MAKESHIFT: The Fusion of DIY, Music, Craft and Humming

Fashion, craft, and design communities find Mecca in Manhattan.

Tuesday night something amazing happened in New York City. More than one hundred people gathered at the Standard in East Village, a luxury hipster hotel on Cooper Square, and joined together for a sing-along and finger-knitting. Really. It happened. I was there. Everyone looked elated, from the handsome 20-something guy across from me (who I initially assumed was a supermodel but is actually an up-and-coming fashion designer), to the chic magazine editors and design company executives who were sipping wine before they settled into the low black couches.

Everyone who was lucky enough to secure entry into this unique event seemed transported by the simple act of transforming a length of cotton jersey cord into a knitted necklace, by taking an old folk song, riffing on a few verses, and making something new.

Singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash led the sing-along. Natalie Chanin, founder and creative director of the fashion and lifestyle company Alabama Chanin, led the knitalong. The occasion was MAKESHIFT: Shifting Thoughts on Design, Fashion, Craft, and DIY, a panel discussion kicking off a week of MAKESHIFT events organized by Chanin. Also speaking were Cathy Bailey, owner and designer of Heath Ceramics, Maria Cornejo, designer for Zero+Maria Cornejo, and Jessamyn Hatcher, a professor of fashion studies and the humanities at New York University. Moderating was Andrew Wagner, a DIY columnist for the New York Times and the editorial director of Krrb.

(From L-R): Andrew Wagner, Natalie Chanin, Cathy Bailey, Rosanne Cash, Jessamyn Hatcher and Maria Cornejo

“It’s like a small Pandora’s box opening,” Chanin says of the evening in which the main topic of conversation was the joy and value of making. “Making is as an integral part of all creative, design, and fashion industries. A conversation has been started and we hope it will continue.”

Cathy Bailey of Heath Ceramics recalled the tour she took of the company’s factory back in 2003, before she and her husband bought it. “Nothing was outsourced, everything was produced there. I think that’s what gave it that energy, that hum. There was such focus.” Bailey had, until then, been working as an industrial designer, but “Design wasn’t enough for me,” she says. “Something is missing when you’re only designing, when you’re not making.”

Maria Cornejo concurred. After leaving the fashion business, in 1998 she decided to open a store called Zero, where she and her team gradually started making things. “We put a rack of clothes at the front of the store; if people reacted to them, we made more, she recalled. “I miss those days when it was so hands-on.”

I personally grew up in a home where the handmade was revered and I edit craft books for a living – in fact, I edited all three of Chanin’s books: Alabama Stitch Book, Alabama Studio Style, and Alabama Studio Sewing + Design, the one that just came out and inspired the initial plans for MAKESHIFT 2012. So, given my background and day job, getting together to finger-knit is not as novel to me as it is to a lot of people. Honoring the maker is what I try to do every day. And it’s what Chanin does in her books – in which she shares instructions for the traditional techniques with which her clothing and homewares are made. “We make fashion,” Chanin explained on Tuesday night. “And we teach people how to make fashion.”

Rosanne Cash, who is an avid knitter and recently began hand-stitching Alabama Chanin clothing, told us: “All I want to do is follow Natalie around whatever she does.”

Chanin’s mission for MAKESHIFT is to break down some of the walls that exist between the fashion, craft, and design communities in order to find a meeting place so that “every maker, as well as the designs, products, and lives they touch, will be enriched.”

If the openness of everyone’s faces as they formed their necklaces on Tuesday night is any indication, the walls are coming down.

To learn more about the remaining MAKESHIFT 2012 events, go here.

Melanie Falick is the publishing director of STC Craft / Melanie Falick Books, an imprint of Stewart, Tabori & Chang and Abrams. She is the author of numerous knitting books and the former editor-in-chief of Interweave Knits magazine.