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Shutters & Shuttles

One Fiber At a Time

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Each new risk taken proves that trusting yourself is key to creating what matters, and what lasts

__Allison Volek Shelton

One of the great ironies about success in the creative world is that people don’t simply buy what they like. They gravitate towards passion, and products in which it’s evident. It’s fairly simple these days to follow trend, recreate what’s getting the most attention. But wrestling with your own fears of being accepted, being yourself, and standing behind what you’ve created is the real work, the kind we’d venture to say never goes unnoticed.

Fueling passionate work begins with determining what that work will be, how it will look and feel when it greets the world beyond your studio. This can be more difficult than you might think. As if making a living creating art wasn’t difficult enough, you must first go through a series of trials and errors, a season with no predetermined length (though you can easily plan on spending 10,000 hours or more) just to get a peek at what is to come from your own two hands. Many creatives are even taught that it isn’t professional to make what you like, that making what you’d prefer to make is a hobby. But the more successful creatives we meet, the more we’re convinced that creating what matters to you will ultimately become your greatest work.

If anyone knows what it’s like to discover their own identity the old fashioned way with hard work and finding yourself in it, it’s Allison Volek Shelton. Allison is a lifelong creative, and has traversed the scope of craft arts from one end to the other, settling at last on designing and weaving her own, uniquely exquisite fabric. On what once seemed an endless search, her patient and tireless exploration has built for her a career in the arts, one fiber at a time.

At an early age, Allison’s parents recognized her creativity. She started small, making use of whatever she had: bedazzling, and adding her personal version of beauty to ordinary objects. In high school, she became so interested in the exotic art of glass blowing that she attended a specialized camp to learn more. It was there that she realized something new. “I loved it, realized it [the camp] was affiliated with the college, and it just sort of dawned on me that, ‘I can do art for the rest of my life.’ It was a breakthrough.” The realization made attending college all the more exciting. But once there, surrounded by new and fascinating options, her attentions soon drew elsewhere. “I just couldn’t figure out what I loved enough to do it for the rest of my life. Then I found fiber arts, and it was awesome. I loved every aspect of it. I had never even sat at a loom before.”

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All too soon after finding Fiber Arts, Allison graduated, married her now husband, Roger, and moved to Huntsville, AL, where weaving took a backseat to part-time jobs that brought home some extra cash. But the house that she and Roger rented as young newlyweds had one, very serious problem: an unsightly floor vent that desperately needed covering. Out of instinct, Allison decided to weave something to cover the vent herself. She carefully threaded her loom and went to work. When she was finished, she had successfully woven a rug to the exact size of the vent. “Looking back on it, it was terrible,” she tells us. But it worked! More importantly, the excitement of using her skills to make useful things created momentum.

Though a small feat to her in hindsight, creating anything from scratch is an immeasurable achievement common to all of humanity. Even our flops actualize our innate need to make things with our hands. At its most basic level, creating anything is one of the closests connections we have to divine nature. Creating something of beauty, even closer.

She and Roger had only recently moved to Nashville when Allison got her first big break into professional weaving. Up until then, she had featured her products exclusively on Etsy under the name Shutters and Shuttles, an ode to her love of weaving (shuttles) and photography (shutters). She was asked to be a part of a local makers show periodically held at West Elm in Nashville, curated by a local, high-profile blogger. Naturally she was honored, but quickly discovered that it wasn’t just flattery – she sold more in one day than she ever had before! It was the push she needed.

In 2011, she applied for Porter Flea, a juried event showcasing the most talented artisans, designers, and artists in the area. Lines spill out of the entrance twice a year, the inside bursting with talented makers and eager supporters. It helped put Allison on the makers map in Nashville, and soon started to cut into the time she spent at her part-time day jobs. Each time the show rolled around, “two months before, I would have to quit whatever silly part-time job I had and weave.” Eventually, her success practically forced her to making weaving her full-time career, one that she never truly believed was possible.

Allison’s path to creating beauty in handwoven fabrics has required equal parts bravery and skill. On the journey to where she is now, Allison says that one of the most terrifying things about running her business was moving into her own studio. After months of trying to squeeze her giant looms into their home, she decided it was time. So with the money from her sales at the most recent Porter Flea, she packed up and moved into her very own space. Or rather, one that she shares with three other designers. And she’s made the most of it, consistently keeping her volume and sales up to pay rent and bills on the studio every month since she moved in. “I made it my mission that I needed to make a living to support this if that’s what I want to do.”

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One reason that weavers like Allison are so uncommon is the investment that weaving requires. Not to scare away any potential artists, but weaving demands you go all in. Time enough to achieve mastery; space enough to house these mammoth, manual looms; passion and patience enough to complete projects without error. With three looms constantly in use, Allison’s equipment and stock could fill a studio apartment, and at five years in practice, she’s more than paid her dues in mistakes. But she’s also done something that most of us never (or what many are still hoping to) do. She’s turned her passion into a career, one that continues to sharpen in focus, just as Allison does herself. Each new risk taken to do more of what she loves has proven that trusting yourself is key to creating what matters, what lasts. “This past year especially I’ve changed a lot. My entire aesthetic has changed since I’m finding what I like, and how I can make things that I like. I had a really big problem with that when I first started. Because I would make things, and I would just be so excited that I was making something that I was focusing more on the process rather than the finished product.”

Looking back on the process of finding her voice in the weaving world, Allison shared with us a profound turning point in her aesthetic. After mild success with her initial line of bright, colorful rugs and scarves, she hit the realization that, “I don’t want to wear anything that I make, or I wouldn’t buy it. I like it, and I love making it, but it’s not really something that I would buy. […] They’re just not really true to who I am.” So she started making things that mattered, things she liked and wanted for herself. Concurrent to this altered design, it was becoming clear that her focus wasn’t the final product at all, but the process of weaving itself. “I just knew I wanted to make fabric. I had this idea that I wanted to do pattern kits, and I was trying to figure out how to get my fabric out into the retail world. So I thought, what if I met up with some designer and they provided the pattern for me?”

She would need to find someone like-minded, someone who believed in the project as much as she did. “So I met a designer through a friend. Her name is Elizabeth (Elizabeth Suzanne is her brand) and she loved my pattern kit idea.” Also in the works was a partnership with another clothing and textile design duo, Jamie and the Jones. “I had just put together a binder with swatches of all the fabric I’ve ever made. It’s huge; there’s just all of this fabric in there. And so I showed it to [Elizabeth]. That was the first person I had shown it to, and her head exploded. She asked, ‘Can I just buy your fabric? Is that allowed? Can you just sell me your fabric, and we’ll do the pattern kit?’ It was amazing. It the best possible scenario.”

Since then, Allison has consistently sold her fabric to designers in Nashville, and is still weaving away, continuing to define her own style, brand, and ultimately, herself. “I’ve just gained so much more experience that I know more what to expect and how to experiment, like how to not limit myself the way I was doing.” The result is a collection of the softest, most luxurious hand woven, American made fabrics we’ve ever caressed. Whether they’re artfully styled by Nashville designers in apparell, nestled in her booth at Porter Flea, or stocking the shelves at local Nashville boutique Hey Rooster, they’re sure to stand alone.

Her newest line of products reveals the growth she’s experienced over the past year, and the wisdom gained. “It was experimenting, but it was with just one aspect rather than having some idea and experimenting with the whole product.” This tweak in her process has changed Shutters and Shuttles drastically, and for the better. “I think that’s part of where my mental block was in the past. There were just too many options, just too much that I could change and put together and so I was overwhelmed.”

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After all of her years weaving, Allison is still discovering herself in the process. She’s constantly learning something new, whether it’s at her loom, in the midst of a collaboration, or when designers implement her fabric into their work. “I feel like my favorite thing is just to weave huge amounts of fabric for the designers. That is my absolute favorite thing. Seeing their ideas gave me a completely different perspective and made me enjoy it in a different way. [I’m] taken out of it.” In contrast, collaborations where she’s given say-so in the end product challenge her to define Shutters and Shuttles even further. “It’s tricky to keep your own voice and put them together to make this amazing product that you couldn’t have done without each other.” To Allison, the struggle of true co-creation is worth her every effort. Even beyond collaborating, she recently created a guide to finding other textile artists in Nashville for those interested called Ladies of the Cloth. “I tried to put everybody together and made this map. It is competition, like, ‘hey I’m a designer and also look at all these other designers that are here.’ I feel like it’s more beneficial to be open about it and share. Because everybody has a different style. There’s always going to be competition, so why hide it? Why not embrace it?”

One of the most interesting things that Allison shared about her life as a career artist is that her craft blatantly diverges from her natural norm. Everything about weaving, she says, is adverse to her personality in a way that continues to confound her. “It’s so different from my life, how I live my life. It takes so much patience, and so much time to do anything. And it can be very meticulous. Like threading each string through and counting, and math oriented, and all of these things. It’s just so completely out of my comfort zone that it just kind of worked.”

I think this resonated with me deeply because I had never considered why I am drawn to do things I am, myself, so miserably wretched at in the beginning. She cleared things up for me in a way no one else could. “Anything that I do that I’m comfortable with, anything that’s really comfortable, I get bored with really easily.” And because it is so foreign to her, it never gets old. “It’s kind of challenging to me, still. It takes me into this different part of my brain and works different muscles that I’m not used to on a daily basis. It keeps it interesting. And every time – every single time I finish a piece of fabric and I cut it off my loom, it’s amazing to me. It was string, and now it’s fabric. Every time. There’s magic there.”

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