I’ve recently been reading Brené Brown’s new book, Rising Strong. I’ve found so much good in the book, both for me personally and also for how we run our business. In any small (or young) business, you must have the courage to fall down, over and over again, and to “rise strong.” Because we aren’t perfect and make mistakes all the time, we have opportunities to examine why we get up and keep going—and in the process, learn to be our best selves.
Brené has taken inspiration in her work from this quote in a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
I highly recommend the book to every maker and entrepreneur who reads our Journal. The book is encouragement for giving yourself permission to experiment, learn, and create, BUT also for learning to set boundaries for what you are willing to permit.
This idea of boundary setting—of standing firm in what I believe is and is not okay—came into focus recently. So much of our lives are lived online; it is incredibly easy to let critical remarks become part of your “arena.” Artists know that it isn’t particularly productive to read reviews or comments on our work, whether negative or positive. It’s easy to get caught up in what other people think and to freeze. You can have 1000 beautiful responses to a work and you start to wonder, can I do something equally as good again? You can have 1000 beautiful responses to the work you do (take our newest book as an example), and yet a few negative remarks about how one pattern prints out can slay you. It’s enough to make you feel like you are crazy. It’s enough to MAKE you crazy. (When I’m feeling this crazy-don’t-know-what-to-think-kind-of-way, I go back to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird—over and over again.)
When Collection #29 launched last year, we were so grateful for the positive responses… Thank you. I’m really proud of the work and our team. But when a response appeared on one of our social media channels implying that one of our designs would be easily copied, my immediate response was one of crazy (see above) frustration. In my mind, I thought, “We’ve worked 6 months on new designs; at least 7 people in our studio and 36 artisans have made these abstract ideas into beautiful textiles, and this person is grateful that the designs will be easy to copy.”
Crazy Me thinks, “A comment like that makes it seem silly that anyone would want to want to purchase our work because it’s, in essence, not that hard to make.” To paraphrase Brené, in that moment, my emotion was driving the car and my thoughts and behavior were in the backseat. I had to catch and reality-check myself before that emotion took me somewhere I did not need to go. And so I asked myself: What am I feeling? What’s driving it? How should I respond?
In Chapter Six, of Rising Strong, Brené writes about her friend and artist Kelly Rae Roberts, who teaches, publishes, and shares her knowledge. During a time when Kelly felt that people were taking too many liberties with her own work—instead of wavering or remaining silent—she wrote a blog post about “what is and is not okay.” After reading this, I asked myself why this single comment made me feel the way it did. Part of the answer is that I’m proud and protective of my team and of this company. The other part is that I was assigning importance to an opinion that shouldn’t matter—in the end, for me, it is the WORK itself that matters.
Our sharing philosophy has allowed our company to grow for the exact reason that some thought it would fail: we wanted to be inclusive where others were exclusive. The initial decision to open source our techniques and materials (and ultimately to create The School of Making) grew from our commitment to sustainability. Doing so allowed us to make living arts accessible to all consumers, not just those who could afford our handmade collection pieces. In general, our community works and plays well together—and for that we are extremely grateful.
We find inspiration from many different places and work to create different designs with different intentions—and we are inspired by others. In the past, certain Alabama Chanin stencil designs and garment patterns have crossed over between our hand-sewn collection and our DIY projects. For example, you can’t find a more perfect skirt than The Every Day Long Skirt—my favorite skirt. Therefore, we decided to make it available in different forms: with hand embroidery in our collection, in basic fashion in our Essentials line, and as a DIY kit that you can make for yourself.
This will continue to be true for a few designs in the future—though not every design will be available in every configuration. We want to challenge ourselves to create something special and meaningful that has been designed and made with purpose—this is what makes the work challenging, and rewarding. For this reason, we create unique designs for our hand-sewn collection that are only available as ready-made garments. We will always experiment with new techniques and, at the same time, take some of our tried-and-true methods a step further. Our design team has also spent a great deal of time developing a new DIY collection, kits, programming, and projects. Right now, our graphics and design teams are working on never-before-released DIY patterns as part of our growing Resource Downloads. We believe that this way of working celebrates each of our divisions, all of our makers, and allows us to hone our craft as designers.
Alabama Chanin is a brand, but it is also a company made up of real people. We have a talented design team who work hard to create new designs for our customers. It is an honor to know that we have inspired a community of makers with similar philosophies and design aesthetics. But, I would like to take a moment to emphasize that we at Alabama Chanin are still individuals, trying to make a living and support our families—all while opening up our ideas to a global makers community. Designing the way we do requires us to be vulnerable; it requires that we place faith and trust in our community.
All of this made me sit down and think about my own vulnerability as a designer and business owner. I took inspiration from Kelly Rae Roberts’ manifesto to make my own list of what is and isn’t okay.
And so this is what I know:
It is really important for us to share our techniques. We didn’t invent embroidery stitches or reverse appliqué, and we are constantly inspired by both age-old techniques and current trends in creating our designs.
Working with our hands is a good way to have really important conversations about making, and the future of work in our nation and across the globe.
We offer the knowledge that we’ve been collecting over the years, as we believe that cultural sustainability is just as important as environmental sustainability. We want to preserve these techniques for the next generation.
Job creation in every community in America is important right now. We believe that the loss of manufacturing and maker jobs changed how we see ourselves as individuals and as a nation. The capacity to take care of ourselves and our families is one of the most vital functions of being a human being. Science is catching up with this thought. Read Mike Rose’s conversation with Krista Tippet. Listen to Ellen Langer talk about language, read Shop Class as Soulcraft, watch Gever Tulley, this list can go on and on…
We want you to use our books as inspiration and tools to learn the beautiful handwork techniques we utilize. We want you to use your work with us as a jumping-off place to spur your own creativity and bring that creativity to your own community. We are inspired by how many of you have adapted and expanded upon what we teach in our books and workshops; it inspires us daily to be more creative.
What is okay:
To learn to do the work we promote and share it freely with your friends. Host a party, teach and learn from one another, spread the love, and have fun. To help Alabama Chanin keep our doors open and lights on, please let your friends know where your inspiration comes from. Buy fabric from us and order your kits and supplies through us. All of these things help us make beautiful, inspiring things, in addition to feeding people in our community.
To be inspired from our work. Take what we’ve learned and make it your own. Develop stencils, dye fabric, love your thread. It will take you places you never imagined you might go. I know this from experience.
What isn’t okay:
To copy our designs to sell or pass off our work as your own. As part of a sharing community, it is painful when we see this done. But, as we encourage teaching and sharing, our concern here is with selling, publishing, and/or making money from ideas that take livelihood away from our design and production teams and our artisans.
To take text from our Studio Books and use that to teach your own class for profit—unless you are a store that works with us directly.
To use our name or logos to sell garments or any other products for personal or corporate financial gain.
What will always be true:
It is easy to post negative comments online. As painful as those comments may be to read, we cannot stop—nor would we want to stop—them from coming. While we believe such comments have the potential to devalue the work of our design team, our artisans, and our customers and supporters, we do not rely on Internet comments to make ourselves feel worthy. And sometimes, we might need to be called out.
You may feel, because we have chosen to open source our techniques, that copying our designs and passing them off as your own is okay. It is not okay. We promise you—no joy or pride that you feel when copying another’s work can match what you feel when you create something truly your own.
I have returned again to Brené’s thoughts from Rising Strong, that life is better when we assume that everyone is doing their best. Even when people speak or act in ways that are intentionally hurtful, I want to believe they are doing the best they can with what they have available to them. That idea keeps me from bitterness and removes me from those moments when I am too affected by what others say (online or otherwise). This doesn’t mean that I think people should get away with behaving badly. It does mean that as Brené says, we can “hold people accountable for their actions in a way that acknowledges their humanity.”
It is okay to think what you think and to express your opinion; it is your right to say what you want to us in person, via email, and on the Internet. “The moment we deny a difficult experience, it owns us,” writes Brené. It is an act of compassion to love yourself. In this case, loving myself and loving my team means setting boundaries and sometimes saying, “that’s not okay”.
And so much of the time it is absolutely wonderful, and inspiring, and brings me personally, and our entire Alabama Chanin team, such great pride to watch our growing group thrive and flourish. Thank you.
P.S.: Thank you again (and again) to Brené Brown and Kelly Rae Roberts—there is so much good in what you do. I’m a better person for having read you both.