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.
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.
Sawyer Brook’s Fall III 2018 swatch collection
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.
Only some of the many swatches from Vogue Fabrics by Mail Fall catalogue.
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.
Vogue Fabrics presents collections of fabrics coordinated by color and pattern six times a year.
Every fabric has a multitude of characteristics:
color brightness or mutedness
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.
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.)
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.
A very sad valance accompanying spindly mini-blinds in the kitchen of our 1958 house when we bought it.
The sad valance is gone, thankfully–but what window treatment would be best? Not a lace cafe curtain, that’s for sure.
Got a minute? I’ll tell you.
I’m a fabric person, so I wasn’t thrilled to conclude that the best window treatment for our kitchen was a blind. Not floor-length draperies (obviously), or little cafe curtains, which would leave too much hard, dark, shiny window glass exposed before sunrise and after sunset when days are short.
No, for what we wanted–to be able to watch the passing neighborhood scene or shut it out, according to inclination–a blind was just the thing. Back in February I called the blind and curtain company Smith & Noble to send a designer over. She walked me through the whole process of choosing the widths and colors of slats and twill tape, did the measuring and the ordering, and in a couple of weeks our blind was installed. It looked and worked great.
I lived with the blind very happily, but it wasn’t long before I returned to the matter of adding more colors, patterns, and shapes by way of fabric into the view of our kitchen window wall. I knew which fabric I wanted to use, too: a printed cotton from the legendary French fabric producer Souleiado.If you have ever seen Pierre Deux’s French Country: A Style and Source Book you may recall the gorgeous fabrics chapter showcasing Souleiado.
My well-thumbed copy, which I bought in 1985.
I had found this faded but still vibrant Provencal print at my favorite store in the world, Grandview Mercantile (right here in Columbus, Ohio), covering a little homemade comforter. I was immediately taken by the unusual combination of mustardy yellow, spicy brown, and vivid turquoise balanced by a terracotta pink. These weren’t conventionally pretty colors, but I found them arresting. I bought the little comforter for $35.
Months later, I took out my seam ripper and carefully undid the stitching of the comforter. That’s when I discovered this enchanting pattern was made by Souleiado. That was as exciting for me as it would be for someone else discovering that a lamp picked up at a garage sale was made by Tiffany.
I wanted to use this fabric where I could enjoy it every day, but I didn’t want to ruin it. That was a quandary so familiar to me as a clothing sewer: longing to use a fabric but fearing cutting into it before being certain the fit and the style of the garment were right.
How could I get to the point of being brave enough to cut into my precious, perhaps irreplaceable, fabric?
I thought, okay–I’ll just have to do a lot of mockups. Instead of thinking I would never know enough to be able to cut into my fabric, I thought about how many easy, cheap or free, reversible experiments I could run.
How about tracing the outlines of the kitchen window wall from a photo? After I did, I thought, “Everything but the faucet is a right angle! I want to mix in some curves!”
Here’s the photo…
…and here’s the tracing. It was when I traced the basic outlines of the wall that I noticed they were all right angles. How about adding some curves to this view?
Paper is cheap. How about testing shapes and sizes of valances in paper?
Better yet, how about color-photocopying my fabric at our local library for 50 cents a sheet? Tape the pages together and hang them to get a sense of the impact of the colors and patterns mixed with the existing colors and patterns on the window wall?
I also thought to try finding more of this fabric and set up a daily search on the word “Souleiado” on eBay. After a couple of months, a three-yard piece turned up, in perfect condition–a very lucky find.
I set up a Pinterest board to collect valance and cornice pictures. (I mostly found designs I didn‘t want.)
I used a scrap of the furring strip to balance the staple gun. Jack held the mount steady while I stapled down the Velcro.
I wanted a valance I knew could be machine-washed if it got dusty and dull-looking. That definitely meant I had to create my own construction plan to guarantee washability. But the instructions for the Zigzag Pelmet/Valance from the book Curtains and Blinds by Lucinda Ganderton and Ali Watkinson turned out to be very helpful.
I had two main questions to answer about the shape of this valance: the depth, and the bottom edge. I studied pictures to get a sense of what looked proportionate–not skimpy, and not like a hat that’s too big for its wearer. Then I tried paper mockups.
The mount was attached to the wall with angle irons.
I realized after trying out some curves in paper mockups that determining the right size is not as easy as it seems. It was only after studying the print for awhile that I noticed the unbroken lengthwise curve that supplied the obvious shape of the border. I cut my photocopy along the curve–another cheap, easy, risk-free test–and had my answer.
On the taped-together photocopies I cut along the curve in the print. Would this curve make a nice border? Yes.
A closeup of the mount
The lining for the valance was another question. It had to be machine-washable and the right weight and drape. In my stash was a white cotton flannel sheet I had been saving for interlining coats that turned out to work very well.
All during this project I wished I could get a few minutes’ input from a designer for aesthetic guidance and from a window furnishings maker about construction techniques. That would have boosted my confidence and saved me time.
My idea of using separate pieces of Velcro for the returns helped to create crisp turns around the corners.
Instead, I dithered about the size and shape of the valance, questioned the completeness and accuracy of the instructions I was more or less following, and worried about drilling holes in the wall in addition to worrying about chopping into my fabric.
I had a lengthy conversation with the hardware store clerk about the right size of angle irons and wall anchors to buy as well as the dimensions of the furring strip for the valance mount.
The instructions I used did not call for pressing in a crease at the turns. A crease gave a much better look than the original floppy ends.
In the absence of professional advice I did learn a lot along the way, and I applied knowledge from curtain- and garment-making to create a pretty nicely finished, proportionate–machine-washable, even!–valance from a beautiful fabric.
Monday afternoon I finished the stitching and pressing, and Jack installed the valance on its Velcro’ed mount.
The lining can be glimpsed from the front, so I’m glad the flannel I used didn’t have a cute print!
What works, what doesn’t?
What works is, I’m satisfied with the construction. With my level of knowledge as a home sewer of mostly garments, I don’t think I could have done better.
What doesn’t work? The best way I can put it is, I think this burst of color, shape and pattern will work better when the eye can travel around the room and pick up on other bursts of colors, shapes, and patterns that will set up an intriguing rhythm.
Putting objects in a room is just the first step. Creating relationships among the objects is where a lot of the fun is going to be. I have more of this beautiful print and am thinking about how I can use it to delight the eye.