Outfit for a Party at Museum of Modern Art (Versions 1 through 5) and scenes from their “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” Exhibit

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So I needed an outfit to wear to the opening night party of the Museum of Modern Art’s Items: Is Fashion Modern exhibit – their first show about fashion since the 40s. Through a bit of kismet, the curators had discovered my Claire McCardell obsession via my blog, and contacted me to help with their research. I located a rare pair of McCardell’s original ballet flats for them, answered a lot of questions, and loaned them a photo from my collection for their exhibit and catalogue. In case you missed it, they put the tale of my unusual path to becoming a fashion historian on their blog.

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The exhibit, which tells the story behind 111 iconic wardrobe items, was inspired by MoMA’s original 1940s exhibit “Are Clothes Modern,” in which McCardell’s designs were featured for their architectural quality. Here are some of her fashions from the museum catalogue, with completely inaccurate patterns! (Obviously not from McCardell’s team.)

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Claire also consulted on another textile exhibit at what was then referred to as “The Modern” in the 50s. So I knew I had to bring a bit of her spirit with me to the party.

And whatever I was making, it had to go with ballet flats.

Concept #1: The McCardell pintucked dress:

During the 40s and particularly the 50s, McCardell used clever tucks that often would release at the bust and hip, to give the dresses a design element without a lot of frou frou. Lots of times she would use striped fabrics, and pull together the stripes with the tucks to give the bodice a solid color that would open at the bust to give a peek of the stripes – drawing the eye to the bust. (Even though McCardell was known for practical designs, they always had a hint of sex.)

Here’s an example from the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute’s excellent collection of McCardell garments:

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Oo, I was going to look like this!

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(After I had liposuction and a rib removed, which some women, including designer Jo Copeland, actually did back then to get a wasp waist.)

I have several of McCardell’s Spadea patterns that have tucks like these, so I decided to try this sheath pattern, using a striped seersucker that would show the manipulation of the fabric. I figured I’d give it a test run, and if I liked it, make it from fancier fabric.

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Since my Bernina, Karl, (who recently went from intern to “work husband” when I bought him) was off at the machine spa, I put his Walking Foot #50 on Coco the B 215 (on loan in a pinch – thank you BERNINA!) and got moving. She was more than up for the job.

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I started making tuck – after tuck – after tuck – lining each one up so that the stripes came together evenly. The directions called for each tuck to be topstitched 1/4″ from the edge, so they would open over the bust like an accordion. Then a side dart was elegantly added at the edge, so the shape of the dress wasn’t too boxy.

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Days of tucks later – when I started to ruminate about how the word “painstaking” is a combo of “pains” and “taking” – I realized that I was probably once again making – let’s call it an homage – to my previous bombs that I refer to as “Gertrude Stein’s Bathrobe” and “Bea Arthur’s Spa Robe.”

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I think this design will actually work as summer duster, but not as an avant garde party dress. When the collar piece didn’t line up and needed recutting, I abandoned it (for now) for another project.

Concept #2: The McCardell Jersey Wrap Dress:

I had done a ponte version of this 1958 McCalls pattern that hadn’t worked for me – the ponte was too heavy, and in the gray it gave me that “air de la prison matron” look.

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I’ve found that most McCardell garments are made from lightweight fabric, so this time I tried it using very light Liberty Dufour viscose jersey (the original pattern called for wool jersey). There were a lot of tricky uneven tucks at the top of the shoulder, but the walking foot made quick work of them.

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So far so good, but I found that the bodice was out of balance, with too much weight in the front tucks, which is probably why the pattern calls for a giant belt to support it. I often wonder about these late 50s patterns attributed to McCardell, “designed exclusively for McCalls,” which were released when she was very ill from cancer, or after her death. She was so weak that her lifelong friend and fellow designer, Mildred Orrick, used to come to the hospital to sketch her designs. Compared to the Spadea patterns, which were drafted in the early 50s from original retail garments, the McCalls seem a bit dumbed down, and probably not tested by McCardell’s sample makers, just sketched up and sent to McCalls.

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I was frustrated that the shoulder seam kept slipping forward due to the weight of the tucks in front. Looking at this photo of McCardell in a similar design, (which is actually a jacket, also in the Met’s collection)  I noticed that to hold the tucks up, the neck needed to be high in the back, unlike the McCalls pattern, which dips in a “V” behind the back.

So I did a “hail Mary,” pulled the neckline up in the back, made a number of other modifications to the bodice, and that put it back in balance.

I didn’t want the gathers of the skirt to make me look too big in the hips this time, and in fact, McCardell often moved gathers in her skirts to different places for different bodies. Sometimes they were centered over the hips for people who are shaped like rulers, and sometimes they were centered over the rear and stomach to streamline the hips. So I moved the gathers to the center front and back, and put the side seams with pockets slightly forward, as she would move the pockets around as well.

Instead of wearing a belt, which I loathe at this age, I added a 3″ ring of knit elastic inside at the waistband. It’s like Spanx! I recommend it to support knit dresses at the hips. Since modern jersey and knit elastic are so much stretchier than wool jersey and stiff elastic from the 50s, I was able to skip the side zipper.

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After all of this monkeying around, I had significantly modified the design and made it much closer to an authentic McCardell look from that era. I threw together the rest of the dress in the nick of time to put it in the Martha’s Vineyard Fair! (Lovely hair from sewing in 90% humidity…)

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Second place due to wonky seam finishes. Oo, those judges are tough!

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But I did win a blue ribbon for my hack of the Vogue 8930 sweater coat. Then I caught a couple of women manhandling it when I was stalking – er photographing – my makes.

Hands off the silk crepe de chine woman! Sheesh!

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I really like this dress, but it feels more like one of McCardell’s Kitchen Dinner “entertaining at home” looks. You know, for Thanksgiving dinner with the fam. But to wear to a fashion party at Museum of Modern Art? It just wasn’t modernist enough. Which led to:

Concept #3: The Houndstooth McCardelligan:

I’ve made three McCardell cardigan jackets before – two from knits and one from lined tweed – and I love them all. They’re hacked from a couple of original McCardell jackets in my collection, and have the style elements she used again and again: cut-in kimono sleeves, a bias cut chevron, and a large French dart for waist and bust shaping. During her career, she designed dozens of variations of this jacket, sometimes with collars, kerchief points in the back, piping, or pockets.

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I decided that one of these jackets would be more representative of McCardell’s architectural style for the MoMA party, and got going with some haute couture linen houndstooth from Paris. I figured it was the right weight for late September in New York.

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I carefully lined up, pinned, and cut the fabric, which is very loosely woven and could slide around on the bias. I hand thread-traced around the seamline, as that keeps you out of trouble when sewing bias seams, which can stretch all over the place. (To learn about bias sewing, I recommend Sandra Betzina’s course “Sewing on the Bias” on craftsy.com.)

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All cut and ready to go! I had a month to finish! Then waves of extended family showed up at the end of the summer, and well…

Concept #4: The Donna Karan Skirt:

I started thinking that the houndstooth might be a little loud for a McCardell jacket. Also, I saw the list of items featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s show, and one classic element was comprised of Donna Karan’s “Seven Easy Pieces,” which I certainly wore in the 80s. They included a bodysuit, jacket, soft pants, shawl, wrap skirt, belt etc. that all went together for work and travel.

McCardell had come up with a set of similar separates in the 30s, but the retailers refused buy her “Six Black Matches” until a few years later, because the idea of a “capsule wardrobe” was too radical for that era. These 1934 separates of McCardell’s, in the Met’s collection, were probably items from her personal wardrobe that she took to France twice a year for the fashion shows.

That sent me down a rabbit hole that resulted in getting an “Easy” Donna Karan 80s Vogue pattern from her original Seven Easy Pieces collections, to make a skirt that was an homage to McCardell’s Six Black Matches. I decided to extend it into a maxi.

Easy, huh?!

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OMG Ode on a Grecian Urn meets the draperies! Abandon the S.S. Donna Karan!

Concept #5: McCardelligan from Menswear:

When I got back home in the fall, the clock was really ticking to finish my outfit. As I was unpacking my sewing stash and shoving it in an overhead closet, I discovered a cache of vintage Savile Row fabric I’d found for a song three years ago on Etsy, and had completely forgotten about!!!

I had four yards of gorgeous 50s men’s suiting wool from legendary Wains and Shiell that was screaming McCardell’s name. She famously used menswear fabrics to create evening dresses with jackets that were chic, warm, and feminine in their way.

My inspiration was a photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, whose color-saturated modernist images put Harper’s Bazaar (then under the helm of fashion editor Diana Vreeland) on the map in the 40s. (If you’re in London, check out the Dahl-Wolfe exhibit at the Fashion and Textile Museum this fall.)

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Looking at Matisse, Museum of Modern Art , 1939,

(Looking at Matisse, Museum of Modern Art, 1939)

I thought that a jacket with long skirt would be just the ticket, but skip the feathers.

I cut another McCardell cardigan jacket, each piece in a single layer, and matched them all at the center front and shoulder line. I would cut one piece, keep it pinned to the pattern, flip it over, and match the stripes for the mirror-image piece, which makes a chevron in the front and back. The chevron keeps the bias from twisting, and gives the jacket a geometric look.

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So much matchy-matchy! I used a lot of pins, because sticking the pin through both layers right at the seamline is the way to go.

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(I cheated and thread-traced by machine – then modified the fit – as you can see by the chalk line.)

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My brain hurt after all of that matching! The walking foot really helped keep the layers of fabric even over the feed dogs, so the stripes lined up properly.

I totally cheated and finished the seam allowances by gluing the edges with Steam-a-Seam Lite – no time left for binding this unlined jacket!

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Of course, it wouldn’t be a McCardell without topstitching. She was inspired by a topstitched French worker’s hat in the 30s, and added the detail as a jaunty fashion element to her womenswear – even for evening.

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Eep – tacking down the facing on the train to New York!

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Five vintage brass shoe buttons sewn on between Providence and Mystic:

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Phew! Finished in the nick of time! And after all that, it was just what I had in mind.

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Even though it was hot and humid, this light, breathable wool was soft, comfortable, and wrinkle-free. McCardell really was onto something making all-season eveningwear from men’s fabric.

Let’s go to the party!

I was accompanied by Janet, Jet Set Sewing’s trusty New York City bureau chief and location photographer (AKA my sister). We’ve been hitting the town together for more that 30 years, probably making us the city’s oldest Holly Golightlys. Even though she and most of Manhattan had been delayed in traffic for two hours while our president, in one of those “let them eat cake” moments, had dinner at Le Cirque, she was still game to go.

The Museum of Modern Art was packed – seven deep at the bar and people spilling out into the garden! We walked in, looked around, and said, “guess we’re not going to find those people we were looking for.”

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But what an exhibit!

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It had a little of everything – Chanel’s original Little Black Dress from the 20s:

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Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap dress:

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Donna Karan’s Seven Easy Pieces (these are few of them):

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A fanciful harem look from the early 20th century by Paul Poiret:

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A hoodie hung like a piece of sculpture:

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Polo shirts, platform shoes, shift dresses:

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Even a Wonderbra, tighty-whities –  and Spanx. With cellulite! (Little did people know that my behind looked just like that.)

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But where were those ballet flats?

Ah, at long last I got to see them in person.

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These are from 1943, when WWII rationing kept women from buying many new shoes. Since dance shoes were not on the rationing list, McCardell enlisted Salvador Capezio to make ballet slippers from fabric that matched her outfits – with soles that covered the entire bottom of the slipper, so they could be worn on the street. (The soles of stage ballet slippers only cover some of the bottom of the foot, and wear out easily on pavement.)

I looked below the ballet flats and saw the photo from my collection – with my name next to it! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!

MoMA McCardell Photo

(Although it’s actually not a publicity still from a film – it’s a 1943 press photo publicizing McCardell’s collection. I’m not sure how that mixup happened, but hey, they got my name spelled right!)

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Just casually lounging nearby so I can point out my name to people…

It’s a great exhibit! Here’s a review from the New York Times.

On the way back to my sister’s, strolling the avenues of Manhattan’s East Side on that balmy September evening, I really did feel like I’d gone back in time – when a long skirt, a little McCardell jacket, and simple ballet flats were all a girl needed for a glamorous night out at The Modern.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Textiles from the south of France, caught in a Roman Bath tsunami, and Reader, I married him…

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Before I got to my haute couture embroidery class at Ecole Lesage in Paris, I did a little damage ogling (and purchasing) textiles in the south of France.

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A couple of years ago, I wrote about visiting Aix-en-Provence and the surrounding area, as my husband and I drove around in circles while two competing navigational systems – Miss Moneypenny and Miss Google Maps – bossed us around, and our teen son hid in the back programming a new million-dollar app (at least, I hope that’s what he was doing – though it sounded a lot like he was playing Fruit Ninja).

This time it was summer, and though it was beastly hot, once again we gave our son the thrill of driving from one charming and virtually identical village to another and wandering through brocant (flea) markets in the pulsing heat, until he finally informed us in that fun teen way that he’d had enough.

What? You don’t like hours on end of rooting through vintage textiles? These pajamas are classics!

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Silk thread, kiddo!

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Enjoying the view from a charming cafe painted by Van Gogh – with 800 other tourists!

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We decided just to stay in Aix-en-Provence one day and stroll to Cezanne’s workshop, which the hotel assured us was a 15-minute walk. Even though it was 97 degrees, my husband insisted we go.

Unbeknownst to us, the 15-minute walk was straight up a hill.

But what a great sewing studio! (I mean painting studio…)

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With a giant fabric-drying rack! (Or is that a massive easel? With no air conditioning, we bailed on the one-hour lecture on Cezanne’s super tight friendship with Emile Zola.)

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Fortunately, our hotel, The Aquabella, was built on the site of old Roman baths with supposedly healing waters. So after a day of sweating through culture, I was able to retreat to “take the waters” in the spa, where basically a cute little thing smeared me with mud, mummified me in plastic wrap, then rinsed me off in a relaxing way by blasting me with “fraiche” water from a fire hose. (Of course, I forgot that “fraiche” means “cool” and not “fresh” in French. Quelle surprise!)

Then I went into the “experience shower” which said something in French about a jungle. I pushed the button and a warm mist emanated out, backed by the soothing sounds of condors and vultures coming to rip the flesh off my body. This was followed by a typhoon of “fraiche” rain downpouring on my head. After that I had to retreat to the pool where, after my endorphin level returned to normal, I felt like speaking to my husband again.

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So freakin’ relaxed from exhaustion (and local wine).

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(I think that’s the writer Frederic Mistral photobombing me up above the gargoyle water fountain. And I’m not really leaning on the bias, but I think my photographer was.)

Even though my  fabric stash-guilt, brought on by KonMari, kept me from buying more yardage, I did indulge in some fun textiles.

The Provencal company Souleiado has taken traditional textile designs and created modern scarves and garments that reflect the boho soul of the area. Unfortunately I didn’t make it to their museum, but I did spend a lot of time concentrating on their prints in their shops.

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(I think you can see why my husband was relieved of his duties as Jet Set Sewing’s official shutterbug during this trip. Rose’ and photography do not mix.)

I found some beautiful traditionally-woven textile bags from the Basque region, by Tissage de Luz.

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But the most intriguing find of all was this piece of vintage embroidery I found in the market in Aix-en-Provence:

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A little 20s flapper/odalisque – all hand-embroidered with beading and cutwork.

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It needed a few touch-ups, but otherwise it was great. Was it professionally done, or stitched by a hobbyist?

I put the photos up on Instagram, and remarkably had my answer within a half an hour. My online sewing pal, Marie Noelle Lafosse of the French blog La Machine a Coudre, spotted my find on my Instagram feed, and a few minutes later, posted a similar printed embroidery kit from the same era that she had in her collection. So it was definitely a kit for an enthusiast to use to make a pillow cover, but wow, what a level of skill needed to pull it off!

So my plan is to touch up the damaged embroidery and frame it. When I mentioned on Instagram possibly putting it back on a pillow, I swiftly heard “quelle horreur” from sewing peeps around the world!

Anyhoo, after living through embroidery school, I returned to the comfort of the Martha’s Vineyard sewing shed, ready to get to work on a bunch of projects with my “Swiss Intern,” AKA Karl the sewing machine. He’s been helping me out for three years, on loan from Bernina.

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But then he said those horrible words:

“We need to talk.”

He started to go on about how, even though we’d had a great time together, he could only be an intern for so long, and how it was probably time for him to go back to Switzerland and get a real job and…

I realized the horrible truth. “Are you breaking up with me?” I bleated.

“It’s not that,” he assured me, “It’s just – I need commitment. You’ve been taking me for granted. I mean, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

“But think about all of the great times we’ve had together, Karl,” I sobbed, trying to keep the snot from dribbling on his stitchplate.

“I know,” he said, choking up.

“Remember when you made me those corded buttonholes, while I had to lie on the couch with a cold compress over my eyes, because I had spent 40 hours on the Edith Head Bolero from hell, and if the buttonholes had gotten messed up, it would ruined it?” I said.

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“But I pulled it off, didn’t I?”

“Yes!” I blubbered.

“Remember when you made fifteen feet of piping, using that big, hulking 9mm stitch width of yours, and attached it to the Claire McCardell dress I was making for my sister –  the one she was going to wear to speak at the Fashion Institute of Technology?” I went on. And on.

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“And you put the pocket in upside down?” Karl smirked lovingly. “You’d have been totally humiliated if I hadn’t Frankenpocketed it, and she’d been forced to appear in some tawdry retail thing.”

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“And remember, when you powered through sewing a four-piece knit wardrobe with designs by Halston, Issey Miyake and Claire McCardell in two weeks for that Pattern Review Travel contest?” I sniffled.

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“It wasn’t my fault you didn’t win.”

“I don’t think we need to go there right now, Karl. And what about the cute little phrases I used to put on your screen?”

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But by then the only sound was the waves from the ocean of my tears flooding Karl’s bobbin cabinet. He started packing up his Barbie case to leave.

“You can’t go!” I hollered.

“Hey, you knew it was temporary from the start, babe.

“But I never knew how much I needed you!!”

At that, I burst out of the shed and tracked down my husband, who, as a lawyer, has a phone permanently implanted on his jaw. He was blabbing with a client.

“We need to talk,” I said, gesturing dramatically. He ignored me.

“I can’t live without him! I have to have him in my life!” I yelled. That got his attention.

“Is it another man?” my husband whispered.

“No, it’s Karl. I can’t let him go!”

“Oh go ahead and keep him,” my suddenly brilliant and level-headed husband said. “You’ll just be in there gossiping with another machine, and I’ll be stuck listening to you kvetching about not sewing on a Bernina.”

I ran to the shed with the joyous news. I kissed Karl on the top of his little bobbin winder and he accepted my proposal.

Our commitment ceremony was touching and chic. The Jet Set Sewing spokesmodels, Halstonette and YSL, were there as Maid of Honor and Best Man.

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Karl wore white and I wore Chanel.

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We pledged our undying love, and then – Reader, I purchased him.

But I was surprised that you weren’t there. I mean, I told the Jet Set Sewing graphics team, AKA the chipmunks who live in my kitchen, to send invitations to all of my readers. And you know how reliable they are.

So now that Karl and I are one, our sewing adventures will continue unabated.

Right?

Well, that should be the end of the fairy tale. But Karl, being Karl, informed me that before he could continue to star in my blog, he needed to spend some time in the machine spa to get his annual cleanse, lube and Botox touch-up. I could tell that he expected me to get upset, but instead, I just whistled as I went off to pick up the mail.

A little while later, I pulled up with a large box in the Jeep, and said, “not to worry Karl, go off and have your spiritual journey/tummy tuck. And take your time.”

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“What’s in the box, sister?” Karl said in a mild panic.

“Oh, just my summer intern,” I said casually, as I unpacked the box.

“You got a TEMP?!”

“Yes Karl. Meet Coco. She’ll be filling your shoes and wearing your feet while you’re gone.”

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Well, once Karl got a load of my pert and efficient new assistant, he left in a huff.

To be continued…

 

 

(To learn what’s really going on in the love triangle between me, Karl, and Coco, and how the nice people at BERNINA of America are loaning me a B 215 while Karl is away at the spa, click the Bernina Collaboration tab above.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Haute Couture Embroidery School in Paris, Balenciaga, and…eek! I dropped my needle again!

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How excited was I to attend the world-famous Ecole Lesage school of haute couture embroidery in Paris! The school was formed in 1992 to pass on the legendary embroidery techniques of Maison Lesage, which has embellished the creations of Vionnet, Schiaparelli, Yves Saint Laurent, and Chanel over the past century.

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Fun! Like a sewing retreat, right?

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Off to school – in Paris! Like Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina!

I had gotten in touch with the school six months prior, and, with my schedule, was given the choice of a six-hour beginning class for beading (using a needle) or twelve-hour class for ribbon work, which teaches the technique of embroidery using the Luneville hook. (Here’s a video the explains that technique: Luneville Hook Video). I chose the six-hour class, which is spread out over two mornings or afternoons, as your hands can only take so much beading at a time. I told the school that I had proficient hand-sewing skills from making garments.

I got to the school fifteen minutes early and went looking for the woman who had booked me. Someone told me to wait in the lobby to be called. I saw the instructors breezing in, and noted the other students arriving with large rectangular frames stretched with organza, which are used with the Luneville hook. I also noticed that there was no friendly chatting among the students, most of whom were younger, with more of a “deer in the headlights” look.

At 9:30 sharp, we were called by name into specific rooms with workstations. Everyone else had a table on which to perch their frames, and I was given a table with a traditional round embroidery hoop attached to a pole with a flat base to stick under your leg. It’s actually a brilliant design that frees both of your hands. Clearly I was the only newbie there.

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(A photo of the “tambour” taken later, after several glasses of wine.)

The other students put down their frames and started right to work. There was no chatting, just intense needlework. Though I’d asked for an English-speaking instructor, I was started out by someone who only spoke French. We soon both realized that I didn’t have enough embroidery vocabulary for that to work, so an English-speaking teacher came to help me. There were people of all different levels practicing in the same room, with three instructors, all expert embroiderers, moving between the students to show them what to do. There was no lecturing, just learning by doing, which was fine by me. The overall languages were French and English, and many of the students seemed to be from Asia and the U.S.

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I was given a kit with a piece of silk twill with the project printed on it (a portable phone carrier), all the beads and sequins, some very brief instructions in French, a roll of cotton thread, and just one #10 embroidery needle with a teeny-tiny hole.

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The French-speaking instructor whipped the project onto the hoop (always straight, never on the bias), threaded the needle, and showed me how to get going with the beading – three backstitches, up outside the sequin, pick up the sequin, down through the dot in the middle – it was going so fast! I started doing it and felt like a complete klutz – so much was counterintuitive to garment sewing. The tail of the thread goes on the top of the hoop to be clipped, not the underside. The stitches need to be pulled so tight! The sequins I’d sewn were wobbling all over the place. When I stabbed the sequins with the needle, they went flying off the table!

Then the English-speaking teacher came over and checked out my setup. She took pity on me, sewing black fabric with black thread at this age, and got me a work light. She showed me how to level the hoop so I could see the work better. And she made me little paper trays to put the sequins in so they wouldn’t fly around. (Ecole Lesage doesn’t provide them because they keep getting stolen.) “Pull the stitches tight!” she said.

Then I ran out of thread, and had to thread that tiny little hole with cotton thread, without the Clover needle threader that is my constant companion and crutch. (If Susan Khalje can use one, so can I.) The school had giving me scissors that were not very sharp, so the end of the thread frayed really easily. I could not get that damn needle threaded! I was totally stressed out!

The instructor took pity on my again. When I mentioned a needle threader, she said it was fine for hobbyists, but in the ateliers… (her voice drifted off in that French way).

She taught me to pinch the thread hard between my right-hand finger and thumb (I’m a lefty) then, using my left hand, shove the eye of the needle over the bit of thread sticking up. It even took her a few tries. Here’s the idea:

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Just a tiny bit of thread sticking up – then take the needle in your other hand and squish the eye over the thread to work it through. It reminded me of working out a sliver.

At that point I would have given a million dollars to have that needle threader, particularly because, using a single strand of thread, the thread would get caught on a sequin and come out of the needle, so I’d have to thread it again. Grrr! I started cutting a really long piece of thread, but was told it was too long. The thread is supposed to be the length from your thumb to your elbow, plus 15 centimeters. There were a number of times that the teacher had to thread my needle for me, much to my chagrin.

Then I dropped my one and only needle, and could not find it anywhere! Let me tell you, I scoured that floor until it showed up, because I was not going to flag my teacher down again for something as stupid as that!

I now started to realize that coming into Ecole Lesage and expecting it to be like a sewing retreat was the same as going to the American Ballet Theater school and asking to take a Jazzercize class. It’s pro training, and you’re not going to walk out a prima ballerina in a week. The teachers were all very nice, but there was none of that American rah-rah that’s GREATTTTT! attitude. No “A” for effort. The teachers were very straight with the students about what they needed to do to improve, and often took their place at their workstations to demonstrate, but there was none of that “oh, it’s okay…” It was refreshing! Even though I was mortified!

Oh my God, so many teeny-tiny sequins! More than 200 of these 2mm sequins alone.

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At this point, my instructor had my number as a hobbyist, but I think she recognized that I could stitch, so she concentrated on getting me where I needed to go in the time I had. She taught me how the flat sequins (paillettes) have a right side and a wrong side, though I’ll be damned if I could tell them apart. Some have a small, raised edge that you can sort of see if you look really close. She told me to backstitch frequently as I was sewing, in case the thread broke. She also told me to backstitch when attaching beads, and to make the stitch longer than the bead or sequin to keep them from sticking up. She taught me the proper way to stitch the stacked sequins and beads. I was taking notes like crazy. There was no chatting her up. She answered my questions then had to move on to other students.

This is as far as I got in the first three hours of non-stop stitching:

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At the end of my first class, which was on a Friday, all around me I could hear the reckoning among the other students, some of whom were there for a week, while others were taking longer courses. “You have a lot of homework to do,” the girl next to me was told. One American young woman seemed close to tears on her last day, and was given some final corrections and encouraged to keep practicing. There was none of that “wow that was so great – thanks so much!” thing at the end of the session. People packed up and left. I found that I needed to buy myself a tambour hoop from the school (for 68 euros) so I could do some work over the weekend. They don’t let you borrow their equipment because “sometimes people don’t come back.”

Bon courage! I was going to need it!

Over the weekend I sewed on maybe 40 more tiny sequins, but come on, we were in Paris!

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My husband and I attended an under-the-radar Balenciaga exhibit at the Musee Bourdelle, where the garments and hats were intermingled with the giant sculptures that are a permanent part of the museum. But was I looking at the sculptures?

I really wasn’t expecting much, but ended up thrilled to wander the rooms and see an excellent selection of this master couturier’s sculptural works – most in black for this exhibit.

My photos really don’t do the exhibition justice – which to me was as exciting as the Charles James exhibit at the Met a few years ago.

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Some of the garments were so delicate that they had to be kept in boxes with curtains in front to block the light. It was almost like opening a present to peek inside.

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There was some beautiful beading as well, that I now truly appreciated after having my butt kicked at Ecole Lesage.

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As I’ve mentioned in the past, I tend to get in very close when eyeballing these exhibitions, to the point where the alarm has gone off, followed by a stern warning from a guard. At this exhibit, I heard a loud clatter and was thrilled when it wasn’t me who knocked over the guardrail!

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One of the most exciting parts was seeing some of the original muslins or toiles, all cut from black fabric with multicolored stitching to show the various modifications.

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(There was a lot of reflection on the case, but you can see that the lower part is the front of a bodice, which is cut in one piece with the back at the top.)

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How I loved this exhibit!

I also made a run to Maison Sajou, the French embroidery and needlepoint brand that’s been brought back to life by a new owner – everything in it is charming!

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I was going to do some fabric shopping in the neighborhood, but I got a little panicked because one of the metro lines and a lot of the streets had been shut down, and there were police everywhere.  I started walking back to the place we were staying and realized that everything had been closed down for the Pride parade. I was relieved, but still needed to cross the parade to get home. So I just joined in for a couple of blocks!

Then I met up with my husband and son, who dragged me to a video game history exhibit, with virtual reality stations.

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(Unless Coco Chanel’s in there, I’m not interested.)

Then everyone in the family went home happy – that is, after my husband gave up on his navigational skills and listened to my very best friend, Miss Google Maps.

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On Monday, and I packed up to go back to Ecole Lesage.

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I’ll be honest – I kind of wasn’t feeling it on that beautiful day.

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But now that I knew the drill, I was able to set up my workstation with my boxes from Maison Sajou and my son’s Swiss Army knife, which actually had the sharpest scissors – though I still would have been a whole lot happier with that needle threader.

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One of the instructors sang “are you going to finish your case today?” Considering there were hundreds more beads and sequins to attach, sadly the answer was “non.” But I put my head down and got to it.

More help from my instructor, who made sure I knew what I needed to do to complete each of the circles in the project when I left.

I turned off the sound on my phone and snuck a few pictures.

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(An instructor demonstrating for a student on her sampler.)

I got up to stretch.

“Mal a dos?” (“Backache?”) one instructor asked.

I nodded my head and took pictures of some of the samples that students can learn to do if they take the longer classes, and have the patience of Job.

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I got a little further, then, at the end of the morning, bid Ecole Lesage adieu.

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Waiter! Rose’ please! Make it a double!

Don’t get me wrong – going to Ecole Lesage was a great experience, because if you’re going to learn something that requires physical technique, I believe you should learn from the best, most accomplished teachers you can find. But I wouldn’t call it “fun.”

When will I finish my tiny portable phone case, with roughly 1000 beads and sequins? (Don’t hold your breath.) However, if I want to put beading on collars or cuffs, I’m glad I took the needlework class to learn how.

Jet lagged and sequined-out, I returned to the island summer sewing shed to find Karl waiting in a bit of a huff.IMG_2809

“How’d the hand-sewing go without me, doll?” Karl asked with a smirk.

“No comment. And of course I wanted to take you to Paris with me, Karl, but, no offense, you’re not exactly the most sylph-like carry-on.”

Pretty soon we were back to work, though:

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As to what we were making, and what other big announcements Karl and I might have to make – that will just have to wait till next time.

Hope your sewing’s going well!

Is it okay for feminists to sew? Or: Want a man? Get a sewing machine.

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Can you sew and still be a feminist? Oh honey, I’m a feminist from way back.

My mom taught me to sew in the 70s, because every woman in the midwest needed to know how. At some point, your daughter was going to come home from Girls Choir with a mimeographed sheet instructing “Mom” to come up with a red corduroy jumper with a zipper up the front from a Simplicity pattern, and you just had to do it. Sewing was right up there with cooking as a life skill.

These were the women who had flexed their muscles as Rosie the Riveter during WWII, or were co-eds like my mom. Then the men came back, and the women were expected to go home, be quiet, and raise a passel of kids while secretly reading “The Feminine Mystique” and pounding back Excedrin. We’re talking Betty from Mad Men.

My mom wisely got out of the house as a teacher, assigning Robert Frost and Kurt Vonnegut then moving on to Marshall McLuhan and “the medium is the message.” My Dad was the director of the school, so on top of all that she had to entertain as part of his job. I remember her sewing — rather than buying — a maxi dress of washable teal doubleknit to wear at the parties she was catering and hosting, because my parents were wisely choosing to spend the family money on college for us three girls.

I knew if I wanted to wear anything the least bit fashionable up there in Northern Lower Michigan, I had to make it myself, with patterns by Betsey Johnson or Kenzo. Imbued by the overconfidence of Cold War America, I thought everything I made was great.

The Girl Scout leaders knew we had a big job ahead of us too, so we learned to hike and camp with a pack, build a campfire and cook a “one pot” meal using a #10 can for the pot. We’d eat off of a table we’d made by lashing branches with twine, while sitting on our hand-woven (from newspaper) “Sit-Upons.” After dinner we’d sing “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” with hand motions, then bury all the trash.

But since we were training to be women, another night we had to cook and serve a “dressed up” fondue dinner party for our dads. I remember sewing a maxi wrap skirt out of wool houndstooth to wear. I was 12.

Pretty soon Ms. Magazine started showing up at our house, and my mom was going to feminist “consciousness-raising” meetings. My dad, who believed in fairness and lived in a house with four females, stuck up for her, which was a highly unpopular position for a man to take back then. He started cooking, and would invent casseroles from ground beef and giant zucchini from his garden. One of them was called “How To Stuff a Wild Zucchini,” but after a couple of nights it became “Baseball Casserole” because, as he said, “three times and you’re out.”

My mom was finally freed from sewing by then because I, the youngest, knew how. I could knit and embroider, too, and one summer in the 70s, my sister, who now is the Artistic Director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, came home from Juilliard and taught me to macrame plant-hangers.

In college during the recession, I was part of the first generation of “thrifters” who lived in vintage fashion and army surplus, inspired by the book “Cheap Chic.”

That’s me in a 40s “Popover” wrap dress.

Too broke for retail when I started in TV in Ohio, I sewed myself a velvet dress to wear when I got an award at the Waldorf.

Then I moved to New York, where my love life replaced my sewing machine. Power suits from Anne Klein II. Nights at the Plaza in Norma Kamali. Marriage to a guy with custody of three kids. Cooking Christmas dinner for his teens (who decided the night before to become vegan). Yards of curtains sewn. Parties for 40 with a rock band crashing at our house. Doing the rock band’s laundry because I didn’t know any better. Wearing vintage haute couture from Didier Ludot in Paris. Fifteen years of writing and producing for television. Ten years raising our boy — a much wished-for but exhausting surprise. Then menopause, which is as bad as puberty — but in reverse. By the time I was through, I had skills for days and was restless.

I took a $25 online course about French haute couture sewing, and made a Chanel-style jacket. I remembered how much fun it was to sew. It was more fun than shopping, which has been ruined by fast fashion. And lots of people were online chatting about sewing, of all shapes, sizes, hues and ages — women, men, gay, straight, trans. They were posting proud pictures of themselves in their “makes.”

It was all so much more fun than thinking about test prep for my eleven-year-old’s four-hour middle-school admission exam — an incredibly anxiety-producing thing that was meaningless in the grand scheme of things, I now realize. I started blogging about recreating vintage fashion by famous designers here at JetSetSewing.com, and it took off. Sewing kick-started my career again.

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(Speaking of which, three kick pleats in this Charles James “Dorothy” skirt! And a shrug by Claire McCardell.)

Here’s the deal: feminist or not, domestic crap is a part of life. I sew for fun and cook under protest. I drive my son to stuff and try to figure out what’s on his mind. I’ve cleaned up plenty of puke and poop, and checked for pinworms (don’t google it). My husband’s put up shelves, done the dishes, and decorated the house. We’ve hauled umpteen pieces of furniture up and down stairs, swearing at each other. I’ve made up five million beds. My husband’s done a lot of varnishing. We’ve both dustbusted a major portion of the East Coast.

I’ve read young bloggers agonizing about whether “crafting” is anti-feminist, and here’s what I think, now that I’m in my 50s: go ahead and get good at sewing, cooking, woodworking, small engine repair, whatever floats your boat. You have no idea how many freaking skills you’re going to need over the next 30 years.

As the Dalai Lama noted recently in a New York Times Op-Ed, a lot of western anxiety can be traced back to the feeling of not being “needed.” I really can’t stand a lot of the housework I do, but I do feel useful.

Now for the part about “getting a man” (or whatever gender “rings your chimes,” as they used to say in the 60s), which is feminist too, because, trust me, your family ties will outlast your career. Even though the shimmering blonde hair on the next girl over may be temporarily blinding, once a guy does the math about how much it costs to touch up those roots every three weeks, an engaging, independent and industrious gal like you with a sewing machine can start to look mighty good. Because in the end, you two are going to be spending a lot more time keeping house and eating dinner together than you will fooling around.

(Just don’t show him your sewing stash closet until after the honeymoon.)

Sewing a retro mermaid skirt (McCalls 7386), a 20s-vibe sweater coat (Vogue 8930), and a 50s McCardell bolero; but still it was all downhill until I made a pink hat…

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Oh hey! Remember the good ol’ days? Like, in June?

If you’re a U.S. reader, it’s entirely possible you’ve been experiencing a bit of anxiety lately. I know I have. Personally, I blame a major Italian fashion house for my slide into bad karmaland.

There I was in late July, wearing my not-terribly-tatty workout clothes and carrying a completely acceptable non-It bag, cutting through the mall to get to Star Market for groceries, when I spotted this dress in the middle of a store:

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Well, of course I had to take a picture for Instagram, because I’d seen 70s Halston dresses that are just like it. Here’s one from the excellent Yves Saint Laurent + Halston exhibition  that was at the Museum at FIT a couple of years ago (on the left):

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So I dashed in, and the minute I got out my phone to take a picture, the security guard streaked to the back room of the store.

Suddenly a very officious and nervous young manager came speedwalking out, insisting that I had to stop taking pictures and leave! I don’t know if my non-Bedazzled workout clothes were disturbing the shopping zen of the overdressed foreign tourists taking selfies right next to me, but clearly I had to go.

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Anyway, I guess he figured I wasn’t in the market for a $1,300 cotton dress that you or I could make on a Tuesday for 50 bucks tops, with a pattern like Butterick 6446.

b6446_aNext I cut through Lord and Taylor, and, because I still had blanket coats on the brain after making the The 50s “Coat Even A Beginner Can Make” (or a Capote even Truman might wear), I snapped a pic of this easy-to-hack wool jacket by St. John:

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Fortunately, the nice ladies at L&T didn’t give a hoot that I was taking a picture of this $1,300 “putty melange” wrapper.

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Seriously, you put it on, one of your friends does a red wine “spit take” on you and you’re on the floor crying.

Even though my sewing machine, AKA Karl, was still mad at me from making him do “le pivot” on my last make, I decided that stitching up a retro shawl-collar jacket was in the stars. They were everywhere!

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I decided to make one from  Vogue 8930, as people were waxing poetic about the pattern on Pattern Review. Another blogger skillfully explained the mania you can get from thinking about this pattern, along with the naughty alternate name that it has: Vogue 8930 review with hilarious naughty name.

By then it was August, and it was so hot in my charming-yet-non-air-conditioned sewing shed that all I felt like doing was making muslins, believe it or not (in this case, a tracing-paper test version of the pattern). Even the thought of fitting actual fabric gave me a hot flash.

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I knew from the get-go that this was an oversized pattern, so I went down a size to make a Medium, when I’m normally a retail L or XL. But the first version, upper left, still had a lot of volume. The dropped sleeves were oversized and a little 80s as well, so I took them in a couple of inches under the pit, shown top right. Then I chopped 4″ off around the collar and hem, shown bottom right, but it still seemed big to me.

Meanwhile, I was showing my progress via Instagram and getting a lot of good advice from sewing people all over the world. In the end, I took a total of 8″ off the collar and hem to get the silhouette I was looking for (bottom left).

There are two ways to sew this pattern in the instructions: either unlined with overlapping  unfinished seams, or completely lined. However, as I have never encountered a pattern that I can’t make more difficult if I really put my mind to it, I decided to only line half of it around the collar.

When I start cutting the wool for the exterior, once again I heard “MERDE! NOT LE PIVOT” from Karl, my Bernina. Then I told him I was doing French seams, which means you sew the seam once, then flip it and sew it again to give it a nice finish.

You know those Grumpy Cat memes? Karl was giving me that look.

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I knew he could do it! Though I did find it was too bulky when I tried to cross together two French seams, so I kind of chopped that part and you’ll never see a picture of that. (The fabric is a pretty doubleknit wool that I bought from Emma One Sock.)

To line and face the collar, I used some silk crepe de chine I’d had printed up by My Fabric Designs. They’d offered me a credit to try their printing service, so I’d uploaded some original Art Deco fashion graphics from my collection. It’s good quality silk, and the printing is nice and crisp.

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This one’s called “The Death of Love” (in French) and, geez, haven’t we all been there after a breakup, floating comatose down a cold river, boob hanging out, but still miraculously wearing our “kiss me” (or something) pumps?

I cut the collar lining, then it was back to Instagram. Does this pattern make my headlights look like lowlights?

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Sewing people are nice and polite on IG, but like true friends, they wisely advised me to re-cut it.

I had chopped so much off the hem that the pockets were going to stick out the bottom, so Karl and I added ponte binding. It’s a nice finish for knits.

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I did a little hand pick-stitching to secure the edge of the newly-cut collar, as topstitching would have been “meh.”

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Then it was off to the Boston Symphony to drown out the cacophony of the election.

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I went to bed on election night hoping to wake to a celebration of the first American woman president. Instead I found myself sentenced to four years of my husband kvetching about politics at the breakfast table.

At that point, there was only one thing I could do with all of that agita. Go hide somewhere and make something.

I needed a long black skirt for an event, and had bought some mysterious “athe-lounge” “anti-pill” ponte type stuff at JoAnn’s that had a lot of body and magical lycra. I’d liked the retro mermaid-type cut on McCalls 7386, and since it was a “Learn To Sew For Fun” pattern, I figured it would be doable on a day when I really couldn’t be trusted with sharp objects.

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Three seams and some elastic later I had a nice skirt. It’s a very easy and well-drafted pattern. The fabric was so artificial that I skipped sewing the bottom hem and gave it a smooth finish by gluing it with Lite Steam-a-Seam 2, because it just seemed like a day to throw all sense and tradition out the window.

A couple of weeks later, half the country was still driven to distraction, as was I. I decided that the only sewing I had the patience for was the “One Yard Wonder” contest on Pattern Review, where you took a yard or meter from your stash and made something creative.

I used some vintage Savile Row suiting wool to whip up a 50s Claire McCardell bolero pattern, as it’s cut on the bias to create a pretty chevron with striped fabric.

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As a single woman in her early 30s, McCardell bought a drafty farmhouse a stone’s throw from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where the Algonquin Round Table crowd had decamped to escape New York’s cafe society. She thought of her designs as “solving problems” for herself and the modern woman, so she created eveningwear with jackets and shrugs like this from wool – often men’s suiting fabrics – to stay warm at dinners in cold country houses and ski resorts.

This pattern uses one unusually-shaped pattern piece that’s doubled. I cut the first side in a single layer, then flipped the cut piece, still pinned to the pattern, and lined up the stripes to cut the second piece, to make sure that the stripes would meet in the middle in a chevron.

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Then I used Wonder Tape to match the stripes before I sewed.

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At this point I was joking on Instagram that I was making a giant bra, and other guesses were a one-armed top or large manta ray stuffed toy.

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I lined it with some silk crepe de chine that My Fabric Designs printed up with photos I’d taken in Paris. (The lining didn’t count toward the one yard/meter in the contest.)

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I got in the true McCardell spirit by topstitching the edges (she pioneered putting topstitching from work clothes on womenswear in the 40s). I was so not in the mood for more hand pick-stitching.

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Karl did an awesome job as usual. I was pleased with the results.

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Those Pattern Review contests are tough, and even though I didn’t win, it’s always fun to be in the gallery with so many talented peeps.

For my last anxiety-relieving project, well, several million of my women friends and I kept hearing about how our president-to-be was fond of cats or something, and since he’d spent a great deal of his life in a big, gilded tower, we decided to welcome him to the People’s House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with a little parade. And to make sure that he knew we were girls, we decided to knit, crochet and sew attractive pink hats. Little did we know how popular this particular crafting project would be. Details and patterns are here: Pussy Hat Project.

I hadn’t knit for years, but decided to switch to the dark side for this project. I noticed that the patterns were similar to a pattern floating around for a version of Elsa Schiaparelli’s 30s “Madcap,” a soft hat that could be worn number of ways. Here’s that pattern: Madcap Pattern. There’s a cute sewn version of the pattern on Kate’s blog Fabrickated.

And here’s one of the original Schiaparelli Madcaps in the Metropolitan Museum‘s online collection:

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How I adore the thousands of images of fashion history on metmuseum.org!

Wearing a retro in-your-face hat seemed appropriate, since during World War II the Parisiennes took to wearing bizarre hats as a way to show that someone could take their city, but not their fashionable souls.

I mixed together the 30s pattern and a Loopy Mango knitting pattern to create a dark aubergine-pinkish chenille topper, suitable for madcap parties and protest marches.

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I used size six chenille super-bulky yarn, size 15 needles, and cast on 33 stitches. Stockinette stitched until I thought it was tall enough (about 8″). Folded it over and sewed the top and side (I’m wearing it purl side out). And that officially got knitting out of my system for another five years.

After the ladies’ Welcome Wagon marched through a major portion of the world, many of us in the U.S. had the hope that our new public servant would get the message, as it takes a lot to be named “Employee of the Month” around here. Time will tell, but it’s not looking good so far.

Play it, Bonnie. (Bonnie Raitt “Sugar Mama”)

Now that Karl has hidden my knitting needles, it’s time to get back to sewing! How’s your sewing going?

 

 

 

The 50s “Coat Even A Beginner Can Make” (or a Capote even Truman might wear)

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Once in a while I open up a vintage pattern and think “jackpot!”

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I have no idea why I was obsessing about blanket coats during the hottest, stickiest stretch of July. Probably the same reason I order sandals from Zappos in February – because they represent the balmy future instead of the dish-doing now.

A lot of blanket coat patterns are too oversized and 80s for my tastes, though I’ll admit even I went through a “cowgirl rides the range” period wearing Ralph Lauren dirndls with chunky sweaters and cowboy boots. Going back there at this age, however, is a little too “Dale Evans” for my lifestyle.

But when I saw this early 50s “Blancoat” pattern, which apparently was a PR boondoggle released by the North Star blanket company, I had to go for it. It’s a coat that’s “so simple, anyone can do it, even if you’ve never sewn before.”

I think you can see where this is going.

I was delighted to open it up and find a typewritten sheet explaining the pattern. It was “the ideal pattern for the busy housewife of today, either novice or experienced sewer, who has so many demands on her time.” That’s me in a nutshell.

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You, person who had never sewn before, could make a lined coat from velvet! Silk! Satin! Taffeta! All so easy to work with!

The clincher was that “the public knows Blancoat because of a complete and effective national public relations campaign” which included CBS’s “Morning Show.”

Back in the day, I used to write for the grandbaby of that show, CBS Morning News, in the 80s when it was hosted by an actress who was known for Polaroid commercials. It was a great job, even though the show was terrible. I used to go down to the canteen in the basement of West 57th and see Andy Rooney in the lunch line! And I got to talk to big (though fading) stars like Steve Allen and Helen Hayes. But I quickly learned that the true divas (and holy terrors) were the women who did the cooking and craft segments.

I remember one show, a few months before the whole staff got laid off, that was “guest hosted” by lovable but sardonic actor George Segal. He had to do a cooking segment with an author who called herself “Supermom,” and after a few minutes of her saying “George do this” and “George do that” Segal plunked down his spatula and sputtered, “you’re awfully domineering, Supermom.”

So I had a soft spot for this pattern. It was designed “by the Italian couturier, Vincent Dante…an expert when it comes to styling.” Though I’m pretty good at tracking down obscure designers from the 50s, my guess is that Vinnie was the tailor for the president of the White Star blanket company.

The concept of the pattern, though, is much older. It’s based on the “Capote” blanket coats that trappers used make out of Hudson Bay blankets. They didn’t waste a scrap, making it one of the original “zero waste” designs. You can read about the history of the Capote coat here. And this website shows examples of the coats with sample patterns.   The body of the coat is cut in one big piece, and the sleeves are inserted in slashes.

(Though somehow I can’t picture Truman Capote, the author of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and man of style, wearing his namesake coat.)

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Wearing History has released a cute 30s version of a blanket coat pattern, which you can find here. It’s not the traditional construction, but it is fun and retro.

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Even though I grew up in the “Grand Traverse” of northern Michigan, I live in East Coast preppy-land now, so honestly you’re not going to see me in anything made from a blanket. Not even an attractive negligee like this:

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(Note to Vincent Dante, Italian Couturier: use a cool iron on that acetate.)

So I decided to sew together several beach towels to make a retro bathrobe instead.

Karl, my fine fine Bernina 560, was having a lovely time overlocking them with presser foot #2A:

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I cut out the massive body pattern piece on the fold, taking up three beach towels:

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I was intrigued by the notion that “practically the entire outfit is put together in a matter of minutes, merely by running one long seam through the sewing machine.”

Then I looked at the instructions.

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That “one long seam” on the top right – I could see that it had at least one pivot.

That’s when Karl, who was reading over my shoulder, shrieked “Merde! Quelle horreur! Not le PIVOT!”

Those of you who have attached non-traditional collars like this have lived through the pivot. It all looks so easy-peasy in the instructions, but what’s really happening is that one piece of fabric is going one way and the other is going another and they really don’t want to go through the feeddogs together, no matter how much you pin, maneuver, clip, or cajole.

Karl started whimpering, “don’t make me do the pivot.”

I reassured him, “but it’s so easy, just look at these super-helpful explanations on the pattern pieces.”

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Karl was not impressed. “It says ‘place sleeves here,’ not ‘prepare to die.'”

But after I had a drink and I gave Karl some oil, we were sufficiently lubricated so we went for the pivot.

I won’t give you the play-by-play of the further shrieking and crying on both of our parts when four seams met at the pivot, but it ended up looking like Mount Vesuvius:

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The construction detail was worth it, though:

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Eventually we calmed down and cleaned up the seams, then finished the hems with Hug Snug rayon binding:

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I covered some snaps with silk:

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And called it done.

 

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Just right for my summer walk across the yard to the outdoor shower! (Try to ignore my bad sewing hair…) We live about 25 feet from an historic site that has walking tours, so this is the perfect thing to keep me from accidentally flashing the tourists. After all, there are only so many relics they can stand to view in one day.

Okay, then it was time to put my makes in the back of the Mini to take to the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair!

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(“Please don’t wrinkle! Please don’t wrinkle! Please don’t wrinkle!”)

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Nice score on my Claire McCardell dirndl and sash hack! The “Blancoat” got a blue ribbon, too.

Will I ever attempt a blanket coat again? Well, maybe, but shhhhh…. don’t mention it to Karl!

How’s your sewing going?

 

 

(To learn more about how Karl came into my life, click the “Bernina Collaboration” tab.)

 

Golden Girls Go Zen and “Claire McCardell’s Gay New Hostess Sash”

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You know how it goes…I got a little busy with outside things, and maybe I neglected my stash closet just a little too long. Before I knew it, my fabric, patterns, UFOs and other items had started acting out like naughty teenagers.

For example, When I looked up on the top shelf, I caught Yves St. Laurent and Halstonette in flagrante delicto under my dressform, AKA “Debbie Reynolds.” And they don’t get along at all!

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You two! Well, something had to be done.

I knew the cause of it all was the evil UFO (unfinished object) from before the holidays, the 50s “Opera Coat” renamed “Bea Arthur’s Spa Robe.” I had to finish it, because all hell was breaking loose in my stash closet.

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My fatal mistake had been rushing through and not taking time to fit it. By the time I’d lined it and understitched, it was too late.

So I dug it out of the closet and finished the two remaining shoulder seams, while looking longingly at the fab fake fur that I really wanted to be cutting out:

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After that, I tried fiddling around with it to make it presentable, and even considered giving it some Issey Miyake pleats and folds to update it. But then, instead of looking like “Grandma Goes Trekking in Thailand” it had that air of “Grandma Goes Off Her Meds,” so I went to plan B.

I ended up crossing it over in front and sewing on a big covered “fur” hook and eye. I was going to do a row of them, but quickly lost interest.

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Ohm MG! Right up there with the “Schiaparelli Mom Jeans Vest” from last fall.

By then I was about to call the Ghostbusters to straighten things out in my stash closet, but decided to make a last-ditch effort to improve my sewing karma.

I had been wanting to hack “Claire McCardell’s Gay New Hostess Sash” from this 50s ad for the longest time.

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You would send in $2 and a boxtop from Modess Sanitary Napkins to get an apron with pockets and double-wrapped sash. It was designed for the woman who did her own cooking but had to look good to entertain, based on McCardell’s “Kitchen Dinner Dress” concept from the 40s.

I found some fun retro quilting fabric, cut a long bias sash, and gathered the apron part using dental floss. You can find my tutorial about that trick here: Gathering with dental floss tutorial. #mintyfresh !

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Rock n’ roll, Karl!

I stitched in some pockets, and used the “burrito method” (where you wrap something up like a burrito, then sew it) to attach the sash and avoid most of the dreaded handsewing:

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Eek! My apron gave birth on the cutting table! My stash really was possessed.

That “Alien” maneuver seemed to have calmed things down, though, and this “make” turned out A-OK.

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Well then I “needed” more unpossessed stash, so I met up with a bunch of local sewing peeps at the Pattern Review Boston Area Meet-up – this time at Gather Here Stitch Lounge. I hardly ever cross the Charles River to mingle with the hoi polloi and Harvard swells in Cambridge, but I did have fun getting together with these groovy girls:

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(That’s Jenny from Cashmerette Patterns and Deepika from Pattern Review. Deepika organizes these lovely shindigs, so keep an eye on Pattern Review for details if you’re in the area.)

I was about to be good and leave empty-handed, until Deepika helpfully pointed out the remnant rack. Come to Mama!

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(For some reason that picture’s sideways, so just turn your head a little to the right to get the idea.) I feel another apron coming on!

I also whipped up a 70s retro beach wrap in the false hope that it might actually make summer arrive:

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(Since “Debbie Reynolds” is modeling it in front of the fireplace, you can probably guess that it was still 35 degrees and hailing when I finished it.)

I defrosted my hands and typed up a quick tutorial for the beach wrap, which is super easy to make and modify for all sizes. You can find it here on WeAllSew.com: Retro Beach Wrap Tutorial.

It’s a free tutorial that’s part of JetSetSewing.com’s partnership with BERNINA of America, and you can find out all the details by clicking the “Bernina Collaboration” tab.

I have to thank them again for loaning me my fab B560, Karl, who is the only thing in my entire sewing area that hasn’t been acting up in recent weeks.

So now that things have calmed down in my stash closet, it’s time for me to try out a few tips I picked up when I had a recent audience with the King:

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I knew my luck had changed for the better when I got to meet the Elvis of haute couture, Kenneth D. King! More details about that will be coming up soon.

Hope your sewing’s going well!

Fabric Hunting in Buenos Aires and Eating Big Hunks of Beef

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Sing it with me… “don’t cry for me Argentina!” (I apologize in advance for the earworm.)

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Eva Peron (AKA Evita), the working-class first lady who’s been described as Princess Di and Jackie Kennedy rolled into one, used to hang out of that balcony under the flagpole of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires. (Or was it Madonna in “Evita?”) It’s the executive mansion and president’s office, right in the middle of the city.

The “Pink House” is plenty pink, but looking at the color of that sky, I thought it must be the inspiration for the light blue and white of Argentina’s flag.

My husband and I, being ancient parents, decided long ago that we don’t want our son looking back on school vacation with visions of Orlando. So we cashed in our miles to leave  chilly New England “spring” behind and step off the plane into the late Argentine summer.

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People from the U.S. tend to ignore South America, or think of it as a place where there’s a giant rain forest with deadly snakes, Rio where Carnival is happening 24/7, Mayan ruins with too many steps, and a bunch of drug lords acting like the Godfather. (Which just goes to show how provincial the U.S. can be.) When I was in school, I think we learned about it in geography once, and that was about it.

We tend to be surprised to learn that Buenos Aires, the “Paris of South America,” could look like this:

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Most of the city looks very European, but the architecture tends to be super-sized.This building was based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, with hell on the bottom and paradise on the top. IMG_6664

(Hm, hell’s a lot bigger than paradise, isn’t it?)

Though Buenos Aires was once a Spanish colonial backwater, from the 1880s through the 1930s it became a country of immense wealth from meat and grain exports. So the rich families built up the city in a mix of faux Paris, belle epoch, Art Nouveau and Art Deco style. Back then if you had loads of money, in Europe they would say you were “rich as an Argentine.”

Visual art is everywhere – with huge paintings on the sides of buildings:

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And unusual mosaics in the old buildings and the subway, which is clean and relatively safe:

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This is the floor of the Teatro Colon, the 1908 opera house that hosted the great performers of the 20th century.

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And here’s the rest – it rivals the Garnier in Paris and La Scala in Milan.

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I really liked the Art Nouveau velvet curtains leading into the orchestra seats:

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And the modern textile art on the curtains, a mixture of appliqué and embroidery:

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Check out the Art Nouveau detail at the entrance:

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And how about this ornate movie house, converted into a bookstore?

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The Portenos are sophisticated like Europeans, but not as, um… well I know I have a lot of European readers, so how can I say it – brusque? There’s a certain New World friendliness, and people were extremely helpful to someone like me who’s walking around with no Spanish other than the words I picked up watching “Dora The Explorer” with my son. (Note to Dora – middle-aged women are watching. Teach us how to say “where’s the bathroom?”)

I had read about the fabric shopping in B.A. being so-so, from Melanie of the blog Poppykettle and Sarai from Coletterie.  When I got to the small fabric district in a not-so-great neighborhood, it was filled with small shops, many just too jumbled for me to pick through.

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(With as much fleece as JoAnn’s.)

There were a number of shops selling lace and notions made in Argentina, but most were wholesale only.

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About to give up, I went into the one store with more of a modern “retail” environment, called “Don Boton” (2611 LaValle St.). And I’ll admit I went a little crazy. Beaded trims:

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Ruffled elastic:

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Leather and faux leather trims and cords:

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Pompoms:

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Fake fur and feathers, for when I pioneer “Old Babe” burlesque:

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And lots of buttons! So this happened:

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(I’m going to be consulting Kenneth King’s “Smart Sewing with Fake Fur” DVD to figure out how to sew that retro faux fur. It’s really soft and backed with a knit.)

After that, I needed some refreshment at the legendary Cafe Tortoni, from the 1860s.

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When my husband and I were here 30s years ago, there was a much more “lost in time” feeling to Buenos Aires, and a big afternoon cafe society. It’s nice to see that this cafe still exists.

On Sunday, we visited the antiques fair in the old square in the San Telmo district, with a mixed bag of antiques vendors, tango dancers, and fairly touristy “Becky Home-Ecky” handicrafts.

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We were about to leave empty-handed, until my Art Deco husband dove headlong into a booth of vintage buttons:

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Good going, hon!

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We stayed in a classy and modern boutique hotel, Fierro Hotel, in the “Palermo Hollywood” area, a quiet part of town with a number great restaurants within walking distance. Their staff found us an excellent English guide who took us walking around the Recoleta cemetery, which is full of “mini-mansion” marble crypts. IMG_6612IMG_6598

(At 19, the girl above went into a catatonic state and then was mistakenly buried alive. Just in case you’re looking for a subject for a creepy Edwardian novel.)

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(I like how that architect made sure he had a wine glass on his Deco crypt.)

Even Eva Peron’s grave:

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The Recoleta is quite a sight, and a great way to creep out any 14-year-old you might be traveling with.

Our guide was telling me that the previous Argentine president had forced international companies like Ralph Lauren and Chanel to plow their profits back into Argentina, so they up and left. Which actually benefitted someone like me who was looking for locally-made products to take home. It’s almost impossible to find souvenirs anywhere that aren’t made in China anymore.

At the store called “Ayma” in the Palermo Soho district (1565 Armenia St.), there are weavers in the workshop upstairs, using 18th century looms to make gorgeous, soft fabrics out of Argentine llama, alpaca and merino.

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As tempting as the fabrics were, handwovens are very difficult to sew (they tend to unravel – and fast), so I went the lazy route and bought a pre-made wrap in the traditional asymmetrical Argentine style. The fabrics were a little more modern and not as rough-hewn as I’d seen in other shops.

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(Believe me, we were enjoying the strong dollar to Argentine peso throughout the trip.)

You can find things made with Argentine leather all over the place, But I liked the goods at the polo/gaucho store Arandu (1920 Ayacucho St. in the Recoleta district).

IMG_6653They carry traditional silver, woven ponchos and sashes, and bags from soft, waterproof “carpincho” leather that looks like a combination of ostrich and nubuck. (They tell you it’s “otter,” but it’s actually from a giant indigenous furry rodent and that’s about all you really want to know.)

As for the huge slabs of beef, they exist in the traditional restaurants, so it’s a good thing that my doctor is an Argentine ex-pat who’ll understand the spike in my cholesterol. But B.A. is full of modern hipster restaurants as well. My foodie husband said he liked most of the meals we had there, which is the equivalent of giving a Michelin star in his world.

And as for my son:

IMG_6453The gelato ruled! Meanwhile, I was checking out the pattern magazines from Argentina and Spain.

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There’s one “textile” memory I’ll take with me from this pleasant trip. One night, we were having dinner at a traditional parrilla (a restaurant with the aforementioned slabs of beef cooked on a fire), sitting outside at a sidewalk table. The “Fair Winds” of the city’s name, which I experienced as balmy breezes, were a little more refreshingly cool than usual, so I was offered a thickly-handwoven alpaca blanket that I put on my lap. A minute or two later, it started sprinkling rain, so the staff hustled our table under a canopy. Sitting there in cool, damp air, but feeling the warmth of that soft, natural fiber so skillfully woven, I almost felt like I was holding hands with the artisan who made it.

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I most certainly will be back!

Hope your sewing’s going well.

 

I sewed for the Oscars again, and lived!

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If you’ve been reading my blog for the past few years, you know that I am an Oscar widow – meaning that I hand my husband over to the show for several months, and then I get to go!

I’ve worn me-made on the red carpet a couple of times, first this “crushed” boatneck (with a pleat in the neckline) and long skirt:

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(I have no idea what happened to the rest of that picture…)

And last year I wore the Madame Gres dress from hell that I wrote about ad nauseum:

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But I swore I wouldn’t go down the eveningwear road again without doing a “sit and sew” with Kenneth King or Susan Khalje. You need someone like that to have your back.

However, when Santa brought me these bakelite Art Deco dress clips:

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I got to thinking about the gorgeous, houndstoothy black tweed in my stash, waiting around to become the perfect quilted “little black jacket” with three-part sleeves, princess seams and all that jazz. I even had lining and trim.

Yet in my heart of hearts, having made jackets like that before, I knew that going the full Chanel was never, ever going to happen again.

And here’s why:

(Watching this Chanel Haute Couture Video will probably give you anxiety…)

But I needed to use the stash for something, so I started thinking about making a version of this McCardelligan that I’ve made a couple of times from knits. It’s based on an original McCardell jacket in my collection. She often designed similar jackets in wovens, and since the pieces were cut on the bias, the fabric is stretchy under the arms – no gusset needed.

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I decided to go for it, because stash-busting is my middle name this year.

I started out cutting out the exterior fashion fabric, joyful that I was cutting out four pieces instead of 13 for a traditional jacket.IMG_5589

I always cut bias pieces in a single layer, and check and double check when pinning and cutting to ensure that they’re going to meet in the center front and center back in a “V”. If both sides end up going in the same direction, the whole thing can twist.

Who else hates thread tracing? That’s the haute couture technique where you baste around the pattern pieces on the seam line to help with construction and fitting.

I decided to fake it with a long machine basting stitch. Because sometimes if you get too bogged down in this stuff, you never get the thing done.

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I marked the two darts and started putting the whole thing together.

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With only two darts and five seams, it was pretty much smooth sailing. I even had a chain I’d bought, pre-sewn onto a ribbon, that I attached to the hem with a piping foot:

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Yee haw! Then all I had to make was…the bias silk lining. Eep!

Now cutting and sewing silk on the bias is a different animal. It slips! It slides! It shifts! It sucks! (But it feels so good when you stop.)

Once again I laid out the pattern in a single layer, pinned it with loads of pins, and started cutting with my Kai serrated shears, which are the only game in town. (FYI, I’m not a Kai affiliate, just an addict.)

Then I kept the pattern pinned to the silk and faked the thread tracing again, with a narrow zigzag.

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So far so good, until I goofed up and, noting that the fabric was burbling up as it got to the feed dogs, I started repinning as I was sewing. Big mistake! That works when I’m sewing things on the grain, but since bias fabric will move all around, I should have left well enough alone.

Fortunately, I had cut large seam allowances, so I literally had some wiggle room. I had to move things around as I sewed the lining together (again with a narrow zigzag, which is forgiving when you’re sewing on the bias).

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And in the end it looked okay:

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When I put the whole thing together, matching the lining seams to the exterior seams on the “wiggly” side was not happening.

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But I was able to shift things around and smooth it out.

I attached the neckline (nervous nervous nervous):

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By then I’d realized that I just needed to break down and hand-baste to keep the lining stable.

I had thought that I could do some quilting of the exterior and lining at this point, but since the bias was wonky, I stitched in the ditch by hand a little to tamp down the seams, then edge-stitched by hand around the neck and center fronts.

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My clever pre-sewn chain was making the hem too stiff, so I trimmed the ribbon.

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When I finally got everything stabilized, I pinned the hem, trying on the jacket several times to make sure that everything was lying flat.

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Whew! After that, sewing on the trim was smooth sailing. (Even though I was doing most of it the day of the show!)

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At the very last minute, I sewed on some brass hooks and eyes (lacking McCardell’s traditional brass shoe hooks and rings) and added the dress clips. Even the backs of the clips were Art Deco.

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Then came the hardest part – pressing the crappy ready-to-wear viscose dress I’d bought to go with it on the hotel ironing board. The dress was a simple sleeveless long dress with a big slit and a sort of 30s godet, so get a good picture in your mind’s eye because that’s where it’s going to stay.IMG_5909

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Showtime!

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I was so excited about wearing a wool and silk jacket in L.A. in February, because I’m usually freezing on the red carpet and in the theater. This time around, though, it was 80 degrees! My husband was walking about 90 miles an hour and for some weird reason was more interested in getting inside to schmooze with people than to photograph me seven or eight times on the red carpet as I was having a hot flash. I tried to pull a Norma Desmond on him but he was not buying it. Consequently, the red carpet picture was awful.

So I’ll stick with pictures from the Governors’ Ball, which was so chilly that I overheard Charlize Theron, in Dior Haute Couture, complaining about the cold.

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Next year I’m sure she’ll be sensible and show up in toasty jacket like me.

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I did get a peek at Jennifer Garner (tall, in Versace) and Reese Witherspoon (shorter, in Oscar de la Renta) and really wished I could have gotten up closer to inspect the construction of their dresses. I’m sure they would have thought that it was just super-girly and not weird at all.

jennifer-garner-oscars-red-carpet-2016reese-witherspoon-oscars-red-carpet-2016There weren’t a lot of dresses I was crazy about, though I did like that Kerry Washington took a walk on the wild side in Versace:

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And Amy Poehler, in Andrew GN, proved that you don’t have to be undressed to be fierce:

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Here’s the most important picture – the desserts!

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(A tiramisu push-up, creme brûlée on a stick, and a chocolate Oscar. Chomp!)

Oh no! I bit off Oscar’s legs!

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And here, at long last, is my official red carpet portrait:

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Okay, it’s a bad wall selfie, because my husband is so FIRED as my photographer. (Oops, just remembered that he’s my ride to the Oscars. Just kidding, hon!) But you get the picture on the jacket.

Of course McCardell, being a minimalist, would have put topstitching on the edges instead of that Chanel-y trim. But it’s really comfy, and now after going to all of that trouble, I have something to wear out to dinner, too.

To misquote Scarlett O’Hara, “as God is my witness, I will never Chanel again!”

How’s your sewing going?

 

More ideas for “Faking Vintage Looks With Modern Patterns”

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The spring patterns are coming out, so it’s time once again to show the new releases, “vintage” or not, that will work for a retro look.

Not like I actually need to buy patterns–I have hundreds of vintage patterns that are making me feel guilty right now. I love finding them. I love looking at them. But when I open their fading, ripping envelopes to gingerly unfold little scraps of unprinted tissue crumbling into dust, I often think “boy, that looks like a project.”

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Sometimes it’s fun just to fake it, and the big commercial companies have released some inspiring patterns recently.

First–“Panic At The Disco”

If you’re around my age (and you know who you are), you made this pattern, right? Admit it!

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The apron dress was such a huge deal in the early 70s. Of all the patterns, I think I’d make this again to wear with a tee on a hot day. It looks comfy and not too kitschy.

Here’s McCalls 7366, a chic disco jumpsuit:

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Fellow disco chicks, you remember wearing jumpsuits, right? And you remember having to pull the entire top off to go to the bathroom at a crowded club, right? If you’re young, go ahead and wear a jumpsuit–you’ll look hot and you’ll never forget it. As for me at this age, ease of peeing takes precedence.

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Ditto the Simplicity 8095 jumpsuit that can be wrapped a variety of ways. It reminds me of those 70s knit designs pioneered by Halston and John Kloss. Not an easy look to pull off if you weren’t flat. Cute pattern, though.

(Sorry I’m not putting the links to the patterns in this post. If I did, I’d never make it to the hairdresser at 11:00.)

This surplice dress, McCalls 7350, also reminds me of Halston and is universally flattering:

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That would be fun to wear to a formal wedding.

Let’s go back to some earlier eras, shall we?

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Eek, not that far back! (Does he look like Borat to you?)

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I’ll stick to this doll pattern for pre-20s historic sewing.

For a 30s look, how about this bias-cut “flutter” dress from Vogue (9168), with an underslip and sheer overlay?

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I had a boyfriend in college who knew I was into vintage, and he gave me a dress like this from his aunt’s attic. Long story short, I dumped him and gave away the dress. But later I was filled with regret–I should have kept the dress.

The dirndl became very popular in the 30s as well, and you could use this pattern to make a longer vintage version.

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Moving on to the 40s, how about this “Agent Carter” look? I like View A, with the trim.

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Super cute romper and skirt!

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(Though, let me tell you, my granddaughter wouldn’t wear it, because, as she said of the Liberty dirndl I made her, “It doesn’t have a princess on it.”)

Loads of 50s-style patterns out there, and I know people love that “I Love Lucy” #pinup look, I do. But I remember when crinolines were the itchy things we wore to school, and aprons were a symbol of pre-feminist drudgery. So I’m pretty picky.

Nevertheless, here are a few that caught my eye.

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The striped one on the right has a timeless 40s into 50s “Peggy Guggenheim in Venice” look that’s still workable today.

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I’d use this to make a 50s Norell Mermaid/Chanteuse type dress. (Though I would underline it with power mesh, like I did last winter when I was struggling through the WORST winter in Boston history and trying to make the dress from HELL by Madame Gres and…) Oops, had a flashback. I like Mimi G’s designs. They’re more “retail”-looking than a lot of the commercial patterns.

Two companies are doing versions of the “Walk-Away” dress/cobblers’ apron that are cute:

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(Mother/daughter patterns from McCall’s Archive Collection, M7354.)

Here’s a classic 50s/60s shirtwaist dress that comes in a range of sizes and skirt/sleeve options–very Grace Kelly meets Betty Draper:

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(Butterick 6333)

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A fun “wiggle” skirt with a high waist, also Butterick (6326).

And a classic tunic pattern, a style that really hasn’t changed much since the 60s:

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(McCalls 7360)

CUTE BABY ALERT!!!!

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(It’s not super-retro, but it does make me want to go find a baby to snuggle. Must be the toxic chemical hair product on his widdle head.) But don’t make these unless you sew really fast, because the kid will grow faster. As the nurse said to me when she looked at the 9 1/2 pound baby I’d just popped out, “I guess you can return those newborn-sized onesies.”

Lots of fun patterns to choose from ! What’s on your sewing agenda for the next season?