More on Fabric

by Erin on September 29, 2006


All About Wool

Okay, I said that you didn't need to spend a lot of money to get started sewing (and you don't) but Bellaleigh brought up a good point — if you aren't near a good fabric store (and sadly, fewer and fewer of us are) you won't be able to do the "go wander around and touch everything" learning that I recommended yesterday.

But, if you have a spare $30-40 or so, you can get one of Julie Parker's books. That's All About Wool there, but she also has one on cotton and one on silk. The genius of these books is that not only do they give you the usual "how-to-wash-it, where-does-it-come-from" info, but they also tell you how difficult it is to sew, and what you can expect to pay per yard. Plus, swatches of everything, so you CAN feel them!

This is the kind of book that I would hint mightily to someone that I wanted for a birthday/holiday present, perhaps by saying, suggestively, that if I knew how to SEW, *someone* might get a handmade whatsis. At some undetermined point in the future.

Another way to get your hands on fabric is to sign up for a swatching service. For the same amount of money ($30) you can subscribe to Sawyer Brook's high-end fabric swatch club: I've never done so because I am notoriously cheap about fabric (other than Liberty of London) and Sawyer Brook is a bit pricey. Also ringing up at $30 is Vogue Fabrics' (my "local" store) swatch club.

You can also sign up for the Fashion Fabrics Club swatch service, which is much cheaper (about $5). Or you could just buy some fabric from their site, since that seems to have gotten me on the mailing list. Their swatches are quite small, and may be hard to match up with the descriptions (I've never yet been able to open the envelope without spilling them all on the floor), but it's a start. (Also, they tend towards the rayon end of the spectrum.)

In addition, if you are looking for one specific kind of fabric, many of the big independent fabric stores (like Britex, and possibly G Street, although I can't find it on their website) will take a swatch request. The one time I did this (I think it was in 1997) I was looking for white cotton with a red cherry print, so I called up G Street and Britex (now they only do this kind of thing by email, snail mail, and fax) and told them exactly what I was looking for. Britex had only one possibility, so I bought it sight-unseen (I still have the dress, too, I'll have to dig it out and photograph it for y'all). Swatch requests run about $5-10, depending on what you want. Thai Silks sells sample swatches, too, but their sets range from $3 to $40.

So, if possible, it's best to rummage around a real store, but if that's not an option, a moderate amount of money can get you a big box of little scraps of fabric to fondle. Also, I know there must be more stores that do this, so if you know of some, please leave them in the comments!

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous September 29, 2006 at 9:31 am

My favorite is FabricMartFabrics.com. You can join their swatch club for cheap on a yearly basis. Designer fabrics at very low prices! Over the years I’ve never been disappointed with the quality of their fabrics.

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the_lazymilliner September 29, 2006 at 9:38 am

Linda Podietz at emmaonesock.com will send you swatches for FREE in the mail. Just go to her site and pick out the fabrics you’d like to feel in real-time. But I have to warn you: lots of time I’ve ordered swatches, but the time I’ve gotten them, the whole bolt of fabric is GONE. Forever!!! Sometimes it’s just better to bite those tougher-than-nail bullets and buy a couple of yards of the fabric you’re lusting after than to wait a few days for those little scraps to come via the U.S. Postal Service.

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Mrs. PF September 29, 2006 at 9:40 am

Erin, what’s the sewing book you posted on a while back? I know I could go looking through your archives, but maybe you know off the top of your head?I thought I might ask for that one for Christmas.Thanks!

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La BellaDonna September 29, 2006 at 9:55 am

While folks are waiting for their swatches and books to arrive, I would also recommend that if they are near a high-end clothing shop, boutique, or department store, even if they wouldn’t consider buying clothes there, go in and feel the clothes. Then look inside the clothes at the Fabric Content label. That way you’ll develop a feel (so to speak) for certain kinds of fabric: “So that’s what men’s wool suiting feels like!” “So that’s what silk charmeuse feels like!” “So that’s what cashmere coating feels like!” Of course, you’ll have to do a little detective work with your research books as well; the labels will usually say “wool” or “silk” or “cashmere;” you need to associate what you’re touching with the pictures and written descriptions of suiting, and coating, and charmeuse, etc. You can also go into the Homes section of department store and look at brocades in curtains, and linens in curtains and table cloths (the reason table linens and bed linens are called “linens” is because they used to be made of linen; check the labels to see if you’re patting the real thing). Fabric is everywhere, once you start looking.Another good reason to check out high-end readymade clothing*: if it looks and moves well, you will learn what a good combination of interfacings and outer fabric should feel like together, and you will learn the sort of fabric you should look for when you’re buying lining material.*Thrift stores carry this sort of clothing as well; read labels. Labels Are Your Friends!

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Robinson September 29, 2006 at 9:57 am

I think the book Mrs. PF is thinking of is Sew U., but I don’t remember who it’s buy. I want that one too.The Emily One Sock store leaves me with this mantra… I will learn to sew, I will learn to sew, I will learn to sew.

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Robinson September 29, 2006 at 9:57 am

Oooo, sorry, Emma One Sock.

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Kate September 29, 2006 at 10:02 am

Erin, I think it’s GREAT that you’re showing the way for would-be sewers. I’ve sewn since I was 11 or 12 and still love to do it. Another good place to look for fabrics is the back of sewing magazines like Threads. There are fabric clubs you can join (for a price) that send swatches on a regular basis.Wish you could all come to St. Gallen to see the amazing Akris exhibit at our Textile Museum. They encourage touching and even have a rack of couture jackets to try on. Stunning Show! It runs until January 7.Kate Q:-)

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Anonymous September 29, 2006 at 10:13 am

The chains carry a nice selection of nicer man-made fibers and blends. While everyone loves using and wearing higher end natural fibers, for that first dress/skirt/shirt/blazer, something less pricy is a good alternative as it isn’t so discouraging if something goes horribly wrong. For a third or fourth project, high end natural fibers combined with a simple pattern result in a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.Amy

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Schweighopper September 29, 2006 at 10:28 am

This book sounds great! I search for books on fabric in second hand book stores. While they don’t have the up-to-date, modern fabrics, I do find the fabric terms that are mentioned on vintage sewing patterns. Usually I can figure out a modern equivalent or name. The other bonus is the books are usually only a buck or too! The same goes for vintage books about sewing and home economics. They cover a lot of hand techniques and basic sewing machine funtions that modern books don’t bother with given the “high-funtionality”of today’s machines.

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Anonymous September 29, 2006 at 10:34 am

Also, searches on addall.com, bookfinder.com, powells.com and amazon.com may turn up deals on used copies of any reference books to which a new or experienced sewer may take a fancy.Amy

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Anonymous September 29, 2006 at 11:47 am

Mood designer fabrics of NY will send you swatches if you request.

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Anonymous September 29, 2006 at 12:31 pm

I am so glad for the advice on beginner sewing. Can you advice us what we should look for in a sewing machine- what features would be important for beginners? Thanks! Vivian

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Mina W September 29, 2006 at 1:26 pm

Batiksetc.com does a swatch service for a yearly $15 for cotton batiks, and they also get some rayon batiks. (separate subscription) The swatches come every month or two, and are stapled on a card, with descriptions of pattern and alternate colors. Totally addictive. The thing to remember is that within a piece of fabric, the colors can vary a lot (it’s not a repeat exactly, since these are handpainted). It’s wise before getting lots of something, to order a half-yard to ensure against surprises (splotches of yellow, for instance, in a pattern mostly of bluegreens and purples-I’m just about to go out in the yard and try overspraying dye to mute that color a little).The same goes for looking at swatches online – you’re only seeing a small piece, and there can be lots of colors more in the whole fabric.

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Mina W September 29, 2006 at 1:42 pm

Also, anyone looking for natural colors, white, or some black, in natural fibers: cotton, linen, rayon*, hemp, wool, silk**, should try the dye supply places.Dharmatrading.com, Thai Silks, Silk Connection, Rupert, Gibbon, & Spider. Dharma’s swatches are 25 each, or you can get all of them. R G & S’s are returnable. These places tend to carry the same fabrics for a long time.Here, the thing to remember is that these fabrics won’t have any permanent press or stain-resistant finishes, since those interfere with dying.*From a dyer’s point of view, rayon is a natural fiber, cellulose. Viscose rayon may be made from pine trees.**burnout velvets too

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Anonymous September 29, 2006 at 2:04 pm

Sewing machine recommendations:There’s a sliding scale of sewing machine features. Janome has some entry-level machines (the Jem series) that include the bare minimum you need: button hole, straight stitches, zig zag stitches, a couple of stretch stitches, and hemming stitch. These get consistently good reviews; I don’t own one myself.A step up would include multiple needle positions, speed control, adjustable stitch length and width, additional stitches.Right now, it’s close to Xmas, and all the manufacturers are or will be running special deals. I saw this deal on a Janome in one of my latest quilt magazines:http://www.janome.com/offer_show.php?id=90**Note: I have no affiliation with Janome or any dealer. I’m actually a Pfaff fan. If I were looking for an entry-level machine, I’d take a look at the SewPrecise and a lot of other machines, too.Stick with big name brands:Bernina, Pfaff, Baby Lock, Viking, Janome, (and others I can’t remember). Your sewing machine dealer is your friend. He wants your repeat business and is willing and able to offer services that you won’t get with a garage sale machine or buying on the internet: free lessons on how to use your machine, accessories, basic sewing classes (the more people who sew, the better their business). Check with your dealer for used machines, too. A good dealer will be happy to sell you a “low end” machine. If you like the machine and you like sewing, you’re likely to come back and trade up. I am a living example: I’m up to SIX Pfaffs now. My dealer loves me.If you buy a really cheap machine, it may be hard to use and you’ll be frustrated. You don’t need to spend a fortune, but a good quality machine is a joy to use, and you will LIKE sewing so much more.CMCSee also the link on Erin’s blog to the Threads article about choosing a sewing machine.

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Jane September 29, 2006 at 3:11 pm

You have to check out this site called CodeTV. It has a profile on an up and coming designer, and it features some great shopping places in New York and LA!http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/Gen+Art%3A+Bruno+Grizzo/bcpid78334397/bctid225152012I love it!

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Anonymous September 29, 2006 at 4:48 pm

I agree with the previous poster about sticking with a major brand. Among other things, the major brands offer good warranties and frequently will offer free annual tune ups for the first couple of years you own the machine. I would recommend features including multiple needle position, a good buttonhole mechanism that is easy to operate, automatic needle up, and at least a couple of different zigzag and stretch stitches.Also, when you go looking at machines, bring your own fabric samples. The dealers will give you thin, starched cottom material to test the machines on, as it is thin enough to not stress the motor of the machine and it is stiff enough that the stitches will look balanced (the bobbin thread doesn’t show on the top, and the needle thread doesn’t show on the bottom). Bring a sample of a stretchy knit, a heavy cotton, such as twill, duck or denim, a soft dress-weight fabric, and maybe a sheer to test. Sew a little bit and look at the seam. it should look neat and balanced and not puckered or stretched out of shape.I don’t sew heavy denim or lycra knits often, but I do sew them. Therefore, I wanted a machine that could handle both. I have a 15 year old mid-line Janome that does great on 8 layers of heavy weight denim, and with the assistance of a special foot, it sews lycra easily. If you can get a machine that can handle those far ends of the spectrum, that’s a pretty good machine, in my book. A bonus to bringing your own samples is that the dealers are also familiar with the accessories that go with your machine, so if the machine will do what you want by using a special foot (like for my lycra) then they will show you how it works. That way you don’t walk out of the store with a great machine that *could* do what you wanted it to do, if you just had that little scrap of information.Also, talk to your dealer about different machines in their lines. I have been told by several dealers that the top of the line model is always the dealer favorite, but there is also always a “hidden value” or workhorse model, usually toward the bottom-middle of the pack that is a great dressmaker model (which means it doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles but is a good all around machine if you don’t need ump-teen embroidery patterns). Try to find that favorite.This is also a good time of year to get a deal because, like cars, sewing machine compainies are closing out discontinued models.And – some dealers negotiate and some don’t. I found a dealer who negotiated for my first machine, and I got it for about half the suggested retail. I was 17 and drooled over it for days. I think the guy felt sorry for me.Amy

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La BellaDonna September 29, 2006 at 5:05 pm

For what it’s worth, my own new machine (I’m still faithful to my Singer, I just like having a built-in buttonholer when I need it) is a Janome; I haven’t used it yet, but I bought it based on the rave reviews of a friend of mine who is also a big-time heavy duty stitcher. It will handle heavy coating material, wads of denim, handkerchief linen and delicate silk easily and happily. I got the Janome 4623 LE, Website: http://www.sewvacdirect.com. (I got it at a whopping good sale price, too.) I would (and have) recommended this particular model to people who are interested in making clothing, and whose interests may include lightweight blouses, medium weight dresses, heavy duty work clothing, and coating materials. There are lots of folks out there whose interest in sewing has more to do with household or craft items, and whose sewing machine needs therefore differ from the clothing makers; the crafters’ sewing machines emphasize embroidery stitches and capabilities (Again, though, why the hell are all the truly great buttonhole stitches on the quilting machines? It makes no sense. They’re just lumped in with the embroidery stitches.) It’s not that you can’t make clothing on a sewing machine that emphasizes its quilting/crafting abilities, and it’s not that you can’t craft on a regular sewing machine (there are ancient instructions on “How to Embroider with Your Singer” dating back to the treadle days); it’s just there are optimal machines for certain uses. I make dresses and coats (and a lot of the dresses I make are significantly heavier than coats); I need a machine that will handle many layers of fabric, some of which may in fact be quite delicate. I need it to be able to sew for long periods at a time without burning out or having a nervous breakdown (unlike its owner, after 18 hours straight); I’m not going to be making either placemats embroidered with duckies OR art-to-wear (although I believe a lot of what I make falls under wearable art); I don’t craft much. The household sewing I do is both more straightforward and heavy duty. I second CMC’s recommendation; do check out the sites Erin has linked on the sidebar to Threads magazine. If you folks haven’t done so already, you might want to start your own collection of the different sites that have been recommended here on Erin’s blog by the other readers, both for fabrics and sewing – I think you would find that the answers to many of the questions you have are already there.I second Mina’s recommendation also; I’ve bought fabric from Dharma Trading, and they are really nice folks. They have some great resources, if you are dealing with tricky washing questions (delicate fabrics, or dye runoff problems), and really good prices for a narrow but high-quality range of materials in black and white. You can buy basic cotton muslin for your experiments, or you can buy black silk stretch velvet (not for a first project, I hope). Their prices are good, and their customer service is excellent.Fabrics in Thrift Shops, Part II: For folks with limited access to fabric stores, thrift shops don’t just offer you the chance to handle clothes that have been made of good quality fabric. You have the option of buying those clothes, just for the fabric! If you see a beautiful silk that’s been made into a staggeringly dull straight shapeless dress, you’re allowed to buy the dress and recut it into a perfectly nice, perfectly wearable straight skirt. There’s a boring suit, but it’s a fabulous wool? You can cut it apart and make a beautiful dress out of it, using the skirt for the bottom, and cutting the jacket apart for the bodice. I picked up a beautiful red wool crepe suit, size tiny. I am built really oddly; I can wear the very fitted jacket, but the skirt is both way too short, and too narrow. It looks like a placemat. Since I have really long arms, the jacket sleeves are too short, but the rest of the jacket is beautiful. I’m taking the skirt apart, and cutting circular flounces out of it for the ends of the sleeves. Presto! A custom jacket which fits, and which no one else has. I have another suit that I thrifted; it’s a black cotton brocade. The jacket is very very fitted, and it has those short puffed sleeves that seem omnipresent – not “Marc Jacobs short puffed sleeves;” more like “1990s short puffed sleeves.” The short puffed sleeves do not accord well with my weight-lifting biceps, and the placemat-sized skirt doesn’t accord well with my 41″ hips. But the skirt does have enough matching fabric for me to make either bishop sleeves (full sleeves, gathered at the shoulders and gathered into fitted wristbands), or perhaps a nice flared sleeve (close to the arm at the top, and widening out at the wrist, like a large triangle); I haven’t decided yet. And I will have another jacket which nobody else has, in a fabric I couldn’t find in a store.And, of course, sometimes you will find actual chunks of fabric in thrift stores1 Explore the thrift stores, folks, and see what treasures they have to offer!

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Anonymous September 29, 2006 at 5:22 pm

la belladona – where’s your blog with all these lovely things you’ve made? I must bookmark it NOW.

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La BellaDonna September 29, 2006 at 6:02 pm

*Blush* unfortunately, La BellaDonna does not blog the same way she sews.If I could, I’d be Bill Gates. Or at least somebody with a blog that’s up and running. As it is, I’m in the pre-production stage, and will undoubtedly lumber onto the Net piecemeal – there will be a lot of writing, with minimal pictures, until I can bring my skills up to speed (i.e., “barely adequate”). For now, I babble here, and Erin is kind enough not to say Enough already!And since she hasn’t yet, I’d like to suggest to the beginners that they take the time to really think about what they’d like from their clothes, and how they need their clothes to relate to their lives. It doesn’t have to be all philosophical; but if you’re the kind of person who needs pockets, and hates the fact that it’s really hard to find skirts with pockets, put them in your skirts, even if you have to use a pattern piece from another pattern. Don’t put them in your bias skirts, though, or the contents of your pockets will bulge and look strange and possibly pull your skirts onto the floor. Love long skirts but tend to step on them going up and down stairs? Plan on machine hemming your skirts – and I don’t mean with the attachment, or with a built-in blind hem stitch, I mean turned over and straight-stitched, and no fooling. Entering that time of life where you’re having constant power surges and your own personal summer? Think about making your dresses sleeveless, or at least short-sleeved, with matching blouses/jackets over them, so you can strip down and look decent and stylish without showing your bra to the entire office. Do you drop down to the floor and work there a lot, moving file boxes, small children, or animals? Do you run for a bus, or a train? Think twice about making straight skirts, or dresses with straight skirts, that button down the front – I inevitably shoot off at least one button from every one I’ve ever had. You wear a uniform to work? You can have robes to wear at home in every colour of the rainbow – and they can be any shape you want, too. You really like the gypsy jacket and skirt in the “costume” section of the pattern book? Make them up in grey flannel as a suit and wear it to the office. You’re in high school, and you want a different brightly coloured cotton skirt for every day of the week for an entire month? You can do it – even if you make the same shape over and over, because that’s what you like. Your life is totally out of control? You have total control here; you can make anything you want at all, and you can make it be exactly what you want.There’s more than just practicality here; there’s dreams and there’s power, and you can have them if you want them. You can do it.

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Fox's Mom September 29, 2006 at 7:42 pm

I love this blog!

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Robin September 29, 2006 at 11:34 pm

If you order swatches from http://www.denverfabrics.com ($1 each) they give you a webcoupon-type rebate on the swatches that you can use on your next order from their site. Since shipping is free on the swatches, I order up to the limit each time ($10) even if I’m not seriously considering buying all that fabric. So I’m starting to build a little swatch reference pile of fabric types I can’t find at the local chains. This website originally attracted me because of their great price on machine needles – look at “Needles in Quantity”. Hope this helps! (I love your blog – especially the textile based fiction!)

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Floridaprincess September 30, 2006 at 1:31 am

I have been waiting for Moods in NYC to send me swatches for 9 months now. Yes, I have called 3 times. The last guy I talked to ( Todd) promised he would send them.Mill End in Portland Ore will send you swatches just call them up and tell them what you want. There is one more shop in Portland Ore that will do this too. I have to go Google will be right back.

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Floridaprincess September 30, 2006 at 1:43 am

Josephine’s Dry Goods. She is very expensive I wanna tell ya. She carries fabby fabric. Just like the fabric store in San Fran the one that has 4 floors. Judith will send you samples tho. I love going into her shop and touching all her fabric when Im Portland.Some of her wool is $135 a yard.The same as the fabric place in San Fran. In the last few I have been just lookin at fabric in dept stores and boutiques, mens clothing stores thrift stores where ever. I have been driving dh nuts. Sales people will come up to me and say “do you need help??? Dh will say no she is just looking at fabric. The sales people just look puzzled then walk away.I did get some beautiful swatches from the Stock exchance in Pa. I got 7 pages I think. They are lovely. Designer swatches and all sorts of fabric.

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Floridaprincess September 30, 2006 at 1:46 am

Supposed to be Stock exchange in Pa. In the last few years I have just been looking at fabric ect ect. Sorry about the spelling.

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oracle September 30, 2006 at 9:50 am

la belladonna, you need to write a book. And I want to buy it.”Customers who bought la belladonna’s “Anything You Want At All: A Practice and Philosophy of Sewing” also bought “The Secret Lives of Dresses” by Erin McKean.” (Or vice versa.)

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Anonymous September 30, 2006 at 12:12 pm

For really good deals on sewing machines and since it is near year end as someone suggested, go to your dealer and look at high end trade-ins. Previously owned top-of-the-line or close to are excellent buys for all the nice features, machine quality and money well spent, plus re-sale value is still good on these machines.

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Jen ~ MOMSPatterns September 30, 2006 at 12:46 pm

This same series has All About Cotton and All About Silk, too.. I have 2/3 sitting here waiting for some time to devote to learning them!Um, if you’re cheap like me.. you might even wait until Amazon offers an ‘apply for our card and get $30 credit’.. which is how I got both of my books.Got my card, got my ‘free’ book, cancelled card.

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bonimom October 1, 2006 at 4:05 pm

It’s not a dress….it’s a skirt that has me reeling! http://www/net-a-porter.com/product/16796 Marc Jacobs wool plaid sarong skirt. Can’t find a sarong pattern anywhere. Any ideas?

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Mina W October 1, 2006 at 6:24 pm

I forget where I saw some sarong patterns – but maybe in the sale section at one of the big pattern sites. If all else fails, Dharmatrading carries several styles of ready-to-dye sarongs. They’re simple enough in construction, and inexpensive enough, to be used as patterns. Oh, I know one place, I got a Folkwear pattern for the wrap blouse that had sarong skirts, #134. From denverfabrics.com, if you don’t have a local source. (shipping is kind of expensive)

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Buy Soma September 6, 2007 at 3:36 am

soglasen s vami ochen’ zaebatyj blog!

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Anonymous September 9, 2007 at 1:59 pm

Keep up the great work. It very impressive. Enjoyed the visit!

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