Posts by Vanessa Nirode

Vanessa is a writer, solo traveler, cyclist, and runner based in New York City. In her spare time she works as a tailor and pattern maker for television shows and movies. Follow her on twitter @exsetgirl.
Back to School and My First Alteration

Back to School and My First Alteration

It’s the middle of August and, according to the Internet, Back to School time.

It’s the middle of August and, according to the Internet, Back to School time.

I was such a geeky, nerdy kid that I always loved going back to school in the fall. And I always liked autumn clothing better than summer clothing. Probably because I have a soft spot for anything plaid and earth toned, both of which tend to be predominate in fall fashions.

Turn back the clock

 

I grew up in the 70s and 80s when J. C. Penney and Sears still put out their big book catalogues. I spent hours going through those, ear marking the pages that pictured the clothing items I most wanted. We never actually ordered anything from the catalogues. My mom was a big proponent of in-person shopping. Even to this day, she’s not so keen on ordering things from the internet.

Instead, on a Saturday or Sunday in August, she’d load all four of us kids into the van for a trip to Midway Mall or, if we were feeling fancier, Great Northern Mall. Midway Mall is in Elyria, Ohio and it had a Penney’s and a Sears. (I suspect it still does.) Great Northern Mall is in North Olmstead. We always thought of it as being a bit more high end the Midway Mall though I have no idea if that was true or not. Great Northern had a Penney’s and Sears as well but, it also had a Macy’s.

I would spend hours searching the racks for the garments I had identified in the catalogues, or something as similar as I could find. Then I’d try on a pile of clothing in the dressing room. I always wanted much more than Mom’s budget would allow so then I’d go through a lengthy editing process until my choices added up to what Mom was able to spend. Every year there was one thing I desperately wanted that Mom didn’t want to buy for me because she thought it was too trendy and I’d lose interest in it after a month or two.

Every year there was one thing I desperately wanted that Mom didn’t want to buy for me because she thought it was too trendy and I’d lose interest in it after a month or two.

Every year there was one thing I desperately wanted that Mom didn’t want to buy for me because she thought it was too trendy and I’d lose interest in it after a month or two.

Pin striped adventures

When I was 12 or 13 and in junior high school, I was obsessed with pin striped pants and ties. Mom agreed to buy me one pair of pin striped jeans but told me if I wanted any more, especially the wide legged, pleated pair, I’d have to figure out how to make them myself. As for the ties, she had some old ones from her father I could have.

I had no idea at this time how to go about making a pair of pants. I also didn’t happen to have any pinstriped fabric lying around.

But my Dad did, at least he had some pinstriped pants shoved deep into his closet that he never wore. The pair I liked the most were rust and brown and one Saturday afternoon when both he and my Mom were at work, I extracted them from the closet.

They were, of course, humongous on me but I knew how to sew so I figured I could alter them to fit. I was afraid that someone would come home and stop me mid alteration so I didn’t bother taking anything apart first. I just started adding pleats to the waistband, two to each side that I topstitched all the way down the legs. Then two in the back. I chopped off the hem, unintentionally rendering the pants capri-length. When I put them on, I decided the capri-length made them more fashion-y and I was going to wear them to school the next day.

Zero photo evidence

I wish there was a photo of me in these pants but there is not.

I wish there was a photo of me in these pants but there is not.

I wish there was a photo of me in these pants but there is not. I did put them on Monday morning, along with a brown turtleneck, a brown belt, and my flat brown capezio lace up shoes. The pants were bulky since I hadn’t trimmed any of the fabric out when I altered them and the legs stuck out because of the same but I thought they looked cool. When I walked into the kitchen, my Mom did a double take. She opened her mouth to say something then closed it again. I waited for her to yell at me or, worse yet, to give me the “I’m so disappointed in you” look.

But, instead, she stifled a laugh and said, “Well that explains why there was brown thread all over the sewing room. Next time, you really should trim out some of the excess fabric. That waistband wouldn’t be so bulky then.”

“You’re not mad?” I asked.

I’m not. I’ve been telling your father for years to get rid of those pants. But we should probably ask him if it’s ok.”

And there marked a three or four year period of me altering my father’s 1960s clothing to fit me. My mom was happy that I didn’t ask her to buy me as much at Penney’s and Sears. I was happy that I had clothes that were not like everyone else’s. And my dad was just happy that me repurposing his old trousers gave my mom one less thing to nag him about (my father was never very good at throwing “perfectly good” old items away).

I don’t know what the other kids at school really thought about my vintage dad wardrobe. I was already considered weird before I started donning old pinstriped pants so I suspect it just solidified that sentiment. I am, though, forever thankful to my parents for letting me develop my own little bizarre fashion style, and for encouraging my sewing habit.

Whoever would’ve thought it would turn into a lucrative career.

Sewing With Voices

Sewing With Voices

As is my custom, this weekend, I was out with the guys riding bikes up mountains and we got to talking about podcasts and television shows and books and stuff. One of them said he didn’t really ever have time to listen to podcasts and was surprised I had time to do so.

“I listen while I sew at work,” I said.

“Really? You can pay attention to both of those things at once?” he asked.

“Yes, I really can,” I answered. And I can.

Listen while you work

I hadn’t ever really thought about it before, though. I’ve always been able to listen to radio shows or audiobooks or podcasts while sewing. I’ve even been known to watch Netflix if I’m not in a super time crunch. By “watch”, I really mean listen to a show I’ve already seen and don’t have to pay that close attention to. Or something like Law and Order that you don’t need to see the whole thing to get the gist of. Or something really cheesy like The Ghost Whisperer that only requires half your brain, at best.

Long ago, when I worked at The Alley Theatre in Houston, TX, we’d listen to audio books on the shop stereo in the afternoon. It was actually a really cool way to “read” a book. Then we’d get into lengthy debates and discussions about whatever we were listening to. We had our own sewing book club down there in the costume shop.

Hammer time

My friend Kassandra and I used to watch the morning talk shows while we made costumes for the VH1 special on MC Hammer. And these days, if I’m at work and not in a fitting, I’m listening to something like This American Life, StarTalk , Stuff You Should Know, Undisclosed, Radiolab, Ear Hustle – my list goes on and on.

Every once in awhile I come across an article that claims that humans are, in general, unable to do more than one thing at once and anyone who says they are a multi-tasker is not being completely truthful. Usually, the author will then go on to explain that people can’t really concentrate on more than one thing at once, that its scientifically impossible.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson.

But I just don’t think that’s true. I can listen to Neil Degrasse Tyson talk about black holes and the speed of light and measure, cut, pin, and sew at the same time. I can even pattern or drape while listening to something. I guess because, at this point, a lot of what I do sewing-wise I’ve done countless times before so its kind of second nature and I don’t need my full concentration to do it correctly.

In contrast, though, I can’t talk on the phone while sewing and if someone has questions or needs to have a conversation with me, I have to stop what I’m doing (and its not just because I think its rude to not look someone in the eye when conversing). I have worked with people though, who seem to be able to video chat or skype while sewing. One of the ladies who worked for me on Boardwalk Empire was always skyping Russia.

Which reminds me of one particular day during Boardwalk. It was the afternoon and we were super busy. There was music on the background. We always had music on, just some Pandora station that we’d take turns choosing. Everyone was working away steadily on different projects, immersed in their own little worlds. I was patterning something, I don’t remember what, when I paused for a minute to look up and listen to the conversations going on in the shop.

There was one in Russian, another in Turkish, still another in French, a couple in English (obviously), one in Spanish and one in Arabic. It was all quite wonderful and made me really proud of the amazing diverse shop full of talented people I had around me.

And speaking of languages; that’s another thing you can do while sewing. You can listen to a language learning app or book.

I love that I can learn something new or get lost in someone else’s story while still creating something with my hands. I think it’s a wonderful ability to have, a gift even.

I think most of us who sew are true multi-taskers. (We’re pretty cool like that). I’d love to know what other people listen to or watch while working on projects.

I’m also in search of any new and interesting podcasts to listen to if you have any suggestions.

Happy sewing! (and listening).

No Bridezillas Here

No Bridezillas Here

I’ve gotten a few inquiries lately to do wedding dress alterations and creations. Some tailors don’t like working on wedding dresses. They say brides are the most difficult customers there are. I don’t mind so much and, honestly, don’t find brides any more demanding than actors and actresses, which makes sense as brides are (and should be if that’s what they want) the stars of their own little wedding day movies.

Here comes the bride…

Classic pillbox.

Classic pillbox.

A lifetime ago, when I lived in Austin, TX, I did a lot of wedding dress alterations. I had a partnership with a bridal store there. The store referred all of its brides to me and I paid a small monthly fee to them for the referrals and use of their fitting rooms. On account of the University of Texas being in Austin, the city has a huge young adult population, many of whom get married there.

Most of the alterations were your straight forward hems, take in the side seams, add a bustle, kind of stuff. But a few them stick out in my mind, even all these years later, as being especially unique and fun to do.

One of my favorites was the girl who bought a dress with a tiered skirt. It was a relatively narrow skirt of about six 7” or so flat ruffled tiers that got slightly bigger as they got nearer to the hem. The dress was floor length but she wanted to be able to remove the bottom three tiers to make it knee length and easier to dance in once the reception rolled around. I bought a heavy duty separating zipper and hid it under the fabric tier that began just above her knee. It worked perfectly; you couldn’t tell it was there at all and she was able to easily zip off the bottom half of her dress skirt, like those hiking pants you can zip off the bottom of to make shorts. But a lot better.

I also did a lot of adding straps to topless dresses. Topless dresses are always good in theory but not so much in many practical situations. One client, a computer graphics and design professional, even created her own unique strap shape she wanted me to build for her. I didn’t even have to make my own pattern!

Strap design.

Strap design.

 

Bridal hats

I made quite a few bridal hats too. Some of them were your classic covered pillbox shapes. A pillbox is really just an oval or circle with a 2 and a half to 3 inch band made from buckram and wire, then covered with fabric. A little trick to pillbox making I learned at the very beginning of my millinery career is to first cover the shape with a thin layer of baby flannel. Stitch it on as you would the fabric, then use Sobo glue to smooth and ‘mush’ the edges. This gives the hat a little bit of weight, softens the wire on the edges, and makes your outside layer (often a light weight silk if its bridal) look much smoother and nicer. Pull the baby flannel down and around the wire on the bottom edge and into the underside of the hat.

You can use this baby flannel technique to cover any buckram framed hat you make. I created this wide brimmed hat for another bride in Austin. You can see in the photo that the edge of the brim has some substance to it even though the silk covering it is fairly light weight. That’s because there’s baby flannel under there too. It just gives a hat a much more professional finish.

Wedding hat.

Wedding hat.

 

Another one of my favorite unique bridal embellishments was just the addition of a fun ruffle around the neckline. This is just your basic gathered ruffle collar but it made the dress one of a kind and added a lot of interest to the top of the dress.

Ruffle neckline.

Ruffle neckline.

 

And that’s the thing about brides from my experience; they just want their dress to be special and one of a kind. Many of them can’t afford to pay for a completely custom dress. But with some creativity, you can make most any wedding dress unique. And if you’re able to understand and do that, you’ll find that working with brides isn’t really all that difficult at all.

Buying Carpets and Books in Pakistan

Buying Carpets and Books in Pakistan

I have a confession to make. A month or so ago when in Pakistan, I bought a $1500.00 carpet. Now, before you think that that is an inordinately high price for a carpet, I just want to say that it’s a handmade Kazakh rug. And I talked the store owner down from his original price of $4000.00, which I think is a pretty admirable demonstration of bargaining skills.

The carpet is a large one, four feet wide by six feet long. It’s made up of a bunch of four-inch squares with intricate multiple geometric and realistic images. It’s also a dimensional rug, having raised yarn borders around the squares. Bulbous tassels adorn the sides. The colors are all muted tans, yellows, golds, burgundies, greens, and blues. Piot, who was at the carpet store with me, said it looked like a rug meant for royalty. I definitely agree.

closeup of one of the squares

closeup of one of the squares

A brief history of Kazakh rugs:

Kazakh, originally a tribal name, is now a town, river and district in Azerbaijan. Carpets made by Kazakhs often feature coarse, long pile and dramatic colors and designs (all of which my carpet has in spades). Using Turkish knots, they’re generally made by Turkic nomads who are now settled. Today, lots of new Kazakh carpets are made in Pakistan inspired by old Caucasian designs. They use yarn dyed from natural vegetable dyes.

Detail of my carpet.

Detail of my carpet.

In Pakistan, you can also find Afghan rugs made by refugees who now reside there. During occupation by the Soviet Union between 1979 and 1992, close to one million Afghans fled their homeland and ended up in Pakistan and Iran. Afghan rugs are known to be durable and well made. They reflect the heritage of a cottage-based industry passed on through generations. Different qualities of pile carpets are available including felted wool ones called Namads, flat non-pile woven rugs called Kilims, and pile and knotted ones made from cotton, silk, and wool. It can take six to nine months to make a hand knotted carpet. When you think of it like that, $1500.00 doesn’t seem so high of a price.

You may be wondering how I managed to negotiate my price down to an amount more than 50% less than the original quoted price. The answer is pretty easy. I was completely prepared to leave the store without buying the carpet. The owner played that game where he asked how much I wanted to pay and had me write it down. I did. And then I refused to budge. He tried to cajole and guilt me into agreeing to a higher amount but I just kept saying no. Finally, our little group of four, gathered up our things and started to walk out the door. At this point, he finally said yes to my $1500.00 and the carpet was mine.

I bought my carpet at Afghan Carpet on School Road in Islamabad. If you are ever there, I encourage you to go visit them in person. They have a very large selection and serve some excellent tea. And they’re always up for a good strong negotiator.

My carpet at home in Harlem.

My carpet at home in Harlem.

This isn’t necessarily sewing related but, Afghan Carpet is down the street from one of the world’s largest bookstores (yes, that’s right, in Islamabad) called Saed’s Book Bank. The store is three stories and 42,000 square feet. They display around 200,000 titles and stock more than four million books throughout its five warehouses. You can literally find most anything there. Saed carries Cosmo and Heavy Metal Magazine, as well as books about Islam and Richard Dawkin’s atheist treatise, The God Delusion. You can find books on Catholicism and queer studies, an English translation of the Quran, maps and travel books, and novels by pretty much any English or American author you can think of. The store is a truly fantastic and amazing place to visit, especially when you consider that it sells predominantly books written in English in a country where that is most people’s second language. The New York Times published a wonderful article a few years ago about the store if you’re interested in reading more.

This is also my little way of saying that people are never wholly their governments and places are often not as scary as most media reports would lead you to believe. And there is truth and beauty and wonderful people wherever you travel, if you take the time to look for it.

Fix Your Own Pants

Fix Your Own Pants

As many of you probably know, I work as a tailor and pattern maker for film and television in New York City. I don’t always work on the same show or at the same studio. I’m also, now that I’m old(er) a bit more particular about what projects I say yes to and who I work with.

I’ve got a few fitting related pet peeves like, for instance, when a dress comes back from the fitting room with a note that simply reads: Drop in a Lining or the ever infamous and popular: Take in as pinned (if I didn’t pin it myself). These are just minor annoyances though, compared to the phenomenon of people from other departments (accounting, grip, director, props, whatever) showing up in my sewing space – without ever having met me before – and asking if I can just fix their pants or take in this skirt.

Frustration

First of all, no. I can’t just anything because (1) I’m actually working on something for the show we’re both doing and (2) I don’t want to. Especially if your pants fix involves a worn out crotch (and even if it doesn’t). I don’t randomly show up in the accounting office and ask someone to add my receipts together when they get a chance, or ask one of the props people to rewire an old lamp I bought at the last set dressing sale, or ask the director of photography to take some pictures of me for my tinder profile or something because I’m just not talented enough to take my own. (I’m kidding about the tinder profile thing). And I certainly don’t throw in some disclaimer like I always wished I learned how to take a proper photo.

You’ve got to know when its time to let a thing go.

Sometimes the person will preface their ask with so and so (insert the name of someone else in my department) told me I should ask you. This is even more perturbing if that someone else hasn’t actually sent a text or something asking me if it’s ok to send that person over to me to ask a favor.

It’s not me – it’s you

Fix Your Own Pants

It’s not that I mind doing favors. I really don’t. I do favors for people I like and know all the time. I’ll even do favors for people who I don’t know if they ask nicely and genuinely – and especially if they offer to compensate me in some way (beer!). But if you show up with some blue cotton harem pants with a thread bare bottom that you want repaired when I’m in the middle of cutting down the neckline of a velvet top that is needed on set in about twenty minutes and the first thing out of your mouth is X told me I could have you to do this I’m never going to do it. Your sad pair of pants is going to hang on my work rack until this show wraps.

Why? Because you, whoever you are, you didn’t tell me your name or what you do on this little show of ours, and I’m quite certain that the only person who can have me do anything is the Costume Designer. So, there’s that. Second, if the back of your pants is worn out in the butt area, it might just be time to buy a new pair of pants. You’ve got to know when its time to let a thing go. Seriously, why would you think that someone you don’t even know would want to be that up close and personal with that particular area of your clothing?? I don’t care if they’re clean and, yes, I’ve taken in a countless number of center backs for actors but I’m getting paid to do that. The crotch of your pants? Um, no.

A healthy dose of humility

I personally would be embarrassed to take my worn threadbare butt pants to someone I didn’t know to fix. I honestly don’t understand it. Maybe someone could shed some light on this for me?

I think what upsets me the most about this type of favor-asking is the assumption that I’m not busy doing something else that is important for the show. It’s as if people think I’m just hanging round twiddling my thumbs just waiting for someone to turn up with their personal alteration request so I can sew something.

Anyway. Rant over. I’m going to go upstairs now and see if the accounting department can get an early start on my taxes for next year. I’m sure they’re not doing anything else of importance.

What’s your big sewing related rant?

Flat Patterning: Nothing to Fear

Flat Patterning: Nothing to Fear

I spent part of last week flat patterning a period vest and coat for a ten year old actor for a new Amazon series based on the book Dangerous Book For Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden.

Let’s get technical

Flat patterning is one of my most favorite things to do. It’s very mathematical & systematic.

Flat patterning is one of my most favorite things to do. It’s very mathematical & systematic.

Flat patterning is one of my most favorite things to do. It’s very mathematical and systematic. I find it strangely soothing. Many people are intimidated by flat patterning and don’t think it’s something they would ever be able to do themselves. But, the thing about flat patterning is, if you’re good at following directions, anyone can do it.

Have you ever seen the opening sequence for the movie Tailor of Panama? In it, you see a hand drawing in chalk on a piece of fabric. The hand presumably belongs to the tailor who appears to be free handing the outline of a suit jacket front. Now, that’s something you probably won’t be able to do until you’ve drafted some thousands of suit jacket fronts but, flat patterning onto a piece of brown paper by following the instructions in a flat patterning system book is something you can do.

Take a look – it’s in a book

Every person who starts out flat patterning is following someone else’s directions on how to do so.

Every person who starts out flat patterning is following someone else’s directions on how to do so.

Every person who starts out flat patterning is following someone else’s directions on how to do so. If you take a flat patterning class you’ll work from whatever book the instructor likes. A flat patterning book provides step by step instructions for drawing specific pieces of clothing – things like draw a line equal to back neck to waist and square off from both ends (a and b).

What this means is you need to know the measurement from the neck to the waist of the person you’re drafting for. You can also use standardized measurement charts (which is how commercial patterns are made). Most flat patterning books include such charts, or you can do a search online for them. The instructions for drawing the pattern will continue with the labeling of points by letters using measurements. Directions will say things like: connect e and f with a curved line or mark a point 3/8″ from g and square out.

The right pattern book for the right job

Each flat patterning will produce slightly different results as they are each based on a system developed by the author. Some systems factor in more ease than others, depending on what period the clothing is. For instance, a book on flat patterning a man’s suit jacket from the 1880s will produce a garment different than one written for patterning contemporary men’s suit jackets.

You can also use standardized measurement charts (which is how commercial patterns are made).

You can also use standardized measurement charts (which is how commercial patterns are made).

So, how do you know which book to work from? It honestly doesn’t matter all that much when you’re first starting out. But as you get more comfortable with it, you can try different books to see what end results you like better.

One of my most favorite patterning books is Dress Design: Draping and Flat Patterning Method by Hillhouse and Mansfield. The book, written in 1948, gives instructions for a variety of really cool 1940s dresses and suits. It’s not always useful if I’m making something that isn’t a 1940s garment but it’s a wonderful book to study and try out different techniques.

Some other excellent patterning books that are used often in colleges are Norma R. Hollin’s Pattern Making by the Flat Pattern Method and Designing Apparel through the Flat Pattern by Rolfo, Kopp, Gross, and Zelin.

I also like Metric Pattern Cutting books by Winifred Aldrich, though these do require being able to convert your measurements into the metric system. Some pattern makers believe that the metric system allows for increased accuracy when patterning.

Pattern Making by Tomoko Nakamichi is a creative non-traditional approach to patterning and gives instructions for unique geometric Japanese garments.

Tools

A few other tools that are handy to have when you’re flat patterning are a clear see-through ruler, a curved ruler, & an L-shaped ruler.

A few other tools that are handy to have when you’re flat patterning are a clear see-through ruler, a curved ruler, & an L-shaped ruler.

A few other tools that are handy to have when you’re flat patterning are a clear see-through ruler, a curved ruler, and an L-shaped ruler.

Most pattern makers use a regular old pencil to draft the initial pattern. If they need to go back and make corrections, they’ll often use a red or blue pencil so they’ll know which line is the new line. I, personally, am a fan of the red pencil for corrections as it’s easier to see than a blue one.

If you’ve been wanting to try your hand at flat patterning but didn’t know where to start now’s the time to get yourself a book and start learning! If you don’t want to purchase a book (some of them can be quite expensive), check out your local library. You can, also, of course find used pattern books on Ebay – just don’t get too caught up in auction frenzy and pay too much.

Happy patterning!

Grain Line? What Grain Line?

Grain Line? What Grain Line?

Last week, I spent a couple days making six silk dresses for a freelance client. I did the work at home, in my fifth floor walkup apartment in New York City. I only mention this because the dresses were made from silk charmeuse and I don’t, interestingly enough, have a proper cutting table at home. This really isn’t so much interesting as it is unfortunate and slightly annoying. Because, as anyone who has ever cut silk charmeuse knows, it’s a slippery sliding thing.

I cut the first dress out on the floor. Not ideal but it does work, as long as you use enough weights to keep it from shifting around. I usually cut things on the double with the fabric folded, selvedge edge to selvedge edge, which is how most consumer patterns instruct you to cut. Silk charmeuse can be a bit woodgy (yes, that’s a technical term) but the weave tends to be tight enough that you can confidently cut on the fold.

Some fabrics with an especially loose weave where it’s hard to keep the lengthwise grain line (and cross grain) straight are best cut in a single layer.

Shall we

Grain Line? What Grain Line?

To begin cutting, I tear a straight cross grain so I have a right angle to work from. Almost all fabric can be torn in this way. The cross grain of a fabric is made from the yarns woven over and under the lengthwise fabric grain at a 90 degree angle. The over under weaving provides less tension so crosswise grains have a tiny bit more stretch than the lengthwise grain. They normally run around a person’s body.

The lengthwise grain is the one that runs parallel to the selvedge edge and is the grain marked by the arrow on every pattern piece.

After tearing the the cross grain so I have a straight line, I fold my fabric in half right sides together, selvedge to selvedge. Once I have the fabric relatively flat and smooth on my cutting surface, I place a long metal ruler about an inch or two from my torn crosswise edge. I use a metal ruler because they’re heavy enough to act like a weight.

I line up the edge of the ruler perpendicular to the selvedge edge and across the full width of both layers of fabric. Then I make sure that the edge of the fabric that extends past the ruler is even. I do this to ensure that my cross grain is lined up correctly and not sloping down or up in relation to the selvedge.

I cut the next five dresses out on my old wood dining room table. It has leaves that fold up to make it almost six feet wide. At about 39” high, my cutting tables at work are higher than a standard dining room table. This height means I don’t have to bend so far over a table when cutting and, ultimately saves my back from hurting. If you don’t spend entire days cutting out garments, a dining room table usually works just as well.

You can also buy one of the cool folding style cutting tables available.

Grain line

So, what about grain line? Do you need to always pay attention to it?

That depends. At Boardwalk Empire, we would sometimes jest (when we didn’t have enough fabric and had to get creative with our cutting layouts), “Grain lines are for suckers.”

What we really meant, though, was “As long as you know what you’re doing, you can manipulate and vary the placement of your pattern pieces.”

If you happen to have a striped fabric, playing with the grain line can be fun. Thomas Pink, who makes high end men’s dress shirts will sometimes cut one side of the front on the lengthwise grain and the other on the cross for a quirky asymmetrical look.

Striped fabrics will also naturally chevron at the side seams if you match them up correctly when cutting and sewing.

You can also turn collars, cuff pieces, and/or pockets of striped fabrics on a different grain to add an interesting design effect.

All of these things are most easily done with a fabric that doesn’t have a lot of give, like a tightly woven cotton.

Measure up

If you’re interested in getting a little creative with your next project, you may want to invest in a quilter’s ruler. These rulers have 45 and 30-degree angles marked which is helpful when adjusting grain lines.

If you’re matching stripes or other patterns, you’ll find it much easier to cut in a single layer so you see everything clearly.

This may seem obvious, but if you’re experimenting, it’s always good practice to test things out first. If you have plenty of fabric, you can use some of it to do a little practice run. If not, you can use muslin or something similar to try out your idea. If you’re using a striped fabric, you can mark lines on your muslin before cutting to show you how everything will line up.

Bias

Bias is the diagonal angle across your fabric. The bias grain has quite a bit of stretch. A dress that clings to the body closely without having multiple seams is very likely cut on the bias. When you’re making a bias garment, especially a dress or slip, you’ll want to let the bias hang out for a while if possible as it will stretch out. You’ll notice that the bottom edge of your pieces will end up uneven if you do this, which is exactly what you want. You’ll need to remark your hemline after you’ve put together the garment.

I usually stay stitch my arm and neck holes, then pin my cut pieces on a form and, if time permits, let them hang over night. It’s also beneficial to then pin the seams together while they are hanging on a form to help alleviate any puckering.

Once you have a good understanding of grain lines, there’s no reason why you can’t try different things. Get creative (just remember that bias does stretch a lot more than something on the straight so you may need to stabilize with a lightweight fusible interfacing).

Running in Pink Tutus

Running in Pink Tutus

I’ve written before about answering the question, “What do you do for living?” and how I really don’t like it and have trouble explaining it accurately.

Another type of question I find slightly troublesome as well are the ones that start with, “You’re into clothing and fashion, what do you think of…”

Or questions about specific names for types of fabric or techniques.

First of all, I would never say that I’m into fashion and clothing (If you saw the way I dress, you’d definitely believe this! I usually define my personal style as homeless chic). I just speak the language of fabric and patterns. I certainly have my own ideas about what styles I like but I’m no expert on whether or not that poofy princess dress you just bought for your niece is tasteful or not.

You go girl

If she likes it, is happy, and feels like a princess, then I’d say it’s perfect.

Humans have a wide variety of tastes and, ultimately, the things you like are the things you like. I’m a big advocate of never reading any article that has a title along the lines of What to Wear Now or Fashion Must-haves.

Wear what you want – be happy

I have an amazing, wacky friend, who is an ultra-runner – meaning she routinely runs 100 miles in a row. She’s also run the New York City Marathon a bunch of times. And sometimes she does this wearing a pink tutu. For no reason than it makes her happy. Just because.

I love this picture of her. So did the promoters of the marathon this past year as they featured it in subways and on the sides of city buses. I was on my way to work one morning, on my bike as is my custom, stopped at a light at the corner of Lex and 62nd, when suddenly this huge photo of my friend went rolling by. It was kind of amazing.

The other line of questions about names of fabrics and techniques annoy me (slightly) only because, honestly, I usually don’t know the “proper” name for things. Why, you may ask?

My big secret

Well, here’s the thing: my big secret. I never finished college. This was a huge deal at the time as I was valedictorian of my high school class and accepted into the Honors Tutorial College at Ohio University. I was considered smart and a brain.

So I went. For a year. But then I didn’t go back.

And I’ve never regretted it. Colleges and degrees are great for some people, if that’s what you want. But, honestly, I was sick of memorizing stuff and just “practicing” at doing things for life. There was no challenge for me at University. I needed, wanted, to be out in the real world, working at something I loved and was, quite frankly, quite good at in a very natural, intuitive way.

One size does not fit all

Put on your tutu & run.

Put on your tutu & run.

Sometimes I think the downfall of our education systems is the one size fits all approach to learning. (I’m allowed to say this because both my parents and two of my brothers are in education.) People learn differently.

And for me, at 18 or 19 years old, whatever it was, the best option was to be actually in a real working costume shop learning everything I could. Practical application, if you will. Developing new skills by trial and error (sometimes trial by fire) but ultimately, doing. Not sitting in a lecture hall listening or draping yet another sloper or princess seam bodice.

My main reason for bringing this up is that I’ve noticed recently that sometimes people are ashamed of the fact that the don’t have some fancy degree from some fancy college and think it makes them not as smart or talented as someone who does.

I can tell you with certainty that that is not the case. You either have the talent or you don’t. No college anywhere can teach you that. They can teach you the difference between organdy and organza in words but you won’t really know what that difference means until you’ve worked with both fabrics in a practical application.

The same with something as simple as the difference between cotton and wool. Its easy to say cotton is a natural fabric made from the cotton plants and wool comes from sheep but, in order to understand that difference, you need to use those fabrics and get to know them on a personal level.

I know its kind of cheesy, but I’m a big believer in the language of things. There is nothing inherently scientific about my belief. I just think people in general don’t pay close enough attention to their environments (in part because so many of us spend entirely too much time looking at our phones) and, as a result, miss a lot of the information that is right in front of us and don’t hear what someone (or something) is saying.

I know this post is a bit rambling and disjointed (I had a rather busy weekend lacking in sufficient sleep.) But, the point(s) I’m trying to make are put down your phones, put on your pink tutus, listen to your fabric, and make something unique and wonderful to let loose in the world.

I’m going to try and do the same today. And, then, I’m going to get some sleep.

Happy creating!

Sewing Super Power: Stereoscopic Vision

Sewing Super Power: Stereoscopic Vision

Are you one of those people who knows what an inch looks like without measuring?

I am. I also know what a ½ inch looks like and two inches and, well, honestly, most units of measurement from an 1/8 of an inch to about eight or ten feet.

I can also look at a photo of someone and determine how many inches shorter (or longer) his or her pant, shirt, jacket, or dress hem needs to be. And I can take a picture or drawing of a garment and recreate it with only that image as a reference.

I bet a lot of people reading this blog can do these things too.

I never thought too much about the why. It was just something I was always good at.

3D vision – no Oculus Rift needed

3D vision - no Oculus Rift needed

3D vision – no Oculus Rift needed

Well, this past week, a new scientific study was published at the University of California at Berkeley about how dressmakers were found to have “needle sharp” 3D vision.

3D vision is also referred to as stereoscopic vision, which is the ability of the brain to take 2D information and translate it into 3D. Depth perception is part of this equation, meaning stereoscopic vision is what allows us to thread needles, catch balls, and park cars (among a myriad of other things.)

It also means that some of us, those with especially keen stereoscopic vision abilities, are able to look at the distance between things and immediately calculate a correct (and often freakishly accurate) measurement.

There have been countless occasions when I’ve looked at a fitting photo of an actor with a hem pinned up and said, “Oh, I need to shorten that an inch and ½,” (or whatever) and someone else has said, “Let’s measure to make sure.”

And so we do. And I’m always exactly right.

In the same way, I can often walk into a fitting room – or even just watch someone wander by – and say, “That needs to be lengthened ¾” and the waist taken in an inch.”

And then I do the alterations without pinning and its correct.

Batman’s got nothing on me

Batman's got nothing on me.

Batman’s got nothing on me.

I’ve always just thought of it as one of my super powers. I believe everyone has a couple or three superpowers. The trick, sometimes, though, is figuring out what they are.

Adrien Chopin, the neuroscience researcher who conducted the 3D vision study, says that they’re still trying to figure out if tailoring and sewing sharpens stereoscopic vision or, if tailors and the like are drawn to the profession because of their enhanced “stereo-acuity”.

I’m definitely not a scientific researcher but I think it’s both of these things. My brain has always been adept at moving between the 2 dimensional and 3 dimensional worlds. I just never knew it had a specific name. And because I use this ability many times a day, I’ve become better and better at it to the point where my accuracy percentage is probably 99.9999999%.

Or something like that

I can also go from 3D to 2D quite easily, meaning I can look at a 3 dimensional object, like a garment (on or off a person) and know what shape it would be as a flat 2 dimensional pattern.

Chopin’s study goes on to say that people like surgeons and dentists have normally been assumed to have superior stereovision but that dressmakers and tailors in general had even more precise 3D vision abilities that those in the medical fields.

Kind of crazy, huh?

Take care to use your powers for good.

Take care to use your powers for good.

Chopin intends to study more extensively the stereoscopic superpowers of dressmakers. He says that a better understanding of the ability will help in efforts to train those with visual impairments like “lazy eye” to strengthen their 3D vision. He also believes that improved stereoscopic vision could be tantamount in training people in occupations that require precise hand-eye coordination like military fighters or athletes.

On the other end of the spectrum, some vision scientists think that painters often have poorer stereovision which is what gives them an advantage when working in a 2 dimensional world. Rembrandt, the 17th century Dutch painter, is thought to have suffered from stereo blindness.

I find all this quite fascinating. If you do to and want to read more in depth information about the study, you can see the whole report here.

And don’t forget to spend some time celebrating your own super powers, which, if you’re a tailor or seamstress, very likely include stereoscopic vision. Yay us!

Sewing on Trucks, Cycling with Sewing Machines

Sewing on Trucks, Cycling with Sewing Machines

This past week, I got a call to tailor and do some fittings for my friend Matthew, who is the Costume Designer for TBS’s Search Party. I love working for Matthew. He’s sweet and fun and his design choices are quirky, a lovely mix of vintage and high end with a bit of funk blended in.

Search Party doesn’t have the budget for a full time tailor, so Matthew only calls me in for days when he’s doing a lot of fittings or he has a pile of alterations that he needs completed for the next couple weeks of filming.

Day playing

Day playing, which is what we in the film business call working for a day or two on a show when extra help is needed, can be an enjoyable experience (it can also be annoying but I try my best to avoid those types of day playing gigs). Search Party is pretty much always a positive experience, mainly because of Matthew and the people he has working for him.

So, I was happy to get the call, even though it involved going all the way to Red Hook (a neighborhood in Brooklyn sadly lacking in convenient public transportation access) and sewing on a cramped Wardrobe Truck.

The inadequate subway connection was easily solvable: I’d ride my bike just as I do most places in the city, except that I needed to bring a sewing machine and basic sewing supplies with me. Tailor day playing assignments almost always involve dragging your machine and kit through the streets, and usually not on a bicycle.

I discovered that my favorite freakishly lightweight Brother sewing machine fit perfectly into the backpack.

I discovered that my favorite freakishly lightweight Brother sewing machine fit perfectly into the backpack.

But, a few months ago, I received an unexpected gift from REI. I’d ordered a tent for some planned bike packing adventures but, instead, received a backpack (definitely not a tent). REI costumer service was very helpful when I called, said they’d send the tent straight away and would email me a pre-paid return label to ship the backpack back (back…). About twenty minutes after I hung up, they called back to say never mind, keep the backpack for free.

I don’t know what made me try it, but a couple weeks after that, I discovered that my favorite freakishly lightweight Brother sewing machine fit perfectly into the backpack. Brilliant! Here are some photos. If you’re interested in which backpack it is, it’s the Osprey Comet.

If you’re interested in which backpack it is, it’s the Osprey Comet.

If you’re interested in which backpack it is, it’s the Osprey Comet.

I packed a few other things in the backpack with the machine (there was still more space!) – shoulder pads, interfacing, and lining scraps, a bag of thread, and some other not very heavy notions. The rest of my supplies, the scissors and more threads and gallon bag of elastics and tapes, I packed into my Revelate Seat Bag that I purchased from my favorite local bike shop. And I was good to go, albeit not very quickly (cause all that gear was a bit heavy)…

The lion, the witch and the Wardrobe truck

Sewing in small spaces on a Wardrobe truck where a whole crew of other people are also trying to do their jobs presents its own set of challenges. Working on the Search Party truck even more so as they use the dreaded split Wardrobe/Hair/Makeup style of 18-wheeler film truck. Most productions have separate trucks for Wardrobe and Hair/Makeup and twice as much space but smaller productions who are trying to save money go with the split trucks. What this means is that there is even less space than normal.

I set up my machine on the front corner, the sink and washer/dryer on my right and the busy Wardrobe Supervisor and her computer on my left. A few feet away, one of the customers steamed and ironed the clothes for the next day and, in the back of the truck Matthew and his assistant did fittings with various cast members. Occasionally, the set costumer was also on the truck gathering things for the next scene, as well as the shopper dropping off or picking up items.

High chair

I had a chair that was too high for the counter. I’d have to crouch in order to sew while sitting in it. Below the counter were drawers so there was no convenient place to put the foot pedal. I ended up standing up to sew, my leg turned out to the right to operate the pedal from a side-saddle angle. The foot kept getting stuck under the lip of the bottom drawer so that the machine would continue to sew even after I’d taken my foot off. I had about two inches of empty space to the left of my machine before the supervisor’s notebooks and computer and the cord from the iron kept falling (along with a bunch of my pins) into the sink to my right. I had to shift position slightly every time someone needed to fill or empty the washer and dryer.

But, it was still a wonderfully pleasant work-day. Because we were all in good spirits and we all worked together, happily jockeying for space, seamlessly adapting to each other’s needs, laughing when we all seemed to need to occupy the same twelve inches of space at the same time, all of us just getting our jobs done.

Things don’t always work this well on a crowded wardrobe truck. Sometimes people forget that everyone’s jobs are important and necessary to the project. Sometimes people are cranky because of lack of sleep, or stress, or just because it’s their nature. But it doesn’t have to be that way and, if you ask me, it shouldn’t. Making TV does not, after all, have anything to do with curing cancer or launching rocket ships (sometimes people forget that!).

One of the most wonderful things is a group of people working together to achieve a common goal. Its also a pretty good way of getting things done! I highly recommend it. 🙂