For the look of Relax in a worsted weight yarn, take a look at Worsted Boxy.

Back on the Mountain; And, A Provocative Lecture

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Dear Kay,
Yoohoo! I’m over here! So sorry to be out of touch, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been a) knitting, b) thinking about making things, or c) disconnected from the Internet, because Gawd knows that I cannot live without the electronic IV of twitchyjuice, even if I’m up on the Cumberland Plateau.
Many things to discuss, so many. But the thing most on my mind this morning is the field trip I took last night with my pal Annis, who quilts, over to the Shakerag Workshop that’s in high gear five miles down the road in Sewanee.
Kay, Shakerag is completely and totally mind-blowing. You GOTTA come up for one of these things. The participants come from all over the country to participate in week-long, residential workshops in everything from 16th-century embroidery techniques to papermaking to book arts. The clay people are there, the fiber people. Everybody looks slightly zoned out, so blissed at being in a place where you don’t have to explain why you’re building an egg using half-inch-long pieces of willow tied together with tiny knots of waxed twine.
Here’s the workshop next week that I would love to attend: Joan Morris’s “Natural Dye Extracts and an Indigo Pot: All You Need to Make Shibori Textiles.”
Last night we went over to hear a lecture by Natalie Chanin, the founder of Project Alabama, the company that creates completely handmade (read: insanely expensive) clothing and home stuff using cottage-industry sewers who do the embroidery and sewing in their north Alabama homes.
You’ve surely seen her recent books, Alabama Stitch Book and Alabama Studio Style.
Chanin told a bitterweet story of an idea that has proved hard to make work. I mean, it’s working, but it’s hard. Chanin and her original partner parted ways in 2006, so now she continues her original concept with another company she set up, Alabama Chanin–not to be confused with the Project Alabama clothes that you’ll find these days at Anthropologie and such. After Chanin left the company, Project Alabama began using Indian labor for the sewing, which completely changed the economics of the clothing: a handmade skirt at Alabama Chanin can cost $3,000, while a Project Alabama skirt at Anthropologie costs a fraction of that.
I’m so conflicted about Alabama Chanin. Yes, it’s cool: all materials and work are done as locally as possible–no foreign anything. But a roll through the online store for Alabama Chanin gives me total vertigo when I look at the prices. As someone who makes things by hand, I understand how expensive it is to create beautiful things using only one’s hands. But I have a hard time reconciling all this effort to make organic-cotton, hand-beaded, reverse appliqué treasures that are available only for the most rarefied customer. Maybe I just wish I could justify springing for a $4,000 applique coat . . . but I can’t get my head around that. It seems so extravagant, so peeled grapes. I keep thinking about Marie Antoinette, if Marie Antoinette shopped at Barneys.
To her credit, Chanin is not unaware of the difficulty of her pricing. Her books, she says, make Alabama Chanin designs available to anyone who can thread a needle. Kits for many projects are available. Workshops happen down in Alabama all the time. Maybe that’s the only way to channel all that love of handwork into a place where the vast majority of consumers live: if you don’t want to pay for all that handwork, you can just do it yourself. Or, like me, simply admire the photographs and sigh when you see a detail like this.
While we listened last night, I worked on this:
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Heidi Kirrmaier‘s Medano Beach bag. Isn’t it just the cutest thing ever? Couldn’t I buy one of these at Target for $12?
Yesssss, sort of . . . though it wouldn’t be made in this awesome, waxy-feeling Allhemp6 by Hemp for Knitting. (Every time I see “Hemp for Knitting,” I think, “AsOpposedToHempForSmoking.”)
And I wouldn’t be able to make the straps exactly the length I’d like them to be.
And I wouldn’t have the joy of making the jogless stripes I’ve always wanted to experiment with.
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You know the problem–knitting in the round throws stripes off a stitch when a new round begins, a line of hinky in an otherwise hinkyless piece of knitting. With the jogless stripe technique, a little trick camouflages the join.
See the slightly wonky stitches running diagonally in the middle there? You can’t? Awesome! Thank you, TechKnitting for the brilliant tutorial on jogless stripes.
And at the end of the day, I’ll be able to sew in my ANN SHAYNE label, indicating that it was made by hand, cottage industry style, in the woods of the Cumberland Plateau.
Love,
Ann
PS Yes, the bluebirds are back! We seem to have arrived at the same time. They’ve been mucking out and re-lining their box, the same way I’ve been doing with the shack.

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35 Comments

35 Comments

  1. Ooh, good one. You hit the nail on the head by segueing into the Target thing right after the Alabama Chanin thing.
    It’s an argument that my husband and I have ALL. The. TIME!
    Value of handmade vs. mass produced vs. cost vs. beauty…
    Latest installment in the argument:
    Cheapening goods by mass producing them in a disposable way. i.e. people used to keep winter coats for years, and now they’re made poorly and falling apart after one season.
    Yes, the cost of goods are cheaper, but we’re buying increasing numbers of them. Is the value of one $4000 winter coat that you will pass on to your grandchildren greater than spending $200 for a winter coat every year? It’s such a tough question, because so few of us could even begin to imagine spending $4k on a coat. Although right now I can’t even imagine spending $200 on one.
    To wit: I have a coat that my grandmother bought in the 1940s. I love it. I wear it on special occasions, and I take care of it like it was my child.
    I also have a winter coat that I bought at Target at least 10 years ago. It’s getting a little threadbare by now, but it does the job.
    And lastly, I had a winter coat that I bought last season to replace the Target one, that didn’t even make it through February before disintegrating.
    What was my point again?

  2. Yes but they offer “complimentary shipping.” Makes all the difference don’t you think? I zoomed right over to Rav for the pattern for that bag – I love it!

  3. (Every time I see “Hemp for Knitting,” I think, “AsOpposedToHempForSmoking.”)
    Me too, I used to have a wallet made of hemp cloth inside there was a label with large and stern uppercase letters it read: DO NOT CONSUME.
    That’s right, don’t smoke this wallet.
    Knit on!

  4. Love that bag, too many things in my queue to add to it at the moment, but great job with the joins. I practiced (without knowing about TechKnitting–thanks for that) with Morgat by Heather Dixon, pretty pleased with the result actually.
    Hope you are done with the mucking out soon.

  5. I’ve had Medano Beach in my Ravelry queue ever since it showed up in that nautical-themed collection thingy on the front page. I have Big Plans to make it in all kinds of combos: navy/white, navy/fuchsia, navy/gray, brown/white. Apparently I’m going to spend autumn and winter knitting summery shoulder bags.

  6. Setting aside my parochial, knee-jerk reaction — you can’t outsource my culture! — I also question whether it’s immoral to take something that is so clearly out of the DIY aesthetic and to commercialize it just for the sake of this year’s fashion. I mean, part of what makes clothing so wonderful is knowing the history of it, and whose hands made it. You don’t get that with a $7 t-shirt from Tar-zhay.
    I own a wool jersey dress my mom wore in the early 1960’s. I know she bought it, but clearly the workmanship was superior to what I’d find in an upscale sportswear store today — because I could put that bad boy on and look dressed and chic for any occasion right now. The only way to find something comparable today would be to pay a couple of thousand dollars. (Maybe because I don’t have kids, that seems a bit more realistic, but then again, I also don’t like having to replace the same thing every year — I’d rather have one good thing and have it last.)
    I also have a problem with Project Alabama because I have no way of knowing that the people who cut and sew the clothing for the line are earning a living wage. This is the problem when so many businesses take their production overseas. (Cambodia has tried to guarantee that their garment workers get paid well, but companies instead go to Bangladesh or India, where they don’t have to comply with such rules.) I assume the people who work with Natalie Chanin are earning a living wage for their talents.
    In short, I think that those of us who practice these crafts (and sometimes create art) should understand that labor isn’t cheap, and that if the product created is well-made, that the labor should be appropriately rewarded.
    (Putting away the soapbox, unless someone wants to borrow it!)

  7. Love the bag and the indistinguishable jogs. Grumperina also did a bit on how to do that & I’ve been wanting to try but haven’t had a project. This bag is perfect. Don’t smoke your yarn, Ann, no matter how desperate that country living makes you!

  8. Where does one get ANN SHAYNE labels? Because I really want some–no, wait, I want them with my own name. But still.

  9. OMG! What a perfect, I’m just got home from having a root canal and things are thawing out and I need distraction gift. I’ve been wanting to learn how to do jogless stripes for ages. Thank you!
    Hello to the bluebirds – welcome back!

  10. Ann, please do go to the workshop on natural dying!! I’m embarking (heh – a pun) on my first dying experiment using plant materials I harvested last autumn. They have been stewing on my screenporch for months and I think they are just about ready.
    I would LOVE to read your post after the Morris workshop :)

  11. Welcome back, Ann! I’ve missed your posts!

  12. That is a FAB bag! I’ve had it in my “mind queue” (I gave up on the actually Ravelry queue) for a very long time. Maybe it’s time for me to actually cast on. . .

  13. Pretty sure you can’t smoke hemp (related to pot, but different stock) but you sure can make art with it! Very pretty.

  14. I started that Medano bag too – in Skinny cotton in navy and beige. I couldn’t bring myself to white and navy – it would have been dirty in 5 minutes.
    Beautiful bluebird – love how his little butt hangs out of the house! cute!

  15. Dear Ann — This is such a mind-bending post, I hardly know where to start. I hadn’t heard of Project Alabama or Alabama Chanin (I guess I should read Vogue more than once every few years), swooned over the stitching and the prices. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if folks could make a living wage making things in the USA? As it is, I try to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak, by standing in line at the check-out rather than going self-serve, so that at least a few people can have a minimum wage job instead of putting them out of work by doing the work myself. Yeah, it is inconvenient when there are not enough clerks . . . now your post gives me more to think about. What does it mean to buy a cheap tee-shirt made in Asia or South America, anyway??? What do all my little choices really add up to mean, anyway??? Mind-boggling. Guess I’d better go knit and try to calm my mind a bit.

  16. I love your bluebird picture. So sweet.

  17. I’m so glad you wrote about this, because I was referred to Alabama Chanin’s website, went agog at the beauty of the designs and stunning craftsmanship, then fell over when I saw the prices.
    The chain of responses was something like: Ooh, amazing!! So beautiful!! What a fantastic project – how wonderful to employ craftspeople… so lovely and elegant and thoughtful….. This is just great…. whoa, just great for the MINISCULE portion of the consumer population that a) has this much money to spend on clothes and b) cares about whether they’re locally handcrafted. How big can that confluence be?
    If Chanin can market her products to the people who can afford them, more power to her, but it does seem, as she told you herself, “hard,” to say the least.
    The real value of this enterprise, the part that gives me hope, is if it instills a sense of value and pride in their handwork in the people who make these items. If it breathes life into American craft skills, in a practical, food-on-the-table way. Anyone who can revive that in the face of big box culture is heroic in my book.

  18. Love that first picture. The green house. . . the bluebird’s tail. . .

  19. Fabulous job on your jogless stripes! I only knew it was diagonal because I recently tested this technique out on a Little Love Baby Cap to compare it with the non-traveling technique. Both are good—Techknitting is a genius, and I plan to “visit” there more often.
    On the Project Alabama goods, it seems a little misleading to continue under this name when the items are made in India. I’m sure a number of buyers still think they’re supporting cottage industry in the Southern US.

  20. Hemp is worthless for smoking, and very useful for a large number of other things. Like making very snazzy beach bags (and rope and paper and ethanol.)

  21. So glad to have you back on the blog!

  22. love the bluebirds they do not read labels
    or wonder where the house was made or how
    much it costs they are blue birds doing
    what blue birds do best be blue birds
    enjoy just simply try to enjoy the summer

  23. Love the bluebird, but are they really nesting in a martin house? One pair or more? Because up here in Pennsyltucky they swear that if bluebirds see another pair they will move. Yet if you face the houses one east one west etc they don’t mind. So if you have more than one set that’s a whole nother dynamic.

  24. Hi! Love the bluebird! I’ve been on the Plateau this week, too. I got back to my home near Chattanooga a few hours ago and it felt like I was in New Orleans. It’s amazing how different the humidity level is up there. I traipsed all over the Tennesee Tech campus in relative comfort (considering the temperature was in the 90s), but couldn’t stay on my own back porch for more than a few minutes.

  25. Love the bag.
    I think about this whole issue a lot. I saw Natalie Chanin when she was in town for a workshop a few weeks back. Daughter Julie made me go–she had hosted her at a crafts night a few months ago and loved her. And, I wanted to learn how to sew that reverse applique’ that she is so famous for.
    I was enchanted by her as a person and impressed at the respect she shows for all the seamstresses and craftspeople she employs. Of course, I cannot afford her work, but I can teach myself to make a skirt by hand that should last the rest of my life.
    This is all to say that I sold a quilt (machine sewn and handquilted) a few weeks back. It took probably $50-60 of materials and many, many, many hours of my time. I worked on commission and it was for a woman and her partner who just adopted their first child. Did I pay myself enough? Absolutely not. How could I? It would have cost them nearly $1,000 and I couldn’t charge that. Was I happy when I got the check in the mail? Yup.
    It’s nearly impossible to get paid enough to live on–as a writer or as a craftsperson. But, though I cannot afford to pay Natalie Chanin (or any couture artist) for my clothing, I am thrilled that she (and her 40+ employees) are making a living wage in Alabama, sewing on organic cotton, grown in the US.

  26. Good post. There is a beauty that comes from being hand made; that is why knitting and home sewing, etc still is popular. Mass production, though we need it for some things (ie disposable diapers) is why so many other goods are poorly made, as one stated above. There really is a difference between my mother’s clothing she bought in England over 40 years ago (we were poor, too) and clothing bought off the rack today. There is no comparison in workmanship. Our society has become used to disposing of everything after a few uses; gone are toaster repairs–just toss it in the trash and get a new (made in China) toaster at Walmart for $10.

  27. I made a jogless striped baby hat last winter…impressed EVERYONE. So cool and so EASY! Love the Medano Beach bag.
    Living in Texas, I’m not familiar with Project Alabama or Alabama Chanin and I think I’ll keep it that way. Not that living in Texas justifies anything but you know what I mean. I hope.

  28. This is such an important discussion. Now that I’ve said that I will say that yes, we all need to make a living, but a $4000 coat makes no sense to me, even if I’m on the selling and creating end. Make a coat — not from a kit where so much of the creativity is already done — and enjoy it. Repurpose an old coat with appliques, or cut up and resewn. Buy a coat someone else purchased and they got tired of or outgrew.
    Alabama Channin is new to me, thanks to your post. Thank you. It made me think. I have to admit that (a.) the designs are quite limited from what I can see on the website and I don’t like much of it; (b.) unless one is 27 and weighs under 130 she will not find clothing to wear; (c.) the website is so cryptic about pricing that it is a turn off to me. I don’t want to have to search for prices, and if I do and they’re astronomical, well, click, goodbye. If it’s not possible it’s certainly not practical.

  29. Can’t stop thinking about this. If we think about how crafts were developed — because we needed the finished goods — it is easier to remember that a living wage wasn’t really part of the scheme. We made things because we needed them. Not computers or washing machines or cars, but rather clothing, bowls, knives and harnesses. Everyone made them, and if they couldn’t, they bought or traded for them. Folks had one blanket, one quilt, one coat, etc. Extra special things were gifts or were sold by “artisans” and were luxuries.
    Just saw an ad for a telly show called “Stuff” in which real people have everything removed from their homes and large X’s replace the “stuff.” If the owners of the stuff can remember what the stuff was where the X’s are placed, they can have the stuff back. If they can’t remember precisely what was there, it’s auctioned off. We all should attempt to own less stuff, possibly by making more of our own stuff. What excess we make we can sell for a reasonable amount of $ to regular folks, or excessive amounts to those with oodles of $. Collectives, bartering and such come to mind when I get on this crazy thought train! Thank you…. I think!

  30. Glad to see you are back on the mountain. I’ll try to come up on a Friday or for the craft show again.

  31. I love the plateau! We spent a long weekend at Foster Falls campground this spring, it’s a beautiful area! I had no idea they had a folk school there, I’ll definitely check that out.
    I was talking to my sister (a quilter) about Alabama Chanin last week. I think if she can make a living and provide a living for 40+ employees, that’s great. The prices are steep and completely out of my budget, but I’d rather see that than see handwork undervalued.

  32. I was just thinking about those bluebirds the other day, remembering when dad was encouraging the little girl on her first flight attempts. :-)
    So sweet.

  33. Glad you find the jogless stripe thing useful! Nice bag, and a great shot of the bluebird.
    –TK

  34. So happy the blue birds are back! I love these updates.

  35. Trenchant post, Ann. Fits all my wishes for just what one ought to be. Darling photo of bluebird, thoughts about how handmade is changed from that to something else. Finally all the thoughtful comments elicited. Impressive…thanks.