Sewer memories and sartorial fantasies

“Sewer” is such an funny noun to be applied to those who sew. After all, most of them don’t inhabit the gutter, although they might occasionally stitch in the ditch.

(Yes, in case you didn’t know, stitching in the ditch is a term of art. It means to sew in the depression created by a seam, and it’s usually done to secure a layer of fabric in place on the underside. When you stitch in the ditch, your stitches are practically hidden on the public side.

And because I know you’d ask: yes, someone has a registered trademark in the US for STITCH & DITCH, for use with disposable papers used to stiffen fabric for embroidery. That’s cute.)

I used to be a sewer. I learned to sew long, long before I taught myself to knit. I learned to sew by watching my mother, who claimed she couldn’t teach me; she taught me how to thread her sewing machine, and she just demonstrated the rest, so I think she did just fine.

(My mother doesn’t really do sewing for crafty or artistic purposes, but rather to make clothes. As craft, she used to make macrame objets de folk art. There was this weird abstract wall hanging in avocado, orange, and brown at the top of the basement stairs; every year after November 11, my dad would pin his plastic Remembrance Day poppy on it. It was quite a collection by the time they disposed of that wall hanging. There was also a macrame dust collector Santa Claus wall hanging with a fringed beard. I sneezed whenever I passed it.

My mother also crochets, but for some reason she just does not get the gauge or the choosing appropriate yarn thing and her eyes glaze over when I try to explain that if she makes this pullover with that yarn, she’ll either be crocheting a bulletproof fabric or making something that doesn’t fit. I hate to say it, but sometimes this problem translates to fabrics as well. I only recently managed to make her get rid of a pair of acid wash print trousers (that’s right, you read “acid wash print” and “trousers,” not “jeans”). I love her, but I’m glad I didn’t turn out the same way.

But I digress. I’ve been thinking about the clothing I used to sew. I used to make pretty good clothes — even interview-worthy suits. I think that I’ve made the outfit I’ve worn to every single formal event I’ve attended since grade 8. I had a pretty respectable fabric stash, and a nice little cache of vintage patterns (mostly 50s and 60s). And recently, I bought Cochenille’s Garment Designer for OS X to play with. (Garment Designer can do knitting patterns too, but I bought it for drafting sewing patterns. Given a choice, I prefer to draft knitting patterns by hand. I’ll probably write about why someday. But Cochenille’s customer service? Ace.)

I’ve been thinking about sewing recently because I’ve got the urge to start it up again, although I haven’t got the time. I recently bought some dark olive wool and pink Bemberg lining to make a suit from a 1950s Vogue pattern — not that I actually need another suit, much less a skirt suit, but it would be too adorable and if I had it, I could get rid of a couple of other ensembles gathering dust in the closet. I also recently made some extravagant (for me) purchases of clothing-related literature, which was actually the point of this post. You’ll need to follow the links below to see what I’m raving about here.

First, I bought Betty Kirke’s stellar history of Madeleine Vionnet. It was out of print, but it has now been reissued, again as an oversized hardcover (but a different cover than in the first edition). It’s not cheap, but it’s cheaper than it was as a first edition, and if you’re interested in Vionnet’s designs it is priceless. Vionnet did not draft patterns; she draped fabric on the body (actually, a half-scale doll), often on the bias to increase the fluidity of the fabric. As a result, her garments evolved from elementary shapes such as rectangles and circles, and every twist or fold of fabric, and every seamline, has a functional and aesthetic purpose: the clothing is deceptively simple in appearance, when in fact they were works of marvelous engineering. Her work deserves such a weighty tome. Kirke has provided enough information, including line drawings of pattern pieces, to replicate a number of Vionnet’s garments… but be warned, you’ll need to have a fairly decent skill set to do it successfully, including the ability to draft patterns, assess the adequacy of the pieces provided (additional pieces, like stays, facings, or collars, may be needed), and fit a muslin. To get an idea of the content of Kirke’s book, take a look at this page at the Kent State University Museum website — it’s an exhibition that includes some of Vionnet’s designs.

Also, from the KSU Museum , I ordered two catalogues: one from a 2000 Isabel & Ruben Toledo exhibition, which I knew about at the time because an article was published concurrently in Threads; and one from the current Chado Ralph Rucci exhibition. Unfortunately, not every item in the exhibitions appears in the catalogues — some of the Rucci items viewable online are not even in the physical exhibit themselves — but I wanted to have my own copies, anyway.

To me, Isabel Toledo’s approach to clothing design appears to be the opposite of Vionnet’s, yet they share a common theme. Toledo starts with a concept — geometry, origami, an aspect of the natural world — and then realizes it in fabric, using the human body as a frame. It’s like she’s treating the body as the means to an end: the body is a framework for displaying a textile sculpture, with the added benefit that the body is clothed along the way. Vionnet created sculptural clothing as well, but the female body underneath was paramount and dictated the form of the sculpture; if the body is the means to Toledo, then to Vionnet it was the end.

Rucci, on the other hand, I admire because of the purity of his style and his respect for the fabrics he uses. This is haute couture the way I think it should be: pure clothing, perfectly constructed from flawless materials, not created for shock value or to increase perfume and cosmetic sales, not slavishly following street trends. I will never be able to afford this clothing, but even if I could, I probably wouldn’t buy it, because that level of craftsmanship and design is something I’d like to accomplish myself. Instead, I’d spend all that money I saved by not buying Rucci on the materials that he uses — double-faced cashmere, silk gazar — and practising on them.

And time. I’d have to buy time.

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8 Responses to Sewer memories and sartorial fantasies

  1. Carol Adams says:

    I too am looking for the Macrame Santa Claus pattern I had one and believe it or not my daughter would like to make one.

  2. Liene Tuttle says:

    My mother has the Macrame Santa Claus wall hanging, aka. “dust catcher”. It’s almost as old as I am and I’m frantically searching for the pattern so I can get her to make me one and I’m not having any luck. She still hangs it up every year on the coat closet door in the entry way. I love it. It’s got sentimental value to me. Did your mom make the one that she has/had and is there still a pattern around somewhere? Like your blog!

  3. Shannon says:

    If ever you find yourself south of the border and anywhere near me, we’ll hit up the KSU Museum together, ok? (It’s about 30 minutes away). :)

  4. Amy Marquez says:

    I just found your site and am a relatively new knitter (about 2 years) but am getting ready to knit the Rogue sweater. A good friend bought me the pattern as a holiday gift and promised to help!

    It should not be surprising that your sewing is as incredible as your knitting. BTW, if you need a bag or purse to go with the 50s or 60s suits, here’s a site that someone shared with me last week:

    Thank for for doing what you do!

  5. Susan Rainey says:

    I just had to tell you that I knitted Rogue (in Lamb’s Pride Worsted)for the “Knitting Olympics” and got it done well under the wire — 13 days. It fits great and is something I will wear often. I may have to make another, but for now I am planning on knitting Eris. You are amazing!

  6. Yes, Cochenille is wonderful. I have both Stitch Painter and Garment Designer for my Mac. I want to tell you how much I enjoy your site. I have been reviewing which blogs to eliminate, due to boredom, and then you posted this, and your’s is a keeper.

  7. Jenna- I love your new site, and to let you know I’m on my third Rogue and will be starting Eris hopefully soon. I also want to say that I agree, Cochenille’s CS is second to none, when I ordered a Stitch Painter package, it was slightly delayed, and they upgraded me to a Stitch Painter Gold (Extra Colors) at no charge. Gotta love that.

  8. I love the Vionnet designs – the Toledo less so, but the jellyfish blouse is pretty cool. I can’t believe how contemporary the Vionnet shapes are.

    I’ve been thinking about buying the Cochenille program for Mac, for knitting patterns not sewing. When you’ve had more time to play around with it, I’d love to hear your review.