Charles James skirt details and a walk through Boston’s Back Bay

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Well, now that I’ve recovered from what was apparently a hot flash brought on by the gowns at the Charles James exhibit, I’d like to share the details of making this skirt:

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from this Charles James pattern,

Charles James sewing pattern

which I had to pull off in three days. Cue the stunt sewing music!
I’ve talked about making the muslin for the skirt in this post  and how versions of this skirt are in the MetMuseum.org online collection. Here’s how the completed muslin looked:

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Knowing that I had three sewing days to complete a wearable version (interrupted by a weekend of grandchildren invading our home like Cossacks), and that the skirt had to be widened by a whopping eight inches, I had to choose a forgiving fabric that didn’t need lining.
Tucked in my stash were two yards of high-quality stable knit ponte in aubergine (from Eileen Fisher) that fit the bill. Since I spent my 20s sewing Diane Von Furstenberg knock-offs out of a slippery knit called “Quiana” on a straight-stitch Singer 15-91, I have no fear of knits.
I basically chopped the center front and two parts of the back of the muslin open lengthwise, stuck in swaths measuring a total of 8″ straight up and down in both, fitted it quickly and got ready for the “Hail Mary” pass. (For those of you visiting from other cultures, the “Hail Mary” is any last minute desperate play a losing sports team will use to try to win a game in the final seconds.) Rah rah rah!

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Two yards of wide ponte should work for a pencil skirt, right? Er, not when the pattern has odd protrusions and three kick pleats. So I quickly took up the pattern by about 4″ in length and as you can see, it just squeaked by.

I started constructing the skirt using a very narrow zigzag, as I wanted a stitch that was easy to pick out if I got in trouble. (No sergers around these parts). Constructing the body of the skirt went smoothly as I had already worked the bugs out on the muslin. With no time to finish the seams, I trimmed them with Kai pinking shears to give them a vintage look. As a reader once commented, super-sharp Kai shears are “all that and a cup of coffee.”

This particular ponte has excellent stretch and recovery, so I was reasonably sure that I wouldn’t need a zipper. But the waistband has an elegant yet tricky shape that arcs up in the front and dips down toward the back, which is critical to the design. I was stumped as to how I could reinforce it enough to hold the shape while having it be stretchy enough to get over my head.
Friends, this is the kind of thing that keeps me up nights.

Cue the cute grandchildren!

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Whew, that was exhausting.

When time came to make the waistband, I rooted through my bag ‘o interfacing looking for that knit fusible I thought I might have (desperate times call for desperate measures), and spotted a yard of corset mesh stashed away. Corset mesh is like bathing suit liner meets Spanx on steroids. It’s constructed like mesh, so it’s breathable, but it’s stiff as granny’s girdle. Apparently the designer Roland Mouret used a similar fabric, power mesh, to line his famous “Galaxy” dresses of a few years ago.

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I think I once had a notion to knock off a Galaxy dress using Vogue pattern 8280,

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so I think I ordered both power mesh and corset mesh (which is stiffer, and I need all the help I can get), and that’s how the stuff got buried in my stash. You can find here: (Corset mesh from EmmaOneSock.com), and they have power mesh as well.

I carefully cut the corset mesh and sewed it into the exterior pieces of the waistband. Then I drew the curved seamline of the waistband onto the pieces and, barely breathing, sewed the exterior pieces to the lining along the curve, which starts down, arcs up, gets flat, and arcs back down again.

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I attached the waistband front piece to the back piece, anxiously lining up the seamlines.

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I trimmed the corset mesh and seams, then got the waistband aligned and sewed onto the body of the skirt.

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I flipped the whole thing over, pressed the lining inside, and lacking time to hand-sew the lining down, took a deep breath and “stitched in the ditch” (top-stitched right on the seamline) where the waistband met the skirt body.

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Goalllll!
That corset mesh holds the waistband up and holds me in, and now I want to put it in everything I own.

There are three kick pleats (two on the side and one in the back) and rather than lining them with the ponte, I decided to use a vintage wool challis from the 50s that I bought in the third floor vintage fabric room at International Silk and Woolens in Los Angeles. I’m using the rest of the fabric to make a top to go with the skirt. I’m busting so much of my stash this month!

Following the original pattern directions from the 50s, I folded back the “pleat” part of the main skirt pieces and attached the lining rectangle to the two sides. Then I catch-stitched the whole thing to the skirt itself at the top.

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Phew, just enough time to give the skirt a blind hem and pack for New York! And you know the rest.

“And what about Me-Made-May?” I’m sure you didn’t ask…
I’m not participating officially, because my projects come along so slowly that most days I’d be running around in a Chanel jacket and my underwear if I had to wear my “makes” for a month. But spring has bust out so beautifully I thought I’d share some photos from around the neighborhood in Boston. Most were taken one morning after I met a friend for coffee on Newbury Street, wearing a version of the crushed boatneck frankenpattern top I wrote about here (when I also attempted to knock off a matching Chanel 2.55 bag).

imageChanel 2.55 style bag

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This is the long “mall” of walkways, statues and trees that goes between the two sides of my street, Commonwealth Ave., for about a mile. This part of town is called the Back Bay, because the bay it was built over was filled in and developed in the mid-1800s. A number of the wealthy Bostonians who moved in had been on what was called “The Grand Tour” of Europe, so the area was developed to look like France.

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At the beginning of Commonwealth Ave. is Boston’s famous park “The Public Garden” which is always well-kept and beautiful, but particularly in spring.

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In the warmer months, the famous Swan Boats are pedaled like bicycles around the pond, just as they were in the much-loved 1940s children’s book “Make Way for Ducklings.” If you walk through the Public Garden on a warm Saturday, you often see two or three wedding parties having their photos taken.

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One day my son and I encountered an unusual wedding party there, where the groomsmen were hanging back cooling their heels, the bridesmaids were hovering around in a concerned tizzy, while the bride was lying prone on her back on a bench, clutching her bouquet on her chest, and bawling her eyes out in what appeared to be a full-on anxiety attack. There’s so much pressure put on brides in U.S. culture now to be skinny and be the star of the show, I figure she hadn’t eaten in weeks. I’ve often wondered what happened to that marriage.
Around the corner is Newbury St., where you can get your Chanel on. It’s fun for window-shopping or grabbing a bite.

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I like those candy-colored linens and bags in the Max Mara window. I my next life I’m going to be an Italian contessa and dress like that 24/7.

I have been celebrating “Me-Made-My” by stitching up some things to wear with the Charles James skirt, including a Claire McCardell shrug that I’ll share next time. I hope your sewing is going well, too!

More from the Charles James Exhibit

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Now I want to share the second part of the Charles James exhibit at the Met Museum in New York, which celebrates James’ most famous works: his ballgowns.

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Fifteen of his gowns are displayed like sculpture, each on separate “islands” which allow visitors to circle the gowns and see all sides from up close.

Charles James dress

A number of the displays are equipped with “cameras” moving around the dresses and pointing a crosshatch of light on different areas of the gowns. Then, on a video screen, you see an animated Xray of that part of the dress from the interior, with an explanation of the boning, tulle and other supports holding up the gown from the inside.

Charles James Tulip dress

I noticed that the “Tulip Gown” above had the same triangular piece wrapping forward at the waist as the pattern for Charles James skirt I just made. (Details are in this post (Charles James skirt muslin).

Some videos start by displaying the pattern pieces that make up the gown, then via animation, the pieces assemble themselves to construct the dress.

Charles James naughty dress patternCharles James exhibit digital display

If dress engineering and patternmaking are your thing, you may faint at this point. The architectural firm of Diller Scofidio and Renfro was brought in to design the exhibit, and they did a masterful job.

Here’s an example of one of the pattern animations, from the New York Times’ website: (Charles James animation)

The gowns themselves are stretched onto dressforms, playing up the sculptural and frankly erotic aspects. As my sister helpfully pointed out, “that one looks like a giant (expletive deleted).” Watch your language, sis!

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It’s true that many of them look, well, phallic, and this next one in particular is, erm…what’s the opposite? Vulvic?

Charles James naughty dressMillicent Rogers in Charles James

What do you think people said to the socialite wearing this? “Excuse me, Mrs. Rogers, but your dress, it looks like a giant…ummm… Say! Refill on your cosmopolitan?”

Oh my goodness, what has gotten into me?

But of course it’s the Met, so they started to wax poetic about Georgia O’Keeffe’s erotic flowers paintings being a big influence on the gown and blah-dee, blah-dee, blah…

Then as I was walking around the museum, looking for a place to change from heels to flats and put on the knit pants I’d stuffed in my bag (because I like to dress up, but I have my limits), I stumbled on the “American Art from 1905 – 1940” room. This is one of my favorite periods in art, so as I wandered among the Hoppers and other “guy” paintings, I spotted those O’Keeffe’s.

Georgia O'KeeffeGeorgia O'Keeffe

Hmmm.

Unfortunately I was too agog by the whole thing to take many photos of the gowns, so if you’d like to see more of the exhibit, the Met has posted this video on their website, showing a number of the gowns and dresses. It’s in high-definition video, and includes commentary from the exhibit’s curators. I highly recommend it.  (Met Museum Charles James Exhibit Video)

Also Bill Cunningham’s exhibit and Met Ball photos from the New York Times are here: (Bill Cunningham photos)

As for me, clearly it was time to get out of “haughty, naughty, spawty, gaudy” New York and back to Boston proper to calm down. But what a show!

Charles James Exhibit: Fashion! Art! Tailoring! And, of course, the gift shop.

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Well, well. That Charles James is something. Train, auto, DC-3, oceanliner, dirigible…just get on it and go!

At this point, you can read plenty of elegant musings about the architectural, sculptural, sexual and haute coutur-al aspects of the Charles James garments on display right now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, including this comprehensive article by Roberta Smith in the New York Times Arts section today: (Article on Charles James).

I want to take you on the sewing-nut tour. Let’s go!

Charles James Met Exhibit

If you read the articles, there’s a big focus on the design and construction of 15 of Charles James’ most famous ballgowns, which are being showcased in the special-exhibition galleries on the Met’s main floor. But personally, it was the day dresses, cocktail dresses, and archival materials displayed in the galleries of the Anna Wintour Costume Center downstairs that gave me a better feel for the Charles James who worked with fabric.

When you walk in the dark, hushed space, lit by pools of light, your first encounter is with this amazing piece:

Charles James cloakCharles James quote

Thank you for that new mantra, Charles. Next to it was his “Ribbon Dressing Gown”: Charles James dresses

…hard to imagine swanning around the house in that gorgeous robe with the rows of subtly-shaded satin molding the gown to the body. Would you need a maid to sweep the floor in front of you anywhere you walked?

The dresses, suits and coats are arrayed on “islands” that the viewer can circle around, allowing you to see them from all sides. It’s a very smart layout, as all of the garments have surprising seams, contours and closures on the fronts, sides and backs. You can get within 3 to 6 feet of many of the designs, making it easy to see the details through the plexiglass. Here are a few examples of Charles James’ masterful tailoring, which, as we sewing enthusiasts know, is something that’s very difficult to do right, and very easy to screw up. On his designs, the seams are never where you expect them to be.

Charles James coatCharles James CoatCharles James coatsCharles James suit

I want that green suit.

I took two trips through this part of the exhibit the day I was there, and good thing, because I almost missed this small bright room (the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery) displaying items from Charles James’ archives. The custom dressforms he designed:

Charles James dressforms

Scrapbooks and sketches, like this one of his famous “Taxi Dress”:

Charles James sketch

Some of the hats he designed early in his career:

Charles James hats

And this famous wowza piece, a 1937 satin evening jacket, filled with down:

Charles James Down JacketCharles James Down Jacket

There was also a film showing clips of Charles James in the 1970s, prepping young models to wear his classic designs for a retrospective. I generally think of Charles James as an effete, tailored man of the 40s and 50s, but here he looked like so many of those aging lotharios I used to bump into in 80s New York, with the chin-length swept-back hair and groovy attire, trying to hang out with the club kids. That was an eye-opener.

Heading back into the main room, I saw a number of Charles James futurist 50s dinner dresses, like these:

Charles James dresses Charles James dress

And two versions of his La Sirene dresses from the 40s and 50s, with horizontal release tucks shaping the front.

Charles James Sirene dresses

Some of my personal favorites were his 1930s cocktail dresses, including this prototype of his “Taxi Dress,” so named because a girl could put it on in a taxi…

Charles James Taxi Dress

A precursor to “fast fashion,” the Taxi Dress was available in two sizes in the accessories department of Best and Co., wrapped in cellophane packaging. Now I’m thinking that Diane Von Furstenberg didn’t just come up with her wrap-dress idea out of the blue by looking a ballerina sweaters. Here’s a version of the Taxi Dress with a zipper spiraling around the side:

Charles JamesCharles James dress with spiral zipper

You can see the Madeleine Vionnet influence in those designs.

His ballgowns are works of art, but these garments, without the layers of tulle and boning, truly showcase Charles James’ legendary draping prowess.

I’ll talk more about the ballgown part of the exhibit in an upcoming post, but in the meantime I wanted to report that, yes, the skirt I was making from this 1950s Charles James home sewing pattern:

Charles James sewing pattern

did get completed in time to make it into my case for the train trip to New York, with a few minutes to spare to clean up my ragged sewing nails. I wrote about making the muslin for this skirt in this post.

I’ll admit I was beginning to waver about wearing it, thinking that walking around New York in a pencil skirt and heels would be uncomfortable and hurt my feet and a whole bunch of other lazy middle-aged excuses. Then I read this post by Laura Mae of the blog Lilacs and Lace, a sewing enthusiast who makes and wears gorgeous mid-century confections, giving her readers a pep talk about the importance of dressing up and wearing our beautiful, stylish “makes” out to events, concerts and exhibits. (Lilacs and Lace “Classic Glamour” post)

By the time I was through reading that call-to-arms, I felt like it would be darn un-American not to wear that skirt, and that I should be tap dancing around like Vera Ellen tossing flaming batons to boot!

Wearing the Charles James skirt at the Met Exhibit

Wearing the Charles James skirt at the Met Exhibit

Laura Mae, you were SO right! Without that skirt I would have felt underdressed around all of that fine, fine Charles James design. The thing I love about this skirt is that it’s shaped inward down toward the knee to look like a pencil skirt, then it flares out below the knee in a very flirty way at the side pleats (like a “mermaid” skirt), but the back is not clingy at all, so it’s very easy to walk in.

I’m wearing the skirt with the vintage Hermes scarf every gal should have in her travel bag.

My excellent sister, whom I mentioned before as having invited me to this shindig, played hooky from work to see the exhibit and fill in as the Jet Set Sewing staff photographer, then she managed to bumped into someone she knew from work…oops! Thanks again, Janet!

Of course, all good things must end at the gift shop, where I picked up this gorgeous commemorative of the exhibit: a silk scarf with sketches by Charles James.

I’ve also been gifted the book from the exhibit, “Charles James Beyond Fashion” by Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder. I highly recommend it if you can’t attend the exhibit. It’s filled with large, detailed photos showing the dresses, coats, gowns, and archival materials.

Charles James Koda-Reeder book

It’s so big, once it arrives, you may need to purchase a separate coffee table to hold it.

For those of you who can’t make it to New York to see the exhibition, most of the Met’s Charles James collection is on their website here.

More to come on the Charles James exhibit. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Charles James skirt muslin (apparently for Amazon Barbie)

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So I started making a version of this:

Charles James “Dorothy” Skirt in the Metropolitan Museum

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from this 1950s mail-order sewing pattern:

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I just read an article in this month’s U.S. Vogue (May 2014) by Hamish Bowles, talking about the life and work of Charles James, and my guess is that this skirt pattern (and another Charles James dress pattern) were released during a time in the 50s when James was married to heiress Nancy Lee Gregory (the former wife of one of James’ lovers, oh by the way…) who was trying to help him expand his business. But artists are rarely good at business or marriage, and both were pretty much over by the early 60s. (As usual, I felt a jealous frisson at the quality of Hamish Bowles’ writing in the article.)

Here’s a video of Hamish Bowles visiting two iconic Charles James dresses in James’ birthplace of Chicago. Having seen some of Charles James’ erotic drawings, Bowles posits that many of his creations may have been inspired by a certain appendage of the male anatomy: (Video about Charles James)

And here’s an article from the New York Times about the Met’s reconstruction of the “Four Leaf Clover” dress, which will demonstrates the architectural elements of James’ designs: (Charles James New York Times Article)

Since I’d like to have the skirt done by the time I leave on Tuesday for the Charles James exhibit in New York, I’d better do less blabbing and more sewing. So here’s the progress so far:

As with all of the vintage unprinted patterns I use, when I first take them out of the package, I need to label them:

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That’s when I discovered that two of the pattern pieces were missing. AAAyyyiiiii!

Curse you, lazy 50s housewife, who made this skirt and then neglected to put back all of the pieces! So what if you had four kids and were probably in the midst of a pre-feminist Betty Draper psychotic episode, it’s Charles James for pity sake!

So after that little meltdown, I realized that it wouldn’t be too hard to re-create the pattern pieces for the back of the waistband and lining for the pleats.

I traced the pattern onto craft paper and put the original away to preserve it. Then I compared the pattern to my recently completed fitting shell pattern. Since the Charles James pattern was cut for a 24″ waist, I knew I would have to size it up considerably to fit me.

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The brown is the Charles James skirt pattern and the white is my fitting shell pattern. At this point, I could tell that the front piece (on the right) was far smaller than my fitting shell, while the back piece (left) was close to the same size. So the skirt was designed for the back piece to wrap around the side to meet the front piece in the front. Also, there’s a complex triangular part at the top that extends even further toward the front.

I decided that trying to size up the pattern in the flat pattern state was foolish, and that I should just make the thing up as is, then see what I could do to make it bigger.

I cut the muslin pieces for the test version of the pattern out of two different color fabrics, to better show you the design of the skirt in photos (and I’d like to thank you readers for inspiring me to move forward on the boring parts of projects like this).

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This is why it’s worth doing a muslin. You’re looking at the top of the skirt’s side seam, where ordinarily on a pencil skirt the two seams would match, and you would just sew them together on a curve. But on this pattern, the triangular part on the back (in black) wraps forward to meet the front (in white), and the pieces curve away from each other in the opposite direction. When I started to pin them, it reminded me of setting in a sleeve, so I added some basting and gathered the back piece to curve it around.

Here’s how it looked pinned:

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You can see I had to ease the back piece around to meet the hip curve of the front piece.

And here’s how the exterior looked after it was sewn:

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It’s not just curved, it’s molded. And that’s what made Charles James such a great designer, even with something as simple as a pencil skirt.

Here’s a look at the front of the completed muslin version:

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The back (in black) wraps around to the front to make an arch shape in the front. It’s hard to see, but that same shape is mirrored in a subtle arch on the waistband front. At the bottom of each side of the front piece are two lined pleats. (There’s no seam in the center front. I just messed up when I cut it, which is another reason you do a muslin.)

Here’s how the skirt looks from the side:

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The seam between the front and back of the waistband meets at the actual side of the waist, over a dart, rather than where the front and the back pieces meet.

And here’s the rear, where there is another pleat in the center back:

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The waist on the skirt is a petite 25″, and the hips max out at 37″. The whole thing’s so tiny it won’t fit on my dress form. But the length of the skirt, after hemming, is 32″, and on my 5’6″ long-legged frame, comes just 4″ above my ankle. That’s why I think this original is fitted for Amazon Barbie.

Clearly I’m not going to need to make it any longer, so I’m just going to attempt a massive “slash and spread” revision in the middle to get the skirt to fit me. There’s no way I’m touching the engineering on the sides.

And I hope that Charles James, somewhere in the great beyond, will forgive me for messing with his elegant design. But I can’t imagine that he would.

 

Charles James, Charles JAMES, CHARLES JAMES!

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A couple of great messages popped in my in-box this week.

The first had “Charles James” in the subject and was from my apparently psychic sister inviting me to be her guest at the members-only preview of the “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, opening in May. Here’s a short bio of Charles James from the Met Museum’s website: (Charles James Biography)

After jumping around going “woo hoo!” and informing certain high-maintenance family members that they would have to live without me for two whole days, I got out this American Weekly mail-order pattern from the 50s:

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I decided to get cracking on view “B”, a version of the Charles James “Dorothy” skirt, which is in the Costume Institute’s collection:

Charles James Dorothy Skirt Charles James “Dorothy” Skirt

If you look closely at the top, you’ll see that the back piece has a triangular extension at the waist that wraps toward the front, and my pattern has that as well. The pattern also has three vents, which are actually low pleats, at the two sides and the back.

View A of this pattern is his “Tulip” Skirt, also in the Metropolitan Museum:

Charles James Tulip Skirt(Charles James “Tulip” Skirt)

It’s on my wishlist to make as well, though I’m more of a “Dorothy” than a “Tulip.” This pattern has small sewn-in interfacing panels all around the bottom to make the hem flare out.

Charles James was a draping and design genius who made iconic gowns for many of the British and U.S. society “Swans” from the 30s until the 70s. This is probably his most famous dress:

Charles James Four Leaf Clover Gown Charles James “Four Leaf Clover” Gown on Austine Hearst

Like many true artists though, his perfectionism ultimately did him in, and he ended his days working with a single patternmaker in New York’s famous artists’ fleabag, the Chelsea hotel.

There’s a great article in the New York Times today by writer Elaine Louie, who describes knowing Charles James in the 70s, and wearing one of his gowns to an exhibit: (“Charles James and Me” article) It’s a fun read.

I better get going on grading (sizing) up that pattern–it’s cut for a 24″ waist!

And thanks again to my sister…Janet, I’m so looking forward to you taking a day off from running the Martha Graham dance company to be the photographic intern for Jet Set Sewing. What a gal!

The second fun thing that popped up in my in-box was a nomination for a “Liebster Award” from Carrie of Crafted By Carrie. Carrie is a scientist by day and sewist by night, who is putting together her trousseau and gifts for her wedding party and a bunch of other stuff while I’m sitting around across town procrastinating about tracing my vintage patterns.

The Liebster Award is bestowed by bloggers onto other bloggers to help spread the word about new blogs. I really appreciate being nominated and Carrie, you are a Liebchen for sending me the Liebster.

I learned from working in TV to always accept a nomination, because it often comes with free dinner. But this one comes with questions to answer (provided by Carrie) so here goes:

What is your favorite garment you’ve made?

Do you think the answer is one of my Chanel jackets? Au contraire, it’s this one-sleeve Schiaparelli wrap I made from Decades of Style pattern #5006 and printed wool fabric from Janssens et Janssens (lined in silk). It’s so unique, lightweight and wearable:

My Spring Wrap

Do your friends and family know about your blog?

Yes, I won’t shut up about it.

What’s your biggest pet peeve?

Somebody asked me this once in a job interview for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Audio/Visual Department, and I said “inefficiency.” Wasn’t that a great answer? (I could only stand nine months in that job.)

Share five things about yourself that others don’t know:

You know, at this age, discretion is the better part of valor.

What is your favorite period in fashion, and why?

Well, I could write a blog about this, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m a fan of 1920s through early 70s designer fashion, though the cuts from 1950s and 60s suit me the best.

What personal accomplishments are you most proud of?

Jeez, I’m been around so long, it’s tough call. Raising a son (in progress) and step-children, staying married 25 years, being successful in a career, learning French well enough to have French people willing to actually speak with me, getting dinner on the table some 5,000 times…

What quality in a friend is most important to you?

We’re all so busy that if they “like” my posts on Facebook it’s pretty exciting.

Carrie, thanks again! And since the word “Liebster” keeps reminding me of Madeleine Kahn’s hilarious performance as the German saloon singer in the classic Mel Brooks comedy “Blazing Saddles,” I’ll leave you with this link of her singing “I’m Tired.”

Madeline Kahn in “Blazing Saddles.”

Happy trails!