Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Handmade Crafternoon at the NYPL

Sorry about the blogging absence yesterday. It ended up being a long, crazy day, and I was up well into the night with good friends and some pretty spectacular goat cheese and sun-dried tomato pizza from Café Viva. Anyway, onward!—to a post whose extreme length should compensate.

Today I’m going to tell you a little bit about what I did last weekend. No, I won’t be discussing brunch, or the farmer’s market, or the evening spent watching highlights of Canadian cinema. Breathe easy, now. What I’d like to talk about here is Handmade Crafternoon, the free event co-hosted by Jessica Pigza (blogger and librarian in the New York Public Library Rare Book Division) and Maura Madden (also a blogger, and author of Crafternoon), which had its last meeting on Saturday before breaking for the summer.

What is Handmade Crafternoon? Once a month, crafting aficionados meet at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street to hear an artist speak and to try their hand at whatever that artist’s speciality is. In addition, Jessica totes along a range of vintage and contemporary books that relate to the topic being discussed, or might possibly interest the artist, or are, more simply, fun. It’s an inspired synthesis, one that began when Jessica and Maura met at a screening for the last episode of Design by the Book.

At the time, Jessica says, she “had had an idea of creating a DIY salon for adults at the library but hadn't figured out how to get started, and Maura had JUST published her book Crafternoon, which is basically the ideal primer on hosting successful crafty gatherings. Maura's also a lifelong library lover. She generously agreed to team up with me, and we've been running the series together since last year. Maura volunteers her time completely, and I squeeze in the planning around my duties as a rare book librarian.” Since then, Jessica and Maura have hosted eight Handmade Crafternoons, beginning with a talk by Jessica Vitkus and Hannah Rogge last September.

Their guest this Saturday was Natalie “Alabama” Chanin, whose label, Alabama Chanin, employs sewers from the Florence, Alabama area to produce meticulously hand-stitched, organic couture. I was lucky enough to be accompanied by my friend Lauren, a senior editor at Atlas & Co (and as both a former resident of New Orleans and editor of Dominique Browning’s acclaimed Slow Love, no stranger to the pleasures of gently paced handiwork in good company). Better prepared than I, she’s responsible for all of the photographs in this post.

(I should note that there was another guest, David Morgan from BurdaStyle, this Saturday. Lauren and I were unfortunately running a little late, so we missed hearing him speak. But if you’re interested in sewing and sharing, you should check out their website.)

After David’s speech, Maura introduced Chanin—who looks like Emmylou Harris and was a daunting enough presence that I feel compelled to use her last name—and talked briefly about the campaign to save the NYPL from the devastating budget cuts proposed by the city. Then Chanin gave a little background on herself, talking about her time at North Carolina State University and the lingering influence there of Black Mountain College. Although it closed in 1954, Black Mountain College—which counted Willem de Kooning, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Peter Voulkos among its faculty—impacted the textiles program at NCSU so much that Chanin received, in her words, a “Bauhaus education in North Carolina in the 80’s.”

She also emerged from the program with a keen sense of fashion as both an art and a science. Some of her coursework stressed handmade design, but students were also required to take physics and engineering courses, emphasizing the machinistic aspects of sewing. At Handmade Crafternoon, she gave the audience (entirely female, I believe, and large), some useful tips that were based in that experience:

1) While some sewers use beeswax to coat their thread and keep it smooth, Chanin recommends “loving the thread”: using the natural oil in your fingers to tame the excess tension in the thread, stroking a double-strand of it while also visualizing to yourself and talking to thread about the garment it will help create. She talked about the physics of different fibers and how they look under a microscope: silk is triangular, wool (and felt) have teeth, but cotton is “squiggly” and has been combed into two rows held together by torque and tension, and that’s why loving the thread is so important.

2) Your thread should never be longer than your elbow to your head (“if you have to stand up to pull, it’s too long”), for three reasons: you don’t want to poke the person next to you as you sew, thread knots more easily the longer it gets, and most importantly, every time thread is pulled through fabric it suffers abrasion. Thus the thread closest to the needle grows weaker and weaker as you sew, and if you use the same piece of thread, it becomes more and more likely to break. If you’re one of Chanin’s sewers, who can spend three months on a single project, broken thread can be a real disappointment, one to avoid.

3) Alabama Chanin uses longer stitches, for greater strength, when sewing their garments—stitches that Chanin’s grandmother might say were “so big you’d get your toes caught up in them.”

As you can tell, thread is immensely important in Alabama Chanin’s fashions, and they swear by Coats & Clark buttonhole thread, cotton-covered with a polyester core. It’s strong and floss-like (and affordable), lending itself not only to strong sewing but to some of the more advanced, exaggerated stitchwork pictured below. Chanin brought a handful to sell at Handmade Crafternoon, and I bought one in red and one in slate. They’re also available on the Alabama Chanin website.

Here's the front of one embroidered piece:

And the back:

After Chanin’s talk, the audience attempted the Alabama Chanin signature technique of circle-spiral appliqué, and Chanin also briefly discussed their elegant reverse appliqué. Jessica and Maura had provided some basic supplies, including scraps of jersey cotton and scissors, and Lauren and I went to it. Here’s my effort:

Most of my sewing background comes from working in a musical theater wardrobe shop, where I was required only to do quick fixes on costumes that fell apart during shows. I’m sloppy and untrained, but Chanin and Handmade Crafternoon left me inspired; I’m determined to sew the bandanna featured in Chanin’s first book, Alabama Stitch Book, and which is the pattern given as a test to sewers aspiring to work for Alabama Chanin. Chanin brought an example, and it was beautiful.

After everyone had finished and cleaned up, and after a quick raffle for Chanin’s most recent book, Alabama Studio Style, I chatted with Jessica and looked at the books she had set out. Embroidery, by Federico Rocca, featured a carefully embroidered cover; Early American Design Motifs was full of evocative historical embellishments. Some of the books that Jessica puts out are in circulation and others are limited to the rare books archive, and seeing books from both sources was a treat.

(By the way, you too can see Natalie Chanin in person. She’ll be speaking tonight at the Cooper Hewitt, at 6:30 pm. Tickets are $10.)

All in all, this final Handmade Crafternoon before summer break was a delight, and apparently it wasn’t an exception, although Jessica says that “every Handmade Crafternoon has its own unique qualities. Some events are laid back and super relaxed, while others are full of energy and bounce. We really have a wonderful time every month.” Her favorite events in the past year have included “Kata Golda's event, during which we all embraced playful felt creature making; and our Modern Women of Sewing event that had three special guests—Denyse Schmidt, Liesl Gibson, and Heather Ross (who made a special skirt just for that day)—who each talked about mining Library collections for visual inspiration.” This past Saturday, in particular, was “a truly wonderful example of how the attendees, the guests, and the project all contribute to a roomful of inspiration.”

Handmade Crafternoon is clearly a tradition worth continuing, and let’s hope that it will still be here when September rolls around. And that’s just one more reason to show your support in the coming weeks (and months, and years) by visiting the NYPL site. As Maura says, “libraries rank among the city’s most important cultural institutions, and they are certainly the most accessible. Our libraries keep all of us inspired, educated and engaged with our greater community. We cannot afford to lose their services.” And Jessica makes a compelling case for civil responsibility: “When New Yorkers support their Libraries through donations or speak out to government leaders (or do both), they send a persuasive message that Library programs, collections, and community spaces are important to them. Speaking out in this way is especially during these difficult times as more New Yorkers than ever turn to Library for information, job training, inspiration, and more.” Write, donate, and, this autumn, reap the benefits by attending Handmade Crafternoon.

No comments:

Post a Comment