Interview with Emily Johnson of The Family Trunk Project

One of my favourite things about a new Knitty is going through the patterns and discovering the websites of new designers. When the latest, Spring, issue came out one designer really stood out for me. Not necessarily because her design was superior to the others, although I do love her style, but because this design was part of a fascinating larger project. Marjorie

You've probably seen Emily's design, Marjorie, that was inspired by her grandmother in Knitty but if you haven't yet had a look at the Family Trunk Project site go and take a peek at that before coming back here to read more about it in my interview with Emily.

Can you begin by describing the Family Trunk Project for those that aren't already familiar with it?

The Family Trunk Project is my family history told through a combination of knitting patterns and illustrated essays. It's really a collaborative project between me and my partner, David Galli, who does all of the web and graphic design, and most of the photography. My goal is to make a garment inspired by each of my ancestors back through my great-grandparents' generation, and maybe beyond. The garments may include nods to an ancestor's trade, personality, place of origin, or a particular story about them - or sometimes a combination of all of the above.

I'm wondering about your background, maybe you could tell us a little about yourself?

I'm from a crafty, bookish immediate family, although my parents' generation was the first in both their families to go to college. My folks met in a Shakespeare class at Southern Oregon College, and read to me every night until I learned to read on my own - so I grew up loving and prizing stories, and feeling that hearing and telling them is a key aspect of being human. I took creative writing classes throughout middle and high school and, unsurprisingly, majored in English at college. I went to Lewis & Clark, in Portland, Oregon, where I grew up and where I still live. David and I met when I was eighteen (we just celebrated our eighth anniversary!), and we've done a number of collaborative art projects together; we played in a band together for several years, and did some other creative things. This project has been percolating for a while, but we just kicked it into higher gear over the past four or five months.

Which came first, the interest in your family history or in designing knitwear?

I've loved hearing our family stories for as long as I can remember, especially those from my dad's (Scots-Norwegian) side. They were often delivered in a specific sardonic-yet-loving tone that's become very influential in shaping my tastes and world view. But my interest in clothes and the stories they can tell started fairly early as well. And I've only started doing formal research into dates, records, and so on regarding my family since I began this project. So it's all interconnected.

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I love the way knitting is such a traditional craft that can connect people across the generations, but I'm curious about what exactly made you connect knitting and your family history? Did you have ancestors who knit, or even one who taught you?

Not exactly, but my family is definitely where I learned my pride in craftsmanship and excitement about creativity. My mother owned a dressmaking business before I was born, and she taught me to sew when I was in high school. So I did learn basic clothing construction from her, and I was into sewing for years before I started knitting. My dad is a skilled craftsperson as well, in woodworking, building, tiling and pretty much all renovation-type projects. We were the kind of family who would constantly be re-doing rooms and entire segments of our house, with my dad doing almost everything himself (with help from my mom and "help" from little-kid me). I have a number of grandparents and great-grandparents who were also either skilled craftspeople, resourceful builders or engineers. So it seemed natural to apply my own craft to the task of exploring my family history.

What were you expecting to gain from the project before you began and have there been any unexpected surprises as you've been working on it?

I have been trying to keep my expectations focused on what I can bring to the project, just making the garments that appeal to and have meaning for me personally, and so I was surprised and delighted at the amount of positive response we've gotten about it since we launched the website a few weeks ago, concurrent with Marjorie getting published in Knitty.

As far as more personal expectations, I'm looking at this project as an opportunity to meditate on what I know of my family, of each person in turn, their relationships to one another and to me. I'm at a point where my generation are no longer the "kids" in the family. I only have one living grandparent (Marjorie Atwell Morine, the inspiration for the Marjorie sweater), and I'm old enough that my parents' generation is no longer reticent about talking honestly with me regarding the struggles that family members have faced, and the more complex, adult aspects of our history. Eventually I will probably want to pass this body of stories on to my future daughter or son, and this is my way of reaching an understanding of who I am and where I came from.

Also, my three late grandparents all died within the past ten years, and they were all dearly, dearly loved. I miss them all, and mourn their loss. I expect that the projects related to them will be particularly meaningful for me. In fact, in the last week or so I've started working on the project inspired by my paternal grandfather, and I've been amused at the degree to which it's sort of taking on his personality already.

One of the things that drew me towards the project was the importance you seem to place on opening it up and creating new connections between people. Why was it so important to explore your family history in such a public, creative way that actively involves your audience? What are the ways that you see people becoming involved in the project?

This question made me smile because I keep expecting people to react with a comment like "Don't you think that's a pretty narcissistic project?" Occasionally I have gotten people who ask "Why would anyone not related to you be interested?" And I think, hopefully, that beyond just liking the patterns, the reason people would be interested is that they connect with elements of my story that are similar or dissimilar to their own in interesting ways. There are elements of my family history that are colorful and unique (there are pirates, for example, and unreasonably arrogant petty nobility), and there are also elements that are very iconic in terms of parts of American legend: religious dissenters who emigrated from England, frontierspeople who came to Oregon via covered wagon, big mid-19th-century farm families whose kids left the farm to try out new trades in the cities. My granddad witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor that spurred the U.S. to enter World War II. So hopefully I can write about the people from my family in such a way that others can relate or contrast them to characters in their own experience, and either just enjoy that connection, or want to react.

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For those people who did want to react and share parts of their own histories, I believe those stories have real value, and I wanted to put my money where my mouth was with that belief. So I decided to offer the option to trade stories for patterns.

David also points out that I came of age during, and was very influenced by, the indie and riot grrl movements in the Pacific Northwest: radical feminists who were using their art as a way of getting other women excited about going out and making their own music, getting their voices heard and telling their stories. I hadn't thought about riot grrl or punk as an obvious inspiration for the Family Trunk Project, but I suppose the two are related in terms of wanting to encourage other people to participate, and in terms of a willingness to trade for non-monetary goods. A few people have asked me "What if someone else steals your idea and makes knitting designs based on their own family stories?" I think that would be the best possible outcome! If anyone out there is reading this and wants to design a pattern based on an important person or story in your life, I say more power to you. Send me a photograph of the finished sweater!

There seems to me to be a long history of knitting and story telling being connected, do you think that there is something about knitting that encourages people to share their stories?

This is a really interesting question! I think both storytelling and knitting have a distinct rhythm to them, and many knitting projects have a "plot" in the same way that a story does, so it's natural to tell stories while knitting, or connect the two.

It's interesting; a little while ago I was researching the etymology of the word "yarn," and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it comes from an ancient root that means "intestine." This root is shared across several diverse language families, which might mean that it dates back to an Indo-European proto-language from which they're all derived. The OED also posits a connection between "yarn" and the Latin word haruspex, a practitioner of haruspicy, which was when a seer would inspect the entrails of an animal in order to divine the future. I just loved that, because it brings together, not only fiber and storytelling, but also the supernatural tinge that surrounds so many fiber artists in stories where they appear. You know, the Greek fates weaving their tapestries, Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott" in her cursed tower, Conrad's two knitters-of-shrouds toward the beginning of Heart of Darkness. I remember reading a young adult novel when I was a kid where the main character goes through a kind of spirit-quest experience making a hand-woven cloak, and after she struggles through the process of careful crafting, it gives her magical protection from enemies. I eat that stuff up, and I think it speaks to something fundamental about fiber arts in the popular Western imagination.

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You can often tell a lot about a person, and the time in which they lived, from their clothing. Do you feel like your designs for this project do the opposite, in that you are actively trying to create a garment that encapsulates something of the life of the person who inspired it? Can you describe your creative process, both in terms of your writing and designing?

Absolutely; I think that's a great way of putting it. I love the idea of clothing as expressive and performative, that in a way all clothing is more or less "doing drag," but that doesn't mean it's fake or irrelevant. It just means that you're choosing subtleties of character to emphasize or magnify when you put on certain pieces of clothing.

A lot of the time, in mainstream culture, the self-expression involved in wearing clothes has a lot to do with signifiers of received identity - you know, so-and-so's wearing J. Crew; she must be a preppie. Or even more extreme: "I want to be a preppie, so I'd better shop at J. Crew." I like the idea of clothing as more deliberately personal, almost experimental; I feel subtly different in different clothing, and I definitely have the clothes I wear when I need a little boost of confidence, or reassurance, or care. I love the idea of making clothing that will bring out my über-femme, va-va-voom side, and also things that will emphasize my autumnal, collegiate aspects, and then again things that honor the sort of reserved, physically stubborn elements of my personality that my family calls our "Norwegian" side. All of those things are in me, and they were in my ancestors in differing degrees as well, and I'm excited about the idea of making garments that express and honor those qualities.

As far as process goes, so far I've been trying to work on different phases of several projects simultaneously, so I have something on the needles when I just want to do some busy-knitting. But for any given project, I do a lot of research and sifting through family photos, talking to family members, looking at census records and so on, and spend some time thinking about the person - where they came from, who they were, what they liked to do, what they struggled with. And I think about design elements that reflect the parts of the person's history that particularly stand out to me. Then I structure the rest of the pattern around those design elements. Usually I've almost finished a given piece before I write the accompanying essay about the person who inspired it, and I use the essay as a kind of final reflection about who they were and how the garment relates to that.

I think those questions cover most of the things I'm interested in, but I'd love it if you could share anything else you feel is important :)

The thing that leaps to mind that I'd like to add, and that I might want to make more prominent on the Family Trunk Project site, is that I know a lot of people for whom the people who raised them aren't really their "family" in any meaningful sense. They're not the ones who support them, or call them on their nonsense, or bring them soup when they're sick. And I'd like to say that in terms of sending stories to me, or just my conception of family in general, "family" is whatever that means to you. I am very fortunate in that I feel a deep connection to, and genuine liking for, my biological relatives, who are also the people that raised me. But if your family is more of a found, deliberately assembled community, or something else that I have yet to envision, then that is totally legitimate and I would love to hear your stories too!

Thank you so much for doing this, and good luck with the project. It will make a wonderful book and I'm sure we'll see it on shelves before too long!

Thanks, Ysolda!

After reading Emily's thoughtful answers I had even more questions for her, but I thought it would be more interesting to give you a chance to ask her your own questions. So if, after reading the interview, there's something you'd love to ask go ahead and ask your question in the comments. In a few days Emily's going to return and answer them for you.

If Emily and David's project has inspired you to share a story about your own family history (and thanks for re-enforcing the idea of family in its most inclusive sense Emily) or to design something inspired by a family member I know we'd all love to hear about it. I'm really excited to see this project grow, and wouldn't it be amazing if it grew to encompass the stories of other families and inspired other's to design something based on a relative?

And so, thank you to Emily for doing this interview - any questions?

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