When I met Rachel Chaffee, we were both in college. I would be her successor as editor of the school’s newspaper. She graduated that year, and we didn’t meet again until graduate school in a creative nonfiction class. We spent a semester carpooling to class and having semiserious chats about feminism, academia, and our classmates. But when Facebook’s suggestive connecting of old friends put us back in touch, I learned that Rachel had started a Ph.D. program in Education: Teaching, Curriculum, and Change at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, and had set up her own sewing business, Made By Rachel. Struck by Rachel’s ambition, I was delighted when she agreed to share a bit about her passion for creating, her new collection, and how she balances her academic and creative lives.
How did Made By Rachel get started?
I had been sewing for myself for years and I started getting requests for custom-made handbags. At first, I only did custom work through word of mouth, but once I had a small pile of vintage fabrics going, I decided to sew my first collection and sell it online and in stores. While I was sewing vintage handbags, I also did a small collection of totes and needle and notions cases for knitters, which I sold across the U.S. and in Canada for a year. I still get requests from knitters, but I’ve moved on from sewing handbags. As much as I love a great bag, I was getting bored, so I started sewing clothing collections starting in the summer of 2007.
What inspires you, and where do you get ideas for your creations?
I’ve always been inspired by things that have had other “lives” before I found them. For example, I’m a little nuts about vintage buttons. One of my favorite things is finding tins of old buttons in antique shops. Every Christmas, my mom and my brother put individually wrapped old buttons in my stocking; it’s my favorite part of Christmas morning.
I’m the sort of person who likes to occasionally go through all of her buttons and vintage fabrics, lay them out, and see if they speak to me. I’m also the kind of person who looks at a lot of design blogs multiple times a week and spends too much time on Etsy. (Etsy is dangerous for people who like buttons.)
For the last two years, a lot of my ideas for collections have come from looking at mixed media work. When I was a teenager, I used to make a lot of collages out of tiny pieces of paper, and I can see that emerging in how I think creatively fifteen years later. Last summer’s dress collection had a tiny bit of mixed stuff going on, but the leather accessory collection I’m working on now has more elements of that side of things-I’m trying to combine leather, thread, yarn, snaps, and so on. A lot of guys who find out that I’m making leather cuffs have given me a lot of input on what they would love to see but can’t find anywhere, so their thoughts motivate me to try something different.
What is a typical day like when you’re working on a collection?
I recently made a conscious decision to work on my next collection in a totally different way. I used to design a collection and then work nonstop, morning to night, for days until it was done. I realized this spring that being a full-time Ph.D. student leaves you exhausted at the end of the academic year, so I’m trying to take things down a notch and go at this summer’s collection a bit differently. My goal for June is to give myself some decompression time and try to be less intense. A typical day looks like this: I spend my morning either running (I’m training for my first half marathon!) or reading and writing for my comprehensive exams (coming up this fall). If I’m lucky, I grab lunch with my husband and then spend the afternoon sewing with all the windows open. The key will be to try to balance working on the leather collection and working on our house renovations. We bought a circa 1862 house last year and we’ve ripped out the entire upstairs. As soon as the upstairs is done, we’re gutting the downstairs. It’s a bit tight right now, but soon I’ll be able to work in my studio upstairs rather than at the dining room table.
Part of the goal of The Curator is to uncover signs of “the world that ought to be” as we find it in our midst. What part do you think your creations have in building that world?
I’m really committed to designing with as much recycled material as possible. I’m also doing my best to support the handmade community that has grown immensely in the last few years by buying handmade. The friends I’ve found in that community have been instrumental in keeping me focused on the importance of keeping things simple by buying handmade rather than cheap, mass produced materials. This is easier said than done. When talented women like Anna Marie Horner are designing amazing fabrics, it’s hard not to buy yards of every design. However, I also want to support the women (and men) who, through their creative work, have inspired me to appreciate the process of making something.
We who are Americans, I think, are very detached from the people who make what we consume, whether that’s a skirt I wear or fabric I buy to sew myself a skirt. I think we ought to be more conscious of the decisions we make when we consume. For me, this process has included consciously trying to find a balance: it’s not that I don’t love a new piece of fabric, but it serves a different purpose for me. When I buy materials that are recycled, I think of them as having a different sort of history-one more traveled. It’s been interesting to try to find recycled leather for my current project, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what I have discovered in random places.
Where are your collections available for purchase?
Since I started my Ph.D., I’ve decided to only work on collections in the summer when I’m not in the middle of coursework and keep the availability limited to Thread, a local boutique in my neighborhood in Rochester, New York. I support Thread for multiple reasons: They were the first (and still the only) store of their type in my neighborhood (and in my city), and the owners (Sandy and Mike) are invested in supporting independent and local designers. I might expand online or in other stores once I’ve finished my degree, but I’m only halfway through, so Thread is it for now.
What other creative endeavors have you been part of?
I used to design knitting patterns with my friend Lucinda at Modalura, but that was a short-lived endeavor. I still knit, but I don’t have time to continue designing patterns. I also volunteer on the advisory board for my local farmer’s market, the South Wedge Farmer’s Market, and volunteer on its marketing committee. My friend and fellow artist Shanna Murray does all the creative design and I work with a few other people to support the design and marketing work for the market. It’s an exciting process to be in a supporting position for the local food movement where I live. It’s enabled me to meet so many creative people and farmers in Western New York.
How do you balance your personal, academic, and creative lives?
I thought I was a really good person when it came to balancing things, but I recently discovered that the last two years of buying and renovating a house, being a full-time graduate student, working in academics, being married, volunteering in my community, and trying to push out collections has been way too much for me! Fortunately, I’m married to a wonderful guy who is a designer and my most important source of encouragement – creatively, academically, and otherwise. It’s been hard to slow down my creative life so that I can get through my Ph.D. program, but limiting my collections to the summer months has helped me carve out space all year so that I can do both.
What does the future hold for Made By Rachel?
I can honestly say that I don’t know! Once the current summer collection is done, I’m going to take some time to sew for myself because I miss making things for me. I also want to make things for our first house, so I’ll probably continue to do some custom work through the fall. I’m not sure about next year’s collection, but that’s the way I like it. This is the first time I’ve worked with leather and haven’t sewn clothes. It has been interesting and fun to challenge myself to learn something new: new tools, new materials, new hardware. I’m open to doing something completely different next summer. I didn’t decide on doing the leather collection until March of this year, so who knows what I’ll be making a year from now. I think it’s more fun that way.