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Yardwork Collaborates with a Village in India

Here we are at our first Easter together. We did not have hair ornaments that year, as Susan, obviously, was not yet ready.

I have a sister, Susan, only two years younger and my best ever playmate-of-the-imagination. From an early age, we were dress-up co-designers and Crayola artists in residence. We have collaborated on whole wardrobes for paper dolls and consistently cornered the awards for crafts at summer camp. In other words, we have shared an interest in fabrics, art, and design since we were children.

My mother, who had aspired to be a theatrical costume designer, but was waylaid by The Feminine Mystique, made our clothes. Our Easter outfits, in particular, were planned months in advance, and usually included coordinated hair ornaments.  (Easter bonnets still being quite a serious thing in the church-going crowd of the American South.)

Susan scientifically testing the buoyancy of the cloth in her Easter dress, about 1960.

As we moved into our teen years, Susan and I were brought along in this “trade” (if you will) of fabrics.  As young as twelve, we were allowed to go with Mother to choose the patterns, cloth, notions, and trims from which she would make our school dresses and play outfits.  Susan eventually learned to sew, as did my sister Kathy, but I was never good at that part (Mother blamed it on my left-handedness, but the real issue was patience).  We all, though, came to understand that some cloths won’t drape right in certain shapes, that you need body in the fabric for a particular sort of sleeve, and so on.  We have experienced the satisfaction of an outfit that correctly replicates the vision in the mind as well as the sometimes spectacularly hilarious failure to do so. It is a talent, a skill, and a bond we all share.

After graduating from Kansas City Art Institute with a degree in painting, Susan went to New York and “made good” as a freelance textiles and housewares designer.  In fact, when my children were born, they could wear pajamas and have sheets, towels, and blankets designed by their Aunt Susan.  In later years, she had a wonderful line of gift cards, journals, and stationery–all very high style and intellectual-looking.

Susan today, in her "Yardwork" persona.

Today, Susan has an Etsy site, called “Yardwork,” where she sells cloth she hand prints and a few objects she makes–bags and pillows–as well as stencils and stamps, with tutorials so buyers can create their own stuff.  She also creates fabrics that are printed digitally.  For several years now I have been telling Susan about my observations of village groups in Bangladesh who use ancient techniques and materials to produce beautiful fabrics, but who often have difficulty breaking into the lucrative Western markets because they lack design knowledge for those consumers, as well as connections for getting their materials sold. I kept thinking there must be some way that what Susan does could connect with this need.

Susan has been ruminating quietly about how to reconcile her own aesthetic vision, her need to produce her stuff more economically, and her antipathy to the idea of exploiting people on the other side of the world. She mentioned casually to me the last time I visited her in New York that she was engaged in an intense email conversation with some folks in India about collaborating on a line of fabrics.  It didn’t sound very promising, I must say, and I really didn’t think anything would ever happen.  But now, apparently, she has worked something out.

Here is the first selection of fabric from Yardwork. To test the transaction relationship, Susan selected local patterns that echoed her own designs for the initial import. She chose the colors and fabrics, working gradually toward a point where she might try her prints.

Beginning online today, Yardwork is showing her first fabrics imported from India.  It is a small initial selection, but she says even this short run of goods kept six people working for four weeks.  So, Susan figures if she builds this part of her business, she can provide an income for the village and solve her own production limitations at the same time.

These are three bags Susan made and gave me as gifts. The large handbag is digitally printed and the others are printed by hand.

A few examples are shown in the photograph above.  I have also put a casual snapshot I took myself of three items that Susan made for me, all of which use her own, hand-printed fabric. You can see by comparing them to the fabric swatches, I think, that she has successfully worked with these folks to produce yardgoods that combine both her own signature look and their traditional aesthetic.  As she says in her blog about the experience, “We can all be happy.”

Here I am, in 2009, doing a block print in a village not too far from the one now contracting with Susan.

The Yardwork blog calls to mind another project that I have been working on with two colleagues from Queen’s University Belfast. Maura McAdam and Hilary Downey have interviewed established artisans, all female, in Northern Ireland about their experiences trying to build businesses around their craft. The same kinds of issues that Susan faced come up in these interviews:  the desire for a certain standard of creative excellence, wanting to keep a sense of one’s own art, a bit of hesitancy about working with other craftspeople in order to produce more efficiently, and the desire to have a positive social outcome.  Maura, Hilary, and I argue that this craft model of entrepreneurship–they coined the term “craftpreneur”–could stand as an opposite ideal to the mythical male stereotype (the get-rich-quick, impervious-to-risk, self-starting and self-aggrandizing entrepreneur). The paper is in review now–I will write more when it is published.

In the meantime, check out my sister’s story on her blog and see how her art has become business!


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