My first sewing project was a “picture” of a flower that I made when I was about seven. I chose green and purple ribbon for the stem and petals, respectively, and a white button for the bloom’s center, which I attached to a square of quilted light blue Swiss dot fabric – aka the sky – with long, sloppy stitches.
It’s not a masterpiece by any means, with its loose stitches, unfinished edges. But precision is supposed to be beside the point when you’re a kid learning a new skill; the fun lies in the creative process, not necessarily the finished product.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had a rather hard time remembering this. I’m more than a little neurotic, and a bit obsessed with perfection, whatever that means. My natural inclination to create with abandon is at permanent odds with my OCD-driven desire for unsullied excellence, and it’s not always pleasant.
Because of my tendencies – or despite them – taking part in an Alabama Chanin one-day workshop was intensely therapeutic for me. I signed up to further challenge myself to learn to truly “enjoy the process.” Plus, I’ve always wanted an Alabama Chanin corset top, and what better way to get one than to stitch it with my own hands? The challenge for me was going to be letting go of the idea that my first corset needed to be good enough to sell on the sixth floor of Bergdorf Goodman.
My workshop met on a Saturday morning in late September, on a gorgeous sun-drenched veranda at the Hermitage Hotel here in Nashville. Several levels of sewing skills were represented, from hard-core quilters to total novices to dabblers like me. Some of my peers had come a long way to take Natalie’s class: two gals had driven up from Florida and one had come in from Ohio, all making the trip expressly for the workshop.
We’d ordered our projects from Alabama Chanin in advance, and when we arrived, each of the ten of us were handed a cotton canvas tote bag with individualized contents. In my case, to make my black-on-black corset, that meant pre-cut and pre-stenciled pattern pieces; super-strong black Button Craft thread (the strongest out there, Natalie says); a notebook and pencil to take notes; and some random pieces of fabric and trim to use for practice.
Natalie explained that we’d be sewing with organic 100% cotton jersey. It’s always been intriguing to me that she can trace the entire “life” of her fabric. She literally knows every place it’s been, and probably a lot of the people who’ve handled it, from the Texas field where the cotton was grown to the factories in North Carolina and South Carolina where it was spun, knit and dyed. I enjoyed learning about the provenance of some of the natural dyes used to color the fabrics. For example, the indigo hue sometimes comes from a New York City priest who makes it in vats in his basement.
“It goes to church before it comes to us,” Natalie joked. “You can feel it in the fabric.”
This sort of casual mysticism popped up frequently during our session. My favorite “lesson” – the one that set the mood of the day for me – talked about how two pieces of thread should be “loved” before they’re knotted.
“Loving your thread” – as in, stroking the length of the doubled strands several times before you knot the ends – encourages them to work together, making them “act like twins.” Natalie shared that she likes to talk to her thread while she’s loving on it, explaining how soon it would be a part of a garment that will be cherished and worn with pride for years to come. I’m all about anthropomorphizing, so I really loved this advice.
That said, the very coolest and most inspiring message Natalie gave us during a day when many cool and inspiring ideas were shared was when she stressed to us that the Alabama Chanin way of doing things is based solely on her experience. Yes, that experience is extensive and intensive, but it’s still just suggestions, not dogma. “You know what will happen if you don’t follow the house rules?” Natalie asked. “Nothing. Remember, this isn’t a cure for cancer; it’s a T-shirt.”
As I needled my thread and started to work on my corset, I made this my mantra. What will happen if I accidentally cut through the bottom layer of fabric used to create the appliqué pattern? Nothing. What will go down if my stitches end up being as long and loose as the ones on the flower project I sewed back when I was a kid? Nothing.
What will happen if I get bored and decide to put my half-finished corset back in its canvas bag and put it away in a drawer for the next ten years? Nothing – though I can promise that’s not going to happen.
I’m happy to report that thanks to Natalie’s workshop – and specifically her words of wisdom and kind, non-judgmental coaching – I’m hooked on handwork, and on my terms, to boot. Instead of stressing out about the quality of my stitches and worrying about what the finished product will look like, I’m allowing myself to appreciate the route I’m taking to get it to that point.
During my workshop, when Natalie introduced the idea of “nothing” being the end result of, well, everything that might go wrong with our projects, she reflected on how long after we’ve completed our tasks and begun to wear or use our creations, we’ll notice individual stitches form time to time and remember where we were when we made them.
I already know the ones that will be the most precious to me: those made while sitting on the veranda at the Hermitage, laughing with new friends, enjoying the rediscovery of an art form I’d forgotten, and knowing that perfection comes in many forms.
Libby Callaway is a writer based in Nashville. A native of Cleveland, Tennessee, she’s the former fashion editor at the New York Post and has contributed to many fashion and lifestyle publications including Elle, Travel + Leisure, Style.com, and T.
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*All photos thanks to (the amazing) Gina R. Binkley.