The Family Craft: My Favorite Craft

Welcome to the Favorite Craft series, where we chat with influential members of the Greater Philadelphia community about a craft that has inspired them. Martha Chamberlain is the founder and force behind Chamberlain Goods, a customizable dancewear company, which she started after her career with Pennsylvania Ballet.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you eventually became interested in starting Chamberlain Goods.

For as long as I can remember, my life has been centered on art. My parents made pottery in our basement kiln and sold it at craft fairs. I always found myself fascinated with my mom’s sewing and Crewelwork (an old style of needlework), which led to her teaching me how to make clothes and tutus for my dolls. Growing up, my parents always encouraged me to make something instead of going to the store and buying it.

Beyond making clothes, I started dancing at age five and instantly knew this was something I truly enjoyed. I continued to dance and when I graduated from high school, I was lucky enough to begin dancing with Pennsylvania Ballet.

How did you transition from dancing with Pennsylvania Ballet to making dancewear?

I was dancing with Pennsylvania Ballet when I suffered an injury. The artistic director at the time, Christopher D’Amboise, knew sewing was one of my hobbies, so he asked me to help make costumes for performances. As an injured part of the team, I was eager to contribute to the season’s show. The first piece I designed was for a smaller show called “Offcenter.” This performance was really the spark for me. The subsequent year, I designed costumes for my first large-scale show at the Academy of Music. All of this inspired the creation of Chamberlain Goods, my dancewear company.

Would you say that your injury actually served as a gateway to the next phase of your life?

Yes, definitely! I actually always envisioned making and selling jewelry after my career as a dancer. But through this journey, I was able to learn that by combining my passion for ballet and talent for sewing, I could continue to stay involved in the world that I loved. Soon after this revelation, I successfully launched my ballet line.

Clearly your family’s crafting spirit influenced you a lot in all stages of your life. Are there individual crafts from your family that inspire or influence you?

Each craft in my possession truly contributes to who I am. For example, my family’s works have really reflected where we lived. When I was in elementary school we moved from the cute, walkable small town of Media, Pennsylvania to a very suburban Broomall, Pennsylvania. Broomall was a stark contrast; cookie-cutter suburbia and strictly drivable.

In particular, suburban life really struck a chord with my father. As one who worked on projects ranging from woodworking to sculpting, my father was always influenced by his surroundings. He was constantly inspired by his students at The Haverford School, where he taught for 29 years (and eventually became art department head). However, I never remember him being more prolific or uniquely inspired as when we made the initial move to Broomall.  

His pieces from this period consisted of almost cartoonish icons of suburban culture, white-picket fences, well-manicured lawns, and lush gardens leaning towards each other, as if trying to converse through the fence. He would use found objects from the neighborhood in his art, which is a technique he still uses today.

I have some pieces from the collection hanging in my daughter’s bedroom. They serve as a reminder of not only my past fascination with suburbia, but how that’s impacted me both as an artist and as an adult.

Works from my father’s suburban era art series, which currently hang above my daughter’s bed.

It’s interesting that your personal history is documented by your father’s art, with some of his pivotal work from your childhood present in your daughter’s life. How has your dad’s work evolved? Are there any current pieces you especially love?

One thing that has been consistent about my father’s work is his experimental spirit; he was always trying his hand at new styles, mediums, and techniques. When he retired and moved to Maine, he frequented a lot of yard sales and thrift stores and became inspired by some of the old photographs he encountered. He takes the best ones and compiles them into photobooth-ish dioramas, each telling a story about the protagonist. One of my favorites is called “Valentine for Ralph.” This piece depicts a young boy wearing many hats placed alongside found objects. I really like the juxtaposition of this one, and am fascinated by the original photoshoot.

A newer piece of my father’s, Valentine for Ralph, exemplifies my father’s current crafting style of juxtaposing found objects into a story

It’s incredible that your father has been so prolific in his art career. Has his mentality on art impacted your work with Chamberlain Goods?

My dad is a life-long artist, and his passion for the field is a constant source of inspiration. I always knew I would pursue some kind of art after my dance career ended. I think this motivation and determination, in part, came from both my parents, as well as my lifelong love of learning. In addition to my initial progression towards jewelry design, I took classes at the University of the Arts in bookbinding and woodworking to continue my education.

Chamberlain Goods provided the costumes for Pennsylvania Ballet’s recent program Archiva. Can you walk us through the process behind this performance?

I was the costume coordinator for Matthew Neenan’s world premiere, Archīva. This was a different process than usual due to the nature of the program. Since the piece’s theme wasn’t cohesive, we had a lot of freedom to pick through the Ballet’s archives and pick things that stood out on each rack. Typically, when costuming, you have a set theme as well as images from past performances or some kind of direction.

Opportunities like this are really exciting to me because I’m able to do a lot of abstract thinking. The mentality of “make it yourself” that has been with me since day one and has definitely been a huge influence in not just the work from Archīva, but really inspires every piece I create for Chamberlain Goods.

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