I volunteer one morning a week for the Goldstein Museum of Design, on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. Not at the museum itself, mind you, but backstage, in the offices. I’m working my way gradually through 2700 donor files, and am in the F’s now.
Readers, don’t tell the Goldstein staff, but I’m in no hurry to finish this project.
Because as long as I have this little job, I can count on seeing, up close, marvelous hats pulled from storage for a student to study, or a wedding dress waiting to be steamed and fluffed out for its photo session, or suits by Christian Dior, Adrian, or Chanel pulled for class study, or housedresses from the 1940s, or a homemade, little girl’s bright red double-breasted coat awaiting the accession process. Or shoes. Or handbags. Or textiles.
I never know what I’ll see from week to week, and that’s part of the fun. Another part is being around the staff, who evaluate, organize, photograph, document, repair, and style the collection, and who obviously enjoy what they do.
Last week at the Goldstein I mentioned my intensifying interest in how bound buttonholes were made. I made bound buttonholes in my 1930s Butterick jacket but still had to finish them on the facing side. I wanted a finish that wasn’t only neat, but durable.
I couldn’t believe my luck when Assistant Curator Jean McElvain insisted that it would be no trouble for her to pull garments with bound buttonholes for me to examine on my next volunteer day. This morning I arrived to find about a dozen garments for my inspection.
Among them, this mid-to late 1950s suit by Seymour Fox.
Wearing cotton gloves, I unbuttoned the jacket and looked at the buttonholes up close. Unlike the closed lips I’ve seen in every set of sewing instructions, these lips are parted, you might say.
I was also very much taken by the curved welt pockets. The bottom pockets are real, working pockets; the top ones are just pretend.
Readers, curved welt pockets may be my next frontier. They’re so beautiful. I bet they’re also tricky to get consistently right.
As I returned to my files project I was thinking, those pockets are so beautiful and so worth trying to get right. I’m going to start doing samples of these details I love. Then, if I do justice to them, I will have that design in my repertoire to put into a garment with confidence.
If this strategy sounds obvious to you, it wasn’t to me till today. If I considered sample-making at all, it was as a boring activity. But now I see it as one more way of breaking down a very challenging project into manageable pieces–and getting things sewn.
I’ve visited wonderful fashion exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, the Chicago History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, and the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.
But none of those exhibits, however fascinating, has enticed me and motivated me to sew. Working backstage at the Goldstein has.
Seeing clothes close-up, regularly, not only by the best-known designers but also by home sewers whose names are unknown outside their families, is really having an effect on me I couldn’t have predicted.
My old normal on seeing a curved welt pocket was thinking, “I wish I could do that.” Now I think, “How is that done? and “How could I do that?” and figuring out a way. Eventually I’ll say “I am doing that.”
And, to quote from Coats & Clark’s Sewing Book, (copyright 1967), which helped me beautifully finish my bound buttonholes in my 1930s Butterick jacket,