Watching and listening from our corner of the country, unable to prevent flashbacks to our own recent natural disasters — Katrina, Isaac, and the storms of 2011 — our hearts grew heavy. But we searched for and were easily rewarded with the stories of the beauty and vitality of the human spirit as they began to emerge almost immediately after Sandy chose her victims.
Large, rich entity GM immediately responded by donating 50 trucks to the Red Cross. Determined to make her work shift the day after the storm, an emergency room technician swam from her flooded neighborhood to a main road and hitched a ride for the rest of the way to the hospital. An industrious New Jersey neighborhood turned Sandy’s lemons into lemonade when they used downed limbs to lift spirits with a community bonfire.
High school students from Colorado worked Thanksgiving weekend gutting water-ruined homes. Two sisters, ages eleven and fourteen, wrote letters to President Obama asking him to help their grandparents who had lost their home on Staten Island. The letters were instantly and personally answered after their grandparents hand delivered them to the president when he visited the area. Seemingly endless, the positive Sandy stories keep rolling out.
Story - Rescuing storm fabrics
Around Alabama, a year and a half after the April 2011 storms, new stories delightfully and effortlessly unfold from surprising, unexpected sources. Dr. Sue M. Parker, a University of Alabama professor in the Department of Clothing, Textiles, and Interior Design for more than forty years, owned and operated Parker’s Fabrics on 15th Street in Tuscaloosa. After twenty years in business, she closed the shop and stored the new, unsold fabrics nearby in two tractor trailers.
Planning to donate the fabrics, Sue’s search for a suitable organization was interrupted on April 27, 2011, when the F4 tornado swept through Tuscaloosa on a 5.9-mile path of carnage, ultimately stealing lives, homes and businesses. In mere moments, 12 percent of the City of Tuscaloosa was destroyed and 7,000 individuals lost their jobs.
The tornado picked up one of the trailers containing Sue’s fabrics and dumped it a block away, in front of McDonald’s. The fabrics scattered and found new homes in the storm’s leftovers — wrapped around battered vehicles, encased in layers of filthy mud, ripped, torn and tangled in shards of broken glass. When Sue made it to the area, sickened by the shroud of devastation, the remainders of a pecan tree on her property immediately seized her attention. Remnants of a once-teal fabric gracefully draped the surviving limbs and opened a window of hope. Certain her fabrics had a purpose and should not become part of the tons of storm garbage, Sue began the daunting task of recovering them. University of Alabama students, including many from all over the world, and other Tuscaloosa residents showed up right away with an energetic thirst to help. They rescued Sue’s fabrics, storing the dirty wet globs in black trash bags. The Alabama Network of Family Resource Centers gratefully accepted the fabrics and placed them in the skilled, ingenious hands of Black Belt Designs — a trio including Lillie Mack, Jo Hare and Marilyn Gordon.
York’s Black Belt
Designs - The perfect fabric salvage team
The Black Belt Designs team evolved from the Sewing Project which began in York, Ala., in 2003. Armed with a grant from the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation and an unlimited creative spirit, Marilyn, a retired social worker who had a small fine art craft shop in Daphne, volunteered to work with women who were eager to improve their sewing skills in a workshop setting. More than one hundred women took part over the course of the project.
After a 26-year career in sewing plants in Livingston and York, Lillie participated in the Sewing Project, fueled by her ceaseless determination to give life to her own designs. She and her sister Jo, another sewing plant veteran, learned to sew as little girls. They started out making clothes for their dolls and moved on to making clothes for themselves and other family members.
With the souls of genuine artists, Lillie, Marilyn and Jo began their Black Belt Designs line with repurposing “past-life” denim jeans, donated or discovered in thrift stores, into jackets. Encouraged by the jackets’ reception, which included a trunk show in the New York City home of Demopolis native Jim Rogers, these designers’ hands had difficulty keeping up with their ideas as they branched out to a collection of clothing — dresses, skirts, vests, coats, jackets — as well as purses and tote bags. Envisioning wearable art in discounted, discarded and damaged materials, their design ideas never end.
the storm emerges
Since wholehearted optimism thrives at the core of their work, visitors to the tiny, material-packed Black Belt Designs studio in York are not surprised when they are greeted with a sign at the door which reads, “Negative thoughts and words are not allowed. Leave them outside.” Inspired by the same sense of optimism, collaboration between Sue Parker and Black Belt Designs simply made good common sense. Sue knew her fabrics had a purpose in their second life and the design team members are geniuses with repurposing. From this mutual attitude and understanding of their mission, Remnants of the Storm emerged.
Marilyn, Jo, and Lillie painstakingly cleaned the storm salvaged fabrics. As the colors and textures began to reveal themselves, the first Remnants product, the scarf-like “Twister,” took shape from Jo’s handiwork with her scissors. Some of the items are enhanced by donated or thrift store materials and many are completely made from storm remnants.
The talented, loving hands of these artists transform the remnants into imaginative, incredible, one-of-a-kind gifts of the storm — tote bags, dolls, pillows, dresses, jackets, vests, coats, wrist wallets, cloth pins. Sue proudly notes, “We have taken what the tornado left us and turned it into beautiful art.” This art benefits others, including the Alabama Network of Family Resources which receives a share of the sales proceeds.
Hurricane Sandy’s recent wrath encouraged a welcome refocus of our attention to the stories of hope, determination, and creativity which continue to emanate from a day of unimaginable darkness. Built upon the inherent virtues of optimism, artistry, resourcefulness, and inspiration, Remnants of the Storm offers one more astonishing glimpse into the extraordinary resiliency of the human spirit. Note to Readers: Remnants of the Storm’s Facebook page includes wonderful photographs of the design collection.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 205-387-2890