Do the Good Work

I’ve written about this before, I know, but it’s something I see over and over again, and it’s common enough that it bears thinking about a *lot*. I see it specifically in relation to Alabama Chanin projects, in which people have one (or, ahem, all) of the books and are entranced with the clothing and set out to try it themselves, which is what it’s all about: the books even give you patterns. Because these books have become wildly popular, there are Flickr groups and Pinterest boards devoted to Alabama Chanin-style clothing, and you can find lots of blogs where people document their AC-Style adventures. It’s endlessly fascinating to me and one of my favorite guilty online pleasures, hunting for yet more custom garments.

 

One thing I’ve noticed a lot is that many people don’t do the good work. They short-shrift themselves and end up disappointed. It’s understandable: when you first start out making (in this case) clothing by hand, you want to see how it’s going to go. You don’t want to jump in right off the bat with some labor-intensive project that may or may not be the right fit for you or the kind of style you’ll actually wear. Many people begin their AC experience with a test garment, and while that’s a great idea, I think they go about it all wrong. For those of y’all who haven’t been bitten by the AC bug, let me explain: Natalie Chanin began by making herself a shirt out of some old t-shirts, and now, many years and a ton of success later, she teaches people how to create garments entirely by hand from 100% cotton jersey. There are detailed instructions for various kinds of appliqué and beading and couching, and the resulting garments on the website and in the books are beyond stunning.

 

So people see those and want to make their own (because, sweeties, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have $5,430 for an appliquéd cotton coat, no matter how fabulous it is), but of course they don’t want to spend a billion hours on something until they know if they’ll enjoy the process and what size they need and what materials will work best (because I’m guessing few people start off ordering dyed cotton from the AC website at $45 a yard). So a lot of people use what they have already. I’ve seen posts about people using non-cotton knit and double-knit and even woven fabric in colors that the person didn’t particularly like but just had on hand. So they’re setting themselves up for disappointment right from the beginning: the techniques and materials recommended in the book have been chosen specifically to work on cotton jersey. And it’s not like you have to order the expensive stuff. No. I’m here to vouch for the fact that you can make one of the AC skirts from a couple cotton t-shirts:

Freeman-Zachery t-shirts 3

So people start off with less-than-optimal supplies, and then they do a little embellishing but nothing at all like the handwork done on the garments they’ve been admiring on the website. I know this because here’s one of my first attempts, just to see how things worked. I hated it rather a lot.

Freeman-Zachery Alabama Chanin

(I do not still own any of these pieces in the photo above.)

And then, when it’s finished, they’re disappointed. It’s OK, and it worked out, but it’s nothing like the gorgeous thing they had in mind. Some go on to make things they really love, as I have:

Freeman-Zachery t-shirts 11

but others get discouraged and give up, and that makes me sad. The process is tedious, sure, but it’s worth it, and this translates into anything you’re doing: if you want it to turn out like what you have in mind, you have to put in the work and effort. Sure, you need to experiment first, but you have to keep in mind that those are *just* experiments. You have to keep reminding yourself that you’re learning, you’re teaching yourself new skills and new techniques. If you view the results as a finished piece, you’re bound to be disappointed (unless it’s a fluke and turns out perfectly; then you should go treat yourself to a latte and spend some time marveling at your luck with the whole learning curve thing).

My advice? Make the maquette, make the muslin, make some mistakes and some false starts. Experiment, rip out, unravel, paint over. Do whatever it takes to learn what you need to know, and then when you begin For Reals, take the time and use the materials you need to do the work you know you have it in you to do.

(And don’t forget to have fun doing it.)

Ricë is the author of Living the Creative Life, Creative Time and Space, and Destination Creativity. She also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.

Cover_U2959.inddFor more about other artists who do the good work, check out Seth Apter’s The Mixed-Media Artist.


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