Wednesday, July 28, 2010

She's crafty

"I've discovered many reasons why thrifting makes good sense: politics, nostalgia, economics, and perhaps most of all, the environment. More and more people are thrifting as a way to lessen their impact on the earth. And along the way, they're getting quality goods with a connection to the past."--Amanda Blake Soule, from Handmade Home: Simple Ways to Repurpose Old Materials into New Family Treasures

I was on Block Island with Mike this weekend. We were walking around, climbing up hills to look at the B&B's and grand hotels--places where F. Scott and Zelda would have felt quite at home. Mike was impressed by how old the buildings were: The Spring House, for instance, has been around for 156 years. Maybe the Fitzgeralds DID summer there.

Our own B&B I had found on the Internet. The Oak Room was perfectly fine except that it was the front most facing room, so we could hear everyone's conversations from the front porch. We had come here with a decadent wish: for peace and quiet. But now we knew the whole story of one of our fellow guests, some nasally-voiced woman who disagreed vehemently with her condo association.

To make it worse, maintenance set up a ladder right between our windows, and as I lay on the Queen-sized bed, trying to relax in the humidity, I saw the dirty soles of a man's shoes step up one rung after another and then plant themselves, spreading roots there.

Plus there was no clawfoot bathtub (not that I saw one on the website. I just wanted to be pleasantly surprised.)

Anyway, it was our first trip to Block Island and we loved the scenery. Surely there were better accommodations to reserve next year. As we were scouting out places and picking up brochures we came upon a brick walkway lined with colored bottles leading to a small ramshackle old house. The edges of each step had been turned into mosaics, with cracked china and pieces of sea glass sparkling like rock candy in the bright sun.

I wasn't sure if this was a private residence but I wanted to take a closer look. The pathway curved like a parenthesis, and near the front door there was an arrangement of yellow flowers, it's soil spiked with a metal ornament of an angel and the rim of the pot circled by small ceramic creatures you might see on your grandmother's mantel.

The place appeared to be an artist's studio. Through the window on the door I could see various crafts arrayed on shelves and hanging from the ceiling. I walked into the small entryway (outside Mike had found a "husband's chair" and was leaned back with his Tilly keeping the sun off his face.) To my left behind a glass cabinet there were maybe thirty different shadowboxes, each lined with a different old-time postcard like the kind your parents probably sent when they were kids on vacation in the 1950's. There were shells and sea glass arrayed in each box. I picked one up, not realizing that the shells were not fixed in place. The clatter surprised me, and I jerked my head around to see if anyone had noticed. But when no one came to investigate, I placed the box carefully back on the shelf and gave the cabinet door a gentle push to seal it shut.

Lining the windowsills were jars and jars of pretty sea detritus--dried starfish, sand dollars, shiny colored pebbles and sea glass formed from bottles seaman tossed overboard without a second thought. There were also jars of old buttons. I was reminded of when I was a kid and my mother would open a small wooden jewelry box, revealing heaps and heaps of assorted old buttons inside. I liked to shake some out and line them up, or just scoop my hand inside and pretend the buttons were a pirate's lost treasure. I had no particular use for the buttons--I didn't know how to sew or make jewelry. But I liked to look at all of them, the clear glass ones and the colored plastic ones, the old Victorian style ones and the ones shaped like Tweety Bird. I have always been easily entertained by shiny things.

There was a second room with brilliant colored cotton pillows and bags and long sundresses--all sewn patchwork-style from scraps of vintage materials. Looking around me, I felt connected to a past I had never known, one that my mother had shown me in old photographs and which I glimpsed in antique store windows. The clothing and bags reminded me of some of the projects in Patchwork Style, but without the wacky Japanese sensibility.

In the final room, a woman about my mother's age stood talking to another customer. I moved quietly about, not wanting to disturb their conversation or be asked if I needed help. There were more jars of seashells, more pretty fabrics hanging from wall posts. The room had a counter and sink, and looked to be the woman's workspace. I flipped through some old postcards of Block Island in a cardboard box and plucked a few to bring home with me. When the other customer left, I stepped forward with my modest purchase. I looked at the woman more closely. She had blunt-cut blond hair that reached just over her ears. Her face was pink and wrinkled from years of sun exposure, but I could see that she was pretty. She wore one of her long sleeveless sundresses. I wouldn't mind having her life when I'm sixty.

Her name was Jan and she owned the shop and was its sole designer, except for a few pieces of sea glass jewelry her daughter sold there. Jan had been coming to Block Island for decades, and like the idealized middle-aged women at the center of Luanne Rice novels, she had finally decided to stay. She told me that she was once a designer for large clothing manufacturers. Among other things, Jan had designed a popular men's shirt for Banana Republic.

But that was a long time ago, she said. She quit the business once all the sewing got shipped overseas. "Now it's all just replicas of the past, not the real thing," she said with a soft toss of her hair, "You have people coming in here touching the fabrics and taking notes just so they can replicate the item so their customers will THINK they're buying good quality. But it's not quality. And then they charge the same amount as the authentic product costs, and people pay it!" She rubbed the edge of a tablecloth between her fingers, "This is what real cotton feels like. It's light but not insubstantial. And the colors don't run like they do with synthetics. It's hard to find real fabric anymore."

Then she put two identical starfish in each of my hands. "Can you tell which one is real and which one is plastic?" I could, but only because I was holding them side by side and could feel the delicate outside structure of the real starfish. "People go to boutiques and buy these plastic imitations, when the real thing is right on our beach for the taking!"

I thought about someone buying this plastic replica of a natural thing and displaying it on a shelf. A year or so later, it would end up in a box in the basement, or in the garbage because of some chipped paint.

Why did we buy this crap anyway? Why, when we want to remember our blissful island weekend, do we buy a memento that was made in some Chinese factory by people who have probably never heard of Block Island? Why did I covet expensive designer bags made to look vintage when in reality these same bags were assembled for peanuts in some far-off Asian country? Why did I buy so many new things when I could make valuable treasures out of the pieces I already owned?

It made me want to take up sewing, to go venture into some antique stores, searching for the good stuff, the real deals, the authentic past. I told Jan as much. Problem was I didn't know how to sew or do anything else that was very crafty. Jan told me that many people stop by her shop and just drop off old but pretty things, just so they can see what she comes up with, how she arranges their castoffs into something new, unique, and lovely. I was intrigued. I wanted to go home and make something. At the very least I could collage.

It did occur to me (briefly) that this woman might be feeding me a sales pitch, perhaps hoping I'd add a $50.00 patchwork apron or pillow to my stack of postcards. But I dismissed the idea. Jan seemed genuinely pained at the thought of a future made of plastic and synthetics. I also didn't get the impression that this woman was hurting for customers in such a tony, leftist neighborhood, where people loved anything handmade as long as someone else was making it. These people would pay any price, but at least what they got was the real thing, something new from something old that might otherwise be stuffed in a box in the basement, forgotten.

If you're in Block Island, RI, anytime in May through October, visit:

Jan McKillip Designs
Lightburne Cottage
Spring Street
(401) 466-8894

1 comment:

Janell said...

Enjoyed this post. I felt like I was in a story. I guess I was...but the writing and story were very compelling.
Thanks for sharing.

I hope you're doing well.