Sunday, February 1, 2015

From There to Here

From There to Here

I started sewing again a few years ago. I needed a release, something that would make me use my hands, and be mentally engaging without pressure. Happily, it has been just that - extremely satisfying. Nevertheless, at some point I realized that despite doing what I thought were all the right things, the results were mixed at best. The garments didn't fit very well, they didn't look as good as they did in my mind's eye, or they had areas that were noticeably badly done. Given the amount of time I was putting in, I wanted better results, and greater mastery.

Learning What to Learn

A few years ago, I returned to school for an advanced degree in my profession. The experience taught me that pretty much anything can be learned if you break it down, figure out what you don't know, then go about adding new knowledge and skills. With sewing, I had learned a simple approach at home. Buy a pattern, buy some fabric, cut it out, sew it up. But, clearly, something was missing because the results were just not good. So, I went about re-educating myself.  As an artist and designer, I appreciate the value of copying master work, and of looking very, very closely to figure out what makes a thing good. I know that a distinctive design is a unique assemblage of a hundred minute details. Luckily, once you start looking, there is a small but potent wealth of information about sewing technique. 

Thanks to my mother, an avid book collector/bargain hunter, a copy of Claire Shaeffer's High Fashion Sewing Secrets landed on my bookshelf.  I sort of gritted my teeth and started paying real attention to the level of detail Claire teaches and eventually realized what a treasure this book is. Sewing well, is like any other skill, and can be learned. I had simply not seen or cared about the super fine details that make a garment really special. Now, ironically, I enjoy these details the most out of the entire process. Picking the pattern and fabric, and cutting all seem like easy things to do quickly. It is the fitting, tailoring and hand sewing that I enjoy the most.  

Time passes. I collect more sewing books, discover what couture really means (thanks Claire Shaeffer for your instructive videos), 
discover what tailoring really means, (thank you, cutterandtailor.compractice hand sewing, and gradually become more confident in what I can take on.  The elements of good technique as I understand them now are, in no particular order, 
  • use of high quality fabric, and the right fabric for the design
  • techniques to structure the garment 
    • ex., such as sleeve caps and horsehair interfacing
  • techniques to reinforce, structure and support the fashion fabric 
    • ex., such as interlining and stay stitching
  • techniques to fit the garment to your body 
    • ex., such as fitting a muslin 
  • use of good materials 
    • ex., such as cotton or silk threads
  • use of good tools 
    • ex., fine, sharp pins, excellent scissors and pressing tools
  • special techniques associated with couture sewing 
    • ex., hand-bound button holes

Studying the Masters

I don't remember where or how I first saw this look from 2010, but I thank Donna Karan for introducing me to looking closely at runway looks.  I fell in love with the jacket - the loose, but stylish ease of it. I would still like to copy it. This was enough to catch me and eventually I found the app and started trolling runway shows.

At first, I started collecting looks to help me understand or define my own style. Eventually I realized that my next step in learning to sew was to flat out copy them. By doing this, I would learn what I don't know now. It has turned out to be a much, much better starting point. 

By analyzing runway looks, I also realized that most of the fabric is quite subdued. Mind you, it is an extremely expensive, sumptuous silk, rayon, cotton, wool or linen, but the fabric itself doesn't not scream at you. What makes it designer is the quality and palette of the fabric, the detailing of design, construction, and embellishment. I also begin to realize that designer clothing is made with fabric that I never, ever see at Joann's or Hancock Fabric.

Take this design for example.  If you break it down, there are three garments made of 5 coordinating fabrics. 

  • The wrap blouse is made of a sheer brown silk organza edged in olive silk
  • The skirt is a tweedy brown wool, piped with light brown
  • The cape looks like felted wool in a slightly plummy brown, lined with a medium brown silk charmeuse
The stitching, detailing and design choices are impeccable, but none are revolutionary - the fabric wouldn't fly off the shelves if considered on its own, but the outfit overall is just stunning. Granted, I wish to dress my age. I can imagine what the Project Runway judges would say about it not being young enough. 

I love the fact that the pieces coordinate but don't match. It is age appropriate, has a great silhouette and will fit a woman's body. It looks exceptionally well crafted, seems to reference other styles and time periods without mimicking any of them, and it is flexible enough to wear on several occasions. 

Reconstructing Looks

While analyzing the runway looks, I decided to start collecting patterns to use to reconstruct looks. I would no longer walk into a fabric store and see what inspired me. For the time being, I would not actually trust my own taste. I would copy designer's looks as closely as possible. Luckily, Joann's and Hancock continually put patterns on sale, so over the period of a few years, I assembled am impressive variety of patterns. Now of course I realize that if I knew how to draft patterns and drape, it would eliminate the need for 95% of those patterns, but whatever. At the time, the idea of draping, or drafting my own patterns was so far-fetched it didn't occur to me that it is an accessible skill.

Tools to Create

So, at this point, I had design inspiration for final looks, I had multiple patterns that I could use to reconstruct a look, I had an idea of what garment construction techniques I would need and a trove of other books, Web sites and other resources at hand. It was time to start concepting. 

The Moodboard iPad app allows me to create collages of the looks I wish to copy. Starting with the designer look, I add pictures of similar pattern pieces, and identify a palette if not fabric. 

So, here again is the moodboard I created for the Gucci trench jacket I talk about in another posting. I have dozens of these mood boards and entertain myself by trying to capture how I'd copy new designs off the runway.  

Here are a few more. 

Each piece would need some alteration to mirror the runway look, but that's not a problem. 
It is important to capture color chips to really appreciate the subtlety of the colors, textures and combinations. Most fashion fabrics that are easy to find look great in a row of bolts, but are generally too boldly colored for these looks. 

I still use Moodboard, especially for keeping track of my fabric stash, but adding runway inspiration images to my computer has become cumbersome, so these days, I save runway looks to a Pinterest board.

So, my journey continues. I'll keep copying runway looks for the time being, and keep increasing my construction skills. Wish me luck!

If you have cool ways of coming up with your next project, I'd love to hear it.

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