I started sewing when I was 6, the Summer before heading to 1st Grade.
My Mom had a lot on her hands, trying to take care of my brother with cerebral palsy. My Father busy at work. I was sent to stay with my Grandparents 8 hours away, in the small town of Sterling, Illinois. When I think of my childhood, this time spent with my Grandparents has great impact. While I ran around outside like all kids, I also spent a lot of time sitting with my Grandmother and her close group of friends. They were busy knitting, sewing, and eating coffee cake.
Soon enough, as my curiosity grew, my Grandmother started helping me make my first quilt. She allowed me to choose fabric (pink). She helped me make a square cardboard template to trace the pieces, and how to sew each square together, by hand. From here, I learned how to use the machine. One of my first projects, a heart-shaped pin cushion, embellished with lace, made for my Grandmother, of course. As my time with my Grandparents progressed, soon enough, I knew all of my Grandmother's friends, visited their homes often, and was introduced to their current knitting or quilting projects. Needing to go back to Minnesota to attend school, my teary good-bye with my Grandparents was made somewhat better by the promise that I would get to return the following Summer.
Every visit with my Grandmother meant new clothing. She would measure, cut, and sew everything from shorts and dresses to nightgowns. I loved the undivided attention, even if it was just for 10 minutes of measuring, or checking a hem. As the years progressed, I acquired more sewing and knitting skills from my Grandma and her friends. Until finally, as I became a temperamental pre-teen, I put my foot down and wanted to spend my Summers in Minnesota with friends my own age.
I left the Midwest for California in 1996. Fresh out of high school, to attend Mills College. California opened my eyes to politics in consumerism. The importance and impact of putting your money where your mouth is and actually having the infrastructure of small businesses and locally owned shops to be able to do that. Where I was raised in Minnesota, that was virtually impossible by the time I had my own money to spend, nearly everything was a chain or big-box store. As I studied socio-political environments around the world in combination with Art and Art History, I wanted to travel, and to see for myself the people and the culture outside the U.S. I attended school in India and it blew my mind. So much of life was held outdoors. Walking down the street, textiles and the process of making them were everywhere. Everything from a woman, sitting on her stoop, embroidering a blouse to a professional weaver, using the length of the block, to walk out his warp.
Up until this point, the creation of textiles was always conveyed to me as a privilege of time and money, as decorative, women's work, frivolous (you could just buy that), and a way to act like one is making something useful when really it just provides a space to gossip. You know, stitch and bitch, indicating that really there are much more important things one could be doing. As part of my program, I was required to do an independent research project. When I expressed my desire to look at textiles more closely, and meet those who dedicate at least 50% of their life to them, my teachers took me seriously. Up until this point, I had never considered the possibility of textiles academically.
I traveled to a remote part of Gujarat, known as The Great Rann of Kutch, where multiple communities of people each have their own definitive style of motifs, expressed through embroidery and sometimes the combination of embroidery with applique. I focused upon the Rabari, a group of nomadic herders. They spend over 50% of their time either embellishing their own clothing or working for NGOs (non-government organizations), embroidering and appliqueing their body of motifs onto sell-able goods such as bags and blankets. Sure embroidery and applique might help the life span of a garment and durability, though really the point of my work was to study how textiles function as the glue which holds communities together. Joining the group of stitchers meant learning new information as to what was happening in the village, who was sick, how they got better, who was getting married, who was the new wife in the village. Stitching gave them something in common. And stitching created community. This felt very similar to my Grandmother and her group of friends. I found, as I sat to stitch with the women, and having very little language skills, the ability to stitch together resonated within us all.
A year later, I returned to India on a Fulbright grant to continue my research of textiles and community in the Great Rann of Kutch. During the time I was away, a large earthquake occurred devastating the area. More than ever, community and finances were under great duress. I began to see more of the remote communities, who once stitched mainly for themselves begin to sew more for the NGOs. And since I was there longer, I widened my research to include those who worked solely for the textile industry dyeing, weaving, and farming. It became harder for me to research there, seeing the great disparity between opportunity, livelihood, income, and health. It was hard for me to grasp how there could be such a difference between people. Why would some need so much and some have so little. I know this could sound naive or contrived, but living it, and seeing it on a daily basis goes beyond theory or speculation, to needing to act and to change the existing paradigm of textiles, how they are valued, and bring into perspective the lives of those that currently make 90% of our textiles and our clothing.
Upon returning to the U.S., I decided to pursue textiles academically. I wanted to work towards a PhD. As my background was in Art History, this was the course I wanted to continue. I came to learn that this in fact was going to be difficult since textiles are not considered a form of Art. I was directed to Anthropology, a discipline I always found as the Study of Others, when I wanted to study Me, You, and Everyone We Know or Want to Know. I tried to find a program in Textiles, and with few exceptions, came up empty handed. Apparently, since a PhD is to show how great you are at researching, and there are few books considered academic and related to textiles, people found it hard to grasp how a PhD in Textiles could be accomplished. Catch 22, no? So it seemed that going to school wasn't a good fit. Looking back, and stating the obvious, doesn't the fact that nearly everyone in the world needs to wear clothing as a protective measure, that we use textiles as a way to communicate our values and idea of beauty, and that the clothing industry just so happens to be one of the core economic institutions in the world, warrant the study of textiles academically? I think so and hope to see things change.
I decided to try my ideas out in the big world. I started Verb. I developed a pattern for knitting bags and sewing them. Inside there were pockets for knitting needles and notions, and a separate area, like a built in project bag, for your knitting. I found out the obvious, sewing is time consuming and in production, can be tedious. I also learned that for the cost I needed to charge for the bags would be above the value the market had for them. In the meantime, I learned to spin, and began to make handspun, knit accessories. They sold at high-end boutiques, known for their choice of hand-made objects, like Erica Tanov. While they were well received, I had a hard time relating to the market at which could afford these objects. And the process was somewhat void of life.
I decided to get in touch with a part of my life left behind in India, dyeing. And I decided to create hand-dyed yarn. And the world opened, the heavens poured forth, ok, no they didn't, but it was pretty amazing. Ravelry had started a few months earlier. Friends were easily found. Projects landed on the needles and off the needles. Released were patterns of beautiful, contemporary styles. Tech-edit became a commonly used phrase. This is still going on five years later. I found and still find the process of creating raw materials and selling them to be interactive and fulfilling. That in some ways my customers and I collaborate on a daily basis. Their skills combined with materials I have dyed.
So Verb grew, we decided to move our little dye studio and shop in Berkeley to a space in Oakland 10x larger, and I decided to add fabric to our selection. It seemed normal. Sew a dress, knit a sweater. Expand our classes to include sewing.
About a year into having our new space, the Occupy Movement began and was gaining momentum. In Oakland, this has been a very big deal. What I took from the Occupy Movement was the idea or fact that people want to take control back from large corporations and have more control over their lives. In this area, we have spent so much time (well spent) in taking back food and alcohol from major corporations and factory farms. We spend a large amount of our income on food, both from the market and at restaurants. From making food a priority, we have more quality ingredients to choose from, more varieties, more price points, more people employed who are creative and skilled, more types of business models, and all of these things make this area culturally and economically very interesting.
I dream of people taking textiles as seriously as they do food; the process of making them, of who is making them, and the materials used to make them. For one moment, just think about how much you might spend on a dinner. In this area, if you are eating in a restaurant which sources ingredients locally, and has trained chefs, dinner per person can easily cost $50. Now think of the shirt you are wearing, and how much you paid for it, and where it was made. How many miles did the shirt have to travel to reach you? How many people laid hands on your shirt before it reached you. The person who designed it, and the people who employ that designer, the farmer(s) who grew the material, most likely cotton (in India), the people who gather the material and ship it, the people who receive the material (in China, Vietnam, etc) the people who clean it and process it into yarn, then the person who dyes the yarn, the people who run the machines to knit it or weave it, the factory owner who also must make money on the creation and sale of the fabric, then there are those who sew the shirt, the inspectors to make sure the shirt has been made properly, those that pack the shirt to ship, those that receive it stateside, distribute it, another person to receive it at the shop, display it, sell it.
For many of us, I would venture to say the shirt you are wearing cost somewhere between $20 and $50. When I think about all of the people who have had a part in the process of making a shirt in this price range, I can't understand how this shirt is sold for $20-50. In general, I've found most people accept that dinner can cost $20-50, which is one meal, come and gone, but hold less value for an object which can be used over and over again. When I refer to value, I am referring to the fact of how much someone is willing to pay for something.
I started talking to people who frequent the shop about these ideas and observations. I began to think of ways to further the conversation. Seam Allowance was born.
I am coming to Seam Allowance for the following reasons:
I don't have a lot of money to spend on clothing but want to know it is being made ethically. So have decided to take the labor part out of the equation and make more of my clothing myself.
The act of making clothing connects me to my Grandmother and to her friends as well as to the women I worked with in India, and the men and women I work with currently in my shop and studio. I like the commonality we share.
I enjoy making things using my hands that employ form and function. Clothing keeps me warm (or in the instance of this week's heat wave, cool), and is a way for me to express what types of colors, textures, and shapes I find interesting and beautiful.
Choosing colors and textures in the forms of yarn and fabric makes me happy.
I like being reminded of the hard work and labor that goes into making a piece of clothing and to have an appreciation for that article of clothing whether I made it or not.
I would like to support large corporations less and making my own clothing will help me do that.
I like knowing that what I make is of high quality and will last.
I find that the goal of making 25% of my clothing is possible.
I find this work worthwhile, important, and a good use of my time.
I hope that by sewing and knitting more of my own clothing, and choosing materials I believe to be made ethically, that similar to the food movement, more people will join me. And, in turn, similar to the food movement, we will have more locally sourced raw materials available to us, in the form of fiber, dyes, yarn, and fabric. And that there will be more people employed in such lines of work. And that we would have a thriving economy and culture surrounding the production of textiles and clothing.
Next up on the agenda: figuring out where to start with my 25% and creating goals.
Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing about others reasons for making their own clothing and for joining Seam Allowance. If you would like to read more about Seam Allowance, click here.
P.S. Just today, a great interview covering topics similar to these was posted to salon.com. I recommend reading it.