Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Savoir Faire

"Philosophers and plowmen, each must know his part. To sow a new mentality. Closer to the heart."
Rush "Closer to the Heart", 1977

Today I visited a local start-up business called Raleigh Denim. The owners are a husband-and wife team and have agreed to be our Guest Speakers at graduation. One of my roles at work is to coordinate Commencement activities. I like this aspect of my job- it is such a positive part of the college experience. The really fun part has been selecting and meeting the folks who will deliver a speech to inspire our students.

I was fascinated by my trip to their store! They use all local North Carolina materials. The denim itself comes from Cone Mills’ White Oak plant, a 100-year-old local mill where they weave the fabric on the old-fashioned shuttle looms- the only working looms of this sort in the US! All of Raleigh Denim's design, pattern-making, cutting, sewing, washing and finishing, meanwhile, are carried out by hand in the company's Raleigh workshop. They use these really neat looking vintage sewing machines and their storefront is in front of their factory. The store was filled with mirrors, wood floors, and beautiful jeans folded on antique sewing tables. I am intrigued. And inspired. I know they'll have some motivational words to provide students just starting their careers in design fields (and I think it will be relevant to culinary students too).

Interestingly enough, I have recently started researching my personal genealogy. Two of my not-so-distant relatives in particular both were designers (I knew this before I started my research though). My Grandad K who just died in 2006 had his own loom. He was brilliant. He would throw the "shuttle" with the yarn through two rows of this really thick strong thread and then bring this big part of the loom down to "press" it. Then he would repeat the process. His primary products were rugs and blankets. This was in the early 80s. He was so ahead of his time, because he connected his loom to his computer to create advanced designs. He was an engineer. An artist. A designer. An entrepreneur. He also owned and operated a small machine shop for many years. His rough weathered hands were often stained black. But he used those strong hands to gingerly mold raw materials into something beautiful. His loom was his passion. His machine shop was his livelihood.

A small, but lucrative business.

Another family member who worked in the design field was my Great Grandma Valentino. I continue to admire her bravery and her quick learning skills. She came to New York City on a ship, at the age of 18 and she worked as a seamstress. She learned English as she went. Her job was to sew sleeves on shirts. She worked in the garment district and ironically she lived in Chelsea, a block away from one of my old apartments! To the best of my knowledge anyhow- my Grandma V (her daughter) remembers that her mother would talk about living across the street from where they filmed silent films. I did some research and found out this was done on 26th Street, approximately where Martha Stewart's studio is today. Amazingly when I lived on 27th street, Martha's studio was in my backyard. I knew there was something special about that apartment! At any rate, my Great Grandma sewed sleeves on shirts and eventually she left New York for Akron Ohio where there were more career opportunities for her to work and raise her family with my Great Grandfather (who died before I was born). She was a pioneer. A fast learner. A brave woman. Another entrepreneur.

When I was at Raleigh Denim today, I saw the old fashioned sewing machines and the workers sewing jeans by hand and I had an immediate chill. A sense of recognition. Maybe even an odd sort of deja-vu. A spark of familiarity. I guess it just made me think of my Great Grandma, and imagining her in the 1910s behind a sewing machine: blood, sweat, tears and broken English to move her way forward in life.

My entire family seems to be full of designers, teachers, entrepreneurs and hard workers. Another great grandmother, Babba, came from Slovakia. She regularly collected and gathered mushrooms in the field to cook for her family. A culinarian!

My great grandma McVay took a boat down the Ohio river to attend college at Marietta. Way ahead of her time- during that time period, women didn't go to college like they do today. She had one leg up on her counterparts. She became a teacher. She was a grammar quru. So is my Grandma K (her daughter). Grandma- if you are reading this blog now, I saw the perfect shirt for you the other day. It said "The Grammarian about whom your mother warned you."


My aunt Patty has her own dog training business in northeast Ohio. She loves what she does and she is great at it. Genius. She made her passion into her career. When I was in Ohio recently, I had the opportunity to visit her "schoolhouse". She crafted a barn in the Akron/Cleveland suburb of Bath, Ohio into the cleverpup101 training center.

My family is brilliant. They inspire me. Sometimes my students inspire me too. Recently I met with a student who wants to own and operate his own microbrewery. NOW we're singing my song! I love the art of beer being brewed.

Are any of you fans of Ayn Rand? Did you ever read "Atlas Shrugged". It is the story of this brilliant woman named Dagney Taggert. She is Vice-President in Charge of Operations for Taggart Transcontinental, under her brother, James Taggart. However, due to James' incompetence, it is Dagny who is actually responsible for all the workings of the railroad. The book is quite complicated but essentially it is about how Dagney's ability and independence leads to conflict with others, but how she perseveres nevertheless to achieve what she values.

I guess in the midst of all this, that's what I'm trying to do myself. I had a conversation today with a colleague about "working for the man" and how sometimes we are disabled from creative expression because of corporate requirements. Don't get me wrong- I value all that I'm learning in my career and I love the challenges my job offers, but I have this itch, this urge, this instinctual knowledge that I should also be using what I learn to do something else. Something more. Something to inspire me every single day. Something that makes my eyes light up when I tell people about it.

Does anyone know or have suggestions about how I can combine beer, international travel, higher education, and writing into a start-up business?

Yeah, me neither. But I'm working on it.