Fri 6 Oct 2006
This particular adventure began six years ago, when I began lugging around a big sack containing leftover scraps of batiks, prints, and tie-dyes that my tailors gave back to me after sewing interesting outfits that were unfortunate compromises between my instructions (a-line dress with pockets) and the tailor’s sense of style (See? I put giant puffy sleeves on it for you!). I lugged it through half a dozen countries and stuffed it in closets in four apartments back in the States. Surely, I thought, one day I would make a quilt out of it.
Once I got the sewing machine, I pulled out the sack o’ rags to realize my dream. As it turns out, quilting requires both an entire set of tools I don’t own, and a strong personal commitment to precision. My commitment to precision is only sporadic. I put the sack away and waited for more feasible inspiration.
It came in the form of Project Runway, a TV show I watch with a dedication bordering on zeal. Uli was whipping up some frothy concotion of a dress and Dr. G, with a perhaps misguided faith in my design sense, said that I should do that! I should make my own cool one-of-a-kind clothes! Maybe I should learn to sew first, I said. We went to Joann’s and wandered around awhile. Eventually I ended up with a pattern and some cheap polka-dotted cloth from Walmart.
Sewing, I discovered, is actually a misnomer. A more accurate term would be Equal-Amounts-of-Sewing-And-Ironing. I wouldn’t exactly call ironing my nemesis, but in the eighties I had a run-in with a can of spray starch that permanently dampened my enthusiasm for the task. If I had known there was so much pressing this and creasing that, I may not have embarked on the dress making adventure.
But once you’ve got four or five pieces of things sewn together that look remarkably like a dress, you can’t just quit, whatever obstacles you may face. The first one I faced was the mysterious vocabulary of the directions. “Facing sides together, stitch in the ditch then cut the curves. You may find it eaiser at this point to dunk the trollop and underscore the dimple with a triple-quick farce. If you don’t want to underscore the dimple, skip number 10 and go straight to 11.” (ok, so maybe I added a few extra words in there for effect) sometimes google helped; other times I just did whatever I felt like doing.
Next, the machine broke. Since the instruction manual is from 1973, it actually assumes that its owner will be able to disassemble, clean, oil, and otherwise maintain its various parts. This I did, though there was one moment of terror when I could not fit the bobbin shuttle cover back on. Sometimes the fifteenth try is just the ticket! And when excess oil beads up and slides down the needle itself? No problem. Just wipe and go.
Then I kept accidentally using a zigzag stitch when a straight stitch was called for, and also the neck facing was just a torment. Note to self: sleevless and V-neck does not equal “easy.” Oops! I accidentally put the heat-activated fusible facing in the dryer! (oh, so that’s what “heat activated fusible” means. It gets all shiny and sticks together).
Finally, I had a dress! If you didn’t look too closely (say, at the mismatched neck trim, the pointy darts on the bodice, or the wobbly stitching on the hem) it looked alright! Time to try on! Rats. Too tight and too short. All I can figure is that the seam allowance was 3/8ths instead of 5/8ths. A quarter inch doesn’t seem like that much until you multiply it by the total number of seams, to be exact, nine gazillion and fourteen. Then you tend to lose a little necessary yardage. Back to the sewing machine to let out the sides a bit.
I was going for a playful take on a fairly structured early-sixties style dress. I put on the finished product and felt a bit more like an adult pretending to be a five-year-old girl. Dr. G suggested I wear it to the Violet Burning concert. I figured, hey, it’ll be dark in there, why not? Standing outside the venue in the full glare of the streetlight, I struck up a conversation with a woman next to me. “So why are so many people still outside?” I asked. “They’re not letting us in yet,” she said. “By the way, I really like your dress.”
Score! I guess some people don’t closely inspect the seams of others’ dresses? Here it is.