The Colgate Scene
Cut from creative cloth
|By Vicki L. Wilson|
[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
Jane Najarian Porter '74 has fabric spread out on her dining room table. Books on clothing style and color trends cover the surface of a bureau. Downstairs, equipment for making screen-printing patterns fills a room, and in her garage, large dyeing containers line the wall. A few miles from her home, an entire apartment plays host to more dyes, fabric, screens, and an assortment of paintbrushes.
Fabric and dye saturate Porter's life, and it's completely by her own design.
"How can you not do this?" she said as she blissfully watched a scarf just dyed with indigo turn from an emerald green to a deep, startling blue as it dried.
Her customers are sure glad she's doing it. A fiber artist and fashion designer, Porter has clothing lines in 30 high-end boutiques nationwide and recently displayed her work at major design shows in New York and Chicago. Using only natural dyes and her own two hands, she creates distinct patterns and functional fabrics and separates including dresses, scarves, pants, and, recently, lingerie. Jackets lined with printed silk and skirts in soft, feminine shapes are popular parts of her recent collection.
"I like clothing that is versatile, beautiful, and travel-friendly," she said. "It has to be comfortable and easy to care for."
Porter's enthusiasm for her work is evident. Ask her while she's dyeing cloth which part of the creative process she likes best, and she'll answer, "Oh, the dyeing." Ask the same question while she's hand-screening a design onto fabric, and she'll say, "This part...I think this part is my favorite."
Fiber art wasn't always Porter's main career. An English major while at Colgate, she went on to get a nursing degree and became a nurse after graduating. Following her health care career, she trained as a stockbroker, and still maintains a private practice as an investment manager. When she was a child, though, her grandmother would take her shopping, introducing her to the allure of quality fabric and planting the seeds for a passion for textiles.
"We would design all my dance and prom dresses," she said. "It must be in my genes."
Porter applied what she'd learned early on from her grandmother to costume design for the Colgate theater program. And years later, when she moved to Chadds Ford, Pa., with her husband, she found herself more at home than ever.
"There are a lot of people who are interested in fiber arts around here," Porter said. She learned weaving, spinning, and dyeing, and studied for 10 years with Michele Wipplinger, the foremost authority in the industry and owner of Earthues, a natural dye provider. Then, fully armed with the knowledge to strike out on her own, Porter started Alexandria Textiles, her textile company that included a school for weaving, spinning, and dyeing. Her Colgate education and her nursing and financial management know-how helped with its development, she said.
"They gave me a great business background," she said.
Like her screen-printed designs, Porter's business is complex. All her garments are developed with completely natural materials and are hand-dyed and hand-painted and screened. As an artist, she synthesizes the attire of different cultures such as the Laotian motorcycle skirt with Asian or French-inspired prints to produce a style unique to her line. As a savvy businesswoman, she creates bolts of fabric and plans clothing two or three seasons ahead of time. Playing chemist, she constantly experiments with new dyes and techniques. And though a contracted company ultimately sews her patterns into the clothing that is sold in stores — that would be too big a job for one person — Porter oversees virtually everything else herself.
"I'm very sticky about the quality," she said. "It has to be perfect or I won't put my name on it."
She means that literally. Every original piece of Porter clothing contains a white label with "Jane Porter" written over a specific symbol — a letter of the Armenian alphabet that is also the present tense of the word "is." It holds important meaning for Porter, who is of Armenian descent.
"My motto is `live in the moment,'" she said.
Her motto has served her particularly well lately. With clothing stores in large cities like New York, Boston, San Diego, and Santa Fe carrying her apparel lines, Porter is exceptionally busy minute to minute.
"Every day is a challenge," Porter said. "Each step of the manufacturing process presents its own set of problems to solve. And I'm focusing now more on sales."
Accessories seem to be the next trend in fashion, and Porter is already working towards incorporating belts and more into her own line as part of a new sales strategy. She's also researching an innovative dyeing process using soymilk. This year, she'll present her experiments at the International Natural Dye Symposium. Porter said she likes this combination of business, invention, and art, and her fondness for amalgamation is reflected in her work. Porter's fall 2005 collection, for instance, combined French and Asian cultures in etoile prints, old maps, and antique coins screen-printed onto a variety of textural fabrics including wools, silks, and velvets. Orange, chocolate, and a dark moss along with spicy melon, deep lavender, and Rembrandt gold colored the garments.
"I love the creativity," she said. "I love mixing things up. I love collages — pulling things apart and putting them back together again in a different way."
She calls her work "creating passionate cloth."
"I do it every day," she said. "And I look forward to it."
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