As a child, a family trip to Woolworth was always a great adventure. Mom and dad were there with my siblings and a 5 year old me. At least, mom and dad arrived with my siblings and me but, by the time I had finished deciding which was my favorite coloring book, only I was there, mom and dad were somewhere else with my siblings. Yes, they were lost.
Taken under the wing of the Woolworth staff, I was sat at the soda fountain, given a glass of coke with real ice cubes and questioned by a policeman with a real mustache. "Do you know your address?" asked the officer. Mom and dad had raised us well and I was able to recite our address in full. Unfortunately, we lived in Lexington, KY and this Woolworth store was in Poughkeepsie, NY, where we were visiting our grandparents. The investigation continued; "Do you know the name of the person you're staying with?" … "Yes" I replied happily, "It's grandma!" Five year olds like to be helpful but this was destined to be one of the officer's more trying cases.
In the meantime, my parents had arrived back at grandma's, somehow none the wiser that their contingent of offspring had been reduced by some 30%. Not until granny was dishing out dinner was my absence noticed and dad dispatched to Woolworth to fetch me.
The following day, grandma decided that I might suffer some kind of un-American fear of shopping, as a result of my 'ordeal' so took me back to the store, just her and me, on a therapeutic shopping trip. As we wandered around I was entranced, once again, by the colors, the smells and the variety of it all. When it came time to leave, grandma told me I could choose just one thing to buy. Of course, I headed straight for the fateful coloring books. But, on our way to that department my eyes and heart were taken by what was to become the portal to my new life, a set of sewing cards with shoelace type yarn. My first venture into the world of sewing secured, I started on the road to where I am today.
So, as you gaze through my galleries of purple roller skating cows, tea cup hats and "very unique" fiber necklaces, let's blame grandma.
Back in the 1980's, mom got a phone call from a distressed lady whose daughter was about to get married.
Mom and I had teamed up to do alterations for a bridal store. We were familiar with the usual stuff, taking in, letting out, hemming up or down and the occasional side gusset for the full, to overflowing, figure but this was different. The daughter wanted to get married in what was, in effect, the family wedding dress. The lady, herself, had been married in it, as had her mother, the grand-mother of the soon-to-be bride. The distress was caused when the mother unpacked the dress to discover an alarming stain somewhere around hip height. It was the sort of stain that eats away at the fabric. We, probably don't want to know what had caused it.
"Is there anything that can be done to make it wearable?" the mother of the bride asked. When mom saw the dress and the stain, she knew immediately what to do - keep in mind, this is the same mom who had previously overlooked my existence on a family trip to Woolworth (see previous blog entry) - she brought the dress to me to deal with.
When the dress had been made, some 50 years previously, a short length of lace was left over and this length arrived with the dress. It was my only way forward. For 3 weeks, I worked on the dress, snipping out a small area of the stain, locating an identical section in the left over piece, snipping out the identical section in a an identical way and sewing the identical section into its place in the dress before moving on to the next small area of the stain. Thanks mom!
Anyway, after 3 weeks, the dress was back to its original best. The mother of the bride was thrilled. So thrilled, she was not only happy to pay what I asked, she let me keep the rest of the leftover length of lace (which was probably worth more than my considerable, but entirely justified, bill). I kept it and, like so many things, I still keep it. Every now and then a piece of this, approximately, 80 year old lace will get snipped out to provide embellishment for an art piece that I make or, maybe, to add pearls to a necklace.
I guess some people would describe me as suffering from "Pack Rat Syndrome".
That is; a compulsive inability to throw things away, often on the basis that "it might come in useful some day". I'd plead guilty as charged except for the implication in there that there's something wrong with keeping stuff "just in case"
Yes, the example of the decades old scraps of leftover lace was a bit extreme but I used it eventually (well, some of it anyway), but the big-box-o'-buttons-from-who-knows-when often gets raided for precisely the right one and the leftovers from the ends of the secondhand neckties that I cut up to use as purse straps are just now being made into necklaces and bracelets, along with slices of reed grass I cut down 2 years ago. You see, it all gets used up, in the end.
When I first started this sewing in circles,
I produced, not surprisingly, bowl shapes. With the bright colors of the yarn I used then, they looked pretty good and that was all. I sold quite a good number of them, people put them on their walls, on their tables, even on their Christmas trees.
They were decorative features. I had one major trouble at shows and that was with people wanting to know what they were. Were they ceramic? Were they woven, felted, knotted or knitted? I even had one person in my booth who declared, knowingly, "Ah yes, I'd heard macrame was in fashion". Since I've invented the name of 'torsion sewing' there has been no such problem. People go away quite satisfied to hear that they are torsion sewn, despite the fact that they have no clue as to what it entails as I am the only one who does it.
For some reason we, as artists, are expected to categorize everything we do. Is it art or craft? is it 2D or 3D? Is it oils or pastel, copper or brass, turned or thrown? My answer maybe, should be, "if you like it, does it matter"?
In a way, it was my then 5 year old son who first identified my product as being a hat. Each and every bowl I produced at some point, ended up on his head. I guess he was trying to tell me something but it wasn't until I decided I needed a functional product, with a name that people would know, that I finally came round to his way of thinking. "What is it?" … "It's a hat". See, so much easier than trying to explain that it's something they've never heard of. There again at one fair, I was asked, "now tell me, is this a hat or a purse?" I guess nothing's fool proof. After some 20 years of being the "bowl lady", I finally have a title. Milliner. Truth is, I'm still making the same thing, just a bit curvier and with a specific function.
On the drive to work, the water pushing the covers off the drains in the street should have been a clue.
At the time I was working as a production weaver, at one of the horse farms in Lexington, KY. I learned a lot there about designs and patterns as well as sewing techniques. This day however was to teach me a little about recognizing weather patterns.
Driving along the long access road to the farm, the wind was starting to pick up and the rain was making it hard to see through the windshield. As I parked the car and got out, the approach of the invisible aircraft suggested I shouldn't be there. As the aircraft changed to a rapidly approaching express train, I dove back into the car and stretched out across the front seat to listen to the sound of trees being thrown at me.
Moments later it was all over and I emerged to find one tree laying across the front of the car with a second across the back. Neither was actually crushing the car, just stopping it from going anywhere. Further afield, fences were wrecked, some barns damaged and there was a lot of prime racing stock wandering around being chased by the farm hands. I think that year's Derby contender may have run further that day than in the rest of his life, combined.
The tornado had also brought down the power lines so the looms were all out of action and there was no lighting. Unperturbed, the boss declared that it wasn't a problem, we could all sit in front of the windows and do finishing work. I guess when artists say "the show must go on" they really mean it.
The well runs dry
When I first got to doing this sewing round and round, forward and back technique I was using the gorgeous colors produced under the name Maysville rug filler in Maysville, KY (birthplace of Rosemary Clooney). Then, the company stopped making it. I screamed (inwardly). They offered to sell me their ring spinner. I was tempted, but more through a sense of panic than an actual desire to get into another fiber technique. I tried other yarns but nothing else worked. It turned out to be important that the rug filler had no apparent twist to it. Regular spun yarns took on a torque of their own and were not controllable.
Fortunately, I discovered that by crocheting yarn before sewing it, I pretty much cancelled out all the twists in the regular yarns and so it acted very much like the original rug filler. I was back in business … just as soon as I could produce a supply of crocheted yarn. As luck would have it, my husband, for obscure reasons known only to himself, was willing to sit for hours producing mile upon mile of crocheted yarn. The fact that he had absolutely no idea how to crochet was soon overcome and he can now often be found sitting behind my booth, like a contented pixie, slowly disappearing under a pile of crocheted re-purposed sweater yarn. Of course, at 6' 5" he's too big to actually fit on a toadstool but the beatific grin is real enough.
Why are these so expensive?
Don't you just totally admire some people's innate ability to turn, what probably leaves their brain as an appreciative compliment into a demonstration of their own ineptitude by the time it reaches their mouth?
I was at a fair last year when a lady stood in my booth, smiling appreciatively at my work. After some moments she spoke. "I wish I had time for a hobby." I maintained my best professional decorum and replied "I don't really have time for a hobby." For a few moments she looked confused, then a light came on: "Oh, this is your work!" She left without further comment which may have been for the best.
A neighbor of mine at a previous show was busy wrapping a purchase when the customer commented "I suppose I could make one myself, but I just don't have the time."
One day I'm going to write a book of all such remarks I've heard over the years. The opening chapter is almost certain to include my own father's comment way back when I first started exhibiting at fairs. Looking at the price tag he asked, somewhat astonished, "Do people actually pay these prices?"
The loss of an old friend is often hard to get over.
I have a few special treasure trove locations that aren't Goodwill stores (that is, places I can find good quality sewing bargains). There's Abakhan Fabrics in Llanerch-Y-Mor Mostyn, on the north coast of Wales (which has a second branch in Manchester, England), but I don't get to visit there very often. Then there's Baer Fabrics in Louisville. My husband and I went there a little while back. They had closed ... permanently! To quote Ron Howard "Well, that's disappointing". Why wasn't I told?! It wasn't just that I had always found lots of fantastic fabrics there, it was, even more significantly, the home of Gary (not literally his home, you understand). Gary was my go-to man for sewing machine upkeep and repair. Gary not only understood the machine, he also understood my use of it.
When my Singer 191 started breaking thread and needles like it had shares in steel, I tried other mechanics but they came out with the same list of tried and trusted solutions. They took it away, and brought it back with the declaration that it wasn't the machine - I was using the wrong thread - I was using the wrong needles - I was sewing wrong (after 30 years?). In the end I was left with one way to go, I found the manual for the machine on line and, with the use of a set of watch maker's screwdrivers, some replacement parts and a few choice words that I'm sure Gary never had to use, I turned myself into 'sewing machine repair woman'. It cost a lot less than the $180 quote I got for the initial repair that never worked and didn't even require the purchase of a new machine which was the other offered solution. Not only that but I now have a handy new skill for when I stop making hats.
So Gary, if you're out there, you can stop worrying about me now, I'm fine, the machine works fine and, if anything goes wrong with the take up spring, I know what I'm doing. Trust me, I'm an artist!