October 07 Journal » A Chat With Mo, Our Robe Maker
Steve Junryu Reed

Mo Ferrell is best known to many of us as the woman in North Carolina who made our robes. For several years she has taken cryptic measurements from Village Zendo students and turned them into finely made clothing for practice. Having just welcomed another jukai group into our midst, wearing robes made by Mo, we thought it would be timely to learn a little more about her.

Her brochure gives us a brief biography: She has practiced Zen meditation since arriving at the San Francisco Zen Center in 1977, where she learned to sew zafus and other Zen wear. In the early 1980s she moved to North Carolina, where she practices at the Chapel Hill Zen Center. She began her home-based sewing business making zafus in 1997, and retrained that fall with Diane Riggs and Zenkei Blanche Hartman on making layrobes and priest robes.

I feel deep gratitude to my teachers, San Francisco Zen Center and all of you wearing my robes for all the support, patience, and encouragement you have given me, Mo says in her bio. For me this has been a most challenging and deeply satisfying way to work and practice.

In the following e-mail interview, Mo tells us more about the woman behind the robes.

Q: Tell us in a bit more detail when and how you began making robes. Have you always sewed?

My mother sewed some of my clothes when I was growing up. I also learned to sew as a teenager. I have made nontraditional clothes over the years. When I was at San Francisco Zen Center, I sewed zafu covers and learned to sew layrobes in 1977. I made a small number of robes then. As a Zen student I worked at Alaya Stitchery, a Zen clothing business, in 1978, and sewed hippari to sell in the store. In 1997 I returned to San Francisco Zen Center to learn how to make priest koromo and go over directions for making layrobes. When I started Sitting Wear, I made zafus and zabutons, layrobes, kimono, jubon, pants and hippari.

Q: How many robes do you now make? Is it a year-round venture, or does it have a "heavy season"?

There is a steady demand now for robes in general. There is a little surge before practice periods at Tassajara Zen Center and Green Gulch Farm as these are the bulk of my clients. A set of layrobes or priest robes takes a least a week to produce. Priest robes are ordered 3-5 months in advance, so sometimes a month is already scheduled way in advance. I don't seem to have a slow season and find it challenging to schedule time off. I have had an assistant making pants and hipparis and some jubons for the last two years. Last year I made 45 jubons, 56 kimonos, 28 layrobes and 15 koromos.

Q: So obviously you make robes for more than just our Zendo! How many Zen centers do you work with, and how widely dispersed are they?

I sew for students across the country, primarily San Francisco city center, Tassajara and Green Gulch. Over the years my brochure has been passed around. Besides scattered individuals I am sewing for Village Zendo, Berkeley Zen Center, Austin Zen Center, Houston Zen Center, Norman Fisher's students in Northern California, centers in Canada and Mexico, and Chapel Hill ZC, Upaya ZC, Acadia ZC, Santa Cruz ZC, Empty Hand ZC and two individuals in England that had practiced at Green Gulch.

Q: Are there stages in the making of a robe that are more difficult than others? If so, what's the hardest part?

The hardest part of the construction is the Japanese collar. Japanese clothing is different from American clothing, which is made of patterned pieces cut to fit the body. In India and Japan the traditional clothing is based on folded cloth, draping fabric. It's even hard to describe how to sew a Japanese collar in words. I have only taught it well in person. Basically you are attaching a long straight rectangle to a bodice with a slit for a neck opening. The collar has to lie flat as it goes around the corner of the neck opening. It takes patience, breathing, lots of pins and hand-basted stitches to hold it in place for sewing on the machine.

Q: When you make a robe, do you think of the person who will be wearing it? As I recall, you asked for a photo when you made mine. Do you keep a collection of the photos of people for whom you've made robes?

One reason I ask for a photo is to complement the measurements, but the other reason is I like to see who I am sewing for. I keep their picture standing over the notebook with the cutting diagram, their emails and any notes I have taken. I do think about the person some of the time I am sewing, especially as I am determining the fit. It's very nice to sew for old friends from San Francisco. I feel I have gotten to know certain clients that have ordered from me over the years. I keep notes on each garment I make along with the picture, if provided. I started with two spiral notebooks. Now I have three full three-ring binders of priest robes and am on my fourth three-ring binder of layrobes.

Q: Describe the ways in which robe-making constitutes practice. Is it a question of being mindful when you make it, or is there more to it than that?

As for work practice, it is a constant challenge. I light incense in the morning. I try to just stay with the thing I am doing. Knowing how much I have to do tomorrow can really be difficult if I run into a problem with a robe. It is very easy to worry about the future and fret about a past order. I really take refuge in the seam I am sewing or the place I am pinning. I think that's why I still enjoy this challenging work after 10 years. It may not seem possible, but each garment has its own way. I am grateful to have a lot of experience, but it never feels exactly the same. I usually make one robe at a time, so it's the same steps, but over a couple of days it doesn't feel stale. I have made three jubons at once, but almost didn't survive the attention required to do three collars in a row. Over and over again I return my attention to my breath and posture and try to sew some happiness into the seams. And then there are helpful reminders for waking up, like sharp pins that prick and drip a spot of blood on the jubon, and the hot iron on the arm.

Q: So tell us a little more about yourself and your family!

I was born in Minneapolis in 1954 and am a Scorpio. My mother and two brothers live in the triangle area of North Carolina. Ive been married for almost 29 years to the first man I met at the Zen Center. We have three children, 26, 25 and 21 years old. Our youngest son, Brian, drove cross-country last year and has been practicing at Green Gulch Farm. This summer he worked at Tassajara and plans to spend the next six months there during monastic practice season. We have a crazy hound dog and a chocolate lab, both adorable. We live in the country on 10 acres of woodland with a big garden. We did a lot of the building of our house and I added a studio for Sitting Wear in 2000. Before that I was trying to sew in half of our youngest son's bedroom.

Q: What was the spiritual path that led you to Zen?

I learned transcendental meditation in high school from a traveling teacher. I heard about the Zen Center from my two best friends when we lived in Cincinnati. They were guest students for a week, and we all made our way out to SFZC in 1977. I lived in the city for 1 1/2 years, working at Tassajara bakery and Alaya Stitchery. Frank and I were married and we moved to Green Gulch Farm for another 1 1/2 years. Our eldest son was born at Green Gulch, and we decided to drop out of monastic life with the baby. We moved to North Carolina, where my parents lived, and opened a Natural Foods Bakery. I practiced part time and Frank and others in the community founded the Chapel Hill Zen Center in 1981 or so. Now that my children are grown I am more deeply involved in our Center when I have free time from sewing.

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