I was in Manhattan for three days last week and spent a good portion of that time looking at fabrics and buttons.
Fabric- and button-shopping is probably my favorite activity when I travel, and in the past when I’ve been in New York I’ve made a beeline for the Garment District.
However, it’s on my travels that I have been most prone to buying fabric I never end up sewing. When I edited my stash this past spring and looked at the fabrics I no longer wanted, almost all of them were purchased on trips or at one-day events like a sewing expo or rummage sale. Telling myself I wouldn’t see a certain fabric again, I’d buy yardage in a snap decision I would later regret. I never formulated a bigger framework, a plan, for that fabric fit into, so it remained on the shelf.
I wondered how I might approach the Garment District differently this time to avoid buyer’s remorse.
Divergent thinker that I am, when I packed for trips in the past I would bring all of my swatches, a big list of buttons and linings I might need, and even sometimes my homemade pattern catalogue so I could entertain dozens of project possibilities in fabric stores. Fellow shoppers would exclaim, “You sure are organized!” That I was.
I’ve learned, however, that good organizing doesn’t automatically lead to good decisionmaking. I must know my purpose first, and organize to that purpose.
When my swatches on index cards became too numerous to be on a single ring and my pattern catalogue grew to three binders I had to admit that my modus operandi was getting ridiculous. Future excursions were going to require a steamer trunk and a redcap porter!
But even if all my data were converted to digital form, it was time to rethink what I wanted to accomplish.
This time, I sternly told myself while packing my suitcase, I would concentrate on completing outfits. Outfits, I proclaimed, are my new focus–not individual garments without partners. I’d look for fabrics for blouses that could coordinate with two or three of my four 1941 McCall’s “Misses’ mannish jackets.” I would look for buttons for the next iteration of my big-pocketed waistcoat for fall and winter wear.
I had to withstand the severe sense of deprivation these limits imposed. But who said this hero’s journey would be easy? Besides, maybe this new approach, thinking in terms of outfits, would afford me at least as many opportunities for creativity as my old scattershot approach, with superior results: a great wardrobe.
I brought just a handful of swatches and a couple of yardage and button requirements.
The next morning, at the airport waiting to board my 7:15 am flight, I found myself scribbling pages of ideas for outfits for summer sewing 2014. Not, I noticed, ideas for individual garments, but ensembles, building on my current wardrobe. This was great! The outfit orientation was taking hold.
This orientation stayed with me in the Garment District as I strolled aisles piled with hundreds of bolts of wovens and knits, wools, silks, cottons and linens. I found myself admiring fabrics and buttons for their beauty and originality, but unless they fit into a plan, I didn’t consider buying them.
Interestingly, this outfit approach didn’t feel depriving, but liberating. Just looking at fabrics closely, fingering them, and reading the content labels was value enough. I was replenishing the image database in my mind. Seeing colors, textures, or patterns of fabrics together in stores can lead to project ideas months later.
Thinking in outfits remained with me even when I went to Archangel Antiques, in the East Village, which claims to have two million vintage buttons. Michael, the solicitous long-time manager, interviewed me about my button wishes and tastes as thoroughly as any reference librarian, then pulled some delightful 1930s and ’40s styles to browse. But although I appreciated the designs, and Michael’s depth of knowledge, nothing captured my fancy like the buttons I already have.
Readers, nobody is more surprised than I that I left that store empty-handed. But I didn‘t leave empty-headed. Something I saw there could very well spark an idea months from now.
I also popped into a store on 19th Street, Les Toiles du Soleil, which sells extra-wide (72-inch), brilliantly striped French-made cottons for home decorating. I don’t have a plan for these fabrics–yet–but they are so bright and happy yet sophisticated that my resistance is weakening. They look like a good bet for battling the long, dark and cold winter months.
I did swatch some fabrics and buy buttons on this trip, which I’ll talk about next time.