Book: Let It Go by Peter Walsh

Readers,

I haven’t seen a decluttering book specifically for sewers–yet–but when I came across the phrase “material convoy” to describe “the massive pile of stuff that you collect and carry along your winding journey” in Peter Walsh’s new book, Let It Go I ruefully nodded.

A snapshot of my “material convoy.”

In his latest title the organizing expert addresses the daunting task of downsizing your own home or that of a parent, other family member, or close friend.

I wanted to see which of Walsh’s observations or guidelines might apply to sewers and sewing spaces. Here’s what I found valuable:

  • In Chapter 1 Walsh quotes gerontology expert David J. Ekerdt, “Our possessions are extensions of ourselves. All of these things in the convoy are part of our past selves, but they’re also part of our possible selves. They’re selves I could become, so I hang on to the object to accomplish that.”

Aren’t fabric and patterns seductive, even–or especially–in their pristine state?  Years ago I attended a neighbor’s estate sale that included musty old dressers and file cabinets crammed with at least 1000 1500 patterns from the late ’40s through the ’70s–untouched except by moisture and mold.

What dreams Maureen must have had! But how many remained sadly unfulfilled?

Maureen’s estate contained hundreds of patterns like these, at 50 cents apiece. I limited myself to 12. (Hard!)

Well, of course I can’t say, but I do know the siren call of aspirational buying, and in the end it’s rarely satisfying. I’m sure she never meant for her patterns to be hauled away in grocery bags by eBay vendors.

What steps am I taking to see that my vintage buttons don’t meet a similar fate?

  • “If your home is like most people’s,” Walsh writes in Chapter 2, “it probably contains half-completed projects that the kids abandoned a year ago, an old coffeemaker that you keep in the kitchen, just in case you need it again, a broken printer that holds up the working printer, and gifts gathering dust in cabinets, still in their packages. Such homes are filled with what I call un objects: things that were unwanted and unopened, that go unused, that are unappreciated, or simply unnecessary.”

If I remember only one thing from Let It Go it will be this brilliantly simple concept of un objects. And now I have a new question for myself:

Is this item an un object? 

If I have to ask, probably so.

When I set up this sewing room 3 years ago I saw this baker’s rack as a parking garage for projects. Today I see it more clearly as a graveyard. Now I am limiting the number of projects I have going.

  • “All the stuff you own will fit into one of three categories: Memory Items, I-Might-Need-It Items, and Trash/Recycling. It’s easy to determine where each goes, and this will be your first task when you start doing the hands-on downsizing work.”

You’d be either a genius or a fool to whittle all possible categories for stuff to just three. Walsh is a genius.

  • In Chapter 4 Walsh describes four kinds of Memory items: treasures, which you keep; and trinkets, the forgotten, and the malignant, which you don’t. “Here’s a good rule of thumb: If something makes you smile, fills you with joy, brings back a good memory, and makes your heart sing when you look at it, then chances are high it’s a treasure. If not, it likely isn’t.”

    “Treasure” objects: Souvenirs of Wayward, the vintage haberdashery store in St. Leonards On Sea, a little town on the English Channel.

  • Most things by far might appear to be I-Might-Need-It items, but the only ones you’ll bring to your new home will be the ones he describes as “worthy:” “Your worthy items must have a readily visible purpose in the next stage of your life, and you need adequate space to store them appropriately. You must have a better reason for keeping them than ‘I just don’t feel like getting rid of this yet’ or ‘I can’t make a decision now, so I’ll box it up, take it with me, and deal with it later.'”

    I was going to bind the ragged edges of these towels, but you know what? They would still be old towels. They don’t meet my “worthy” standard. So off they’ll go to the humane society.

  • In Chapter 7, Walsh warns that “Thinking ‘I’ll move this to my new home’ is an overly broad and general statement that discourages downsizing. So I recommend ‘shrinking’ your ‘thinking.’ This means viewing your new home not as one space but as many smaller individual spaces, each of which will be used for a specific purpose. Not only should you break your new home into rooms but you should also consider the spaces within each room.”
  • “You only have the space you have. This is worth repeating, since it’s so important.”

“You only have the space you have.”

Walsh adds, “Accept this fact now or you’ll struggle with it later.”

Walsh recommends recording the measurements of cabinet space, closet space and shelf space as well as the dimensions of rooms and assigning them purposes as crucial steps in downsizing to your new space.

It’s obvious, but I hadn’t thought about this reality check so clearly before:

Do the Math.

“You only have the space you have:” Figuring out the sewing room floor plan in 2014. (It was fun, by the way.)


Walsh is writing about physical space, but it’s occurring to me that I need to do the same with mental space. I can manage only so many sewing projects in my head at a time. Or, for that matter, in a lifetime.

So, of the dozens of sewing projects I could consider, which ones strike me as the treasures? Which, no matter how difficult (or easy) they may be, would yield me and their users the deepest satisfaction? What physical and mental space am I prepared to dedicate to those special endeavors? “Treasure” projects might take a greater investment of resources, but the rewards would be greater, too.

Downsizing can be an intimidating undertaking, but Peter Walsh argues for engaging fully with your stuff to win the life-enriching benefits .  If you follow the Let It Go process, he writes, “You’ll have less focus on the amount of your stuff and greater happiness with the quality of the treasures that surround you. The possessions you carry forward will support your daily activities, bring you joy, resurrect happy memories, say something important about you, and perhaps serve as treasured heirlooms after you’re gone.”

From here on out, when I evaluate my fabrics, patterns, and equipment, I’ll ask myself, “Honestly–is this an ‘un object,’ or do I have a plan to make something wonderful from it?” And when I think about the things I could possibly make, I’ll ask myself which could be the “treasure” projects.

Because this sewer certainly doesn’t have time for “un projects.”

This vintage fabric by Souleiado is one of my favorite possessions, and I want to turn it into something wonderful. I just have to commit to doing the practice runs before I cut into this beauty.

Book: Year of No Clutter by Eve O. Schaub

Readers,

How can I write a tidy little review of a book that, like its author, is seeking–but only occasionally finding–order? I’ve just reread my extensively mind-mapped notes from Year of No Clutter by Eve O. Schaub, and my mind is jam-packed with random thoughts about this sometimes exasperating book.

After the publication of her book Year of No Sugar Schaub decided to confront another personal and societal bugaboo: the burden of owning So Much Stuff. In a effort that simply screams “follow-up book project” Schaub was going to confront her borderline hoarding tendencies by tackling the 22- by 25-foot-square “Hell Room” of the Vermont home she shared with her husband and then 10- and 15-year-old daughters.

Surely a year would be more than enough time to identify, sort, reassign, relocate, and organize–or dispose of–the mementos, arts and crafts supplies, and occasional dead mouse that crammed the malodorous Hell Room.

But, no surprise, facing a lifetime of indecision about what to own and why took longer than a year to sort out.  And, of course, it was far from a year of no clutter–it was about fifteen months of maddening uber-clutter, which afflicted the entire house and its occupants. Schaub seems to have made dozens of trips to drop off clothes, books, CDs and miscellany at thrift shops, charities, and libraries with no end in sight.

At the end of this book younger daughter Ilse’s offhand reference to going to the “art room” indicates how the Hell Room has taken on a healthy new identity and role, even if the “disgusting” carpet is still waiting to be taken out and the family photos still need to be dealt with.

Similarly, Schaub has advanced from attaching symbolic importance to virtually every object she touches, requiring her to keep it to the end of time, to being a little more selective.  This is no small amount of progress in a year, so good for her.

Although thankfully I don’t have a Hell Room to deal with, as a sewer I have fabrics, patterns, and other supplies that can easily cross the line into clutter. What is clutter, anyway?  Schaub’s clever chart, “What Is My Stuff?”on page 161, shows that items that meet these two conditions, “I do NOT have a designated place to keep it” and “I do NOT use it on a regular basis,” constitute clutter.

I don’t disagree, but I think that’s just a starting point for myself as I ponder fundamentally reorganizing my sewing room in the next couple of years.  What might happen if I maximized my planning and production spaces? What if I could painlessly edit down my supplies with no cost to my enjoyment or creativity?   I mean to find out.

I said this book could be exasperating. Here are a few examples of what didn’t work for me:

Schaub says she’s read Marie Kondo’s international best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, but seems to have completely misunderstood Kondo’s approach:

Although Marie Kondo disapproves, I’m not about to stop collecting my own life. It has been a source of pleasure for me ever since I can remember; it helps define me. (page 125)

Anyone who’s heard of Kondo’s book knows about her criterion for keeping things: “Does it spark joy?” If you answer yes, it matters to you and is worth keeping. I’m not seeing a conflict.

Schaub also criticizes Kondo acolytes who “follow Kondo’s book to the letter and purge away an enormous percentage of their belongings” in what she seems to imply is a game of one-upmanship among themselves:

When they are done, they turn and look to their closets and shelves and see a small handful of things they love, a fraction of what had been there before, and they feel a tremendous sense of freeness. (p. 267)

A few pages later she writes

I’m part of the way there, to Kondo’s land of the immaculate, joy-sparking place, but I also know that I will forever be an exile to that land. (p. 274)

An exile has to have lived in a place first before either skedaddling under duress or being booted out, so I think Schaub is more accurately an outsider.

Perhaps this “immaculate” place Schaub imagines feels sterile, one-dimensional, or too untethered for her tastes and the Kondo super-fans too smug and self-referential. I certainly would also find it hard to listen to her friend Mary-Anne triumphantly relate, twice, in excruciating detail, how she had tossed in the trash the “paper Santa” made by her daughter after treasuring it for years. Schaub rightfully questions whether Mary-Anne is trying to convince herself she did the right thing.

My underlined and flagged copy of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

However, Schaub was never in danger of stripping her Vermont home bare.  When her mom offered her the family piano, which Schaub never learned to play, here’s what happened:

And then, as Mom prepared to move, what was I to say when she offered me this millstone? How could I say anything except, “Yes, I want it”? (p. 138)

Oh, I dunno, how about “Yes, I want it, but we already have Grandma’s piano, and nobody’s playing that one, so I’m sorry; I really have to pass on your offer.” Instead, she took in the second piano, because selling the piano “simply isn’t me” and “giving away these things seemed wrong to the very core of my being.” (p. 139)

Surely, between experiencing the unsettling void of purged closets and the suffocating surfeit of a growing houseful of memory-laden, cumbersome Stuff,  there must be some middle ground that would allow the author to be “me.”

On the “what worked for me” side of the equation:

–Schaub’s observing that most decluttering advice addresses only one or two facets of the clutter problem while ignoring all the others:

A big reason [the advice isn’t helpful] is a misunderstanding of the many different stumbling blocks there are to getting and keeping clutter-free. The advice columnist or organization expert on the talk show might address one of the existing problems or even two but none of the others.

Because there are so many different facets of the Stuff problem, they can all merge together to form a tangled mass as daunting as that island of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean. (p. 175-176)

–Her realization that the Hell Room was not an island, entire of itself, but part of the main:

The next morning I woke up on fire. I had come at last to the realization many doctors already know: every part of the patient is connected to every other part of the patient. I was dismayed to realize that my prior one-room approach wasn’t cutting it. I was going to have to approach my house holistically. I saw it all very clearly: the pantry, the guest room, the front room, the Hallway Room, the Hell Room–they all existed like dominoes: where one went, the rest followed. (p. 236)

–And lastly, when Schaub weaves strips of many treasured items of clothing into her “autobiography rug” at her weeklong summer weaving workshop:

It felt wonderfully therapeutic to work with these fabrics that clearly had a lot of metaphoric significance for me and transform them. I couldn’t hold on to everything forever–no one can–but I could take these bits that I still had and make something useful and beautiful with them. I couldn’t keep everything. Couldn’t know what had happened to the things that went missing. But I could do this. (p. 223)

Early on Schaub tells us she’s been to art school and has degrees certifying her as “an Official Creative Person,” which explains her urge to collect materials with any potential for art and craft projects. It’s only during this week at the weaving studio, however, that we get to see her create something.

Up to this point we see her collect and keep items in their original state: mementos, which help her recall her past, and supplies, which have potential for future artworks and craft projects.  It was interesting to see her engage directly with her stuff: interpret it, take control of it, and actively design it into something combining her past, her present, and her future that was dynamic and inclusive.

Making the autobiography rug struck me as the type of creative experience Eve Schaub could repeat endlessly as a way to express the “me” she is so fearful of losing and also to intelligently, sensitively edit the flow of physical life.  If she can avoid getting caught in the deadly undertow of Stuff, maybe she can ride that powerful wave instead.

For inspiration she might want to check out the work of Emily Adams Bode, a fellow “official creative person” (Parsons), who merited a story in July 13’s New York Times “Styles” section. Described by the Times as a “millennial men’s wear designer with the work ethic of a midcentury dressmaker,” she’s turning textiles such as century-old quilts, 1930s dress fabrics, and souvenir tablecloths into jackets, shirts and pants that are useful, beautiful–and simply delightful.

It’s hard to limit myself to one example. Here is a jacket Bode made from a 1960s blanket with a lining printed with football helmets.  I love how she reimagined this blanket.

Wool Shirt Jacket

Emily Adams Bode’s work can be seen on her website, https://www.bodenewyork.com/collections

How Do I Proceed?

Readers,

I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but this blog is not all that much about completed projects. It’s about process–my process, at any rate. That’s why this blog is called “Getting Things Sewn” rather than “Things Gotten Sewn.”

William Alexander's new book poses with my 17 berets.

William Alexander’s new book poses with my 17 berets.

Since I’m in process mode (aka The Slough of Despond) a lot more than in finish and celebrate mode, I am very interested in others’ accounts of their quests and processes. Sometimes I learn a thing or two.

The beginning of a baguette, from Cooks Illustrated's excellent new recipe.

The beginning of a baguette, from Cooks Illustrated’s excellent new recipe.

I recently read Chris Guillebeau’s new book, The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life. Guillebeau’s quest was to visit every country in the world (193, from the list he was working from), which took him a decade, most of which seemed to be spent waiting for planes. My takeaway: avoid goals involving airports or turbulence.

And last night I finished another book about a quest, Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me and Nearly Broke My Heart by William Alexander. This morning I found myself writing him a letter.

The baguettes rising.

The baguettes rising.

Dear Mr. Alexander:

I just finished reading Flirting with French, in which you describe your quixotic desire to be French, which apparently has nothing to do with studying for the citizenship exam and everything to do with drinking absinthe (but not smoking) in dark cafes. The goal of becoming French naturally means your having to learn and speak the language, a situation overripe with comic possibilities.

Everybody knows that an American trying to be French is a doomed cause. Actually, though, I think your secret desire is to look French, whatever that means to you or to other people.

Fully risen, the baguettes await slashing.

Fully risen, the baguettes await slashing.


At the risk of  incurring a massive case of envy in you, I admit that I myself have achieved this goal–no, it’s not even a goal–without trying.

Countless times strangers have come up to me on the street, or in hallways (in public buildings, not at home) and exclaimed, “You look French!” This has happened so often that I can sometimes sense the comment coming the way some pets are said to sense impending temblors, and brace for impact.

When I'm dressed like this, strangers run up to me on the street making a wild claim.

When I dress like this, strangers run up to me on the street. Why is that? (photo by Cynthia DeGrand)

The speaker always has an air of triumphant discovery–of what, I do not know. Meanwhile, I have an air of confusion.

Assuming the remark is meant as a compliment, though, most of the time I remember to say “Thank you.”

“You look French!” falls from people’s lips without their (the people’s, not the lips’) knowing I have a French last name, have studied French, or can make pretty good baguettes.

The baguettes have been slashed. Ready for the oven!

The baguettes have been slashed. Ready for the oven!

Approximately 100 percent of the time I have been so identified as “looking French” I have been wearing a beret.

So, mon ami, if you want to look French–at least in America–my advice is simply to plant a beret on your head,  go for a stroll, and wait for the “You look French!” exclamations to roll in.  If this experiment becomes the subject of your next book, remember to put my name on the acknowledgments page.

Perhaps risking even more envy on your part, I have gotten as close to being perceived as French as most Americans ever will, again without trying. Once, at the train station in Dijon, the man selling me my ticket to Lyon told me “Vous êtes presque française.”

You are almost French.

Done!

Done!

Although it was possibly seeing my name on my passport or credit card and not hearing my French pronunciation that drew this observation from him, I chose to assume in any case that he meant this as a compliment.

He may have meant, “Nice try. Keep it up.” Then again, he may have meant, “Don’t kid yourself: you will never reach that exalted state.”

I was not wearing a beret at the time. When I’m at that train station in Dijon next time I’ll be sure to wear one and see what that ticket seller says.

Cooling.

Cooling.


But actually, Mr. Alexander, the real reason I’m writing you is not to incur envy but to express my admiration. You dedicated hundreds of hours to tackling the study of French in lots of different ways–Rosetta Stone, corresponding with an online native speaker pen pal, attending a weekend immersion course in the US and a two-week immersion course in France–with varying levels of success. During those thirteen months you had major surgeries and, I infer, a full-time job as distractions.

At the end of that period you weren’t as proficient in the language as you’d hoped to be, although you did reap other wonderful, unexpected rewards.

But, back to the beginning of your learning adventure, when you attended that Second Language Research Forum. You know, when you sat down with Heidi Byrnes and asked, pleadingly, “How do I proceed? How do I learn French?”

A good crumb. (Tasty, too.)

A good crumb. (Tasty, too.)

In other words, how could you translate this perhaps unreasonable but certainly powerful desire into a practical plan to achieve your goal?

Bingo. Exactly what I want to know, too!

She answered, “The difficulty you’re going to have is you will essentially find no materials out there.” 

Well, yes and no. My experience in getting things sewn is there are only too many learning materials and methods out there. The secret is knowing which ones are going to work for you. That’s a very individual thing, and it takes time to figure that out. At least thirteen months, I would guess.

What I’m trying to say is, during year 1 of a venture like yours, maybe all you really learn is–how you learn. You begin building a foundation of resources and practices. Maybe it will be in year 2 that you’ll pick up more understanding. With more practice, in year 3 you may increase accuracy, and in year 4, speed.

Learning enterprises like yours are so inspiring, but then the book project comes to an end, and with it, many a learning project. I hope your learning project continues, however, for your sake, and for us many readers who are also perpetually trying to figure out, “How do I proceed?”

Sincerely,

Paula DeGrand

If one beret has people saying "You look French!" how about 17?

If one beret has people saying “You look French!” how about 17?

Book Review: Looking Good…Every Day by Nancy Nix-Rice

Readers,

Have you ever said, “This is the book I wish I had written”?

IMG_5148 (345x460)

I’ve already begun to highlight and flag my copy.

Well, Looking Good…Every Day is the book that addresses just about everything about wardrobe that drove me, in my extreme frustration, to create Getting Things Sewn to identify and solve my many sewing and clothing dilemmas.

I don’t really wish I’d written this book; I just feel as if Nancy Nix-Rice read my mind and then wrote it for me.

I’m skeptic both by nature and by training, having read thousands of critical book reviews when I selected materials for my library system, so it was out of character for me to pre-order this book from Palmer/Pletsch. But when I squinted hard at the contents page reproduced in miniature on the Palmer/Pletsch website to make out the chapter headings and descriptions, I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is what I’m trying to accomplish with that chart I made!”

My chart

My chart

That primitive little chart, composed of scrawled sticky notes arranged in columns to show the elements of wardrobe design and how they drive sewing projects and wardrobe-buying, looked to be the very rough draft of Looking Good…Every Day.

What I wanted my chart to do was help me see both individual elements of wardrobe and their relationships to each other in a way that would help me design garments and outfits I loved that would work for me. I’ve read lots of fashion advice, but not much that fits the pieces into a larger whole. It was exciting to think someone much more knowledgeable and experienced had done this already.

Monday I got home from my latest week of househunting in Ohio to find Looking Good…Every Day waiting for me. And although bleary-eyed from my travels, I could hardly stop turning the pages, seeing answers at last to age-old questions and wardrobe dilemmas in almost every chapter.

Nix-Rice’s orientation to wardrobe design is so intuitive it would be easy to overlook how ingenious it is. With a concept she calls “points of connection” she leads readers to identify their own coloring, figure type, proportions, face shape and more as the basis of their most flattering looks. I find that a lot of fashion advice is imposed from the outside onto us poor lumps of imperfection.  Nancy Nix-Rice seeks to bring out what’s wonderful and interesting within each of us and then to find those styles that best support us. It’s a very positive approach–and also grounded in practicality.

The first “point of connection” Nix-Rice covers, in Chapter 1, is skin, hair, and eye coloring. Most of us are familiar with the concepts of warm and cool coloring and that seasonal  color analysis that was so popular thirty years ago. Some people are textbook examples of a seasonal coloring and can be identified easily, but other people benefit from a professional color analysis. Nix-Rice explains what a color analysis is and what it can do, and walks us readers through a typical session.

In all my "contrasting Autumn" glory, complete with a Thanksgiving apple pie. (From 2003 or 2004)

In all my “contrasting Autumn” glory, complete with a Thanksgiving apple pie. (From 2003 or 2004)

I had a color analysis myself, coincidentally from the stylist for this book, Ethel Harms, back in 2002. Ethel pegged me as a “contrasting Autumn,” which seems obvious now, but wasn’t to me then. When I got home I weeded my wardrobe of cool, medium-intensity colors, saw how warm deep or pale colors work great for me, and have made much better color choices ever since.

Color and image consultant Ethel Harms put together this palette for me. It's been a great help!

Color and image consultant Ethel Harms put together this palette for me in 2002. It’s been a great help ever since.

Chapter 2, “Silhouette Connections,” shows you how to make and interpret a body graph. I’ve done this exercise, which you can see here and here using the instructions in another Palmer/Pletsch book, Fit for Real People. I know I have a triangle figure type, but using this book may help me reap even more information from this exercise.

Doing a body graph

Doing a body graph

Chapters 3-8 discuss other “points of connection” to train readers to understand body scale, vertical and horizontal lines in clothing, figure challenges, face shape, lifestyle and personal style.

Chapters 9-12 explain wardrobe-editing and -building, capsules, and accessories.

Chapters 10-19 cover a multitude of topics: underwear, makeup, strategic shopping, closet-organizing, having a dressmaker or sewing yourself, altering, and travel wardrobes.

What a lot of territory to cover!

Each chapter explains principles, illustrating with a wealth of examples using real women. You may have noticed: this is far from the norm in style advice books.

It is also unusual–okay, unheard of in my experience–for a style book to encourage readers to take everything with a grain of salt. In the foreword Pati Palmer writes,

Along your personal style journey, be a skeptic. There is plenty of misinformation out there:

–“They say…”

–“Everybody should…”

–“This season’s Must-Haves are…”

Don’t believe anything you hear about style–even this book–unless you can see the results with your own two eyes.

I’m doing that! I’m already off to a good start. I have done a body graph and seen the merits in those results. I’ve had a color analysis, and can attest to years of  valuable results from that investment. I’ve had more aha’s along the way, about silhouettes, and accessories, and ready-to-wear that work or don’t work for me. There’s more to learn, I know.

How does this scarf work? Does it have to be so hard?

How does this scarf work? Does accessorizing have to be so hard?

But I also want move to a new level, putting all my learning together and building on it. That may be where this book will really prove itself. I have felt that I’ve gotten a handle on one aspect of wardrobe and style only to feel I’ve lost my grip on another. This book seems to integrate principles and practices in a way I haven’t seen before.  I’m eager to put the rest of this book to the test.

Looking Good…Every Day is a toolkit for wardrobe decision-making and design like I’ve never had before. And that got me thinking. In one of those decluttering books I read recently, Live More, Want Less, Mary Carlomagno describes clutter as “piles of delayed decisions.” Well, often those decisions are delayed because I don’t have a sound basis for deciding!

With this book in hand I can analyze my piles of delayed sewing and wardrobe decisions with a fresh eye–and possibly make most of that clutter disappear–for good.

Much better!

Much better!