by Margaret Williams
Photograph by Aaron Pinkston
Michelle Devereux, Kathie Sever, Christina Smith and Amrit Khalsa
To meet Kathie Sever and her Fort Lonesome team is to immediately feel a sense of dedication, collaboration and artistry. Originally founded in 2000 as the children’s clothing line Ramonster and rebranded in 2014 as Fort Lonesome, the chain-stitching collaborative produces specialty Western-inspired garments. Their East Austin studio is filled with spools of colorful thread, racks of handmade separates and, most important, rows of vintage Singer sewing stations.
Sever and her team have resurrected the nearly lost art of chain stitching. The craft was almost completely unlearnable when Sever first stumbled on a chain-stitching machine in the early 2000s. It took her years to find people who knew how to work one. “It was mostly older dudes in their basements who used to work in opera houses or motorcycle clubs,” Sever explains. But learn she did, and, as they say, the rest is history.
Fort Lonesome’s designs can be seen everywhere from South Congress Avenue (Madewell’s newest Austin location has an in-store machine), to the pages of Vogue, to the CMA Awards’ red carpet (members of the band Midland are consistently seen wearing Fort Lonesome’s designs). I sat down with Sever and three members of her team of stitchers and designers — Amrit Khalsa, Christina Smith and Michelle Devereux — to find out how their resurrection of a lost art got started.
Margaret Williams: When did you first start sewing?
Kathie Sever: My mom was a sewing teacher, so I grew up sewing. That’s always been something that I go back to as a comfort.
MW: When did chain stitching come into play?
KS: After I did the children’s line [Ramonster], I started doing Western wear for adults, and a friend, Jenny Hart — she’s someone who brought hand embroidery back — had a chain-stitch embroidery machine and didn’t know how to use it. And so she offered to sell it to me. I bought it from her around 2004.
The machines were almost entirely obsolete. I was blogging about the fact that I was trying to figure out how to use it. And finally, this guy in Indianapolis [ Jerry Lee Atwood] got in touch with me and was like, “I have one of those, too. I also don’t know how to use it and would like to figure it out.”
He started reaching out to people who were not on computers and asking them to scan pamphlets they had from the ’60s. Once I started using the machine more regularly, I felt like everything busted wide-open.
MW: Are most of your pieces a collaboration?
Amrit Khalsa: Usually. Sometimes people are very specific, and others just give a list of things they like.
Christina Smith: It’s kind of a conversation — familiarizing people with what we’re capable of. And sometimes they’ll say, “I just love what you guys do. Here’s this very broad-strokes theme. Go for it.”
It’s super-challenging to be given a lot of direction, and it’s super-fun to be given something wide-open. Doing both feels pretty good.
MW: Did all of you learn chain stitching from Kathie?
KS: It’s kind of a thing now, but even just five years ago I could count, maybe on one hand, everyone I knew who was chain stitching. The growth has been crazy.
MW: What was the moment when you knew “Oh wow, this is a thing”?
AK: When we were walking down Fifth Avenue [in New York] and saw a chain-stitched Western dress in the Coach window.
CS: That was pretty crazy.
Michelle Devereux: And Gucci had just released their line that was heavily embroidered.
KS: I really feel like [singer-songwriter] Nikki Lane has been a major part of why vintage Western wear and chain stitching is popular. She has a really interesting style. You could see people paying attention to what she’s doing
MW: How did the Midland album cover outfits come to be?
KS: They just asked us. We had to do all three suits in two weeks, so it was stressful, but I love that cover and how the suits turned out.
MW: In many ways, what you create seems to be more than just clothing, or an outfit.
AK: We come from this Western-wear tradition, but we’re all a bunch of artists. We all have a visual-arts approach, and that seems to be what’s made it possible for us to excite people about what we’re doing.
We all have a different aesthetic, and a different technique, and a different style. It’s all melded together.