Portland!

On the plane I read Rant, a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Portland’s favorite son. I’m staying at the famous, the literary, the possibly haunted Heathman Hotel. I just got back from a trolley ride to Powell’s Books, the largest independent bookstore in the U.S., with floors upon floors of books on all possible topics.

To be honest, I’ve been feeling a little burnt-out lately. I’ve been blogging at a breakneck, post-a-day pace, trying to come up with a new creation every day, and I feel like the stuff I’ve been making has gotten a little stale, a little sloppy. Being in a place where I can’t sew for five days is going to be great; I can feel it already. I’m storing up good ideas for later.

The outskirts of Portland feel kind of like the setting for a Hiyao Miyazaki movie. These futuristic trains pass by landscapes made of broken concrete barriers and hillsides covered in wildflowers and old industrial buildings. From the window of the train I saw this building, which looked like three singlewide trailers put up on 50-foot-tall stilts:

That thing above the guardrail but under the tower. Can you see it? Can you?!

But the best part of the trip was Powell’s. After waking up at three in the morning, spending eight hours in planes and airports and somehow arriving five hours after we’d left (damn you, time zones!) I was exhausted and disoriented. But then I went to Powell’s. And saw this:

This picture represents a very small chunk of their Epic Shelves of Crafting Glory–namely, the section specifically devoted to textile design. Not to be confused with the much larger sections representing Sewing and Fashion. I couldn’t capture them in their full glory because the aisles are too close together for me to back up enough. Here’s a similarly tiny chunk of their section on knitting:

Excuse me while I dig myself in, never to emerge. Everything about Powell’s is inspiring, from their patrons (who all wear funky outfits, some of which are hipster and some of which defy explanation) to their bathroom graffiti to their wise decision to buy every book in the universe instead of trying to offer an edited collection. If I don’t come home a better knitter/writer/patternmaker, it won’t be for lack of information.

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Craft Challenge! I love a challenge!

So I’ve recently discovered Craftster, this site where people like me endlessly post their finished projects, questions about crafting techniques, and other neat stuff. And–here’s the best part–they have challenges! Crafting challenges! With prizes!

The current challenge is bedsheet clothing. I think I can come up with something in the next few days, but I’m not sure if the sheet I have in mind can win. See, it’s black. Working with it is basically going to be like, you know…working with black cloth. Not that challenging. Furthermore, the dress that I’m making is ridiculously simple. It’s a black-on-black dress with a circle skirt and a fitted bodice, and while it’s going to be breathtakingly flattering and good-looking, it’s not exactly a wow piece. Here’s the work in progress:

I still need to fix the top edge, install a zipper, put in shoulder straps and hem it. But the tricky parts, the tailoring of the bodice and waist, are done. So I should be right on track for meeting the challenge deadline. I’m wondering if I can win through clever styling–wearing it with a pillowcase shirt or something. Tune in tomorrow, hopefully, for the finished dress.

The corset formerly known as sundress

Apparently, my entire house is supported structurally and insulated against the weather by failed projects from my childhood, because today I found a box jammed up against the wall under my bed with a bunch of deformed clothing in it.

One particularly weird item was an ill-fitting sundress–a kind of Marilyn Monroe style thing with a drapey halter neck–that I’d made out of plaid. Not just any plaid, either. An almost Burberry plaid, a warm-toned one that was less picnic blanket and more foul-weather scarf. Although I’ve got to give it to my past self, she was pretty fearless. In honor of her, I decided to try a project that was out of my league: a corset.

I found this great tutorial online, and then altered the pattern to make the bottom of my corset look like the bottom of a suit vest. I used some of my collection of vintage buttons that my grandmother gave me. And this, my friends, is how it went:

I was kind of inspired by this Vivienne Westwood piece, although my tailoring “skills” are not nearly that “mad”, as the kids would say. I like the idea of making clothes that are edgy because they’re a little bit stuffy and a little formal. But whereas she took a classic tailored shape and added an insane plaid, I took a pretty classic plaid and went with a weird shape. See what I did there?

Right about the time I was congratulating myself about how I was doing Interesting Things With Textiles and how I might someday be a Big Designer…I realized that the plaid was facing sideways on two of the panels. Other seamstresses will feel my pain.

Basement Find–Vintage shirt? Lingerie?

I went basement diving yesterday. My parents both like to save everything, and our basement is pretty extensive, so there was a lot of ground to cover. And I found some interesting things, including this piece that belonged to my paternal grandmother back in the 1950s or 60s. And now, I’m not exactly sure what to do with it.

In case you can’t tell from the picture, it’s beautiful. It was also ripped in three different places, two of which I could fix and one of which I couldn’t. I decided to give up on the tear on the sleeve since it was missing some fabric, and so I cut both sleeves off to make cap sleeves.

Now, I really want to use this piece and wear it, because it belonged to my grandmother, and because I think it’s super-neat and sort of a classic example of careful garment construction. I mean, look at all those tiny pin-tucks, the care with which everything is edged…it just makes me happy. But I run into this problem; how do you wear something that’s simultaneously very stuffily cut and completely transparent?

I don’t think that a bra is enough clothing. I only wish I were Lady Gaga.

Alternately, with a camisole, it looks stuffy and old-ladyish…

I think that maybe the answer is a bandeau bra, or a less fussy camisole, but I don’t want to buy a new thing because new things cost precious, precious money. If you have any ideas for how to wear this thing and not look silly, feel free to speak up in the comments.

On Failure

Well, hello there! I have something very awkward to confess to you. And that’s that I don’t have anything worthwhile to show you at the moment. So I’m going to talk to you about project failure.

Project failure is one of those things that anyone who crafts will run into from time to time, and it’s always unpleasant. A project can start out well enough, with a clear idea in mind, and a general plan of attack, and can turn into a total fiasco by the end. And that’s what happened to me for Tutorial #5, the Not-So-Baggy Baggy Shirt.

See, I had this concept in mind. I love wearing men’s shirts. I love their comfort and their androgyny and the length. But being a girl with some boobage, wearing a baggy shirt usually means that when I wear a man’s shirt, it falls straight down from the boobs and makes me look frumpy, not charming. So I wondered if I could put in some subtle tailoring that would make a shirt still look baggy, while not actually being so. My great hope was that I would be able to wear the shirt as a dress, with leggings and boots.

My project started out promisingly enough. I decided to take in each side of a men’s XL shirt about…two inches, for a total of eight inches taken in (total of four on the front, total of four on the back, you know?) I sewed along that line, and the shirt fit a little better, but it was still baggy in the back–and furthermore, the armpits puckered now, with this weird bunch of fabric that didn’t seem to know what to do with itself.

Fair enough, sleeves, I thought to myself. I tried to pin them on the inside while looking on the outside and watching for puckers, trying to make a smooth line. 

(Believe it or not, this is what impotent fury looks like: a bunchy shirt.)

I tried that on, and it looked a little bit better, but the shirt was still baggy. Then I tried taking it in at the back so that it would fan out above and below the waist.

Well, that just made other issues. Eventually I threw the shirt down in frustration, realizing that shirt construction is incredibly complicated and that tailors are a little insane.

But I didn’t walk away from this experience with a complete and total loss. In fact, I learned some things which I feel I can pass along to you, the reader at home. Hopefully you’ll be wiser than I. Failure is inevitable from time to time, but you can minimize your forehead-slapping and bouts of depression with these handy tips.

  • KNOW YOUR SKILL LEVEL. This doesn’t mean never try anything new. But if you’re embarking on something you’ve never done before, look for some directions. Think an extra minute before you sew or cut or mark or strike that first hammer blow. Ask a friend if what you’re doing seems sound, even if they don’t know anything. Just the act of explaining can often turn up unexpected problems.
  • DRAW A DIAGRAM. Even if you can’t draw. Use all of your brain to examine the problem, not just verbal reasoning and in-your-head planning.
  • MEASURE TWICE. If you’re about to cut something, or break something, or irreparably change something, take one last look. If it’s clothing, try it on your body. If you’re smashing up pottery, take a last check around the Internet to make sure it’s not priceless. You get the idea.
  • Finally, DON’T PANIC. This is the most important rule. If something goes wrong and you’re starting to get flustered, walk away for a little while. Not forever, of course, but give the problem 24 hours or so. Read a book, ride a bike. Come back when you’re not convinced that this is a devastating failure.

So, is there a happy ending to the story of the shirt? Well, sorta. I’m in my 24-hour cool-down period. Tomorrow I’m probably going to pick out the stitches and make something else, or try a different approach to the same project. We’ll see how that works out. Until then, I’m giving myself a day to revel in my other successes–for example, acceptance into the Susquehanna Review, a wicked awesome literary journal. Not that I’m bragging or anything. Er. Yes.

Anyway, failure. Failure is going to happen when you try to make stuff for yourself, more often if you’re new, but throughout your life regardless. And failure sucks. But it doesn’t have to be the end of your materials. Remember, if all else fails, if the project is too frustrating to look at ever again, don’t be a jerk. Recycle. And by that, I mean smash your project to pieces and use them for something else. It’s surprisingly therapeutic.

Tacky Dress! Tacky Dress!

So, remember that lovely, tacky floral fabric I bought? The stuff from the 1960s? Well–I made a dress out of it.

I wanted to make a dress that was antithetical to what people would expect from the fabric, so I went with a 1950s hostess dress design, a dress style worn by good housewives and folks like Grace Kelly–in better colors, of course. I had a pattern for a dress with me, but the bodice wasn’t right, so I drafted my own pattern directly onto the fabric.

My mom and aunt, who helped me with various pinnings and who gave a running commentary on the whole process, said that I reminded them of my grandmother, Kathleen. She drafted her own patterns on newspaper as a young woman, and she was the one who taught me how to sew. As I understand it, she’s currently working on reupholstering her whole condo. I’m flattered to be compared to a woman who had such great taste; we have a picture of her gardening in a dress much like this one (with a different print of course), pearls, and little white gardening gloves.

By the way: I still have some of this fabric left. If anyone I know wants something made out of it, for the right price, of course, they should speak up in the comments. I’ll cut you a deal if I like ya.

Das Craft

In 1844, Karl Marx wrote that part of the problem with capitalism is that it alienates people from the products they make, turning production from an act of human creativity into a relationship between two things: labor and output. He said that when people make things themselves, they enjoy an “individual manifestation of [their] life during the activity.” Of course, he said some other stuff about the worldwide workers’ revolution, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I want to talk about making things yourself.

Crafting gets a bad rap. For one thing, as much as I’d like to think of it as egalitarian, it’s gotten a reputation as an exclusively bourgeois pastime. Only the leisure class, declare naysayers, can sit around for hours perfecting their quilting techniques, and only they can drop hundreds of dollars at the big-box craft stores.  Moreover, craft supplies are part of the shopping-industrial complex, part of the system that tells people that what they need to make themselves happy is to buy something new, from a large store, at retail price—which is terrible for the environment and the human psyche.

But making things by hand doesn’t have to be about having the shiny new Martha Stewart scrapbooking tools. With care, making an effort to make things yourself can be a creative, even revolutionary, act. To take things you would throw out and turn them into something you can still use, or to design and create something yourself that works better than what you could have bought, is incredibly fulfilling. Breaking down the barrier between yourself and the things you use every day can change the way you see your life, helping you look at the world through the eyes of an artist instead of a consumer. And crafting can be eco-friendly, if you expand your definition of what a craft supply is and where it can come from.

I’ve certainly been guilty of assuming that I need the new thing to be happy, that I need to always buy new when I look for supplies. I want to change that. Part of the reason is that I’m a broke college student and I don’t want to spend more on a craft project than I would on a comparable store-bought item. But part of it is that I want to change the way I make things, to challenge myself. I want the things I make to be more environmentally sustainable, more inexpensive, more useful and beautiful and unique—and most importantly, more accessible to other people who aren’t privileged, college-educated, or affluent. I want to take better care of the planet and maybe encourage other people to try their hand at crafting things themselves.

And so I’m challenging myself to design projects that are all from pre-used or recycled materials, that are low-impact, and that are, most importantly, cheap and easy for anyone to do. Oh, and useful. And because that sounds like a tall order for one person, I’m going to do my best to track down people who are already handcrafting in revolutionary ways, to see if they can steer me in the right direction.

Marx also said that part of the pleasure of making things is that of seeing another human use them. “In your enjoyment or use of my product,” he wrote, “I would have the direct enjoyment…of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work.” I hope I can do just that. Coming up will be projects, tutorials, musings, and tales of enterprising and remarkable people. Stay tuned.

–Rose