Poverty and Luxury
September 15, 2014
Dear friends, pals, chums, random visitors who end up here because they Googled “log cabin,”
We are grateful for all your cards and notes inquiring about the state of Mason-Dixon Knitting and the future of our bi-regional knitting blog.
I’ll let Kay chime in with her thoughts about taking a five-month leave from a blog we’ve kept for eleven years. For me, it has been a strange thing not to write here. I miss you guys! But, strangely, I haven’t missed blogging—until today, when I have a finished object, and I’m itching to show it to you.
The last time I wrote was in April, when I was about to depart for a trip to Bangalore, India, for my half-sister’s wedding. I decided before I left that I would keep a journal of the trip but not blog about it. You know: live in the moment. Keep it down to a dull roar of Instagrams. (You can see those postcards here if you scroll back to April 18, 2014.)
When I got back, I had a big Moleskine that I had managed to fill with two weeks’ worth of scrawls.
It was the thing I turned to whenever I was up in the middle of the night with jet lag, with the goal of simply catching on the page the particulars of this trip with my siblings and father. It was the opposite of a blog: because I was writing only for myself, I included a lot of stuff that I would never put on the Internet—family dynamics, blunt observations, those interior thoughts that tend to float out when you’re feeling uncharitable. It was a complicated trip, a great one, and the farthest I’d ever been from home. I wrote fast, rarely crossing out anything, my hand cramping because the last time I’d written longhand was in college, a thousand years ago. I doodled things I saw—I realized I hadn’t doodled since college, really, when I always had a notebook in front of me and a class I didn’t like. It felt wildly cathartic to write without fearing that it would be forwarded to the wrong person, or snarked at in a comments thread. It was true.
I had every intention of writing about this trip on mdk.com. The textiles alone could fill a decade’s entries. But I couldn’t do it. Every time I flipped through that journal, looking for things to write about on the blog, I would stop and do something else. I couldn’t capture it; I didn’t want to capture it, on the Internet.
Even more peculiar, I stopped knitting soon after I got back to town. It was a switch turned off, a spigot twisted shut. It was the strangest thing, but I just didn’t feel like it.
Kay came to Nashville a few weeks after I had returned from India, at the end of May. We headed two hours south to Florence, Alabama, for a pilgrimage to the Factory, the mother church of Natalie Chanin’s handmade empire, Alabama Chanin. It was a great trip, total hooky for two days, and Kay was off in a zone of deep happiness as she cut fabric and ate artisanal biscuits and generally wallowed in that beautiful environment.
I stitched on a rectangle of organic cotton jersey, getting the hang of the Alabama Chanin method. It was deeply fun.
The most astounding sight in a building full of sights were Natalie Chanin’s 25 binders of swatches.
I wanted to eat them, they were so delicious: embroidery, appliqué, beading, quilting.
Texture and color and richness.
Handmade. Everything at Alabama Chanin is handmade, and it costs a fortune. I mean: thousands of dollars for a jacket. Couture prices, because the fact is that it is couture, sewn by stitchers in Alabama who work in their homes on these projects. As I admired the intricate appliqué and embroidery of these clothes, I thought often about those Alabama stitchers, and I also thought about the stitchers and embroiderers and silk factory workers I had just seen in India, working for a pittance compared to the wages workers make in America. The cost of living is different there, but still: any way you slice it, the minimum wage in India is a fraction of the United States’. (Here’s a breakdown of minimum wage across the globe.)
One day in Bangalore, we visited the shop where my half-sister was having the final fitting for her wedding saree. The shop was a riot of color, ornament, embellishment—the most spectacular array of fabrics I had ever seen. The owner of the shop asked if we wanted to see the seamstresses at work, and of course we did. She led us up a narrow staircase to a small room. On the floor of that room were a half dozen women, draped in their own colorful sarees, but also half covered in the splendid red and gold and purple of a wedding saree in progress, spread out on the floor around them as they stitched thousands of beads onto the edges. So many hands were at work, at once, on the floor of that room, on a garment that would be worn for one day. They were laughing at something one of them said, and one of the workers held up the hem of the saree for us to see, shy and proud of it. I felt like I was interrupting something private. And I felt like a creep for interrupting them: the privileged American.
That feeling comes often in India.
So, in my summer of not-knitting, I turned to stitching. I wanted to see what it was like, how long it would take to create something as intricate as that wedding saree. It made no sense, this impulse of mine, but I had this feeling of wanting to share something with those women on the floor of that shop.
One of the clever things about Alabama Chanin is that Natalie Chanin understands that her handmade garments are extravagantly expensive. To make her aesthetic available to all, she created three magnificent books for home-stitchers who want to make their own projects using Alabama Chanin patterns and materials. For true economy, she suggests upcycling old T shirts from the back of the closet. Like a magician who shows you the trick, she gives away all her wisdom and knowledge about making her garments. It is a true generosity driving what she does. After spending time with Natalie in Florence, I was struck by her lack of interest in the almighty dollar. That’s not what she’s up to, even if large sums of money are involved in what she does. The point she makes, over and over, is that quality is expensive. Organic cotton is a pain to grow. Stitching reverse appliqué takes skill and time. Hand-spraying stencils onto fabric is harder than you might think. Her ultimate message: making a beautiful garment that lasts for many years is actually more economical than the false economy of something mass produced.
I made an Alabama Chanin skirt for my sister’s big birthday.
It went fast. No beads, but a lot of straight stitch and reverse appliqué.
After I launched the skirt to my sister, I wanted to do more. I started embellishing rectangles of Alabama Chanin organic cotton jersey.
I found beads at Be Dazzled, a sparkly rabbit hole here in Nashville. I learned about bead sizes, and Czech versus Japanese, and beading needles and Double Duty Button Craft thread.
I lived through the bummer that is the bead with a hole too small for the needle. I discovered that Fiskars makes a great pair of scissors for cutting the intricate curves of these patterns. I would wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for how to decorate a pattern. The longer I worked, the more patient I became.
When my spangled stars looked underspangled, I went back and added clouds of gray beads.
One discovery is that speed comes naturally, the longer I did this.
I know now that intricate beadwork can be done faster than you might think. It’s not impossible. You get the hang of it.
I finally ran out of rectangles, and I snipped all the appliqué that there was to snip. I stitched the rectangles together, and here it is:
A trip to India, distilled.
My knitting mojo seems to have returned, I’m happy to report. In particular, I blame brand-new Nashvillian Karen Templer. (Sorry, Berkeley, she’s ours now!) Over at Fringe Association, she is launching a knitalong today that has an epic quality to it that I can’t resist. Picking yarn and pattern has to be one of the most delicious moments in knitting, don’t you think? That wide-open horizon of possibility.
PS One thing Kay and I agree on is that our blog will never, ever disappear. We want it to float along in the cloud long after we have checked out to the great Rhinebeck in the sky. We have made so many friends and learned so much from everyone who has taken the time to stop in here. Thank you for your patience, and for understanding that sometimes we will run out of steam. It won’t be five months until you hear from me again!
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