The Vineyard Gazette – Martha’s Vineyard News

As a teenager growing up on the vineyard, Sofi Thanhauser prowled through the dumpsters of discarded clothes at the Dumptique in West Tisbury. The vintage items she fell in love with eventually led her to question the process of producing clothes, specifically how what the world wears went from one or two essentials to mass-produced clothes. ?

The writer’s response was to design an ambitious project for herself.

“I wanted to do for clothes what Michael Pollan had done for food,” she said in a recent interview with the Gazette.

The result of this initial thinking is Worn: A People’s History of Clothing, published last month by Pantheon Books. The book is acclaimed as a social history of the five main fabrics – linen, cotton, silk, synthetics and wool – from which clothing is made. Ms. Thanhauser uses textiles as a pretext to weave together history, science, biography and mythology. The stories read like good storytelling filled with anecdotes and travelogues as well as historical facts and statistics.

Sofi Thanhauser spent years researching and writing her book. — Beowulf Sheehan

Ms Thanhauser said she started thinking about Worn while doing research for her undergraduate thesis in history at Columbia University. But after graduating, she returned to the vineyard and put the idea on hold. Instead, she opted to follow other creative endeavors, performing as a singer/songwriter at Che’s Lounge and creating with friends Rachael Curtin and Lila Fisher handmade underwear using cotton, Japanese lace and black walnut dye brewed in a cauldron.

But then she accompanied her mother April to a creative writing group led by Harriet Bernstein in West Tisbury. This led to a week-long residency at Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing. The experience of sharing her work was an eye opener that led to her decision to focus on a career in writing.

“A reading is not a form that I knew,” she said. “I knew the form of a concert. I have always considered the lyrics of my songs as intrinsic to their meaning. In a bar or hall setting, people would talk and not really listen to the words. For some people it’s fine, but for me it wasn’t. So I got really taken with the form of a literary reading.

She befriended and worked for writers Geraldine Brooks and her husband, the late Tony Horwitz.

“They were working writers and I had never met anyone before who was that,” Ms Thanhauser recalls. “They had a level of seriousness and commitment to what they were doing and it was their life. It opened my eyes and made a strong impression on me. It gave me a huge awakening.

On the road among the cotton fields. — Courtesy of Sofi Thanhauser

She returned to school in 2012 to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing and natural resources at the University of Wyoming. The university’s resources enabled him to access travel research fellowships, including an impactful trip to India.

By the time she finished her studies, she had a draft manuscript, but her future was uncertain.

“I’ve had feedback that it’s a lot of really good material with no form. It was really devastating. But it was true,” she said.

She moved to Brooklyn and began teaching creative writing at the Pratt Institute while continuing to research her potential book on trips to Vietnam, China, Arizona, and Texas. At one point, when she was considering dropping out of the project, a Facebook post connected her with Laura Usselman, who is now her agent. Ms. Usselman provided key comments that led to the book’s current structure of organizing topics around different textiles in order to access broad issues of women’s work, colonialism, environmental sustainability, power and richness.

One of the most strongly felt points throughout Ms. Tanhauser’s book is how clothing conveys location, whether physical or emotional. The garment representing the vineyard for Ms Thanhauser was an unexpected gift given to her after a yoga class at the Mansion House one morning some 15 years ago.

“It’s a corduroy pair made by the Woodland Waders company,” she said. “They don’t exist anymore but they were on the island in the 80s and 90s making beautiful women’s clothing. The silhouette is different from most clothes. Their items are flattering, comfortable, and you can really move. My corduroys are high waisted, almost like overalls, and have suspenders. They came with a short boiled wool jacket that I no longer have. I haven’t done anything special to maintain them and they are still in perfect condition. They are just so well made.

The origin of these corduroys? The West Tisbury tipper.

Corina C. Butler