When I began work at Alabama Chanin almost 10 years ago, I had no concept of what the company did or what it would eventually mean to me. I walked into my interview in my only suit, having answered an advertisement in the paper. As soon as I found out what the company did, I broke into a cold sweat.
Luckily for me, they hired me. As I worked each day at my computer, I would glance over at the beautiful garments being produced with a jealous eye. I wanted to know how to make things as amazing as these. But I didn’t know how.
Natalie has often talked about the importance of preserving the “living arts,” those things that are essential to our survival – things that we as a society have forgotten or simply chosen not to learn. I was a perfect example of the person who never learned these skills.
My mother cooked family dinners, but she worked hard all day and it sometimes seemed a joyless task for her. She could make delicious meals, but after a day’s work it was often a chore. I was always fascinated to watch my paternal grandmother – a former cafeteria cook – craft large, luscious meals. I would watch pots bubble on the stove all day, their contents creating amazing smells. She was happy as she stirred those sauces or rolled out her biscuits; there was real joy and pride there. I wanted to understand it.
And I remembered that when I was young, my parents grew a vegetable garden. I loved picking the ripe vegetables for the dinner table, but I had no idea how the whole process worked. Sometimes, my sister and I would plant seeds of our own. But, we got frustrated when nothing emerged from the ground after 2 or 3 days – and dug everything up in disgust.
In my first days at Alabama Chanin, I picked up little tidbits here and there and squirreled them away until I knew enough to use them. As I went to work watering the rose bushes outside, Natalie taught me that eggshells would add calcium to the soil. One of our stitchers brought in some amazing cinnamon rolls and was so patient as I grilled her on just how she made them; the next day she brought in a hand written recipe and placed it on my desk. I remember finally getting up the courage to ask Diane Hall to teach me a stitch. She pulled a scrap from the pile and taught me my first stretchable stitch – the “snail trail.” When she told me that my stitches were pretty, I went out to my car and cried tears of joy.
It is harder to learn these things when you are an adult. Not because your capacity to learn is diminished, but because your habits are already formed. The first time I tried to sew something for myself, the results were not great – but I got better. My first attempt to grow tomatoes was a disaster, but the next year’s crop was amazing. I’m not sure if the tomatoes were really that delicious, or if I was just so proud of them that it seemed that way. I went back to my grandmother’s recipes, learned them and started creating my own. Now, I’m confident in my own kitchen and feel pride when I serve my family dinner.
It is so much easier to grab a product off the grocery store shelf without thinking about where it came from. How many times did I simply toss out a dress or shirt because it needed mending? Or run through a fast food drive-thru because I didn’t want to think about dinner? But, just because these things don’t come naturally doesn’t mean that they never will. I have so much more to learn, but now my desire for this knowledge can overpower my need for fast fashion, fast food, fast life. I wasn’t really taught the “living arts” as part of my upbringing, but my parents did teach me a love for learning and it seems that this was more than enough.