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.
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. 🙂

Common Ground - Women's Sewing Center in Pakistan

Common Ground – Women’s Sewing Center in Pakistan

The road on the way to Chirah.

The road on the way to Chirah.

The road from Gilgit, Pakistan to Chirah in the Bagrote Valley is not an easy one. It starts out easy enough: along the paved Karakorum Highway. But, a few kilometers outside of Gilgit, you take a left directly into the mountains. And then the road is dirt, gravel, large rock, and sand – and steep. Lung wrenchingly steep, if you’re on a bicycle as we were. It winds up and around the mountain, free of guardrails, devoid of almost all traffic except the occasional motorbike. There is nothing to filter the searing sun. The air is heavy and hot and the path always, always, leads upward.

Until finally, the road evens out, becomes almost flat. And green appears – grass, trees, gardens, rows and rows of vegetables spread out on both sides. The air becomes a bit cooler and the winds whistle down from the peaks, circling through the valley in a refreshing heavenly respite.

Chirah Sewing Centre

Chirah is a small village in the Bagrote Valley in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan. The region, self-governing, receives very limited support from the central Pakistani government.

The Chirah Sewing Centre, opened in April of 2012, provides six month courses to the women of the region to learn sewing skills so that they may, if they wish, earn their own income.

The Sewing Centre is housed in a small space provided by a village resident.

The Sewing Centre is housed in a small space provided by a village resident.

The Sewing Centre is housed in a small space provided by a village resident. The room is not very large at all, probably about 12-14 feet by 6-8 feet and there is no electricity. All the machines are treadle or hand operated. Only two of the machines were in cabinets – the rest were on the floor. They were all the old black Singer style machines in wooden cases. The women sit on the floor (or at the limited available tables) to sew, creating all kinds of garments and decorative textiles, a sampling of which hung on the walls of the room.

Little women

The women cooked breakfast for us the day we visited and we ate on the floor surrounded by their machines and sewing projects. The director of the Centre, a man, told us that they were hoping to acquire an overlock machine in the future. I wondered how that would work without electricity but didn’t get a chance to ask my question. Two of the women, the teachers we were told, sat in the corner of the room while we ate. They spoke quietly to each other from time to time but, as is often the case in Pakistan, they never directly addressed us.

I was the only woman in the cycling group of 7 plus 2 male Pakistani guides. We made eye contact, me and the two women in the corner, and they grinned at me when I waved.

After we ate, all the women who were enrolled in the sewing course, filed into the room to sit behind their machines. Everyone took pictures and the Director continued to talk about the women and the centre and what they were learning and what kinds of things they made.

Cultural differences

I tried to convey how I really enjoyed meeting the ladies at the Sewing Centre.

I tried to convey how I really enjoyed meeting the ladies at the Sewing Centre.

The men in my cycling group stood at the doorway and took photos of the women and their machines. I took some too but, after the men had gotten all the pictures they wanted, I went in to talk to the women directly. None of them knew much English and I, unfortunately, know very little Pakistani.

I did have pictures of my sewing machines and my studio on my phone though and I showed them those. One by one, as they scrolled through my photos and realized I sewed also, they smiled and grasped my hands, laughed, and talked excitedly with each other. I desperately wished we could communicate better. I wanted to talk to them about sewing, about the garments they made on machines without electricity. I also sort of wanted to apologize for all of my male companions taking photos of them as if they were in a zoo though I knew that none of them meant it that way. I also wanted to say that I wished they could tell me about the Centre in their own words, without the editing of a male spokesperson. But I couldn’t. So I had to settle for showing them as many pictures as I could and trying to convey how I really enjoyed meeting them and how much respect and admiration I had for them.

I wished that we could all sew together. I wished they were allowed to have their own voices in rooms full of men. I wished there was a way I could tell them how amazing I thought they all were. I wished they lived in a world where it was ok for women to talk to men freely, where they could look anyone they wanted in the eye, speak their minds. I wished they didn’t have to stay silent while someone described their lives. I wished I could spend more time with them but the group was getting ready to cycle on.

And so I got up to say goodbye. And every single one of them got up as well, hugged me as I left, and looked me directly in the eye, one tailor to another.

Can I Take my Sewing Machine on an Airplane?

Can I Take my Sewing Machine on an Airplane?

I’ve been doing a good job this summer of satiating (at least a bit!) my ever-present wanderlust.

I’ve been doing a good job this summer of satiating (at least a bit!) my ever-present wanderlust.

I’ve been doing a good job this summer of satiating (at least a bit!) my ever-present wanderlust. I’ve been to the Dead Sea and the Red Sea and stood in the middle of the desert in Jordan. I’ve wandered down into the depths of a pyramid in Giza and hiked to the top of Mount Sinai.

Today, I’m preparing for a cycling trip to the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan – during which we’re going to visit the local school and women’s sewing centre in Chirah (a vocational training project supported by the Red Spokes LVCF charity). You can read more about the center here. Red Spokes is also the company that’s organizing the cycling tour I’m about to embark on. If you happen to be interested in that, you can read about it here.

I’m super excited about both the cycling part and getting to visit the sewing center and will definitely try and spend some time communicating with the women there and learning about their lives and what sewing means to them.

Right now though, I’m exhausted after finally managing to (I think) get my bike packed up so it’ll survive both the TSA and the baggage handlers. (Wish me, or rather, my bike, luck).

Wrestling with my bicycle and bike bag this morning got me thinking about flying with sewing machines.

Can I Take my Sewing Machine on an Airplane?

Can I Take my Sewing Machine on an Airplane?

When sewing machines fly

When sewing machines fly

It’s been quite a few years since I’ve flown with a machine in tow. I think the last time I did was almost 8 years ago – and security measures weren’t as strict as they are now. I had the machine packed in a rolling suitcase and I recall that I gate checked it with JetBlue. You can also buy great sewing machine specific bags to transport your machine: http://www.sewingmachinesplus.com/trolley-category.php

The important thing to remember though is to remove the needle and any other sharp tools if you’re going to bring as carry-on luggage.

A quick search on the TSA website does indeed confirm that you can bring a sewing machine in your carry on or checked bags.

The Sharp Objects List states that you can also bring knitting, crochet, and sewing needles and safety pins in your carry on but, scissors must be less than 4″ from the pivot point (like these):

TSA and contraband

I’ve been doing a good job this summer of satiating (at least a bit!) my ever-present wanderlust.

I’ve been doing a good job this summer of satiating (at least a bit!) my ever-present wanderlust.

Speaking of the TSA, they actually have a rather amusing Instagram account where they post pictures of confiscated items that people tried to bring on board airplanes as well as answer questions about whether or not specific items are allowed.

Travel tips

If you do happen to need to travel by air with your machine, here are a few tips:

  1. Take the lightest machine you own (only because it’ll be easier for you to carry through the airport. Most airlines don’t weight carry on bags). I know I talk about these Brother machines all the time but they really are incredibly lightweight and durable. And they sew well!
  2. Put your presser foot down on a piece of fabric and remove the needle. Make sure all your thread holders are folded or detracted if they’re foldable or retractable.
  3. Pack some foam or something else cushy around it in case it falls over on its side. I also like to put the machine inside some sort of plastic bag to protect it from water (just in case there’s a freak rain storm, or you drag it through a puddle or something is leaking somewhere).I’m a backpacker/hiker and bike commuter though so I pack everything into clear plastic drawstring bags. Because you just never know.If there’s extra or empty space in the bag or box with your machine, fill it up with something. Fabric, clothes, those air filled plastic pillows – whatever. The more secure a machine is in its case(or box) the less it’ll shift and bang around.
  4. If you happen to still have your machine’s original box and packing material, use that. You can tape the box up and either check it or carry it into the cabin with you. Be advised though, that if you’re taking it as a carry on, you’ll probably have to take it out of its box or case for security. So, bring a roll of packing tape with you so you can seal the box back up.
  5. Remember that the TSA officers are just doing their jobs and sometimes they have different interpretations of what that is or what items are allowed. I travel very often (mostly international) and if there is one thing I’ve learned it’s to always, always be kind and respectful (even if you think the person you’re dealing with doesn’t know what they’re talking about or are not understanding you). I spent almost twenty minutes at the Cairo airport explaining to an officer that I had metal bike pedals, metal clips in my bike shoes and a bicycle seat in my bag. By the end of it, we were both laughing and we both said thank you (I like to think that later, over dinner, he told his buddies or family about the crazy white girl who just biked across Jordan that went through his security line).

Fly, my pretties, fly!

I know that airport security measures can be annoying and I truly wish that there wasn’t the need for them (either real or imagined) but I’ve found time and time again that a pleasant thank you and a smile makes things go a lot more smoothly (and faster!) 😉

And with that, I’m off to JFK Airport. Safe and happy travels to all.

The (sometimes scary) Life of a Freelancer

The (sometimes scary) Life of a Freelancer

Camel fashion in Petra.

Camel fashion in Petra.

If you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been traveling a bit recently (And I’m actually preparing to head out tonight for one more adventure in a far-flung land). I tend to go on trips solo, often joining an organized group expedition that most likely involves riding my bike through some foreign country.

…you can’t keep putting off the things you want to do or the places you want to go on the assumption you’ll have time in the future to do them.

I meet lots of different people on these trips from all sorts of places and backgrounds. But two of the questions that every single person on this planet always seems inclined to ask are:

(1) What do you do for work?

And (2) some variation of How do you get so much time off work?

Different strokes for different folks

How do you get so much time off work?

How do you get so much time off work?

I give different answers to the first question depending on who’s doing the asking. Sometimes I just say I’m a tailor and pattern maker, though this confuses many people, as the fact that such a thing could be a career never occurred to them. Their idea of a ‘tailor’ is someone like their grandmother sitting at home in a rocking chair darning socks and patching jeans.

Sometimes I say I’m a tailor for film and television shows which usually elicits an “oh wow, that’s interesting!” I always answer that sometimes it is but most times it isn’t all that glamorous (I spend a lot of time hemming jeans and shortening men’s jacket sleeves) though I do enjoy what I do.

If the conversation continues from there it usually enters into the murky waters of “so you’re a freelancer?” Well, yes, sort of. But also, sort of no.

Am I a freelancer?

I am a freelancer - in a sense.

I am a freelancer – in a sense.

I’m a freelancer in the sense that I’m never completely sure where my next job might come from but I’m not in the sense that I belong to a union and therefore have excellent benefits and salary protection. Not all movies and television shows are union ones (if they’re not we call them independent films.) My particular local in NYC does not have what they call ‘a hiring hall’, meaning I’m responsible for procuring my own jobs; the union doesn’t send me on jobs or anything like that.

And I’m also not a freelancer in the way I get normally get paid on a project. Almost all film and television jobs use one of two payroll companies: Entertainment Partners or Cast & Crew. I get paid through them with taxes taken out and a W-2 at the end of the year. The nice thing about both of these companies is that they keep track of all your earnings throughout the years with all the different shows you’ve worked on so you can use them for employment and salary verification when you’re applying for things like mortgages (banks like employment verification!). They are, legally and technically, your employer of record.

Each show or movie sets up its own production company (usually an LLC) independent from whatever parent company it may have (NBC Universal, Disney, etc.) that in turn, enters into contracts with the payroll company and the unions.

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em & know when to fold ’em

My answer is very simple: “I just say no.”

My answer is very simple: “I just say no.”

If I get through all this mumbo jumbo financial stuff and the person I’m talking to is still actually listening, they’ll then ask about how I get time off.

My answer is very simple: “I just say no.”

…its good not to be available all the time.

It’s taken me a very long time to get to the point where I’m able to say no to things. When I was just starting out, I said ‘yes’ to absolutely everything. You kind of have to when you’re beginning, before you’ve built up your reputation. But now that I’ve been doing this for a bit over 25 years, I can turn down things I don’t necessarily want to work on and say ‘no’ to gigs if I’ve planned a trip or vacation.

Free spirit

It’s a glorious thing to be able to say no to something that sounds horrifying (like, for instance: an over night shoot way out in Queens or a huge period television show that some network executive thinks can be made with half the manpower than what is really needed).

Nancy Reagan just says no - you can too!

Nancy Reagan just says no – you can too!

It can be scary, for sure, because I never truly, completely know if I’ll get another job (freelancing is wrought with all kinds of anxiety!). But, if history is any indication, I will. And I try to trust that.

Another thing I’ve learned is that you can’t keep putting off the things you want to do or the places you want to go on the assumption you’ll have time in the future to do them. Because you won’t. Sometimes you just have to have a little faith.

I’m not saying it’s easy to get to the place I’m at. It’s not. I worked extremely hard for almost 20 years while never taking any sort of vacation or going anywhere. But, in my old(er) age work/life balance has become more important to me and, my connections and work reputation are strong enough to allow me to leave town for a couple weeks without jeopardizing my career.

Plus, its good not to be available all the time. Unless they’re a close friend, I never tell people why I’m not available, I simply say, “Sorry, I’m booked up for the next two weeks.”

Booked up on my own personal vacation maybe,  but they don’t need to know that.

Don’t live the same year 75 times and call it a life.

Carpet Magic from Egypt

Carpet Magic from Egypt

Some of the beautiful silk & cotton rugs can take up to 14 to 16 months to make.

Some of the beautiful silk & cotton rugs can take up to 14 to 16 months to make.

I visited a carpet making school while I was in Egypt.

The school, on Sakkara Road in Giza, was called ‘New Egypt for Oriental Carpets’. The building was a vast stone structure, wide stone steps leading up to the second floor showroom and into the main entrance on the ground floor.

Back to school

The front wood doors opened into a vast, high ceilinged, airy room. Looms of varying widths, reaching from floor to ceiling lined the walls. On two sides, children manned the looms. They were of all different ages, the youngest appearing to be around 7 –  all the way up to 16 or 18.

Each child sat a wood bench in a front a loom longer and wider than at least three or four of himself. They were all boys.

The children, along with learning how to make hand tied rugs from wool and silk and cotton, also study reading and writing. Acquiring the skill of carpet making allows them the opportunity to stay in their hometowns and earn a good wage for a trade. They can also continue their education elsewhere if they desire.

My guide and I stopped behind one of the youngest boys. He turned with a toothy grin to wave at me, then turned back to his loom. The speed and dexterity of his fingers as he tied the long strands of wool into knots was mesmerizing.

The oldest group of carpet makers at the school were no longer pupils but artists. They didn’t work from a preconceived mapped out design but from pictures in their own heads.

The youngest pupils work on the simpler designs made predominately of wool. They have long sheets of paper that show the colors required to complete a specific design – kind of like the directions that come with any rug latch-hook kit you can buy at a craft store. But much more complicated and a lot more extensive.

Snatch the pebble from my hand, Grasshopper

Another young man of about 13 years of age was working on a rug made of cotton and silk.

“Slow down,” said my guide, “Slow down so she can see.”

He dutifully slowed his flying fingers. He worked across the loom width-wise, tying strands of silk to a sturdy cotton thread already inserted in the loom. When he finished a row, he used a wired brush to push the knotted strand down tight against its neighbor.

He demonstrated the trimming process that happens at the completion of a rug, using heavy scissors to trim the fuzz like you do to an old sweater when it’s balled and pilled up.

On the backside of the rug, I could see the long threads left where he changed colors of silk. After he’d woven in all the strands, he would go back and cut and tie all the ends so that the back of the rug looked as beautiful and clean as the front.

The student becomes the master

The oldest group of carpet makers at the school were no longer pupils but artists. They didn’t work from a preconceived mapped out design but from pictures in their own heads. They used smaller looms they could stand up at, manipulating the contraption up and down with a lever by their feet, tying and weaving the yarns with their hands.

Some of the rugs can take up to 14 to 16 months to make – truly astounding in this world of mass, quick consumerism. All of the students and artists I encountered at the school seemed to have a genuine pride for what they were doing, and a patience I suspect is increasingly rare in the instant gratification, selfie-taking, googling, internet shopping world of many western civilizations.

Works of art

As soon as I laid eyes on you, I knew that you'd be mine.

As soon as I laid eyes on you, I knew that you’d be mine.

The second floor of the school was the showroom filled with all kinds of stunning rugs. Drinking a complimentary cup of tea, I wandered amongst the treasures for a good part of an hour (or maybe two). I finally decided on two carpets I wanted to purchase.

But, since I was in Egypt, the actual buying of things involved a thirty-minute bargaining session. I pretended I hadn’t already decided which rugs I liked the best and asked to see some more similar to my initial selection. I remained undecided for a significant amount of time, especially once price came into question, hemming and hawing and murmuring and looking around.

After settling on a cotton and silk rug, I then asked about the tapestries. I’d spotted the one I wanted quite some time ago. It was one of the artist done ones with yellow and orange flowers, swans, and blue sky and water with pink water lilies. After some more back and forth, we finally agreed upon a price for both the pieces I wanted.

The cherry on top

My freebie tapestry. A nice touch.

My freebie tapestry. A nice touch.

Then, in true Egyptian fashion, the salesman offered me one more tapestry I could choose from a pile as a gift. I suspect this pile consisted of the practice tapestries done by the younger students but they were all alluring in their own right and I choose a long narrow hanging of yellow with camel silhouettes.

I left the school quite happy with my purchases and the opportunity to have seen the young carpet makers at work – and to contribute to the Egyptian economy and the school.

Now, back at home in New York City, my Egyptian carpets have been happily integrated into my home carrying with them the legacy and craftsmanship of centuries.

Somewhere in the Desert

Somewhere in the Desert

Camel fashion in Petra.

Camel fashion in Petra.

I just spent a week cycling from the Dead Sea in northern Jordan to the Red Sea in the south – spectacular views and a whole bunch of those ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences. Among other things, I spent a day wandering around The Lost City of Petra and a night in the desert in a Bedouin camp. The Bedouin are Arabic speaking nomadic people of the Middle Eastern deserts.

One of the most interesting things I noticed were the beautiful and unique fashion styling the Jordanian men displayed, especially in Petra. In the depths of that city, amongst all the rocks and caves and roman ruins, I saw where Johnny Depp’s Pirates of Penzance look was born.

Many of the young men lined their eyes with a dark substance made from the ash of a burnt tree and mixed with olive oil. As well as having a soothing humidifying affect, the mixture protects the eyes from the sun. It’s really a brilliant concoction. And it makes the lashes look especially luxurious. The camels, as well, were decked out in beautifully colored tapestries. The whole city of Petra was simply stupendous.

Desert fashion

As most cultures who live in a desert climate, Jordanian’s dress in clothing that covers most of the skin. The young men were most often in skinny pants of some kind and flowing tops, sometimes in layers. But the most fascinating and beautiful component of their attire were the creative and intricate ways they wrapped their head scarves – many of them were truly works of art.

Young men in Petra.

Young men in Petra.

I watched one gentlemen as he wrapped his, twisting and turning and tucking it in a series of complicated moves I couldn’t even hope to follow. When done, the scarf was piled high on his head in twists with two twirling pointed ends hanging down to his shoulders on either side. Some men implemented designs with one cascading side corner, others in the more traditional technique of shielding the back of the neck.

The scarves, or keffiyeh as they are called in the Arab world, were in various colors, though the most prevalent were the ones us westerners are used to seeing – the back and white checkered and red and white checkered varieties. This pattern is thought to have originated from an ancient Mesopotamian representation of fishing nets or ears of grain.

In Jordan, the red and white keffiyeh, also know as a shemagh mhadab, is associated with the country and its heritage. They have decorative cotton or wool tassels on the edges – the bigger the tassels, the greater the garment’s value and the status of it’s wearer.

My cycling guide, Anas, wore a black and white one that he told me was representative of his Arabic heritage. I asked him where to buy a traditional good quality authentic scarf, not one from tourist shop. He told me that downtown Amman was the place to buy them and that they would be cheaper there than in the stores catering to tourists. A scarf like his, with smaller tassels and no border, would cost anywhere from 5.00JD to 10.00JD. A fancier one with a border all around could cost up to 20.00JD. He also told me that men tied the shemagh in different ways for no other reason than how they were feeling that day. I love that.

(Just a note on currency: the Jordanian dinar is a pretty strong currency: 1.00 JD equals about 1.40USD.)

Making friends around the world

Me with a one of the Beduoin people.

Me with a one of the Beduoin people.

I also loved the long garments worn by the Bedouin. They were most often dressed in light colored pants and a long matching light colored tunic (down to mid calf) with button closures on the front. They all looked extremely well put together. The long dress like tunic is called a thoab and is made of lightweight fabric. Under the thoab, the men normally wear a t-shirt and the long wide leg trousers called a serwal. I love how, though they all basically wear the same garments, there was still so much individual style and personality conveyed through their clothing. I think one of the most fascinating things about fashion is individual expression and how people are able to wear something in a way that allows their personality shine through.

I absolutely loved my time in Jordan. Everyone was extremely welcoming and hospital. Everywhere I went, I was greeted with, “You are welcome in Jordan.” What a truly wonderful thing.

I’m in Egypt now, writing this as I look out over the Red Sea in Dahab (I need a day of relaxing after cycling through Jordan). I know I promised to write about Egyptian textiles and the markets and I will. I’ll be in Cairo tomorrow trying out my bartering skills and will provide a full report next week.

Until then, take care and don’t forget to let your own personal style show through in whatever manner you desire.
Ma’is salama.

A Little Bit of History from the Desert

A Little Bit of History from the Desert

Here's a picture from my balcony in Madaba, Jordan. I hope to find some interesting textiles in the bazaars as I travel through the country.

Here’s a picture from my balcony in Madaba, Jordan. I hope to find some interesting textiles in the bazaars as I travel through the country.

I’m in Jordan today. Yes, the Jordan in the Middle East, northeast of Egypt and Israel. I woke up in Madaba to a beautiful sunrise and rose blooms over the desert. I’m here on holiday, to ride my bike and spend the later afternoons looking for textiles in the bazaars.

The Middle East has always been a nexus of textile production. Trade routes commonly known as the Silk Road terminated on their western end in the eastern Mediterranean ports. As a result, these markets were also the centers of textile production.

Textiles of the Middle East during the Middle Ages were highly prized goods. I’d venture to say they still are. Many of the words we use to describe textiles in the English language are derived from Persian, Arabic, and Turkish – terms like damask, taffeta, cotton, muslin, seersucker, and mohair.

Historical value

Long ago, textiles in this region were also often accepted as payment of taxes or other moneys owed. Visiting officials and ambassadors were given gifts of cloth or garments. In a part of the world where much of the population was once primarily nomadic, interiors were furnished with textiles used to cover floors, walls, cushions, and to create beds and storage of all kinds.

Traditionally, gifts of any kind were also presented in a textile wrapper. The more elaborate the wrapper the greater honor was intended. Textiles were thought to be able to hold powers of protection or harm, depending on the symbols and inscriptions incorporated into them.

After the death of Muhammad, representation of living creatures was banned in most cultures of the region. As a result, Islamic design developed a beautiful metaphorical language all its own, utilizing geometry, calligraphy, vegetal, and architectural forms (though in many Persian & Central Asian silks and carpets, human and animal figures do appear).

Silk

Elaborately patterned silks were produced throughout the Middle East in all sorts of complex weaves – such as twills, lampas, and brocades. Silks of a more simple nature, tafta and satin weaves, were also quite numerous. A cloth made from a silk warp and a cotton weft, known as alaca, produced a more “economical” textile.

Tiraz textiles are a silk fabric, particularly important from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries, embellished with a border containing inscriptions of religious quotations and often woven in gold thread. Baghdad was the best known source of tiraz but it was produced in many other Middle Eastern locations. The borders appear most commonly on upper sleeve bands. They are were also found on burial shrouds and ceremonial textiles.

Cotton and linen

Both cotton and linen, ranging more heavy canvas to lightweight gauze, were widely produced in the Middle East. Textile printing also existed and, by the sixteenth century, a printing industry existed in Syria, later expanding into Anatolia.

Mohair and wool

Mohair, camel hair, and goat hair – referred to as cashmere or pashima, is used to weave soft and beautifully patterned shawls throughout the region. These shawls became very popular in the west during the nineteenth century.

The patterns, woven in twill tapestry or other complex compound weaves, featured colorful and elaborate designs. One such design was a complex vegetal one known as boteh. In the west this design became to be known as the paisley motif, named after Paisley, Scotland where textile mills produced copies of the design in the latter nineteenth century.

The best known wool textiles of the region are the pile and flat cloths made as rugs, bags, wall coverings, and the like. The oldest surviving example of Islamic carpet weaving is the “Fostat” fragment from the ninth century found in Cairo.

Carpet design can be divided into 3 categories

  1. Tribal carpets, produced by nomadic or village households for their own use, tend to be geometric in design and reflect regional affiliations.
  2. Court carpets, created by the finest artists of the day, are usually the most intricate and finely knotted.
  3. Urban manufactured carpets are the third category. These are often technically fine but most often have less intricate designs.

Adventure time!

I’m excited to see what kinds of things I’ll be able to unearth over the next week as I wander about Jordan. Hopefully, I’ll have some interesting finds to share with you!

Textiles, especially those that are handmade, have such a deep history. I love learning about a design or technique that is unique or specific to a certain village or area. I also enjoy meeting local artisans who still produce works of art in the same way their ancestors always have.

This all ties into one of my previous posts about passing on skilled expertise to younger generations. Its a tradition pretty much as old as human civilization and one very much worth sustaining.

I wish you all a week of amazing discoveries (whether they be ancient or not). Next week I’ll be posting from Cairo. Arak qaribanaan.

Looking for the Light

Looking for the Light

Unless I’m sewing in my lovely big-windowed space at Blindspot, I find that I’m constantly searching for more lamps.

Unless I’m sewing in my lovely big-windowed space at Blindspot, I find that I’m constantly searching for more lamps.

The older I get, the more light I need to sew – or so it seems. Perhaps the many years of sewing in dimly lit church basements and cramped corners surrounded by double racks of clothing and piles of waxed cardboard ‘chicken’ boxes has finally taken its toll.

Unless I’m sewing in my lovely big-windowed space at Blindspot, I find that I’m constantly searching for more lamps. Even with the almost entire wall of windows in my shop I still have a couple white paper Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling, two floor lamps, and small gooseneck table lights next to the machines. The little lights in the domestic machines never seem to be quite enough. I’ve even been known to prop up my cell phone with the flashlight on under the top arm of machines, leaning it against the solid part with the controls and wheel.

Industrial machines come with moveable, bendable gooseneck lamps attached. I position mine low to the left of the machine, almost touching. I never have a problem seeing when sewing with the industrial.

There are countless types of table lamps out there but, for sewing purposes – and especially if you want to be able to angle the light beam under a sewing machine – a clamp-on style or one with a small base is the best. If the base is too big it’ll just get in your way when you’re trying to sew (especially with a machine). You also need one with a long, moveable goose neck or adjustable arm so you can point it where you need it.

Daylight Slimline LED table lamp

The Daylight Slimline LED table lamp is a great choice. It’s extremely narrow and clamps to a table edge. I like that it doesn’t take up excess space; it just does its intended job without being obtrusive and overbearing (and yes, I know I’m anthropomorphizing).

Daylight or full spectrum light sources are said to improve color perception and visual clarity, as well as, mood, productivity, and mental awareness. How valid these claims are depends on whom you’re talking to but, it is pretty well accepted that they do improve color perception. Here’s one study conducted by the Lighting Research Center at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Daylight Slimline floor lamp

The Daylight Slimline light also comes in a floor lamp version, which is also very useful as you can bend the arm over a chair or your shoulder to work.

Ottlight Creative HD

A really nice, easily portable light is the Ottlight Creative HD high definition natural light.

The Ottlight is named after the inventor of full spectrum lighting, Dr. John Ott.

Doc Ott

All living organisms needed the full spectrum of light provided by the sun.

All living organisms needed the full spectrum of light provided by the sun.

Dr. Ott was a banker who loved horticulture and time-lapse photography. This led him into a pioneering career in photobiology; the study of light on living cells.

Dr. Ott ended up working as a consultant for the Walt Disney “Secrets of Life” film series where he found that he couldn’t successfully grow plants indoors under normal everyday artificial lighting. His research showed that, in order to thrive, all living organisms needed the full spectrum of light provided by the sun. It was also during the making of this film that Dr. Ott pioneered the use of time lapse for film and television.

Moving through the spectrum

As his career progressed, Dr. Ott began monitoring the beneficial effects of full spectrum lighting on certain human physiological conditions. He discovered that light color temperatures affected mental health, with balanced light reducing hyperactivity in classrooms and negative behavior in prisons.

One of his biggest discoveries was that proper reproduction of individual cells (plant and animal) is affected by lighting variances. He also realized that the light entering our bodies through our eyes controls and regulates our brain chemistry.

Dr. Ott wrote tons of research as well as three books. He published a series of seven articles in the International Journal of Biosocial Research, titled Color and Light: Their Effects on Plants, Animals, and People. These articles summed up Dr. Ott’s decades of independent research, which, at the time, was contrary to the established wisdom of pharmaceutical companies who were intent on toting the negative effects of natural sunlight.

The Silent Epidemic

It’s a sunny morning here in Harlem, so I’m about to grab my bike & go spend some time out in the sun.

It’s a sunny morning here in Harlem, so I’m about to grab my bike & go spend some time out in the sun.

At first, Dr. Ott’s research was most often met with polite indifference from the scientific community. Soon, though, clinicians and medical professionals emerged who recognized and aligned with his theory of Mal-illumination or “the silent epidemic”.

Mal-illumination refers to the human trend of becoming ‘contemporary cave dwellers’ and spending the majority of their time indoors and away from natural light sources. Doesn’t sound good, does it?

So, in closing, don’t forget to go outside (outside and sunlight are still free after all!), open the shades, and consider buying yourself a full spectrum lamp if you don’t have one already.

It’s a sunny morning here in Harlem and I’m about to grab my bike and go spend some time out in the sun.

The Soul of Things: Or should I buy that old metal sewing machine?

The Soul of Things: Or should I buy that old metal sewing machine?

A friend told me the other day she was going to start collecting sewing machines. I found this a bit odd, mainly because, though she can sew, she doesn’t on any sort of regular basis. She said she was cleaning her apartment and came across her sewing machine shoved way up on the top shelf of her closet and then, for some reason, had the thought she should start collecting them.

Old sewing machines, especially the really old ones, look quite interesting & cool.

Old sewing machines, especially the really old ones, look quite interesting & cool.

I get it; old sewing machines, especially the really old ones, look quite interesting and cool. They often have intricate decals and ornate brand badges. Most of them still work – mainly because they’re all metal and have less parts to break.

Oldie but a goodie

I used to have an old black iron Singer with a knee pedal. I don’t remember the model number but it was one of the first ‘portable’ models Singer made. The machine did run on electricity and came in a beautiful wood dome shaped case. In reality, it was actually a bit too heavy to be considered portable. I think I found it in the depths of some storage room in an old school building somewhere in Syracuse, NY. I was working for a costume designer, I think, for the opera. (Does Syracuse still have an opera? I can’t remember – it’s been so long).

We had been given the storage room as a work space and told we could have and/or use whatever was in it. I remember sitting in a corner, shelves and tables around me piled high with fabrics and boxes and just stuff, sewing tucks into big white cotton petticoats. I remember the machine being very fast. Unlike a lot of models today who have multiple speed settings, machines back then only had one: fast.

I honestly am not sure what happened to that machine. I know it made the move to Texas but it didn’t make the move to NYC, so it’s been gone from my life for almost fifteen years. I suspect I sold it at a garage sale for $20.00 or something. Or even gave it away to someone who would use it – which is sort of how I think antique sewing machines should navigate through life.

Value: only in the eye of the beholder

I know there are some ‘rare’ models that are perhaps ‘worth’ a lot of money but, all in all, I think people tend to pay entirely too much for used machines. Online auction sites such as Ebay certainly contribute to that. I suppose it’s nice that people can get some money for the old machine that’s been sitting in their basement or garage but, I also think those Ebay auctions get a bit out of hand. And they also trend, often for no discernable reason.

Featherweights are always a popular machine and sell routinely for over $500.00. I found one, which is rarer than the black ones, but it is currently listed on Ebay at $1280.00.

Featherweights are always a popular machine and sell routinely for over $500.00. I found one, which is rarer than the black ones, but it is currently listed on Ebay at $1280.00.

Featherweights are always a popular machine and sell routinely for over $500.00. I found one, which is rarer than the black ones, but it is currently listed on Ebay at $1280.00.

It’s a beautiful machine and comes with the carrying case but no accessories. I honestly think it’s priced too high but perhaps someone will buy it. The value of things is, of course, ultimately measured by what people will pay for that thing (just look at real estate prices in NYC).

The case is a nice touch, since that is all you will likely get with these older machines. Through the passage of time, included accessories & attachments become rare finds.

The case is a nice touch, since that is all you will likely get with these older machines. Through the passage of time, included accessories & attachments become rare finds.

What now?

So, what should you do if you really want to collect old machines but don’t want to spend all of your extra money on it?

Go to garage sales (or stoop sales if you live in the city). When I lived in Texas, I used to frequent yard and garage sales all the time. I almost always found at least one machine at each sale. Some of them I bought but they were never for more than $30.00 or $40.00. If you are buying a machine at sale, ask if you can plug it in to see if it works. Check to see if you can turn the wheel freely and, even if the belt happens to be cracked or broken (they often are as the belts are usually rubber) make sure the light comes on when plugged in.

So, what should you do if you really want to collect old machines but don’t want to spend all of your extra money on it?

So, what should you do if you really want to collect old machines but don’t want to spend all of your extra money on it?

The needle won’t go up and down if the belt is missing or damaged but belts are not an expensive or difficult thing to fix. Check for rust too. Machines that have been stored in a garage or barn often have too much rust damage to ever run well again.

I’ve gotten out of the buy old sewing machines game (I live in a 5th floor walkup in NYC after all), especially on online auction sites. Although many of those machines are cosmetically extraordinary, they lack a “soul”. The only ‘antique’ machines I have now are my Nana’s old Singer 401K and a Singer hemstitcher we purchased for Boardwalk Empire. I’ll never get rid of Nana’s machine. Its sentimental value is immeasurable (even if it didn’t work though it does).

And that’s when things truly become priceless: when they somehow hold a collection of memories related to a person or time.