Making my own clothes is proving to be difficult

It seems like for every two things I make that I’m happy with, there’s a third that doesn’t go as planned. Let’s call those learning experiences rather than failures. This goes for everything: two breads that turn out nicely, and then the third doesn’t rise in the oven and is too sour or doesn’t have enough salt or comes off the pan in pieces. The first shirt I sewed is something that I wear constantly because I like it so much. The second is soon going to be cut up and used as dish rags. It’s a bright orange tunic that I wore a couple of times when I was still aglow with an infantile sense of pride (I made this!) but I started to feel a little silly wearing it because, truthfully, it looks like hell. I wear my third shirt, documented here, all the time. My fourth started out promising, and I used the same pattern as shirt #3, but because of the fabric and probably some sort of error that I didn’t pick up on, it didn’t turn out so well. It fits fine I suppose, but if I reach my arms forward to lean my elbows on a table or hug someone, the back doesn’t stretch with me and the whole thing feels stiff, like I’m wearing a straight jacket. No big deal. Maybe that means that shirts number 4 and 5 will be masterpieces.

Another issue that I’m having when it comes to sewing and knitting, specifically, is that when I make a mistake and realize that I have to go back and undo part of it or the whole thing, I sigh and put it aside for later because in that moment of frustration I can’t stomach ripping out seams. But then what often happens is said project will languish in a basket in the corner of my workspace, or on a hanger hooked to a door, and silently judge me for abandoning it.

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This dress was a case of getting ahead of myself. It was at the time only the third item of clothing I’d attempted to sew (the first two being the good first shirt and the frumpy orange tunic). I was feeling bold one day and had just come home with a big bag full of thrifted fabric, which included many yards of this soft, light blue denim. I decided to hell with it, I was going to make myself a dress. With darts, sleeves, and a zipper. It seemed like a good idea at the time and it was, at first. The bodice and the skirt came together in an afternoon, technically, meaning that I had crafted something from cloth that could count as clothing. But it was too long and too big and the neckline made me look like I was about to run off and join a convent. (Fun fact, my grandmother ran off and joined a convent in her early 20s, and when she quit/was kicked out after six months she took the bus back to Seattle. She got off at her stop and ran into the man who would be my grandfather. And that is why I’m here today.)

I shortened the hemline and lowered the neckline, though not to indecent proportions, but I haven’t been able to solve the size issue so the thing still looks like I’m lost in an empty bag of animal feed. I tried some darts but that made the waist bunch up awkwardly, so I ripped those out, and then as I wanted to move ahead I decided to get going on the sleeves. As you can see from the above photo, there is only one sleeve because my idea for a sleeve did not work. It’s got this pointy bit that sticks out at the bottom, and the armhole is too big. In the end the only two things that have actually worked out with this dress are the zipper (which was my first, and I’m still pretty proud of the job I did with it) and the hemline, which miraculously came out straight and neat.

I’m not exactly at an impasse, just not sure where to turn next. I suppose the smart thing to do would be to admit defeat: take out the zipper, cut off the bodice, use what remains to make a skirt (which I can manage), and then do my first dress with an actual pattern instead of winging it. This uninformed foray into dressmaking was partly inspired by a sewing blog that one day featured a “tutorial” on making a dress with this same fabric. I put the word tutorial in quotes there because it really wasn’t much of a tutorial. It was a cute, Pin-able graphic of cartoon dress pieces with some arrows pointing in various directions, followed by a bulleted list of vague instructions. I suppose a seasoned sewist could take a look at that tutorial and think, hey, that’s nice, I’ll make that, and s/he would have no problem doing so. Someone in my shoes needs far more hand holding, or at least clarity, but I was swayed by the pretty photos of the finished product and didn’t let my caution get the best of me. And now I’m left with this, a partially finished dress that doesn’t fit, with a sleeve predicament that remains a mystery to me.

However, I’m not going to take it apart just yet, because in other situations I’ve found that my half-finished projects eventually stop judging me and instead start giving me answers. The Roses sweater was one of these. I started that sweater in late March, finishing the front and back in a few days, and then did one of the sleeves. Either from impatience or excitement, I shortcut the instructions and the sleeve ended up being shorter than I wanted. I could have gone along with it but I didn’t want my first sweater to be something I wouldn’t wear in the end because of a bad fit. I decided to start on the second sleeve and do it properly, rather than dealing with the first sleeve first, but even though I was following the exact same YouTube tutorials that had guided me through the first sleeve, I could not figure it out. So with one failed sleeve and a second sleeve that I could not get going on no matter how hard I tried, I tucked everything into my works-in-progress basket to wait patiently until I was motivated to pick it up again.

That day finally came this week, thanks in part to a friend who came over for lunch last Saturday. I showed her the sewing and knitting that I’d been up to and when I came across those sweater pieces I thought, oh… you. And I realized it had been two months since I’d touched the thing. I decided that I would give it another shot this week. This time I started with the too-short sleeve, and was happy to find that I only had to unravel the ribbing plus a couple of inches before it in order to fix the length issue. That was done pretty quickly. Then I started in on the second sleeve. I watched all the same YouTube videos again, and again had to fumble through the first ten rows several times until I realized that the problem was that I was knitting the second sleeve more loosely than the first, which is why it kept coming out so differently. I tightened up my stitches and all was well, and I am now pleased to announce that I have a front and back and two sleeves ready to be sewn together and blocked. We’re leaving this weekend to visit my family for a couple of weeks, so I’m going to do those final steps with an in-person tutorial (my mom).

The moral of this whole story is a common one: When you’re trying to make something, shit happens, and you’ve just got to accept it and make it work if you can. Sometimes making it work turns out differently than you’d planned (which will probably be the case with the blue dress) and sometimes making it work means taking a breather for a while and getting back to it later, only to discover that things are sometimes not as difficult as they seem.

Figuring out what to wear

For much of my adult life, I’ve avoided clothes shopping at all costs. In the past several years most of the clothing I’ve bought has been second-hand and occasionally I’ll duck into stores that I’d rather not enter because I want some basic things that you can’t normally find in thrift shops, and without things like that I would have a hard time pulling together outfits from a wardrobe that is otherwise filled with things like fire-engine red pleated skirts and 60s floral prints. And one day last winter I found that my one pair of pants was getting tight (I’m more of a skirt and dress person, that’s why I only had one pair) so rather than hook the waistband together with a rubber band I decided to go get a larger size. Thrift shops in Geneva are not great, so rather than spend the better part of an afternoon hunting through jeans that are either too big or too small or have rhinestone butterflies embroidered on the butt, I quickly went into a fast fashion shop, grabbed a stack of pants in various colors and sizes, chose the pair I liked best, paid for it and left. I was in and out in about fifteen minutes.

That’s how my relationship with clothes shopping has been for the past few years. It’s fine, I’m able to leave the house fully clothed on a regular basis, but it has kind of sucked the joy out of something that I once liked. Picking out pretty things to wear was once fun for me. With one of my best friends, Jane, I’d spend entire afternoons playing dress up as a teenager. Jane had a fantastic wardrobe that I loved going through. I have no idea where she got most of her stuff, but at fourteen years old she had things like a hot pink foam rubber dress with a tank bodice and bubble-shaped skirt that felt like a wetsuit when I tried it on. In middle school Jane began a project called Crazy Outfit Tuesday, which consisted in coming to school every Tuesday in a Crazy Outfit, such as a billowy mustard yellow pleated skirt, tights printed with a jelly bean graphic, an Air Force t-shirt of her dad’s, and a spiral telephone cord hooked around her neck like a necklace. She looked fabulous and, oddly enough for middle school, didn’t get made fun of for it (or if she did she took it in stride) because Jane’s brand of weirdness was one that was pretty much universally appreciated by her fellow students.

Jane was the person who inspired me to start thinking about how I actually wanted to dress, because in a mundane sea of Champion sweatshirted pre-adolescents, she stood out and had fun doing it. I was never as bold as she was, probably because I cared more than I liked to admit about what other people thought of me, but her example made me want to take my clothes more seriously and develop some semblance of a personal style. That’s what I tried doing for a number of years, but then when I started learning about where and how most of my clothing was produced, I became more and more uncomfortable with the process of shopping for clothes. Finally I all but stopped, and a few years ago I adopted the balance mentioned above, of scouting thrift shops and occasionally and furtively slipping into stores that shall not be named.

I also adopted a mild snootiness in thinking that shopping — and by extension, clothes — was superficial and thus I wanted little to no part of it. Daniel Miller in his book Stuff points out the issue with this. “On the surface is found the clothing which may represent us and may reveal a truth about ourselves, but it may also be a lie,” he writes. “It is as though if we peeled off the outer layers we would finally get to the real self within.” The problem with this, he argues, is that “we are then inclined to consider people who take clothes seriously as themselves superficial.” He continues:

Prior to feminism, newspaper cartoons had few qualms in showing women as superficial merely by portraying their desire to shop for shoes or dresses. Young black males were superficial because they wanted expensive trainers that they were not supposed to be able to afford. By contrast, we student academics at places such as Cambridge were deep and profound because frankly we looked like rubbish, and clearly didn’t much care that we did.

An additional problem for Miller, as an anthropologist, is that this equation of caring about clothing = superficiality is problematic when studying cultures in which clothing is important: “Dismissing them as superficial would represent a rather disastrous start to such an exercise.” He goes on to give the example of Trinidadians’ relationship to clothing as a case in point, and because I find it so interesting I’m going to go ahead and quote at length here:

I worked much of my time in Trinidad with squatters who had neither a water supply nor electricity in the house. Yet women living in these squatters’ camps might have a dozen or twenty pairs of shoes. A common leisure activity was to hold a fashion display, on a temporary catwalk, along one of the open spaces within the squatters’ encampment. They would beg, borrow, make or steal clothes. It wasn’t just the clothes, it was also the hair, the accessories and the way they strutted their stuff; knowing how to walk sexy and look glamorous or beguiling. Movements were based on an exaggerated self-confidence and a strong eroticism, with striding, bouncy, or dance-like displays. In local parlance there should be something hot about the clothing and something hot about the performance. On evenings I could spend three hours with them, waiting as they got themselves ready to go out and party, trying on and discarding outfits until they got it right.

This association is hardly new for the region. Early accounts of slave society in the Caribbean include references to the particular devotion of slaves to clothing. A.C. Carmichael stated in 1833: ‘Generally speaking, the coloured women have an insatiable passion for showy dresses and jewels… The highest class of females dress more showily and far more expensively than European ladies.’ Freilich, carrying out enthnographic research in an impoverished village in 1957-8, reports, ‘the wife of one of the peasants said “every new function needs new clothes. I would not wear the same dress to two functions in the same district.”‘ This desire was still more forcefully expressed during the 1970s oil boom in Trinidad when both seamstresses and their clients suggested that purchasing two new outfits a week was quite common for women in work. We do not necessarily condemn a population just because they show some devotion to stuff. Anthropologists celebrate, rather than demean, the devotion of Trobriand Islanders to canoe prows or of the Nuer to cattle. But curiously a devotion to clothing, as one can see from these descriptions by outsiders, was always viewed rather more harshly, especially for those without wealth.

As evident in the description of the local catwalk, what mostly concerned Trinidadians was not fashion — that is, the collective following of a trend, but style — that is, the individual construction of an aesthetic based not just on what you wear, but on how you wear it. There used to be a term saga boys for men who combined sartorial originality with ways of walking and talking that never let up from conspicuous display. Another local term gallerying gets it just right. Trinidad style, in turn, has two components, individualism and transience. The individual has to re-combine elements in their own way. The source of these elements is unimportant. They may be copied from the soap operas or the fashion shows which appear on television, sent from relatives abroad or purchased while abroad. They may simply re-combine local products. But the various elements should work together, be appropriate to the person who carries them off well, for ideally just one particular occassion. It didn’t matter what the clothes cost or even whether the clothes worn on the catwalk belonged to them or were borrowed for the occasion. This wasn’t about accumulation, but about transience. The stylist may learn from fashion but only as the vanguard. Then they must move on. Trinidad’s best known cultural export, Carnival, enshrines this transience. Individuals may spend weeks, if not months, creating elaborate and time-consuming costumes. But these must be discarded and re-made annually. What is celebrated is the event, the moment.

(…) [I]nstead of trying to ask where such a relationship to style comes from, instead of seeing it as a problem that requires explanation, we can turn the lens back onto ourselves. Why do we think that a devotion to clothing is a problem anyway? Why do we see it as a sign of superficiality and what does the very term superficiality imply? The problem with (…) treating clothing as superficial is that we presume a certain relationship between the interior and the exterior. We possess what could be called a depth ontology. The assumption is that being –what we truly are — is located deep inside ourselves and is in direct opposition to the surface. A clothes shopper is shallow because a philosopher or a saint is deep. The true core to the self is relatively constant and unchanging and also unresponsive to mere circumstance. We have to look deep inside ourselves to find ourselves. But these are all metaphors. Deep inside ourselves is blood and bile, not philosophical certainty. We won’t find a soul by cutting deep into someone, though I suppose we might accidentally release it. My point is that there is simply no reason on earth why another population should see things this same way. No reason at all why they should consider our real being to be deep inside and falsity on the outside. The argument here is that Trinidadians by and large don’t.

(…)

Most Trinidadians would certainly assert humour and wit as central to their self-definition and would see it as contributing to their sense of cool and style. (…) This keeping of things on the surface also means the freedom to construct oneself and not be categorized by circumstance. In London when two middle-class people meet they tend to ask each other ‘and what do you do?’ — meaning their employment. But most Trinidadians consider this highly inappropriate. One works simply because one needs to earn money, so this is entirely the wrong source of self-definition. Asking what work someone does tells you nothing significant about them. It is the things one chooses freely to do that should define you, not the things you have to do. Freedom in self-construction seems central.

It is again at Carnival that one comes to appreciate the further implications of not seeing the essential nature or truth of a person as a property located deep within. One of the main themes of Carnival is the revelation of truth. Carnival starts at night with a festival called Jouvert derived from the French jour d’ouvert or the opening of the day. People dress as creatures of the night, such as devils, or come out covered in mud. (…) Sometimes they carry placards with scandals and accusations. Gradually they move toward the centre of town where they are revealed by the dawn. In 1988, one of the most striking costumes represented a current calypso and was called Bacchanal Woman. A huge figure wore a dress festooned with eyes. Bacchanal is the disorder that follows scandalous revelation. (…) People try constantly not to reveal the truth about themselves but Carnival brings the things of the night into the light of revelation.

The point all this makes about lies is that people are constantly trying to hide them. And where is the obvious place to hide things? Well, deep inside where other people can’t see them. (…) For Trinidadians it is entirely obvious that truth resides on the surface where other people can easily see it and attest to it, while lies are to be found in the hidden recesses deep within. A person’s real being, then, is also on the surface, and evident. The deep person, who keeps things stored close to himself or herself and out of view, is viewed as just dishonest. The point, of course, is that truth is neither intrinsically deep nor on the surface. Neither set of metaphors can be judged as right or wrong. It is simply that there is no reason why any other population should have a concept of superficiality which sees the deep inside as true and significant and the surface as false and insignificant.

(…)

[W]e have this very peculiar ideal about looking natural, which tends to imply that putting on make-up and clothes is false and superficial. But why should we assume this? Why should the fact that one person has freckles tell us who they are? Or that one person is born uglier than another person, and so can portray evil or a debased character on the stage? We see the natural just like the deep as being about the truth of a person. The Trinidadian conception, by contrast, is that who we are is not at all given by the happenstance of physiognomy — our face when we wake up in the morning. Why on earth should the natural look of a person be a guide to who that person is? By contrast, a person who spends time, money, taste and attention in creating a look, where the final look is the direct result of all that activity and effort, can properly be discovered in their appearance. Because now one is judging what they have done, not what they happen to look like originally. We are judging them by their labour, not their birth. One aspires to the act of self-cultivation.

When I first read this, I think what I found so interesting about it was the affront that it was to my own idea that the surface is superficial and the true self lies inside. That is something that I have absorbed over the course of my life thus far to define for me what is reality, and it’s been backed up by personal experience. I’m someone who has one of those faces that, if I’m not smiling, looks deadly serious or angry about something. Once as a teenager I was on a bus with some friends going downtown (to do what I don’t know, loitering or looking for additions to our classic rock cassette collections) and an older man sitting across from us stared at my friend Linda and me for a while before announcing to Linda that she looked “nice” whereas I looked “mean.” I still remember that twenty years later because it hurt — I’m not a mean person (maybe sometimes, but not on purpose) and here this guy was judging me from my stony-faced exterior and deciding who I was and what I was like based on that. Women get this all the time: I know I’m not the only one who has had to endure countless observations from strangers on the street that I’m not smiling, and why don’t I smile, and encouragements to “hey, smile!” In addition to wanting to scream at them that my purpose in life is not to walk around sunnily smiling at men for whatever purpose that would serve — I’ve never quite figured that one out — I’ve also always been confused because more often than not I’m not smiling because I’m lost in thought, thinking about happy things or sad things or whatever sort of thing that just happens to not show up on my face. They can’t see what’s going on in my head because the surface manifestation doesn’t match it. The real me is inside, whereas the surface me is (apparently) going around scowling at everyone.

So based on a lifetime of empirical data I eventually arrived at the conclusion that the real me was somewhere deep inside, and my physical self was just a source of transportation to get my real self around to work and school and social events and Walter Benjamin reading groups. And clothes — in addition to being produced by sweatshop labor and fossil fuels — were just a means to avoid getting arrested for public nudity during the course of those commutes.

The problem with believing this is that it ran into head-on conflict with a reality that I was trying to deny, and which I’ve only recently stopped denying: I like clothes. I love beautiful fabric and bright colors, the feel of something that drapes perfectly and moves with me, and, yes, the sense that what I wear is somehow a projection of what exists in my head, the feeling that it’s somehow a reflection of my individual self. The latter is probably part of why I love shopping in second-hand shops. It feels like I’m on a treasure hunt looking for myself, and when I find something that seems like me I’m also excited by the idea that I’m going to be the only one in the entire world wearing it. (Because all other copies of a particular dress were burned, and this is the only one remaining? That’s what it feels like anyway.)

This is, in the end, why I’ve taken up sewing this year. I recognize that I could very well go out in the world wearing the exact same thing every day. I would continue to live and breathe, no problem. A full wardrobe is not necessary to the continuation of basic biological functions. But I don’t want to go out in the world every day wearing the exact same thing. Having a full wardrobe is not a question of survival, it’s a question of desire, and of fun. Why else do so many people have more than two outfits on rotation? And why should we limit ourselves to that if we don’t want to?

This gets me back to the issue of where fast fashion comes from, what it’s made of, and who makes it. Since I still can’t stomach forking over my money to support that industry, I decided to start filling in my wardrobe with things I make myself. This of course brings up a whole load of other issues, such as the fact that fabric is still made somewhere by someone else (though you can check the tag, which will usually state the country of origin) and also the fact that it takes an immense amount of time to make something that seems so simple. I submit to you the following example, the shirt I made this weekend. It was the first time I ever sewed something using a pattern and I’m really very happy with how it turned out:

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(Note: the color coordination of the shirt with the circa 1982 linoleum in our hallway was unintentional.)

Simple, right? A basic v-neck tank, no sleeves to mess with. The trickiest part about it was that it’s cut on the bias. But even so, it took me nine and a half hours to make it. (I timed the process.) The fabric was 30-something Swiss francs, and add the cost of labor to that and you can best bet that I will not be tossing this tank top into the wash with my sweaty running clothes. This is haute couture that I sweated and cursed over for a few hours Saturday afternoon and the better part of Sunday. The very fact that I had the available time to do so is privilege in itself, not to mention the privilege of spending money on a sewing machine and untold hours learning how to use it. But in the end, money-wise, this is cheap because nowhere on Earth will you find a shirt made of Italian fabric with hand-stitched interior seams for less than your monthly rent. Odd to think about how making your own clothes is both cheaper (when compared to store items of similar quality I mean) and also a thing people can do only if they’re relatively privileged (meaning they have the time to do it).

Anyway, this is how I’ve decided to reconcile my love of clothes with my hatred of shopping for them. It’s funny, because when my mom was growing up she made a lot of her own clothes because that was the only means she had to accumulate a wardrobe. Shop-bought clothes were expensive and there wasn’t the money for it, so she went to school in her handmade kilts, mortally embarassed at her homespun-ness, and vowing from a young age that she would ensure that her future children would have the privilege of buying their clothes in shops. Now in her late 60s, she’s done a complete 180 and despises the very industry that she once wanted to buy into. But she still likes pretty things, so she’s taken to making them. About once a week, Mom emails me photos of her latest masterful knitting projects, and I email her back photos of whatever I’m knitting or sewing at the moment, and we respond to each other with mutual praise of how fantastic we look.

The Roses sweater

1929 Oct 12 mother-Angela Eva [Ernsdorff] Ellwanger, daughter-Rosemary Eva 'Roses'

The woman above on the right is my grandmother Rosemary, aka Roses, on her wedding day, October 12, 1929. A woman named Judy found my family tree on a genealogy website and emailed me because we’re distantly related — her grandmother was my great-grandmother’s little sister. We started corresponding last year because Judy has a large stash of family photos and is trying to identify the people in them — no small task, since many of the photos are pushing a hundred years old, and so very few of the people in them are still alive to identify themselves. So Judy and I, plus my father, are attempting to put names to faces, with little to go on. The woman on the left in the above photo, we assume, is Roses’s mother, Angie, but she could also be Roses’s mother-in-law, Katherine (that’s what my father thinks).

I have stared at this photo for untold lengths of time since Judy sent it to me this past week. There are so many things about it that hypnotize me: the smiles, for one. My father has a framed portrait of his parents on their wedding day, only in that one my grandmother is dutifully gazing into the distance, serious and unsmiling, like a silent movie star. She’s wearing the same headpiece and holding the same bouquet of lilies. I’m very familiar with that photo, and so seeing this one in which she’s grinning, her eyes crinkled, next to her mother (or mother-in-law), makes me gleefully happy because she looks like a real, 22-year-old human about to get (or just after getting) hitched.

Judy also sent me this photo:

1929 Oct 12 Wedding Rosemary Eva Ellwanger

The dapper man on the far left is Judy’s grandfather, Bart. Angie/Katherine is in the center, holding the arm of a young man whom we believe to be RJ “Boots” Ellwanger, Roses’s little brother. To Angie/Katherine’s right (your left), skipping a person, there’s a woman peeking her head out from behind the front row — that’s Judy’s grandmother, Winnie. In front of Boots is Roses’s sister and maid of honor, Flo. Just behind Roses to her right (your left) is her dearly beloved, my grandfather, Carl Stevenson. Directly behind Angie/Katherine is a gentleman who seems to be looking askance at the man who is stealing his daughter away — this is Roses’s father, my great-grandfather, RJ Number One.

I am mesmerized by this photo as well: The short hair, the pleated drop-waist skirts, the three-piece suits. The girl third from the left who’s sticking her tongue out at the photographer. The little boy on the far right in knickerbockers and argyle socks. The sleepy bulldog who decided to get in the shot and was recorded for posterity.

I’m also fascinated by this because the people in the photo did not know at the time that in twelve days the stock market would crash violently and ten years of economic depression would follow. I don’t know what happened to this family during that period. I wish I had thought to ask my grandmother before she died in 1998, but I was sixteen and didn’t really think to ask things like that at that age. Her family was middle to upper-middle class. Her grandfather John (RJ One’s father) came to the US from Prussia two years after the Revolutions of 1848 (he was born on the boat), and ended up in Iowa, where as an adult he made a killing in the liquor business. He had a huge, three-story house that’s still there in the center of Dubuque, which I know because my father and I did a drive-by once. Legend has it that John’s second wife went mad with the Panic of 1907, allegedly attacked the mailman one day, and thereafter lived in the attic while John went on to marry a third time. And yet, life went on, in good ways or bad, as it did for the people in these family photos, and as it does every time our precariously balanced house of cards tumbles yet again. People continue getting married, having babies, going to work, making do, maybe sometimes questioning why we put so much faith in an economic system that has failed us so many times.

I got into researching my paternal genealogy not so much because I’m a nostalgic person (though there is some of that, too), but because I like to ponder what life was like on the cusp of huge historical events. I’ve got about forty pages left in William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, and this weekend I finished a multi-month project of binge watching Mad Men (about four years after everyone else). With both, I feel a tiny thrill (or chill, depending) every time the storyline is creeping up to an important date — 24 October 1929, 23 November 1963. How will the characters react? How would I have reacted? It will be like that when I am old and my hypothetical future grandchildren are looking at photos of me wearing a hair scrunchie and acid-wash jeans with snaps at the ankles. Where was I when the Berlin Wall fell? Where was I on September 11, 2001? (Answers, respectively: lying belly down on the living room carpet watching the evening news footage, and waiting in line to check my email at the university computer lab, not knowing at first why everyone was freaking out).

My current knitting project is a sweater pattern from a 1930s booklet. The pattern is called the “3-Hour Sweater,” because you can supposedly knit it in three hours, which I assure you is absolutely not the case. Though it’s knitting up quickly, I’d say it’s more like the 3-Day Sweater if you’re burning the midnight oil, or the 3-Week Sweater if most of your knitting is done like mine is, on the bus into town and while watching the season 7 finale of a worringly addictive period drama.

I found the pattern on Ravelry and have included it at the end of this post, which I felt at liberty to do because the copyright must be expired by now. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a vintage pattern when I found this one. I was just looking for something to knit with 615 yards of worsted-weight targhee wool in cranberry red that my mother gave me for Christmas. (It’s awesome to work with, found here if you’re interested.) When I stumbled upon this pattern, I felt like it was the obvious winner. The finished sweater will look something like this:

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At the moment it looks like this:

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There’s bit more work to do on the front, and after that come the two puff sleeves and stitching everything together (which I’ve never done, so that’ll be an exciting feat). Realistically it’ll be another week, but still time enough to be able to wear it plenty before it gets too warm here to wear wool.

I was knitting this when my email pinged with Judy’s latest photo finds, so I had my new-old sweater in my lap when I first saw my grandmother happily smiling at 22 years old, showing some white-stockinged leg in her trendy, asymmetrically hemmed wedding dress. I have no idea if she was a knitter, but I’d like to think so, and so I’m pretending that there’s a possibility that she once knit a sweater of this very design. There is something almost eerie about working with a vintage pattern, your hands following the same instructions as someone else’s hands did eighty years ago.

When I was at a thrift shop the other day scouting out second-hand fabrics, I also wound up buying this sewing pattern from circa 1980something:

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The pattern is already cut, and I’m fine making do with that, and even happy for it because that means it was used and maybe loved. It also makes me wonder what its previous owner was doing and thinking as she was cutting the pattern and piecing together her homemade skirt. Where was she when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and Pan Am 103 crashed in Lockerbie? What was she thinking when she watched the guy in the white shirt stand down the tanks in Tiananmen Square? I only have hazy memories of a few big events in the 1980s — my world at the time was the size of Sesame Street — but this skirt’s maker was, let’s assume, an adult and as such had an entirely different experience of that decade. And so when I go to start work on Burda super-easy 7226, I’ll think of what she might have been thinking when the stock market crashed in 1987, like I’m thinking about the makers of my 1930s sweaters, and about my grandmother in her wedding photos, smiling on the brink of a new and scary decade.

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3-HOUR SWEATER (from a 1930s booklet that is in bits & pieces)

Fascinating!  And  most  popular. Three hours of knitting and presto —you have a smart garment your friends are sure to admire. The loose stitch  progresses  so  rapidly  you’ll want to make several — two or three for your own wardrobe and others for gifts.

SIZE 16 (see note below)

Five 1-oz. balls Germantown Zephyr*

1 pair bone needles 5MM (Note from me: my needles are bamboo, and that works fine.)

1 pair wooden needles 10MM

1 crochet hook No. 3

4 sts = 1 inch

BACK:

With 5MM bone needles cast on 52 sts.

K 2, p 2 for 3 inches. Change to the 10MM wooden needles.  K one row, p one row for nine inches.

Bind off 2 sts at the beginning of the next 2 rows. Then decrease 1 st both ends of needle every k row until 44 sts remain. Next row start yoke.

K 2 sts, p 2 sts and continue ribbing still decreasing 1 st both ends of needle every other row until 22 sts remain. Bind off.

FRONT:

Cast on 56 sts with 5MM bone needles.

Follow directions for back until there are 48 sts on needle. Next row start yoke.

K 2, p 2 for 24 sts. Leave these sts on pin to be worked later for the other half of front and continue to k 2, p 2, on remaining 24 sts. Work ribbing of k 2, p 2 for rest of yoke, keeping front edge even and decreasing I st every other row on armhole edge until front edge measures 3 inches.

Bind off 6 sts at neck edge. Then decrease I st at neck edge every row, still decreasing 1 st at armhole every other row until all sts are decreased. Work other half of front to correspond.

SLEEVE:

Cast on 4 sts.  K 2, p 2 increasing 1 st both ends of needle every other row. When there are 20 sts on needle change to k 1 row, p 1 row, still increasing 1 st both ends of needle until there are 36 sts.

Then cast on 4 sts at each end of work. K I row, p 1 row for 3 inches.

Next row — K first 2 sts together, * k 2 sts, k next 2 sts together. Repeat from * across row to last 2 sts. K these 2 sts together. (32 sts on needle.)

K 2, p 2 on these 32 sts for 1-1/2 inches. Bind off.

Sew underarm and sleeve seams. Sew sleeve into sweater. Finish around neck and front opening with one row of single crochet, making a loop at top of opening for button.

Germantown Zephyr  is described as:

A 4-fold yarn (4 twisted strands) of high-quality virgin wool. Approximately 80 yards to the ounce. It is available in Ombre (variegated shades) as well as solid colors.

Suitable for: Afghans, robes, and pillows. Suits and dresses for women and children. Sweaters for men, women, and children. Scarfs, mittens, berets, etc.

 

A note on sizing:

This is vintage sizing, so a 1930s size 16 has nothing to do with a 2016 size 16. Clothing manufacturers over the years have continuously used smaller and smaller numbers for sizing in order to appeal to women’s vanity. Sizes once presumably corresponded to something, but they now correspond to nothing at all. I have modern-size fours to tens in my closet, all of which fit, and I have a gaudy 1960s shift dress that’s marked as a European size 42 and that also fits. Since my 3-Week Sweater is still in pieces, I can’t say for sure how it fits, but it looks like it’s going to be roomy enough to be comfortable and not pull across the bust, but won’t be baggy. Your best bet is to go off your bust measurement, holding the measuring tape at the widest part of your bust — securely enough so it stays in place, but loose enough for you to be able to breathe comfortably. Mine is 36.5 inches, so I think if you’re within an inch of that either way this pattern will work for you as written. If you’re larger, you’ll need to adjust the pattern. A woman going by the name of Miss Dixie O’Dare posted in the comments section on Ravelry that she’d adapted the pattern for herself, and was nice enough to post it on her blog. She lists her adjustment as being for a 40-42 inch bust, so you can use her pattern as written if that’s your size, or use it for reference if you’re somewhere in between and brave enough to adapt the pattern for your own body. Either way, it’s a quick project so if you have to undo things a few times in order to get it right you won’t have lost much time.

Also, needle sizes here are important — from the looks of the photos on the sweater’s Ravelry page, a lot of knitters didn’t use the recommended needle size, which is totally their perogative, but if you use smaller needles you won’t have the same shape that’s shown in the drawing of the sweater above. That will of course have an effect on whether or not the sweater will fit in the end.

Add another craft to the list

I’m getting way ahead of myself here, but I’ve had quilting on the brain recently. This is utterly insane for someone who barely keeps a lid on her anger while replacing a missing button, but I started thinking about it during this past month because of a really amazing wedding present that my CCC buddies gave to us:

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A quilt made of fabric swatches from ten of the coolest people in the world. When they presented it to us right after the ceremony I was put through a pop quiz of which piece of cloth belonged to which person, and I almost nailed it — 7 for 10. I would have gotten 10 for 10 were I not in total emotional upheaval at the time.

The answer key…

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I’m going to learn how to sew

Before I get into over analyzing things, here’s my homemade haute couture:

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Alongside one of my lovely seamstresses. The whole process of making it (for which I was useless aside from my role as mannequin) was an incredible learning opportunity. It was something I’ve never experienced before since I’m not in the habit of having my clothes custom made. Maybe I’ll get into that habit if I can convince them to outfit me for the coming seasons. Or I can learn to do it myself. Then I can quit rotating the same three outfits (black dress, blue dress, green dress).

We started from a pattern bought online from Burda, which they eventually chucked in the trash because the instructions were indecipherable. It wasn’t their fault — just google “I hate Burda patterns” and you’ll see we are not alone. (“No seam allowances? WTF.”) The top called for ruching, which was ruled out for logistic and aesthetic reasons, so the three generations winged it from there and came out with something that I love so much more than the original design. They also decided to do it in two pieces — skirt and separate halter — so I can wear the skirt with a tank top, the halter with jeans, etc. This was important for me because I don’t see any sense in doing so much work to make a dress I’d only wear once, and although I think I could rewear a white dress without looking too bride-like, my life doesn’t throw at me very many opportunities for playing dress up.

In thinking about the making of this dress, I asked myself the question of why do the work at all? I could have very well gotten married in a pair of cut-off jeans and a spotty T-shirt picked from the laundry bin, so why did I feel the need for something special? But then, why get married at all? It’s not really necessary, it’s just something we do. It’s a desire we have, a desire to share traditions, to hold a proper celebration marking the importance we give to love and commitment. We invent these traditions, of course. We don’t need them to continue living and breathing — but basic mechanisms for survival, respiration, transpiration, metabolic functions, are not what make us human. We are madly in love and we wanted to celebrate our love, so we decided to throw a great big party that lasted till 6 in the morning and invite all our friends and family. Did we need to do that? Of course not. Was it beautiful, moving, and fun as all hell, and did everyone cry and hug people they’d never met before and laugh and dance with abandon? Oh yes. I’m so happy we did it. These are the things that make us human, that make humanity beautiful and worth saving.

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The joy of faire soi-même

The other day I stumbled upon a recent issue of Femme Actuelle, a French women’s magazine, that had the following tagline on its cover:

DO IT YOURSELF: A TREND THAT LIFTS US UP

So obviously I had a look, because like everyone else I could use a lift-up now and then.

The inside:

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And a translation for your reading pleasure:

Do it yourself: a trend that lifts us up

If DIY is catching on as much as it is, it’s because it goes far beyond being just a trend. It offers to those who take it up a space for expression and self-realization that carries real reasons to feel good.

By Isabelle Gavillon

To work with one’s hands and creativity is no old-fashioned notion — enough with the old jokes about macramé sessions — DIY is a real trend. We can no longer keep track of the blogs that explain how to make your own beauty products, jams, jewelry, hand-knitted sweaters, furniture … If the shaky economic situation is forcing us to be more creative in order to spend less, we can also find a real pleasure in it. “There’s nothing depressed or pathetic about doing it yourself. DIY has a practically metaphysical dimension because it transforms us,” says Ronan Chastellier, sociologist and author of Tous en slip! Essai sur la frugalité contemporaine et le retour aux valeurs simples (editions du Moment). [Down to our skivvies! Writings on contemporary frugality and the return to simple values…. Is that not a great title?] An enticing proposition.

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Dress session #1

Yesterday Mélanie and her mom and I started work on the dress I’m wearing for my grand nuptials next month. To be clear, all I did was hold down the fabric for pattern cutting and insert a few pins here and there, half of which I put in the wrong way. I’m fairly useless in this department.

I asked Mélanie to make my dress because she comes from a long line of sewers and is the sort of person who can squint at a complicated blouse and say, “I think I’ll make a copy of this in a different fabric.” You know, just eyeball it — without a pattern, without even taking apart the first blouse, and yet it comes out looking perfect. She’s also the sort of person who will show up to meet me wearing some sort of amazingly beautiful new article of clothing, and when I compliment her on it and ask where she found it, she replies that her great-grandmother made it in 1927. In short, Mélanie is a remarkable human being (one of my favorites), and even more remarkable in this, our current epoch, in which whole generations of people are growing up not knowing how to replace a button. The fact that Mélanie (age 27) can not only sew buttons, but pleats if she so desires, astounds me. She knows this because she grew up with it, in a family culture where people sew clothing.

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Thoughts about fibers

My mother and I finally had post-Madrona Skype talk 1 on Sunday (we only had an hour to talk so there’s still more to tell — she and I have an otherworldly endurance for conversation) and so I’m here with some of the info she shared. Madrona is a yearly retreat in Tacoma, Washington, for people who are into knitting, crocheting, spinning, weaving, etc. She got back last week but her yarn won’t get back for a few weeks, since she bought so much that she had to ship it ground delivery. That’s my Ma.

One of her biggest finds at the retreat was the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius (whose blog I can’t find, so I suppose she doesn’t have one, but Mom said she writes for Hobby Farms and Mother Earth News). The sourcebook is on the many different animals that give us their wool for yarn, and while my mother doesn’t raise animals (one neighbor in particular would have a fit, I’ll tell you that), she picked up the book because of all the information to be had in it on the provenance of the yarn she buys. I’m not about to get into animal husbandry just yet. (Read about my turbulent relationship with crochet here, here, and here, for starters. I am not ready for sheep.) Even so, I was glad for the reference because it lead me to Deborah’s blog, and the Hobby Farms website.

I don’t know anyone else in my pre-PhD program whose mother provides them with research references. +1 My Mom.

Other fibers have been on my mind since yesterday, because yesterday I started more seriously considering the question of what sort of pretty dress I’m going to wear for my wedding. (That’s the first mention of “wedding” I’ve made on this blog. Kind of lackluster, no? How about if I put a smiley in there? 🙂 )

Melanie (who hates smileys 🙂 ) said yes when I asked if she would make my dress for me, and she might be regretting her answer now. I like to think that I’m not being high maintenance about the whole thing, but I do have some preferences for how we do it. The top two priorities are that it’s something I will wear again many times, and that it has a big swingy skirt that spins out when I dance. Unfortunately these two priorities don’t fit together very well, because the sticker is that I’d also rather not use synthetic (ie petroleum-based) fabric, which is exactly the kind of fabric that spins nicely while dancing. The only natural cloth that I can think of that will spin when I dance is silk, which costs, I learned yesterday, about 60 Swiss francs per meter, and using silk will also most likely lead to me never wearing the dress again because the dress will require dry cleaning. I don’t do dry cleaning.

(In case you were wondering, yes, I’m kind of folding the making of my wedding dress into my research.)

So one of my priorities will have to go. I’m leaning toward nixing the swingy skirt, as much as it kills me to do so. I think the last time I had a swingy skirt was back when I was but a spry three-year-old dancing at my dad’s summer office party. Kate at 32.75 years old would really love a swingy skirt, but more important is that all Melanie’s hard work and the work of whoever made the materials isn’t going to get stored in a box after one day of use.

Speaking of the influence of princess dreams on grown-up desires, I saw this on Facebook this morning (posted by the page Buy Nothing New for a Year):

(One more 🙂 for Mel)