On Fashion, Fishermen, and the Sardine Dress

A Woven World: On Fashion, Fishermen, and the Sardine Dress, by Alison Hawthorne DemingCounterpoint Press, August 2021

Part memoir, part elegy, part cultural history, A Woven World celebrates the fading crafts, cottage industries, and artisans that have defined communities for generations.

Sensing a need to preserve the crafts and stories of our founding communities, and inspired by an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute featuring Yves St. Laurent’s “Sardine Dress,” Deming turned to the industries of her ancestors, on Grand Manan Island, a community of 2500 residents, and New York City, a metropolis of millions. Both offer stories of old ways of knowing and being perfectly suited to their time and place that are currently in danger of fading away. Resisting history’s erasure, Deming reweaves the fabric of those lives. A Woven World is a quest for continuity and belonging in a time of destabilizing change. One way to face loss is to give a presence on the page to beloved people, places, and practices, uncovering and preserving a record of the ingenuity and dignity that comes with such work. In this way the lament can become a praise song, a testament to the beauty and fragility of human making.

The book unearths wonders in its journey through family and environmental history to find: the unmarked grave of a grandmother, a fisherman lost at sea afloat for a week in his dory, a seal skin coat, flowers placed in bullet holes in glass after terrorist attacks in Paris, the humble herring underpinning civilization for centuries, Vermeer’s portrait of The Lacemaker, a seal rising up through the floor of an Icelandic cottager, the historic silk weavers of Lyon, prom dresses and crinolines, a Manhattan Subway sandwich shop where once a dressmaking business thrived, the bounty and beauty of a herring harvest, the silences of women lost to history, and so much more.

The author is grateful to the Guggenheim Foundation for a fellowship that supported the research and writing on this project. The book will be published by Counterpoint Press August 2021.

REVIEWS

“With the skill and care of an artisan poet, Alison Hawthorne Deming’s “A Woven World” brings us the textures of nearly lost words and the craft that required them. Her tactile exploration of makers from fisherfolk to dressmakers makes me long for the embrace of a handsewn garment,  stitched of relationships to land and history, embroidered with story.”  –Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass

“Alison Hawthorne Deming is one of our wisest investigators of the relationship between humans and nature––a relationship in which humans are both part of nature and also serve as nature’s remakers and destroyers. In A Woven World, using fish, fashion, and family to frame her tapestry, Deming explores her deep attachments to particular places and her grief and hope for places being transformed by human incursion and fecklessness. In (sometimes barely) measured passion, and  (always) passionate measures, Deming threads her way from beloved place to place, from ocean to city, crossing the line between hope and despair and back, always asking, What is the natural place for human making in the world? What acts of fabrication are worthy of celebration, and which are wasteful and destructive? And, most importantly, what is worth recovering, and is it too late for us to do so?” ––Katharine Coles, author of Wayward

“Only a daring poet, who happens also to be a superb essayist, would try stitching together two endeavors seemingly so disparate as high-fashion dressmaking and ocean-edge fishing. But Alison Deming succeeds brilliantly. To these twin themes of fish and fashion, she adds threads of family and cultural history stretching from Paris to New York to a Canadian island in the Bay of Fundy, from the mid-nineteenth century to our own day. What binds the book together is her admiration for ‘the maker class,’ people skilled in the use of hand and eye to produce the essentials of life. Deming reminds us that literature is one of those essentials—a truth captured by the word ‘poet,’ whose Greek root means ‘one who makes.’” ––Scott Russell Sanders, author of The Way of Imagination

“A Woven World juxtaposes stories– fishing weirs and high fashion—in surprising ways, but the weaving is magical and wise. Deming’s focus is on the labor of hands and the materials they work with, from saplings and brush to sequins and silk. This is, in other words, a deep inquiry into the nature of character and craft. Throughout it all, Deming’s fierce urge to re-ravel the world shows us what we risk losing if we disentangle ourselves from the stories that help shape who we are. This is a celebratory book, full of scrutiny and longing.”  –Barbara Hurd, author of The Epilogues