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I’ve written of my interest in orderliness (often unfulfilled), and of organizing closets in particular. Dealing with stuff, and thinking about times when there was not so much stuff to deal with, has been a frequent topic of rumination for me.

I have detailed, comforting memories of my grandmother’s bedroom closet. So much space between the few garments she owned, so tidy, and with a smell of soap.  Her dresser drawers, in which the yellowed lining paper was visible between the neat stacks of underthings.

Once, when she allowed me to go rooting in those dresser drawers, I found a photo of a dashing man under the lining paper. I asked her about it, and learned, with wide eyes, that Grandma had had a first husband who looked like a movie star (and also that he was not a good man). Another time, I unwrapped a mysterious bundle in the bottom drawer and found a desiccated kid-leather doll from Grandma’s childhood, naked and mummy-like, with a china bisque head. That doll still occasionally surfaces in a bad dream, but I cherish the memory as an ever-fresh, piercing connection to the past.

My sewing circle sister Maira Kalman, known to readers of this site as a prolific knitter of One-Piece Baby Kimonos for her granddaughter, and known to the world for her brilliant writing and painting, has collaborated with her son Alex Kalman to present an unusual work of art: they have reconstituted their mother/grandmother Sara Berman’s Greenwich Village closet in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum, right next to the dressing room of the wife of an 1880s industrialist.

One closet: two videos. Up top is a video by the Met, which notes that Sara’s notebook contained knitting patterns for the sweaters she made for the family dog, Pete. (Sara was afraid of Pete, but nevertheless, she knit him lovely sweaters.) The New Yorker magazine also made a very beautiful video about the exhibit, which uses photographs to echo Maira’s style of visual storytelling.

Also, Judith Thurman wrote this piece on The New Yorker’s blog.

When anybody mocks me for my passion for closet-organizing, I will present Sara Berman’s Closet in my defense. The way we treat the simple objects of our everyday existence can express a great deal.

Sara Berman’s Closet will be at the Metropolitan Museum through September 5, 2017. Go see it if you can.

Arabella Worsham’s dressing room (1882) is in the next gallery over. It’s not bad, either.


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  • Always start by asking people what their story is. It’s so much more illuminating than “what’s your deal, man?” Thanks for sharing this, Kay.

  • Telling words at the end: “some of the time”.
    Interesting piece. Thanks

  • Great post, loved the videos! Thank you, thank you!

  • I too have a passion for closets, drawers, order. I am moved by the elevation of the mundane in everyday life. You and Ann taught me a great deal about this with your knitting ethos as laid out in the first MDK book. “Must use the handknits”. That I could knit everyday useful things like dishcloths, in addition to heirlooms, was welcome news to me. Very freeing. And so satisfying to have a tidy stack of them in the kitchen drawer.

    • Yes! We’re blessed by forebears who were prolific in the textile arts. It’s a mixed blessing, though; I can’t bear to part with the hand knitted lace tablecloth, but the people (aged 3-78) who eat at my table spill at every single meal. I also can’t bear to ruin the table cloth. How many quilts and afghans are reasonable to keep in sunny California? What about hand-braided rugs? How decrepit do they need to be before I can justify discarding them?

      I think I’ve gone on a bit of a tear, here… mainly, I like the idea of making what I want and using it up, myself… The polyester afghans I inherited are still going to be around when I’m dead and gone.

      • Hi! I have a lot of vintage 40s and 50s tablecloths that I would take out and admire every so often….. then fold them back up and return them to the shelf. Why? Because messy people who spill things at every meal lived with me. But, as I meandered through the fabric store one day, I stumbled over clear vinyl tablecloth stuff! It’s on a roll like upholstery fabric, comes in different thicknesses, is 60 inches wide and you buy it by the yard. I use all of my tablecloths now including the beautiful crocheted tablecloth that my Grandmama made some 50 years ago. They’re protected by the clear, impenetrable vinyl on top! Woohoo! You can find it at places like JoAnn’s and if your local Walmart has a fabric section, they carry it for between $1 and $1.50 a yard depending on the thickness.

  • Oh, Kay! Thank you for sharing this. The New Yorker video is especially wonderful. I hope to be able to see this myself. <3

    "Her end had come in a whisper…"

  • I found this extraordinarily moving, in part because I recently divested myself (at least temporarily) of so much that had been oppressing me. I left a job I had held for thirty years, left my house and almost everything it contained, and moved 2000 miles to live in a tiny apartment which nevertheless has a big window overlooking a lazy river. I brought mostly books and yarn (), and I have never been happier.

    The simplicity, independence and freedom represented by Sara’s closet are what I needed, and what I have never had before. Hard to believe a modern feminist can say that! But we can all become trapped by the needs and expectations of others, even when (or perhaps because) they love us.

    • I love your comment. I am a widow who has decided to downsize. Most of my household goods will be left, when I move. My parents have also recently left this earth. I feel for the first time that this is really just for me. I too have a window that looks into nature and plan lots of knitting and reading.

  • These are the posts that bring me joy. I wish I could see it in person but this is very satisfying.

  • My sister who lived out of a backpack for a year in Africa told me that we don’t own our things, our things own us. So much to take in here. I’m stuck at selecting one color. So freeing and yet so limiting. Clearly, I have more work to do. Thanks for the videos. Wish I could attend in person!

  • This is perfection. Thank you!

  • Lovely!
    If only! I could get rid of half my stuff…..

  • Thank you so much for this post. I have watched the video three times now; I can’t explain why, but it is quite compelling. Like other commenters, I am in the downsizing phase of my life, although I lack the urge to go to that extreme. While I do understand the need to have less stuff, I have to admit that the desire stems, in part, for the desire to have more room for the sweaters. But there is something more in the perfect ironing, the precise stacking, and the identical shoes lined up in a row that boggles the mind!

  • This is wonderful.

    I think there is a part of me that always wants to wear white. I would certainly love to have a closet in which the space between my neatly stacked possessions gives room for me to breathe.

  • Thank you so much for sharing this. Love that this installation has gone from the elevator shaft museum to the Met. Looks perfect, and a very thoughtful counterpoint to the lavish example of 100 years prior. Thurman’s closing question could be a conversational ice-breaker in a roomful of strangers, don’t you think?
    I’ve been thinking and writing a lot lately about “stuff.” Even had a sort of nightmare about it. Must write faster!

  • Perfect Sunday gift. Thanks.

  • Where did she keep her yarn and fabric? Sewing machine? Spinning wheel? Loom? And all of the accroutrements. Alas, I can’t do this, but can really empty out my closet.

  • I’m going to the Met this summer to see the Costume Institute exhibit (about Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons) and I’m excited to see Sara Berman’s Closet, too!

  • Dog sweaters.

  • When I read about this in the Times, I knew i could count on you for a thorough investigation. Thank you!

  • Thanks for Sara Berman’s Closet… a poetic memorial to a life well – lived.

  • I love this ‘hope of putting your closet in order, maybe there’s hope for putting your life in order’. A personal quest/inquiry/oddball-tic of mine.
    I tried to find out a bit about style, mine, my mom’s in which I photographed the clothes I wore for a year. In presenting this (link below) I learned about connections to those many voices in our heads, not the least of which is of course, my mother of the plains who was definitly not plain – here it is if anyone’s interested too in this question of curating style:

  • Loved the Sara Berman closet, especially since it was displayed in close proximity to Arabella Worsham’s dressing room. I was in New York in June, and may have missed these two, but for your blog. Again, thanks!

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