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Emily Johnson followup

April 02, 2008


Thank you for all of the great feedback on my interview with Emily Johnson last week. I loved doing the interview – although really Emily did most of the writing – and it seems like you would be interested in reading more interviews. I think that it would be fascinating to interview some people that inspire me, so let me know if that’s something you would like to read and feel free to make suggestions for potential interviewees. It’s actually something that I’ve been thinking of doing for a while, but the focus on sharing stories that’s at the heart of Emily’s Family Trunk Project encouraged me to finally try it out. I’m very glad that I did.
Emily emailed me her answers to the questions in the comments, so I’m just going to copy what she wrote –

Thanks again for doing this; it’s amazing to be hearing from so many people, from such a wide diversity of regions.  I love it.

And a huge THANK YOU to everyone who asked questions and said such nice things about the project!  David also extends his thanks for kind words about the photography and website.

Rachael asks: Do you think it is the era in which your relatives lived that is moulding the design process rather than your relatives themselves – or a mix of both?
Era is definitely part of it, and I think anything I design will be influenced by my love affair with garments of the 1930’s through 1950’s.  Basically, if Ginger Rogers or Ingrid Bergman wore it, I want to as well.  So to some extent this project is an excuse to indulge my preoccupation with those fashions.  But I hope that at least some of the Family Trunk garments go beyond era-based set pieces, to address the actual personality or individual traits of the person involved.  The Kenneth McNeil cardigan, for example, features a traditional Fair Isle motif (adapted into a raised purl pattern), which reflects Kenneth’s Scottish heritage, and I used the saddle-shoulder construction to mimic a dovetail joint, as an homage to his profession in carpentry.  So my goal is that the garments will evoke an era while simultaneously speaking to more personal elements of the person.

Judy asks: Is Emily going to write a book with a collection of stories about family and patterns inspired by her own? As well has she thought about turning it into an art piece with photos, writing and finished garments (somewhat reminiscent of Judy Chicago’s pieces but more personal)?
Those are both awesome ideas!  I originally thought of the Family Trunk as a book project, but as I’d never published any patterns before in my life, it was unlikely that I would have been able to get a publisher to sign.  It was an art project I wanted to do right away, not in some distant future when I’d already established a reputation.  Also, I wanted a way to share the process of coming up with these patterns, which is proving to be just as meaningful as the finished articles, and I thought that other people might enjoy following along with that formative process in something closer to real-time.  Right now, I’m not actively pursuing a book deal, although it’s still in my mind.  I love the website that David and I have made, and I’m enjoying the freedom of selling or trading individual patterns, and chronicling my adventures.  I would have to think about how to keep the trading-for-stories element going, were the project a book.  Basically, there is food for thought there, and I haven’t quite worked out the details.

What would be really amazing, and I am just thinking of this right now, is if the eventual book could end up having lots of design contributors, with a few designs from me, and other familial meditations and designs from other people.  That way the Family Trunk website wouldn’t be rendered obsolete, and we could get representatives from a wider diversity of families than just mine.  One thing I’m realizing with the stories that are coming in, is that there are many different ways in which folks connect with their families, and many different kinds of family history, and I’d be over the moon about the opportunity to reflect more of it than just me.  This is all totally theoretical at this point, and probably won’t go anywhere for a while, but if anyone’s interested in contributing I can start a mailing list or something.  Email me!  This wouldn’t have even occurred to me as a possibility before reading the comments here and elsewhere. [How great would it be if this happened? – Y]

As for an in-person art show, that is a darn cool idea, and one I hadn’t considered.  It would require borrowing many of the pieces back from their recipients (the Kenneth McNeil sample went to David, Jessie Lambdin to my mom, and Warren Johnson will be headed to my dad), but it might be worth it for a little end-of-project retrospective at some distant future date.

Alyssa asks: I come from a very waspy family where you just don’t talk about things ever. Do you ever find opposition like that from your family members or is everyone really supportive and helpful. If you do experience some opposition how do you handle it? What do you do to make them more comfortable and get them to open up?
Honestly, this project would have been a LOT more difficult if my family hadn’t been helpful and open.  I was apprehensive about my grandmother’s reaction, since I do talk about things from her childhood that were difficult, even traumatic for her – her mother telling her to wander around on her own in a war zone (1938 Shanghai), leaving her for long periods with her grandmother, her parents’ early divorce – but she’s been amazingly supportive and actually thrilled at the project and the things I’m finding out.  My family is definitely more on the blunt end, especially now that I’m grown up, and it’s not hard to get them to talk about things.

That said, some of my friends with more reticent families have been shocked at what a difference it’s made to just ask their relatives about their stories, openly and honestly, and with a real desire to hear the answers.  Obviously I don’t know how things are in your family, but sometimes it seems like older generations just keep quiet about things because they think nobody is interested, or because they think others will react with judgment rather than compassion.  It’s worth a try!  Good luck.

Joan asks: I was wondering if Emily plans on including a design for herself, since she is part of her family tree.
You caught me out, Joan.  I have been waffling about this question.  Putting a picture of myself on top of the tree seems even more narcissistic than the rest of the project, and originally it seemed too difficult to come up with something to reflect myself.  Being inside my own experience, it’s hard to isolate key elements of my personality which I could exemplify in garment form.  But recently I’ve been playing with a design idea that I quite like, that seems appropriate to me, so maybe I’ll include it as the “Emily Johnson” pattern.

Thank you to everyone who responded to my post about my trip to Canada yesterday, and for all of the offers of places to sleep. I need to figure out exactly when I’ll be where but I’ll get back to you all personally as soon as possible. A meet up sounds like a fun idea and makes it easier for me than trying to rush around to see everyone separately. I’m planning on going to at least the Lettuce Knit knitting night in Toronto but if someone wants to organise a get together in Montreal that would be fun. I’ll try and bring along some samples of my patterns for you to see too. Oh and I have more travel plans for later on this year, so you might see me at some point even if you’re not in this little bit of Canada.


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