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Front Page - Friday, October 5, 2012

Sewn to the Sky alters retail fabric of downtown Chattanooga

From a few feet away, “Sewn to the Sky” looks like a painting, with delicate brushstrokes blending together to form a bird with feathers as soft and downy as a chick’s. But like the famous “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” which Georges-Pierre Seurat made entirely of painted dots, a closer examination of the piece reveals artful deception. Instead of brushstrokes, the bird is made up of tightly packed stitches of differently colored threads.

A telltale thread connects the bird to a spool. Both the bird and the spool rest on clouds in a painted sky. The artist, Carrie Pendergrass, has created something unlike anything else.

While Pendergrass made the piece, she borrowed its name from the title of an independent rock album released in the ’90s.  “I thought it was cool, and evocative of being attached to the sky. You can get cheesy and talk about the sky representing unlimited possibilities, but really, I just love the sky,” she says.

“Unlimited possibilities” is a good way of describing the store in which the piece is displayed. Other items include large portraits, more stitched pieces like “Sewn to the Sky,” soaps, postcards, jewelry, clothes, ceramics, bowls and cutting boards, and linoleum prints. One of the most striking pieces is a shadowbox containing ceramic bird eggs painted to look like the real thing. A display of postcards with hand-stitched borders also stands out.

The one thread tying together this “crazy mix,” as Pendergrass calls it, is geography: each piece was made by a local artisan. Pendergrass merely gave the items a home in her new store, which, not coincidentally, is also named Sewn to the Sky.

Pendergrass hesitates to call Sewn to the Sky, located on Chestnut Street near Martin Luther King Boulevard, a “gift store,” even though most of the things on her shelves fall into that category. Rather, she prefers “gift and textile store,” as she also sells fabrics she says the large stores don’t. A table near the back of her shop is strategically placed to draws the eyes of her customers to a wall crammed with unique prints.

The inspiration for Sewn to the Sky came earlier this year. A schoolteacher, Pendergrass was ready for a change but had not yet made plans to leave her job teaching art at a local high school.  Then she woke up one night with the idea for a business that would combine handmade items and textiles.

The idea percolated in Pendergrass’ head for a few days, and then she heard about Project Popup, a small business incubation program sponsored by River City Company, Berry & Hunt and hambliss, Bahner & Stophel. Having wanted to own a business since she was young, she tossed her hat into the ring with about 100 other hopefuls and wound up being one of the chosen few.

Blair Waddell, the retail recruiter for Project Popup, says Pendergrass was an easy choice. “Carrie’s background as an artist and an art teacher let us know she was good with people and had an eye for creative things. And her concept was one we’d been looking for – a unique store that allows workers, visitors and residents in the City Center to find beautiful gifts for themselves and others.”

As a Project Popup entrepreneur, Pendergrass received six months free rent, a grant for decorating her storefront, marketing assistance, mentoring and professional development classes. With the whirlwind behind her, she’s able to concentrate on running a business – and a business that nearly never was.

“I was almost talked out of doing this several times because starting a business is hard. But I went into this thinking of it as an experiment. If it succeeds, great, and if it doesn’t, that’s fine, too,” she says.

Despite her casual outlook, Pendergrass seems primed to do well. CitiPark, which serves as the home of Sewn to the Sky, is located close to the interstate and steps away from hotels, the local convention center and some of the largest office towers in downtown Chattanooga. Plus, Pendergrass is a product of her mother and her father, both of whom contributed something valuable to this endeavor.

“My mom is more creative and my dad is more analytical. When I started painting in college, I noticed how I was channeling both of them because sometimes I would be expressive and other times I would be more controlled,” she says.

The blend of creativity and precision will serve Pendergrass well. So will her good eye for retail. “My mom and dad are business owners, so this has always been in my blood,” she says.

Sewn to the Sky is more than a clever name for a business, a piece of art or an indie rock album; it’s also part of the inseparable fabric of creativity and entrepreneurialism that defines Chattanooga. Like the threads that make up the bird Pendergrass created, these distinct elements have become so tightly woven together, they have created something unlike anything else.

Unlimited possibilities, indeed.