“You have to learn to love the thread.”
This is what fashion designer Natalie Chanin told her friend, singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, while teaching her to sew. Chanin meant it literally, but it struck Cash on a deeper level.
“I started crying. I really didn’t know why, and I took that line and put it directly into the lyrics of the song I was writing.”
That song, “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” became the opening track on The River & The Thread, Cash’s 14th studio album. The album—which went on to win three Grammy Awards—was inspired by a series of road trips Rosanne made across the South to explore her past. For Cash, to love the thread means “to love where you came from and who you came from, even if you have to cut them off. Maybe acceptance is another word.”
Cash created a playlist to accompany Taking a Thread for a Walk, an exhibition of textiles and fiber art from MoMA’s collection. I spoke with her recently about her thoughts in choosing these songs and about the connections between weaving, making art, and writing music. According to string theory, the universe might be made up of tiny connecting threads—so it’s no surprise we were able to find so many.
You can listen to our conversation (above) and Rosanne Cash’s playlist (below). Very special thanks to Alice Tisch.
Natalie Chanin’s workshop in Florence, Alabama. Photo courtesy Alice Tisch
“Natalie Chanin had a mission of making things by hand and putting women back to work. It was life-changing for me. We became friends. I went down to the Factory in Florence, Alabama, and learned to sew with her.”
Lewis W. Hine. Sadie Pfeifer, a Cotton Mill Spinner, Lancaster, South Carolina. 1908
“Nina Simone was an activist—and a revolutionary, really—for her time. I was thinking about this image of the little girl in the cotton mill, and how she was never free, ever. It’s not about art anymore, it’s about a commodity. You’re not creating beauty just for the sake of beauty, you’re in service. Not to say that artists aren’t in service.”
Aurèlia Muñoz, after Antoni Gaudí. Study of a catenary arch for the Gaudí crypt at Colonia Güell. 1996
“‘Gold & Glass,’ my son’s song, sounds like it would be about something light, but it’s a very dark song. This piece by Aurèlia Muñoz looks like a delicate necklace of gold inside a glass case. And then you read the description and it’s for a crypt—so it kind of mimics the song.
Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret). Muralnomad Tapestry ‘Les Musiciennes.’ 1953
“When I first saw Les Musiciennes I immediately thought of ‘Up Above My Head I Hear Music in the Air’ by Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” says Cash. “Sister Rosetta Tharpe is a musician, the song is about music, and the image is of musicians, so it’s a hall of mirrors in the best way possible.”