So I was up on stage with Pink Martini, the retro band that celebrates worldwide lounge music with a hefty side of camp. They had invited roughly half the audience to join them in singing Helen Reddy’s 70s feminist anthem “I Am Woman,” and since I was lubricated with a beer and wearing my second Papercut Patterns Sapporo Coat of the season, I felt a need to get up and belt, “I am STRONG I am INVINCIBLE–I AM WOMAN!! (That’s me selling it on the far left.)
(At that moment, it became official–I have no shame.)
Here’s a look at the coat up close. I used many of the same pattern modifications as I did on the Sapporo Coat I made last fall, but also took this one in 4″ under each sleeve, and 3″ in on each side seam, tapering toward the hem to preserve the cocoon-coat shape. The fabric is silk/wool and the lining is hammered silk.
I felt the Pink Martini experience was the perfect culmination of a year where I was supposedly working hard on a project, but in truth was living the ethos of their song, “Sympatique,” which roughly translates French to English as “I don’t want to work, I don’t want to have lunch, I only want to forget, and then smoke.”
But in my case, it went “Don’t wanna work, not skipping lunch, already forgotten everything, so then, I sew.”
When I saw this article in the New York Times about “procrasti-baking” (where people put off working by baking something delicious), I realized that, in truth, I was “procrasti-making,” which was a lot better for my wardrobe and waistline.
Not that things weren’t happening. In the fall, I received an email from the Museum of Modern Art asking if I wanted to do a couple of fashion history/sewing workshops for their “People’s Studio.” (Here’s the story of how I got involved with MoMA.)
Would I?! I’ll be right there! Then I read further. “The subject is ‘mending.'”
Mending? I love mending! No, really!! (Feigning enthusiasm? Moi?)
I felt that it wasn’t an appropriate time to mention that the running joke among sewing peeps is “no, I won’t hem your jeans–alter your prom dress–make your curtains for free hahaha.”
But you don’t get an offer to present at a major museum every day, and I was thrilled to be involved in their exhibit Items: Is Fashion Modern. So I spent Thanksgiving brushing up on mending history: starting probably more than 100,000 years ago when humans began figuring out how to sew furs together using intestines as thread (ick); jumping ahead to the 25,000-year-old iron needles with eyes that were found in caves in France (the beginning of the French haute couture tradition, in my view); sprinting through the industrial revolution, the Depression, and WWII rationing; and wrapping up with the advent of fast fashion, when it became easier to buy cheap clothes, and toss them, rather than fix them. Unfortunately, fast fashion is an environmental and social justice disaster, so sewing and mending skills have become crucial again. Sewing is our superpower!
I put together a Power Point and a sewing project for participants, and though I hadn’t spoken in public since my son was born (he’s taller than I am now), I got my fanny to New York — hauling little Coco the Bernina 215 (a great travel machine) and my sewing gear on the train and subway, then rolling her from my sister’s apartment to MoMA, weaving block after block through the holiday crowds near Rockefeller Center with my little Tutto wagon (and it’s more uphill than you’d think). (Yes, my iron’s in there, too, because, as we all know, half of sewing is pressing.)
When I got to the museum, I truly wondered whether I was the first person to bring a sewing machine into that temple of modern art.
I was pretty nervous, to tell you the truth.
I was gratified that people from all walks of life had signed up to learn Japanese Boro mending from the 1600s, techniques for fixing and embellishing worn clothes with basic embroidery stitches (I used the recent Alabama Chanin book as a reference), a method for sewing on a button with no gnarly knots hanging out, and simple patching for jeans with a machine.
My sister, New York City bureau chief for Jet Set Sewing (and secret crafter who is knitting again — welcome back to the dark side, Janet) was there to take pictures and watch me hyperventilate as I tried to speak into a mike, operate PowerPoint, and demonstrate catch-stitching at the same time. At one point the expression on her face looked so much like my late mom that I felt I had my female cheering section with me, so I gulped and moved forward to the story of how Claire McCardell invented ballet flats for streetwear during WWII — because regular shoes were rationed, but dance shoes were not.
Even though the workshop was targeted to beginners, I was happy and excited to see some of my pals from my blog and Instagram feed. I really enjoyed meeting all of you! Thank you for coming!
Later, when the museum featured photos from the workshops on their social media channels (with several million followers), I’ll admit it was a pretty big thrill for a middle-aged broad like me who’s spent a lot of her time in the past decade cutting fabric on the floor, tracing disintegrating vintage patterns, negotiating with her sewing machine, and digging through fashion history archives in chilly libraries. What an experience!
Phew! Made it through with flying colors, and caught my train back home on time! (Thank you for selling wine, Amtrak.)
After the holidays, I meant to get back to my project, I really really did, but so many other exciting (and distracting) things were happening!
- My father, a widower who remarried in his 80s, had the good sense to propose to a quilter, and we’ve become fast friends. She’s a Bernina fan like me, but when she asked me if I’d like to have her mother’s 1930s Singer Featherweight, in perfect condition…(well, I think you can picture the great amount of jumping up and down, hootin’ and hollerin’ over that). I waited till I had it in my hot little hands before I broke the news to Mr. Art Deco that I was taking an additional carry-on on the airplane home. When we got back, he took out the metal polish and shined her up. Now little “Claire” is a gorgeous machine that runs like a top! I used it to reconstruct “Claire McCardell’s Gay New Hostess Sash” apron, and it did a wonderful job with those perfect stitches! (Women in the 50s could order the Hostess Sash by sending in a couple of bucks and a boxtop from Modess Sanitary Napkins. I recently found an original apron on eBay.) Thanks again, Elaine, for this fab machine!
- While I was researching the MoMA workshop, I googled “Rational Dress,” which was a movement in the 19th century that encouraged women to throw away their corsets and other constricting outfits so they could stop fainting and maybe have a life. Little did I know that I would find the modern-day “Rational Dress Society” — a couple of game gals (oops, I mean “comrades”) who are “Making America Rational Again” by promoting a uniform of utilitarian jumpsuits that you can make yourself.The idea is that fast fashion has become so overwhelming and tacky that we should throw out all of our retail clothes and wear this simple “monogarment” all the time. (And yes, it is an art project meets goof.) The RDS is actually grading and posting the free patterns in a wide range of sizes on their website as we speak, and many of the sizes are available to download now , with full video sew-along instructions posted as well. (Since the patterns are created for both men and women, if you’re a woman, check the measurements before you cut, as the crotch can be (ahem) “hung” a little low. I’ll admit that I did some unauthorized fitting on my jumpsuit, by taking up the waistband and crotch, and taking it in a little under the arms. And just FYI–even though the instruction videos show the seams being finished by a serger/overlocker, you can easily finish the seams with a zigzag or overlock stitch on a sewing machine, as I did.) I made my jumpsuit from fabric by Thread International, which is a company that hires people to collect used water bottles in Haiti, then transforms the bottles into fabric. They were selling the fabric as yardage for awhile, and now they’ve moved on to manufacturing backpacks from the fabric in the U.S. My jumpsuit, made from their French terry, is very RATIONAL, and feels like a giant Snuggie that’s perfect for Eurythmy dance calisthenics or collective farming.
The style did not go over big with the male population of the household, however (not that I care). And, I’ll admit I’m not ready to throw out my me-made Chanel jackets anytime soon, because their glitzy metallic fabric adds an important layer of utilitarian warmth to my jumpsuit.
- I got this pattern free with a UK magazine, so I made pants! (Because, why not?) (McCalls 7415 Palmer/Pletsch “No-Side-Seam Pants”) I made them from mysterious “athelounge” fabric from JoAnns, but skipped the zip and stuck in an elastic waistband. Clearly I was in a post-holiday “make and wear comfy baggy stuff” phase. It’s a nice pattern!
- Then I made this poncho just because I liked it. (And I figured it would fit over the baggy stuff I was wearing.) I used French seams to finish the interior, and sewed ponte inside the neckline so it wouldn’t be scratchy. The fabric is double-sided merino from The Fabric Store (which unfortunately just closed up shop in L.A., but still sells to the U.S. online).
- In the spring, I got invited to a college reunion three days before it happened (no pressure), and at one of the events we were supposed to wear something from our era. That’s back when I was a dance student, and we wore mid-length Danskin wrap skirts all the time — over our leotards to class, to the disco, to and from our boyfriends’ rooms… What better way to deal with reunion anxiety than to self-draft a wrap skirt using muscle-memory left over from the days when I used to make them from Qiana? Wrap some stash knit around you, throw in some waist darts, put on a waistband and ties, sew on some snaps… I was sort of in a trance, but it turned out pretty well. (Trying my damndest to do a big Martha Graham ab “contraction” and pull off “Dance Teacher Chic.”)
- After that I got an uncontrollable urge to make a funnel-neck sweatshirt with that 60s “Throw a few clay pots in the kiln then ride your Vespa to the hootenanny” vibe. These patterns are everywhere, including the Sew House Seven “Toaster” sweater, and this intriguing “Bond chick at the ski resort” look (Vogue 9330): I decided to go with Named Clothing’s Talvikki Sweater pattern, which has pretty dart shaping up to the neckline. There are so many basic patterns floating around that I’m always happy to find ones with some design detail.It was very roomy and the sleeves are meant to be rolled up, so I took it in under each sleeve and on the side seams, and shortened the sleeve hems. Sheesh, what a ham!
Hm, so I guess I really was getting a lot done, and if you check out my Instagram feed, you’ll see that I actually have been working on a not-so-top-secret Claire McCardell pattern project. So “popover” there to see it! (Popover — that’s a hint!)
And now that I’ve gotten all of that sew-crasti-making out of my system, I’m ready to get more project work done!
Except — isn’t it that time of year when I always make a blanket coat?
I hope your sewing’s going well!