Slow Fashion

My classmates returning from our photo shoot in their muslin mock-ups–courtesy of Libby O'Bryan

My classmates returning from our photo shoot in their muslin mock-ups–courtesy of Libby O'Bryan

It has been many weeks. Pattern camp then unexpected life events. I have missed you. I have missed writing. These weekly letters help me find meaning from week to week, digest our world, feel growth and progress. There is so much I’ve wanted to share with you, but for now I will dig back to pattern camp at Penland School of Crafts in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, an extremely intense gift of time where I learned how to build my dream with my own two hands. My instructors were the pattern making expert Giovanni Daina-Palermo and the U.S. ethical garment manufacturing pioneer, Libby O’Bryan.

I arrived on a Sunday and could feel the intensity of the creative energy around me as a tangible thing. Penland is a whole campus with beautiful buildings old and new that look out over a field of birds, bees and butterflies, tucked into a ring of mountains. For the first time in my life, I lived each day in a place, surrounded by people for whom the creative act was their first priority.

Our workshop was on the third floor of the large old wooden textile building, past the floor with all the looms for weaving and a giant stone fireplace. I would spend 12 hours a day in this workshop. Learning the slow, insanely detailed process of pattern making from my teachers.

Penland is a place where people come to learn the art of making a word class craft with their own two hands: ceramics, sculpture, textiles, jewelry, glass work and more. The teachers are famous artists and craftspeople from around the world. Yet there are no artists putting on airs. We are all humbled to the creative act no matter how much experience we have. We are all supporters on each other’s creative journey.

I have noticed over the years as computers have come to replace handcrafts that our appreciation of this work seems to be disappearing. I had an epiphany a few days into my training: the only way to fully appreciate a craft that takes decades to master like pattern making or glass blowing or ceramics, is to learn how to do it. Not all of them. At least one. Only then can you know what is behind the work. The hours of dedication and love, the way a pair of scissors is held and how a ruler is wielded–easy to overlook if you’ve never tried. And then you realize that a whole world exists behind the art. A tireless meditation of creative energy, a refinement of hands, of eyes, of feel that occurs over a lifetime of dances with inspiration.

Pattern makers are disappearing. There are very few of them left in America. There is a serious need to ensure that this craft is not lost. The art of a good pattern maker is the mastery of a number of precise skills with your hands, the way you hold a ruler, the way you hold the scissors, to ensure precision. The way you draw a line, and how the scissors bisect a pencil mark. What you see.

This work takes time. The pace of life made Penland feel like a different world within our world. We worked very very hard. We worked long hours. But the pace of our work was natural. Real time. Not in the future. Not hitting send on an email or text message. Jumping ahead to this next thing or that todo item. Life moved at the pace of life. At first this was excruciating. Nothing was instantaneous. Do you want to know if that change to the pattern worked? Well trace it out, cut it, iron it, sew it, and try it on. There is no way around the work or short cuts. You move at the pace that your two hands can create.

So I want to think about for a moment the bigger picture, the idea of slow fashion. What will it really take to return to quality and craftsmanship? It is to step off the conveyor belt of our fast moving world, our 2-day delivery, or instant responses, demands to know now, and to reach for something deeper and more beautiful. I sit and watch old movies just to admire the clothing. The beauty of how it comes together, the tailoring, the materials. A jacket or blouse a timeless companion for its wearer.

In 2 and a half weeks I learned techniques to make a garment fit, to manipulate a bodice so that I could achieve different designs, and finally how to create a pattern for a blouse I had been dreaming about and sew it up all with my own two hands. I was extremely humbled at the prospect of what it would take to become a pattern maker, capable of working in professional spaces. The effort to make this one blouse and the pattern was at times excruciating, but also the most liberating thing I’ve ever done.

Slow fashion is a devotion to respecting craft and creative energy from the materials we work with to the human hands that transform them. I am back in the world outside of Penland where the frenzy for speed is all around us. I know we need to slow down but the pull to rush forward is infectious. The blouse that I am making is the antidote. It reminds me of the steady energy that it will take to rebuild our world. The old ways of doing things are burning themselves out. Together we will step into timelessness and build something new. I want to leave you with an inspirational quote that a friend shared with me this week:

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