I am sorry for the long absence. This has been a year of unexpected and difficult adjustments, and sometimes those take up so much time and energy that there isn't much left over. Those of you who have been following along for some time will already know that our twelve and a half year old Labrador, Gia, who we loved and adored, passed away at the end of December. We had a difficult January. We tried to adopt a border-collie lab mix but there were some very large problems with the adoption----ones we couldn't handle in our current living situation----so we had to give him back up to the shelter, which was a terrible experience for my husband and me. Our second adoption ended up being a good match for us and for our new dog. His name is Cougar. He is a five year old labrador mountain cur mix, and he is as sweet as can be. But he has needed a lot of training, as all of his manners are indoor manners and no one had ever taught him to walk on a leash. Between Cougar's training, bad weather, family visits, having friends and co-workers over for dinner, working, learning to make tortillas, replacing a broken bed, etc. our weekends for February were packed full, and then we were in March and suddenly the news became an overwhelming presence in our lives, and we were carefully taking stock of our pantry, and then our worries were confirmed as the coronavirus epidemic became a pandemic and like most of the world we became isolated in our living space.
I imagine that you are all dealing with some form of social distancing and self-quarantining, so you will probably understand why after over a week of working together in our smallish dark apartment and only leaving to exercise with Cougar very early in the morning, my husband and I were feeling hungry for a change of scenery. We decided last Sunday that we should take Cougar and get out and go on a drive out to the Bonneville salt flats, on the edge of the Utah border.
The salt flats are a striking place----miles on miles of flat white thick crusted salt. I wore a recently completed dress that I made from a thrifted sheet with a large print of faded roses and thought that the contrast of roses and salt ended up being rather poetic. The dress is actually made from a 1990s pullover blouse pattern, Simplicity 9132. I simply shortened it to 5/8ths of an inch below the waistline marking and then added a gathered skirt made of simple rectangles. It was a fast and simple sewing project, and it is very loose and comfortable. I made a size 10, but it is such an over-sized design that I could have easily made an 8, or even a 6 and I think it would have fit fine. The buttons on the cuffs were leftovers from my button jar. There weren't any other fastenings. I did discover a small hole in the sleeve after I finished sewing---one of the risks of sewing with second-hand fabrics, especially vintage sheets----so I simply cut out a little scrap of leftover fabric and patched it up. I don't think it is noticeable unless you know it is there and look for it. I don't mind patching things these days, as I feel like it is a statement that I care about this earth, and that lovely things should be cared for.
Getting out in the sunshine and fresh air felt very good after so much confinement. Hopefully Mr Rat and I can catch up somewhat on our backlog of sewing projects to photograph since we suddenly have our weekends all to ourselves for the foreseeable future. I have been cutting out and sewing new projects in an effort to keep myself busy and cheerful in the hours that I am not painting in the studio or doing housework. I miss doing little ordinary things---getting to plan trips to gardens and museums, going to the grocery store, going out on errands to buy buttons or go to the thrift store. They used to break up the monotony of working at home. Now I've had to try to find other things like doing extra baking, playing records, and taking breaks to play games with Cougar. Getting dressed up every day helps me feel dignified even when I feel overwhelmed by sadness or worries for the future. I'm trying to wear more of my homemade jewelry again, as the splash of color brings me a little burst of contentment when I put in on in the morning. I spent some time today doing more beading because I realized I had several strands of stones that were given to me for Christmas that I hadn't used, and beading is so relaxing when I am stressed. The simple action helps me focus on my hands.
How are you dealing with social isolation and quarantine? Do your clothes or crafts bring you comfort, too?
As the year has progressed, I've been working on paring down my patterns. I used to enjoy having lots of choices and trying out new patterns almost every time I sewed a garment. It gave me a sense of plenitude, adventure, and richness of choice that I missed in some other aspects of my life. That has been a fun way to sew, but over this past year, I've found that approach working less and less well for me. Instead of bringing me excitement, my ever-expanding collection of patterns has been giving me decision fatigue. When patterns didn't turn out well I felt intensely discouraged. This has led me towards simplifying my sewing supplies and routines, so I've spent some time over the past two months sorting through my patterns and pulling many out for donation at the local creative re-use center I've only kept ones that I have had success with in the past and that have enough ease for current and future subtle changes in weight and muscle tone, or that looked promising enough to merit getting wearable muslin tests and a final decision over whether or not to keep them after all. Simplicity 9902 is one of the second small selection of patterns that I hadn't yet made up, but that I wanted to try.
I found Simplicity 9902 at the local creative reuse center, Clever Octopus, earlier in the year. It is a size 11/12 for young juniors/teens, but the measurements for this size are actually quite accurate for me, except for the shorter back neck-to-waist length. Keeping that in mind, I lengthened the pattern a bit over an inch. It has a bit of blousing now, so I could probably shorten it slightly if I wanted to, but the blousing also helps it have more ease for movement, so perhaps I won't make further changes. I also lengthened and widened the skirt to suit my own tastes. Since the shirt-waist has an elastic waist that is hidden under a belt when worn, it is forgiving to wear, despite looking rather neat and tailored in an early 1960s way because of the peter-pan collar and the subtly puffed sleeves with their small cuffs.
I made my test version in a thrifted cotton that I believe was originally one of the "homespun" line at JoAnn fabrics. I like the small navy blue plaid: it is versatile, and the cotton is soft and has a nice drape that suits the looser, gathered waist very well. This will be a good year-round dress because the cotton is light enough to wear comfortably in the summer, but is a dark enough color to look good in the fall, winter, and spring, layered with tights, a petticoat, sweaters, and coats. The buttons are also thrifted. Other construction notes: I did lots of edge-stitching to keep things looking neat, I made my button-holes by hand, the elastic is inserted in a waist channel made by sewing the bodice and skirt seam allowances together at the top, and I made small sleeve heads out of cotton from my scrap basket to help keep the tops of the sleeves puffed out.
I plan to keep Simplicity 9902. It is a sewing success, and I can see it working well in other cottons, linen, flannel or light-weight wool. It is one of those rare styles that looks good in all seasons and can be worn for most situations. I can imagine doing a summery version where I left out the waist elastic and made a loose pullover with short sleeves. I think there are many possibilities for adjustments and drafting new details. The fit is overall good, although I will add a warning to other women venturing into sewing the occasional teen size to check the waist length and that the arm holes may be a little smaller and higher than they are usually drafted for adults.
I have a few other patterns that I want to test out with wearable muslins, so keep an eye out for some new garments over the coming months, both here and on Instagram (when I can get around to taking photos for either platform---unfortunately it is very dark through the winter and occasions to take photos can be sparser than ever with the limited hours of day-light). I think that I will start repeating patterns far more often next year as I finish making wearable muslins and start experimenting with making pattern drafting adjustments to the patterns that I've kept in my collection. There will probably be some more paring down of patterns and styles as this process continues, too. I feel very drawn to greater simplicity at this moment, and though I think I will always like some variety of choice, I also feel attracted to experimenting with more of a "uniform," or at least a more unified set of variables in my closet to mix and match.
Mr Rat took these photos of me in my new autumn dress a few weeks ago on a weekend trip to Red Butte Gardens. It was cool enough to also need my newly thrifted wool coat, which required a few hours of mending and patching the lining to be in wearable condition again. I am glad that I did it, though, because I think this coat will be a firm favorite for many winters to come.
Do you prefer to sew new patterns? Or to make adjustments to what you already have? Have you ever been inspired to make a big change to your sewing pattern habits? Do you sew "uniforms" for yourself?
Recently I've discovered Evelyn Wood and her YouTube and Instagram accounts. She is a big proponent of mending and caring for clothes--she even introduced the hash-tag #mondaymending to encourage others to take an injured item of clothing and mend it once a week. She is also a big proponent of re-fashioning thrift store finds into something more vintage and wearable and attractive. She doesn't care for the term "re-fashion" or "up-cycle" or "thrift flip" or any of those other odd ways of describing turning a garment into something else to describe what she does to clothing. Instead, she suggests "garment renovation," a term with historical roots, as she talks about in this YouTube video.
I like "garment renovation," as I agree that it is an accurate way to talk about taking a used garment and turning it into a newly customized garment, very similar to taking an old, shabby house and renovating it into a newly livable space. Sometimes renovations take a few small changes, and sometimes it requires a total over-haul.
The garment renovation that I did on this cotton calico prairie skirt is somewhere in-between a small change and a large one. Unfortunately I didn't think to take a photo of it when I brought it home from the thrift store last month for $3, but I can tell you about it: it didn't fit at all. The elastic waistband was far too large, and even if I held it up at my waist, the hem dragged on the ground. But I really liked the dark green calico with its tiny sprays of flowers, that the fabric was in good condition, and that the skirt had a huge, full sweep with a nice hem. So I decided I would take this skirt home and renovate it.
The first thing that I did was to measure up from the hem about 28 inches and cut it all the way around with the aim of getting a finished skirt length of about 27 to 27 1/2 inches. This is a little shorter than a lot of my midi skirts--which can be as long as 30 inches---but it is long enough to cover my petticoat. I wanted to avoid the pockets at the top of the skirt and also make sure there was enough room in the fabric that I cut off of the top of the skirt to squeeze out a new waistband. Cutting out the waistband from the remaining fabric was my next step. I wasn't able to cut it out without crossing a seam-line in the fabric, so my finished waistband looks pieced together, but that's okay. Then I seam ripped 7 inches down one seam and inserted a green skirt zipper. Then I gathered the top of the skirt on my machine, attached the waist-band, inserted my favorite waist-band interfacing for stiffness, and finished sewing the waistband closed by hand. I sewed on a skirt hook and eye, and I was done---no need to hem, as I had kept the hem intact from the original skirt.
And now I have a nice new calico skirt with a big sweep---that fits!---where before there was a rather sad looking elastic-waist skirt sagging off a hanger in the costume section of the thrift store.
I'm pleased with this simple garment renovation and plan to do some more from time to time when I find something that I really like at the thrift store and want to fit better, or improve the look of.
Do you renovate garments? Do you prefer the term "garment renovation" over "re-fashion"? What do you think about taking apart a garment to make something different out of it? Is it a good solution to fast-fashion and the plethora of second-hand clothes available, or does it risk spoiling perfectly good garments in the effort to change them?
My library bag has looking rather pathetic, with holes wearing right through the quilted fabric. But I’m fond of it and I’ve had it many years----I don’t want to give up on it yet. I spent some time over the weekend patching the holes with bits of gingham left over from my dress, and now my bag is ready to take some books to the library again.
When a favorite cloth bag or garment starts getting holes, what is your solution? Does mending/patchwork add beauty and character to an object, or do connotations of poverty outweigh what interest visible mending might add?
1946 was a good year for fairy tales: World War II had ended in the late summer of 1945, and celebrations of life in the new year of 1946 mixed with bitter memories of the lost.
In 1946, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast made its debut in movie theatres. The computer generated effects of today still don’t match the magic of his cinematic artistry and the mysterious delicacy of his style. Who could interpret the famous French fairy tale written by 18th century writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve better than he?
Antoine de Saint-Expurey, the famous French aviator-writer who wrote so eloquently of the beautiful and dangerous lives of the first pilots in Wind, Sand, and Stars, wrote about a different flight of the imagination in the fairy-tale The Little Prince, a tiny volume that was destined to become his most famous work, despite being published without his knowledge after his disappearance (and presumed death) on a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean a year prior.
Fashion in 1946 reflected the fairy-tale relief of a newly peaceful (and for America, newly prosperous) life with growing luxury: longer hem-lines, fuller skirts, and more fabric than had been seen in years.
Dior's 'New Look' was yet to debut in 1947, but as this evening dress by Lucien LeLong shows, the taste for fairy-tale beauty was already strong.
And in June of 1946, with the burgeoning post-war economy driving a new burst in American production, our Singer 15-91 sewing machine was made in New Jersey. And that is the stuff of fairy-tales for me and Mr Rat, because somehow it traveled to northern California and 71 years later turned up in the gutter across the street from our apartment. And in a fairy-tale appropriate turn of events, we rescued it from the doom of being left out for trash, cleaned it with care, and spent the last month sourcing parts to refurbish it, and now it runs beautifully again, and we are as pleased with it as can be.
Our main sources of information for refurbishing the machine came from a the book How to Select, Service, Repair and Maintain Your Vintage Sewing Machine by Connie McCaffrey, the very-comprehensive Singer 15-91 manual (which Mr Rat sourced and printed for free from the internet), and You-Tube tutorials. Our parts were mostly sourced from Ebay and we bought any tools we didn’t have but needed to repair the machine from Harbor Freight. Altogether, we estimate that it cost about $60 to fully refurbish the machine and make it work again, even the lamp. Luckily the cabinet was still in pretty good condition, just rather scratched and cobwebbed, so all it took was a thorough washing with a barely damp clean rag and a gentle application of wood oil to make it look good again.
I’ve already sewn Mr Rat some pajamas on our new-old machine, and I’m pleased with how well it stitches. It came at just the right time, since my seven-year-old Singer Heavy-Duty was wearing out and skipping stitches, and I wasn’t sure how we’d manage to get it fixed or replaced. Now we have a machine that is known for its durability and skill at stitching through just about anything, and best of all, we can care for it and repair it ourselves. A fairy-tale ending, indeed. Or perhaps a fairy-tale beginning.
After I saw a few more holes appear in Mr Rat’s favorite jacket, I persuaded him to leave it at home long enough for me to pull out my mending kit and some scraps leftover from my bandana print dress and from a new Hawaiian shirt that Mr Rat is working on to patch it with. Every time I cover the threadbare spots with colorful bits of fabric and sashiko-style stitching, Mr Rat comes home, puts on his transformed jacket, and admires its increase in character and personality. It takes time to get to know an object, just as it takes time to get to know a person. And I love that he wears my love on his sleeve, and his collar, and every other ragged spot.
Today is the fourth anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka Bangladesh. 1138 people died and over 2500 others were injured. This is an astonishing number to me, since every school I have ever attended, including college, had fewer students than that. While the collapse caused widespread shock at the time, it doesn’t seem to have changed very many manufacturing or shopping habits in the long term, something that the group Fashion Revolution is trying to change. Such an epic and tragic loss of life does not deserve to be forgotten, especially when there are millions around the world who still work in underpaid and unsafe conditions in the garment industry today.
Nicole, of the Artyologist, has a good introduction to Fashion Revolution week on her blog, or you can look at Fashion Revolution’s website for more information about the events they are hosting across the internet this week to raise awareness about the high cost of clothing manufacturing and clothing waste.
One of the questions Fashion Revolution asks is: “Who made my clothes?” I am pleased to answer that for the most part, I have made my own clothes. Out of the 70-ish garments that I own, over 60 percent is handmade by me, and those items that are not are by and large second-hand which in many cases I have repaired to make wearable again. Many of the items that are not made by me are things which I don’t have the resources or knowledge to make: a few knit items like turtlenecks, two special embroidered jackets that I found at the thrift store, a few heavy winter coats, two t-shirts, one pair of jeans, and some sweaters. I hope that as the years progress a larger and larger percentage of my clothing will be handmade, until when I am asked, “Who made my clothes?” I can simply answer, “me.”
The ethics of clothing are something we all have to consider every time we put something over our skin. The need for clothing is universal, and as sewers, we more than anyone know how much time and skill is needed to make the simplest item of clothing. I have been pondering some of the things we can do to improve our relationship with our clothes and to show more respect and gratitude for those who make them:
Mr Rat and I have decided to participate in Me-Made-May this year. My goal is to wear only homemade clothing and jewelry every day, and Mr Rat has committed to wearing homemade at least four times a week. We’re going to document our goals and hopefully update this website weekly with our progress throughout the next month. I hope it will teach me more about what else I need to make or things I need to change in order to have a home-made, loved wardrobe, full of clothes that feel right.
Do any of you have any other ideas to share about ways you’ve improved your relationship with clothing, your own methods for wardrobe planning, or how to make your loved clothes last?
Mr Rat is very fond of his old Levis denim jacket and wears it several times a week in cool weather. But it is so old that it has been getting holes in it and Mr Rat asked me if I thought he should throw it away. He looked so sad about the idea that I suggested that he give his jacket to me and I would see what I could do with it. So I patched it up for him with bits of bandana and plaid cotton from our scrap box, and he was delighted to keep wearing his jacket, which he says has more “character” now.
My advice for anyone interested in patching their clothes is to add reinforcement stitches along the inner portion of the patch as if you were quilting it. It helps keep the patch from being easily snagged or ripped and gives it extra durability. It also looks nice in a decorative way, especially in a contrasting thread color.
Does anyone else patch their clothes? I wonder sometimes, living in an area where everyone’s clothes look so very new, whether it is considered socially appropriate to wear patched clothing. But when one has a personal attachment to an item of clothing that is only growing more beautiful with age, doesn’t it make sense to prolong its lifespan by patching it and mending its holes and rips? To wear clothes for very long does seem like such a rarity now.
Mr and Mrs Rat
Mr and Mrs Rat like to sew.