LESSONS FROM BOWIE

Original Post: Jan 18, 2016

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Bowie. Say no more. I know. There has been a huge shift in The Universe since news broke about his passing a week ago. It has been incredible to repeatedly read just how Bowie touched so many souls, through out so many generations. I don't mean to be redundant here by even choosing this as a blog topic or being utterly unoriginal at this time. I know I can't say anything that hasn't been said or felt. But one of the key things I have taken away from this very sad event is looking at Bowie's body of work as a whole. Now. Today. As an adult artist, looking at and truly appreciating a master.

Art. Fashion. Music. For some of us...that is the holy trinity. Or at least it was to me....a burgeoning creative teenager type growing up in Egypt during the 1980's. When I was first introduced to the music/fashion/art scene, our biggest influence was from the UK. That is...when we could get it which was usually a few months behind the times. None the less, Bowie was more or less at the pinnacle of all of that. Anything art, fashion and musically oriented was a by product of him paving the way.

For us, (I can only speak for the expat kids I went to school with) he was like part of life's soundtrack. In the background, in the art room (my high school sanctuary), school dances, movies, Egyptian discos, blowing down the road along the Nile in the back of a taxi, begging the driver to play the cassette you were waving over his shoulder. Bowie followed me to London and back to the US for art school. He serenaded me through endless nights in the studio while I wondered if I was ever going to survive this chosen path. His presence was just a given. An inspiration. A comfort. A knowing.

I haven't followed Bowie much during the later part of his career but felt, even after all of these years....he was woven into the fabric of time and place. His passing has felt like someone removed one of the important bricks of my creative foundation and young adulthood.

Having worked in the entertainment industry for many years, I have loads of opinions about my fellow creatives and celebrities...some not so favorable. However, I have nothing but admiration, respect and love for Bowie and his unbelievably wild journey. The truth be told, I have probably learned more about what it was to live (and die) as an artist over the past week, by reviewing his career as a whole, than I did by attending art school. Here are some of the key points I've pondered, accompanied by words from the man himself.

Chameleon? Please...."For me a chameleon is something that disguises itself to look as much like its environment as possible. I always thought I did exactly the opposite of that. I don't have stylistic loyalty. That's why people perceive me changing all the time. But there is a real continuity in my subject matter. As an artist of artifice, I do believe I have more integrity than any one of my contemporaries."

OK I have to get this out of my system. Bowie being called a chameleon is simply annoying. Chameleons change colour to blend into their environment. Bowie did quite the opposite until he chose to lead a more quite, out of the limelight life as a family man. He bucked cultural constraints and gave all of us who thought, lived and created differently a safe place to be who we were. He took risks. His hero's were those who transgressed the norm, defied convention regardless of it being painting, music or anything. He took his cues from them. He was a trail blazer, pioneer, shape-shifter, envelope pusher, breaker or bender of the rules ..... anything. But never a chameleon. Come on y'all.

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Do the work. "I suppose for me as an artist, it wasn't always just about expressing my work; I really wanted, more than anything else, to contribute in some way to the culture that I was living in. It just seemed like a challenge to move it a little bit towards the way I thought it might be interesting to go."

Being an artist isn't just about having free pass to be a freak, a slack ass or a temperamental asshole. (Which I have seen repeatedly. It is tedious and boring at best.) We are all unique individuals in our own way. But being an artist means more than just stirring up trouble, weirdness, whining or using shock value to make people uncomfortable. It is producing work (and a life) with integrity, honesty and intention. Add substance to it. Even if it just to make something beautiful that has no meaning. Provoke thought or appreciation or something. Doing the work also includes producing a HELL of a lot of work just as Bowie did up until the end. It is a never ending journey and no way to half ass it. You've gotta show up.

Detach from the work. During my freshman and sophomore year at the Maryland Institute College of Art, I had a design teacher who was hell bent on getting us to detach from the work. So she would take our piece off of the critique wall, tear it in half, hand it back to us saying, 'you can do it again'. As graphic design majors, we had working with clients to keep in mind when creating a project. It wasn't just our baby, so emotional attachment was not encouraged. Personally, I thought this was a damaging, almost abusive way to make the point and one of the reasons I walked away from design for so many years. But I digress.......

One of the things that dawned on me, is that Bowie knew how and when to detach. He didn't cling. Just like an actor lets go of their character when the filming is done, the same went for Bowie. His characters were actually created out of the discomfort of writing for himself and performing. In addition, he had the intuition to know these characters had a short shelf life and when to pull the plug. The man has worked every angle of his talents from Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke to catchy pop songs, to jazz, to blues to everything in between. But he knew that an audiences appreciation was going to be periodic at the best of times and that artists fall in and out of favour continually. At the end of the day, I think he quite enjoyed experiencing it all.

Own your work. And I mean literally. I refuse to believe that artists of any sort HAVE to be poor. Not good with numbers? Yeah me neither. But that has nothing to do with putting value on the work and yourself. If you were a lawyer, you'd be damn sure to charge your rates right? Why are we different? We have had years of training, schooling, failures, successes and zillions of hours of work. People undervalue our work because we undervalue ourselves. Bowie stepped up to take financial control and full ownership of his work, correcting bad financial and career mistakes made by trusting the wrong people. This should be taught in every art school around the world. Unfortunately, most of us learn it the hard way.

Know when you are beating a dead horse and move on. "You can't stand still on one point for your entire life." 

This is the down fall of those who are 'one hit wonders' doing the same thing year after year... whatever the medium. There is a real danger of getting into, and staying in a rut, perpetuating something that has gone before. Variety is the spice of life for the artist, as well as everyone in their audience. Think about it...how many decades did Bowie's work span? And just what do you think Ziggy Stardust would look like, act like and have to say at age 69?

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Uncomfortable is the key to creation."If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting."

If that is the case, then I am on to something. And I'm holding him to this.

Don't do it to be popular. "The thing you should turn around at the end of the day and say is...'I really like that work' or 'that really sucked!' Not 'was this popular or that popular'." and "The only real failure is trying to second-guess the taste of an audience. Nothing comes out of that except a kind of inward humiliation."

Listen carefully. Stick with what is true to you, your style and your personal journey. The creative well will be endless and it gives you control to steer the ship.

Diversify. "When you are an artist you can turn your hand to anything, in any style. Once you have the tools then all the art forms are the same in the end." 

Along with being a musician, he was a song writer, producer, a performer, a mime, a painter, a designer, a movie actor, a writer for the art magazine Modern Painters, an art collector, a philanthropist, a financial bad ass (he created Bowie Bonds. Look it up!), started his own Internet service provider and progressed with the technology of the music industry...  to name a few. Doing more than 'just your art' actually deepens, strengthens and enriches the work. And your life. And your contribution to the planet. It's about long term sustainability.

Ditch the drugs and alcohol dependency. "One day I realized that I really needed to stop losing myself in my work and in my addictions. What happens is you just wake up one morning and feel absolutely dead. You can't even drag your soul back into your body. You feel you have negated everything that is wonderful about life. When you have fallen that far, it feels like a miracle when you regain your love of life.'

Creative people rely all too regularly on this. Anyone who knows me knows this is a no go. It may sound preachy, but I have watched over many years, addiction ruin lives, finances, families, relationships, careers and ones health. It is devastatingly heartbreaking. It doesn't make you more creative or better at what you do. If so, it doesn't last. Bowie had to pull himself from the depths of hell on this...as do so many. In fact, he almost lost everything including his son and his own life. It's a counter productive choice and becomes a waste of wonderful talent at the end of the day. Why waste your greatest gift being strung out or hung over?? 

Don't take yourself seriously. "I'm looking for backing for an unauthorized auto-biography that I am writing. Hopefully, this will sell in such huge numbers that I will be able to sue myself for an extraordinary amount of money and finance the film version in which I will play everybody."

Bowie more or less laughed at the whole phenomenon, took it with a grain of salt and rode the wave with style and grace. He was serious when creating, but the fame it created, he took in stride. The man who fell to Earth, actually seemed very down to Earth and didn't forget to keep perspective.

Be secure with in your self, what you do and generous with your knowledge. "If you come from art, you'll always be art."  

There is enough room for everyone. How many other colleagues and younger musicians did Bowie either collaborate with, produce, write for or help launch? I think he believed that sharing knowledge was part of the creative process and was very generous with what he had been so blessed with. Holding our knowledge doesn't help us or anyone else. Bowie nailed it with his generosity, wisdom and experience.

David Bowie vs. David Jones: "I surrounded myself with people who indulged my ego. They treated me as though I was Ziggy Stardust or one of my characters, never realising that David Jones might be behind it."

Sadly, I was never on the right continent to see David Bowie perform. And later in life.... I was working some film or TV shoot that was dictating just about all of my time. I do regret that as he was historical. I can only live vicariously through friends who have been to concerts, along with even a smaller group who have worked with or met him. I have heard stories that he was a wonderful man which went beyond his talents. He was kind. Lovely. Funny. Intelligent. We all have known and seen 'David Bowie' for decades. But to meet the real man, David Jones and know the difference...that had to be extra special and something to treasure for life.

Friend and fellow crew member on my last Broadway show, Fritz Frizsell, shared this on Facebook the day Bowie's passing was announced. And I thought.... THIS is the kind of thing that makes the world go around......

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Back in the early 80's, I was on my way to the now-gone Carnegie Hall cinema, when someone behind me asked "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?". I turned to see which of my friends this wise guy was - and my jaw dropped when I saw it was David Bowie.
When I finally found my voice, I told him that I was on my way there myself to see Samuel Beckett's FILM, starring Buster Keaton. Turned out Bowie was going there for the same reason. We walked together, talking about Beckett and Keaton along the way. It is not a well-known movie, and there was practically no one else there. Afterwards, we left together and chatted a bit more.
Shortly after, we parted ways and I was embarrassed to realise I had never acknowledged that I'd known who he was (though by my initial reaction, he surely must have known). A few months later, I was walking through Shubert Alley, I saw him signing autographs after a performance of The Elephant Man, a show I had seen him in shortly before meeting him at the Carnegie. Looking up, he saw me, smiled and said "Well, if it isn't my fellow Keaton fan". It was the same sweet smile you see at the end of this lovely rendition of Brel's My Death. A tremendously talented artist, a beautiful soul, and a great, great loss. This one hit hard.

And yes it did.

Maintain integrity and dignity. Always. I have seen it written many times, Bowie was simply a gentleman. And that he considered his privacy the greatest of luxuries. Rather than making his illness a public affair, he gave his last creative projects his very best...meanwhile.. behind the scenes, battling his illness and protecting his family from the media circus that it could have become. Death, just like birth is an incredibly intimate process. He kept it on point and on what was important. After a lifetime in the spotlight he quietly took a bow with his last creative projects, and like a phantom in the night, silently slipped away.

Bowie's long time friend, Robert Fox and producer of his off-Broadway show said this, "He wanted the minimum of fuss. He was just a private man. And I think he wanted to protect his family from the insanity there would have been. It would have impinged on the album (Blackstar), the off-Broadway musical Lazarus, his family - everyone would have been inundated at a time when he didn't need or want that. And he did it perfectly."

And we all should take note.

One of my favorite quotes (and personal life goals) comes from Erma Bombeck: "When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I should not have a single bit of talent left and could say, 'I used everything you gave me'. For Bowie, I believe he absolutely did. Until the very end. In a way that only Bowie could.

-A special thank you to Lady Fritz for allowing me to share your wonderful story. It gave this post the shine it needed. Keep the memory of your story close to your heart, always. 

MAKING THE OLD, NEW - 1930's DIY

Original Post: Feb 17, 2016

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A simple upholstery project can change the world when it comes to an old piece of furniture or refreshing a dull interior space. Additionally, it can be quite inspiring and gratifying to work on unique pieces, bringing them back to life as they tell their story.

One of the perks of living in a small town is the small businesses and getting to know the owners a little better than you would in a bigger city. One of my favorite places to visit is 'Not Bob's Antiques' on Lower Street, downtown Spruce Pine. It has become a regular haunt of mine for interesting finds to use in photo shoots and for re-upholstery projects.       

Herman, the kind and quiet shop owner (Not Bob!) is unfazed by me scouring every nook and cranny of the shop in search of something unusually special or easy to re-upholster. I've unearthed several great treasures at Not Bob's ranging from a 100+ year old wooden, caned backed chair to a wonderful red velvet Eastlake Settee set, a camel saddle (my favorite!) and most recently, a sweet, yet simply designed vanity chair from the 1930's. A most perfect wintertime project!

Choosing The Piece: This particular style of seat is elegant and understated with clean lines and classic detail. The perfect frame to offset my Khema pattern in Steel Grey.

The Beginning: To get started, wipe down any dust and grime that has accumulated. This will give you direction on how far you will have to take reconditioning the wood. Unfortunatly, there was paint sprayed onto the chair back so I had to sand it out. (Please use a mask when sanding!)

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The Finish: I would normally leave the wood alone and just wipe it down with a restore-finish like stain that preserves the original finish. (Can be found at your local hardware store, Lowes or Home Depot) NOTE: This is not super eco friendly so please take care! It is quick and easy but please suit up with mask, rubber gloves, goggles, apron and a well ventilated space! That said, it does help polish up, fill in and bring out the beauty of the old finish and its colour. It saves time and energy while restoring the original look of the piece as it was intended.

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After sanding, I gave the wood a rub down with the restore-finish and old cloth to bring out the woods beautiful colours and texture. This also uncovered one of the unique features of this particular piece, the two tones of wood and a mirroring technique on the back of the chair.

Keep an eye out for what a piece reveals during this process. These are details that should shine!

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Upholstery Tools: I like to keep it simple. A staple gun (and staples), pliers, small tack hammer, a flat head screwdriver, scissors, (fabric and non-fabric!) and my favorite upholsterer's tool: a tack/staple remover….the screw driver-mini crowbar combo! This is little guy will be your best friend for prying out old staples, tacks, and nails… or new ones that were misplaced or misaligned. It saves time and your hands!

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Fabric - The Chosen One: In this case, the chair was chosen for the fabric. However, the fabric still needed to be ironed, prepped and cut into the right shape to fit the seat. I often use chalk (on the back of fabric) to lightly mark out where to cut, but on this one, it was pretty straightforward.

When cutting out fabric, remember to add extra to all sides. I add about 3 inches to be safe. This will allow some wiggle room for placement and enough to grab onto when pulling the fabric taught to staple.

Another note: when working with a pattern, especially one with a hard direction like Khema here, please take note of how it will lay out. Is it vertical? Horizontal? (in this case, both) Or is it on the diagonal? These are important ideas to have before scissors touch the fabric. Make sure it will maintain its symmetry once placed onto the seat. (Or seat back, or whichever part you are working on).

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If Fabrics Could Talk: Uncovering of the wooden structure of the piece isn't the only part with a story to tell. One of my favorite moments is deconstructing the many layers of old textiles that lay beneath the surface. They too tell such stories of not only the last owners decor tastes, but the decades the piece passed through. This one went through several.  I am going to guess late 40's/early 50's (pale pinkish beige), 60's (green and white) and 70's (the orange). 

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Getting Down To (Brass) Tacks. Literally. - After pulling out every single staple, tack and nail to remove the old fabric, make sure you clean up/sand down any splinters the tack remover might have pulled up. I am all about taking (almost) as much care of the parts you don't see, as the ones you do. As for the seat cushion, I chose not to replace everything but did remove the top two layers of fabric (the 70's orange and 60's green and white) so their colour and textures wouldn't show through the new fabric. 

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Let The Games Begin: Upholstery is often like painting a house. 80% prep, 20% getting down to business. It is also about trial and error. (Note first photo was taken BEFORE I removed the first two layers of fabric!) But the image still illustrates the point. 

Fold about 2-3 inches of fabric over the first side, staple two or three times in the center to keep it in place. Pull the fabric firmly to the opposite side and staple another two or three times in the center. Continue to gently pull fabric while adding two or three staples at a time, alternating sides as you go. This keeps the stretching of the fabric even. 

Staples should be about an inch/inch and a half apart. Give a quick inspection of both sides AND everything underneath and in between. Once the first two sides are finished, make sure the fabric is laying flat, tight, even and with no gaps along the edges. Double check to make sure pattern alignment is straight as well!

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Next! - Repeat the same; staple the centers first on each side (opposite each other), then work back and forth between sides until you have stapled all the way across and close to the corners.

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Turning The Corner: A neat and tidy corner is key. Not only for doing fine work, but also to keep the fabric bulk from interfering with the seat setting into the chair form properly. Once you have stapled all sides, pinch fabric so that it makes a neat triangle, but hold it the bottom part flush to the seat so you can get those last staples into the corners. (Note: You may have to play with the fold of the corners a bit, but try to get them as clean and nicely folded down flat into a triangle as possible.) Then staple to hold corner folds into place.

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Finishing Touches: ALMOST THERE! Now for the cleanup. Cut any access fabric around the edges to get rid of the extra bulk. Not only does this just look more professional, it keeps the fabric from catching on something or getting pulled. I like to leave about an inch/inch and a half away from staples so there is no unnecessary stress on the fabric around the staples and chance of tearing. Once you have cut away the extra, staple down edges so they do not hang down below the seat of the chair. (Unsightly and messy!) Flip seat over, inspect for any adjustments needing to be made and place it into the chair frame.

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See the difference! A little bit of love goes a long way! 

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The joys of before....and after. 

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A Few Thoughts and Basic Fabric Tips For Upholstery:

  • Make sure you purchase enough fabric, especially for larger projects. Fabrics are not always going to remain the same exact color of print, or base fabric color if it comes from a different bolt. So make sure to get what is needed for your project from the same bolt, and then a tiny extra.
  • Carpenters rule of thumb: Measure twice, cut once. And cut with FABRIC SCISSORS. This is non-negotiable folks! Every household should have one pair of scissors reserved for cutting fabric. If you don't understand why…try cutting fabric that has been used for cutting tape, paper (wood fibers!) and other house old weirdness. Yeah. You get my point.
  • If you don't have upholstery experience and it is a large, complicated piece, find a good upholsterer. Unless you are determined to cut your teeth on this thing, take it to a pro. This will save you a TON of time, energy, frustration and cost of materials. Ask them how much yardage is needed, before purchasing fabrics, then see tip #1. I have learned that upholstery is not as easy as it looks! So if you are going to DIY and are new to it, keep it small and simple. Or, if you choose to work on bigger projects, start with less expensive fabrics that won't be a problem to learn with. 
  • Make sure you choose fabrics that are appropriate for the piece you want to refurbish. Choose a woven over a knit or stretchy fabric. (Upholstery fabric does not need to give or it will grow!) Is this piece going to get a lot of wear and tear? Are children or pets present? Is the fabric durable and heavy enough for the amount of wear and stress it will get? Or is the piece what I call a ‘sit proper’ piece? (ie. not appropriate for couch potatoes.) Is it needing to be water/stain resistant? Make sure you think through the use of the piece, who will be using it, how frequently and the setting it will live in.
  • How much wood or spring repair does it need? This could be tricky if one doesn't have some basic knowledge of wood, proper glues, furniture reinforcement, paint, stains, and varnishes etc. Or spring repair. There are so many beautiful furniture pieces out there who need a lot of TLC. But many of them need some serious surgical procedures needing to be done by professionals. Do a little Google research on this one or ask a woodworker or professional upholsterer. There is a method to this madness and the last thing you want is a chair or couch that dumps its sitter!
  • Most importantly, if using any toxic materials or sanding, please wear gloves and a mask. Set the project up in an open, ventilated area. SAFETY FIRST! 

As Leonardo Da Vinci once said: "Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication". Keep it simple. Keep it fun. Keep it real. 

QUILTING OUTSIDE THE BOX: THE FINE ART OF EGYPT'S KHAYMAIYA

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Original Post: Aug 26, 2015

Over the past 7 yrs, nestled here in the mountains of the Blue Ridge, I have frequently been confronted with defining, explaining and sometimes defending the type of textile work I do. I live amongst some amazing crafts people: weaving, dying, fiber artists, pottery, wood working, glass blowing, iron working etc. Yet, I can not call any of these disciplines 'home'. I am a designer. I silk screen. No, not t-shirts. I work with fabric, but am not a fiber artist. I do not weave, spin, dye fiber or sheer sheep. I have not yet found my 'box'. 

Having been born in the South, I have a great respect for the traditional craft created here. My sweet Southern grandmothers hand stitched quilts, crochet and cross stitch pieces are heirloom treasures beyond price. However, it is Egypt's design and craft heritage that has left its impression on me. The Mediterranean, Arabic and the unique designs of Khayamiya are what stops my heart, inspires my design spirit and what to me... feels like 'home'.

Khaymaiya (Arabic خيّامية Khayyāmiyah) or Egyptian Tentmakers Appliqué, is primarily created in Cairo and part of a unique aspect of Egypt's living heritage. They are architectural in origin, but mirror the process of quilt making. Unlike traditional Western quilting, the Tentmakers Appliqué are created by men, hand stitching intricate and colorful patterns on top of cotton, then onto a heavier cotton backing. Tucked away in tiny vendors stalls, curled up on their seats, backs against the wall, barefoot and draped with yards of fabric all around them, these skilled artisans stitch geometric and arabesque patterns deriving from Islamic ornamentation and imagery from Pharaonic art. All breath takingly exquisite. All of them different.

The Khaymaiya artisans have been know for centuries for their decorative tents which have spread across the Arab territories. These durable tapestries serve the duel purpose of shielding its inhabitants from the hot, dry and dusty desert while adding ornamentation to its interior. They are an important aspect of everyday Egyptian life creating portable venues for weddings, feasts, festivals, funerals, and many other celebratory occasions. These tents are as easily erected out in the desert as they are wedged between buildings in a small alley. And they are quite a magnificent sight to see in either location.

It is heartbreaking to learn however, that Khaymaiya is a rapidly dying art and struggling to stay relevant in its own country. Even more so since the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. Since the 1990s, the Khayamiya craft has been knocked off by cheaply printed and mass produced reproductions undercutting the demand and respect for such skilled workmanship. To keep the craft alive and to put coin in the pocket, the Tentmakers have down sized from tents and large tapestries to smaller collectibles, bed quilts, throws, wall hangings and pillows to expand their entrepreneurial opportunities. It may be a disappearing art form in Egypt, but it is generating a lot of international interest in the quilting world. Fingers crossed this interest will continue to grow and earn the respect it deserves. Insha'Allah! (God willing!)

That said, my family and I are proud owners of a few of these beautiful pieces from a time we called Egypt home. I believe it was growing up around Khaymaiya that has shaped and inspired my work today. So to answer the question of defining what I do? My work is cross-cultured and cross-disciplined, creating my own unique 'box', or perhaps like the exquisite Khaymaiya, getting rid of the box all together. 

Please take a moment to see these videos and how absolutely spectacular these hand stitched designs are. I promise it will be time well spent! And please share them. There is really nothing quite like this type of work, their design, craftsmanship or their story. 

*Luana Rubin of eQuilter.com interviews Tarek Abdelhay and Hosam Hanafy about the Tentmakers of Egypt - an exhibition of exquisitely intricate quilts from Cairo - at the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham England. (August 2011) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHzWRui7Kjk

*'The Tent Makers Of Cairo' film tells the story of Egypt's struggle with democracy through a community of artisans whose craft has remained largely unchanged since Pharaonic times. 'The Tentmakers of Cairo' is a journey into a part of Egypt many will never visit, well beyond the Pyramids, papyrus and behind many of the images seen on the nightly news. Here is the trailer for the film (by Kim Beamish) and a peek into the lives of these artisans. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gr2AptgjvnE

*The Tentmakers of Chareh El Khiamiah - People know me as Hosam EL Farouk' (by Kim Beamish). Here is another excerpt from the film interviewing one of the stitchers (seen in the first two videos) about his life, where his designs come from and why he followed this particular art form. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07Rw_d6HyEY

Did you enjoy these incredible textiles? Drop me a note in the comment block below. I would love to here what you think! xx

CULTURE SHOCK, SUSTAINABILITY AND ALL THAT JAZZ.....

Original Post: Aug 26, 2015

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When I began this new adventure as a textile designer, I not only reached waaaay back to the beginning of becoming a designer... but found myself faced with the task of deciding on the application and end product. What was I going to do with all of this hand printed fabric?? So I traced back even further to our big move overseas and the practicalities of making due with materials we had available for everyday living.

Upon our relocation to Alexandria Egypt in 1982, we were starting a brand new life and with few possessions in tow. The country was still reeling from the loss of its leader, Anwar Sadat and the economy was struggling. We (my mother and I) had never been out of the US which made for an interesting challenge to acclimate to this new and very different culture we found ourselves in. Though I was raised to be mindful, the Western culture we were used to was, and still is, one of disposable conveniences.

I believe it was my mother and stepdads upbringing on the cotton and peanut farms of Alabama and the basics of homesteading that brought us through those first years in Egypt. Meals were completely made from scratch, food was 'put away' because we worked with what was seasonally on the market (and occasionally, the black market). The original Betty Crocker Cookbook, torn and tattered, became sacred texts of the kitchen. There were no trips to the US Embassy commissary (like an American food store, but much smaller scale) and our mailing system was limited at best. Imported goods from Europe, or rarer still, the US were outrageously expensive and difficult to find. So, much of our home products were made by hand.  

With trips to the fabric Souk and a new sewing machine, my mother began working her magic. Curtains were made to keep the cold out (Yes it can get very cold in Egypt! Especially on the Mediterranean!), dinner parties were adorned with simple but elegant textiles. Alternate sets of tableware were made and intended for less formal and daily occasions. Materials were chosen for longevity in addition to lovely patterns and colours. It wasn’t just something for special occasions...it was also to be practical and durable. 

In many ways, I believe this taught me about ‘sustainability’ and going ‘green’ decades before it was a mainstream movement. When I left Egypt for college, my mother created a stack of hand towels, sets of dinner and tea napkins and other home goods to help make my new location ‘home’. The irony here: I was often mistaken for someone from an affluent family because of such 'luxuries', when in fact, they were intended to cut costs on paper goods and bring comfort to a student thousands of miles away from home. I still have (and use) those pieces my mom made for me more than 25 yrs ago. Though being ‘green' or 'sustainable’, was not quite the goal...bringing our own personal aesthetic and practicality to our home, however, was.

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THE LOTUS: FROM THE DEPTHS OF MUD GROWS PERFECTION...AND TEXTILES

Original Post: Aug 26, 2015

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Geos, Not Florals. As a pattern designer, I fall hard into the category of a geometrics. Many designers are known for their floral or conversational (pictorial, often whimsical) designs. Some are more traditionally rooted in nature, while others lean toward historical motifs. Over the years, I have been known to produce various types of pattern 'styles' when asked, but to be brutally honest and true to my design nature, geos are where I am most prolific and at home.

The lotus flower however, does show up in my work on occasion. In my current collection the pattern 'Champa'  (above), is made up of three lotuses joined at a center point. It was inspired by the lotus in India and created during my yoga teacher training a few years back. Another pattern slated to be produced later this year, was inspired by growing up around Egypt's long history with the lotus. I find this flower to be the most exquisite creature, emerging from the murky waters and mud to bloom into it's perfect self. And because of that, the lotus is one my favorite flowers. Not just because of its beauty, but because its basic function teaches us a thing or two about ourselves and life in general.

My original intention was to write a blog entry that dove into the cultural aspects of the lotus and using them as design for textiles. However, I came across something far more interesting and less known: textiles actually made from the lotus plant itself.

Cultural + Mythological. The Lotus. Have you ever watched one bloom on top of the water into complete perfection? Only to retreat back down into the muddy water at night fall? The eloquence of this flower has left its symbolic mark around the world, and across the ages and I can see why. In South Asia, the lotus has always been considered sacred through out their religious history. For Buddhists, the lotus represents our ability to rise above our conditions or situation in order to reach our full potential. Ancient Egypt, associated the lotus with rebirth, symbolizing the sun and creation.

Lotus Textiles: The Art Form. It is more commonly known for lotus flowers to be used for religious rituals and the dried seed pods sold for floral decorations. The seeds are collected for such things as food, desserts and medicines. The leaves are known to be wrappers for holding food. But the stems, where the lotus fibers are located, are usually left behind creating excessive waste in the lakes were most lotus plants grow. 

At one time, the art of lotus fabric weaving was a highly esteemed craft, well known and created across South East Asia. Unfortunately, this ancient form of weaving began to phase out and was soon forgotten. Only a few villages in Burma have continued the craft and preserved it's heritage. The fair trade company Samatoa, run by Awen Delaval (a key player in the Fair-Trade promotion association), has been working with people around the Lake Kamping Poy area near Battambang, Cambodia to revive this ancient art form and bring employment to its region. What was once worn as sacred robes by high ranking monks is now sparking interest in high-end fashion.

The Process: It is the stems of the deep pink flowers that have the best fibers for weaving and should be harvested when the flowers are in full bloom. The stems are then spliced open so the cream coloured lotus fibers can be extracted and laid across a small wooden table. Once the strands are laid into place, they are twisted and hand rolled into yarns that are washed, dried and wound into skeins to be woven into yardage. It is said that it takes about 25 women making thread to produce enough yarn for one weaver. Keeping the yarns moistened (they did come from the water after all!) they are handwoven on looms in 100 yrd bolts. The whole process, from beginning to end takes about a month and a half and there is no waste. All parts of the lotus are used.  Left overs are made into lotus teas, infusions and flours. 

It would be extremely costly to convert these traditional techniques into modern mass production. Since there is no real way to modify, simplify or speed up production, the process is a laborious one, making lotus hard to come by and one of the most expensive textiles in the world.

Qualities of Lotus Fabric: It is said that the fabric from the lotus plant is like a high bred cross between raw silk and linen. Like linen, it has a slubbed texture with a soft hand. It breathes like linen, tends to be stain resistant and for those with sensitive skin, it is hypo-allergenic. Unlike linen however, it does not wrinkle much and with the plant originating in water, lotus fabric is waterproof! It comes in many different colours: yellow, green, a soft red, chocolate, orange and light purple with a 4 yarn count. Every scrap of this fabric is precious so every scrap is utilized in some way. Scraps of yarns are twisted into wicks for pagoda lamps. Since the 'lotus wicks' are from plants growing in water,  they are thought to 'cool the flames of worries' of those who burn the lamp. Scraps of the fabric are often made into mini-robes for small Buddha figures, decorated with sequins and beads. I would love to have a tiny scrap of that fabric just to see what it feels and looks like. 

Here are two wonderful videos from the company Samatoa which documents the full (and fascinating) process of lotus fabric production. From harvest to the final product. Take a few mins to have a look. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSndEFq3BhU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdDuDKihWh4#t=68