When director Richard Linklater presented Shirley MacLaine with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Texas Film Hall of Fame event last month, he wasn’t wearing a tux or a coat and tie. In true Texas fashion, he was wearing a chain-stitch embroidered Western shirt with pearl snaps and all.
The design paid homage to MacLaine’s 1958 film Some Came Running, the first for which MacLaine was nominated for an Oscar.
Western wear has crossed genres and is beloved by everyone from conservative ranchers to rock stars. But why has our fascination with old-school cowboy gear endured?
“I think that it’s because we actually want a national uniform. I think that we crave that,” says Kathie Sever, owner of Fort Lonesome, a local chain-stitch embroidery business that also makes custom Western wear.
"I think that for whatever reason, some of that classic Western wear look feels uniquely American," she says. "Even for people who would never necessarily admit to wanting to be able to, you know, feel national pride or anything like that. I still think there is sort of a primal need for belonging and uniform.”
A chain stitch is a series of looped stitches that form a chain-like pattern. The artist uses a hand crank to essentially draw the stitches.
“It’s not unlike sewing using an Etch A Sketch," Sever says. "There’s a different sort of language that you need to learn to speak in order to understand how the machine works, and then you have to kind of learn your handwriting and your language and your particular style."
Sever says she’s a storyteller, a thread-based storyteller to be exact.
“A lot of what we do is sort of a visual interpretation of stories that people tell us about their lives," she says. "We’re sort of trying to build on the age-old art of incorporating significant imagery into garmentry, so we talk to people about their lives and then we create artwork that we think is representational.”
According to Sever, no idea is off limits, whether that’s pairing St. Francis of Assisi with Grover from Sesame Street or immortalizing a favorite car or pet.
“There are not a lot of ways that people allow themselves to kind of be flamboyant, especially men," she says. "Western wear is one of those weird pockets where it’s okay for men to really go kind of crazy with whatever they are wearing because there’s this cultural appreciation of why and how and that it can still be masculine while also colorful and shiny.”
Fort Lonesome’s garments aren’t just a throwback to another era. When you walk into the East Austin workshop, it’s like taking a walk back in time.
“Loretta was the first machine; I named her a long time ago. And then when I got Patsy I was just naming them after the music that I was listening to and then a theme sort of was born,” Sever says.
The vintage Singer machines are named after, well, singers, and they each have their own distinct personality, much like the quirky singers they are named for.
“Patsy does tend to be more agile, a little more straightforward as far as doing what you tell her to do," she says. "Clementine is the machine that I usually work on and is kind of known as being the most solid of all of the machines, but has a motor that acts up and drives everybody bonkers and tends to take off like a freight train.”
Sever admits she spends a good deal of time fixing her temperamental stars.
“When things go wrong it can be traumatic," she says, "because you don’t always know if it’s going to be something you have the resources to fix or if you need to find a machinist who maybe you can ask to try to re-create a part that’s been out of creation for, you know, decades.”
So there are challenges. Still, Fort Lonesome’s custom creations are in high demand. In addition to Richard Linklater, the company's high-profile clients include Matthew McConaughey, Jimmy Kimmel and Bill Murray. Sever has designed clothes for everyone from rock stars to grandmas and for companies from Levi’s to Ralph Lauren.
“Chain stitching is a lost art, but it is a lost art that is being re-found.”