A jeans pocket I embroidered circa 1974
I was watching Abstract: The Art of Design, a Netflix program, when Ruth Carter, the designer for those fantastic Black Panther costumes explained that it was not a love of fashion that led her there. My ears perked up when I heard her say that her heroes were authors, poets and playwrights, like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. She considered them designers. And they inspired her. She says people think she sews, but that’s not it at all. Her work is an art form. A means of storytelling.
Her Black Panther costumes apparently incorporate the history of African tribes. She selected a color palette to support the words and scenes of the script, and fabrics that mimicked the specifics of the landscape and of African traditions.
When I heard all this I felt like jumping off the couch. Because I used to sew. A lot. And I never once thought of my many hours at Mom’s Singer machine as a means of storytelling. I was supplying myself with clothes. Otherwise, my choices for what to wear included anything from my two older sister’s hand-me-downs. By the time I left home during the college years, I was splicing patterns together, custom fitting every project, and embellishing my work with embroidery, contrasting thread and button tricks.
But storytelling was not on my mind.
My work back then was literal. I sewed the straightest top-stitching around. By eye. And I measured three times before I cut once. My work was impeccable, skilled, practiced and I considered going on with it somehow. But the only idea I had was to become a tailor. I did not see the possibility of becoming even more creative in my sewing or to tell the stories I wanted to tell through this art form. So hearing Ruth Carter tell me that I could have, that she does, confirmed what I’ve learned about art in general since then.
It’s about expressing yourself and you can do it any way you want to.
So, I ended up writing a story to express my story. Being literal once again.
But the good thing about art is that the story is still the story however you tell it.