Seam Ripped

a sewing blog without the sewing

In which I figure out a novel way to answer comments, and pretend that I am a famous advice columnist

And so I have been horrible at answering comments, and decided to finish up the comments from the post before last with a video.  Because I have been practicing French on video for far too long.

Do find the fruitful results below.  I just realized the third thing with which I’m not lazy.  Cats!

how soon is now?

It seems to be Moz Monday here at Seam Ripped (it’s Friday, I wrote this three months ago.  Shut up.  Also, I usually answer all comments before putting up a new post, but am literally posting this so that I can get off my duff and reply to rest of y’all.  So sorry!  I’ve been swamped, which is no excuse).  Let us thank The Smiths for today’s title, and bow our heads for a moment in respect for Moz.

Reader, have you ever read Art and Fear?  In it, there is a quick story about a pottery class where the instructor divided the room in half.  One half was instructed to make the best objects they could, and strive for perfection; the other was told to just make as many vases as they could churn out for the term.  At the end of the term, it turned out that the mass-producing group actually churned out the more technically advanced work.  Who cares?  We’re getting there.

Sometimes I read other people’s blog posts about giving up perfection, and I can’t help but think, “How cute for you, finding convenient excuses for your indolence and allowing yourself to settle.  That’s so. . .nice.”  Yes, the first step is admitting you have a problem.  (Do let me know if you’ve figured out what the second step is, while I rip out my French seam for the seventieth time.)  I like being a perfectionist, but am firmly planted in Camp Free to Be You and Me, and accept that other people don’t have my rabid enthusiasm for getting things just right.

I do wonder if my perfectionism will serve me for the long haul.  This is why I am self-conscious about being self-taught (remind me to tell you about my sewing class disaster): I have no barometer for progress.  I look at people like Julie from Jet Set Sewing, Bunny of La Sewista, and Lori from Sewing Myself Stylish—people who have been sewing for longer than I have, and whose work shows it—and I can’t help but wonder what the steps are between rank beginner and able-plus home sewer.

We’ve talked about the dearth of intermediate sewing books before, but what about the difficulty with defining what an intermediate sewer/sewist/good grief these distinctions are the absolute worst/sempstress actually is ?  Maybe that’s part of the reason why sewing books published today jump from the very rudiments to couture techniques. Before, because large swaths of the sewing population could have been presumed to have similar practical educations and backgrounds, the market research did itself.  Now, the landscape hosts people of all different ages, genders, skill sets, professions who look for sewing books.  Is this why I want to go straight from six-dart, gathered-skirt dresses to the much-vaunted couture jacket?  Am I unacquainted with that which lies in the middle, and am therefore skipping steps simply because I don’t know that they exist?  Then I remember when Meg from Mood wrote on the Sewciety blog about being a younger sewer, banging off a cute dress before a party, and contrasted that with her present precision sewing.

(Complete aside, but isn’t it funny to hear people complain about the decline of the quality of fit of ready-to-wear?  It was much easier to fit a woman if everyone was wearing a similar sort of girdle, with their eyes set on a similar sort of figure, yes?  Now, we try to conform into the same sort of proportional ideal use the dark arts of dis/emphasis, which requires an entirely different set of expectations and tools.  So, it seems natural that there were more intermediate sewing books back when there was more standardized, widespread sewing instruction.)

In any event, I keep patiently waiting to be ready.  Ready for hand-sewing, ready for Alabama Chainin’, ready for a couture jacket, ready to make a coat, ready ready ready ready ready.  I read Amy Poehler’s book (and have mixed feelings about it, but still patiently await her dumping Rashida Jones and accepting another former-Hindu current-badass best friend in me.  I’ve made us a binder!  And bracelets!  Call me?  Also, can we talk about your boyfriend’s dad, just for a second?  I am afraid of him, yet want to be him at the same time (Jules Kroll, for those wondering)), and she made an excellent point.  You never feel ready for the big important things.  Most don’t wake up one day and say, “Hey, guess what em-effers, I’m ready to be a show-runner.  Let’s do this.”  Doubt is normal, doubt is human, doubt needs to get its ass kicked.  Well, not quite.

Have you ever read the book The Gift of Fear (I was not lying when I told you I own a mountain of self-help books about fear)?  Well, in it, there are several hundred-thousand gruesome stories about how you should listen to your gut, your fears.  Hell, you’ve got fear for a reason, and that reason is to avoid being raped, murdered, and left in a ditch as supper for wild animals.  (Too graphic?)  This all happens when you sew something out of your depth, doesn’t it?  Is that not the way this works?

Anyway, after I swim my way out of the land of elastic (we’ll talk about that next week), I think I might do something outrageous.  Good. Fabric.  I’m going to cut into it y’all.  Then I’m going to tell you about it, perhaps with photographs.  Of it on my body.  What now?  Then we’ll go into a long dissection of what it means to have good fabric, a good body, and a good photograph, and you’ll all band together with your torches and pitchforks, make your way up the hill, and burn my house to the ground.  I’m apparently in a dark place today.

*****26 February update: I would leave it there, but I’ve got a quick announcement.  I’m going to be in Paris late next week, Chamonix the week after that, and London for one day after Chamonix week.  I was/am on the fence about posting this (you could say that I have a shyness that is criminally vulgar), as I feel weird about it/go for subtlety and fail miserably, but if any of you live around those places and would like to grab coffee, I’m not only up for it, but I’d be very much obliged.  You needn’t have a blog or anything, you could just want to hang out.  Maybe we could even go buy some fabric?  My email address is seamripped@gmail.com, and I actually check it regularly now.  Though, I have yet to respond to Joost, which I believe makes me the worst person on earth.

*****Second update, because why the hell not/when am I going to post again?  Montréal and Mont Tremblant for Easter weekend.  Why this much travel?  Starting work = ten vacation days a year.  International relations-y school = French proficiency exam during the second week of April.

ceci ce n’est pas une poste*

Magritte’s The Treachery of Images

Hey, reader.  I suppose we could go through the complicated business of apologies and explanations, but let’s not.  I’ve been thinking about it, and I realize that I use the Internet like Quaker meeting.  I speak when I feel moved to say something, and spend the rest of the time in contemplation—reading your blogs (and, yes, GOMI’s Crafting forum**), thinking, and the like.  It’s useful for no one but me, which makes it my favorite sort of anything.  I’ve published posts for the sake of cleaning out my drafts folder before, and it’s just not my sort of work.  Those posts feel a bit sterile to me, you know?

Where was I going with this?  Oh, yes!  I’ve spent the past few months reading around and thinking about sewing, and our community and all of that jazz.  I suppose my posting philosophy—and, yes, I am far enough up my own [I hate having a cleaned-up blog] to actually use that phrase to open a real, live sentence—mirrors my life philosophy [for those of you playing along at home, we’ve just hit Charlotte’s-a-dee-bag-bingo]: I try to leave spaces better than I’ve found them.  I don’t think that five photographs and a thousand words about my Monetas will bring any value-added to the community (feel free to disagree with me, you foolhardy few), so I just hang that sucker in my closet and call it a day.  After all, I’m not terribly original in my sewing.  You could just go visit Mary or Jenny or Neemie or Amanda, to name just a few, to see bangin’ versions of patterns of which I’ve made pale imitations.

But then, that causes a free-rider problem.  The sewing community exists because, yes, it’s a social fact that we’ve agreed to, and we’re bound by silent and not-so-silent rules, some of which make me spitting, raging angry (did I ever tell you about the time that I accidentally knocked off all of the books from my desk, as I launched a scathing rant at a (male) classmate in an English seminar, because he complained that a female protagonist wasn’t nice?  Third rail, reader.  THIRD. RAIL.), but that’s neither here nor there.  It also exists because people write things about sewing, and write reviews of the patterns they use.  In 2007/2008 I literally added every single sewing blog linked to by Pattern Review and Burda Style members to my Google reader [let’s all pour one out for GR] and I still just barely had enough to read.  Now, my to-read list teeters on the brink of untenable, and I have to consciously make a trade-off between number of blogs read and active participation in the community.   Talk about opportunity cost.

Then, I think about the ungodly number of self-help books I read.  They have names like Art and FearA Conversation with FearHow to Discern Whether or Not You Fear the Notion of Fear or the Act of Fearing, Also Fear. . .[Boo!].  Most of them have some variation of the same story.  In Art and Fear it’s a pottery class that’s divided into two: one half is instructed to throw their best work, while the other is instructed to just throw as many pots as possible.  The side that was just going for volume made the technically better work.  In A Conversation with Fear, the author’s husband decided to, quite casually, not come in to eat supper until he missed a basket—and sunk loads of shots in a row.  (The latter text is, incidentally, about skiing.)  In, Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity it is the simple piece of advice “the only way to gain approval, is to stop needing it” (or something along those lines.  “Is to not need it?”  I’m in a coffeeshop some 7 miles away from my apartment and that book, so who the hell knows?).

I don’t know, reader.  I’ve got loads of friends who pretend to not want or need things: to have just happened to have found themselves with tousled mermaid hair and wearing corally-pink NARS blush—reading just that book, in just that way, at just that very particular place where you can have enough witnesses to make it real, but not so many that you can be accused of actually trying to get attention.  To have woken up like that.  I wake up to the promise of tea, try to spend a few lazy minutes playing with the Ladies Witherspoon, and will perhaps blitz breakfast in the blender.  Not because my internal compass told me to soak almonds before eating them or drink green juice, but because the pushes and pulls of desires and interests clashed with lifestyle, aspiration, and the ever-so-sticky issues of class and status,  and wrote me a breakfast menu.  Veni, vidi, vici.

I have to admit that I understand why some people have a visceral distaste for the appearance of effort.  My theory is, it isn’t the actual appearance of effort, but discomfort with the dissolution of the fantasy of eventual effortlessness.  If everyone admitted that they hope to be one promotion or eye cream or sewn garment away from this book deal or that astonishing lack of crow’s feet—if it seemed like we were all trying—then life would seem a little more daunting.  The hope, for me at least, is to reach some sort of equilibrium and then ease off.  But that may never happen.

Oh, yes, the point to all this.  I’m on the fence on whether or not to put actual effort into this here blog, and what that would look like.   We’ve talked about this before, haven’t we?  On principle, I am a big believer in putting in visible effort.  I think it is especially important for women to be unashamed of their ambition.***  Gold effing stars, reader.  I want all of them.  However, I also recognize that sometimes these efforts fail—because of the perceived unattractiveness of effort, or because of discomfort with occupying the liminal space between being internally and externally driven, or because some people simply lack the finesse to gussy up how the sausages are made.  I like that I have enough readers to constitute a pretty comfortable cocktail party, rather than fill a football stadium.  I love looking through my stats and seeing where all of you are from (Sitka Alaska!  I was reading Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and wished I could have written you an email, Sitka Reader!  Wow, that bordered on creepy.  Or, when I was writing my paper on post-war pogroms, I realized I had some readers from Poland.  We have to talk, y’all.)  But!  I don’t feel like I’m a good or good-enough steward of this space, and I don’t think I contribute as much to the community as I take from it (yes, the goods are non-rival and non-exclusive, but still).

Anyway, that is State of the Seam Ripped.  2015: The Year I Try Not to Fuck Up.  Full stop.

* Yo, French speakers!  From what I understand, ceci c’est un blog, but if I were to try to use/translate post, would I feminize it like I would for postal mail, or masculinize it like a job post or a physical space?

**I have a big old rant about how some people sheepishly confess to things like watching Scandal or reading Robert Ludlum novels, as if the mere association with them compromises others’ view of their intellect or good intent.  People, man.  We’re allowed to be multifaceted.  Personally, I consider reading GOMI research, which is also why I watch as many Real Housewives franchises as I do.  Do with that what you will.

***Is it just me, or is it kind of a form of ladder-pulling?  Mindy Kaling seems to get frequently annoyed when young women ask her for advice for how to do what she did.  I’ve read her say something along the lines of, “Am I supposed to tell people to write two-man shows with their best friends and hope to have Greg Daniels in the audience?”  Uh, no, but you could tell people to keep working on something creative, even when they have three roommates and shitty day jobs.  You could also stress the importance of putting your work out there, and not being daunted by rejection, because it happens to everyone. As a bonus morsel, you could add in the usual bit about how the work sometimes finds you, but you have to put yourself in a position to be ready when the opportunities make themselves available to you (insert Matt and Ben example here).  I have no idea why I get so hocked off when I hear MK give dismissive responses to these sorts of questions.  I’m just going to blame the half-or-kind-of South Asian sisterhood, and call it a day.

difficult women

Quick notes: a) I got a job for after graduation!  And an internship for next semester!  Let’s hope I don’t mess it up.  Thanks for the advice and well wishes.  b) It is usually company policy for me to reply to all comments on the previous post before posting something new.  This is a conversation, after all.  Well, fall semester stress has led me to majorly drop the ball on that one.  Apologies!  With any luck, all responses will be logged by this evening.  c) I have, like, a dozen drafts that I need to polish up and get going.  So, if you want to know how my sewing class went (ha!) or whether or not to press gathers, or if you’ve been puzzling over the statistical correlation between imports and clothing expenditure, I’m your gal.  However, it’s really interesting to juggle writing a handful of posts over a handful of months.  It doesn’t feel nearly as seamless as I’d like it to.  So, I guess I’m saying the next month or two of posts might sort of suck.  Completely.  Apologies in advance.

Last year, I was chatting with a friend and I’d mentioned that when I was a kid, my mother taught me the difference between silk and cotton, designer x and designer y.  My friend responded—and I will never forget this, so this is an exact, honest-to-goodness quote—“That’s disgusting.”

I’ve thought about that exchange a lot in the months that have followed, and realize that, in that context, it wasn’t about caring about visual ways in which we present ourselves to others, but rather about fashion.  Fashion being less about self-reflection and contemplation, and more about placing yourself within a cultural moment, and using what you wear as a way of communicating something to others.  I’m tempted to make the admittedly unfair argument that the relationship between clothing, designers, and status makes difficult an designer-as-artist approach.

So what are we really talking about, when we talk about fashion?  Every time someone says “I don’t care about clothes,” I always want to respond, You’re sooooo smart.  I’m sooooo impressed.  Just about everybody wears clothes, which implies that there is a certain extent to which everybody cares about them.  When someone tells me that they don’t care about clothes, what they mean is that they don’t care about a certain type of clothing.  Well, next question: What type of clothing is that?  You can’t look as if you care too much, because that makes you shallow.  Likewise, you can’t look as if you care too little, because that would make you a slob.  Apparently, we’re all supposed to wake up that way (this way?  Bey?  Anybody?).  As if yours is fine taste so well-cultivated, that you no longer need effort, because style is reflexive and your adaptation to context is seamless.  No pressure.

There are two lines of argument when thinking about this.  The first is that we have a finite amount of time, so why spend it thinking about what you wear as opposed to virtue or the plight of the unfortunate or something less superficial.  The second, which underpins the first, is that we should aspire to more refined taste, which transcends designers or trends, and manages to effortless reflect your self-knowledge and knowledge of the world.  Both are bullshit.

When I was in the thick of the job search, I wound up getting invited to all of these pre-interview things, and always found myself Googling “What is business casual NO REALLY,” to no avail.  (I followed the instructions on my first try: a pre-interview reception for an investment bank.  One of the recruiters mistook me for restaurant staff, in my navy ankle-length trousers, silk blouse, and cardigan.  Lesson = learned.)  I may as well have Googled “What do smart/competent/together/employed people wear?”

The answer?  Not this, apparently:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (shot by Ian Williams for The National Post, via Brittle Paper)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (shot by Ian Williams for The National Post, via Brittle Paper), who is smarter, more competent, more together, and more employed than I probably ever will be.

I’m sure by now we’ve all read or at least heard of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Elle piece on expectations of feminine and/or feminist dress, yes?  Well, have you by any chance seen this photo from the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (or, as it’s known at my house, The Artist Formerly Known as Orange)?

2014 Baileys Shortlist

Donna Tartt’s missing, but just picture a woman in with a raven bob and a slim-cut suit, will you?

These women are leaders in their field, and are writing cutting-edge fiction that not only reflects the state of the contemporary woman, but that of the contemporary world.  Why on earth are you asking us to reduce them to five (and a half) sets of outfits?  Well, reader, is it a reduction or a lateral move?  Is refusing to discuss the clothing choices of these people, on those grounds, not just a reinforcement of the broads-and-clothes stereotype that we’re trying to dismantle?  But they’re not just the clothes they wear!  I hate to break it to you, imaginary not-as-sharp-as-my-actual-readers reader, but neither are models or actors or plumbers or whomever.  There are entire industries built around divorcing the individual from his/her physical self, thus rendering the physical person an object and the internal self irrelevant—which is probably so many people place appearance and substance at odds with one another, and cannot afford each them the same sort of consideration.

Fine.  Let’s step away from that image for just a second, and talk about Elaine Showalter.  Elaine Jesus Christ Showalter.  Retired Princeton English professor and literary critic, and dyed-in-the-wool badass.  Feminist of feminists, king of kings, subject to a snide feminist graduate-student newspaper editorial about her gold briefcase.  Yeah.  That’s a thing that happened.

I suppose the point I’m trying to make, which I didn’t hammer to death in my last two posts in this series, is sometimes I don’t want to wear the Pink Jumpsuit of Larger Responsibility.  Sometimes, it rather sucks to be the sacrificial lamb with the gold briefcase who tosses How to Dress for Success to the wind.  Maybe I’m overthinking it?  I did an informational interview with an alumnus about a month ago, and we were talking about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  He said something along the lines of, “She’s a badass woman who doesn’t give a shit.”  Basically, this is the thing to which we should aspire.  The actual not caring about what people think, rather than the performative effortlessness that is undergirded by sleepless nights and thousand-word blogposts.

The Notorious RBG in a Banana Republic bib necklace she got in  the swag bag from Glamour's Women of the Year party.

The Notorious RBG in a Banana Republic bib necklace she got in the swag bag from Glamour’s Women of the Year party.

The key here seems to be understanding clothing and presentation as a part of identity, not a separate entity that eclipses it, nor the single element that defines it, but a piece of the mechanism worth analyzing.  Even Ally McBeal knows it, after being held in contempt of court for wearing short skirts.

I am offended by the fact that what is considered unprofessional is traditionally considered feminine.  And, truth be told, equally offended by the fact that the traditionally feminine is either infantilizing or overtly sexual.  (I have a draft called Meditations on Twee as Fuck, which we’ll get into when I’m spoiling for fight.)  Now, I’m sewing with an office environment in mind, rather than my usual put-a-cardigan-on-it approach to crafting, so it’s disorienting.  Yes, I am going to bring this back to sewing, eventually.

I’m going to uncharacteristically end here, because I have a dozen more drafts to finish up and post, and we’re not getting any younger.  However!  I’ve some homework for you for next time:

Have you read Stephanie‘s post on clothing and identity?  Morgan‘s on dressing like a feminist?  Sarai Mitnick from Colette linked to a really interesting New York Times review of a museum exhibit on women’s use of fashion to assert power.  Also!  Do watch this clip from Mena Trott’s (the dearly, dearly missed Mena Trott) talk at Big Omaha, on art, craft, and gender.

eden is exile

Ed Note: Why the long pause, Seam Ripped?  It is job-hunting season here on my happy old Hilltop.  The fact that I have yet to sob, “I don’t want my cats to be orphaannnneeeeeddd” is apparently a good sign.  If any of you have ever had a job, ever looked for a job, perhaps have never had a job but feel super confident in your advice-giving skills, and would care to say things about that in the comments section, I’d be very much obliged.  Also!  If you’ve written a comment that has languished without response, please do look back for one.  (That is, if you’d like.  Free country, and so on.)

I’m a big believer in going to bed angry. Huge, actually. Well, let’s back up for a second. I’m a huge believer in being angry. I come from long lines of Punjabs and Puritans, warrior goddesses and buttoned-up New England schoolmarms. After years of competing stories about walloping off the enemies’ heads and burning their blood, and the triumph of staid reserve over emotional excess, I’ve emerged with a solid belief in feeling the fury and then. . .nothing. Well, it used to be nothing, but I eventually realized that everything seems a lot less important after a long, hot shower and a good night of sleep. That’s something, isn’t it?

As I was reading Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound, my jaw was in a perma-clench. Confusion, rage, reluctant understanding, grief: lather, rinse, repeat. I write this from vacation, and at breakfast with Mummy Seam Ripped I struggled between tossing the book into the hearth or into the lake. (Librarians of Lau: It’ll be returned on time, if a little scuffed up. You all know how to get rid of tire tracks, yes?) I had to step away. A lot. Take breaks. Walk around. Read other things. Now? Now it makes more sense.

Why was I getting so hot under the collar? Well—and I think this might be true for a large portion of the sewing blog-reading population—I recognize enough of myself in the movement Matchar is identifying to make the text seem personal, but am different enough from her sample set to cringe (cringe) when reading a lot of her examples. Big quote time:

 “It would be laughably retro to explicitly say that a woman’s [roper place is in the kitchen, yet women like JJ and Robin and Addie feel keenly the sense that a “good woman” focuses her energies on feeding her family on the very best, purest food. If food is so important, why wouldn’t she? But in this brave new world of backyard chicken raising and homemade bone broth and hand-mashed baby food, the “best, purest food” is an ever-rising target.” (Matchar 119)

Hasn’t food always been about status, exclusivity, and, to a certain degree, about exoticism? Ditto clothing. I’d wager that the keepers of kitchen have always fretted about the best, though not necessarily the purest. From what I understand, pre-packaged foods were status items, as were the tools of liberation (vacuum cleaners, washing machines, dishwashers). Now, ladies, you have leisure time. Leisure time that you can use for personal maintenance. I don’t think people stopped keeping gardens or line-drying their clothes because store-bought tinned tomatoes tasted better, or even because all of the adults in the family unit got jobs (which would happen later). I think people stopped doing those things because they didn’t want their neighbors to think that they were poor. Not even because those items cost less than a homegrown tomato, but because of the leisure that’s associated with it. In that sense, you were feeding your family the best. Were there very many women who said, “You know what? I’m doing a B+ job of this homemaking thing, and that’s all right”? I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s my 21st-century perfectionism wrestling its way to the fore, but I don’t know very many people who’d be content with doing a B+ job at anything.

A shadowy photo of the book that I took at Kramerbooks.  God, that title was only good when Simon and Garfunkel used it.

A shadowy photo of the book that I took at Kramerbooks. God, that title was only good when Simon and Garfunkel used it.

You know, I wrote the above few paragraphs in early August, and I mean all of it, but I’ve since walked away, returned the book to the library and bought and annotated my own copy.  (See why my blog posts take so damn long?)  Anyway, I couldn’t shake why I was so unsettled by this book.  There are core arguments with which I agree.  The economic downturn has likely contributed to the influx of artisanal this and homegrown that; young people out in the field are finding work unfulfilling; the US doesn’t yet have the social structures necessary to support upward female mobility.  The issue for me is that the very premise of the book requires an embrace of the false dichotomy that led Michael Pollan to make his (outright wrong-headed) comment, “[The appreciation of cooking was] a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.”  It’s not an either-or proposition.  By setting the artisanal movement at odds with contemporary mainstream working culture you’re forcing a choice that needn’t be made.  Why is it surprising that people with “good” jobs who went to “good” schools are opening up ice cream stores and Etsy shops?  Doesn’t that inherently demean their careers of choice?  There isn’t really an ice-cream-store-opening school, is there?  (I suppose an MBA and culinary school.  Maybe some finance experience to pay for said MBA?)

For me, the simplest answer is the right one.  Pink tomatoes don’t taste good.  A fresh heirloom tomato sliced on some garlic-rubbed toasted bread tastes better than some cheese grated over a Trader Joe’s tortilla.  The problem?  That shit’s expensive.  I could buy a black-market kidney for the price of an organic, heirloom tomato and a good, good loaf of bread costs almost ten bucks.  Ten bones, y’all.  These sorts of businesses don’t have the economy of scale that, say, Kraft mac and cheese does.  So, yes, instead of blowing off steam at a bar after work, some people go home and bake bread.  For other people, the opportunity cost baking a loaf of bread is higher than $10, so they buy the bloody loaf.  Say it with me, y’all: And that’s okkkaaayyy.

There’s a part of me that thinks—fears, really—that I’ve missed the point of Matchar’s argument.  Yes, there are people who have made a forceful exodus out of i-banking and into full-time crafting, but aren’t they the minority?  What’s behind Matchar’s seeming discomfort with the casual crafters?  She knits, too; why is this shocking?  (I’m at school and don’t have the book, but there is one line that basically says, “In the 90s, you’d go out dancing with your friends; in the aughts, you stay in and make preserves.”  And in both cases the next day you go to your job—you know that, right?)  This brings us to the title of this post.  (1000 words in, a record.)  When I was on vacation, I read a book of James Wood’s essays, one of which is called “The Homecoming.”  In it, Wood reviews a Marilynne Robinson book called Home, where the characters go back home and find it lacking.  For them, Wood says, “Eden is exile, not heaven.”  What if Matchar is right and we are having a homecoming of sorts?  Only, the source of our anxiety is not the fact that home isn’t the same anymore since we’ve experienced liberation, but that we’ve narrowly defined progress in the creative destruction sort of way (nutshell: we’ve moved forward, created new opportunities, and necessarily have to destroy what was).  Am I reaching, here?  The problem isn’t that we got to Oz and realized it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, but that the very existence of the idea of an Oz makes difficult a life in Kansas.  And now even I’m lost.

Time for a turn-on-a-dime segue: This is evidenced by the sewing community’s really awkward relationship with the idea of home.  Hear me out.  Every time I see someone hashtag an Instagram post of a garment with #handmade, I have to take a walk around the block.  Now, what makes your self-made garments handmade?  You used a sewing machine, a serger, maybe a coverstitch, maybe a blind-hemmer.   Factories use all of those things, with loads of people.  Why is your stuff handmade?  If bought an industrial Juki would your garments no longer be handmade?  What if you made a lot of things assembly-line style?  Got your friends to help?  Sold said items?  When does it stop being handmade and start bearing the implied sterility and hollowness of the “other” garment?  Never?  By this logic, I have a closet filled with handmade clothes.

via Huffington Post

via Huffington Post

Look how many hands there are in this photo!  Okay, off the soapbox and onto the point: I don’t think we use the term handmade as a rejection of the people (mostly women; mostly poor women) who make mass-manufactured garments, or an intentional dehumanization of developing-world labor, but rather the fact that homemade, in the sewing community, tends to mean shoddy, Becky Home-Ecky, happy-hands-at-home.  Much as just about everyone seems to crow about the quality of contemporary ready-to-wear, it is considered complimentary to use ready-to-wear finishing techniques, or to make a garment that looks like it could have been RTW.  (I have a forthcoming post about the alleged decline in RTW quality coming down the pipeline.  I even have visual aids.  Mark your calendars, friends.)  That, and having a homemade dress might harken back to the dark days of oppression (oh, the 1950s); whereas handmade summons visions of happy hobbyists and artisans, working to bring our creativity back, well, home.

Thoughts and feelings, gang?

written on the body

In typical horrifying style, I’m just going to name all of my blog posts after works of literature. Thank you, Jeannette Winterson.

Titian's Danaë with young Eros.

Titian’s Danaë with young Eros.  When was the last time Zeus rained gold on me?  What has Zeus done for me lately, is what I’m saying.  Oh God.  Literally.

Over the weekend (this is now several weekends ago), I went to see Titian’s Danaë at the National Gallery.  I wonder if Titian painted Danaë nude because he was worried about finding the right dress to deëmphasize her midsection or he didn’t have time to head to the mall to have her colors done.  Maybe Danaë spent a long time worrying about not getting enough cardio, locked up in that bronze tower.  Such a pretty face, they’d tell her.  That is, if they ever got to see her.  I hear Lady Godiva had the same problem, you know.  That’s why she rode the horse nude: she couldn’t decide what to wear.

Let’s just say that I spend a long time thinking about discourses of the body.  Is there a less obnoxious term for that?  Afraid not, reader.  Going into reading midcentury style guides, I was worried.  Concerned, really.  Have you ever tried to find a vintage pattern with a 40″ bust?  What about a 40″ hip?  Now, I read contemporary fashion magazines and so much of it seems to be about diminishing and deëmphasis, dressing so that your body can appear to conform to a long, lean, busty, hippy, firm, pretty-but-not-intimidating, sexy-but-not-whorish, smart-but-unimposing Western ideal, rather than align with your personality traits.  If contemporary discourses are so troubling, what would I think about the famously direct Edith Head?  Or Claire McCardell and Adele Margolis who, while trailblazers, were unavoidably products of their time?

Gretchen over at Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing wrote of being surprised about Irene Sharaff “body-snarking” Elizabeth Taylor.  I disagree about body-snarking in that instance, and I didn’t walk into the texts expecting that, as Gretchen writes, “Hollywood [or dressmakers] had more realistic expectations of stars [people] in the 50s and 60s, when a more womanly figure was in fashion.”  Mostly because I’m always disturbed by the idealization of the past, sure, but also the implication that women were more “womanly” in the era of distressing repression after the relative liberation of the 1940s.

Suffice it to say, I went in with some baggage.  A lot of baggage.  I was really pleasantly surprised, though.  More background.  (Don’t you love how this alleged review is basically me talking about me?  Me, too.)  When I first started writing this blog, I used to go back over my posts and add in a lot of I thinks and maybes, to cushion what I was saying.  Now, I do the exact opposite, and go back through my writing to savagely cull all of that.  Of course I think it, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing it, right?  The point is, there’s a directness to these books that I just love, even if I was a bit taken aback by it, initially.  No hemming and hawing and hand-wringing about pleasing and offending.  Just the facts, ma’am.  Por ejemplo:

I suggest the following, in the order I would choose if I were you. First: look at your figure. You know if you’re too fat. Consult your doctor and find out how much you can lose safely. He will be only too glad to help you and if you are really overweight he will disapprove from the standpoint of health. Your figure is adjustable—through diet and exercise. Instead of struggling from one size to another, you will save time and frustration by banishing potatoes. But be realistic. Reducing won’t guarantee a perfect figure if your bones aren’t arranged that way. Accept the fact that some alterations will be necessary and you will certainly save money if you can either do the alterations yourself or find a little dressmaker.  (McCardell 28)

Okay.  Now imagine Nina Garcia writing exactly those words.  Specifically, “You know if you’re too fat.”  She’d be pilloried.  I read a lot of contemporary style guides through Scribd, and did a fair bit of flipping through others at the bookstore.  The advice tends to lean more towards “Buy the right size for you.”  I don’t recall a single one addressing modifying your body to fit your clothes, but all of them suggest modifying your clothes to suit your body.  “Dress for the body you have now, not the one you have in your head,” they say.  Actually, that last bit has been an enduring suggestion.

Let’s hear from Adele Margolis now:

If you’re size 16 [contemporary US size 10-12] or over, you’re out of luck.  Some stores don’t even stock anything over a 14.  Clothing buyers and store managers tell us that the best-selling sizes across the country today are the 10’s and 12’s.  The largest voices and the best buys are in these smaller sizes. . . . If twenty pounds is an out-of-the-question weight loss for one who has lived enough years to consider her evening cocktail and a gourmet meal among the finer things in life, then at least one can think thin and try for ten.  In the ensuing struggle, it’s a comfort to know that it is better to fit the clothes you would like to wear than to make the clothes fit what you are—especially if what you are is anything less than great.  (Margolis 1-2)

Especially if what you are is anything less than great.  Okay.  Take a knee, grab some water, we’re over 1000 words in, and haven’t even addressed Edith Head, yet.

Okay, so there are perhaps, maybe, I think, kind of different ways of expressing these sentiments.  The old man that lives within me—the one frustrated by grade inflation, the everybody-gets-a-trophy mentality, and a stifling dedication to hollow, superficial niceness—is refreshed by Margolis and McCardell’s shit-or-get-off-the-pot approach.  (My will to run a family-friendly blog is flagging.)  They’re basically like really nice aunts, or something, who think that what they’re telling you is for the best.  I say this as someone with a cadre of aunts (and uncles, and parents, and grandparents, and elderly neighbors, and middle-aged neighbors, and maintenance people who work at school) who are far too fixated on my weight for my taste, and from whom “You know if you’re too fat” would be a reserved and tactful observation.

I’ve developed pretty thick skin, as well as a distaste for contemporary veiled body criticism.  Would you rather flip through magazine editorials that school you in the dark arts of figure flattery, delivering alleged compliments about “your tiny waist!  Squee!” while simultaneously telling you how to conceal your hideous, grotesque, offensive-to-all saddlebags?  What is the appreciable difference between that and the two quotes I’ve given you?  (Disclosure: While I’d love to tell you that I am Captain Body Confidence and Positivity, I most certainly am not.  I gained two inches on each calf after a four-ish months of spinning upwards of 6x/week, and am horrified by both my calves and my response to their sudden increase in size.  I am now hoping that Jesus, Mary, and Tracy Anderson will give me the “tiny dancer’s body” that is apparently my birthright as a contemporary woman.  I’m not switching up my exercise regimen because of my health or personal interest.  (I sob softly into my olives every time I hear a Lana Del Rey exercise remix at the grocery store, thinking of tap backs of days past.  “Summertime Sadness,” indeed.)  I’m doing it because I want to buy cute riding boots, and to not have to peel my trousers off of my calves. Point being, I am not immune to this line of reasoning, but I understand why it’s problematic.)

All that preamble to say, after thinking about it, I’m not sure I find what McCardell and Margolis are saying too offensive, actually.  I wish I could quote the entire books for you, but it seems to boil down to, “Listen:  If you don’t fall within this portion of the size range, then you could make efforts to slim yourself down to the region.  You’ll still have to make alterations, but the retail purchasing life is easier if you are within this specified band.  If you don’t, you’ll have to work harder to find or alter things that will allow you to project the image that you want to the people that you want.”  Eh.  Fair enough.  Dressing, it seems, is not about necessarily thinking about what you like, but rather what you want to say with what you wear.  There is a bit of a performative element to it, and while we could dress to reflect our conceptions of self, to ourselves, there are other voices in the room, and those voices are products of our culture at large.  Edith Head writes in the introduction of How to Dress for Success,

The way you dress—or package yourself—is the one thing over which you have absolute control.  You can’t change the size of your feet, the shape of your legs, the color of your eyes or the texture of your hair—but you can change the way you look ads easily as an actress does each times she plays a new role.

When you know what you want out of life—the areas of success you desire—then it is easy to dress “in character” to create the most exciting, pleasing, attractive appearance for your audience. . . .

Women come in a vast variety of recognizable basic types: the cute type, the majestic type, the dainty type, the boyish type, the clinging-vine type, the outdoor-girl type, the sexy type and many others.  Decide right now which basic type you are.  Ask yourself how big a part your clothes have played in making you that type.  Would you rather be a different type?  Would you prefer being chic to cute, looking dramatic to looking majestic, appearing more feminine, less mousey more striking?  What you wear, more than any other factor, can improve the type you are or change your type completely.

It is of first importance that the look you long for be compatible with your success goal.  Does it fit into the picture of you moving rapidly toward the role you eventually want to play?  (Head ix-xi)

Why the long quote?  Well, there are several important ideas here.  The first being about packaging and projection.  While I’m not terribly keen on the implications of the notion that most women conform to easily recognizable archetypes, I freely admit to filing people under certain categories based not just on what they wear, but why they seem to be wearing it.  The best thing about McCardell and Head is that their recommendations for dress are not about you.  Well, at least, they’re not necessarily about your aesthetic preferences within a vacuum.  Both seem to understand that clothing isn’t solely about self-expression, but function.  Function in a literal sense, with McCardell’s monastic dress and down-with-girdles attitude, but also in a very figurative sense.  When you put on clothes, you are essentially advertising a version of yourself to the world.   This is a major difference between books like McCardell’s and Head’s, and exercises like Wardrobe Architect or some of the contemporary style guides I ran across.  The second Wardrobe Architect worksheet asked a lot about one’s personal feelings about not wearing the right thing, or what you feel when when wearing a good-to-you outfit.  McCardell and Head are very much about understanding what you’re wearing refracted through others’ sensibilities and lenses of experience.

I can’t find the page where McCardell says that wearing your ladybug pin for tea with your Aunt Linda, who famously detests whimsy, is misgauging your audience.  It’s not Linda’s problem, but yours.  I feel most like me when I’m wearing a full, below-the-knee skirt, a fitted top (dress bodice or blouse), and a cardigan.  You know what, though?  I really don’t like the way I’m treated a lot of the time.  I hate that people talk to me with a bit of a baby voice, and look surprised when I tell them my major and school.  What’s the answer, then?  Dress like the awesome Janet Yellen?  The fictional and fabulous Diane Lockhart?  Actually, kinda.

Function, for McCardell and Head (we’ve abandoned Margolis, as I read her sewing book), is really about goal-oriented dressing.  Who do you want to be and for whom do you have to perform?  Naturally, I also worry about what that means, for you as a person.  If you wear the mask for long enough, does your face grow to fit it?  This is where I think McCardell especially nails it.  She’s not suggesting macro changes, or looking like a lost little girl wearing her mummy’s clothes.  You’re not a paper doll wearing your doctor/wife/mother/volunteer/bohemian outfit, but rather understanding how to take the baseline you—with your interests, comforts, and capabilities considered—and reconcile it with, then adapt it to, others’ conceptions of the person you want to be.  I took this theology class that got very hippie dippie and talked about sites of meeting and encounter.  For me, the body, through what we wear but who we are, acts as a site of encounter.  It is where self and culture meet—not just for you, but for people who look at you.  There’s something to be said about that moment of silent judgement and assessment.

This is running long (you think?), and I haven’t even skimmed the surface of either book’s advice.  Must stop making navel-gazing digressions.

I really want to address Professor Przybyszewski’s book The Lost Art of Dress at some point (don’t hold your breath), as I listened to an interview with her on the Diane Rehm Show just when I was first writing this post.  (Six whole weeks ago, reader.  I know.)  Basically, she thinks that we’ve become a nation of slobs and that no one cares about dressing anymore, and working on a college campus drives that home for her.  Well, I’ll leave you with a story.  I went to CVS during finals week a few semesters ago, after midnight.  There was a guy from school walking in ahead of me, wearing the dude-bro uniform—shower shoes, too-loose plaid shorts, and a t-shirt that could have used an iron. On the way in, a man had asked us for money for food, but I don’t carry cash, and am always a big fat disappointment in those situations.  Bro bought two packs of blond Oreos and a Gatorade.  “Typical,” I thought, because I am a judgmental shrew and was going through a [school]-loathing period (and I am jealous of the average 19-year-old male metabolism, big time).  On the way out, Bro gave a pack of Oreos to the man who wanted money for food.  “They’re golden,” he said.  And that’s that.

dress your family in corduroy and denim

I bought a cardigan in March.  Merino wool, long-sleeve, paid 50-ish bucks, but it retailed for $85.  (The J. Crew Tippi cardigan, if you care.)  I’m considering setting said cardigan aflame.

It’s a nice cardigan, sure, but it has not worn well.  I’m disinclined to blame the manufacturer, and not just because of my unholy Mickey Drexler fixation.  So, what’s so different from me and the intended wearer?  Well, for starters, I wore that cardigan to deff.  Up to 3x/week, while walking over a mile to the Metro, carting around a 30+lb backpack (what?  Wool doesn’t like friction?), letting my cat climb me like a tree, wading through 90% (rainless!  Effing rainless!) humidity, being late to the draw with my umbrella when the bloody rain finally came—the list goes on.  I wonder if I should have the same expectations for my clothes and shoes as someone who wears her cardigan once a week, and walks from an air-conditioned car into an air-conditioned office, and back.  Mayhap?

We’re finally getting to the point: I’ve been reading a lot of vintage style guides lately (post forthcoming, after I bone up on my contemporary style guides so that I can make sure I’m not talking out of my—God, I regret vowing to clean up my blog), and they describe a lifestyle that does not resemble mine.  Claire McCardell is really concerned about what I wear to the country club, because that’s where I’ll face some of my harshest critics.  Edith Head seems to disapprove of active husband hunting, but is totally willing to roll up her sleeves and help me do what it takes to get a man.  (Priorities, people.)  Adele Margolis thinks I’m fat.  (More on that, later.)  None of them think I carry my groceries home on the Metro, or haul enormous stacks of books to my carrel or up hundreds of stairs (inevitably flashing something to someone).   Does this lifestyle difference contribute to the expectations that I should have of my clothes?   Were things really objectively better back then?

I’ve been working on some overlapping posts lately, and can’t seem to land on the order in which they should go.  Per usual, I think I’ve overread.  I’ll just say: When reading this, perhaps think about how it relates to the evolution of our treatment of style and its cultivation (rather than an evolution of styles themselves), the increasing commercialization of fashion (The Wall Street Journal‘s Teri Agin had written a great book on this, called The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Industry Forever), image and how our wardrobes affect the ways in which we’re treated, and [prickly prickly prickly] status, and the ever-stickifying interplay between art, money, and social class.  I may or may not have a Countess Luann GIF situation all queued up for the status portion.

Countess Luann Gif

So glad that you asked, Countess.   Some Bureau of Labor Statistics daaaaa-taaaaaa!   Don’t ever say I don’t do anything nice for you, reader.

I made you an infographic, and WordPress won’t let me embed it.  Then, I made you a Keynote presentation complete with interactive charts (it was awesome!), and even though that file extension is accepted media, it’s still a no-go.  All right, reader.  All right.  Then, I made a nifty video. . . .  You see where this is going, right?  Uphill, both ways.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes its Consumer Expenditure Survey every year, now, but until the mid-1970s, it was published whenever they sort of felt like it. At one point, cash contributions and personal insurance weren’t included, and now they are.  It’s a hot mess, but I love it.  I’m using the data from 1950 to present, because the first half of the century involved two world wars and a depression, market shocks that I don’t think help our cause.

After reading Sarai Mitnick’s Coletterie piece “The Decline of Midrange Clothing” and its very, very long comments section, I had some capital-T Thoughts.  To my mind, there hasn’t been a decline in midrange, but rather a reconception of what midrange means.  I think that consumer expectations of per-garment cost have gone way down, people now expect to own more articles of clothing, and few consumers expect to pay full price for anything.  There is a reason why Ann Taylor and J. Crew so frequently do store-wide markdowns.  It’s become less about getting a deal, or even thinking you’ve gotten a deal, than it has about feeling you’ve gotten a deal.  Let’s see how my hypotheses hold up, shall we?

I’ve done some informal surveying of my older professors, and to their memories, there was literally Sears and Penneys, high-end department stores, and couture.  Sure, Marshall Field had his basement, but it was a home for in-house knockings off of the stuff from the upper floors.  Our question then becomes, are we dealing with a rise of the bottom, or a decline of the middle?  No one considered Sears and Penneys to be on the lower end of the spectrum, though.  Most middle-class families shopped there, for one reason or the next, and if you were less fortunate, you’d buy fewer things.  Also worth noting is that there weren’t really sales that often.  One professor says that he only remembers there being a 26 December get-rid-of-all-the-crap blowout (his words!) at Field’s, and that the reset of the time sticker price was sticker price.  Teri Agin, in the Marshall Field section of her book, notes that it was really in the 1980s that Field’s started running crazy cakes sales.

Let’s look at the data.  In the charts below, you’ll notice that in 1950, apparel had an 11.5% share of consumer expenditure, but now it hovers just above 4%.  Average family sizes have also changed from 3.0 (though some sources say 3.7, I’m sticking with the BLS on this one) to 2.5, and there’s been a rise in dual-income families.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here’s the same story, but on a nifty, partially cut-off table.  Only the best for you, reader.

US Garment Expenditure.002

So, people expected to spend a larger share of their income on clothing.  Bee-eff-dee, Charlotte.  Get to the damn point.  Fine, reader.  What were they buying, really?  How much of it were they buying, too?  I can’t find any good data on, say, the number of trousers owned by a single household, but damn I wish I could.  I will say that it was mildly surprising to read Claire McCardell endorse a focus on quality, rather than quantity, in 1956.  I generally think of this argument as a product of the boom-boom eighties, but nope, McCardell thought it applied to America’s nascent middle-class.  In her book, McCardell advocates holding out for a $30 sweater, rather than buying some piece of lord-knows-what on sale.  $30 in 1955 is supposed to have the same purchasing power as $266.31 in today’s dollars.  For that, you could get an Eric Bompard or Brora cashmere sweater at the end-of-season sale.  You know what you (probably) couldn’t get?  A sweater from Pringle of Scotland, or a cashmere sweater from many of the marquee-name fashion houses.  Why not?  Well, I’m afraid that inflation doesn’t tell the whole story.

I’m sure you know this, but I’ll give you a refresher course.  We measure inflation, in real terms, based on the consumer price index.  Basically, inflation is the change over time in the amount of money you’d need to buy a basket of goods and services that offers a certain standard of living.  The composition of the basket has changed over the years—no iPads in the 1950s, I’m afraid—but the standard of living is supposed to smooth out.  The BLS has a nifty tool where you can isolate different segments of the CPI basket, and chart their inflation independent of the whole shebang.  I downloaded the data for apparel, then the data for the whole basket, and used my good friends Excel and Keynote to make you this fly-as-all-get-out chart.  The whole basket is in green, the apparel portion of it is in blue.  One of these things is not like the other.

US Garment Expenditure.003So, the years 1982-1984 = 100, and are our base years, and what we’re doing is looking at the relationships between apparel and general, relative to the base years.  Our answers lie in the rates of change, basically.  It doesn’t matter how much purchasing power you have, if you’re not going to spend it.  Also, relative prices change.  I remember reading that compared to Americans of 1895, contemporary consumers are 60 times richer in mirrors, but 10% poorer in fine silverware, partially because demand for the latter has gone down precipitously and prices have gone up.*  (Not necessarily in that order.)  It seems we’re richer in clothes, when looking at the graph.  You’d only need 25% more money to buy the 1982-84 apparel portion of the basket, versus needing over 120% more money to buy the whole basket.  Ruh-roh.  Here’s the evolving price of the dollar, for the curious.  Read it as one USD in [blank] would give you the same purchasing power of [blank] in contemporary dollars.

Inflation Station.001

One last piece of statistical data before I go grab some pancakes.  I was reading the Agin book last night, and she mentions that in 1994, a quilted Chanel bag was priced at $960.  Assuming she’s writing about a small, classic flap bag (the one with the interlocked-C lock and the metal-and-leather chain), that same bag retails for $4200.  $4700 after this year’s mandatory Chanel price increase.  Reader, America is not projected to have 10% inflation this year, and neither is the Eurozone.  There’s something afoot, but we’ll talk more about it when we get to the status piece of the puzzle.

Why the protracted lecture?  I just wanted to toss this stuff out there before doing my alleged “review” of the McCardell, Head, and Margolis texts, and comparing them to contemporary style guides, because, for me, the econ side of the equation was/is pretty important going in.

I’m going to come back and a) catch up on comment replies and b) insert some hyperlinks for the labyrinthine BLS website after I’ve had some breakfast.  Oh, and I might even proofread.

*Oh, I read that statistic in Charles Kenny’s Why Global Development Is Succeeding.
** 
I should probably thank David Sedaris’s Hugh for the title of this blog post.

i really can turn anything into major life question, reader.

Yes, my to-post queue is going to suffocate me in my sleep.  I’m going to do what any mature adult would do in this situation, and completely ignore my entire drafts folder.  Sue me, reader.  Ah, yes, I detect the sound of you not caring.

You’ll be pleased to know that I signed up for a sewing class, at long last.  No?  This is not a fulfillment of your hopes and dreams?  This isn’t the announcement for which you’ve been waiting?  Whatever, reader.  I don’t know about you, but I’m completely self-conscious about being self-taught.  Well, self-, Internet-, and book-taught.  Home-taught?  For instance, I think I spend three to five minutes at the ironing board for every minute I spend at the sewing machine, but I’m still not pleased with my pressing results.

The people in my life think that making fabric fit a three-dimensional body is a miracle of the water-to-wine variety, so every time I ask them for criticism, it goes a bit like “Dude, you made that?  Awesome!”  Sigh.  (Same goes for cooking.  If you ever want to impress a twenty-something, I strongly suggest making pizza.  Apparently, pizza is a thing that is supposed to come in a box?  Way to ruin everything, Domino’s.)  I’ve gotten better at a lot of things, sure, but I think a steady stream of direct critique from an expert would pay dividends.

Anyhoo, the class is at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, which just so happens to be across the street from my spin studio, and ridiculously easy walking distance from my house.*  I’m really, really, really excited.  The instructions say that we’re supposed to bring our pattern of choice, its fabric and notions, and our tools to our first day of class.  Naturally, I have worked myself into a righteous lather over what to make.  15 hours of sewing instruction!  Is it like regular school, where we’re expected to do three hours of outside work for every one hour spent in the classroom?  So, a 60-hour project?  Does all the work happen in class?  Will the sewing instructor adore me, and think I have the most brilliant project, elegant in both design and execution?  (Yes, I am Tracy Flick and I have exactly no shame about it.)

I’ve got goals, naturally.  The top three are improved fitting, seam finishing, and hand sewing.  They’re all abysmal, right now.  I think I’ve got the curse of a reader, rather than a doer.  I can give you flawless instructions on how to do things that I cannot actually do.  I make French seams, but my hems get kind of weird around them.  I hand-sew like a six-year-old with horrendous motor skills.  Oh, and lining.  I try to line just about everything I make, but I’m lost when it comes to lining shirtwaist dresses or more complicated bodices, or doing a facing-lining combination that I’ve seen and loved on higher-end ready-to-wear.  Anyway, I have no frickin’ idea what I’m going to bring in.  I want to make all of the things.  All of them.  I need your help, is what I’m saying.  Here are my top two contenders:

Carolina Herrera silk twill matched up with view A of McCall's 6696

Carolina Herrera silk twill matched up with view A of McCall’s 6696

Oh, disclosure: I used to intern for a large fabric store (if you’ve been kicking around here for more than five minutes, you probably know which one) and got just about every nice piece of fabric I own from there, during and after my internship.  I don’t work there anymore, and any time you see them mentioned around these parts, it’s with my usual unwelcome-but-totally-honest opinion.  I’m not sure how to strike the balance between transparency and discretion, and I certainly don’t want to do a What I Did on My Summer Vacation Two Years Ago post on my internship, hence the uncharacteristic opacity.  Plus, I got sick towards the end of it and had to cut it short, and I feel tons of guilt about that.  So maybe there is some sort of weird subconscious bias going on?

Who cares?

Anyway, you’ll find a Carolina Herrera silk twill above.  I can’t say enough good things about it.  The green stripes are yard-dyed, while the navy are printed.  It is wide as ever and has great drape.  I luff it.  You know which pattern ties my love for it, though?  McCall’s 6696.  When I started sewing, in the Paleolithic Era, all I wanted was the perfect shirtwaist dress pattern.  I wanted a waistband, a collar with a stand, and a full skirt.  I searched high and low, and never hit the trifecta.  I bought a half dozen not-quite-right patterns, hoping to learn to love them, to no avail.  Then, my Platonic ideal pattern materialized herself.  Bless you, McCall’s.  There are no words for how much I love this design.  I am honestly considering buying one during every McCall’s sale at Jo-Ann because I am actually afraid of changing sizes or of the pattern going out of print.

Between 6696, the Colette Hawthorn (which, despite my crowing about the collar instructions, I really adore), Grainline’s forthcoming Alder shirtwaist, and perhaps a Deer and Doe Bleuet or McCall’s 6885, I’ve got at least a dozen shirtwaist dresses set to come down the pipeline at some point in our natural-born lives.  What’s the point, you testily ask?  Well, it would be great to learn some shirtwaist skills.

But can’t you learn shirtwaist-applicable skills on other, more ambitious projects?  Would McCall’s 6696 take up my projected 60 hours of sewing time?  Would I get bored after five weeks of it?  Enter: cocktail dress.

Vogue 1048 matched up with the really nice panel of uncertain origin.

Vogue 1048 matched up with the really nice panel of uncertain origin.

So, at last year’s Lauren Comes to Town meet-up, we went to Mood.  I glanced over at the silk-lace area cutting table, and saw this fabric.  “Isn’t that pretty?  Is it navy?”  “I think it’s black,” said one of the meeter-uppers.  (Meredith?)  I asked Dennis and he said, “Actually, it’s more of a Prussian green; it’s one of the most exquisite fabrics in the store.”  Now, if you’ve never met Dennis, I suggest that you close your computer, head to the airport, and get thee to his side.  I can honestly say that the fact that he does not narrate my life is one of my greatest disappointments.  If Dennis says that something is nice, you should consider yourself fortunate to be in the presence of said thing.  Seriously.  Swayed by Dennis’s endorsement, I bought two two-and-one-eighth-yard panels of it. Which is to say, I’ve got a lot of this fabric and it scares the living shit out of me.  I don’t think I’d be able to cut into it without adult supervision and some sort of breathing aid.  I’m getting a little jumpy just talking about it.

It seemed kind of vulgar to pair this fabric with just any old pattern.  So, one day, I was poking around Etsy, and found this amazing vintage Vogue pattern from 1961.  It is 1048, from Lanvin, and is very ambitious (for me).  (There is another one floating around on Etsy, in case you want to be twinsies.)  I may or may not have decided to forgo a few exercise classes and a pedicure so that I could get my hands on this pattern.  It has a dizzying number of pieces, and its instructions fit on one demi-broadsheet.  (Nineteen pieces, with allowances for facings and linings, plus underbodice and underskirt pieces.)

Isn’t this becoming a classic frosting v. cake debate?  I generally try to make my sewing patterns come down to about $5 per garment, or one garment for every muslin made.  (Kind of arbitrary, but it makes me feel better about my life decisions.)  That would not happen here.  The pattern was worth the outlay because of all of the nifty things I’d learn from it, were I to use it for the class.  I should probably mosey around to the point: I’d make the short version, nix the ass bow (which is the technical couture name, from what I understand), in the above Prussian-green-or-is-it-black fabric and then try to wrangle a friend into a fancypants Kennedy Center evening.

Over a thousand words to say: Which one?  Frosting or cake?

My absolute favorite part about this is that I’m treating it as if this is the only sewing class I shall ever take.  From what I understand, the instructor teaches a demi-couture class, as well as this one, and will probably be teaching another five-week session in the fall.  But shouldn’t I make a jacket in the fall?  Ugh, why do I make my own decisions?

*Do you remember back when the Internet was super scary, and people took extensive precautions to both conceal their identities and whereabouts?  Are we still doing that?  Because, the thing is, between Instagram and Twitter and this space, you can pretty much pinpoint my location and suss out my schedule.  I’m not exactly keeping any secrets.  On one hand, you used to be able to look people up in the yellow pages.  On the other, I’d rather not get murdered.  So, let’s make a deal: You consider perhaps joining me at spin (Biker Barre, if you’re interested) or for the sewing class, but manage to refrain from causing me physical or emotional harm, please and thank you.  Sound fair?  We could even get a drink afterwards.

afternoon delight

Are you ever going to post a finished garment? Meh.  Probably not.  I’m just going to let them stack up like firewood.  Moving on!

This one is going to be quickie, on the subject of sewing books that are not targeted specifically to beginners.  I checked Susan Khalje’s Linen and Cotton out of the library, and have been really pleasantly surprised.  I’ve been reading sewing books and blogs for about six years now, and I’ve actually encountered new-to-me stuff in this book.  I might write something resembling a full review later, after I’ve cross-referenced other books in my sewing library.  Oh, and maybe after I’ve actually finished the book, and tried a few tips from it?  Keeping it professional, per usual.

Linen and Cotton Cover

It seems like it takes information I already know, and moves it a step further.  For instance, I learned to sew three rows of basting stitches for gathers from The Colette Sewing Handbook, but it never occurred to me to press them before attaching skirt to bodice, until I read it in Linen and Cotton.  (I patiently wait for C&D letters from the Khalje and Mitnick legal teams.)  (Am I the only one who is super paranoid/particular about sharing copyrighted information?  I guess a tip is like ingredients in a recipe, and is uncopyrightable, but I still feel the need to send both authors and publishers a check for a nickel or something, in exchange for my disclosure.)  Also, I’d never heard about sewing from wide to narrow until I’d read about it in this text.    Naturally, I popped over to the Gorgeous Fabrics website, and it appears that the ever-intrepid Ann has a video up about it.  Still!

Maybe I skipped over these bits in my other sewing books (hence, the cross-referencing before I write a full review), but I find this text nothing short of illuminating.  I went looking for other books in the Focus on Fabrics series, and only came up with the Connie Long book on knits that Nancy K had recommended.  Nothing else.  What gives, Taunton?  I, for one, would love a Khalje-written book on silk or lace, or a Kenneth King-written book on leather or novelty material (the man has made a jacket out of hair weaves, for crying out loud).

I also checked out Edith Head’s How to Dress for Success and Claire McCardell’s What Shall I Wear?, both of which will get the full Seam Ripped treatment the instant I get the chance.  (Which is to say, a half-assed-yet-two-thousand-word post that is a pale imitation of a real review.  Get excited, people.)  Look at the endpapers in the McCardell text, though:

McCardell What Shall I Wear? Endpapers

Oh, the 1950s.  Oh, evidence of how conservative some libraries are about rebinding books.  (At my school, we rebind just about everything.  This fella is on consortium loan from Marymount or Howard, I think.  At any rate, it’s a school that has its priorities in order.  Pretty endpapers must be preserved for posterity!  Put that on a bumper sticker, why don’t you?)

word from around town

Hey there!  How’s it going?  Well, it is Monday, I have made four Emery muslins (five, if you count the full-blown, not-quite-there dress), and am ready to donate my bustline and dowager’s hump to science.  How about we talk about what other people are saying?

Mikhaela’s posts about barriers to sewing, and her recent UFO-busting streak, have had me nodding in absolute agreement.  Indeed, if you were to replace all of the husband and kid mentions with talk of school and cats, and all of the allergy-free meal references with asides about oysters and gin, I could have written them myself.  The cats have never treated me to a day at the museum, though.  Ugh.  Kids today, am I right?

Anyhoo, it is so comforting to know that someone else banishes their makes to the UFO pile after a roadblock.  I’ve drawn up thorough notes on how to line the Hawthorn, cut out everything but the skirt lining, and have the bodice shell and lining assembled.  Yet!  Yet!  That bloody collar’s poor directions make me want to set the entire thing aflame.  (You’re supposed to sew the whole thing with a 1/4″ seam allowance, not the standard 5/8″.  The instructions not only fail to mention this, but instruct you to trim down to 1/4″.  This is addressed on Flickr and in the comments on the Sewalong post, but I missed it.  Harrumph.)  I’ve been working on it for a month!  I need to just buckle down and soldier through it, and Mikhaela’s UFO ass-kickery is a total inspiration.

– This isn’t recent, but I’ve been thinking about Neemie’s New Years posts and the “Me, too!” school of pattern buying.  Mimi, at Shop the Garment District, used to work for a major pattern company, and she says that 75% of patterns purchased aren’t used.  That gives the me the sads.  I’ve been doing a thorough assessment of my pattern reserves, and I think I have something like 60% of my patterns cut out, but given the size change I’ve just experienced, I have to really go through and have a major purge.  A style cull, for someone like me who cannot picture garments on herself?  Not that easy.

The difference between buying a pattern and buying a dress in the store is, well, trying it on.  I can see someone wearing a cute dress from Anthropologie, pop in to try it on, decide it doesn’t work, and grab a couple of cookies on the way home.  It takes, at most, fifteen or twenty minutes of time, and costs me two Baked and Wired cookies.  (I go to school near DC’s main shopping drag, to be fair, and dozens of stores are literally on my route home.)  With patterns, though, I have to buy the pattern, cut it out, and make a muslin (or two, or six), before deciding whether or not it works.  Hours of time and a concrete monetary investment.  I sometimes feel obliged to make all of my patterns work, most especially the ones that required a lot of fitting time.  (Looking at you, Anna!)  Anyway, smarter pattern buying would save a lot of time, here.

-Michelle just had a not-so-great experience with BHL’s Flora pattern, and posted a detailed review of it.  She actually got some responses from the BHL ladies, and recently posted her final thoughts on Flora. The whole exchange is worth a read, but the most striking thing about the entire discussion, to me, is that people got testy around the idea of pattern testers being paid.*  Edited to add: The root of the tension is the notion that pattern testers are being paid for endorsing the patterns, not necessarily for the act of sewing up the patterns itself, but I guess things get kind of murky when someone is paid for doing something, and then writes a glowing review.  Talking about this issue is like untangling one big knot.

I made a vague comment about the “sketchy compensation issues” at play, if a blogger were asked to write a post about a make, in addition to pattern-testing.  I think it may have gotten misconstrued as insinuating that there are some secret backdoor deals happening.  Quite the contrary, actually.  Now, I’m going to give you a long preface to my response to this.  I first started reading blogs in ancient times, when I had a TA who had small children and wrote a well-received blog about motherhood.  Personal blogs published by women who weren’t Heather Armstrong were only just getting taken seriously, and corporate sponsorship in this corner of the Internet was really in its infancy.

In any event, bloggers were just starting to get approached to write reviews for companies (large MNCs, in a lot of cases).  At one point, though, someone said, “Sooo, we’re spending large swaths of time writing 2000-word “reviews” in exchange for. . .fabric softener?”  The tides changed.  There emerged a distinction between reviews (for which someone buys the product out-of-pocket, and writes about it on his or her own) and sponsored posts (when the company is involved, in whatever capacity), never the twain shall meet.  I think this raises a whole ton of interesting questions about women and money and friendship and business and skill and the general grayness of the (still!) new online frontier.

Years and years on the sidelines of that community means that I would totally think an exchange of money would legitimize a sponsored post, and professionalize a relationship, rather than call into question a blogger’s motives.  For me, the grayness comes when we’re drawing the distinction between pattern testing, reviewing, and sponsored posts.   They’re not mutually exclusive, nor are they necessarily dependent.  I do think it is telling, though, that a lot of people seem to have married the idea of pattern testing to reviewing.

– I’ve been on the fence about buying the Colette Guide to Sewing Knits.  Reading Maddie’s review side-by-side with Nancy K‘s has been pretty illuminating.  I’m leaning towards no right now, but would love to hear about your experiences.  The thing is, my Moneta fits well enough, but I’ve got a bit of armhole gape (as I do on all knits forever and ever, amen) and would love to know what the heck is going on with it.  Nancy K recommends the Taunton series, Connie Long’s Sewing Knits and Marcy Tilton’s The Easy Guide to Sewing Tops and T-Shirts.  A trip to the library might be in order, for me.

Kristin at K-Line has a marvelous post about wardrobe culling, and the seemingly Internet-wide purging cycles.  I’m not afraid of my wardrobe, per se, but I am the sort of person to regret getting rid of something much more than holding on to it.  I feel a sort of, not quite shame or embarrassment, but bashfulness, I guess, about selfishly wanting a large wardrobe.  I am fickle, and there are days when I want to wear an obnoxious floral, and others where I want to pare everything down like Calvin Klein in the 1990s.

Also, I’m in a weird place where I have to sew, because my old wardrobe plum doesn’t fit, and I have too much fabric and too many patterns to justify a summer of J. Crew.  I love reading all of these posts about simplifying while I’m amping up and feeding my fatted wardrobe.

I loved Mary’s comment on Maddie’s post about fast fashion and fast sewing.  I have a similar talk at school all the time, about politics and the golden ages of philosophy.  It goes a little something like, “Do you know what my favorite thing is about my life?  Not having polio.  Waking up, and not worrying about getting polio.  Seriously.  That and suffrage.  Property ownership.  Small potatoes, I guess.”  I’m working on an overwrought post about being taken seriously, and what that means for ye olde wardrobe, but I’ll spare you a preview.  You’re welcome.

Now, I’m off to finish another Moneta (armhole gape and all) and maybe head down to the World War II memorial.  Enjoy your Memorial Day, folks!  Service folks and their families, especially!

*I changed the word balked to got testy around to clarify the statement.  If only I could leave track changes on a blog post!

** I added some conjunctions and stuff, generally proofread, and questioned my grasp of the English language.  Must hire copy editor.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 126 other followers