Where other people are highly artistic, I feel I am a pretty technical maker. That is, I’m inspired by learning process and technique – not to mention finished usable product – more than expressing a vision or making a statement. Perhaps that isn’t the right way to see the difference, but as much as I disagree with the gendered divide between craft and art – I’m on the side of learning to craft finished objects of use rather than some other kind of (higher) value.
Right now I’m obsessed with the work of Natalie Chanin. This isn’t a first-time crush, I’ve had her books for awhile and have long wanted to make a few garments embellished in the style of the Alabama Chanin brand – but as mentioned in my last post, I’ve recently acquired the Geometry of Hand Sewing, and it’s encouraged me to make a serious study of layered embellishment, which includes stitching practice.
Of all the textile things I do, hand stitching is by far my weakest skill. I’m fine if I have a frame of reference – Aida cloth and cross stitches keep me in a straight line – but once I go freehand all hell breaks loose. I have some disconnect in hand-eye coordination or spatial awareness which means that tidy, even stitches have always eluded me. It doesn’t help that I find it all so frustrating and slow-going that I give up long before getting enough practice at it to ever get better – I have a number of half-finished embroidery projects kicking around to attest to this.
For whatever reason, I keep getting drawn back to hand stitching and in particular would like to be able to apply hand-finished elements to the garments I make. Although I do work with patterned fabrics, a large part of my daily wardrobe is plain fabric items – lots of black cotton knit and denim – and what I like about the Chanin style is that she takes very simple garment designs, made from good-quality plain knits – and gives them a boost with the use of a variety of embellishment techniques. These appliques, beads, stenciled paints, and stitches take a variety of forms – some very showy, some much more subtle – a palette of elements that I would very much like to employ in my own everyday clothes.
And because I don’t do anything in half-measures – I’ve spent the last few days getting right down to it – cutting stencils, practicing with stitching grids (provided in the new Chanin book), and applying both paint and ink to fabrics for practice canvases. One thing that keeps me going is signs of progress, so I am documenting my practice pieces with the use of header cards in order to make a sample binder of techniques and mark my improvement with those techniques. I plan to use the same type of documentation when I start working with dyes later this spring/summer. One thing I’m very thankful for is a studio full of supplies to draw on – as investing in this type of work from the beginning would be otherwise very expensive – I don’t feel nearly so packratty when I actually put long-held materials to use.
The feature photo is of the materials I was working with over the weekend, and will continue to work with: stitching practice cloths, stencils made from heavy watercolour paper (left behind by the former owner of the studio), and textile paints that I bought for some reason or other years ago (they aren’t the highest quality – but will do for practice pieces), and DMC embroidery thread. I also redrafted and cut the Coco pattern into a new version of a knit tank top and plan to use that as a first foundation garment once I’ve practiced a bit more with the stencils and stitching.
All of this – I might add – is technique a la Natalie Chanin, which is what I meant at the head of this post about being more technical than artistic. I have no compunction about admitting that none of this is stuff that I’ve come up with on my own – but is taken directly from tutorials, books, and a craftsy class – and my motivation is is learning technique more than coming up with my own specific style. This is what keeps my continually motivated – the instruction and inspiration from other much more artistic makers – which pushes my own interest in technical skills that eventually get applied in my own life and wardrobe in some less-than-perfect execution.