Q&Art with Russell Pirkle

This week: Allison Gilbert Bennett, actress and owner of Stitchville, knitting and fabric shop in downtown Ruston. You can find out more about  Stitchville on Facebook or at Stitchville.wordpress.com. This interview has been edited for length.

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 So, can you start by giving me a rundown of what all you do. I know you own Stitchville, and you're an actress, and you're also a teacher.

 Yes. At Stitchville we have fabrics and yarns for sale. And then I do custom sewing for people. Alterations, and some monogramming, other things like that. We also have a full line of sewing and knitting classes. So even if you've never touched a sewing machine, don't know what a bobbin is. I've got beginning classes for kids and adults. And we go all the way up, I now have a series where you can sew things for the home. And also I've gotten some more patterns in, to learn how to read patterns and sew your own clothes, which people are pretty interested in. So you can pretty much do anything.

 I was reading on your blog about the alpaca adventure. Could you talk about that?

 A couple of customers and I . . . I used to have some handspun yarns. And a lot of people enjoy having that unique, natural, sometimes naturally dyed yarn that really make a statement. So a couple of customers of mine found this alpaca farm out in Tululla or someplace. She contacted them, and we went and met them in Monroe. And they brought sacks of blankets that they had sheared off the alpacas. So we sifted through those for a while, and we've been washing them. And I started spinning mine. It's slow going, but it's interesting. I'm learning a lot about yarn and fibers. I'm realizing why people didn't have a lot of outfits back then, haha, when they had to actually get the sheep and shear it and wash it and spin the wool. It's a labor. But it's kind of fun. I'm actually going to look into starting teaching some drop spindle classes, where people can get the spindle and get some, it's called roving when it's all been prepared to spin. And I'm going to start looking into getting some prepared rovings and teach some spinning classes, so people can make their own handspuns. It's really not hard.

 How did the desire to open a fabric shop come about?

 I don't know. It's something that I've been wanting to do for a while. Years ago, right after I graduated college, which I graduated in theatre here in Tech, I worked at Fabulous Fabrics, which she had a shop here in town. Now she's just in Monroe. I worked in the costume shop at Tech, so I learned a lot about sewing and fabrics and all that. But working at that fabric shop, I got to see all the fabrics, and see what they were doing, people who'd come in, what their ideas were. It got me interested. And after that, my husband and I got married and we moved overseas. He was in the army. And I did a lot of sewing over there. I wanted to open a shop, but we were on an army post overseas, and it was not possible to do it there. So I did a lot of sewing out of our apartment. Just different things. And every time we would come back to the states, I would go and buy a suitcase worth of fabric and bring it back with me. So I started kind of hoarding fabrics. Finally whenever we moved back to Ruston, I'd still been sewing. I couldn't find a job that I wanted bad enough to spend my days there. And I felt like there was a niche in Ruston that needed to be filled. With a different feel of a fabric store. For the people who don't know how to sew. Normal people who don't know how to sew don't walk into a fabric store because it's very overwhelming. So I wanted to create an environment for people who have ideas and just don't know how to complete them yet. It's like taking an art class. You have all these ideas, and you just don't have it in your fingers. You don't think that way. I wanted to create an environment that is both inspiring and just unassuming, I guess. For somebody to be able to walk in and say 'I would like to learn how to do that!' And I can say 'I can help you!' You know. I'm not a person who has a lot of ideas. I am, but I'm a person who likes to talk to people about their ideas and feed off of that. And watch ideas grow into something that you can make with your own hands. I just think there's such a fulfilling thing about starting with raw materials and ending with a finished product. You've got this new skillset now.

 It seems like when I was younger, sewing and knitting weren't really the cool thing to do. And now it seems pretty cool. Am I imagining that shift?

 No, there is definitely a shift of craftiness if you will. It's kind of the same feel as the shift to people more locally. People want to feel like they're contributing to their own lives more. And the things that are going on immediately around them. And I think that shopping locally, and starting to use their spare time in a way that is creative. And not just sitting there playing on your iPad. Which we're all guilty of, and I love my iPad. But you want to feel like at the end of the day you've got something else to show for it. I really push that sewing and knitting are fun. Because a lot of people are like 'oh, I took home ec three times, and it just was no fun.' We don't make things for serious. I would rather throw a sewing party than have a sewing lesson. Haha. And if you're not having fun, take a break. In this day and age, you're not making clothes because it's cheaper, you're doing it because something inside you wants to learn something new. If you're not enjoying it, then you're not going to continue doing it.

 What did you start out making when you were overseas?

 I started out, since I did the costumes at Tech, I got involved in the theatre overseas. So I did most of the costumes there. Alterations. I did a lot of patches on uniforms because we were on an army post. So people would get their rank changed, and I would have to sew the new patch on. That was probably one of the most nerve racking things. Because you have to get it precise. You can't get it crooked. It's regulation, so I would get really nervous about sewing patches on officer's uniforms, because I was just some chick . . And they could get in trouble for it if it was on the wrong shoulder, or off by a half an inch or so. I did that a lot, and it was just word of mouth. And I ended up doing a lot of bags. I started doing my line, Repursables. Because I started off doing reversable and repurposed bags. We would do bazaars and craft shows. So a lot of people on the post knew me, and knew that I was the sewing chick.

 I know you're a mother. How old is your son now?

 We have a two year old, and one on the way in January. So probably around Christmas. I usually get pretty busy around Christmas. After Christmas in January it usually gets pretty slow. So that's good; I think I will probably be slowing down, by necessity.

 What are the advantages to being, say, a working parent or a parent that's active in the community, rather than a stay at home parent?

 When you have children, it's so easy to lose everything that you did for your entire life in your kids. I've seen parents that had an active life, and then they had kids and their life just stopped. I read these stories of parents who haven't had a date in five years, and I think that is so sad. Because you can't lose yourself. It's not good for you. It's not good for your kids to see that you've given up everything that you used to enjoy. Being a parent, especially a working parent, comes with a lot of guilt. Because you want to spend all day every day with your child, because it's your responsibility. But at the same time, you have to go out into the world. And you need to do things in order to make the world run. It's one of those conundrums that you just have to find your own balance. There's a lot of moms who thrive at being stay at home moms. But I feel like you owe it to yourself to continue to do those things that make you happy. Be artist or working or whatever it is.

 Can you tell me how being a mother has changed your outlook or your ideas about art or life?

 I feel that it's more important now, for the next generation. Art is not about losing your boundaries, but it's about finding your boundaries. I was having a discussions with Christianne Dreeling, the Twirling Swirls lady the other day. We were talking about, she has two small kids, and how sometimes in art class they just let the kids kind of teach themselves. Like, find their own artist in them. And I think that's not the way to bring up an artist. You have to know how to do it right before you can go on your own path. And that's something that is in everything in our life. We have to learn it first before we can start making up the things that we want to do. We have to learn how to live before we can go live our lives. It's all a process. And being a mom, you have this little baby where . . . Our two year old is learning how to talk. I've never taught anybody how to talk. You have to think about all these things that you never thought you would have to think about. So you start learning that life really is just a series of processes, and how you have to put one foot in front of the other. And build these foundations. And I think that that's important in being an artist, in life, in being a mother, is going through the process and finding your own process.

 You lived overseas with your husband, you also lived in California working with a theatre company there. I was wondering what are your impressions of Ruston, after having spent time away?

 We chose to come back to Ruston for a few reasons. My husband's now in engineering, and it's one of the best engineering schools in the country. And I don't think either of us are big city people, but it's also important to have a university in the vicinity of where we live because of the energy that comes from young people and their ideas. You can feel the energy of the town. And I think that Ruston now, as opposed to Ruston ten years ago, even when I was in school here the first time, has so much more of that energy. And there's so much more that is happening downtown. And there's just like this, you can feel the energy underneath of all the artists that are here, and the photographers and the sculptors. You don't have to look quite as hard to find it as you used to. It's making its way up and out. And that's really exciting, to be in a town that you know is poised on this jump of growth and entertainment. That energy is exciting. Every day, just drive around, you can find something new to look at and say that's cool I don't remember that being here. Be it new restaurants, the Black Box, things like that. Galleries. Anybody who says you can't find anything to do in Ruston just isn't looking hard enough. Haha.

 Tell me what you have coming up at Stitchville, so far as classes or anything like that goes.

 I've recently put up my schedule of classes, which we've got the learn how to sew series, which I think we've got four or five projects. They're pretty simple, but with each project you learn a new skill set. I've got a sew for your home. Make you own clothes. And I've also got some kid sewing. A lot of kids are interested in it now as well. This weekend, I've got a kids class. We're doing owl pillows. That should be pretty cute. As far as knitting stuff goes, in the beginning of December, we are taking a trip that is open to anybody, up to Hot Springs Arkansas. They're having a Fiber Arts Extravaganza. There's going to be a lot of handspun arts and roving. It's two days. They've got classes, vendors. Fastest knitter competitions. It's fiber arts nerdilicious. We've got about four, maybe six, so far going. We're going to carpool and just go have a fun time. We're all excited about that. So we've got something for the sewers and something for the knitters coming up.

 I should mention you have Halloween and you have Fall fabric here.

 Yes, and my Christmas fabrics are on their way as well. I'd like to do some handmade Christmas type things if people are interested in making gifts to give. They can always get in touch with me on my website or call or drop by. And I'm open to any type of class. Because I don't have all the ideas. If somebody else has some idea they want to do and just need help doing it, that's what I'm here for.

 You and your husband are amateur brewers as well?

 Yes we are.

 Are you going to take part in ARToberfest?

 We are. We have brewed our brew, and I think we're bottling tonight or tomorrow. Whenever we've got time. We had a really good batch, but we drank it all. Haha. So we had to brew another batch for the competition. Luckily it's soon, so we won't have time to drink it all before the evening gets here. It's a fun time. That's another thing that a lot of people are doing. And we're going to have a pretty good competition. I'm looking forward to tasting the beers.

 I think that's all the questions I have. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

 Thank you very much.


NCLAC is supported in part by a grant from the Louisiana Division of the Arts, Office of Cultural Development, Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism, in cooperation with the Louisiana State Arts Council, Funding has also been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal agency.