I learned several important things while making a shirt for my friend Hannah:
It’s for a friend, and the first important thing that I learned is: I am apparently much more careful about everything when I’m sewing for a friend. This is only the second time I’ve sewn something for someone else, but the last time was nearly a year ago and I forgot how much more precise I am when someone else is going to be wearing it. Go ahead and psychoanalyze me, I’ve been doing it too for the past few days.
Another important thing was: being extra careful takes considerably more time, but you are richly rewarded for your time, and you don’t cringe at the garment’s innards as you put it on.
Another important thing: being extra careful and taking more time to do things right can actually be quite meditative.
And finally: being extra careful and taking my time made a simple t-shirt, which I’ve already sewn twice for myself, feel luxurious and precious and beautiful. (For info: the pattern is Lou Box Top, found here, and the fabric is from Liberty London.)
I will now take you on a tour:
This is me pinning down the French seams, a new trick I’ve had up my sleeve since late July. It is now one of my top three favorite sewing techniques. Also, please do not judge my ugly ironing board. It was 5 euros second-hand and it gets the job done. One of these days I’d like to replace the cover but for now I’d rather be sewing fancy t-shirts for my friends.
And then I ironed down the French seams and hand sewed them flat. This more or less took the entire weekend.
I took some time to ponder how to deal with the bottom hem, because in my experience thus far I’ve found that curved hems are a pain, because the fabric always folds over on itself and looks like a hack job. Having spent the better part of a weekend on this shirt and happy with how it was turning out, I wanted the hemline to be pristine. This is what led me to discover another of my top three sewing techniques: the hand-rolled hem. Here’s the video I watched:
As I was laying down the first few stitches, I still didn’t believe that I would be capable of such magic — and yet when I pulled on the thread my stitches folded in on themselves one after another down the line. A rolled hem turned out to be perfect for the fabric and the shape of the hem, and on top of that it was fun to sew. I found myself slowing down so I could enjoy it for just a little bit longer, and was honest to god sad when I closed up the last of it.
After all of that, here’s what the insides of Hannah’s shirt look like:
Nothing but tidiness. I’m a changed woman. A slower one.
And so my number one favorite sewing technique is … cultivating some damn patience.
That’s it. I’ve realized that without patience, I may as well forget about all of this clothes making business, because in the end what I’m interested in is making things to last, making things well, taking my time, making less (how about that!) but making better. That’s what I want, but it’s taken about this long for it to really sink into my head enough so that I actually act out what I want and value.
Moving on… I’ve narrowed down a list of the things I’d like to sew for myself for fall. Number one is a cape, but I haven’t found the fabric yet. Number two is this shirt from atelier scammit, which I’m making with a vintage (c. 1950s/60s) navy blue crepe I bought off Etsy. Number three is this skirt from Colette, which I don’t find to be as exciting as a big ol’ cape, but a stretchy jersey skirt will be very practical for wearing with things I already have. And as I was cruising pattern companies, I thought, hey, let’s be practical. (Full disclosure: I have several other patterns waiting in the wings that may or may not get made … so much for setting the limit at three new items for myself. However, these three will get made first, and if that’s all I make, all the better.) In the sewing for other people category, Alvaro is going to be getting a button-down shirt once we go find fabric for it. (The pattern is Walden, also from Colette. I will admit that I bought it mostly for the name, but also because it has several adaptations so it’s one pattern packet that has the potential to create many different shirts.)
The crepe should arrive this weekend, but rather than cut right into it I’ll be making a muslin. I will be making a muslin because, as noted above, I am a changed woman who does not just leap into sewing projects willy nilly. I make muslins, even for fairly loose tops like the one I’m planning for my crepe, because one of the points of making your own clothes is fitting things exactly how you want (and I need a FBA, which complicates things). I would also like to avoid a meltdown from messing things up with the actual shirt fabric, since it can’t be replaced. Alvaro’s shirt will get a muslin as well because I figure I’ll be remaking the shirt several times over in the future.
That’s it for sewing. As for knitting, aside from churning out very loudly striped socks for myself and others, I’ll be making a wool cardigan (Something Silver on Ravelry) with yarn from the Longomaï collective outside of Grenoble. They turn up at my favorite local Christmas market every year (a kind of punky one, where potters sell pots next to antifa guys selling antifa pins) and I realized early this morning as I was drinking my coffee and scrolling through Ravelry that I have (I think) enough of their yarn to make a fitted sweater. And if it turns out that I’m short, I know where to find them come mid December. The yarn is white (undyed, but I’ll probably dye it after knitting) and reeks of sheep, which I find not that unpleasant. This is my test swatch, after blocking:
THAT’S RIGHT: I SWATCHED. And blocked.
Want to know why? Because I’ve been knitting away these past two weeks and all I have to show for those hours is a life lesson, which is great, but I was aiming for a sweater. I tried first one yarn and pattern and then another pattern, didn’t swatch either time, and both times was so far off on the gauge that, without exaggeration, I could have fit myself x 2 in the finished sweater were I to continue knitting it.
I talked to a fellow knitter and sewer today about this, and she groaned when I mentioned swatching. As she said, it just feels like a waste of time. But you know what’s a bigger waste of time? Spending a week knitting a sweater and holding it up against yourself and saying, hmm, I do believe I will drown in this, and then having to unravel the whole thing.
And so, I swatched. And the gauge is perfect. I didn’t have the right needles (I swatched on straight, but need circular for the actual sweater) so I ordered them from my local shop and they should be here by the weekend. I felt a little leap in my heart thinking that I wouldn’t be able to cast on tonight, but we’re talking about a few days here. I can wait. I am patient.
This year I’ve been trying to move into a seasonal rhythm with my sewing and knitting wherein I’m sewing and knitting warm weather clothes in the fall and winter, and sewing and knitting cool weather clothes in the spring and summer. I tried relining my winter coat in late October last year, failed miserably, never figured out how to fix it, and thus proceeded to freeze/wear four layers during the winter for lack of a decent coat. I vowed to do it differently this year, to make things ahead of their season, and I’ve more or less managed to do so.
I started moving on to fall-winter stuff at the beginning of August, with socks and a gigantic, cozy sweater (still in progress — it’s the Linen Stitch Pullover on Ravelry if you’re on there). No sewing, though, until yesterday.
Yesterday I started to make a shirt. At the beginning of making this shirt, I said to myself, out loud, “this is doomed from the start” — and wouldn’t you know it, I was right! Incidentally, I said the same thing to myself at the start of this skirt. It does get tiring being right all the damn time.
Note to self: stop trying to self-draft or copy anything more complicated than an A-line skirt.
I wanted to take my time, to French seam the interior to within an inch of its life, to hand baste the pieces together instead of pinning them. I did all of that, and yet it still failed. I will repeat the reason why it failed, more for my benefit than yours, as I’ve done this over and over again and yet I still keep doing it over and over again: I am not at a skill level where I can self-draft or copy anything more complicated than an A-line skirt.
This was very definitely an impulse sew, a bad habit of mine because my impulse sews almost always turn out poorly. It happened like this: I was drinking my morning coffee, knitting a pair of socks for Alvaro, and listening to the Thread Cult podcast (I just discovered it recently) and the podcast planted a bug in my ear that said: Go sew! I have a shirt that I’m due to make for a friend, but it’s with a pattern (Lou Box Top) that I’ve made twice and I really wanted to do something new. I started going through my small collection of patterns, but the patterns I have are all for summer clothes, or else I don’t yet have the right fabric, or else they’re vintage patterns for someone with a 20-inch waist. I was motivated to sew but not motivated enough to deal with enlarging a pattern. I also went through the two sewing pattern books I have, but it was the same story there. My next stop was my closet, and that’s how I landed on the very bad idea of trying to replicate a shirt with sleeves.
This is the favorite shirt that I picked out to copy:
It’s a slightly cropped trapeze-cut top that I got at a second-hand shop in Boston a couple of years ago. It fits me really well around the shoulders and underarms, and there are no darts so I wasn’t going to have to fuss with trying to figure out how to add them to the pattern. The fabric is kind of stretchy and felty (sorry for the technical jargon) and the fabric I was using for my copy was pretty different — a woven cotton with a slight stretch — but I thought it would work anyway. I’m pretty sure I was right on that actually; the fabric wasn’t the issue, but rather the cut. Or maybe the seam allowances weren’t big enough? I wish I could tell you where I went wrong, but if I knew where I went wrong I would be over at my sewing table right now fixing it.
Luckily the fabric I used is not one I particularly love. It was within the heaps of fabric I bought in Madrid last Christmas. It wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t particularly nice either. I got it at a small indie craft shop that had mostly quilt fabric, and I really just bought it to buy something. Alvaro and I had taken the Metro all the way to the other side of the city to go to this particular shop because I’d read an online review, and so I felt like I couldn’t walk away empty handed. A silly reason to buy something. After maybe a few minutes of “well, that was a pointless trip,” neither of us would have cared one way or another.
I think I can probably salvage this somehow, turn it into a sleeveless top maybe. I recounted a bit of my escapades to Alvaro and he suggested that I make a quilt out of my projects that didn’t work out. I’ve filed away this excellent idea for down the road. I like the image of rolling myself into a cozy, quilted cocoon of past failures as I wail in frustration at another sewing project gone awry.
All things considered, I don’t feel particularly bad about this. I did learn some lessons about construction, and I got to practice French seaming on more difficult shapes like rounded shoulders on sleeves. Fun fact as an aside — I learned how to do French seams at the sewing workshop I went to during our vacation (volunteering at a castle restoration project in the north of France, another blog post for another day). I had never seen such a thing, and I didn’t even know what it was called in English, but in French it’s called couture à l’anglaise… which means “English seams.” I only learned the English name when I got home and was scrolling through other people’s sewing projects on Instagram. I think this is hilarious and weird, like neither country wanted to take credit for inventing such a magnificent sewing technique.
Another thing I learned: I need to actually plan my upcoming sewing projects, and that means investing in some patterns and warmer fabric (i.e. not thin cotton and cotton gauze, which is all I have). I’m not planning on sewing a whole new wardrobe. I was thinking three pieces: a cape (already have the pattern for that, and it’s going to be obscenely dramatic and I can’t wait), and two undecideds. Here I was, thinking I had leg up on winter because I’m knitting a sweater in August, and actually I have no idea what’s in store for my sewing machine and me.
11:52 a.m. I decided to make a quick skirt this morning because I have the day entirely free to work on my PhD research (which involves sewing, so making a skirt is relevant) and also because we’re leaving for vacation on Friday and I thought it would be nice to have a skirt that was somewhere in between schlepping clothes and clothes that I might wear in a not so schleppy but still relaxed environment. We’re going to spend one week volunteering with an organization that restores medieval castles in France, and then one week that’s open and unplanned but that will probably be spent beach camping. I don’t want to be wearing my camping rags for two straight weeks, but I’m also not going to want to wear my normal uniform (nice-ish skirt and top) because we’re going to be camping after all and I’m not going to roll up to the campfire in a pencil skirt. It’s also going to be moderately hot so no jeans. I settled on a lightweight denim skirt because it would be an in-between and also a plain, versatile color.
This was supposed to be an easy skirt. No pattern, but I’ve already done a few self-drafted things, and all the techniques I planned to use were things that I’d done before. It is now nearly noon and the skirt is nowhere near finished — instead it’s lying crumpled up on my ironing board, where I hurled it about a half an hour ago after I had to rip out the waist gathering for the fourth time.
In my entire life, I don’t think I have ever let loose such a constant string of expletives over such an extended period of time as I have this morning. But I am determined to finish what I started, and so I’ve decided to switch back and forth between finishing this %&#!@/# skirt and venting here about finishing this %&#!@/# skirt.
Problems I have encountered thus far:
- Mis-measuring the waistband
- Machine sewing the zipper — I nearly broke my needle so I’ve decided to finish it by hand
- Ruching attempt #1: thread snapped as I was trying to make the gathers so I had to rip it all out
- Ruching attempt #2: same as above
- Ruching attempt #3: same as above
- Ruching attempt #4: I finally managed to not snap the thread, and was quite pleased with myself and so went on to sew up the side seam. Then I tried it on and somehow (I don’t know how, because I measured the stupid thing for the love of all that is holy) the circumference of the waist was so huge that it wound up around my ankles.
The attempts at ruching led to a realization, which was that I don’t like ruching. I’m not just saying that because it seems that today for some reason I can’t get it right, but it occurred to me that I would probably never buy a ruched anything in a shop, so why am I going to make something with ruching? (The answer before was that it’s an easy technique, but just because something’s easy doesn’t mean I should do it.)
Anyway, the skirt still needs some sort of waist gathering, and so I’ve settled on pleats. We’ll see how this goes. I’ll report back soon.
12:32 p.m. I made pleats with a fork using a tutorial that I saw on YouTube the other day:
My machine didn’t have enough space for the fork handle, so using brute force I broke the fork handle in half.
I just tried on the skirt, which is now pleated, and it fits but only if I don’t breathe. So now I’m going to take out a pleat at the back on either side of the zipper and see if that helps.
12:43 p.m. It fits. Praise the universe. I’m going to go have lunch now.
1:41 p.m. I had a quick lunch and jumped right into dealing with the waistband.
Don’t want to tempt the fates or anything but I think I might have done it right the first time.
2:04 p.m. I have a suspicion that we have invisible house gnomes that sneak over and mess up this skirt when I’m not looking. I tried on the skirt before I added the waist band and it fit perfectly. Then I added the waistband (which I cut to the exact same length as the circumference of the top of the skirt) and sewed it on. I was so relieved and so happy with myself because I managed to fix the waistband around the top of the zipper more neatly than I’d ever done before on the machine. I’d been having my doubts this afternoon as to whether I really liked the skirt or if I was just making something to make something. My zipper success made me decide that I did indeed like this skirt. A lot.
Then I tried it on. And… too tight. How is this possible? And on top of it there are three or four pleats that just up and disappeared, so it’s pleated all around and then you get to this spot where it’s just flat. I really, truly, cannot figure this out, hence the gnome theory. I feel like I’m going insane.
It pains me to do this but I’ve decided I’m going to throw in the towel, at least for today. I think today is just not my day for sewing, so I’m going to go for a run to clear my head a bit and then get some research reading done.
This probably means that I’m not going to have this done by the time we leave on Friday, but the more I’ve struggled with sewing today, the more I think that it’s somehow a sign that my approach to this skirt is at odds with what I want to learn from sewing. Of all the things I’ve sewn thus far, the ones I like best are (newsflash) the ones I took my time making. Nothing that I’ve just whipped up in the course of a morning because I decided that I “needed” whatever it was right now.
So I’ll leave things there, and will put away this nightmare of a skirt to deal with some other day.
I’ve now been sewing long enough to have accumulated a certain mass of fabric scraps and I’m wondering what to do with them.
This may not look like much of a scrap crisis, but I don’t have unlimited space for storing sacks of the odds and ends that come off of my sewing projects. Nevertheless I’ve thrown away nothing, holding on to even the tiny shreds with the idea that I’ll use some of it for stuffing the dressmaker’s dummy I’m going to make one of these days. There are larger scraps as well, not large enough to do much of anything with, but some of it is too nice (soft, pretty) to just use for stuffing.
I don’t know why I didn’t think of using this thing called the internet sooner, because in the past week I’ve realized that there are plenty of ideas for how to use fabric scraps if you simply google “what to do with fabric scraps.” Instead I first began finding inspiration the old fashioned way, by browsing through books in a shop. Specifically this shop:
This is Liberty London, which I had never heard of prior to two weeks ago when I was in London (for first-year PhD presentations — mine went well, which I’m happy about because to me giving presentations is marginally preferable to jumping into a pit of snakes). One of my fellow first-yearers, Hannah, an out-of-towner like me, said I should go check out Liberty for their fabrics. I did, and you could say that I liked it, as I spent two and a half hours wandering around the fabric department. I managed to walk away with just a few purchases that would not require me to mortgage my home if I had a home mortgage. (Those purchases will be showing up here in the coming months as I make things out of them.)
Hannah had already gone to Liberty that week, but on a bad day, when the place was packed with shoppers and things were too chaotic and she was too pressed for time to really look through the fabric or anything else for that matter. This is a shame, because even going to Liberty to browse is pretty fun, and that’s coming from someone with an intense dislike of department stores, which I always find overwhelming and odd-smelling. Liberty’s another story — everything is so pretty. It’s a little cozy bubble of hardwood and twinkle lights and exorbitantly priced home furnishings and soaps. And ideas for projects that I could make myself, as I would find out. Since Hannah had had a stressed visit her first time and I was game as anything to go back, we went again together on our second to last day with the goal of finding some fabric that I would use to make a shirt for her.
We found her fabric, and also spent some time in the haberdashery, which is all full of fun things to make your sewing room Instagram ready (gold tipped pins, whimsical scissors, leather-bound maker’s journals). I sometimes dream of having one of those perfectly organized, color-coded and clutter-free craft rooms. This is not my fate, and I’m fine with that. I have embraced my mismatched clutter.
The haberdashery had a bunch of great books on sewing, but I have a temporary moratorium on book buying in place so I just took photos of some of the pages that interested me. Specifically, those pages were what to do with all my fabric scraps. Some ideas:
I thought this was not a bad idea at all, because I have limited flat surface space in my sewing area and so wall-mounted storage would free up some of my tabletop. (I don’t have a reference on this book, but I believe the photos above and below are from a book that’s published by Liberty itself, about what to do with fabric scraps.)
Alvaro makes lamps, I sew stuff = collaboration!
We also took a tour through some other sections of the store. There was a floor plan next to the elevator that listed something on the fourth floor called Les Couilles du Chien, which means “the dog’s balls” in French. We of course had to go check that out. It was just more stately home decor. Nothing to do with dogs, nor their balls.
The bath department was the most fruitful in terms of finding inspiration for scrap projects:
Left to right: an eye mask filled with lavender buds, an eye mask with soft cotton fabric on one side and knitted cashmere on the other, and a nice travel case for toiletries. This is where I think most of my scraps will get their new lives, as little luxuries I’ll give to friends. I know more than a few people who would be quite happy to have a lavender eye mask for overnight train trips, long haul flights to visit family back home and crawling into bed after a bad day at work and/or dealing with cranky toddlers.
(The other obvious option for my scraps is, of course, to make a quilt. But as the daughter of a quilter — a woman more meticulous than me — I’ve witnessed the extreme precision demanded by quilting and I find it intimidating. I’m going to have to work on my patience a little more before diving into that.)
This is all, I hope, going to help my efforts to produce less waste as I sew because I’ve been getting concerned about the amount of waste I feel I’m producing. In the grand scheme of things I suppose it’s not all that much, because I buy mostly second hand and as local as I can get, but I’m looking for ways to further improve upon this. Some scraps are hard to avoid unless you’re working with a zero-waste pattern (PS — there are some great tips at the end of that article for creating less waste when sewing), so for the moment at least I can find ways to use up what I’ve got left over.
And now, I’m going to go (carefully) cut the fabric for Hannah’s shirt.
I’ve started talking a bit with a seller on Etsy, which started because I bought some beautiful fabric from her that she estimated to be from the 1930s. I sent her a message asking how she figured out the age of fabric, because I was curious, and that started a whole back and forth conversation of the sort that is had between two people who love old things. And in case you’re wondering the same thing I was:
The two Worlds wars are quite big guides for 20th Century fabrics because each one marked the end of non essential textile production for the duration and styles and technology changed quite dramatically after each one. So there might be a little bit of overlap, a small factory picking up with the pre-war production afterwards.
The older fabrics are always narrower than modern copies and mostly you will find that the textile is much finer. The one you bought has a very dense weave, if you look the individual threads are very fine and the threadcount is very high.
This is the fabric I bought:
The woman who sold this to me lives in a village in France, not too far from where I live, and I’m starting to want to go visit because it sounds like a place that is packed with the ghosts of clothes-making past: “My 85 year old neighbour tells me that his grandfather used to weave sacks from hemp for a living. The bakery opposite my house used to be the place where they unwound cocoons from silk worms, washing the filaments in the clear mountain water before sending them to Lyon to be twisted and dyed into threads for the silk industry. There used to be a couture school in my village, so that although the area is rural with a historic peasant culture, early photographs of the village girls show them wearing incredibly stylish clothes that they have made themselves.”
I only discovered Etsy last month when it occurred to me that maybe I could find some interesting fabric there that I can’t get here. I was hesitant about buying something so tactile online, but I haven’t been disappointed, especially because there are loads of vintage fabrics and for that the pickings are particularly slim where I live. I did a search for sellers of vintage fabric in France — both to buy local(ish) and avoid import taxes at the border <– I’ve learned about the latter the hard way — and even with relatively narrow search criteria it was really, really hard to narrow down my shopping basket to my budget because there was so much to choose from. Everything’s arrived and so now I’m starting to get to work on what to make with my not-technically-new-but-new-to-me stash. With the above three meters of fabric I’m going to make a dress with the Belladone pattern from Deer and Doe, and I’ll eventually find a good pattern for the others.
I turned to Etsy for fabric (and to my local sewing shop, which I’ll write about in another post) because my stash was filled with a mish-mash of second-hand things I got at thrift stores in the name of recycling, but which I don’t really like all that much, in addition to a big heap of cheap cotton jersey that I got in Madrid when we were there visiting my in-laws over Christmas.
The story on that:
Madrid has an enormous variety of fabric stores, of course because it’s a big city but also because it was historically a center for textiles and clothes making. The area around Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor in particular is packed with fabric shops and haberdashers. While out on a family walk my mother-in-law led us down those streets so I could check it all out, but it was so intensely overwhelming that I couldn’t think about buying anything: picture the busiest farmer’s market you’ve ever seen, multiply it by 100 and replace vegetables with buttons and that is Madrid’s textiles and haberdasher neighborhood: big, loud shops with a long counter separating the public from the salespeople, walls of buttons and zippers and ribbons and more stocked behind the counter and shoppers pointing and shouting over the counters at the salespeople to move a bit to the left, now up, and yes those buttons, those! Since I didn’t have anything specific in mind, and it wasn’t really an environment for browsing, I admired the chaos and we continued on to go stuff ourselves with cotton candy at the Christmas market and buy my niece a fluorescent green mermaid wig and Santa hat, which she wore together for the entire rest of the day.
I had grand plans to get lots of stash fabric during our time there (because Madrid is way less expensive than where I live) but somehow never got around to it in the two weeks we were there. Finally, the day before we left, while everyone else was lying around in a holiday food and wine coma, I set off by myself to go fabric hunting. I wound up in the La Latina neighborhood based off of some online reviews of fabric shops there, but it was already late and things were closing soon and I didn’t have any clear idea in my mind of what I was looking for. And I also made the mistake of going to the biggest store on my list, and I can’t really deal with big stores because too much choice blinds my senses. So I wandered around this big store, not liking anything and feeling slightly stressed, when finally it occurred to me that what I really needed (and when I say needed, I mean wanted) was a bunch of jersey in solid colors. I suddenly had a vision in my head of churning out piles of basic t-shirts. I would fill out my wardrobe with startling speed and thus be able to start wearing all my brightly colored and patterned things that I had hitherto never really worn because I never buy or make basics. Hell yes, that was the answer. I would become a basic-making machine.
So I bought a grand mass of cheap cotton-ish jersey from origins unknown, and I now deeply regret that purchase. I’ve made one black tank top with some of the fabric from this haul, and I’ve worn it maybe five or six times and it’s already fading and pilling, despite the fact that I wash everything but my running clothes and my schlepping clothes on the delicates cycle. Contrast that to the blue shirt refashion I wrote about in my last post, which I have worn repeatedly over the course of more than a year and it shows no signs of age — and it had already been worn by someone before me! I have no idea of its age, but judging from the dressmaker’s tag on the inside of the original dress I would guess the 1970s or so.
My Etsy seller pen pal pointed out this difference in quality in not just fast fashion clothes today, but also fast fabric: “I know from my older neighbours that when they bought new clothes, or the fabric to make them, they chose the best quality they could afford and expected their clothes to last. A big contrast with lots of mass produced textiles now that don’t always survive the first wash.”
The price of a lot of the vintage fabric I’ve found on Etsy is well within what I can allow myself to pay for fabric, and I’ve also discovered several French fabric companies producing very nice organic textiles today (found them thanks to my local sewing shop) that are a little more expensive but that are still within budget for smaller things like t-shirts. (Because we’re also talking cotton and the like, not handwoven silk, so it stays manageable.)
The contrast between the flimsy jersey I bought in Madrid and my purchases since then is astounding. Meter for meter what I bought in Madrid is much cheaper by far, but much cheaper fabric makes clothing that falls apart and looks old after four wears. The black tank top I made from the cheap stuff is already teetering on the edge of becoming schlepwear, and it takes me way too much time to sew even a simple shirt for it to reach bumming around the house status after a handful of wears.
I know I’m not the only sewist who has gotten lost along the way and started getting into a mindset of mass production, because I’ve seen and heard similar stories and comments along these lines. It’s funny that we fall into this trap. I’m chalking it up partly to being over enthusiastic in newfound skills and creativity, but I think it’s also symptomatic of the world we live in: having a full closet and options options options is the current normal. That is most likely the big reason why I was pulled toward mass production, rather than seeing sewing as my Etsy friend’s eldery neighbors saw it, always buying the best I can afford so I can make things to last, rather than simply replicating the very industry I try so hard to shun.
An update on the red skirt:
That, folks, is a finished skirt, and I am extremely happy with it. I finished it on Monday but I haven’t worn it yet because yesterday was chilly so I got to pull out my Roses sweater, and today is a work from home day, which means sweatpants and a tea pot by my side. Tomorrow is going to be a scorcher again so that is when my new skirt will get its debut. But enough about weather, let’s talk zippers. (Apologies for the photos, which show the skirt as being three different colors. The photo above shows the true color. At least to my eyes.)
I thought it was going to be tedious hand sewing the zipper but it actually wasn’t tedious at all and came together more quickly than I had expected, about one episode of House of Cards. (That is how I timed my sewing this past week, but we’ve finished the entire season already so I’m going to have to find a new unit of measurement.) I am very happy with the job I did on this. Maybe it’s not perfect, but I’m less and less sure of how to measure perfection in sewing and knitting, and against what standard of “perfection” I measure the things I’m making. For me, this skirt is pretty near perfection. I like the fit, I like the color, I like that I just winged the whole thing and thus it is of my own design (although it’s not exactly breaking any new ground in design). I also like that I decided part way through to take a breather, go buy a better zipper, and be patient with it instead of just hacking my way through and calling it wearable.
On that note I also started refashioning a shirt that I had already refashioned from a dress last year. This was the original dress and the shirt I made out of it:
Those are some awkward photos but in my defense they were meant to be a little self-mocking. This was the first shirt I made, and I sent these photos to my mom, as one does when one is a woman in her mid thirties and has just done something she’s proud of. When Mom got my email she called to my dad in the other room, “Bob, come check out the dress Kate just got at a thrift shop!” and then only showed him the first photo, which she said made his face go slack with horror. (She’s funny like that, my mom.) Dad finally said, “But …Why?” and then she showed him the following two photos and he perked up and said he thought I was mighty clever. I thought I was mighty clever too at the time.
This was the first shirt I made. It was a rainy day and I was binge watching sewing videos on YouTube, trying to figure out what to do next with my new sewing machine because I was getting bored with pillow cases. I came across a video or a blog post, can’t remember what it was, which showed a tutorial for making the simplest shirt ever, basically two squares of fabric (something synthetic or jersey, just not anything stiff) cut to the width of your shoulders/hips. You sew up the sides and the top, leaving holes for your arms and head, and then flip the fabric around the holes inward and hem that as well as the bottom. And ta-da, you have a shirt.
Hungry as I was at the time to make something wearable, I whipped one of these up using a dress I’d gotten at a thrift shop for the express purpose of chopping up and creating something new. I really like the fabric — it’s dark blue with a tiny red and white flower motif, some sort of mystery synthetic, but it’s not hot like polyester and it has a nice flow and a slight sheen to it. I wore this shirt a lot, but as time went on and I started understanding garment construction a little better, I began seeing all sorts of little and not so little things that bugged me. For one, in my rush to create, I used dark green thread because I only had three spools of thread at the time and dark green was the best choice among them. I also did something pretty lazy with the hem, which is hard to explain without diagramming it for you, but trust me, it wasn’t good. You couldn’t see it from the outside, but I averted my eyes every time I put it on. (Just to be clear, it wasn’t stapled — I’d already moved beyond staples.) I had also, as my instructions had instructed, turned in the fabric around the neck and armholes and stitched that, instead of adding facing and understitching.
I mean, come on. No facing and understitching? Amateur. <—- Kidding! I was (and still am) a beginner so give me a damn break. But that doesn’t mean that I have to let my beginner’s moves relegate this shirt to the back of my closet. This past weekend I decided to do things up right, so I set to work ripping out the arm and neck hole seaming as well as the corner of the bottom hem that also needed a redo. I was not prepared for how long this would take. I had apparently used a very tight stitch gauge when I initially made this, and so ripping out everything took approximately four episodes of House of Cards. It was a thousand times more tedious than hand stitching the zipper in the skirt up top, probably because I had expected the stitches to come right out and so I was mentally unprepared for the work. But I got through it.
I’m not sure what the lesson is in all of this. I suppose it falls between “Jump first, learn to swim later,” and “Take the time to do it right the first time.” I’m not entirely comfortable with the latter because, although it’s true in some sense, it also would have killed my enthusiasm on that rainy day when I first made this shirt. When you’re starting to learn how to sew (or anything else), there’s something to be said for charging ahead with a project, just to give it a go, and to be okay with knowing that you will possibly/probably be ripping out seams a year later. I think it was necessary to just recklessly dive in when I was first starting out. These days I’m trying to take things more slowly and get them done right the first time, but that’s also because I have more sewing knowledge now (knowledge that I gained from doing, from making mistakes, from making bad mistakes that ruined some very pretty and irreplaceable fabric, and knowledge that came from asking for help).
The day after the deconstruction, I started reconstructing: I reshaped the boat neck and the sleeves so things would fit better, and then I cut the pieces for the facing, sewed them on, and ironed and pinned them down. Yesterday I picked up dark blue thread that is a near perfect color match, and some time this week — maybe I’ll start today — I’ll do the understitching. And then this will be finished and I will start wearing it again. And possibly take it apart a year or five years from now when I will have learned better ways of doing things.
It’s summer here in France, and has been for several weeks already. I haven’t managed to do much in the way of warm weather sewing, due to a combination of being buried in work, buried in school and caught off guard by a month and a half of dodging life curveballs. I made one tank top: that is the totality of the House of Kate’s Spring/Summer 2017 collection to date.
It has only been in the past year or so, since I’ve started sewing, that my wardrobe has started to become slightly more functional. Prior to starting my sewing adventures I had sworn off buying new clothes, not because I had too many (things are still pretty spartan in the old closet) but because the only shop-made clothes I could afford were of the sweatshop-made variety and I was not okay anymore with financially supporting that system. That’s not to say I stopped buying clothes period, just that I began instead buying the odd thing here and there in second hand shops. Over the years I’ve slowly accumulated some interesting pieces, but the issue with my thrifting is that I’m attracted mainly to bright colors and loud prints, and a functioning wardrobe (functioning for me) cannot be had with bright colors and loud prints only.
(Side note: not a value judgment against anyone else, this is just my thing. I recognize that not everyone is going to have the time or desire to scour thrift shops and pick up sewing. That’s just what I do. There are other ways to reduce one’s participation in the sweatshop system, starting with reducing our consumption of clothes to begin with and taking good care of the ones we have so they don’t wear out so quickly. Okay, side note over, moving on.)
Anyway, what do the sudden jump from winter to summer + my slowness to sew warm weather clothes + my non-cohesive wardrobe have in common? Together they are the reasons why I keep opening my closet and pulling out the exact same thing nearly every day.
Poor me! I was caught off guard by the heat, thinking that I still had another month to sew up some wardrobe liaisons, but I don’t, so I keep wearing the same three things because nearly every summer weight thing I own clashes. I said this to my friend Arlène the other day and she said I should just start wearing my multicolored flower prints all together and call it trend setting.
The other afternoon Arlène and I met up for a drink, and when it was already pushing 80 degrees at 10 a.m. that morning I decided enough was enough, I was going to quickly whip up a new skirt, because I had had it with my regular rotation. It wasn’t going to be anything fancy, just straight and cotton with an elastic waistband, but that last part is where I immediately ran into issues. I have never sewn anything with an elastic waistband before, but in my beginner sewist hubris I decided that I knew exactly how to sew a skirt with an elastic waistband and so I set about doing so. I measured my hips at their widest point, measured the length I wanted, and cut my fabric, a slightly stretchy red cotton blend. Then maybe because I was jamming too hard to the music mix I’d put on, I made the fatal error of forgetting how the laws of physics work (specifically elasticity).
I wanted the skirt to hit me at my natural waist, so I cut the elastic to fit it. Then I cut a wide belt (the elastic was pretty wide), because I had an image of a wide-belted, high waisted skirt that billowed out slightly at the hips. I was already complicating things on what should have been an uncomplicated skirt. I attached the belt part onto the skirt part, folding the top of the skirt part regularly into little pleats so that the width of it would match with that of the belt (which I was very proud of — I did an extremely neat job with those pleats), flipped the belt inwards in half and ironed it flat, and then went to go try it on before adding the elastic. And of course, I couldn’t fit it over my hips, because the belt was cut for the circumference of my waist, not my hips, and the fabric belt was not stretchy so it obviously was not going to stretch over my hips.
This led to some swearing, complicated by the rising temperatures in our 8th floor apartment and the fact that my sudden decision to complicate things was taking more time than I’d anticipated and I had other things to do plus a friend to go meet. So I decided to hell with the elastic, I would just do a zipper, but this was complicated because I had already basically sewn together the entire skirt apart from its closure device, and putting a zipper into a garment that’s already pretty much made is no easy task, for me at least. Like a mule I ploughed ahead anyway, and sure enough I did such a hack job of putting the zipper in that I stopped half way because things were just getting too embarrassing. Also, the only zipper I had on hand that I thought even sort of went with red was a yellow one, but when I was putting it in I couldn’t stop seeing Ronald McDonald. I finally gave up, laid the skirt down to rest, took a shower, put on one of the three outfits that I’ve been wearing lately and went to go meet Arlène.
I was frustrated for sure, but the thing is that apart from the elastic and zipper debacles I was really liking how the skirt was coming out, and I was feeling pretty proud of the fact that I could put something like that together with no pattern or instructions. Now I’m going to try to get to the point of all of this: I decided that I could wait a little while longer to wear this nice red skirt. The following day I went to my town’s sewing shop and bought a red zipper, and then took my time carefully unpicking the yellow zipper while watching the first episode of the new season of House of Cards. I’m debating on whether to hand sew the new zipper, given the difficulties that I had machine sewing the old one, and so I think I might go with hand sewing. It takes a lot longer in theory, but it’s a surer bet that I’ll get it done right and it’ll no doubt look a lot neater since I think I can sew it onto the inside fold without taking the rest of the skirt apart. I think that’ll work at least, we’ll see. At any rate, I have about a dozen more episodes of HoC left to go, and summer’s not going anywhere, so I have time.
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.
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.
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:
(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 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:
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:
At the moment it looks like this:
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:
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.
* * * * *
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
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.
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.
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.