Monday, February 28, 2011

Learning to Walk (...then skip to my Lou, my darling!)

 Tonia and I have a friend who is learning how to sew clothing and hopes to professionally work in the garment industry one day. Over the past few months, Tonia and I have been guiding our friend along in her learning endeavors, steering her here and there, encouraging her, and watching her skills improve with every new sewing project she successfully completes - step by step. 

 I'm not sure that our friend knows what her ultimate goal is yet (does she want to design clothing, construct modern pieces or historically inspired pieces, repair and alter clothing?), but no matter - first thing is first - she must learn basic garment construction techniques, design, and fit. These fundamental skills are always the most frustrating to learn because they have to be learned well. There is a precision to garment making - it's mathematical, it's architectural, and it's proportional. One must know the personality of various textiles, their characteristics, their temperaments, and their limitations. Moreover, there is an aesthetic value - the beauty of a garment - the color, the texture, and the dimension. There is far more involved in tailoring than throwing some fabric on top of the feed-dogs and stomping on the foot peddle...

Freddy, the armpit sniffer
...Boy, what Tonia and I would not have done to have had someone teach us the fundies of sewing when we were newbies more than a decade ago! lol! The people we knew who did sew, their skills did not extend past curtains and table runners, so they could help us very little, if at all. The whole thing - learning the business of tailoring clothing (if that's what you want to call it in the beginning) - was a comedy of errors, if not dangerous in some instances. We struggled and cursed and oopsied so often you'd have thought we'd have just given up the ghost and skipped on to some other less challenging endeavor, like nuclear physics or molecular engineering, but no. We were ignorant of our folly (or in denial) and we hammered away. I even sewed my fingers once - okay, twice!, but the second time my husky-rott stuck his cold nose in my armpit! 

I can't help but to grin when I look at those old photographs of my beginner's work  - it's a humbling walk down Memory Lane - I didn't know a whip stitch from witch ditch when I started. Tonia and I did not have the luxury of the internet or YouTube videos to instruct us on various sewing technique or another. We didn't have the money or time to take sewing classes. Our greatest resource was the public library. We poured through books, searching shelf after shelf. We Xeroxed everything and anything of interest or of possible value that we could find.We rented historical dramas from the library and Blockbuster and scoured fabric stores learning all the fabrics types and textures. We went to museums and thrift stores and carefully studied the cut and construction of anything we could get our hands on or close enough to snap a photo without being arrested. We were eager and willing students.

Some things will never change!
I know we were overly ambitious in the beginning and made many, many mistakes needlessly - of course, there was no one to help us or tell us any different - :) But there is nothing I would do over - not even the dozen and dozens of poorly sewn and constructed monstrosities I cursed over, cried over, or lamented over - or loved - lol! I wasn't alone in any of this - I had Tonia's companionship and I imagine that neither of us I would have made it too far without each other's encouragement, enthusiasm, and downright silliness...

...like singing "Skip To My Lou" while dangerously sleep depraved and hand-sewing a canvas carport cover at 1 o'clock in the morning under a street lamp! 

I am excited for our friend - I look forward to her growth with every new project - and I am not inclined to correct her every mistake. There is a secret joy, I think, in one's misadventures and mistakes, especially when reflecting back on a job well learned and a garment well loved despite its irregularities - there's something sweet in it...don't you think?
                         Cows in the cornfield, 
                         What'll I do?
                         Cows in the cornfield,
                        What'll I do?
                        Cows in the cornfield,
                       What'll I do?
                       Skip to my Lou, my darlin'.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Red Patten Stilettos & Hair Jacked to Jesus...

Ahhh, I believe the shoe angels have smiled on me again...

While out Friday afternoon picking up some last minute items for the Federal Ball on Saturday, I got a hunch to stop by DSW and check out their incoming spring collection. Lo and Behold! Before my peepers were the perfect pair of red pumps - patten stilettos - like candy, winking at me seductively, and beckoning me to slip them on...

...and so I did. But I could not purchase them - not then, anyway (sniff, sniff). I detest waiting. What waiting means for me - a size 10 Yeti-footed woman - is that when I return in two weeks with the intention to whisk away my scrumptious scarlet stilettos, my size will be gone (because no shoe store ever thinks to carry more than ONE pair of any size 10 shoe - duh?). The problem seems to be that all the other size 10 shoe wearers in the United States and Ohio like the same shoes I do! Drats - stop copying me - lol! And worse, these hot red honeys at DSW are only $70 - moderately priced - which means my chances of commandeering a pair by next payday have been cut drastically (sniff, sniff). Oh sure, I could order them on-line, but then I'd have to pay for shipping and state sales tax - what's the sense in that? Besides, I don't even get to wear them out of the store! But, you see, I have hope - my heart says these ruby sweethearts will soon be mine...(sigh)

While the shoe angels where shining on me Friday (or teasing me - this is yet to be determined), the hair gods were blessing my bouffant for a few good hours Saturday! I was worried - my whole costume ensemble was perfect for Federal Ball that evening, except for my hair. I am not a hair savvy person. I don't style. I figured I could at least manage a wiry, teased-to-the-heavens, Mozart-mess and secure it all into place with a ton of mouse and Tonia's Rave #4 hairspray. Mission accomplished! Granted, I did not have quite the hair height of either Tonia or PJ, but my frizzy locks were wide, and I'm sure that in the Georgian/Federal era this counted for something - lol! Washing it all out the morning after is another blog post all together...

My hair wasn't the only thing that worked out well - Saturday's ball turned out wonderful! It was a small affair, but for our first organized event, it went without a hitch, and everyone had a splendid evening. The food and beverage spread was divine, and honestly, I ate so much I nearly split my ribs! The cheeses and meats and veggies and fruits and wines and Oh! Pure gluttony! I am so glad that Tonia and I decided to bypass having the event catered. Instead, we created the buffet ourselves and were able to offer more dishes, a greater wine selection, and some wonderful gourmet cheeses we couldn't otherwise have offered our guests if catered. Next year's ball will be Civil War themed. Oooo, I see a red silk petticoat in my future - I imagine this is the mid-nineteenth century equivalent to today's red patten stilettos - oui?  :)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Ladies' Tipsy Tea

The Ladies' Tipsy Tea came about when a group of us girls held our first formal tea, which included a nip of spirits here and there (hehe). Since my sister-in-law is an infamous lush (not really), it was no surprise when she dumped her wine all over the place (lol! - are you reading this, Tonia?)...  Actually, Tonia is very agile, and so we were all devilishly amused when she was stricken with a sudden case of butter fingers and her glass went flying. From that day forward, The Ladies' Annual Tea became The Ladies' Tipsy Tea (complete with era beverages). This year's theme is late Victorian-early Edwardian...

My initial choice for the tea was to create a walking or traveling suit - I adore the very polished military look prominent in the women's clothing of this era. I have some beautiful, medium weight, light brown and black striped satin I was going to use; from there I wanted to accent the jacket with black cotton velvet lapels and covered buttons, and the skirt with a black cotton velvet knife pleating at the hem. And then, I remembered that the tea will be held in late May. Granted, May in Ohio averages in the mid to upper-70s, however, a heavy satin suit, fully lined and partly boned, and fastened snuggly over a corset, chemise, stockings, and etc., would certainly reach the "uncomfortable" mark on the temperature scale...

...I have now settled on the other very prominent look of the era - cotton and lace, similar to the gown pictured to the right (photo taken from Kristine Harris' 59 Authentic Turn-of-the-Century Fashion Patterns ). Sure, I can construct a walking suit out of a friendlier and more breathable fabric, such as cotton or linen, but with the more feminine-style lace day dress, there is a greater freedom of movement because the gown is not so fitted - this means a more comfortable wear. I'll save my dream striped satin walking suit for a good stroll in the autumn - :)

For this day dress, I will be using a gorgeous cut-work black velvet with a flower and vine motif. The neck and yoke of the bodice will be constructed of a fine black cotton lace, which I will also use to accent the sleeves. The gown will be lined in a delicious shrimp color voile, and I imagine, somewhere on the gown, there will be black satin ribbon - just haven't figured out where, yet - lol! I'm still not sure how I plan to accent my waist - with a belt, or a tie? I have most of the details worked out, mainly the structure of the gown itself, and this is what counts (details will come as I drape and gown speaks to me). I am a little nervous about putting this project together, though - it's my first Edwardian day dress, and with this era comes detail after detail (after detail after detail). I do not want to overdo the embellishments, yet, I want to be true to the decorative aspects of the era. I do not want my gown to look like a lace-and-mutton-sleeve-monstrosity from the 1980s (save me Jesus - or Tim Gunn) - LOL!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What's All The Hoopla?

I’ve been in the costuming business for a very long time. My husband and I owned a shop at one of the largest mid-western Renaissance festivals for 10 years. I have seen a lot of wonderful work by some very talented tailors, weavers, and leather workers – from them, I had the privilege of adding a great deal to my knowledge of garment construction, and in turn used these skills to build a very reputable tailoring business.

Example A
I have also seen very shoddy work – I’ve witnessed good customers pay big bucks for crappy-made clothing, especially garments bought at seasonal history festivals or fairs (and if anyone has ever purchased a garment at one of these, you know how very expensive it can be – it often takes many years for a person to build their Renaissance/Civil War wardrobe if they are not active sewers). But, of all the examples of bad tailoring that has stood out over the years, nothing has grabbed my attention more than the hoop and its accompanying skirt. It doesn’t matter the era – Renaissance, Federal/Colonial, Antebellum/Civil War, Victorian/Edwardian – it’s a rare pleasure to see a reenactor wear her hoop (panniers, bustle, or bum roll) and skirt at the proper length!

Example B
The ladies in both examples A and B (taken by my dear sister Tonia at the city’s 2010 Memorial Day Parade) are good examples of how not to wear your historically inspired regalia. The skirts are simply too short, and the “weightless” movement of the gowns are lost when these ladies walk and their hoops begin to rock back and forth like a bell. There is not enough skirt length or weight to hold the hoop in its proper position, which can be clearly seen in example A (her hoop is not balanced and lifts in the back).  Yes, there is much to be said about owning a well-made hoop, but even a lesser quality hoop can give the desired effect if the outer garments fit properly and are well-constructed.

Example C
Examples C and D (historical and modern) give a good picture of the proper way to wear a hoop and skirt. Why is it such a big deal? Well, aside from looking awkward and cheap, there is the issue of hard earned $ being shelled out for goods of shoddy quality – about half of all reenactors purchase their clothing for one reason or another, rather than sew it themselves. The problem is that ready-made historically inspired garments are often ill fitting (especially women’s clothing) no matter how durably they are constructed or how nice the fabric used. Keep in mind that ready made clothing (meant to fit the “average person”) is a modern convenience and not a luxury our foremothers would have experienced – they made their clothing (or their clothing was expertly tailored for them), and here we can see the precision of cut and fit that we would expect. The sad truth is, ready-made gowns, skirts, and their accompanying hoops are almost always ill fitting. Custom made clothing can be the better option (and it’s not that much more expensive).

Example D
In the case of the home tailor, that being the person who makes her own historically inspired garments, the problem is usually that the gown is not constructed around the frame of the hoop, pannier, bustle, or bum roll. When constructing a garment that uses a frame to shape the female silhouette, the architecture of the gown being built will be very different from a gown that does not use a frame at all. If you are sewing your own gown and the shape of the gown requires a frame, in order to achieve a proper fit and balance to the gown, the gown must be built completely around the frame – no exceptions! To illustrate this, the length of the average Antebellum skirt built around a hoop is nearly 20″ longer than the waist to floor measurement of the wearer – and of course this extended skirt length is completely relative to the width of the hoop! The wider the hoop, the longer the skirt…

...so, make note: the key to a beautifully tailored historical silhouette hinges on the undergarments we do not see – especially the hoop - :) 

(This article was originally published by Angela Thornhill on The Emerald Parlor, June 2, 2010)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Life In Living Color

Photographer Unknown - 1915
While researching late-Victorian, early-Edwardian tea gowns for the Ladies' Tipsy Tea in May, I ran across some photographs that stunned me - I should say their beauty stunned me. I know little to nothing about the history of photography, except to say that the first black and white photographs were taken sometime in the early nineteenth century (1830-1840), and that full color photographs were common by the mid-twentieth century. Before the 1950s, it seemed that any event captured by a photographic image was mired in varying shades of gray or sepia.

My grandmother - 1935
Many of our old family portraits are watercolored (the gray or sepia still very apparent), and while they give a glimpse of living color, it is only a glimpse. Of course, by the time I was born and knew my grandmother, her hair was winter white, rather than the glossy raven of her youth. Her skin, then, was fair and flawless, and her favorite color was cobalt. What I would not give to have a photograph of my grandmother as a young woman in color - not watercolor, but Autochrome, where I can see the inky black of her hair and eyes, the milky peach of her skin, and the shocking blue of her suit - sigh... You can imagine my surprise when I recently ran across color (not watercolored) photographs from the turn of the twentieth century! I have never seen anything like these pictures, I didn't knew that color photographs existed that early, and I am so happy that I inadvertently found them!

Charles Corbet - 1910
Like most tailors, when I research an era for costume, I always look at pictorial references, whether they are drawings, woodcuts, paintings, prints, or photographs - and with these sorts of media, the depictions of costume are often flat, exaggerated, or distorted at the whim of the artist. The images of decades and centuries past seem surreal and untouchable at times, and with the black and white photographs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is something of an exercise trying to imagine the color of life captured in a 3x5 frame, and this is not for lack of imagination or trying - lol!

Alfonse Van Besten - 1912
Most of the color photographs that I am featuring here (and in The Dressmaker's Album for further review) are from the site Autochromes From Belgium and the London Daily Mail - here, several famous and unknown early twentieth century Autochrome photographers have their works featured, and I promise you that you will not be disappointed. The photographs are mesmerizing, and while the color isn't always true (this is early technology under development), it's a wonder just to look at them - indeed, all early photographs have an immeasurable nostalgic and historic value, but these colored gems are rare beauties which give us a slice of life in living color. And, if these pictures aren't enough to charm you, maybe one of the earliest Kodachrome screen test will - enjoy!  

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Special Topics in Calamity Physics - Like Sewing During An Ice Storm...

Haha! I no sooner posted last night's blog entry when I received a call from the school secretary that classes were canceled again for Thursday! So, there was no need for me to lay out my school clothes after all! ;)

You already know what I did - I sewed, sewed, sewed! And I completed my gown! I am trilled to have it done, if only to get busy sewing the bias on my stays and throwing together a chemise. I am pleased with the gown for the most part, and I imagine any issues I have with it center more around my self-critical nature than there actually being something wrong with the gown itself. If I am sketchy about anything, it's the sleeve cuffs. I like them better today than I did yesterday or the day before, when I was certain I would have to rip them off and start over. I'm glad the hubs insisted that I wait a while before undoing any work - lol!. It is sometimes better just to sit on things for a little. By this morning, I decided the cuffs did not look that terrible (although I do not like them completely) - lol! 

Anyway, pizza's on the way, school resumes tomorrow, and the weekend starts at the 3 o'clock dismissal bell! TGIF, in t-minus four hours and counting! Good night and God bless...

(For construction pictures of this gown, please see The Dressmaker's Album)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Calamity Days

Photo by Sydney Fleming Photography
This week's storm front, which has steadily moved eastward and has coated much of the Midwest and east coast with a solid layer of ice and snow, blessed me and my students with two calamity days! Of course, the night before the storm arrived (that was Monday), the stores where packed to the rafters with folks clearing the shelves of bread, milk, eggs, cigarettes, and beer. Thank heaven I did all of my grocery shopping Sunday morning - the only reason I stopped by the store Monday after school was because I had a hankering for potato chips. Self-checkouts ROCK! - I was in and out of the madness in 5 minutes flat! 

Yesterday morning, just before 6, I received the much anticipated call from the school secretary informing me that school had been canceled for the day (as I knew it would be!), and rather than go back to bed, which I can't do once I am startled out of sleep, I pulled my butt from the covers, made coffee, and sewed, sewed, sewed! I finally cut the machines off at just before midnight last night. I needed desperately to work on my gown for the Federal ball, and honestly, I was getting panicked trying to find time to do it. The ball is two weeks from this Saturday, and between working, creating lesson plans, grading papers, and managing and cleaning a whole house (aside from other domestic, career, and parenting duties), I'm not exaggerating when I say I was feeling a bit pressed.

This feeling of "needing to get the gown done" on top of everything else in a normal day may be what has been causing this odd sewing funk that I've been in over the last two months. I have struggled to complete this gown, forcing myself to work on it whenever I have had time. This is a peculiar feeling for me because I'd rather be designing and sewing clothing most of the time (it's my preferred hobby). I was thinking the other day that it is most certain I demand far too much of myself and that I should trim a bit of fat from my life, but Lord only knows where that would be! I *think* I have been taking on too many sewing projects and I'm getting burnt. We'll see - the next gown, a Victorian tea gown for the Ladies' Tipsy Tea, does not need to be completed until late May. If I am losing my sewing mojo, maybe this will be the break that I need to restore it!

In the meantime, I spent most of the day sewing again. I created the ribbon needed (about 20 yards)  for the box pleated trim on the hem of the skirt and sewed that on - yeah!  Now, I just have some basic finishing work to do on the bodice of the gown, most of it hand sewing, which I will do from the comfort of my couch while watching a wonderful historical drama! Once the gown is completed - and I am nearly there! - I can finish sewing the bias on my stays. Won't it be a joy to have the whole kit and caboodle finally done - maybe if the school allows another calamity day (wink, wink), I just might!

Better get my school clothes ready though, just in case - ;)