What’s Your Style?

I wrote recently about stitching being like handwriting, so distinctive and impossible to copy. As I thought about this more, I thought about the most distinctive aspect of our handwriting—our signatures.

The idea is that our signatures are unique and, according to some people, reflections of our characters, who we are. But does that just apply to our handwriting?

I thought about some of the world’s best-known artists and how recognizable their styles are. I think I could recognize a Vermeer or a Van Gogh anywhere.

And I thought about the bloggers I read regularly—you folks. Honestly, I believe I could pick out who wrote what even if your names weren’t on your posts! Your styles are so distinctive!

What about the rest of the things you make? Your gardening? Your sewing? Your quilting? Even your cooking?

I bought a mixed lot of linens on eBay recently and got three items, among many others, I would swear are by the same hand—they have what, to me, is clearly a signature style.

The three pieces are a table runner, a storage pouch for a dressing table, and a “splasher,” a cloth designed to be hung over the bar on a washstand to keep water from splashing on the wall.

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A splasher would hang over a bar on a washstand, to protect the plaster walls.

Here’s what I think they tell me about the maker:

  • She loved color—bright, saturated colors. She didn’t adhere to a bunch of set rules about what colors “go together” but, rather, used what pleased her. Maybe she wasn’t one to follow fashion but had a strong sense of personal style.
  • She saw every blank piece of fabric as a canvas. She was looking for places to apply her skill and prettify her home. She actively liked embroidery, rather than doing it as a chore.
  • She was practical and wanted to make useful items. These three items all have a job of work to do, beyond being pretty. Even the table runner may have been designed for a specific table—the one in the sewing room. Look at those snazzy scissors added to each corner!

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  • She was patient and skilled and confident, and maybe a little vain about her ability. All three items have hems finished with buttonhole stitch, a time-consuming and fussy stitch. But she did it to perfection!

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  • She might’ve been rural or a little old-fashioned. The use of splasher cloths was really a late-nineteenth or early-20th century thing, when people had washstands and pitchers and bowls in bedrooms, rather than indoor plumbing. My guess is that these pieces were made later than that, probably 1930s or ‘40s.

I feel like I could recognize this woman’s work now if I came across a piece in a different setting. I feel like I know her a little and like her style!

I admit what I’m doing here is little more than a parlor game, speculating without ever being able to know whether I’m right or wrong.

But it also leads me to look at my own work over the years and wonder whether someone could say, “These things, these, were made by the same person.”

It’s harder to do with one’s own work, partly because I’m not just using the handwork itself but bringing in things I know to be true about myself.

I think my weaving so far shows that I am practical and value making things that have a function, the job of work to do. Of all I’ve made, probably 75% of it is dishtowels.

I like color, or think I should, but I am not confident. My weaving has a lot of neutral expanses with bands of color thrown in. Or I use a neutral and one color. It’s safe.

I like traditional style and am not adventurous. I choose straightforward, fairly easy patterns to weave and do variations of them rather than trying new things. I also use traditional natural fibers—no sparkly novelty yarn for me!

My quilting tells a similar story in some ways. Because I want what I make to be useful, I have, with one exception, only ever made bed-sized quilts.

I like traditional and tend to use the old-fashioned patchwork patterns that my grandmothers might’ve chosen.

I have issues with color. I am not confident choosing patterned fabrics and don’t really like them. I tend to make quilts with a few, limited, solid colors. It’s safe.

One thing that would connect a few of my recent quilts and would mark them as mine is the use of embroidered words. I don’t know if this makes my recent work more didactic and pointed or if it just means I like to take the time to ponder certain words. Or both . . .

In all my work, I see evidence of wanting it to be good quality but not necessarily perfect. I can see evidence that I subscribe to the notion that it’s good enough “if a man galloping by on a horse wouldn’t notice a mistake at 50 yards.”

I think I could take this further, to apply it to the writing I do and other things I make. Maybe even what I bake? Or the gardening I do? Actually, I suspect I could apply it to the clothes I wear and the way I decorate my house!

But I’m interested in your thoughts on the subject. Can you think of someone’s work that is instantly recognizable to you? What are the elements that give it away?

What about applying the idea to your own work? Are there elements that cut across the work you do? What would your work tell us about you?

Do you have a signature style?

It Pleases Me: A Personal Aesthetic

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You walk into a furniture showroom, packed with sofas, and walk right up to one and say, “This one. That’s my style.”

You flip through the pages of a clothing catalog and stop short on one page, with one outfit, and say, “There. That’s my style.”

You get ready to start your next project—quilting or weaving or knitting or gardening and, in a world full of options, you know just what you want to do because you know “that’s my style.”

You probably can recognize your style, or your personal aesthetic, when you see it embodied in home furnishings or clothing or craft, but have you ever tried to articulate it?

In my ongoing attempts to explain what pleases me in terms of the making I do and, conversely, what leaves me cold, I’ve been thinking about my style.

I don’t mean style in a fashion sense, like “she’s so stylish.” If pressed to describe my fashion sense, I could tell you, quite honestly and without apology, that I have no style. Or it’s the sort of anti-style of LLBean, Orvis, and thrift shop, apparently based on a desire not to stand out in a crowd.

I’m talking more about what makes us tick, visually.

What motivates us and guides our choices, choices in what to make, how to express ourselves, what to wear, how to live?

I know I tick and you tick but what makes us tick? And what makes us tick so differently, so uniquely, so one-of-a-kinded-ly?

So, in this latest installment of craft-related navel gazing, let’s talk about our personal aesthetics, shall we?

Here’s a rundown of what I see as my style:

  • Head, not heart
  • Reason, not emotion
  • Practical, not precious
  • Traditional, not trendy
  • Timeless, not au courant
  • Nostalgic, but not sentimental
  • Understated, not flashy
  • Geometric, not organic
  • Old, with a patina of age, not shiny and new
  • Clever, not cutesy
  • Craft, not art
  • Patchwork, not appliqué
  • Solids, not prints
  • Twills, not overshot; rep weave, not lace
  • Dishtowels, not scarves
  • Saturated and low-key colors, not pastels
  • Natural fibers, not sparkly or shiny or fussy
  • Silver, not gold
  • Semi-precious stones, not diamonds (but, mostly, no jewelry at all)
  • Flats, not heels
  • Denim, not velvet
  • Wood, not plastic
  • Arts and Crafts, not Victorian
  • Art Deco, not Art Nouveau
  • Et cetera . . .

I could go on all day like this. If I got stumped, I could go to my Pinterest boards and get new, but consistent, examples to add.

My aesthetic is consistent to the point of providing humor for people who know me well. They laugh when I choose another navy blue crewneck sweater. They nod knowingly when my husband shows up in bright prints and I wear that navy crewneck and jeans—the peacock and the plain little peahen . . .

This house is full of elderly, sturdy denizens of the farm . . . and I’m not just talking about my husband and me. The furniture comes from attics and sheds and barns, not Pottery Barn. The colors do not change to reflect the Pantone color of the season. Practical trumps pretty every time—frugal Formica that doesn’t show dirt and there’s not a bit of stainless steel; dark leather furniture because the cats seem less likely to claw it.

One other aspect of my aesthetic that’s a little harder to put into words is the extent to which I am moved by the symbolic appeal of an item. I really like things that have a story behind them, a personally-meaningful provenance. If, somehow, words can be brought into the bargain, then I’m really happy! So, I can walk around my home and tell you the story of most of the items of furnishing and décor that we keep around.

In large part, the story is what makes the thing beautiful to my eyes.

My craft choices undeniably reflect my aesthetic.

I made jewelry for years, and the one thing I liked best was making these classic loop-in-loop chains. I like the fact that, originally, chains like these were made by ancient people years ago, in the same way I make them in the 21st century–the earliest examples are from 3000 B.C.! I like that they are simple, sleek, and understated. I like that they need to be made of pure silver, not sterling. I like that they are woven!

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Other jewelry I made often had a connection with the past or something with symbolic appeal. I’ve written about this brooch before—it contains a scrap of a quilt with my great grandmother’s signature.

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This charm bracelet was made to communicate my feeling about summers at “camp.”

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The quilts I’ve made are consistent with my aesthetic, too. They’re all patchwork quilts, made with traditional blocks, blocks that were chosen as much because I liked the name of the pattern as for any other reason. The quilts have been, almost always, bed-sized, because that’s what quilts are meant to be in my world—bed covers. They are made of colors that appeal to me.

Having said all this, my favorite quilt is still the 1812 Cot to Coffin quilt.

In spite of not being bed-sized, it reflects, perfectly, my aesthetic—the colors, the simplicity, the focus on hand work, the story behind the words of the song, and the story behind why the quilts were originally made. The symbolic appeal of this one, for me, is huge.

Already, as a weaver, I can see my aesthetic playing a very large role in my choice making. You know I love to make utilitarian items in “homespun” colors. I am happiest, it seems, working in patterns that focus on texture and straight lines, like twills and stripes. I know that one direction I want to move is into what’s called “rep weave”—done with blocks of color in bold geometric shapes.

I am already choosing weaving patterns based on their names! I did a scarf from a pattern called “Wall of Troy” mostly because I had to read all that ancient Greek history for graduate courses in rhetoric.

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It tickles me no end that my husband weaves an overshot pattern called “Mary Ann Ostrander” because Ostrander is a family name—I might be related to Mary Ann! Although it’s too complicated to explain quickly, there’s even a technique called “name drafting,” where the weaver encodes words into a woven work—can I tell you how that possibility thrills me?!

Here again, I could go on and on. But the point is not to catalogue every detail of my aesthetic life in (more) mind-numbing specifics.

The point is that I’ve learned a lot about myself in this exercise, both about the aesthetic rules I abide by and the ways I step outside those rules sometimes.

I’m wondering if you’ve been thinking about your own style or aesthetic as you’ve read along. My style is not right or better—it’s just my style. Your style may be incredibly different and I could find it beautiful and impressive and I might envy it . . . but it wouldn’t be my style.

So, what makes you tick? What’s your aesthetic? If you’re a blogger, maybe you’d consider writing a blog post about it, so we could all know you that much better? Or just give us a hint, here, in the comments . . .