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. 🙂

Magic Makers and Dreamers of Dreams

Magic Makers and Dreamers of Dreams

As the tailor in the costume department on a major network television show, I often am asked to do minor sewing repairs/favors for people in other departments. I mostly don’t mind, especially if the person who is actually in need of the favor comes to ask me in person. It’s usually small things like sewing on a button or repairing a seam that has split open. If I’m not too busy and the repair will take five to ten minutes, I’ll often go ahead and do it while they wait.

If the favor-seeker is a woman, they inevitably say something like, “I always wanted to learn how to sew,” or “My mom tried to teach me but I was never interested,” or “I wish I knew how to sew.”

You’re never too old to learn

I always want to ask why they didn’t, or why don’t they now and then. Sometimes, if I think about it too much, I become a bit sad as, once again, I realize that sewing really kind of is a dying art. Along with shop and industrial arts classes, sewing certainly isn’t taught anymore in most school systems. Many people view ‘maker’ type skills as not as prestigious or “smart” as careers in finance or marketing. There’s quite a bit of research on the subject and, also, apparently a “Maker Movement”. It seems maybe people are starting to realize how important and necessary building and making skills are and how much the world really does still need true craftspeople.

I’m fascinated by anyone who has practiced and honed their skills to the point of being able to create something beautiful and functional with just their hands. When it comes to making things out of fabric or wood or metal or whatever, the true magic is in watching the thing emerge from beneath your fingers.

The importance of guidance

Jorge, who was the man who taught me how to drape, always used to say, “Just cut away all the parts that aren’t a 1930s dress,” (or whatever it was I was endeavoring to make). I suppose it’s true that not everyone has the ability to see a 1930s dress in a pile of fabric: that’s what makes some drapers and pattern makers artists. But if you do have that ability, or the ability to see a three-dimensional object and know what it would look like as a two-dimensional pattern than you owe to yourself to develop that gift. Because it’s a rare thing indeed. Or if you know a young person who has expressed interest in sewing and making things, teach them and encourage them.

Sewing and patternmaking are incredible skills to have and you can make a very lucrative career out of them. When I met Christy Rilling years ago, she was working out of her tiny East Village apartment. Now, she has a full studio and a roster of talented tailors working for her. And she tailors Michelle Obama’s clothing.

Use your hands and make something

I ride my bike everywhere in the city, over all sorts of potholes and debris.

I ride my bike everywhere in the city, over all sorts of potholes and debris.

I wish more young people were interested in pursuing careers in things like furniture building, masonry, tailoring, and clock & watch repair though I do think that our schools systems are partially to blame for the lack of “interest”. The world is always in need of beautiful & unique things and the individuals who can make them. By beauty, I mean anything that is lovingly & expertly crafted – from a simple wood chair to an intricate mechanical pocket watch, to a bias cut dress that hugs the body it was made for just right to a hand built bicycle wheel.

Have you ever watched someone build a bicycle wheel? It’s kind of amazing. I recently had one built for my bike. When the wheel was done and on my bike, I was struck suddenly by the immense importance of that wheel to be well built. I mean, I ride my bike everywhere in the city, over all sorts of potholes and debris and I trust, completely without thinking, that that wheel will do its intended job and not suddenly crumple under the pressure. That’s a big trust when you really think about it.

I will say here that I do have a locally owned bike shop https://www.bicycleroots.com I always go to and my friend, who owns the shop, is the only one I’d trust to build me a wheel. Which brings me to my next point.

The most valuable commodity: People

Relationships and trust are key when it comes to building a business around your skill, sewing or otherwise. When it comes to sewing and patternmaking, your goal is most always to make a person look their very best. If you do that, they will come to realize the value in having something made or altered just for them and they’ll come back and they’ll also send their friends.

So encourage some aspiring maker today if you can and tell them it’s an extremely wonderful thing if they think they might want to do this making thing for a living someday. Because there’s always room for more magic makers in this world.

Thankful

Thankful

***Disclaimer: this blog post was written a few days after taking a spill on my bike and hitting my head while coming down a mountain in Spain. It may be a wee bit disjointed (But, don’t worry! I’m completely ok).

This year for Thanksgiving I decided I was going to avoid the whole thing, take the #optoutside to whole new level and go to Mallorca, Spain to cycle around the island for four days. All was going as planned: the weather was holding out, I was feeling good, pedaling up and down mountains, the scenery was as lovely as always… Until, suddenly, with no warning, in the last two kilometers of a fourteen kilometer descent, my bike and I were both on the ground.

Things can change so quickly. I’m fine. I was fine. The guide for the cycling tour I was on magically appeared on the road literally seconds after I fell. He picked me up, put me in the van and off we went to the emergency clinic in Palma. A couple hours later, with five stitches in my head, I was back in the van eating a sandwich on the way to the hotel.

Recovery

Now, I suppose you’re all wondering what this has to do with sewing. I’m getting there – I think (I do have five stitches in my head after all).

Taking a spill like that – one that could have resulted in very dire results if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet – makes a person thankful for a lot of things – like helmets and hand/eye coordination and muscles that heal, and functioning limbs and digits. I was very lucky, with only slight occasional dizziness resulting.

What I’ve rediscovered in the past few days is that the two activities that I find the most comfort in, biking and sewing, are also very therapeutic. I knew that before but sometimes I forget and need a reminder.

Therapy

Both biking and sewing are repetitive activities that I’m able to do without really thinking (as long as I’m sewing something straight forward).

Both biking and sewing are repetitive activities that I’m able to do without really thinking (as long as I’m sewing something straight forward). Sewing (and biking) are forms of meditation. I can lose all sense of time when doing both of them. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explained that sometimes when your brain is busy creating something, it doesn’t have enough attention left over to think about other problems and ends up in a state of meditation that quiets the fight or flight reflexes caused by stress. Interesting, right?

Also, when you do something pleasurable, your brain releases dopamine that acts as an anti depressant. Both sewing and cycling do this for me. I certainly wouldn’t necessarily recommend everyone hopping right back on the bike after knocking their head but for me, it was the right thing. I had people to ride with and keep an eye on me and I was able to enter a quiet space of meditation with sun and sky all around me.

Stimulation

Sewing may also help protect your brain against some symptoms of aging. Neuroplasticity means that our brains can adapt to the environment. Activities such as sewing stimulate the brain and may improve neuroplasticity which in turn, can ward off early dementia.

Sewing has also been said to promote lower blood pressure. So many good things can come from sewing. What are you waiting for? Go forth and sew something today. 🙂