The House of Tatterdemalion

Unfashionable, unskilled, inexpensive--but still sewing.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

If it isn't 'Classic' tailoring, what kind is it?

Another book I managed to get my hands on (though briefly) was The Complete Book of Tailoring for Women Who Like to Sew by Adele P. Margolis. (One wonders if there is a book out there somewhere titled The Complete Book of Tailoring for Women Who Hate to Sew. Oh, wait, I just thought of a book that should've been called that--Easy, Easier, Easiest Tailoring. I might have to make a separate post for that one.) At a hefty 439 pages, this book was pretty complete, but it certainly wasn't on "Classic" tailoring. Although it had a brief section on the kind of construction that Classic Tailoring taught you, that certainly wasn't the main focus of the book. If I wanted to teach myself the actual techniques, I would snap up Classic Tailoring first, beyond any doubt.

However, if you want your hand held--or perhaps even as far as a friendly arm thrown about your shoulders--as you attempt to make something other than a dress, this book is for you. Adele cheerfully spends most of the book discussing fabrics and patterns, the need or lack thereof for basting, wardrobe building, style and fashion, and nearly anything but tailoring. If you are scared of taking what appears to be an icy plunge, she will surely put you at ease and show you how to wade in without getting the shivers. I can't help but add, though, that if you're looking to actually be taught the nitty-gritty of tailoring, you will spend most of your time wondering how long she can keep talking without addressing the nitty-gritty of tailoring.

If, by now, you've surmised that I wasn't looking for a friendly arm about the shoulder, you would be quite correct. Does that mean I think this book was a complete waste of time for me? No, it's only that I didn't learn much about tailoring from her. I think, though, I might've enjoyed a long discussion with her. In lieu of that, I am interacting with several selections here.

"If tailoring is new to you, don't multiply your tailoring problems by choosing a difficult pattern. The fewer the pattern pieces, the fewer the problems. Remember that the loveliest clothes are most often simple designs, beautiful fabric, fine fit, and exquisite workmanship.

Get the pattern you like even if it does cost a little more. . . An extra dollar or two may make the difference between an ordinary design and a superb one."

Adele, dear, aren't you contradicting yourself?

In one of my past readings (a pity I can't remember who or where it was said, so that I might give them credit), I saw it said that "The more pieces, the better the fit." That is to say, fewer pieces might give you less trouble in construction, but won't it make it harder to fit? Who doesn't know that princess seams make garments many times over more easier to fit? The multitude of the pattern pieces that are so vexing to the one concerned only with construction are the very thing that make adjusting the garment so much easier.

But even if that doesn't mean much to you, consider what it is that makes a difference between an ordinary design and a superb one. I agree with Adele, in that I also believe that the "loveliest" clothes are made in a large part lovely by the fabric, fit and workmanship. However, where she would say "simple designs", I would say "appearing simple"--that is, the finished product looks effortless, un-cluttered, graceful, and as though every part belonged in every way. But this does not mean that the pattern pieces themselves are simple, or that the construction, in fact, is as simple as it appears.

So, if one is to buy the pattern that is the most appealing, why wouldn't you also be willing to put in the extra work necessary to construct the pattern most appealing? Already you are putting in all this money into pattern and fabric, and also the time for the fitting--now, when you have already gone so far, are you going to cut yourself short and settle for an "easy" design that you dislike? But it could make the difference between an ordinary garment and a superb garment!

"There are those (we've all heard of them) who boast of being able to whip up a garment in the morning and wear it to a luncheon the same day. Hm-mm-mmm.

The truth of the matter is that hastily put together garments look it. Beginners often work this way because they don't know any better. Haven't you noticed that the longer you sew, the longer it takes to make a garment that satisfies you? Experience makes one more demanding. One wouldn't want to dispense with the "instant" altogether. When I am in a great rush I use the "instant" foods in the freezer and on the pantry shelf. They work. However, my "instant" meals are certainly not comparable to my gourmet meals which take time, and thought, and work."

(This is a quote I'll have to refer back to when discussing Easy, Easier, Easiest Tailoring.) I am desperately hoping that she is wrong on this one, as I already take abysmally long to satisfy myself. I was hoping that with experience would come speed, as I would no longer have to linger over every decision and correction, and figuring out how to do the simplest of tasks. Beginning, as I am, at the beginning, I still think (or at, any rate, hope), that with familiarity my speed will increase.

At any rate, I've never rushed through a garment structure, and I never had anyone to tell me better. Much to the contrary, I have scrutinized my garments quite critically every step of the way. I don't doubt I shall only get more critical, but I do hope I can at least learn to be critical quicker. If I'm going to do it anyway, I might as well get efficient at it, and streamline the process.

"Machines do everything---or do they? We Americans have implicit faith in the omnipotence of machines. Our attitude is hardly surprising since we absorb this outlook from childhood, along with our hot dogs and cokes. We make machines that do everything. And it appears that we are only at the beginning. Automation promises machines that will do even more than everything. Consider the appeal of the latest sewing machine . All we have to do is push a button and all our stitching problems are solved---or so we are told. We merely turn a dial the garment makes itself.

. . .That all important dial on the sewing machines must surely include an M for Murder. Much beautiful material and excellent style are killed by poor machine sewing in a inept attempt to ape mass production. When people say "Homemade", this is largely what they mean. If a strictly machine-made product is what you want, you will do much better to buy one. The operators who spend a lifetime doing one single operation do so much better than you can ever hope to do."

I recently bought a sewing machine. I had the hardest time trying to find a good quality machine that didn't include large amounts of computerization--to make your needle always end in the "up" position, or always end in the "down" position, to tell you when your bobbin is nearly run out, to change stitch selections, to make button holes they declare are the best you've ever seen. I didn't want any of that. No one could understand why. Surely, the more the machine did, the better, right? Why do it manually, when you can have a machine do it for you?

Well, I don't think that the more machines do, the better it is. (And I also don't like hotdogs or coke. I wonder if there is a connection?) Particularly in the case of buttonholes. No machine could ever match a hand sewn buttonhole.

I've only posted a small quote, so I ought to point out that Adele does not look down upon these machine operators; much the contrary, she seems to have great respect for them. Nor does she look down on all forms of machine sewing. Her point is, however, one that many people seem to loose sight of: custom work is never meant to compete with assembly line work. (A particularly annoying, if perhaps inappropriate, example is how everyone complains how Wal-Mart is putting all of the small stores out of business. The small stores oughtn't even be competing with Wal-Mart---Wal-Mart can do mass production much better than they ever can. They ought to be selling things that Wal-Mart can't mass produce.) It is in a different class. It is meant to be different. The glory of home-sewing is that you can do work by hand, which is largely cut out of industry production because it takes so much time, not because it doesn't look better.

"Otherwise brave, hardy souls have their moments of apprehension when confronted with the necessity for making a buttonhole, applying a pocket, and inserting a zipper. . . little wonder that beginners and experienced sewers alike put off the awful moment of attempting these three until it is literally impossible to proceed without them."

Good heavens! Either that makes me braver than the bravest, or so completely fool-hardy that it can barely be believed. Or thoroughly, pig-headedly, determined. The first dress I made had 15 buttons and working buttonholes down the front, which seemed like no big deal to me. The second was a toddlers dress, and it had a zipper down the back. By the time I got to the third dress, I refused to make a dress without pockets--where's the use in that? But of course the pattern didn't include pockets, so I drafted my own pocket and inserted it into a seam.

I do, I admit, dread the cutting of the fabric, from which there is no return, but I have never hesitated at buttonholes, zippers or pockets. If it were a particularly precious item, I would use hand-worked buttonholes, hand-pricked zippers, and hand sew on the pockets. Not only would it wind up looking better, and lying nicer, it would also take longer, which give you more time to think through what you're doing. (But by no means should you make these three late night, when your within 3-12 hours from when you must wear the garment, or while on strong medication. That's just asking for trouble.)

Well, my eyes are beginning to glaze over from my own thoughts, so I suppose anyone reading this is having similar difficulties. I shall end with one last quote from Adele that I appreciated.

"What does the word "tailor" call to your mind?

If you are like most, you visualize an aging little man with a grayish patch of thinning hair. He's always a little man. Who ever heard of a tall tailor? He is dressed in baggy trousers and a wilting shirt, whose open collar and rolled up sleeves emerge from a vest stuck full of pins. He is forever slaving away in some back room over some mysterious hand work or over a steaming ironing board. . . ."

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Classic Tailoring

"If, after measuring the client, pre-shrinking the fabric, making and correcting a muslin, you are very anxious to get on with actually making the suit, you may not care to hear at this point that professional tailors do not use tissue paper patterns. They are just too unwieldy (the patterns, not the tailors).

The only positive quality about a tissue paper pattern seems to be that it fits neatly, or not so neatly, into a pattern envelope. On the negative side, it wrinkles, it tears, it flies away if you sneeze.

Tailor's make their own patterns on sturdy paper or on oaktag. The oaktag pattern can be laid in place on the fabric, weighed down rather than pinned, and traced with tailor's chalk. Small holes are made in the oaktag pattern through which dart tips and pocket points can be marked. Notches are cut into the edge of the pattern at waistline, hem line, roll line, etc. When not in use, the patterns are hung neatly on pattern hooks. . ."

Thus begins chapter 5 of both Classic Tailoring Techniques for Women's Wear and Classic Tailoring Techniques for Men's Wear, both by Roberto Caberera and Patricia Meyers. Published within a year of each other (and both of them older than me), these books really ought to have been one. They are a great way to teach yourself tailoring; both books cover basic stitches and tailoring supplies, information on fabric and how to work with it (including pre-shrinking, straightening the grain, and nap), layout and cutting, fitting and oodles of pocket and buttonhole details, as well as all the classic tailoring details. They are arranged in the exact order you would need to use the material, and give step by step instructions, as though you had a teacher right in the room with you. At one point he even admonishes, "Do not spend time measuring your stitches. Just get a general sense of the size, and proceed." (This is quite a necessary warning for me, as most of my hand stitching has been embroidery, and I'm a bit of a fanatic for trying to get those even, perfect stitches.)

The only frustration is trying to figure out which book to get. They have only a few differences. Most topics and construction techniques are exactly the same, word for word. They both cover pants and jacket, complete with pockets, buttons, canvas, sleeve heads, and the entire works. On top of that, the Women's Wear covers several types of skirts, the peplum jacket and pleated pants. The Men's Wear covers vests and more complicated pant constructions--waistband curtain and French fly. Obviously, if you only intended to do women's tailoring, you'd buy the appropriate book (and then snatch the other out of the library if you wanted to make a vest). Likewise you'd want the other book if you intended to only do men's tailoring. Supposing you wanted to do both? I suppose you'd have to buy one, get the other out of the library and read any missing parts, and then wing it from there, hoping you remembered all the odd stuff out. Or you could buy both books, but that seems a bit of a waste, since they are 98% the same.

There are relatively few differences in actual construction. The men's suit has a fairly well built up chest and shoulders, the women's does not. They both have the supportive canvas, but only the men's has padding stitched in. In Men's Wear (which was published first), Caberera explains "These layers of fabric, heavily concentrated in the chest area of the jacket, are meant to give the jacket a body that does not depend completely for it's life on the human body wearing the jacket. The purpose of the canvas is to control the fabric and reduce its susceptibility to wrinkling and stretching." In Women's Wear he says instead, "[. . .]This solid breastplate is unnecessary and unflattering to the feminine figure."

My best interpretation is that the canvas is necessary for a flat and smooth fit. The padding is simply pectoral muscles for the man without a gym membership.

Anyone brave enough to attempt teaching themselves tailoring is probably already pretty proficient at fitting anyway. (Unless you're crazy like me. In which case, there is probably no hope for you, and you'll have to learn everything from the school of Hard Knocks. Which can be fun, but it takes a lot longer.) But if you aren't, these books also both supply a good amount of fitting directions. One might think that these might be highly specialized between books, but it's not. Although the shape the hips varies greatly between men and women, the amount of alteration that men need is not that greatly different from the amount of alteration women need; and in any case, it is the same alteration. There are a few specialized fitting instructions or alterations (only the men's edition has an alteration for "muscular inner thighs", for instance).

The most interesting alteration I saw was the one for a low shoulder (not to be confused with a sloped shoulder or a tight neckline).
"[. . .]It would appear that the logical pattern correction would be a deeper, slanting seam at the shoulder. Doing his would make the armhole smaller, which, in turn, would necessitate making the sleeve smaller. The fact is that the correction has nothing to do with the armhole. It has to do with the rib cage area. The shoulder is low because the body is contracting itself somewhere between the armhole and the waist, on one side. The adjustment is somewhat complicated--however, it works.
He's right; it is rather complicated. A lot of tailoring is. If you want to know how, get your hands on one of the books.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Goals of Fashion

I recently inter-library-loaned a book called Medieval Clothing and Costumes, by Margaret Scott. It was actually aimed toward a younger audience, but I found very interesting and informative anyway. I appreciated the author's commentary on medieval fashion (but perfectly applicable to all fashion).

"One theory says that fashion begins when someone designs clothes that are not practical, and people become convinced that by wearing such clothes they can tell the world that they are special and up-to-date, leaders of style and taste. At the same time, being fashionable means looking like everyone else who is fashionable, so you're not so special after all! Then the fashion leaders move on to wearing something else, because they don't want to look like everyone else who has just caught up with them. . .

Isabella and Beatrice [the D'Este sisters] typified the attitude of many noble ladies during the middle ages, who believed that clothing was a form of display used to separate oneself form those of lesser stature, and even within one's own class to display one's superiority and uniqueness. The goals of fashion have not changed much in 500 years."

I find this to be a very good explanation of 'Fashion'. Here, Manolo of the Shoeblog, gives a more modern definition.

". . .This shoe it good because it is on the exact border between the trashy and the classic, where, as the long time readers of the Manolo know, the true fashion lies."

This only makes me more certain that I do not wish to be "fashionable". But I am from the boondocks, so that is only expected of my class, no?