The Holistic Seamstress: Part 2

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.

Wardrobe Sewing Element: Body

Body Beautiful

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.

Personal Croquis All_Sides

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.

Body Map

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.

Personal Croquis All Sides with Annotated Measurements

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.

Custom Skirt Block on Wall

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.

Straight Basic Skirt Sketch

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.

African Straight Skirt Custom_Block - 1

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.

African Straight Skirt Custom Block , back view

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!!!

African Straight Skirt Custom Block, side view

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.

The Holistic Seamstress: Part 1

The Holistic Seamstress Logo

A self-taught seamstress doesn’t have one teacher, she has hundreds. Every sewing book, blog, magazine, website, or video promising to de-mystify a technique or show how something is made from start to finish is a righteous guru to the budding sewist. She believes that all of the knowledge to sew beautiful things is out there, if she can just follow the directions. This is the myth that guided my first ten years of learning to sew.

In Part 1 of The Holistic Seamstress, I am going to reflect on how I accumulated my skills over the years by considering the pivotal books in my sewing library that took the place of flesh and blood teachers. Out of the five Wardrobe Sewing ElementsSkills is the only element that starts off in our control. It has taken me around ten years to feel back in control of mine.

wse_01_skills

Before the librarian arrives, I’d like to acknowledge the elephant in my sewing room: I sew full skirts all the time not just because I love how they swish, but because I can’t figure out how to fit my hips! And it’s not for lack of trying. I spent years figuring out why my DD chest wouldn’t fit in a sewing pattern drafted for a B cup. Solving that mystery felt like winning an Oscar for Best Seamstress in an Ill-Fitting Top. But, my first attempt at sewing an a-line skirt using vintage reproduction Vogue 1019 was evidence that fitting my lower half was going to require some new skills.

In 2012, I made (and laughed at) the pink version of Vogue 1019 below. The only thing that worked out in this skirt was the old school snap placket at the side seam. That feature will get repeated one day in a skirt that is worthy of all that hand sewing. After checking a few books (and probably Googling the fit problem, cause you never know) for the right alterations, I sewed two more muslins that were improved, but the fit was still not quite right. I walked away from the pattern and my plans for a fitted skirt. For three years.

V1019 I picked up the pattern again this year thinking my skills were finally “ready for this jelly” I had going on with my backside. And they were! With help from my sexy sewing assistant and three skinny darts at the back high hip, my fourth V1019 muslin was the best yet. So, I sewed up another one in a wearable quilting cotton and basted on the waistband to check the fit. It STILL wasn’t right. I’d dealt with my butt, but now the waist didn’t fit.

That is how I taught myself to sew. Through the suffering and joys of trial, error, and error.

No matter how many failed attempts at sewing wearable garments I had, there was always hope within the pages of the right sewing book.

I can trace the growth of my sewing knowledge and tactical skills through the books I acquired (somewhat desperately) over the years. From quilting and craft books that got me comfortable with my with machine, to beginner garment sewing books that navigated me through the overwhelming world of fabric and sewing patterns, to books on pattern alteration and design that exposed me to skills I thought were for experts. If there was a book about sewing out there I wanted it.

Skills by Books Timeline

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

My lust for reading and book collecting likely came from the job I had in high school working at the very first Barnes and Noble bookstore ever built in Silicon Valley. I loved that job. I got a great discount. It was the coolest hangout in town. And, there was a coffee bar smack dab in the middle of the many aisles of beautiful books. It paid well, too. Too bad my paycheck was perpetually doomed. Back then, I was into science fiction and Stephen King books. No one would’ve guessed how my reading tastes would change.

  • When I grew up, moved to the East Coast, and got a corporate job, I took a quilting class at G Street Fabrics to “stay in touch with my creative side” and bought my first sewing book, The Art of Classic Quiltmaking. I didn’t even have a sewing machine. The quilt top I pieced together in the class was ugly and I never finished it.
  • I bought my first house with my fiancé (now husband) in 2003. We binge-watched cable home improvement shows and DIY’d all over before moving our stuff in. I finally had a reason to buy a sewing machine! A cheap $100 mechanical one. I made a pair of lined curtains using the tutorials in Curtains for Beginners — my first spiral-bound craft book (a marketing tactic I would continue to fall for in the coming years). The curtains were uneven and the tulip print got old real quick, but we were proud enough to hang them in our bedroom anyway.
  • About a year after I got married, I started getting the itch to sew clothes. This was right around the time they revised and updated the classic, Vogue Sewing book. I would sit and read that book like an encyclopedia, opening it up to any page, excited to learn whatever it wanted to teach me. It was around this time I discovered Wendy Mullin’s Sew U book. It was the first garment sewing project book I’d ever seen and from what I remember, all of the sewists congregating in places like Craftster.org (where I spent hours and hours hungrily scrolling through user-submitted tutorials and projects) were trying out the projects and all of the design variations it taught. I couldn’t get any of the patterns to fit me properly even though I followed the size chart. Sadly, In those days, I knew nothing about length, width, or depth adjustments. The book proved to be an excellent primer for learning design, though.
  • After a few more disappointing experiences with Big 4 sewing patterns, and a handful of other trendy project books, I put garment sewing on the back burner for a while in 2007 to spend time making kitschy-cutesy gifts, bags, the occasional scarf or apron, and more home decor. The rise in popularity of fabric artists like Amy Butler and Anna Maria Horner made books like In Stitches and Seams to Me irresistible to a woman like me who just wanted to make something that had no risk of sucking.

Sewing Skills Timeline

7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11

  • In 2008, my world changed with one purchase. Palmer & Pletsch’s Fit for Real People was a cool drink of water in a hot desert of muslins going nowhere. I learned how to measure, mark, and slash my first full bust adjustment. You would’ve thought I’d just learn how to split an atom. I learned that three dart technique for addressing a fleshy high hip curve. I saw the most eye-opening diagram that demonstrated exactly how a petite person’s body is different from an average-height person. It was the most considerate, inclusive sewing book I had ever read. I just KNEW it would be THE answer to all of my fitting woes. It wasn’t.
  • When I wasn’t reading books about sewing, watching cable shows about sewing, or socializing on the Internets about sewing, I was going to sewing conventions. Living so close to Dulles airport means all the cool hobby conventions come through town.  I met Judith Rasband, co-author of a $100 textbook called Fitting and Pattern Alteration: A Multi-Method Approach to the Art of Style Selection, Fitting, and Alteration at a big sewing convention in 2009. The class she taught woke me up from a coma of ignorance about fitting and I bought her book right on the spot. It has diagrams illustrating every possible commercial pattern fitting challenge and four different methods for altering them. It is gold. As long as you have the patience to try them. There are about 8 post-it notes in my book highlighting the pages where my fitting challenges are covered. It’s a badass reference book, but doing all of that work to alter a pattern originally drafted for someone else’s body began to feel, well, silly.
  • By 2011, I was tired of tinkering with fit. I’d been dabbling and poking about in garment sewing for five years with nothing wearable to show for it. I picked up one of the multi-cup size patterns in my already huge stash of patterns (every new one I bought was “the one” that was gonna work for me) and sewed it up with only length adjustments since the D-cup pattern option took care of the depth changes I’d need. It was a sleeveless tunic. I didn’t trust the pattern, so I made it in quilting cotton (a useful strategy I still employ to help me get rid of beginner fabric stash). The success of that tunic got me excited about dressmaking again. After months and years of struggling with my sewing skills, having a handmade wardrobe finally felt like a real possibility for me. I immediately bought the Colette Patterns Sewing Handbook (my love for indy pattern companies began that year), started drinking in everything I could on BurdaStyle.com, and started reading reviews about every pattern in my stash on PatternReview.com.
  • In January of 2012, I signed up to be a contributor to The Sew Weekly blog which was basically Project Runway with a one week deadline (every week for a year!) where the designer is also the model. I had only sewn one wearable garment in my life. What was I thinking!? I’ll tell you. I wasn’t. I was desperate to make clothes and throwing myself in the deep end seemed like the only way to get some momentum. I went into my first challenge armed with skills I’d learned nerding out on another over-priced textbook, Patternmaking for Fashion Design.
  • I’ve told the story of what distracted me from sticking with the challenge for the whole year before. But the truth is, sewing at that pace wasn’t helping me grow my skills mindfully. When I came back to sewing (on my terms) in 2014, I had a new appreciation for couture sewing and sought out teachings from Susan Khalje and Claire Schaeffer. Claire’s book Couture Sewing Techniques no longer reads like Klingon to me. Not only have my skills matured, but my patience for quality sewing has grown too. The 32 hours I spent making my very first lined dress was one of the happiest four days I’d ever spent doing anything.

This is the heart of my sewing library today. I am a better student now and no longer need hundreds of teachers.

sewing_library_02

In fact, just one teacher— carefully chosen for all the right reasons, can make years of frustration seem like a bad dream I can wake up from purely with the power of a measuring tape and pencil.

Take THAT Vogue 1019!

IMG_2958

Which of the books in my historical sewing library have you read? What events, books, teachers, or patterns have shaped your sewing skills? What was your first sewing book?

Join me in the comments for some dialogue!

The Holistic Seamstress

The Holistic Seamstress Logo

Wardrobe sewing is personal lifestyle choice. If I was a scientist, I might even hypothesize that it’s coded in our DNA. Whatever its origins, making clothes puts a seamstress at the intersection of her physical body, skills, available time, tools & materials, and even her personality. These five elements come together in a unique way for every sewist, leading to a handmade wardrobe that is not only a reflection of individual style, but a wearable record of personal growth. In an effort to understand the relationship between these elements and how they influence my approach to clothes making (and life), I am going to explore these topics in a multi-part series.


Background

After writing about how sewing has shaped my self-esteem, a whole new world of navel gazing about my craft opened up for me. I started connecting dots that I know will bring a balanced awareness to my sewing that I’ve been missing. Discovering my core style and preferred silhouettes through the Wardrobe Architect challenge was a great tactical exercise, but making my own clothes is a lifetime commitment that has more layers to it than just choosing what I want to sew. Every garment I make says something about WHO I am, WHERE I’ve been, WHAT I know (and don’t), HOW I sew, and WHERE I am going. I want those stories stitched into every seam.

The 5 Elements of Wardrobe Sewing

To live holistically means living in balance with ourselves and our environment by understanding and honoring the interconnectedness of all things. When I say stuff like that my friends call me a hippie and make jokes about my crunchy granola lifestyle —it doesn’t help that large batches of granola are actually baked twice a month in my kitchen —but, I don’t mind the teasing because I’m secure in my hippiehood and embrace it. In fact, most makers are part hippie, part nerd, and part artist. The best sewists leverage all of these traits while navigating what I like to think of as the Periodic Table of Wardrobe Sewing Elements.

Periodic Table of Wardrobe Sewing Elements

I believe that examining what’s true for me about these five elements —skills, body, supplies, time, and personality—will elevate my sewing experience, molding it to fit my reality. Too often I have looked to books, experts, other bloggers, or even sewing patterns to help me make sense of my sewing journey, when the truth I seek comes from the same place as Dorothy’s power to leave Oz and return home. It comes from inside. Knowing my constraints, what I’m bringing to the table, and what motivates me. I have a feeling that making those connections will change everything about the way I sew.

The Schedule

I am usually pretty casual about when I blog. A breadwinning mom with a toddler in the final stages of potty training gets a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to following the rules of blogging consistency. But, writing about this feels so right, it can’t be wrong. Nor can it wait for the time when life slows down (by my estimate, that will be in the year 2031). So in the continued spirit of sharing the start of projects that equally scare and thrill me, here is the schedule for The Holistic Seamstress blog series. If the stars align, new makes will be shared in between:

  • Part 1: Skills (Week of October 12th)
  • Part 2: Body (Week of November 30th)
  • Part 3: Supplies (TBD)
  • Part 4: Time (TBD)
  • Part 5: Personality (TBD)

Thanks in advance for sticking with me through what I think will be a close-up look at a seamstress’ attempt at sewing enlightenment.