Where did you grow up?
I grew up at the edge of a cranberry bog on the south shore of Massachusetts, near Plymouth. The bog was a pretty magical place—we walked our dogs around it, canoed on it when they flooded it at harvest time and skated on it when it froze over. After the harvest, they let us pick the hard-to-reach berries in the ditches, and we made forts out of the stacks of wooden cranberry boxes before they were filled.
Anyone in your younger life who was a role model/mentor?
My paternal grandfather, Harold Fisher, took an interest in me and encouraged me in so many ways. He was a scientist and a corporate person, so we were very different, but he met me where I was and really saw me. I also had a crush on Miss Cantor, my art teacher, who was young and wild and free.
Favorite playthings as a kid?
What a fun and funny question! Bizarrely to me, the first thing that came to my mind was the storm drain one street over from my childhood home. I loved looking down through the grate, poking a stick around to see what I could find. Also, the window wells around our house where the toads and salamanders hung out—I guess both places were mysterious little worlds unto themselves.
I had the great good fortune to go to Mount Holyoke, a women’s college in western Massachusetts, majoring in philosophy. I was very glad of the single-sex education. A couple of decades later I went to shiatsu school (a form of Japanese bodywork based in Chinese medicine), training in the U.S., England and Italy. When I turned 50, I did an MFA in poetry at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I’m so very grateful for all of these opportunities.
What three words or phrases best describe you as a young adult?
An old adult.
Any words of advice that have stayed with you?
“Pick SOMEthing,” I’ve been told more than once. Good for career choices and restaurant menus, both.
“Volunteer.” During a period of feeling lost, depressed, too much with myself, this suggestion really saved me. And continues to. I find volunteering helps right-size everything.
I’m still trying to figure out if I’m on board with “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” As I age, I think I’m starting to get it.
Have you always been an “ideas” person?
Yes, I’m afraid so. Lots of light bulb action in my head. My father used to say, “I love to see a dog get an idea.” My partner says she knows that look when I’m doing the same.
“I am awed by the power and possibility of connection,” a statement from your website. Please explain how this drives you.
I guess as we’re living out our lives with other people on the planet, we can choose at various moments whether or not to drop into that mode that allows for an almost tangible current of energy to flow between us. It might be a vulnerable place to be, but I think much can come from being in that space, engaging in really seeing each other. We take the opportunity to make something real and lasting, even if the actual encounter is fleeting. The act of people clapping at the end of a performance makes me cry every time, because of the love and celebration flowing between the audience and the performer(s), and between the audience members themselves in sharing the experience. When I package a garment to send to a customer, it’s an opportunity for me to include, in the folding, the energy of gratitude and wishing them well.
You’ve had careers as a biographer (personal historian), baker, innkeeper, acupressurist and, now, a creator of clothing. All of these are connected and inform your clothing designs. Let’s talk about your clothing collection and its basis in poetry, connections and sustainability…
When did you begin writing poetry?
When first introduced to poems as a young student, I found the feeling of making them to be so warm and intense. It just felt so good. I wrote angsty things as a depressed teenager, and later, when I left my first husband and the inn you mentioned and moved to Portland, I filled notebooks with pieces that helped me feel strong, but didn’t show them to anyone, of course. I eventually married a very established poet and didn’t write much except for the small amounts of text included in a few of the artist’s books I made. It wasn’t until the MFA program in 2015 that I really immersed myself, and it was both exhilarating and terrifying. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
How did attending a heralded poetry event in Brooklyn, and pondering what to wear to it, lead you to design clothing?
Even as a New Englander all my life, I’d not spent much time in New York City. The April after I had finished the MFA, I decided to get a ticket for “Universe in Verse,” an amazing evening of poetry organized by Maria Popova at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn and attended by nearly a thousand people.
For some reason, I got this vision of a blouse that was slit up the back, with the corners turned out like a curtain to reveal an inset panel imprinted with a handwritten poem running down along the spine. It was a sexy poem I’d written about looking for the Self in the Other. I fantasized that someone might notice my poem blouse and begin a conversation with me, and I would have an interesting experience in the big city. From there, I began to see many of my MFA poems in garment form, and how their shapes and fabrics would embody the meaning of the texts. Like artist’s books in fabric, in a way.
How did you learn about draping?
Envisioning poems as garments does not mean that I knew at all how to sew! I heard about A Gathering of Stitches, a slow fashion retreat run by Samantha Lindgren and it was there that I learned some draping from Cal Patch of Hodge Podge Farm. I then took a class at MECA and read a number of books. Now, I know just enough to be able to convey my vision and leave the actual sewing to the professionals.
Samantha Lindgren’s slow fashion retreat, mentioned above, featured guest speaker Amy Dufault. How did Amy help you?
Amy is a slow fashion and environmental activist and writer. She presented on the harsh realities of the apparel industry and the efforts to make real and lasting change. In talking with her about my poetry-inspired clothing project during that weekend, she immediately understood the concept of the garments being “rooms of connection.” I was blown away. Amy offered such valuable guidance, including pointing me in the direction of the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator, a sustainable fashion incubator of Pratt Institute. That was where I got it all rolling. She remains for me a pivotal figure and role model in this endeavor.
“… I need the curve of your back to show me my soul’s hollow, my spirit’s pure form… ” All of your clothing springs from the meanings of poems that you have written. Examples and inspirations, please?
First, I’ll say that the original concept was to have the actual handwritten poem screen-printed onto a panel incorporated in each design in some way. Now, rather than carrying the actual words, those panels are hand-painted with more abstract graphics representative of the meaning of each poem (Below, the hand-painted back panel of Junco). Some pieces also include handmade accessories meant to be worn as part of the garment.
That original blouse that I envisioned for “Universe in Verse,” from the poem “Half-Light,” (above) now carries two hand-painted figures (or a figure and its shadow) on its back panel, one black and the other gray. Its sexy poem was inspired by the Indonesian form of shadow puppetry called Wayang, and the poem’s speaker is projecting their shadow onto the skin of the other, saying, “… I need the curve of your back to show me my soul’s hollow, my spirit’s pure form… ” The blouse comes in black or white linen only, in keeping with the scene of the text.
The reversible Latchkey jacket (above), arises from a poem about abandoned houses and abandoned rooms of the soul, looking at how both need animation by the human spirit in order not to collapse. The lines “… what broad smock will I wear as I work to animate it all as ward and charge, keep every wall and curtain up, mattress ticking free of mold… ” become a jacket of striped fabric and 12 corozo nut buttons, reminiscent of old mattress coverings, with a large front pocket graffitied by a rough hand-painted house outline. The jacket comes in either indigo ticking with a solid denim reverse or red ticking with a solid gray reverse, the traditional colors of old mattresses.
The Brush duster (above) also embodies a rather erotic poem that likens the arousal experienced by the slight graze of a fingertip on skin to the touching down of a sumi-e painter’s brush on a waiting page. Within the duster’s long bell sleeves are sewn second sleeves in a light voile, hand-splattered with black ink, to brush the wrist and invoke the poem’s lines “my fine graze, inking you, soft page… ” The duster has a slim pencil pocket in which lives a paintbrush handmade from Maine driftwood and Maine cashmere goat hair, and the overall design has the feel of an artist’s smock.
Does the fabric also play an important role in the overall energy of each garment?
For sure. Texture, weight, pattern and color all contribute to expressing the meaning or question of the poem. Airiness or cocooning, earth or sky or water, come across only when the textile meets the atmosphere of the text.
Would you say that each garment has its own story and energy?
Absolutely. They each arise from and carry, I hope, a particular theme or vibration, and then it’s the story and energy of the wearer that really animate the piece to create a new thing. That’s why it’s good that the garments aren’t actually imprinted with the text—the abstract embellishments leave more room for the wearer to make the ideas and questions their own, and perhaps share those thoughts with others. Each piece is accompanied by a card imprinted with its poem, in a handwriting I developed uniquely for each, again to convey the nature of the words.
You have described yourself as “porous.” What does this mean for you and how might it translate to your clothing?
I think the concept of these garments as “rooms of connection” stems from the way I’ve experienced energy throughout my lifetime. I find myself easily touched and moved by the presence of other beings, mostly for the good. This sometimes extends to objects and elements of nature as well. I guess it’s not a stretch for me to imagine that a blouse or a pair of pants that is born of a narrative and handmade and hand-painted could hold something as precious as good intention and authentic communication.
Sustainability is an important part of this project for you. Is that in the fabric you source?
Yes. The collection has a number of linen pieces, sourced from Baird McNutt in Ireland, a maker of linen for over 100 years. Other designs are made in organic cotton or an organic cotton/hemp blend, and a number of the fabrics are recycled. All are sourced either from the manufacturers themselves or through a trusted importer who has vetted and visits the places where the fabric is made. They are sustainable in terms of both environmental and human and animal rights standards. In addition, the buttons are of natural materials and all of the packaging and stationery is recycled, recyclable, compostable or some combination thereof.
The other key effort of your company is giving back. Can you describe how this works?
I think this effort also stems from the importance of connection. Because these garments are made here in Maine by hand and of sustainable materials with additional hand work, their cost is higher than that of fast fashion, and therefore admittedly out of the reach of some. To try to tip the scales back toward equity, the sale of each garment benefits two organizations—one local/regional and one national/international—specific to the topic of that garment’s poem. For example, 10% of the Latchkey jacket sales benefit Preble Street Resource Center locally and Habitat for Humanity nationally, in keeping with the housing theme of Latchkey.
How has creating Catherine Fisher Clothing helped you to become stronger and more open about yourself?
This is definitely one giant exercise in putting myself out there, for sure! And the more I do it, the easier it gets. I care about this body of work—the writing, the designs, the collection as a whole—and I care about all of the people involved in both making and wearing each piece. I’m so fortunate to be collaborating with and learning from so many artisans, activists and media professionals. As long as I keep it all authentic and true, I know it will be OK.
What is your wish for each wearer of your garments?
First and foremost, to feel happy and good while wearing the garment. Secondly, perhaps to enjoy thinking about the poem’s topic or question, or sense it running in the background while wearing the piece, or not think about it at all—their choice! Thirdly, maybe even to enter into a conversation with someone who asks about the clothing, sparking a new connection. I also hope the wearer feels at ease knowing their participation is good for humans and the planet, because of how the collection is made and how it gives back. And finally, I hope each person knows how grateful I am for our connection.
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Catherine is excited to be part of STITCH, the Maine Crafts Association’s annual fashion event showcasing Maine designers, coming up on June 16 at Urban Farm Fermentory in Portland. For more details, visit mainecrafts.org.
In October, she’ll be part of the Big Reveal, the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Big Find, a huge and historic discovery of Maine tourmaline in Newry. She’ll be one of the designers providing models for a runway show presenting the special tourmaline jewelry created by artists for the occasion, along with Catherine Fisher Clothing.