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. . . ."


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