Alabama Chanin Style

I started my Alabama Chanin style dress well over two years ago – though it had been bubbling away in my mind for much much longer. Now I will always think of it as a Lockdown project because it is over these last few weeks that I have worked with most dedication and enthusiasm.

Way, way back in 2016 I was looking carefully at two little Japanese books I’d inherited from my father’s family. Nobody in the family today seemed to know very much about them. These pictures below show the covers, frontispieces and a couple of content pages …There were pages and pages of wonderful illustrations and designs  …I can’t read Japanese, and my father (who had been able to read Japanese) died in 2015, so I decided to put these illustrations up on my Instagram account in search of a translator …And I got one! Apparently these two little books were published in Tokyo in 1884 and 1881 respectively. The top book contains arabesque patterns for kimonos and the lower book shows crests and symbols of Japanese clans and families.

How did they come to my family, we wondered? Luckily my mother remembered the answer to that. Apparently my paternal great-grandmother had been an enthusiastic patron of all things Japanese, and is believed to have acquired these little books for her library … what treasure … I couldn’t really believe it …Anyhow – jumping forward to me and my humble little stitching plans, I found myself with a most fabulous resource of illustrations just made for embroidery and other designs ..

What I’d always wanted to do was to stitch myself a dress using the Alabama Chanin style of embroidery. This involves working with a double layer of fabric. Cutaways and very simple embroidery stitches make the pattern …I started with a practice piece using a variation of the leaf pattern above and working with old cotton t-shirts (as recommended in the book). And yes, I got a little bit carried away with the embroidery, but most importantly what I discovered was that I hated sewing cotton knit fabric. My needle struggled to pierce the fabric …As it happened,  I had found a double layer dress of very light woven cotton on Ebay … Just perfect, so now to find my pattern. I went back to my little Japanese pattern books, and selected a beautiful and quite simple design of falling maple leaves …I particularly associate maple trees with my father. He was always trying to make little bonsai trees with them during my childhood …With the image scanned from the little Japanese book, I then enlarged it and printed it out on stiff paper. That’s my template sorted. Now to cut the leaves out …I worked very slowly at first, sometimes adding pattern by tracing through the template …And sometimes building up the design by placing the maples leaves cut out from the template where I thought they might be effective …Either way, there was always that tricky moment of cutting the fabric …But then the fun starts and I could start stitching! Very basic running stitch round the leaves …Using a washable marker to ink in the maple leaf details …Stitching the details in with stem stitch …The stalks were stitched in chain stitch. Adding more colour …I’d completed the front of the dress …And moved the pattern over the shoulder and round to the back of the neck …When I came to a halt.  Not really sure why. But the project sat unloved for a year or so …

Until the virus struck this summer. I came back to the project like a madwoman – I guess Lockdown has a strange effect on us all. I found myself stitching madly and enthusiastically …Adding pattern to the sides of the dress …So that the maple leaves moved down the back, and round the body …Producing this trailing effect …I love this pic of the dress held up to the light so you can see all the little maple leaves silhouetted through the body …Finally just to hem it … and ta-dah! It’s finished! I am so pleased with the way it spirals round the sides …Under the arm …And, of course, down the back …What a fascinating mix of cultures and times and history are worked into it – the historic Japanese prints, the South-Eastern American techniques of Alabama Chanin, and me, at the vortex as it were, with a family connection to Japan, stitching away in the very north of England in the early 21st century Coronavirus Lockdown …

Doodling a stitchery …

Or stitching a doodle … I’m not really sure …But I do know that I started this piece in the most playful of manner, with just some pieces of fabric machined together – perhaps originally I was thinking of making a GiveWrap? And then I took a turn off  (veered to the right as it were), and starting adding pictures and scraps, and embroidering, stitching them …
Some were strong images cut out from fabric … And others were just pieces I found in my scraps, exactly as they were…Scraps from all sorts of places.  Those strong green flowers came from my dear friend Mandy’s cast-off dress.  And the vibrant yellow silk lines were an unintended gift from my cousin Polly – beautiful scraps of sari silk used to wrap up a GiveWrap …parcel from PollyHappy stitching through the winter months, playing idly with fabrics and keeping the cats company as they bird-watched. My favourite times …winter stitching with catMy stitchery grew. I had started to add faces …whole piece 2I am fascinated by stitched faces.  One of my favourite feeds on Instagram is Spiritcloth who with such skilled dyeing and stitching produces pieces like this …Spiritcloth faceSo small green faces crept into my work too. I never quite knew how they would appear. They always started quite similarly – just a couple of scraps of green fabric, pinned together …smiley cat - startingroi soleil - startingI was nervous about stitching them, but I needn’t have been. They took on a life of their own. Some were catty …impish cat - working onSome were sleeping …sleeping child - startingAnother had a fawn-like appearance, I thought – especially when it became clear they wanted beards …thoughful man - finishedSo they all got beards – some wispy …smiley cat - finishedSome luxurious, as with the Roi Soleil …roi soleil - finishedThe cat has a fine beard too, complementing its whiskers!And a few beardy wisps too for the sleepy one – perhaps to complement those wisps of hair …My piece was now growing, and I was no longer thinking of it as an idle doodle.  It demanded to be seen as a whole – with backing (a lovely cotton Ikea duvet from a local charity shop) …whole piece 3And, once I started to see it as a whole, I had to think of balance. It needed some more of those strong yellows – and it needed poetry …
whole piece 6There usually comes a point when I am stitching when words come into my mind that I might stitch into the work in hand. Some of my embroideries have been stitched around text as in my Love Letter to Europe …Love letter to EuropeWith others, the words sort of drift in as I stitch away.  So it was with my Chinese Vase embroidery. For a long time it was just fabric pieces and embroidery …working on chinese vase embroidery Then – as I stitched – some of Eliot’s words from the Four Quartets (Burnt Norton) came to mind: “as a Chinese jar Still moves perpetually in its stillness.”chinese vase embroideryIt was T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets (Burnt Norton) that came to my mind again as I stitched those little green faces …TSEliiot quote 1
TSEliiot quote 2A little fiddling around with size and placement: “Go said the bird … for the leaves were full of children … hidden excitedly, containing laughter … quick said the bird … find them, find them …”whole piece 5And then some stitching …At first I was disappointed that it’s so hard to make out Eliot’s words and I wondered about re-stitching them.  But I decided that the almost-hidden words was in keeping with the sense of looking: Quick, said the bird, find them, find them …
whole piece 7My stitchery was drawing to an end.  Time now to add the backing, and quilt it with some comfortable sashiko stitching …summer conservatory stitchingThe cats approved …As the border stitching drew to an end, I thought – well, perhaps I’ll just add a little extra stitching here … and there … and there.  I realised that I’ve grown accustomed to having this stitchery around to pick up for a little stitching here or there.  The time had come to finish it.

By happy coincidence I was introduced at this time to the old Navajo belief that the spirit of the weaver literally enters the cloth they are weaving. In an article on the Spirit of the Cloth in the Spring 2018 edition of Spin Off magazine, Rebecca Marsh describes how the Navajo weave a spirit line from inside the border to the edge of the of the weaving to allow the weaver’s spirit to leave the cloth.

I needed a spirit line!

My spirit line – my escape from this stitchery – was to add my initials and the date.
stitching the signatureFinished!
whole piece 8