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!
My very small warm-weather wardrobe is interspersed with yardage.
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.
Two scarves hang next to a blouse I made last summer.
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.
Of all the great things my sewing teacher Edith has told me, the one that has made the biggest impression is “Avoid compounding errors.”
At the time she was talking about the need to be precise in patternmaking, but I have thought of her principle dozens–no, hundreds!–of times over the years and have never found a situation where it couldn’t be applied.
The last time “Avoid compounding errors” came to my rescue was yesterday, when I was mulling over the Fall Teaser selection from my Sawyer Brook Distinctive Fabrics swatch subscription.
Sawyer Brook had notified its subscribers that the latest batch of swatches had been mailed out Monday and would be arriving soon in our mailboxes. To whet our appetites even more, Sawyer Brook linked us to photos of all the fabrics we’d have exclusive access to for a limited time, so we could start planning our sewing projects.
I was especially taken by the vivid colors and high contrast of the photos of “Cameron – Red”:
A softly combed cotton fabric in a beautiful red coral, gray, navy, and an off-white plaid pattern. This fabric is lightweight and has a soft hand. This fabric is lightweight and has a soft hand. Pattern vertical repeat is 4 inches. Suitable for shirts, skirts, and dresses.
So yesterday, when the envelope arrived I was expecting to see something bright and high-contrast. Instead, I saw this. It was drab.
Was my computer monitor off so much?
It took me awhile to realize that my sample didn’t include the brightest shade of this red coral. Now, did I right away think to e-mail Sawyer Brook to request another sample that included the bright coral red so I could make a sound decision?
Because I was too busy trying to find matches in my fabric and button stashes, my wardrobe, and even in another swatch subscription service. A gray linen-cotton blend from Vogue Fabrics perfectly complemented this plaid. Woohoo!
Or was I heading for “Boohoo”?
Because I was getting dangerously close to committing a fabric-purchasing mistake I’d made numerous times in the past.
Sure, this plaid swatch worked beautifully with the gray linen blend, which I think would be a good pants weight. But did I want to build a capsule around gray–one of my least favorite colors?
I hadn’t found one stash fabric or wardrobe item to coordinate with this plaid for early to mid-fall. Was I confident then that this fabric could be the basis of a new capsule? Would it be worth designing around? Worth investing the time, money, and effort in?
I couldn’t give a definitive yes to any of these questions.
Also, I noticed uneasily that my main enthusiasm was centering on justifying the cost of my swatch subscriptions. “If I buy this plaid from Sawyer Brook, and this coordinating solid from Vogue, I can earn this or that privilege…” popped into my mind. Discounts, credits, free extensions of swatching services should be only nice bonuses–not reasons to buy fabric.
I had been down this road before: allowed enthusiasm, insufficient reasoning, and misapplied logic to overrule common sense.. I was in danger of making one error–buying fabric too speculatively–which was likely to compound over time.
I would start by buying this yardage that I hadn’t confirmed was right for me, although it wouldn’t be bad–I’d just have to find the right coordinates to bring out its best qualities. After its taking up space in my stash for several years, occasionally being unfolded and folded again, I might buy a coordinating fabric to keep the first one company. In the meantime my tastes, activities, or coloring might change.
In any case, this fabric would never be quite right, never be worth investing effort in–and never get sewn.
I eventually acknowledged that I was up to my old tricks and stepped away from those tempting swatches for a cooling-off period. It was close, but I managed to avoid buying fabric for the wrong reasons.
Funny enough, though, also yesterday I did swoon over a fabric and I did buy it, and I had only online photos to judge from. I was paying my daily visit to Emma One Sock to check its latest additions and came across a blouse-weight striped cotton in summery tones:
The description ran:
From an unnamed NY designer, this is a wonderful semi-opaque linen/cotton gauze novelty weave with a beautiful stripey (vertically oriented) design in shades of tangerine, orange, sorbet and greenish gray (PANTONE 18-1629, 15-1247,15-1318, etc.). Casual and light with lovely drape and gauzey texture, delightful coloring, make a fabulous blouse, top, tunic, shirt, dress, skirt, etc. Hand wash cold, hang or lay flat to dry (please test first!).
My reaction was swift and sure. I loved the colors, contrast, the unbalanced stripe pattern. I saw myself wearing this, in another rendition of the Vogue 8772 sleeveless blouse I have now sewn many times. I could see real possibilities for coordinates that I really would buy or sew and wear–soon. This could be a blouse for August heat or for warm September days.
I pondered requesting a swatch first, but yardage was limited, so I took the plunge last night and ordered a couple of yards. I noticed this morning the fabric was sold out.
Although my decision was quick it didn’t feel reckless. I think I had enough information to go on–not only from the seller but from myself. I know enough about my coloring, contrast, style preferences and silhouette. I have a fitted pattern I enjoy sewing, and know what coordinates go well with it.
In other words, I am beginning–at long last!–to experience the satisfactions of frictionless wardrobe-planning. This process, which has taken me far too long to recognize and develop, is the opposite of compounding errors. It identifies benefits and builds on them over time.
By the way, it eventually occurred to me to drop a line to Sawyer Brook requesting another swatch of the Cameron plaid, in both the Red and Pink versions. I had pulled all the possible coordinating colors from my palette for each plaid and am seeing some intriguing possibilities.
(Note: My palette, “Enigmatic,” seen above, is part of a color analysis system developed by image consultant Imogen Lamport and is one of the benefits of her 7 Steps to Style program, which is described here in case you’re interested.)
I’ll pop into a clothing store and, after checking out the shoes and accessories, browse the racks, admittedly without enthusiasm.
The usual comments run through my mind like a news crawl:
Too big. Wrong color. Too trendy. Boring. Huge armholes! What is this weird fabric? They want how much for this?
Minutes later I’ll walk out, shaking my head.
Then Jack and I will have our usual conversation:
“I’m glad I sew!”
My latest “I’m glad I sew!” moment came last Friday morning when I accompanied my sister on a jaunt to the salvage store and outlet store of a famous outdoorsy clothing brand searching for plain, black, rugged, classic shorts for her. Oh, and with back pockets . That’s not asking for too much, right?
Wrong. Nothing ticked all these basic boxes.
We moved on to a discount department store chain, where she fared somewhat better. We left that store with two pairs of shorts, with a top thrown in for good measure. But the purchases were not made with any sense of satisfaction, let alone excitement.
The faces of the women I saw entering and exiting the fitting rooms expressed a grim reality : depending on ready-to-wear to meet all your wardrobe needs is an iffy proposition. And pretty much forget about meeting your wardrobe dreams.
It was already on my to-do list to sew pants and shorts for my sister once we’d gotten a pattern fitted for her, but after that morning’s rounds I was downright adamant. Having clothes that dependably fit and flatter despite the vagaries of fashion isn’t just a wardrobe upgrade–it’s a life upgrade.
Being able to sew my own clothes has given me a sense of agency that being a ready-to-wear shopper never did and never will. Even though I still don’t have a full complement of sewing skills or a core collection of fitted patterns (both of which I am actively working toward) I’m still benefiting greatly from what I do know how to do.
If you sew, I think again you’ll know what I mean. Sewing is not just the production of a tangible result: a garment, draperies, a tent. It’s a process of aesthetic and technical judgment calls that is often profoundly satisfying.
I remember years ago as a pastry intern at the Campton Place Hotel in San Francisco saying to the head pastry chef, “Now I see what your job is all day long: making decisions,” and he agreed. Cooking and baking from scratch, as well as sewing from scratch, are processes that depend on a body of knowledge that can be very rewarding to build over a lifetime.
That Friday afternoon was about as different an experience as possible from my morning of rummaging through dozens of rumpled pairs of pants and shorts piled in bins at the salvage store. I spent it in my sewing room, mulling over which color stripes I wanted to accentuate in the blouse I was going to sew.
I made “preview windows” of the front, back, collar, and collar band pattern pieces to help me imagine my blouse before I made a single cut into the fabric.
I had already sewn Vogue 8772 many times before, and the fit and construction were close to perfect. Now I could concentrate on how I could play up certain colors and contrast to flatter my own coloring and contrast.
I pulled colors from my palette to consider for sewing coordinating skirts, jackets, cardigans, and pants.
I thought about buttons. The best ones I had were kind of purplish-pinkish-grayish imitation mother-of-pearl. They decided me on placing the purple and pink stripes at the right center front.
What color should the buttonholes be?
This was an unbalanced stripe, which made me think about whether I wanted to have the stripe pattern on the two fronts as mirror images or have the stripe continue in one direction around the body. The back was one piece cut on the fold. I could have made the back with a center seam and done mirror images on the back, too, allowing me match the stripes at the shoulder seam, which would have been a cool effect.
Do I want the prominent stripes positioned like this?
Or have the stripes like this?
I didn’t think about that at the time, and even if I had, I might have been too lazy to do the extra work of matching.
The whole afternoon I moved at the placid pace of fish in a dentist’s aquarium, shifting my preview windows around and contemplating various possibilities.
Finally, I cut the right front. That dictated the cut of the left front.
Then I decided where to place the prominent color bars on the back.
Later, I pondered the colors I wanted on the collar, right next to my face. I cut the collar. Then the band. (Armhole facings, too, but I didn’t do any matching.)
Over the next few days I sewed the blouse. Tuesday evening I sewed on the last button.
I like my new blouse.
On a different day I may have chosen differently. I could have put a green stripe on center front and looked for green buttons, or matched the shoulder seams, or done some other effect. But I’m happy with what I did.
I’m happy not just with the result, but with this absorbing process.
Yesterday I wrote this post and was almost finished with it when I had to stop for the day. This morning I sat down to finish it, add images, and hit Publish. I reread what I wrote and–saw a glaring omission. I hate when that happens!
I asked myself whether I should scrap this post or send it out. I decided to send it out and write a follow-up in the near future. Stay tuned.
Today, like a thousand other days, I pulled a fabric from my stash, looked at it intently, and asked myself, Is this a keeper or should I let it go?
I haven’t been able to decide, which bugs me. I tell myself, “Don’t keep not deciding,” but if I do decide, I should have a guiding principle for my decision. Just tossing something out may be an action, but I don’t see that as a decision–unless you call “I don’t want to deal with it” a decision.
Do any of these buttons go with this fabric?
I keep going back to this somewhat coarse, muted, heather green wool I picked up at the Guthrie Theatre costume department’s textile sale several years ago. Some days I think the color is just too muted and the value too mid-range to look good on me and that I should move the fabric on to somebody else. Maybe a redhead.
Nevertheless, I always reshelve this piece, thinking I haven’t yet fully grasped the color and value ranges it sits in and so what would complement them.
Most of my other fabrics just do not want to play with this Guthrie fabric. Most accent colors look too busy and bright, leaving the Guthrie one looking taciturn and glum. Neutrals just look drab paired up with the Guthrie, as if each is waiting for the other one to start the conversation. The silence is deafening.
A common activity in my sewing room: identifying colors in fabrics and finding suitable companions.
It seems as if this fabric is sitting on a line between a color and a neutral. It has too much color to be cast in a typical neutral role, but not enough color to hold its own against other colors. It’s neither light nor dark. But if I give this heather green wool just the right role in the right ensemble, it may reward my efforts tenfold. The prospect is enticing, and that’s why I keep playing this game.
The piece of equipment I most like to use in this color game is my 3 in 1 Color Tool, which is so old that another edition has since been published. This elusive color, which doesn’t reproduce well on my monitor, is kind of Yellow card 1 and kind of Chartreuse card 2. Even without matching the color perfectly I can see whether it tends toward pure, a tint (white added), a tone (gray added), or a shade (black added), which might help me locate companion colors with similar qualities. This wool seems to be a shade; it’s certainly muted.
And then I can flip the card over and see these wonderful color relationships set out on a color wheel–analogous, complementary, and so forth–that set my mind ablaze with ideas. I find myself pulling stash fabrics and buttons and wardrobe items to try different relationships that wouldn’t have occurred to me without this wonderful tool.
The 3 in 1 Color Tool is so helpful showing the possibilities in relating colors to each other.
If your eyes are glazing over at this point I can’t blame you, but then you probably took art classes and learned color principles in the first week. I thought I knew about the color wheel but never learned anything about actually applying basic color principles to designing garments, outfits, and a whole wardrobe.
Maybe if I quilted I would have had many a conversation about color concepts. But over the many years I’ve browsed fabric stores and attended sewing classes I don’t remember any discussion of color beyond “Oh, that would look good with that” or “That looks good on you.”
I recently learned about this Color Matching Guide for painters, which is also great for finding complementary colors for fabrics.
Color is hardly the only characteristic I’m intent on identifying, of course. There’s weight, and drape, sheen, texture, weave, pattern, contrast, fiber. There’s what the fabric is capable of doing physically (take a crease well or keep you warm) and psychologically (the luxurious feeling of silk).
My stash cards just barely all fit onto a standard ring.
I was thinking this morning that for years I’ve tracked simple factual information about my fabrics with my swatch cards: fiber, yardage, when and where purchased. A nice enough start.
So much data and so many ideas to collect! I am experimenting with a Fabric Inventory worksheet.
A few weeks ago I started experimenting with a worksheet to collect and hold more information: what garments this amount of fabric was suitable for, for what seasons, and what coordinates (fabrics, buttons, wardrobe items) I had on hand.
Yesterday morning I noticed I hadn’t created a space to record vital information for me: the Color Tool number. Time to revise the form! And I think there will be more revisions and additions to come.
Every day I’m reminded how planning and sewing a wardrobe is a multi-dimensional activity, with a multitude of circumstances and choices that connect in a great big web. There are so many variables and dizzying possibilities that I can’t possibly keep them all in my head.
There are contextual circumstances like
what’s in my stashes and wardrobe to coordinate
And there are individual factors like
to factor in.
My swatch cards were a start. The fabric inventory worksheet is another step. But what I really want is to think much bigger.
I want to devise a streamlined, comprehensive system that will move me with minimal effort toward sound decisions, so I no longer find myself lingering over a decision–unless I want to.