Tuesday, October 09, 2007

I are a grown-up now

One of the reasons I become stuck in sewing is, I tend to pick a lot of the same sort of fabrics over and over. Lots of us do that. In my case, it means using sturdy cottons, for they are easy to work with. And unless they are imported, they are pretty darn cheap. This is a habit acquired from my mother, who like garment sewing, but did it mostly for economical reasons and did not enjoy a special challenge (knits, for example, did not fare well in our 1947 Kenmore).

So it became my mission during sewing week in San Francisco to look for fabrics that are, honestly, more grown up than I typically choose. I needed to find yardage that co-ordinates with some "orphan" garments — those items of clothing you own that don't seem to really go with anything else you own. I have two pretty great blouses made of cotton/silk voile that I bought at Morrissey in Sydney two years ago, but they have no mates. Here is what I found at Britex.

I need to point out that the fabulous acid yellow plaid is not for a skirt. It's for a jacket. My photo's not great, but maybe you can see the fabric is shot with metallic thread. I will wear some kind of bright pink blouse with it and I bought some olive botton weight fabric for a skirt. This was quite a major purchase. I are a grown-up now. I think.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


Hey, Tim and Veronica! That Cynthia Rowley dress did not fit that woman!

One possible benefit to insomnia is using the time to catch up on TV, so I rose early this morning to watch this week's Tim Gunn's Guide to Style. (Gunn, of course, is the real breakout of Project Runway and not the goofball designers.) I dig him, his authoritative manner, his folded arms, his suits, his wit, everything. Veronica Webb I could not care less about and in fact I would like to propose that we never hear the voices of fashion models, ever.

This week's project, Stephanie, is a petite woman who hadn't quite matured her wardrobe. Stephanie was lucky enough to draw Cynthia Rowley for her "big designer" garment, but unfortunately, she picked the wrong garment, an off-white & metallic sheath dress. First, you don't wear white to a wedding unless you are the bride. Them's the rules. Second, they erred on the side of "old" with that particular dress. It was too mature, approaching matronly (even on Stephanie's tiny body), and it was so Dallas, in my mind. Worst of all, it did not fit her. There were folds of fabric on the front bodice that showed it was too big for her upper chest and shoulders, and vertical wrinkles in the back tell us that the back bodice should have been narrowed and probably shorted as well. Another Rowley dress, the pink one with the empire waist, was a better fit and choice for this lady. Can't find photos of either dress, though.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A winter without pants

I talked about the "no fat pants" rule. I wonder if it is possible to go through a winter without wearing pants at all, that is, wearing skirts and dresses instead. Or a bathrobe.

This question occurs to me because of two things:

1. I have disposed of most of my RTW pants, except for an altered pair from the aforementioned Manifesto, and a pair from Boden, and a pair of Levis. None of them is a perfect fit or length for me.

2. I am now many, many, many hours into pants muslin making, and I still do not have a good result. (I'm SO not going to put up a picture of this.)

We sewists know that a great pair of pants is the holy grail of sewing, and as with all Godly quests, we encounter more than a few false prophets on our journey. With so many contours of the body to fit, it's easy to see why a pair of excellent-fitting pants is the most difficult thing to accomplish. I was just stubborn enough to believe that I am stubborn enough to conquer this.

I honestly don't know if I have the stomach (well, yes I have a stomach) to take yet more fisheye darts out of the back leg, and reshape the crotch seam again, and cut out another muslin. I might just eliminate pants from my wardrobe, since I have almost wearied of being able to produce a pair for myself.

This doesn't even tread into the jeans area, another garment I have despaired of ever feeling like I've found my match.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

One cool thing about San Francisco

One thing that is so cool about San Francisco is, it is not white and young and male. It is Asian and Mexican and black and not everyone out on the street is under 25. I knew this already, but when I found myself on Irving St., south of Golden Gate Park and just east of Sunset, it really hit home. I had driven out on Geary all the way to the beach, then doubled back to Irving to find a location of Discount Fabrics so I could buy some muslin. I knew very well that I had long been out of any touristy areas, but on Irving St., I was roaming in a majority Asian residential neighborhood. It seemed so far away from Austin, which is infested with 21-year-old white men wearing turned-around baseball caps.

The common wisdom about Austin is that it's "laid back," and "youthful." But what it really is, is juvenile.

Monday, September 24, 2007

More alterations

I've spent over 3 hours, including try-ons, on the alterations for this dress. I bought it in June from the wonderful Kingi Carpenter at her shop, Peach Berserk Cocktail in Toronto. Kingi is my hero. She went to art school, and, as she tells it, searched in vain for a dress with an Eiffel Tower print on it while on a student trip to Paris. Upon her return, she silk screened her own Eiffel Tower fabric and made her own dress, and that was the beginning of her business.

Kingi's clothes are unapologetically made for a girly, womanly, female, feminine dame (to borrow from South Pacific). Fashion trends? Whatever. If she doesn't think it looks good on a gal, then it's not in her collection. I really love this about her, that she has a point of view in her work, and it's totally her vision. Whoever doesn't like doesn't have to buy it, but she's not going to follow any voice but her own.

What is in her collection? Pretty girl dresses made of silk charmeuse, dupioni, organza. Jackets and coats. Knits get sewn into hoodies, t-shirt tops, slip dresses, even underwear. Every item is made of fabric that is silkscreened with one of her funky, witty prints. She has developed over 120 designs, from a Ziggy Stardust theme, to kitchen implements, to zippers. Recently, she has expanded her business to include teaching others to silk screen their own fabrics.

In her store/studio on Queen St. West, she has some of her garments on the rack. They are available for sale, but what she really wants to do is create a custom garment just for you, using your choices of colors, prints, and fabric. Such a service does not come at a bargain price, of course, and it's even more expensive for Americans now, since the US dollar is almost 1:1 with the Canadian dollar. But since I am always interested in unique garments, I ordered a knit top with the "Sex & the Single Girl" print, and this silk charmeuse, empire waist, surplice bodice dress with "Tango Roses" on it. (I also snagged 4 yards of black silk dupioni with her "Eiffel for You" print, not knowing what I would do with it.)

Despite Kingi's seamstress's measurements of my body, my dress did not quite fit when it arrived at home 5 weeks or so after my visit to Toronto. The bodice was too long for me. I could have mailed it back to Peach Berserk for a new one, but I decided not to. I'll fix it myself, I thought.

When I put on this dress for Sandra to get her alteration advice, she reacted with obvious pleasure at the "out there" womanliness of this garment and inquired why I do not use this power more often in my life. This is a very good question. I don't think I can quite be like Kingi Carpenter, who, with her fishnets and nail polish and platform shoes and silk skirts with a hem flounce, is channeling a new Betsy Johnson (without the skanky drug culture vibe). But I want some of whatever thang that woman has, at least some days. Kingi would wear this dress anywhere, whether she was going to a fancy restaurant or to eat pizza. I would not, but until I got it to fit me, I wasn't going to wear it at all.

I had to first carefully pick out the understitching holding down the bodice facing, then take apart the shoulder seams of both the lining and fashion fabric. This job was made far simpler by the fact that the lining is attached only by tacks at the side seams, a short line of stitching at the front under the bust, and at the back center seams by the zipper. The rest of the facing is free. I could almost turn the top inside out to get to what I needed to alter, without completely taking the garment apart. I sewed new shoulder seams, taking in about 1.5" there. But I never did get both restitched armhole seams exactly the same. That's always the way it goes with alterations. One side may not perfectly match the other. Why? Because you are working with tiny, trimmed and clipped seam allowances. No wiggle room. There is also no way I can get this into my machine again to replace the understitching. That will have to be done by hand.

I'm glad to salvage this dress, but next time I will order custom yardage from Kingi and sew it myself. George Bush's economic policy be damned.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

We had to call in the Marines

This young man isn't really a Marine, he's Airborne. (As soon as I know the difference, I'll say so.)

My fellow Hands On participants, Vicki and Sandy, headed out for some wine to share with the group on our last evening of sewing and talking, on the 10th floor of the Marines Memorial Club hotel, where Hands On with Sandra Betzina is held. My first night at Marines in 2005 wasn't so great. San Fran was in a heat wave, and my unremodeled room was on the 8th floor, facing west and the street scene below. So closing the windows was not an option, and of course there is no air conditioning in the rooms. The next day I was able to jump to another room on a lower floor that faces the back wall of the JW Marriott and I've asked for that same room ever since.

Marines is a hotel and meeting place for active and retired members of the armed services and their families. It's not mentioned in any guide book I've read, but anyone can book a room there. The majority of the weekday guests are older people who are using the hotel as a base for a jaunt in Northern California, but they also attend reunions and club meetings (for example, a reunion of medical personnel who served in a surgical hospital in Vietnam was going on this year while I was there). Its recent remodeling has made it an attractive wedding spot for locals, as well. The Commandants Room has a stunning view of the East Bay. Our meeting room, the Heritage Room, has a view of Nob Hill.

When it is unbearable here, I imagine this view:

A meeting of some sort was taking place in the Regimental Room next door and there were all sorts of active military men around, a color guard, that sort of thing. Well, Vicki and Sandy got back with our wine but could not get the bottles uncorked. So they decided to get a young, strong guy to do it and beckoned one of them from the lobby. He was awfully kind about it and good-natured when we asked to photograph him. We had a bit of trouble explaining (as we always do) what we were doing in there with sewing machines and a big cutting table. Later, another young man came in and said a button from his uniform had come off and could we help him? We offered to sew it on, but learned that uniform buttons must be safety-pinned on, for easy removal when the garment is cleaned. Luckily, I had a safety pin.

On the 10th floor mezzanine level, there is a memorial wall bearing the names of servicemen and women who have died in Iraq. They have already had to extend the wall once since I have started coming to Marines, and drywall workers were busy once up there more during my recent visit. They are having to find more room to put up tiles bearing the names of military personnel who have been killed, because there seems to be no end in sight to the deaths of US men and women serving in Iraq. This photo is last year's. Now the wall comes around in sort of an "L" shape. Pretty soon, it will be boxed in. Kind of like the US in Iraq. No way out.

Girl, you got a skirt sewed to yo' sweata

By my reckoning, I have spent about 8 hours altering this dress. That's right, altering it. I:

gently took apart the seams that joined the sleeves to the bodice

narrowed the shoulder and rejoined the sleeves to the bodice (this was where the bulk of my time was spent)

gently took apart the seam joining the bodice to the skirt

rejoined the skirt to the bodice, contouring the seam so as to eliminate horizontal wrinkles I had before

reinstalled the side seam invisible zipper

Assuming I was working with a well-drafted pattern that I had already fit to my body, I could have easily sewn this dress from scratch in about the same amount of time, plus an hour or so for buttonholes and hems.

That's right, gals. It's easier to give birth than resurrect something. Taking apart someone else's sewing and redoing a garment is not a time-saver, nor are your results better than the original. In this case, the original construction on this dress was phenomenal. It killed me that the dress did not fit me, but I could not wear it. So it hung in my closet for over a year, unworn. Sandra Betzina did the pinning for me last week at the seminar in San Francisco to guide my alterations. I can honestly say I did not put the garment back together as well as it was originally made. But I had spent plenty of money on this dress from Manifesto, now defunct, and I wanted to salvage it. My results are acceptable, but not fantastic.

Which brings me to wonder once more: Why the current obsession with redoing and "recycling" garments? Girl, you got a skirt sewed to yo' sweata, and it shows. Start from the beginning, and make a garment of quality. At this point, honestly, I'm not sure this dress will ever be a workhorse item in my wardrobe. And I have at least one other dress to similarly rescue before it is wearable. I spent a lot of money on it, too. Now I will be spending time. I wish I had saved both and started from scratch.

Friday, September 21, 2007

There is no such thing as a day for fat pants

I just came back a few days ago from another "Hands On" seminar with Sandra Betzina in San Francisco. It's hard to talk to non-sewists about this fantastic experience. It's about sewing, for sure, how to get better at it. Oh, but it's more. Think about it: Ten women, all ages, mothers and child-free, married and single. We start working about 8 am and at around 11 pm, some of us crawl to bed and collapse for several hours of citified sleep. During those waking hours, we talk about a lot more than just Hong Kong finishes and zippered welt pockets.

The best lesson you can learn from Sandra Betzina, however, is that there is no right day to wear "fat pants." Just forget it. Get a fat pant-emdectomy. No more.

This time we spent a long time on each other's makeovers. We brought in things we had made or things we had bought, both successes and failures. Sandra assessed everyone with her kind and critical eye. Sandra never tells anyone something she is not ready to hear. I knew some of my A-line skirts weren't working, but it took her to really make me decide to change. We took in the side seams of one of my Skirt Lady skirts by a good 4". What a difference in my silhouette. Man. I have at least 3 more to do the same thing to. In the photo above, Sandra is on the left and Vicki, another Hands On participant, is getting Sandra's up-to-the-minute advice.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

And, score!

You're driving and you see the signs: Estate Sale This Weekend. If you haven't hit that baby the first hour it opened, all you're gonna get a crack at buying is some old bedsheets and cake pans, which may have been the hottest items in the sale, anyway, in the the first hour. (There are always old bedsheets and cake pans.) You never know how picked over the sale already is before it even starts. Oftentimes, it isn't really an estate sale — you are not combing through the last earthly possessions of departed grandmother. It's a lotta dealers who've been to other estate sales and are reselling the stuff they've scooped up somewhere else.

So, knowing this, I stopped at the sale anyway, 2:30 pm, Saturday. It was at a home in a nice-but-not-over-the-top neighborhood off Walsh Tarlton. The yard was well-kept, but not fastidious and the exterior of the house was clean, not run down. Estate sales are the last event in the lifespan of a widow. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's a widow. And more often than not, the last days of the lady's life were spent alone, with her home falling down around her in little moldy pieces.

Luckily, that was not the case with this home. As per usual, it had not been updated in a while. But it had that homey, lovely smell: inoffensive pet aromas, tinged with the perfume residue of laundry detergent. If I had a grandmother to visit, I would have wanted her to be this lady. I was there to look for the things I always look for at sales: patterns, fabric (even just scraps), and notions. Bingo. Closet of the one of the bedrooms, which likely had been the sewing room. It would have been easy to miss, unless you're a digger and hoarder. Only a little uncut yardage, and bags of scraps that had been grouped together by the ladies running the sale. Here's some of what I snagged:

bonded wool/acrylic in a kiwi green plaid (a fabric that hasn't been available in stores for a long time)

Missoni-type knit

some small lengths of 36" cotton rose-print broadcloth (feels like Swiss cotton)

pieces of a pretty, deep coral plaid shift that had been cut out but never sewn, probably because the plaid was not matched

some outrageously cool 70s home dec

a rectangle of "craft" fabric with faux quilt squares of Sunbonnet Sue


a tie pattern from McCalls that I clearly remember my mother having in her pattern stash, copyright 1970

another tie pattern from McCalls that is supposed to be reversible, and convertible to wear as an ascot, copyright 1972

McCalls shoulder bag, copyright 1972

Butterick pattern for 70s casual hats

Kwik Sew pattern for a man's raglan sleeve t-shirt

Kwik Sew pattern for a man's pajamas

Kwik Sew pattern for ladies' tops made with tubular rib knit (KS patterns are from the 70s)

Simplicity pattern for a zip front, knit tennis shirt with a really, really big collar (copyright 1973)

Kwik Sew pattern for a complete set of kitchen accessories and some of the embroidery transfers still with the pattern pieces

A quick duck into the master bedroom did not yield much except for a most excellent, way early 1970s shift, made at home. It cost $1.

I whipped through the rest of the garments on the closet rod and identified several other home sewn garments because I had seen the fabric scraps from those projects in the other bedroom closet. This lady favored a simple sheath dress style with very few style lines, and none of the things she made were embellished or made to seem customized for her at all. She was active in a different era of sewing at home, not like now, with everything being completely tricked out. Anyway, I feel like I scored.