to close by then. I stopped for 25 years except for the odd, exquisite, custom-tailored Halloween costume (remember the beautiful, green, full-length coat in The Little Prince?) for my son when he was a little boy.

A few summers ago I took a class at the Haystack school of craft.  It was supposed to be about designing your Uniform.  I had long found that idea incredibly appealing and was so excited to go out and buy fabric for the Uniform I imagined – a series of long, fitted jackets and coats in wools and linens in a grey to black palette.  Fitted collarless blouses in linen, long skirts, flared pants.  The class was a disaster.  The instructor led us astray by starting with industry blanks instead of measurements to make our slopers.  The blanks, of course, didn’t fit anyone so they needed to be fit and made again.  No one had experience fitting so the students waited to be fitted by the instructor, moving the alterations onto paper, cutting muslins again, repeat.  The instructor had advised the students to add seam allowance to the pattern, rather than have the edges of the sloper pattern represent the stitching line, as I had learned in the theater (I ignored the instructor and my patterns edges represented the stitching line so I added my seam allowance every time, which was very slow).  If a student failed to add seam allowance to her pattern, the muslin wouldn’t fit.  Because there was so little seam allowance (students were advised the garment industry standard of 3/8″ rather than the custom tailoring standard of 1″, which allows for alterations on the muslin or the finished garment), the entire muslin would have to be made again after trying to figure out where the muslin had gone wrong.

And the problems go on like that.  I had to stop what I was trying to do for three days (the course was only 2 weeks!) to read a book on fitting so I could interpret correctly what the drag lines and drapes in the muslins meant and how to fix them.

Needless to say I never got to fabric.  I kept wishing I could remember everything I had known so well 25 years ago when I was at the theater.  I was so angry after the course that I didn’t continue to work on any of the projects I had set out for myself.

This week I’m starting again.  I’m going to cut two linen skirts, one short in grey, and one long in black.  I hope to wear the black one to my 10,000 Small Businesses graduation on August 2. I’m starting with a commercial patterns that I am tweaking. I will keep you posted!




The Secret Menu

I never knew Chinese restaurants have secret menus until a Chinese colleague took me to a restaurant that on the surface looked like all of the others I have ever been to.

sign for chinese restaurant
This menu of specials was outside of a Chinese restaurant next to the Korean grocery where I do my shopping, as it’s so much cheaper than the conventional grocery stores. The second item – Pork Intestines and Blood in Spicy Sauce – reminded me of two things:
1) A Chinese restaurant a Chinese friend took me to once in Champaign, IL when I was a post-doctoral fellow there. She said it was ‘pretty good.’ We were given the predictable huge menu full of the standard dishes. She handed that menu back and spoke to the waitress in Chinese and we were then brought a single sheet of white paper with about 8 things on it. My friend turned to me and explained that the chef is from Szechuan and this small menu was made up of authentic regional dishes, which were spicy and distinctive. She ordered for us, including several things that she explained were not on the menu but which were specialties of the area. The dishes were brought in courses. I have never had Chinese food like that Chinese food. I had never known there was a *secret* menu. The fact that pork intestine with blood and spicy sauce is on this menu tells me that the secret menu is on display. How exciting!
2) At Balinese ceremonies of a certain size, roasted pig is always on the menu. Every part of the animal is used. Communal meals are made in which a pyramid of rice is place on a square woven bamboo mat that is covered with banana leaves cut to size.  This mat is then put down on a wooden, table-like low platform on which a circle of guests sit in same-sex groups (never mixed). Around the rice are arrayed different parts of the pig, including a minimal amount of meat, and vegetables cooked in ways that you rarely see except at ceremonies because they contain ingredients like cubed pig fat mixed with steamed long beans cut in 1 inch segments, shredded fresh coconut, and a paste of turmeric, garlic, shrimp paste, and salt, and minced shallot, and chiffonade kaffir lime leaves. It’s the presence of the pork that makes them rare in other contexts as pig is ceremony food.
After everyone is seated and the food has been placed in the center of the group, one of the women takes her fist and punches a well in the rice. Then a bowl of spicy warm pig blood is poured in the well. Everyone eats together with their hands from this common platter, taking rice and small amounts of meat and vegetables onto the tips of the middle three fingers of the right hand. Once you are ready to put the food in your mouth, you push it off with your thumb while sticking out your tongue just enough to catch the food and at the same time ensure that your mouth and hand do not make contact. Using this technique, there is no ‘double dipping’ even though everyone is using her hand.
It’s the specific technique for eating with your hand that is is key, not just at ceremonies but always. No licking fingers. Food doesn’t go in your palm. It’s a bit tricky at first if you have never done it before (and people will laugh at you for your inept initial attempts) but you get used to it.
This ceremony food always made me mildly sick for a week, gurgling stomach, vague malaise. I finally gave up on it and said I wasn’t allowed to eat pork. Then I was relocated to a pavilion with the priest and other ritual specialists who also are not allowed, for religious reasons of purity, to eat pork. So we ate duck and never from a common bowl. No stomach problems ever again.
Though I appreciate the secret Chinese menu coming out of the closet, I will not be trying the special! Not because I’m not brave enough or find it disgusting. Indeed, I’m confident it’s tasty. But experience has made me wary of this dish.

A Past Life in Bali

We all have our past lives.  I used to have a dream – which I haven’t had in a long time – in which I was walking through the rooms of a magnificent house, room after room, each leading to the next.  They went on and on.  They didn’t repeat.  I think about the episodes of my life like this – like a series of rooms.  I entered the room. I was in the room for awhile. And then I left the room. My PhD fieldwork in Bali, Indonesia between 1998 and 2000 was one of those rooms.

I left the United States when my son was just one and a half.  I had funding from three different academic institutions: Fulbright, Wenner-Gren (specifically for Anthropology), and the Asian Cultural Council.  Between the three grants, I had enough money to conduct research in Bali for two years.

My Bali is a difficult place, full of magic, envy, meanness, sickness, inter-village warfare, marriage by rape and abduction, poverty.  And it’s also beautiful. It is undeniably a physically beautiful place with exquisite rice terraces, spectacular ceremonies, gorgeous people, astonishing music and dance.

But none of this is the most beautiful part of Bali to me. What is most beautiful is the unseen meanings behind ceremonies, offerings, dance, poetry, stories, music.  The ways in which people put into practice and embody a cosmology that articulates a relationship between the universe and the human body – those are the aspects that, to me, are breathtaking.

I studied those things in various ways, through an investigation of dance, in which the dance movements and postures are gendered – male, female, ambiguous.  I studied Balinese life crisis rituals: tooth-filing, marriage, mortuary, birthdays for people and temples, and calendrical ceremonies in which the gods are ritually bathed and entertained.  I studied Balinese esoteric texts written in Old Javanese, a Sanskrit-based language used for religious and ritual books and incantations during ceremonies.

The works I studied ranged from anatomies, which began with the glance of lovers eyes (wonderful, no?), love magic, meditation maps, ethnobotanical treatises on the characteristics of plants and plant parts, instructions for how to die, and erotic instruction manuals similar to the Kama Sutra.  I learned how to cook.

I learned how to dress appropriately, how to move differently, how to bargain in the market, and what not to do.  And I lived in a village and learned how to be a person by hanging out with other women, listening to their gossip, watching them work, absorbing their lessons for me.

A big part of learning how to be a person was watching how my neighbors taught my son to be Balinese and how I came to understand their cultural instructions. I will share them with you and if you are a parent, you will find some of it very useful.

Below is a picture of my son when he was 3 and we were on a vacation from Bali to Borobudur in Java. – 1999

What an amazing place it was to raise him for some of those first critical years.  It’s true that it takes a village.  We were lucky to have one for awhile.

This Course Changed My Life & How I Think About My Business

I want to tell you some news that I am so proud of. I just finished a business course called 10,000 Small Businesses. It’s run by the Goldman Sachs Foundation and has support from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The curriculum was developed by Babson College which has one of the most respected MBA programs in the country. Warren Buffet is on their Board. In fact, at our graduation on August 2, Warren Buffet will be present, along with: Catherine Pugh, the Mayor of Baltimore: Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman-Sachs; Michael Bloomberg; and a representative of the Harvard Business School. Are you getting the message yet? It’s a big deal. And: It’s free!

I found out about it by chance. I am on an email list for Baltimore small manufacturing businesses and get updates about courses and opportunities and this was one of them. I actually didn’t know what it was. I imagined it was a weekend workshop and figured I would just apply, clicked the link, wrote the essays, and then didn’t think much more about it. Little did I know.

You have to make at least $100,000 gross, have 2 employees, and they are especially interested in businesses that are minority and women owned. Getting in is competitive. You write essays, submit your financials, write more essays, have an interview, and then hope.

The course has 9 modules and runs over five months. We didn’t have class every week, but usually had two back-to-back in one week from 8am – 5:30pm. (Breakfast, lunch, and snacks in the afternoon were catered and were healthy and delicious with salads, whole grains, vegetables, several protein options, fruit, and dessert. As you can see from the list, vegetarian options were available at every meal and all of you paleos would have been just fine too.)

We covered money, marketing, personnel, leadership skills, negotiation skills, bankability, funding, operations. And unlike many business courses that focus on developing a business plan, this course focuses on what they call a Growth Plan. You have to develop a new opportunity and come up with a feasible and actionable plan for engaging that new opportunity in order to grow your business.

10,000 Small Businesses emphasizes that if you are doing what you have always done you are shrinking, you are dying, slowly going out of business. All businesses have to keep innovating in order to grow and in order to do that you can’t do it part-way. You have to be all in.

This course talked about the difference between a good idea and a growth plan, research-based decision making versus emotions-based decision making, business decisions based on the financials, not gut feelings.

I didn’t know what inventory turnover rates were. I didn’t know what break-even points were. I didn’t know how to figure out my shop rate. How do you know what is cost of goods sold versus overhead? Now, those of you with business backgrounds may judge me. Please don’t. I ended up doing this business by accident. I never planned to be here.

I have learned on the hoof. I was trained as an anthropologist. I’m a designer. I never had any training in accounting or business and have berated myself over the years for being a bad business woman until I decided I didn’t have to take up brain space daily by castigating myself for not being up to date on the books. I decided I could do better. Now my books are up to date (and they need to be if you are going to apply for 10,000 small businesses because it’s part of the application). Despite winging it, I have been able to make a living and support myself as a single mother with sole responsibility for my son – no child support ever. I have a house. I have a beautiful studio space. I have 2 full-time people in Indonesia who the business supports. I work with many artisans there, Fair Trade, and they rely on the business we do together to support their families. I have a half-time person here in the United States.

I have survived. But survival is always only just enough. And right now it’s not quite enough.

So I have developed my growth plan – which is to create a line of ‘affordable luxury, branded silver jewelry for a broad customer base that extends beyond the niche market of home knitters and needleworkers I currently serve.  I have begun to implement it, as you can see from my last blog post, and for the first time I can see past survival. I can imagine JUL as a bigger design company (and they say being able to visualize it is the first step). We did visualization exercises in class it’s so important! And I now have the tools to make that vision a reality. I have to admit I’m scared right now. But I’m also excited and exhilarated.  The new design work I’m doing with Agus (in the picture below) is what I really love about what I do.  And as we go along in this new direction, I will add more categories of designs – housewares, wearables, and bags again once it’s financially feasible and I have the right infrastructure to make you beautiful bags at an affordable price without losing my shirt.

I am so thrilled to be entering this new phase!  And I’m so excited I can share it with you through the new designs we are working on!

Below you can see me with my creative partner in Bali, Indonesia.  His name is Agus.  I have worked with him for 10 years as my co-designer and collaborator.  Since Agus’ father died suddenly of a massive heart attack a year ago, he has been the head of the family, responsible for taking care of everyone and for most of the income that supports the household.  His wife assists him with his work on JUL by sharing management of production and overseeing quality control and book keeping.

My First Product . . .

I started my business with just one thing.

Really I started with nothing.  Nothing and my collaborator in Bali – Agus – my creative partner now for almost 10 years.  Agus was given to me by my friend Wayan.  This is how things work in Bali. You get relationships through other relationships.  Connections are gifted.

I met Wayan when my son was just starting to walk.  Julian must have been just over a year (he started walking at 9 months).  Now he’s 20, about to go to college in a month and half (I can hardly absorb that, and I’m not at all a clingy mom – I just thought about how a German friend used to pronounce that word: with the ‘g’ soft like the French for ‘I’ – Je, or as in the word ‘fringy’).

Wayan and I were sitting in a waiting room at the Johns Hopkins tropical medicine clinic or something like that.  We were there to get exotic vaccines before going to Bali – cholera, other things, don’t remember.  I kept looking at him thinking – he looks Balinese, or maybe from the Philippines. But I thought Bali.  And I also thought, how unlikely; probably I’m wrong.  This is a picture of Wayan in 2006.

Julian walked to him, put his hands on Wayan’s knees and looked up at him.  Wayan was lovely with Julian until Julian did something inappropriate, though I don’t remember what.  And Wayan (whose name I didn’t know yet), said “I don’t like that,” and I felt terrible about my boy’s faux pas.  Though I shouldn’t have.  It’s the job of adults, all adults I believe, to elder children.  If we are community, then we all have a responsibility to discipline and praise children when they behave according to conventions of polite behavior, or violate them.  But I didn’t have that view yet.  I felt like it was my fault that Julian had done something to which Wayan objected.  Yet Julian was just a baby.  He wasn’t fully a person.  He had a long way to go. Wayan was not judging me.  He was eldering Julian, Balinese style.

I don’t know how it happened but Wayan and I started talking. I learned he was indeed Balinese. He learned I was going there to do PhD research. We knew someone in common (how likely is that?!). We exchanged contact details. Wayan turned out to be a dancer. I was going to study gender and dance. And that’s how it started.  I won’t tell you all of the story now.  You must be patient. It will unfold.  It’s a good story.  It crosses centuries.  It takes awhile to tell.

For now I will offer the abbreviated version.  Wayan and I became friends in Bali.  We both returned to the States. We continued our friendship. Then we both returned to Bali . . . So when I was in Bali once years after that, still in academia doing research on marriage by capture, which I will tell you about a bit later, my sister, Noni, asked me if I could find someone who could make some hardware for bags. Everything she had found available in the US was boring she said.  Couldn’t I help her get something more unique, something better, to go along with the knitted/felted bag patterns she had begun doing?  I said of course.

So I asked Wayan if he knew anyone.  And he did.  He brought me Agus.  Agus had long dreadlocks then.  I don’t know whether they were really his hair nor not.  But it was the affectation of an artistic person to have unusual features like that – dyed hair, dreadlocks, gauged ears (even though traditionally, that was a Balinese thing for both men and women and old men and women always had huge ear-holes). Agus was quiet.  Wayan did all the talking.

Agus and my son Julian in 2011. I met Agus in 2006 but I can’t seem to find any photographs of him at all from that time.

Wayan and I always speak in English. He is the only Balinese person I speak to in English.  When he speaks in English, he understands me. He has absorbed alot of American-ness, so he is flexible and open, values so many things about the way we do things differently, as long as he is speaking in English. When he speaks in Indonesian, he is not as tolerant of my American idiosyncracies. And in Balinese, even less.

So when I met Agus, Wayan posed as a translator I didn’t need, mediating my interaction, as if Agus and I couldn’t make contact without him.  And maybe we couldn’t initially, though not because there was a language barrier.  There was none. The barrier was we didn’t have a relationship.  We had no shared history.  We had no social context that made working together make sense.  That had to be built.  And it was slow.

Indo July 2011 070
Agus and my son Julian in 2011. I met Agus in 2006 but I can’t seem to find any photographs of him at all from that time.

In Bali, when someone employs another person, the employer is the tree.  The employee is the fruit – anak buah, or fruit person/child.  This is, as you might guess, an hierarchical relationship.  The tree determines what happens.  The tree makes all of the decisions.  The anak buah  is the follower.  The anak buah does as s(he) is told.  No decisions come from the anak buah.

But this model of the tree and the fruit did not work for me.  I needed someone who could make decisions in my stead, act as an agent, be my collaborator, my fellow ‘tree,’ not my fruit.

Agus would tell me – I’m embarrassed to go pick up our castings because we haven’t paid the workshop.  I would ask – why haven’t you paid them?  He would say that I hadn’t told him to pay them.  I would protest that I hadn’t even known they needed to be paid.  I instructed that if someone needed to be paid in order for us to complete the products our customers wanted, then he was authorized to make decisions about who should be paid and how much.  All he had to do was let me know.

It took a long time to get to the point where he felt comfortable making executive decisions; I needed to be able to rely on him completely while I was here in the US and he was there in Indonesia.

At the beginning, he was someone I didn’t know.  But he knew how to design jewelry. And through Wayan, however unnecessary his translation/mediation was at the time, we negotiated that Agus would do some designs for me.

Agus came back with a lot. This is the one I used.  This is the first design.

The first ones were all handmade.  They were sterling silver.

They took too long to produce and were too expensive.

This is how JUL started:

Just a Little Tease . . .

We are working on an amazing, new, full collection of silver jewelry that we know you will love!

We decided to tell you about it now because, honestly, we are so excited we couldn’t wait to let you in on our secret. Some of your favorite yarn shops have already expressed in carrying the line and once the first collection is ready, we will announce a list of shops where you will be able to go see it in person. And, of course, it will be available on our website as soon as it comes in.

I am not just a designer.  I am an anthropologist.  I did my research on contemporary culture in Bali, Indonesia.  I lived there for a total of 3 years.  I speak the language.  I understand the culture.

My full-time creative collaborator, Agus (pronouned Ah-goose), is Balinese.  I have been working with him for 10 years.  He was trained as a jewelry designer and he is an integral part of the design process that brings to you the shawl pins and shawl sticks you have come to love and wear with your gorgeous handmade knits, crochet, and weaving.  He and I work together by video-chat to develop and tweak designs that have a relationship to culture, history, art, and architecture.  Each one of our designs has this kind of foundation in meaning and my lived experiences in Bali, traveling to other places, and conducting research about other life-ways and cross-cultural modes of thinking.

Up to this point I haven’t shared these stories with you.  And for that I apologize.  Because it makes a difference when you know the story.  I can offer to you not only a beautiful object, but the beautiful, sometimes funny, sometimes sad stories behind those objects.  I can share with you my memories and in this way they can become your memories, embedded in the object, something you can carry with you every time you wear something from JUL.

Our first full collection of silver jewelry – which will consist of 11-13 bracelets, necklaces, pendants, and earrings – will be available in time for your Christmas shopping in late September or early October.  We are making our prototypes right now.  Once we know they are all exactly as we want them, we will go into production and will definitely keep you posted as the collection comes along.  We already have a few of the pieces and decided to tease you just a little so you can share in our excitement!