Getting Things Sewn
Designing a wardrobe, a workspace, and more
Yesterday my sewing machine had a conniption fit, and I didn’t know why.
I was starting to sew a wearable test of a knit top. Actually, the third version of this wearable test, which was already testing my patience. The stitching in the shoulder seams looked so weak I thought I’d better stop sewing this top immediately to investigate.
The samples I ran looked like this on the needle side…
…but like this on the bobbin side:
I was in a heap of trouble.
I’ve had the same sewing machine since 1986 and it’s held up well all these years, with not much time in repair shops at all. I haven’t mistreated it but also can’t claim to know much about how sewing machines run, either.
Yesterday I found myself in a new quandary, created by the stay-at-home order in Ohio: If I couldn’t solve this thread tension problem myself, could I find a local repair person willing to work on the machine?
Or, if it was time to shop for a new machine, what should I do? I’d want to test-drive machines. Maybe I could borrow or rent a machine to tide me over. Would anyone be willing to lend me a sewing machine? What’s the etiquette for borrowing a sewing machine during a pandemic?
Another question has arisen during this lockdown time: Should I be making face masks? We recently purchased face masks from an instructor at Sewing Hive, Columbus’s new place to learn sewing and pattern-fitting. But the way things are going, I should probably look closely at my stash for face mask fabrics. I may be setting up a face mask-making project pretty soon–it could even become part of the rotation in my project daily challenge.
I have been wondering, also, about whether we will see a surge in novice sewers and returned former sewers coming out of this health crisis. Stay-at-home orders, face mask-making, and the sudden mainstreaming and glamorization of a skill that had been marginalized by many just might combine to tip the scales.
I hope that more than a few people whose first experience at a sewing machine was making face masks will think, “That was interesting! What else shall I make?” and stick around long enough to find out.
My final questions are for those of us who already know that sewing is as useful and life-enhancing a skill as cooking: Will new and returning sewers find the encouragement and practical, ongoing support that’s essential to reap the greatest rewards? If social distancing becomes a new fact of life, in what ways can we form a community?
As for my sewing machine problem, an article, “How to Achieve Ideal Sewing Machine Thread Tension” on the Threads magazine website led me to inspect the tension discs. Dust and debris turned out to be the culprit.
A gingerly applied brushing, and balance was restored–in more than one sense of the word.
This morning I was recalling an experience I had a few years ago that I’ve been pondering ever since.
I was visiting New York to take part in a Saturday afternoon browsing and shopping tour of the Garment District with other avid sewers. Before the shopping began in earnest 25 or 30 of us grabbed lunch at a nearby restaurant. We all trooped upstairs with our lunch trays of soups and salads, taking over a small upstairs space, to get acquainted. More than a few, seeing that Kenneth King had dropped in to say hello, were calculating how they could score some time with him to ask their most pressing questions.
Taking one of the last available seats near me was a fellow sewer who introduced herself as a Manhattanite who was, enviably, only a quick subway ride away from this fabric and notions Mecca. She was a librarian–I was a retired librarian, so I noted a commonality–working at a university. She loved beautiful fabrics, maybe too much, and admitted she had a treasure horde in her apartment. She recounted gorgeous pieces she’d bought at some high-end little store that was going out of business. To pass up such lovely yardage at such bargain prices would be…unthinkable!
I don’t remember saying much; that would have interrupted her reverie. I can vividly recall fabrics that delighted me in Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, London, and most recently Vienna, and bringing more than a few home. I understand the excitement.
But then my lunch companion confessed that, well, very few of these fabrics were getting sewn. I understand this, too. (If getting things sewn were easy, do you think I’d have started a blog to help me do it?)
Unprompted, she continued, “I see my fabrics as a collection–like a stamp collection. Stamp collectors don’t collect stamps and then feel guilty about not using them on letters. They just enjoy their stamps. I enjoy curating a collection of beautiful fabrics.”
I said nothing, but likely a raised eyebrow betrayed my skepticism. The thing is, she didn’t seem convinced, either. No, she looked slightly pained.
After lunch our large group divided into three more manageable groups to browse Garment District stores all afternoon. My new companion and I ended up in the same group. I brought my swatch cards and a list of fabrics to be on the lookout for. Despite my best efforts and intentions, though, I can lose my head. This I know. So I figured that unless I was sure a fabric was perfect I would request a swatch. I could review the swatches, in tranquility and natural light on Sunday, and if I decided to buy anything I would return to stores on Monday.
So I took the pressure off myself and removed the risk of making a hasty decision. And I really enjoyed my time that Saturday afternoon.
As for my librarian lunchmate? Stroking some summery, bright cotton print she was heard to exclaim,
“Wouldn’t this make a great dress!”
There were enthusiastic yeses (except from grumpy old me, of course). It’s safe to say she bought several yards.
Judging from the size of her bag she bought many yards of other fabrics, too. And, why not? Why go on a shopping trip to the Garment District and not shop?
But I have thought many times about this sentence, “Wouldn’t this make a great dress!” and how it probably led to…no dress.
You know why?
Because I really doubt she had a plan.
She thought she had a plan, but she didn’t.
Hope is not a plan.
Neither is an idea.
And neither is excitement, or a fabric, or a pattern.
Not even inspiration is a plan.
And that librarian? She should have known that. If she was a reference librarian, she’d know from working with thousands of patrons helping them to find information and answers. And if she selected library materials, she’d know from having to work with budgets and collection policies and mission statements.
A plan is a map to help you get somewhere. (The French word for “map” is plan, remember?)
I was wondering today how I could write a post about planning that would be interesting and persuasive.
It occurred to me that a plan is a way of showing respect for your idea.
Your plan basically says to your idea, “I am taking you seriously and am going to try to make you happen.”
I don’t believe for one minute that my librarian companion thought she was a fabric curator. She didn’t say to our group, “This fabric will be perfect in my collection!” No, her true self knew its destiny was as a dress. Only she knew what kind of dress she wanted, for what occasion, whom she imagined herself to be with, and what she would be doing, in this dress of her dreams.
I hope she eventually came to her senses and recognized that she could use her librarian skills to forge a path toward making that dress that so captured her imagination.
Because even if hope isn’t a plan, without hope–and creativity, and discipline–a plan doesn’t stand a chance of being realized.
To you, this may look only like a bulletin board covered with pattern envelopes and swatches.
But to me? It’s been a radically effective tool in an experiment I’ve named
The Getting Things Sewn
Project Management Improvement
I love projects. I’ve done loads of projects. I have the endless enthusiasm of a border collie for doing projects. Unfortunately, this does not make me a great project manager. So something had to change, and soon.
On a Saturday afternoon in late January, I took serious stock of where I was in getting my things sewn. I was very dissatisfied.
It took me ages to develop a well-fitting pants pattern. Months and months of trial and error did lead me to eventual success. But to get to that success I put many other sewing projects on hold, and that was frustrating. For quite a while I had wanted to perfect a core collection of patterns to see me through most occasions and activities in my life. It was time to get this core collection pattern project underway somehow–and fast.
On that Saturday afternoon in January I started a mind map. I wrote,
I want to make dramatic strides getting things sewn in 2020, and I don’t mean simply doing what I’m currently doing, only faster.
I want to dramatically increase
- keepers in my wardrobe
- how well and how many ways my wardrobe items can be combined
- my sense of what I can realistically accomplish
I want to dramatically reduce
- redundancy in my processes
- my pattern collection
- my fabric collection
- the length of time between acquiring supplies and wearing the garments I made
and, I wrote,
I want to eliminate
- wardrobe orphans
- my backlog
- placeholders in my wardrobe
On that Saturday afternoon I was looking at getting things sewn from a higher level: from a multiple-project management level. Sure, I’ve had multiple sewing projects before–who hasn’t? But I had never deliberately managed multiple sewing projects.
Why not? Because working from that higher level, consistently, hadn’t really occurred to me before!
Once I’d had this blinding glimpse of the obvious, that I could–that I needed to–deliberately run multiple sewing projects if I was to have a wardrobe that serves me, I was on a mission. No more spinning wheels; I would learn to spin plates.
I pulled a giant bulletin board and began to recall which patterns I was considering for my core collection. I didn’t plan on a particular number but ended up with nine to start with:
- a straight skirt
- a flared skirt
- a jacket
- a coat
- a knit top
- a blouse/shirt
- a sleeveless, collarless woven top
- a dress
Two of these patterns were already fitted and thoroughly tested: the blouse/shirt (Vogue 8772) and the pants (McCall’s 6901).
This left me with seven patterns to fit. For someone who had loudly and frequently proclaimed how much she disliked fitting and pattern alteration, this was a huge attitude shift . But again, one look at my handful of keeper wardrobe items and my sad little selection of placeholders waiting to be replaced at the earliest moment was all the convincing I needed.
By evening the Getting Things Sewn Project Management Improvement Daily Challenge was all set up, and it hasn’t changed very much in its first 68 days.
Here are the two rules of this core collection pattern-sewing project:
Every day I must work on at least one of these sewing projects.
I have to have contact with each of these projects at least once every 14 days.
I have two main tools that are reminders of my project every time I’m in the sewing room: the bulletin board and the clipboard.
I need visual reminders, and this bulletin board works great for that. Each pattern envelope has two Post-It notes on it:
- one records the dates I worked on that pattern
- one records the 14-day deadline by which I must come back to that pattern
At a glance I can see the past (when I worked on that pattern) and the future (the date by which I’m expected to return). These Post-Its remind me:
- You did it–keep up the good work.
- Don’t forget–you’re expected back here!
The clipboard records the same information, plus one more thing: the number of the day in this challenge. So, for example, yesterday (April 2) was Day #68. As I see the days go by and the record of my day-to-day work grows longer I really am encouraged in this small but significant way.
Seeing the upcoming dates on the clipboard conditions me to plan time to work on my daily challenge. There is this small but significant expectation that I will keep this promise to myself.
Here are things I did not make rules about:
- I have no rule about the amount of time I have to spend on the daily challenge, and I don’t record the time. (My hairdresser asked me once, “How long does it take to sew a [jacket, coat, dress, etc.]?” I answered, “How long does it take to fish?” I don’t know what time to count. And now you know why I don’t have a sewing business.)
- I don’t have a rule about what activity counts. I call many activities valid work: sewing muslins, evaluating fit, altering patterns, and sewing garments all qualify, obviously; but also researching fit problems and sewing techniques in print and online sources. If I am engaged in my project, I am meeting the daily challenge.
Each project is stored on a full-size, commercial sheet pan that is easy to pull out and return to my rolling baker’s rack.
So, after 68 consecutive days of working on nine sewing projects, how am I doing? My mind is buzzing with all the things I want to remember to say, because I’ve had so many insights into how I work, I hardly know where to begin. Here are a few observations:
- The 14-day rule has worked two ways for me. Most days when I update the Post-Its on the pattern envelope I think, “Okay, I have to get back to this at the latest by April 16.” But a couple of times I’ve noticed I’ve thought, “Thank goodness–I don’t have to think about this again until April 16!”
- From one day to the next the challenge of the Daily Challenge has varied. One day the challenge is to try to understand and apply a fitting concept. Another day the challenge is to clarify some matter of style–how much flare do I want in this skirt? Another day I may be staring at photos of myself in a muslin and evaluating the fit.
And every day my challenge is to decide, decide, decide:
- Do I make another muslin?
- Is this a good fit?
- Am I ready to sew the garment, or should I make a wearable test first?
- Should I change to a different pattern?
In the past I now see how much time I wasted wondering rather than deciding. I would wonder whether I should work on this pattern or that one, whether I would look better in this style of garment or that. Many projects would be started and then languish.
In this Getting Things Sewn Project Management Improvement Daily Challenge I have “pre-decided” some things that have saved me countless hours of pointless wondering:
- I will work on these nine patterns
- I will do something on at least one every day.
- I will keep each of these projects in the active category by working on each within a 14-day period.
These rules are giving me the structure I need while also giving me the flexibility I want.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I still have my Daily Challenge requirement to meet for today, Day 69. I have a coat muslin waiting, and I am not going to break that promise to myself!
Nobody needs a flamingo shirt. But almost everybody could use something flamingo shirt-ish. What I mean is, most of us want something in our wardrobes that has some zip to it, that makes you smile when you wear it, and that makes others smile, too (one hopes for the right reasons).
Last fall I made a flamingo shirt for Jack for his birthday.
It’s turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever made. And I don’t mean just technically, although I am proud of the matching job I did.
No, I mean I succeeded at another kind of matching job: matching a fabric and a pattern with the personality of the wearer. Jack’s smile when he slipped on the finished shirt was all the proof I needed.
Sewing projects can be driven by many things: an exciting pattern, an irresistible fabric, an important occasion, a new job or role, a need for coordinating garments, and more. The flamingo shirt project was, obviously, driven by an irresistible fabric.
There I was one day last fall, idly browsing the new additions to the Britex Fabrics website, when I came across this “tropical flaming flamingos linen print.”
Boom! I loved this print. But I didn’t see myself wearing it; the scale was too big and the print too busy for me. I wondered, though, whether Jack would like this. I asked him whether he liked it enough for me to order a swatch. Yes indeed. I detected real interest, not just a polite affirmative.
Days later the swatch arrived, looking just as beautiful as the Britex online photos. This linen had such a wonderful weight and feel. The colors were rich and complex.
But what about the print? Was it a good choice for Jack?
Jack’s shirt wardrobe boasted single colors, stripes, plaids, corduroys, and flannels, but no prints. Prints–it’s hard to find one that’s just right. Some are corny, others are off in scale or wrong for the wearer’s coloring. But there was something strangely appealing about these flamingos. They were regal and dignified. For all their flamboyance these flamingos had gravitas.
The scale and colors were right for Jack, and the quality of the linen was spot-on. But most important, this fabric just made you smile. When I asked Jack whether he would really like a shirt from this fabric–which would be a fashion leap for him–his answer was an unequivocal Yes.
Before I could order the yardage I had to find a different shirt pattern. I’d never really thought about it before but I’d always sewn Jack’s shirts with yokes. I wanted to break up the flamingo pattern as little as possible. I chose McCall’s 6044.
I made a muslin and added 2″ to the length of the front, back, and front band and 1 1/4″ to the length of the short sleeve.
I’ve forgotten how many yards I ended up ordering. I thought I’d estimated on the generous side, but because both vertical and horizontal repeats were big, I didn’t have enough left to cut one extra piece of any size.
I wanted some freedom in the positioning of the motifs but also had to budget fabric well enough to match the fronts, back, and front bands. I’m experienced in matching plaids and working with stripes, but I wouldn’t say I’m confident. In a choice between accuracy and speed, I’ll choose accuracy and go triple-slow if necessary.
So I proceeded with all deliberate speed and caution. With loads of steam from my gravity feed iron I pressed the linen and unfurled it onto my worktable island to cut single-layer.
Then I laid down the front pattern piece, altered and traced onto translucent tracing paper. I slid it around on the print to see which motifs to highlight. I especially wanted to see what motifs would be on the pocket.
I cut a tracing-paper pocket pattern piece and traced some of the motifs so I could cut the pocket precisely. I probably hand-basted the pocket in place before machine-stitching it onto the left front.
Only after I cut the left piece and attached the pocket did I cautiously, methodically, cut the right front piece to match.
Next to cut were the front bands, which made me nervous. If I cut them wrong I wouldn’t have enough yardage to cut new ones–and what if Britex had sold out of this print in the meantime? Then what? It was imperative that I know exactly what part of each front band would be visible and have to match its front.
It occurred to me that I could cut about a 12″ length of tracing paper the same width as the front band and machine-baste the tracing paper to the front in a practice run. I could press in the folds of this mock front band like the real deal. And then I could trace the motifs from the front accurately onto the tracing paper, with no fear of shifting. Then I could undo the machine basting and release my paper template to use to trace the fabric band.
Happily, my trick worked.
To continue assuring accuracy, I hand-basted the front band in place before machine-stitching it down.
The fronts and front bands matched beautifully, which was very satisfying.
I positioned the back piece to be compatible with the fronts without matching at the side seams, which was acceptable. I also cut the sleeves, collar, and collar band this way; I was looking for an overall pleasing feeling rather than matching. I know, not everything can be matched, anyway. You have to make sensible choices, honor a few conventions, and aim for something that’s not disturbing to the average eye.
I realized that this shirt provided an unexpected first for me: I sewed it way out of season. I finished it on November 1, knowing that summery weather wouldn’t reach central Ohio for months. But even just hanging in the closet this shirt is doing its job: reminding us that when the warm weather does come Jack will be attired in plumage almost as glorious as these flamingos’.
And that brings a smile to both our faces.
That merry tune you heard someone whistling Sunday afternoon was just me celebrating a major milestone. Yes, after starting this saga a year and a half ago, finally I have a pants pattern that fits!
These pants are a wearable test sewn from a stash fabric–a wool blend with the characteristics of wool crepe.. I didn’t choose the fabric for the color–a cool gray–but I wanted to see how the pants would feel and hang using a fabric of this weight and drape for future reference. The result was very nice.
I want to test other fabrics, like linen and linen blends with a range of weights and crispness, to see how differently the pants will turn out and whether I need to adapt the pattern. I also want to test which types of pockets I can use that won’t gape. But the upcoming tests of fabrics and construction techniques feel so much more doable than pattern-fitting!
One of the choices I made for my master pants pattern was a simple back closure with an invisible zipper for a streamlined look. And I came across a wonderful method for installing an invisible zipper in a video by Kenneth King on the Threads website. My efforts in the past had always resulted in the last inch or two of zipper tape not securely stitched down, which made me leery of using an invisible zipper in a pants application. But Kenneth addresses the problem so well that I couldn’t wait to try his method, and with success after one try I’m a believer.
You know that student in every classroom who’s struggling to keep up, who’s asking too many questions and whom teachers have an instinct for avoiding? That’s usually me. So I am eternally grateful to teachers like Kenneth King who explain steps clearly and help students achieve enough success to build the confidence to continue.
If you want to know how to install an invisible zipper quickly and elegantly, Kenneth’s method is amazingly intuitive. See A Smart Technique for an Imperceptible Zipper.
About 25 years ago, when I was living in Minneapolis, I happened upon an object in the window of a little antiques store in St. Paul that stopped me in my tracks. It was this sign:
It was love at first sight, and I was immediately seized with the desire to own it. Two hundred dollars later, it was mine.
I couldn’t have been more ecstatic if I’d found it in a Paris flea market, where I bet the asking price would have been considerably more and the headaches of shipping turning me away sadly empty-handed.
Instead, happily, I am the proud owner of this beautiful, but mysterious, sign.
About its origin I never got more than a vague answer from the store owner: from France and made in the 1920s. But Quebec seems more likely to me, just because it’s closer with no pesky ocean in between.
I’d long intended to delve into the meaning of each word. I finally got around to this task just this past weekend, when I posed my question to the readers of Pattern Review with a thread I called “French Speakers: Translate My French Sign!” Did they ever, with comments coming from France and Canada as well as the US.
The consensus was:
Bonneterie: Knit apparel including hosiery, underwear, and lingerie
Mercerie: Sewing supplies
Tissus Confection: Dressmaking fabrics
Couture Mesure: Made-to-measure dressmaking
When was the last time you saw a business offering all of these wonderful goods and services in one place? Such a place is a rarity today if it exists at all. When this sign was in use I think it represented something as unremarkable in its time as a hardware store or grocery store is today.
I love not only the references to the goods and services this sign proclaims but the weatherbeaten, everyday artistry of the sign itself. It appears to be two layers of reverse-painted glass sandwiching a ribbed reflective surface to catch the eye especially on gloomy, overcast days and at night.
I brought the sign to my sister Cynthia’s studio and she experimented with lighting and backdrops to elicit an atmosphere that had me thinking of noir movies. Who knows–maybe Philip Marlowe picked up his “black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them” at this very shop.
Thanks to Cynthia DeGrand, Photographer for conveying the romance, mystery, and wistfulness of this sign.
For the last month or so I have been opening my closet door to behold not only my spring-summer clothes and accessories but–my spring-summer fabrics!
Earlier this year I’d subjected my whole wardrobe to a new level of scrutiny, weeding out about a third of it. The remainder I divided into what I labeled Placeholders and Keepers.
The Keeper section was pretty sparse. While inspired to see only things I liked as starting points for new outfits, I was also a little unsettled to see so much open space. I was also curiously lacking in direction or focus for my sewing projects.
One day it just occurred to me to try interfiling my spring-summer cottons and linens by color with my clothes and scarves. Within minutes my yardage was hanging cheek by jowl with tops, scarves, jackets, and skirts. And a funny thing happened: I instantly began seeing affinities between fabrics and wardrobe items that had escaped me before.
I also was more easily seeing interesting groupings of several fabrics and wardrobe items. This was heartening. My editing process had pruned out the sartorial deadwood, but new growth had not begun. Now I was beginning to see genuine possibilities.
I also saw which fabrics and wardrobe items were outliers. Did they just not belong, or were they the start of a new way forward?
In the following weeks I have greeted my new closet denizens as not only potential but likely dresses, tops, skirts, pants, and jackets. Sometimes I shuffle a fabric from one color section to another to discover yet another form of compatibility–in value, or texture, or pattern–that is pleasing.
Something I’ve found particularly valuable is seeing a fabric’s affinity consistently over time, and not just with one other wardrobe item. Judging a fabric only in the context of other fabrics in my stash is kind of silly, anyway. I need to see how well it will play with others as a wardrobe item among other wardrobe items: hats, bags, shoes, jewelry, and clothes–the whole nine yards.
It’s been at least a month now since my spring-summer fabrics took up residence in my closet, and I’m in no hurry to return them to their shelves. They have such a friendly, encouraging vibe I’m beginning to see the sense in Marie Kondo’s animistic tendencies. Mind you, I’m not holding long conversations with my cottons or cross-dye linens–yet–but I don’t think a whispered “Thank you” would be out of line.
The Kondo effect has reached me even though I haven’t watched any of the Netflix shows yet: I recently examined everything in my wardrobe.
I pulled coats, hats, and gloves from the coat closet; raided the laundry basket and to-be-ironed pile; unearthed shoes waiting to be polished since last summer; retrieved skirts from a pile of mending; and emptied my dresser drawers and closet. Nothing escaped my scrutiny, not even the eyeglasses perched on my nose.
Everything got categorized as a Keeper, a Placeholder, or a Discard.
Keepers I broadly defined as aesthetically and functionally the best stuff I own, what I would like to incorporate into new outfits and plan into wardrobe capsules.
Placeholders had fatal flaws in fit, color, style, or function but would stick around till I bought or sewed replacements, at which time they would be demoted to Discards.
Discards: I don’t really have to define them, do I?
Well, the interesting thing I realized last week is that there are four types of discards. I know this because–and this will show you what an organizing nerd I am–I created a table analyzing all 67 of the items I was discarding and noticed behavioral patterns and situations unique to each type.
Then I wondered how I would explain my discovery to you, Readers, and came up with this:
For extra credit (awarded by me to myself) I came up with a facial expression representing the emotion of each category.
We’ll start with Liked and used. Items of this type were enjoyed and worn till they were worn out or no longer needed. They were part of an active wardrobe and ordinary turnover.
Next, Liked but didn’t use. Items of this type were wardrobe orphans. I hoped and believed that someday–soon!–I would be wearing these things I liked. And yet, there was something lacking: the right occasions for wearing them, or accessories, or most likely, knowledge. I often didn’t know whether the color or the lines really were flattering on me, or lacked the technical knowledge to sew coordinates for the pulled-together look the item deserved.
Next, Didn’t like but used. Items of this type I would describe to myself with a sigh or a frown, “It was the best I could do.” Pants that fit relatively well but had a lower than ideal rise, warm sweaters that were scratchy, a purse with lots of compartments great for travel but not stylish were all adequate without being satisfying. You can’t have everything, right?
Last, Didn’t like and didn’t use. Items with this designation may have been clothes I wore in my job that I haven’t touched since retirement, gifts not to my taste, or souvenirs I liked until I brought them home and realized I’d have to change my personality or lifestyle to wear them. There was a mismatch, but as long as I hadn’t clarified what a really good match was, in fit, color, or style, I wasn’t highly motivated to edit out these pieces.
Readers, I am so glad I took an extra step to see beyond the general category of discards to classify them by type. I noticed how I had tolerated mediocrities, defaulted to outdated styles because I didn’t take the time to come up with better ideas, and perpetuated bad habits that would carry my petty dissatisfactions into my future if I didn’t clean up my act.
But I also saw where I had enjoyed a garment or accessory and discarded it only when it had reached the end of its lifespan.
This is the model to follow for my future wardrobe: buy or make, wear and use with satisfaction till worn out. Repeat.
That’s an approach I would call a keeper.
On the bulletin board just above my computer is tacked my favorite cartoon, by Charles Saxon of The New Yorker. It’s what I see every time I look up from my keyboard, and I’ve never grown tired of it.
I always imagine that it’s a Friday evening, and the husband has returned on the commuter train from his job in Manhattan in banking or investing to his home in a Connecticut suburb.
He’s shed his tie and shoes and sunk his head into a pillow on the genteel but not comfortable-looking settee, stretching out for a restorative nap before dinner. The downturned mouth suggests he’s still ruminating about work and that his weekend has not quite begun.
And then his wife descends the staircase clutching a clipboard and says, tentatively but hopefully, “If it’s all right with you, I thought we’d do some long-range planning tonight.”
Don’t ask why I think this cartoon is so hilarious, but it may be because it hits so close to home. I am that wife with the clipboard and the torrent of bright ideas.
Until recently, that is. Lately I’ve been feeling more like the husband on the couch: brooding and in a state of torpor.
If I learned anything from participating in the Ready-to-Wear Fast last year, it was that simply refraining from buying clothes does not instantly supply inspiration for designing a new wardrobe.
I may have learned better than ever what I dislike in what I presently own–and that was actually very useful–but I was not automatically transported to some new level of understanding of what I like and what looks wonderful on me. No, I still need to do my homework.
This homework has been complicated by the fact that my coloring seems to be changing, so I’m not sure what does look good on me. Some days it seems like the gray in my hair is quickly multiplying, yet other days I think I still am overall a dark brunette. I’m noticing that different colors near my face can make a huge difference in whether the gray or the dark brown is more noticeable.
I’ve also wondered whether my complexion is cooling. I think some years ago I was decidedly warm, but now it seems I am just on the warm side of the fence, which is affecting which colors complement me and which upstage me. It looks like I’ll be saying goodbye to some favorite colors that are too strong for me now, and that’s a little disorienting. I haven’t yet made the acquaintance of colors that will be new favorites.
In this period of adjusting and reframing I’ve been reviewing the materials of Imogen Lamport’s 7 Steps to Style program and reading vast amounts of the free content on her impressive blog, Inside Out Style, which has been great. I needed the refresh. Imogen bases her wardrobe-building strategy on a combination of objective elements, like your coloring, level of contrast, and figure type, with subjective elements: your fashion personality and “style recipe.” Some days I make more headway on factual research. Other days I have a new insight into my style recipe, a concept that’s earning a new level of interest and respect from me.
Another way I’ve recently tackled the indecision doldrums was by attending a free, two-part talk at my local library given by the first certified KonMari consultant in Ohio, Michell Domke, about putting the principles of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up into practice.
Only minutes into the presentation Michell was having us close our eyes and visualize our ideal lifestyles as expressed in our homes. I’m sure the vision was different for every single person in the room but equally powerful. Michell told us that one of her clients had struggled for two years to apply the KonMari organizing methods without imagining the ideal lifestyle she wanted to aim for, and guess what? She got stuck. She made no progress.
So, back to the cartoon that sits above my computer. Now I think I’m a little bit of each of the people in the drawing.
Part of me is nodding off on that couch with a furrowed brow mulling over one problem or another.
But part of me remains that lady with the clipboard, hesitantly yet insistently inviting me to do some long-range planning.
Do you subscribe to swatching services from fabric vendors?
If you do, do you buy much fabric or use the matching service for coordinating thread, linings, interfacings or buttons? Do you spend enough to qualify for discounts on future purchases or earn a free extension of your subscription?
Do you find that the services seem to know your coloring, tastes, and lifestyle, simplify your shopping, and help you move straight to sewing items for the coming season’s wardrobe?
And then do you follow through and sew those clothes?
I’ve been thinking lately about swatching services, because I subscribe to two: Sawyer Brook’s Distinctive Touch and Vogue Fabrics by Mail. My six-month Distinctive Touch subscription just ended, as a friendly notice recently reminded me:
Distinctive Touch’s more or less monthly envelopes of 20 swatches have been a bright spot among the bills and flyers in our postal haul.
Likewise, Vogue Fabrics by Mail’s appearance in our mailbox six times a year is cause for a little celebration. Each mailing brings about 50 swatches to be pasted, taped, or stapled into a catalogue designed around a theme. Vogue’s fall swatch collection theme was pirates–female pirates, to be precise.
(Don’t ask me to explain what pirates have to do with bottom-weight stretch wovens; I really don’t know.)
Swatches automatically prompt thoughts of possibility, and now I’m thinking that has been their greatest virtue for me.
Being in a city–no, an entire state!–without a comprehensive fashion-fabric store is far from ideal, especially after I was spoiled for choice for 25 years at the fabulous Treadle Yard Goods in St. Paul, Minnesota. Now that going to a fabric store is a rare treat I find it’s easier to succumb to the enticements of swatching services.
But the fact of the matter is, in the 4 1/2 years I’ve been living in this fabric desert I haven’t bought anything from a swatching service. Possibilities are fine, daydreams are fine, but nothing has fired my imagination to the point where I actually placed an order.
So I started thinking more about swatching.
How did various little bits of fabric arrive in my sewing room, anyway?
And how many of those samples led to a purchase and eventually to realizing an idea? This was very interesting to think about.
I reacquainted myself with the contents of my two boxes of swatches. And I came up with a fresh perspective on swatching.
I’m not going to renew my subscriptions to these swatching services, and now I know why. When I think of all the factors that have to combine to make a fabric right for me, it’s increasingly unlikely that a preselected assortment will yield many winners.
Every fabric has a multitude of characteristics:
- color contrast
- color brightness or mutedness
- fiber content
- weave or knit
The main characteristic that knocks so many fabrics out of the running for me is color. Warm colors look better on me, eliminating almost all the cool colors right from the get-go. Black looks harsh on me now, so fabrics with more than a little black in them are out.
The next big eliminator is probably contrast. If the contrast is much more or less than my contrast, it’s not a good match.
Next is probably pattern, which includes the elements of color, shape, and scale. Most patterns fall by the wayside because one of these factors is not a good fit.
And so on: I admire a fabric for its color–but wish it were a different weight. I like the texture–but wish it didn’t have scratchy wool fibers in it.
Once in a while a fabric does tick all the boxes but I don’t love it enough to commit to learning to work with it, or I don’t have coordinates for it.
Till now I hadn’t realized how out of sorts this winnowing process leaves me. I feel like a finicky cat turning up my nose at every tempting morsel. I’m dissatisfied with the swatches, but equally dissatisfied with myself for being dissatisfied!
With this scenario repeating itself month after month, you’d think I’d finally get the message:
If I want fabrics that suit me, the starting point can’t be an average of thousands of customers and what the fabric vendors think they can sell in enough quantities to make their service profitable. The starting point has to be me.
And so I’m better off inventing my own swatch service for my one and only customer: myself.
I could track this customer’s preferences for colors and patterns; fibers and textures; and what fabrics, buttons, and patterns she wants to combine for which seasons and occasions. I would alert her to fabrics only when I found any that met all of her specifications.
I’d watch for interesting fabrics that might fall outside her present requirements but pull her forward–maybe even toward dusting off her serger and learning to use it!
On behalf of my only customer I wouldn’t hesitate to pay what most online vendors charge for individual swatching.
And on my travels I’d browse fabric stores, finger the yardage, and swatch for my customer in person.
Prepackaged swatch catalogues, it turns out, just don’t work for this persnickety customer of mine. So I will let her subscriptions lapse and reallocate the money for online individual swatch requests.
But if ever a fashion fabric store opens again in central Ohio, guess who will be vying to be first in the door.