Claire McCardell-Inspired Free Downloadable Pattern, and a couple of hacks.

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I hope you all had happy holidays, and I wanted to mention that my new free downloadable pattern with tutorial is available on Bernina’s WeAllSew.com website. Aren’t you ready for some post-holiday #selfishsewing? I certainly am, and I didn’t even finish my husband’s tie! (It’s now officially his “birthday tie.”)

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When I created this pattern, I was inspired by a 1947 Claire McCardell design (lower right) for a knit shoulder wrap, though the concept was around long before that. This wrap is snug enough to stay on the shoulders, but can still be worn around the neck like an infinity scarf. It’s lined and reversible, and the tutorial takes you through step-by-step. It’s not difficult at all, so I hope you’ll give it a try!

Carmen of the CarmencitaB blog tipped me off that this type of wrap is known as a “liseuse” in France, (the loose translation is “girl reader”) and that it used to be worn while reading in drafty French country homes (similar to what was known as a “bed jacket” here in the U.S.). So then it was eeek! down the internet rabbit hole again, to learn more about this style.

First of all, who knew that there were so many works of art featuring women reading? Which makes perfect sense, because after a certain point, just about any woman is going to say, “I don’t care if you are Picasso, if I’m going to sit for you, gimme something to read!”

image (That’s Picasso’s “La Liseuse” from 1920. Doesn’t it look like she’s texting?)

The earliest example I found shows a high-born woman (who could read!) wearing a cape-like wrap, in a painting by Hans Memling from the 1470s:

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Then in 1888, Vincent Van Gogh captured this woman wearing a chic wrap, in “Une Liseuse de Romans” (which I think means “reader of novels.” No wonder she’s so engrossed.)

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In terms of fashion, in the early 20th century, this style of short jacket was interpreted for evening by Madame Vionnet:

image (Another great save by the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute.)

And that may very well have been where McCardell picked up the idea. She studied fashion in Paris in the 20s, and in her letters home she complained about the French being “thrifty” with the heating. While she was there, she spent a lot of time deconstructing Vionnet garments, which is how she got hip to the bias cut.

During her career, McCardell designed a number of evening dresses made of warm wool, with wraps, shrugs, and cropped jackets to wear to dinner parties in drafty U.S. country houses as well. Here’s one example, a strapless wool evening dress with a jacket, again from the  Metropolitan Museum’s online collection:

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More recently, this type of wrap was shown in the 2013 collection from Celine:

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When I was in France I saw several similar wraps:

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(I don’t know what the furry thing is on it, or why she’s wearing a hat over her head…)
And this one from French cult brand Agnes b., made from a light sweater knit:
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To make a wrap similar to the one from Agnes b., download the free pattern, which looks like a triangle with the top chopped off. Add several inches to both the top and bottom of the pattern.

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(That’s a highly skilled sketch from the JetSetSewing graphics team. They’re a couple of chipmunks who live in my kitchen.) Extending the pattern at the top and bottom will make it longer, like a poncho, with more of a funnel neck.

I’ve seen wraps like these in the U.S. as well. American designer Eileen Fisher offered this asymmetrical wrap in her fall collection, which immediately made me think “I could hack that.”

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To make a “muslin” version, I took my pattern and set it on the diagonal, putting the left on the fold, and adding triangles to the top and bottom. I sewed it up and it looked okay, so I moved on to the real thing.

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I decided to use this Missoni-ish wool blend I got in France. I prepped it by throwing it in my dryer’s steam cycle. (Do as I say, not as I do, always test a swatch first!)

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Since I wasn’t lining this version, I decided to use a French seam on the side to finish the raw edge. With wrong sides together, lining up the design on the fabric with double quilt pins, I overlocked some clear elastic into the seam, using the Bernina Bulky Overlock foot. (The same foot that made all of that piping on the McCardell dress…it’s very useful!)

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(You could also use a narrow zigzag to attach the elastic to the seam, if you’re using a vintage machine.)

Then I turned the wrap wrong-side out to put right sides together, and pinned it to encase the seam I just sewed.

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I sewed that seam with a narrow zigzag, which covered up the overlocking and elastic.
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Oo la la, I love zee French seams!

When I tried it on, the length plus the retro pattern on the fabric was looking way too “hippy poncho” to me:
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So I chopped about 5 inches off of the bottom.

At the top and bottom, I overlocked more clear elastic along the edge, turned under the raw edge about 1/2 inch, then turned it under again about 3/4”, and sewed the edge with a narrow zigzag, like topstitching. If you pick the right color thread, the stitching’s not that obvious, and there are no raw edges showing on the inside.

You can wear it with the point on the side, or in the back.

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(I think the chipmunks took that picture, too.)

Here’s how the final pattern looked (more or less). The grainline goes along the bottom:

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(I’m going to fire those chipmunks…)

Now that I’ve made myself a liseuse, I need to find time to read!!

Happy New Year’s sewing!

(For details about how Bernina USA is loaning a B560 machine to JetSetSewing.com to assist with vintage projects like this, please click the “Bernina Collaboration” tab above. At some point, Karl and I are going to set that disclosure to music, to make it more pleasant for all of us…)

 

Claire McCardell and Martha Graham

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After I got back from L.A., I meant to spend some time testing methods for constructing this Claire McCardell dress, from an early 50s pattern by Spadea:

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I intended to sew it up back in August for my sister, who is the Artistic Director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, to wear to an event at the “Dance & Fashion” exhibit, (now running through January 3rd, 2015, at the Museum at FIT in New York). To have a flashback to that whole explanation, click this link. (Cue the Twilight Zone-y flashback music)
I thought Claire McCardell was a good choice for this event, because McCardell and Martha Graham are often mentioned together in books and articles as being similar in their pared-down artistic style. They did meet on at least one occasion, when they both received the Women’s Press Club award in 1950, a very big deal back then.

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Here they are with President Truman (looking dapper in a tuxedo), along with a foreign affairs expert, an educational reformer, and a Hollywood actress (Olivia de Havilland), all in old-school tulle-centered eveningwear. Martha Graham is on the far left looking very chic and modern in her spare little black dress. And Claire McCardell, on the far right? Well, she’s got on one of her wrapped-bodice evening dresses of sari silk, slouchy leather gloves, no bra, no girdle, the ballet flats she invented, and a big American grin on her face. That outfit was so far ahead of its time!

I was doing a lot of thinking about making the dress, as August became September, but now it was October, and little voice inside me (either the spirit of Claire McCardell, or more probably, my Bernina, Karl) whispered, “you better get crackin’ on that dress.”

So, I chose a mid-weight black New Zealand merino knit that I got this spring from The Fabric Store in L.A. (here’s that post), because McCardell was one of the first American designers to popularize wool knits, and Martha Graham often used jersey in her costumes. This fabric is very soft and drape-y, and the quality is wonderful. The Fabric Store now has an online gallery, and will do mail order if you call them. (Here’s The Fabric Store’s USA website)
I washed the wool in cold water, tumble-dried it low, and laid it out.
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As I was pinning, I was thinking a lot about Martha Graham, and how she often manipulated fabric in her dances to help tell the story.
This long piece of jersey reminded me of a moment in the dance “Cave of the Heart,” which is based on the Greek legend of Medea, and deals with revenge. It’s a favorite dance of mine, particularly now that I’m a “woman of a certain age.” Martha Graham herself designed the costumes, which makes her a “triple threat”: dancer, choreographer, and draper. The dance premiered in 1946.

In the dance, Medea learns that her husband is leaving her for a younger woman, a princess no less, who flits around the stage being innocent and adorable while she’s followed around by the besotted big lug.

Of course Medea, who’s been around the block a few times, is not happy that her husband is having a mid-life crisis, and she gets REALLY mad. Another dancer, representing the “chorus” from classical Greek theater, tries to stop Medea from exacting revenge, to no avail.

In this photo, you can see the Chorus’s robe and skirt, which remind me in particular of a 20s design by Madeleine Vionnet, shown here in the Betty Kirke book “Vionnet”:

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In a fit of vengeful rage, Medea gives the little homewrecker a poison crown, which of course the princess puts on right away, because she’s a princess, and it’s a crown! For a couple of minutes she’s skipping around really really happy, and then she grabs her head and eeeeeek!

After that, Medea does an intense solo about vengence, where she’s twisting, twirling and even eating a long “snake” of fabric she pulls out of her bodice, so it’s like she’s “eating her heart out.”

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A while later, Medea walks regally across the stage wearing a long train of fabric, and when her macho husband (see below) pulls back the train, the dead princess is inside!

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In the end, even though Medea has clearly gone mad, she still looks kind of, well, let’s say satisfied. And that’s what I love about Martha Graham’s dances; they really get to the emotional core of these classic stories. Seeing them is so cathartic!
(Okay, I know I’m in trouble with my sister for being flip about this great Martha Graham work, but Cave of the Heart is prime example of how Graham was inspired by fabric and costumes, and used them to advance the story of her dances.)

Just FYI–the Martha Graham Dance Company New York season will be running February 10-22, 2015, at the Joyce Theater. Tickets can be purchased here: (Link to Martha Graham Company tickets). The Graham photos above are by Christopher Jones, and the dancers are:  Medea: PeiJu Chien-Pott, Jason: Ben Schultz, Princess: Xiaochuan Xie and Chorus: Natasha Diamond-Walker.

When it came time to construct the dress, I looked inside an original McCardell that I have in my collection, to see how the seams were finished. I was surprised to see that the finishes were different in different parts of the dress, leading me to believe that several different people worked on the dress using their own methods.

The center back seam allowances were folded under and sewn:

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The pockets edges were finished with pinking shears (kind of sloppy, too):

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The armscye seams were double-sewn on the inside, but not top-stitched.

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Several seams were reinforced with bias tape, which is typical of McCardell dresses, as they are often are cut on the bias and need the tape to stabilize the seam.

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Meanwhile, the “let’s get crackin'” concept was still in my head, so my Bernina 560, AKA Karl, whispered, “how about forgetting the seam finishes and using the overlock stitch, sister?” This would have been heresy to me as a vintage purist, except I had recently read this post by The Vintage Traveler talking about how overlock stitches were used on sportswear as early as the 1910s. That was my “Get Out of Jail Free” card!

Using the 2A foot, and the #10 overlock stretch stitch, I got cranking. The foot shoves the edge under the needle, so you don’t need a serger for a finished edge.

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Looks great, no? The wool jersey sewed like a dream.

The great thing about these 50s and 60s patterns released by Spadea, is that they were not taken from designs developed for the home sewing market. These patterns were drafted in reverse: a retail garment was given to the patternmaker, who took apart the garment, drafted the pattern from the pieces, graded the pattern for different sizes, then wrote up the instructions for the home-sewer.

So by sewing from a Spadea pattern now, you truly can recreate designer clothing from that era that look just like the retail garments being sold at the time.

Generally instructions in the Spadea patterns are great, but this one was little backwards in some ways.
The beginning of the instructions tell you to construct the back and side seams of the entire dress, so as you’re doing the more difficult parts, such as attaching piping to a 7″ neckline slash, you have the entire four yards of dress sitting in your lap. I began to feel like I was doing my own version of Martha Graham’s iconic work “Lamentation,” surrounded as I was by what was basically a tube of jersey.

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I made the piping for the neckline using Bernina Bulky Overlock foot number 12C.

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That foot absolutely saved me during this project! After I made the piping, I hand-basted it to the neckline slash (which I reinforced with knit fusible), then used the foot again to sew it on.

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I used silk strips to face the armholes, to make it smoother by my sister’s arms, and to keep the armholes from stretching.

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I was so proud of how I had inserted and edgestitched the two famous McCardell pockets in the dress (because McCardell wanted to free women from relying on evening bags), then discovered that I had put one in upside down! The dress was so big at this point, it was hard to keep track of what was the top and what was the bottom.

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After a quick hack, Frankenpocket was born!

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Then I cut another strip of fabric for the neckline, which was to function as both neck binding and cloth ties.

I used this little thingy to turn the ties right-side out. You put a big tube in the casing and use a smaller tube to push it through.

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At this point, I tried on the dress, and in the silhouette, I saw this:

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That’s Claire McCardell herself, in a dress known as the “futuristic dress.” One of these dresses is in the Metropolitan Museum’s online collection. The dress I was making had a very similar cut, so I had an “aha” moment about how the futuristic dress was constructed.

Now I really had to crank to get the dress done in time for my sister’s event. I gathered the dress in the front and reinforced the gathering with Hug Snug rayon bias tape.

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Then I looked at these instructions. Eeeek!

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It would probably work, but I was running out of time. Instead, I used the bulky overlock foot again, and basically made the ties by running an overlock stitch over the piping and then trimming it, so I didn’t have to turn anything right side out.

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I used the same foot to attach the ties to the front of the dress, rather than hand sewing. It saved me so much time!

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I threw on a blind hem, pressed and defuzzed the whole thing, and then right before I put it in my suitcase to New York, I tried it on one last time.

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Why am I giving this to my sister!?!?! (Actually, I would adjust the fit for myself anyway, so let’s just say I’m giving Janet a “wearable muslin” for my dress. Shhhh!)

I put the dress in my bag and headed to New York, where I was attending a memorial service for legendary jazz singer and family friend, Jimmy Scott. While seated in the pews at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, I handed my sister a bag with the dress in it. Would she like it? I was sweating that one.

We parted ways after the service, and not long after, a picture popped up on my phone with the caption “It’s mine now!”

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Score another one for stunt sewing! Looks great on her, doesn’t it?

It was such a great experience to recreate this piece of fashion history. The only other version of this dress I’ve seen is here, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute collection. I was so glad I’d found that Spadea pattern, because I learned so much about the construction of this classic McCardell design.

In my next post, I’ll be writing about the event where she wore it, and give a report about the Dance and Fashion Exhibit at the Museum at FIT, as well as (finally) details of the Hollywood Costume exhibit.

Hope your sewing’s going well. I’m cooked!

 

 

What to wear to a Martha’s Vineyard wedding

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I went in the sewing shed after what I thought was a brief hiatus, and my Swiss intern, Karl, met me with this:

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So after a little back and forth about our relationship being so new, and Massachusetts beach days numbering on two hands, and it being difficult to drag a 35 pound hunka-hunka burning love to the beach, I could tell that Karl was getting over it, when he said:

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So, to make him happy, I whipped up this 50s scarf, professionally photographed here by my husband, who was standing around in a wet bathing suit.

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(The car is my husband’s 1950 Willy’s Jeepster. I refuse to drive it.)

The scarf is from a 50s pattern, and it has lots and lots of what I call “tedious tucks,” so Karl was happy as a clam making them. I used Bernina Blindhem Foot #5, with the needle all the way over to the left, to make 24 nice, even interior tucks:

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(A Bernina #10 Edgestitch presser foot works better for this job, but off-shore as I am, Karl and I made do with the #5 foot that I had with me.)

That big, beautiful Bernina 560 also made me a large corded buttonhole to pull the scarf through, so the finished muslin looked like this:

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I made the final version out of some beautiful silk I bought at the L.A. outpost of The Fabric Store. (More info on L.A. fabric stores here.)

You’ll be hearing more about this pattern in the future, so “stay tuned” (as they used to say in old media). For details about the partnership between JetSetSewing.com and Bernina USA, please click the “Bernina Collaboration” tab above.

Since President Obama and his family are here on Martha’s Vineyard, (not that we’re hanging out or anything), I’ve been giving some thought as to what people should wear to events here, specifically weddings.

“What should we wear” is the second question I get from off-islanders regarding weddings, the first being: “how many beds do you have for our extended family?” (My official answer, “Our septic system can’t handle any guests, and you don’t want to find out why.”)

To tell you what to wear to a Vineyard wedding, I need to know two things: who is it, and where is it?

If the wedding is “up island,” (in rural, expensive Aquinnah or Chilmark), then the next question is: Hippy or Hollywood?

If it’s Hollywood, you can count on gorgeous views:

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Tons of charm, great food, lots of well-organized assistants and heavy security. I recommend that L.A. “wealthy boho” look you can find at Calypso St. Barth.

LEONE DRESS

It costs a fortune, but you know you can make something like that. Please note that the wedding will probably take place under a tent in a field something like this:

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So wear flat shoes that won’t sink in the grass and that will protect you from ticks and manure. And make sure that your dress can be pulled up easily in a porta-potty, because there’s going to be one.

If it’s a hippy wedding, odds are good you’ll be peeing in a field, so dress accordingly. If they ask you to bring food, do it. As a matter of fact, I’d eat first and bring a flask of Chardonnay. Seriously, you can wear anything, even this:

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(Doesn’t that rope thingy look like something mid-century sculptor Isamu Noguchi would have designed for a Martha Graham dance about yachting? It was about as expensive as a Noguchi, too.)

There’s a lot of poison ivy up island, so again, your footwear should be flat, disposable, or hose-able. Bedazzled Crocs would be good. During one particularly bad October deluge, the bride resorted to wearing her garden clogs down the aisle.

And for any wedding in a tent, you need good bug spray with Deet to ward off the ticks that carry Lyme disease, and a WARM wrap or jacket for after the sun goes down.

Now let’s head “down island” for a wedding either in Edgartown (permanent host of the Preppy Olympics) or any place with the word “Club” in it.

Let’s look at Edgartown. Beautifully manicured Captain’s houses:

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Gorgeous New England seaside gardens:

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And ample places to buy the Preppy uniform of whale pants, polo shirts, breton shirts etc…

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For this type of wedding “weekend,” bite the bullet and fit in. If you just landed from planet “not preppy,” you could go to this store and be all set:

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A pretty teal dress for an afternoon wedding, white jeans and Breton shirt for whatever lunch/brunch comes your way, and a featherweight lavender cardigan for anything outdoors.

As for the khaki shorts on the left, at my Vineyard wedding 26 years ago (at an inn with an outdoor wedding venue but indoor plumbing, thank you very much) a plus-one guy from Edgartown showed up in an oxford-cloth shirt, docksiders, the ubiquitous preppy navy blazer and khaki linen shorts. Shorts! At a wedding! Mercifully for him, I can’t recall his name.

On that same afternoon, the power went off all over the island, including at the hairdresser, sparing me from looking at wedding pictures with a giant 80s bouffant hairdo. It was fate! (Note: between the salt air and the wind, everyone’s hair looks terrible on the Vineyard, so don’t worry about making an effort.)

As for weddings in the other regions and cultures of the island, where the wedding could be in the tin-roofed Tabernacle:

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Or in the sand:

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Best to call the mother of the bride and ask. She’s probably dying to vent.

One last question about Edgartown. Is the wedding at the Whaling Church?

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It’s gorgeous, historic, either too hot or too cold, and has the most uncomfortable seats on the planet.

For your sake, I hope the wedding looks like this:

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Okay, that wasn’t actually a wedding. It was the Official Blues Brothers Revue, doing a fundraiser for the Vineyard Playhouse. The gorgeous trompe l’oeil painting on the back wall was done by talented Vineyard muralist Margot Datz.

While I was at the concert, sitting with boomer-age friends who, in the 70s, toured as recording artists, lived with famous musicians, and spent quality time alternately crashing in Teepees or on lumpy NYC futons, ALL we could talk about was how happy we were that the Whaling Church had new, thicker cushions for our aging bums! And even with better cushions, my sitz bones were killing me! So bring a wrap, even if it’s hot, because you’re going to need to sit on it.

And enjoy the Vineyard. Really, there’s a reason why presidents have been coming here for more than a century.

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Ooo, my husband’s out sailing…I’ll be right there, Karl!