CHRISTMAS MEMORIES

THE TRUMAN POCKET SQUARE is inspired by American writer Truman Capote.  His novella "A Christmas Memory," tells the story of a young boy and his elderly cousin spending the holidays together.  Too poor to afford gifts, they make kites each year for each other, and fly them in the meadows, believing it to be what heaven must be like.  I included two kites mid-flight on the pocket square, referencing my favorite holiday story.  And also decided to write a short one of my own...

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ANOTHER CHRISTMAS MEMORY

        When the summer sun slipped into the gray spiderweb winter sky, our church presented a live nativity play starring children in the congregation.  Every year, I was an angel in the chorus, standing with a gold garland halo and muslin robe atop a metal folding chair behind the shepherds.  Mary, mother of Christ, was reserved for the pretty girls, who wore a white and sky blue muslin robe, complete with a sash, veil, and rubber baby Jesus wrapped swaddled in a burlap sack. 
         I was shy, disliked bright stage lights making me sweaty.  In the 2nd grade school play, I was cast as “Catie the Caterpillar,” the lead.  My teacher told my mother, “Beth’s so sensitive, she’s made for the dramatic!”   When I turned down the roll, I was recast as an extra.  Showtime, I hid behind the curtain in a red ant costume with pipe cleaner antennae, instead of Catie’s magical garbage bag cocoon that transformed into a pair of brilliant Eric-Carlesque butterfly wings.  
        At ten years old, my luck ran out and there was no escaping the lead role of Mother of Christ.  Esther with a lisp, our Mary veteran, came down with a flu, as well as David McKay, our Joseph that year.  In a rural Connecticut cinderblock church with less than 75 people most Sundays, there weren’t any replacements.
          “We have enough angels, so we need you to be our Mary” said Mrs. Melissa, my Sunday school teacher, who would sometimes let us make our own butter by shaking a jar of cream together until each kid’s arms were spaghetti, and we’d spread it on saltines as a snack. 
         “Do I have to?” I asked in vain.  
         “At least you get to be Mary.  Pam is going to have to be Joseph,” she said and my stomach tumbled down an imaginary alpine slide of Noooooooooo! 
         “We’re having a girl Joseph?” Pam was a year older, and I resented her for being better at soccer than me, and for living in a yellow Victorian house downtown that was straight out of "Pollyanna," that I was sure she didn’t appreciate nor read.  She had a blonde bowl cut, came to church with a chocolate milk mustache leftover from breakfast, wore past little league t-shirts and  JNCO jeans, and skateboarded everywhere.  Hidden in the pit of my jealousy, pushed down deep was growing girl crush on her.  
        What if I refused to be in the play?  What if I hid in the storage closet past the bathroom where they kept the volleyball nets and Easter crosses?  Or maybe, like in Little Rascals, a couple kids could stand on top shoulders and pass as adult Mary and Joseph? 
         Already I was noticing a pattern in my life for the awkward to spiral into mortification.  Like months earlier, when I shouted “Holy crap!” after catfish barbs shocked me through my net at Lake Hayward while swiping under rocks with other church kids.  My mother yelled across the beach, “Language Elizabeth!” and put me on time out on our picnic blanket in the middle of the crowded beach.  Then and now, no escape. 
         From across the room, Mrs. Melissa gave me angry eyebrows that said, “Find your costume, swaddle that rubber baby doll, and get your singing voice ready.”  Dread built as we donned our decades-old costumes wafting basement smells.  The shepherds lined up with staffs from the churchyard maples, Wise Men stood with bedazzled dollar store paste gem boxes filled with imaginary frankincense and myrrh.  I envied the angels gold heads and yards of white as they led us to the sanctuary.  I carried rubber baby Jesus as Pam walked beside me down the center aisle, past our parents, to the small stage set, layered with fresh straw from a horse stall.
         Through the classics, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,”  and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” my face felt red.  I looked down at doll in the trough manger and was almost certain there were former marker scribbles scrubbed from the hard neck.  The donated doll’s eyes, the kind that were supposed to open and close, were stuck permanently open, bright and sparkling blue, vacant and unaware of the play.  I wanted to switch places.  I felt sorry for Mary, having to sleep in the itchy hay, no extra robes to change into, stuck with a baby.  
         As we droned to the final song, Pam pretend-sang, as she had with every song, mouthing the words with no sound.  The congregation joined in to bolster us forward into a thunderous applause.   As we began to exit the stage, Pam came up beside me and offered her arm at the center aisle.  I wanted to refuse, but instead looped my arm through hers, with Baby Jesus in the crook of the other, and walked as fast as possible to the end of the aisle, where I freed myself.  
         Back in our Sunday school classroom, I put Jesus on the table, and pulled off the robe and veil, a parachute of hot air beneath.  I felt a sense of womanhood: birth, sweat, child, and I didn’t like it.  Worse still, walking with Pam, a girl Joseph, the center aisle where people could see straight through me, a crystal figure.  See that I never wanted to be Mary.  And maybe Mary never wanted to be Mary, but she didn’t have a choice.  Neither did I.  
        “Great job!” My mother congratulated me afterward.
         “I hated it,” I mumbled.  My mother growled back quietly,
         “Drop the attitude.  You won’t have do it again.”  I hoped it was true.  Maybe the next year I’d come down with the flu or go back to being in the sexless angel choir.  Become the omniscient narrator: a voice heard, not seen.  Or maybe we’d be snowed-in by a blizzard so bad everyone would forget the year two girls played Mary and Joseph.  White out how we linked arms, and my face, hot with shame.  Bury us deep in the snow until we melted into tulips, blooming soft and pink, whatever we were told to be.

COLOR SENSE...

Color is a primary (pun intended) part of my textile design.  Each pocket square is block-printed with ink and then hand-dyed.  I’m drawn to super-saturated hues, and high contrast palettes because I have partial colorblindness, or Protanomaly, which is rare in women, about a tenth of 1% worldwide.  I'm less sensitive to red, making its intensity hard to see, and shades of colors are difficult to tell apart.     In first grade, our school nurse at Jack Jackter Elementary School tested each student for vision problems.  Part of me was excited, as I'd been coveting my friend's eyeglasses.  I wanted a pair with speckled frames, and also: braces on my teeth.  I thought both were cool glittery extras, like my slap bracelets and headbands.   I peered into the vision tester machine, and answered the nurses’ questions. When I complained about the slides looking ‘shaky,’ the nurse said, “Stop leaning against the table, then.”  After reading a chart of letters spelling no words, I was back in my hard, slippery desk chair, staring out the window into the courtyard where our school mascots, two fancy male peacocks, and one dusty female, strutted, roosted, and ca-cawed in rapid succession.

Color is a primary (pun intended) part of my textile design.  Each pocket square is block-printed with ink and then hand-dyed.  I’m drawn to super-saturated hues, and high contrast palettes because I have partial colorblindness, or Protanomaly, which is rare in women, about a tenth of 1% worldwide.  I'm less sensitive to red, making its intensity hard to see, and shades of colors are difficult to tell apart.  
 
In first grade, our school nurse at Jack Jackter Elementary School tested each student for vision problems.  Part of me was excited, as I'd been coveting my friend's eyeglasses.  I wanted a pair with speckled frames, and also: braces on my teeth.  I thought both were cool glittery extras, like my slap bracelets and headbands.  

I peered into the vision tester machine, and answered the nurses’ questions. When I complained about the slides looking ‘shaky,’ the nurse said, “Stop leaning against the table, then.”  After reading a chart of letters spelling no words, I was back in my hard, slippery desk chair, staring out the window into the courtyard where our school mascots, two fancy male peacocks, and one dusty female, strutted, roosted, and ca-cawed in rapid succession.

Later that night, the telephone rang and I heard my mother’s serious voice with the long Oooo’s in “Noooo!” and “Elizabeth!” called until I came. “The school nurse said you're the first colorblind girl in the history of Jack Jackter! She didn’t know girls could be colorblind until your test results. But I think you just don’t know your colors right, yet.” “Do you get glasses for that?" I asked. My balloon of hope was deflating.   “Did you fail on purpose?” My mother asked. I shook my head no. Her eyebrows said she didn't believe me. “What color is our house?” “It’s light blue,” I said. The same as the hazy Connecticut sky. “It’s gray! It’s not blue at all,” she said.  My mother reassured the nurse that I was just confusing the names of my colors, not the colors themselves.  Growing up, she’d approve my school outfits the night before to make sure they “matched,” which was just the beginning of my fashion faux pas, as a tomboy with a penchant for bolo ties and Umbro shorts year-round

Later that night, the telephone rang and I heard my mother’s serious voice with the long Oooo’s in “Noooo!” and “Elizabeth!” called until I came. “The school nurse said you're the first colorblind girl in the history of Jack Jackter! She didn’t know girls could be colorblind until your test results. But I think you just don’t know your colors right, yet.”
“Do you get glasses for that?" I asked. My balloon of hope was deflating.  
“Did you fail on purpose?” My mother asked. I shook my head no. Her eyebrows said she didn't believe me. “What color is our house?”
“It’s light blue,” I said. The same as the hazy Connecticut sky.
“It’s gray! It’s not blue at all,” she said.  My mother reassured the nurse that I was just confusing the names of my colors, not the colors themselves.  Growing up, she’d approve my school outfits the night before to make sure they “matched,” which was just the beginning of my fashion faux pas, as a tomboy with a penchant for bolo ties and Umbro shorts year-round

I started my design path studying printmaking with Barbara Duval at the College of Charleston, learning monotype, intaglio, lithography, and woodcut, all taught using black inks and neutral or white papers.  I went on to become a TA and Printmaking Instructor at my Alma Mater, and began exploring color in print during in my free time.  While painting a monotype of the outdoor Alexander Calder sculpture, Stegosaurus, where my wife and I exchanged our vows, a fellow teacher, Cliff Peacock, came in the studio and pointed out, “You know, it’s not about the color you put down.  It’s about the color next to it, the color that follows.”  He took my brush and replaced my true-to-life orange oil paint for the sculpture on my palette, with a purple that came alive.  For the first time, I understood color could be felt, improvised, and imagined.  Life was not about matching, or about how I was supposed to see. Color, like art and much more in this buzzing universe, was subjective, an experience.  

I started my design path studying printmaking with Barbara Duval at the College of Charleston, learning monotype, intaglio, lithography, and woodcut, all taught using black inks and neutral or white papers.  I went on to become a TA and Printmaking Instructor at my Alma Mater, and began exploring color in print during in my free time. 

While painting a monotype of the outdoor Alexander Calder sculpture, Stegosaurus, where my wife and I exchanged our vows, a fellow teacher, Cliff Peacock, came in the studio and pointed out, “You know, it’s not about the color you put down.  It’s about the color next to it, the color that follows.”  He took my brush and replaced my true-to-life orange oil paint for the sculpture on my palette, with a purple that came alive.  For the first time, I understood color could be felt, improvised, and imagined. 

Life was not about matching, or about how I was supposed to see. Color, like art and much more in this buzzing universe, was subjective, an experience.  

STARTING WITH A SCARF...

Back in '96, I was ten years old, and had finally convinced my parents to let me take a couple woodcarving classes with a Connecticut artist who made shuttle replicas for NASA, and her daughter was in my violin ensemble.  Fatefully, as I cut my thumb shaving the bark legs of my wooden rooster, I fell in love with carving.  From then on, I carried a small Swiss Army knife, gifted by my grandmother with her mail-away Marlboro points, and thus bore the enameled cigarette logo, front-and-center-- much to my mother's horror.  And over the years, it carved birch marshmellow sticks, bows and arrows, the good ol' New England classic: a whale.

It seemed wonderfully familiar when I began carving linocut blocks while taking printmaking at the College of Charleston during undergrad.  Eventually, I became a Printmaking Instructor at my alma mater, and began creating printed objet d'arts like playing cards and hand fans in the studio.  I liked the idea of printing something usable, the added element of functional design.  

One afternoon, I stumbled upon a Youtube documentary (as one does) on the "The Last of the London Fabric Printers," David Evans & Co.  Much to my surprise, the textile house, which sadly printed its last silk square in 2001, used carved blocks to relief print on silk fabrics.  Their fabric was beautiful, almost other-worldly, and I became inspired to use my acquired skills to transition from printing on paper with presses in a public studio, to block-printing on silk with nothing but elbow grease in my home studio.  

The first textiles I printed were scarves inspired by female rulers like Cleopatra, Athena, Theodora, and more.  They are listed chronologically below, with the oldest first, to the most recent, last.  For now, I have decided to focus on pocket squares, but it all started with a scarf.  Or maybe with a Marlboro-branded Swiss Army Knife...

DESIGN TIME...

The pocket squares I make are inspired by historical figures, and creating the designs is a process that begins with research.  By looking at artifacts, literature, architecture, portraits, fashion history, and artwork from the figures' lives and times (thanks, internet), the designs come together through small notes, ideas, and drawings.

The Frank Pocket Square is inspired by the American poet Frank O'Hara, known for his influence on The New York School and Jazz Poetry.  The first poem I read of his, and one of the most lovely things I have ever read,"The Day Lady Died," is an elegy to the late Billie Holiday, which inspired the gardenia motif for the design.  

After consolidating the research ideas into maquette, or scale drawing using freehand and drafting techniques, the design is transferred onto golden-cut linoleum blocks mounted to birch.  I carve the stamps by hand using gouges and knives, carving away the blank or negative space, so that the positive raised surface remains, like a three-dimensional drawing.  

Once the carving is finished, the blocks are rolled with ink and then registered using a jig onto natural silk squares.  I use my body weight, kneeling on the block to press the ink through the fabric, much like the traditional Indian method of printing used for thousands of years.  Except I have the addition of volleyball kneepads which helps with long printing runs immensely and adds a certain element of... Sporty-Spice-style.

After the inks have cured, or dried, for at least a week, they are dyed using Jacquard and natural pigments, leaving the printed parts slightly embossed and opaque on the colorful silk.  This is perhaps my favorite part of the process, not because it's the end, but because it is the birth of an idea coming to fruition.  Sometimes the design organically changes, takes on a life of its own, turns out a surprise, and sometimes it's exactly as I had imagined it.  I never know, and maybe that's what keeps me coming back....

TOOL TIME...

I create my pocket squares using a variety of tools, some old and some new. These are a few of my favorites, some of which have been passed down in my family for over 100 years. Often, when I am drafting designs, I think about the hands that held them years ago, and it makes me feel connected to the past and to my relatives. 1. Globemaster Vernier Caliper: Used by my maternal grandfather, Kenneth Ernest Stephens, in his woodworking projects for the boats he restored in his lifetime. I now use the calipers to register blocks, making sure lines and sides are square and equidistant. 2. Staedtler Architect Ruler: Another one of Ken's tools, used for everything from creating signage to charting waters, now it drafts maquettes of my designs. 3. Yasutomo Bamboo Baren:  This baren, made of layered bamboo, is used to pull proofs of my carved and inked blocks. It's an ancient tool, used by Japanese and Chinese printmakers as early as 700 AD. 4. American Electric Supply Co. Measuring Tape: Passed down from Ken and my grandmother, Eileen Frances Maher Stephens, this treasure was manufactured in Hartford, CT, where they both spent their childhood, and also where my wife and I eloped eight years ago. 5. Family Photo: My great-grandfather Franklyn Sydney Maher, made this for his mother, Mary Benway Maher, and it reminds me of all the artists in my family.   6. Sterling Winstead Scissors: Mary Benway Maher inherited this set from her mother-in-law upon her marriage to my great-great grandfather, Reginald Tallman Maher.  7.  Brass and Cherry Framing Square: Used by Franklyn, an avid photographer, world traveller, and amateur genealogist, this square is a reminder of how many people came before me, how I am like a fraction of an inch on a ruler with no end.

I create my pocket squares using a variety of tools, some old and some new. These are a few of my favorites, some of which have been passed down in my family for over 100 years. Often, when I am drafting designs, I think about the hands that held them years ago, and it makes me feel connected to the past and to my relatives.

1. Globemaster Vernier Caliper: Used by my maternal grandfather, Kenneth Ernest Stephens, in his woodworking projects for the boats he restored in his lifetime. I now use the calipers to register blocks, making sure lines and sides are square and equidistant.

2. Staedtler Architect Ruler: Another one of Ken's tools, used for everything from creating signage to charting waters, now it drafts maquettes of my designs.

3. Yasutomo Bamboo Baren:  This baren, made of layered bamboo, is used to pull proofs of my carved and inked blocks. It's an ancient tool, used by Japanese and Chinese printmakers as early as 700 AD.

4. American Electric Supply Co. Measuring Tape: Passed down from Ken and my grandmother, Eileen Frances Maher Stephens, this treasure was manufactured in Hartford, CT, where they both spent their childhood, and also where my wife and I eloped eight years ago.

5. Family Photo: My great-grandfather Franklyn Sydney Maher, made this for his mother, Mary Benway Maher, and it reminds me of all the artists in my family.  

6. Sterling Winstead Scissors: Mary Benway Maher inherited this set from her mother-in-law upon her marriage to my great-great grandfather, Reginald Tallman Maher. 

7.  Brass and Cherry Framing Square: Used by Franklyn, an avid photographer, world traveller, and amateur genealogist, this square is a reminder of how many people came before me, how I am like a fraction of an inch on a ruler with no end.

HELLO...

My name is Elizabeth Calcote and I'm a designer based out of Charleston, South Carolina.  For the past four years I've been carving blocks to print textiles ranging from silk scarves to cotton tea towels to cloth napkins under the name Sistersgrimm Design.

Now I am creating a line of block-printed hand-dyed pocket squares and bandanas called Cote Squares, which are inspired by historical figures.  What I love most about what I create is wearing them, folding them, and styling them to add a touch of vibrant color to my otherwise simple,  menswear-inspired taste.  Coco Chanel said, "Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off." My advice: maybe just add a Cote Square!