In part 2 of The Holistic Seamstress, I return to the series —after a rejuvenating break and reality check on my original writing schedule — to consider the most fundamental element of wardrobe sewing, the body. Mine to be exact. I will reflect on the impact wearing ill-fitting clothes has had on my body perception, how I learned to use numbers to tell the truth about my body, and how that awareness is transforming the way I make clothes.
Through the years, I worked against the grain to accept and eventually love the realities of my brown skin, full lips, kinky hair, and short, thick, curvy frame that will never fit a standard height/weight chart. The world would have me believe my body is awkward, alien, and in need of improvement, but I boycott those lies like I did that California Denny’s restaurant that refused to serve my friends because they were black. I look in the mirror at all of the features that Maya Angelou tells us are “phenomenal” and I don’t doubt for a minute it’s true.
Even if I wanted to believe I was less than a goddess, when I moved to Washington DC in my twenties, the gentlemen of Chocolate City wouldn’t let me. From the moment, I stepped off the plane, you could almost hear Carl Carlton’s “She’s a Bad Mama Jama” playing as my personal soundtrack. Strangers whistled at me from across the street, cabs would show up without me hailing them, all manner of compliments from all manner of fellas who expressed an appreciation for parts of my physiology that my young, media-influenced brain tried to Photoshop away. Becoming date-able just by moving across the country gave me a chance to identify with the “eye of the beholder”, and recognize my own beauty as it is. Eating delicious, free meals at restaurants all over the city was a nostalgic bonus.
However, there is one place on the planet that has the power to completely annihilate my body-positive attitude.
A dressing room.
It doesn’t matter which store. I have probably shed tears in all of their booths of shame.
You see, even though I am only five feet tall, in my mind, I’m an NBA point guard. I only started referring to myself as petite when I started to sew and learned about body measurements. Folks around me indulged my vertical delusions by sparing me too many short jokes, letting me boss them around, and every now and then looking over at me in an elevator, as if waking up from years under a spell, and saying “Damn, I didn’t realize you were so short”.
Under this delusion of grandeur, I shopped for clothes.
It went something like this….
I grab a size 12 for the bottom and a size 14 for the top and enter a dressing room with enough faith to fill a church. The one pair of jeans I own that fit decently hit the floor with abandon and I immediately start to imagine all of the hugging and skimming my chosen outfit will perform on my hips. The one of two well-worn tops I own that doesn’t make my boobs look like a buffet is yanked off in anticipation of its superior successor. I am standing in my underwear in a mirrored box filled with promise. I have even given myself a five-garment buffer from pessimism so I don’t give up on the process too quickly. If the clothes on the hanger knew the pressure they were under to please me, they would’ve animated like a Disney movie and slithered under the door to escape.
The clothes I picked out to try on would mostly fit my circumferences, but would neglect the depth of my curves and ignore the length of my proportions. I was doomed before the zipper zipped.
Clothes that almost fit, but didn’t in the worst way possible — sleeves that are not only too long, but hang off the shoulder like drunken loiterers, gaping necklines that expose my bra, waistlines that sit nowhere near mine, pools of fabric at the hips, bunching up at the crotch and knees and dragging on the floor — stared back at me and for the 120 seconds I could bear my reflection, I felt like I had the unluckiest body in the world.
How was I supposed to be the badass I was born to be if I looked like a frumpy, hot mess every time I got dressed?
Before I knew how to stitch a seam, crying on the floor of a department store dressing room was a regular thing for me.
While bumbling my way through sewing books and websites trying to learn the skills that would help me avoid dressing rooms for the rest of my life, I ultimately found a few petite-friendly places to shop with off the rack styles that respected my proportions and required no therapy sessions. There’s still a significant disregard for the unique needs of my curves in ready-to-wear clothes sized for petites, but those designers have never met me. Nor are they trying to. They are designing for someone else’s petite body. In fact, they are hoping their clothes will fit EVERY woman under 5 foot 4 inches. My expectation that they fit THIS woman is unreasonable.
No matter what number is printed on the tag or what section of a store I buy my clothes, none will ever be sized for Me. Making my own clothes with my body in mind would become my scenic route to badassdom.
During the last two months of my life, I learned to speak another language.
I used to tell people that I am bilingual because I can communicate in both English and Ebonics. As true and entertaining at parties as that is, my dopest experience learning a new language involved NUMBERS not linguistics. Instead of a set of headphones and a date with Rosetta Stone, I used my measuring tape like a United Nations interpreter to understand the things my body has been trying to tell me about its architecture.
Starting with the southern hemisphere of my five foot landscape, I learned how to measure, draft, and fit a custom skirt block pattern from my new, Personal Wizard and Couture De-mystifier, Brooks Ann Camper. Her 5-week Skirt Skills course was the tallest, coolest, most refreshing drink of sewing education I have ever tasted. I have found my Jedi Master. Now that I have levitated through the Forest of Righteous Circumference, solved the Mystery of Back Dart Intake, and prevailed during the Battle of Waistline Positioning, the force within me is stronger than ever. I still carry my self-taught seamstress badge with pride, but I am now living with the epic level of satisfaction that comes from investing time (my most elusive commodity) and money (saved ferociously) to learn a skill that has systematically blown my mind into a million tiny pieces of creative possibility.
When I saw a combination square with level on the supplies list for my couture skirtmaking course, I asked my husband what the hell it was and if he had one. I was a little intimidated by the tool’s sorcery and my general air-headedness about measuring things with regular tools (I learned how to read the 1/8″ tick marks on a standard ruler as recently as 3 years ago!), so Matt and his vintage combo square was recruited to assist me in yet another muslin-covered sewing adventure. Assigned to the task of accurately measuring his wife during the blessed two hours our toddler napped, my husband’s devoted contribution was the lynchpin to my pattern drafting success. With me standing in one place for more than five minutes, following his directions in my underwear, the measuring experience also gave two distracted parents an unexpected moment to flirt and be vulnerable together.
Armed with a solid set of bottom-half measurements, affectionately recorded by my better half, I followed Brooks Ann’s buttery smooth methods for drafting a 2-D map of my silhouette in the shape of a darted, waist-to-knee cylinder. The whole process gave me a crafty high I’ve never known before.
Using a blend of numbers and pencil strokes, my unique verticals, arcs, angles, and curves began to take on a voice I had been waiting to hear my whole life. It’s as if my body has been trying to introduce itself to me through all of my years of fiddling about trying to fit commercial patterns and I couldn’t hear it. It waited patiently for the time in my life I would finally choose a teacher, admit I prefer centimeters over inches, and dare to discover what it has to say. I like to imagine it singing to me in the voice of a young, John Mayer, seducing me to design for it with “Your body is a wonderland” lyrics on repeat.
Made to measure clothes give my body a voice to speak its true shape or reshape its truth. When I wear ill-fitting clothes, my body’s voice is drowned out with noise, going tragically unheard or at worst being mis-represented. Exhibit A: The collective DNA of my tears on the floors of dressing rooms across America.
After two days and two nail-biting muslin mock-ups later, I celebrated the completion of my custom skirt block pattern with some you-go-girls from my classmates, a Big Gulp-sized glass of wine, and an obscene amount of domestic high-fiving with my man. For the first time in weeks, our husband and wife couture-crime fighting team finally had something besides “Pee-Pee on the Potty!” to yell across the house to each other.
When my sisters flew in town to visit for Thanksgiving last week, the story of our collaborative accomplishment was retold with the same sentence-finishing enthusiasm as our honeymoon story. The afterglow from that trip to Amsterdam was just as bright. Forget couples yoga or cooking classes, pattern drafting is the new date night.
When I was pulling my hair out trying to get Vogue 1019 to fit my hips, I knew I’d eventually figure out how to fit the pattern — maybe after a seventh or eighth muslin. I could never have predicted that in less time than it took me to do that, I could learn how to draw a one-of-a-kind skirt that also gives me the capacity to create ANY skirt.
Body of Work
Given that I’d never worn a well-fitting skirt before, the promise of getting one at the end of class was the chocolate-covered carrot that teased me through each week of the Skirt Skills course. I practiced the basic drafting skills I needed to design flared and straight skirt styles with my custom block and obsessively began sketching ideas and gathering inspiration images. But, before inviting Tim Gunn over for tea and a design critique of my new one-woman collection, I wanted to make a simple straight skirt using my block — because, after all, I’d never had one that fit my body properly. Based on the results of my couture-infused mockups, I knew this one did.
With some African wax print cotton, hand-marked and hand-basted stitchlines, some double-fold bias binding, and an invisible zipper, I crafted the best-fitting skirt I have ever worn in my life.
When I wore the skirt, it didn’t shift on my hips, ride up, wrinkle up, or look anything but awesome on my body all day.
I didn’t know how to behave! I kept smoothing my hips and checking my reflection expecting to see something wrong. All I saw was ME in a badass, well-fitting skirt!!!
I have more in the works!
That denim pencil skirt I dreamed out loud about is underway, as well as a khaki skirt with a secret-weapon pleat. All patterns custom designed by me – for my body.
I am eternally grateful to Brooks Ann for her wizardly, thimble-wielding techniques. She has mountains of patience for cocky advanced beginners like me who try to hurry through lessons before settling into the steady rhythm of slow, deliberate making.
This is the sweet spot of handmade wardrobe building I have fantasized about. Knowing how to design and sew for my unique body means having the power to speak its beautiful, native language through mindfully-created garments that live to echo or enhance my silhouette.
I’m going to call this the sacred art of being a bad mama jama!
I’d love to hear your body-awareness story. How has your perception of your body’s shape or size evolved? Does your history with fitting or buying clothes include any tears or triumphs? If you’ve discovered the accessible magic of pattern drafting, do you feel as heroic as I do?
Thanks for hanging with the series. I’ll see you in the comments.