Say, can you see? (Betcha can’t.)

by Erin on December 29, 2006

McCalls 5884

This is one of those patterns that I'd probably make five or six times, to play out all the variations on the theme, all the different combinations I could think to do of color-on-color, pattern-on-pattern, stripe-on-stripe, and random piping and embellishment.

I've often thought that my desire to actually instantiate all the various dresses that I can imagine is a sign of a mental lack. Shouldn't the conception of them be enough, without having to bring them all to term? Shouldn't I be able to just, say, write down that this dress would be amazing in inch-wide stripes, with the stripes in the insert set on the bias from left to right?

I know I have this particular mental lack (this inability to imagine something fully) with music, which why I love cover versions of songs so much. I know not everyone does; I used to know someone who, if he wanted to hear "Jenny from the Block" done by trombones, he could just imagine how it would sound, and that was enough for him. He could hear any song, just once, and then imagine all the different covers. What any song would sound like as a bossa nova, or mashed up with "Smells Like Teen Spirit". It was sad, actually, because it seemed as if he couldn't let himself be surprised. (It would be like knowing all the dumb jokes in the world, and never smiling at a punchline.) I'm constantly and ridiculously surprised by even the most elementary of musical transpositions; start whistling "Chopsticks" instead of playing it on a piano and I will be transfixed, I swear. (Which is why my iPod is about 35% covers, and growing.)

But even though, with dresses, I can imagine clearly what something would look like with different sleeves or a different collar or in wool instead of silk, I want to make it anyway. I want to leave open the possibility of being surprised. My excuse is that no matter how good your imagination is, the real thing is always just different enough from the way you imagined it to make it worth while. You can't imagine every detail; your brain doesn't render very well in all dimensions. So if you can imagine the colors and the pattern, can you also imagine the way the fabric will hang, or the feel of it? Can you imagine the way the light will hit it? Can you imagine the sound it will make when you walk (or better yet, roller-skate)? Can you imagine the smell of it?

If I wanted to make a sweeping generalization (and this is the part of the blog entry where I generally do), I would say that it's often more helpful than you think to do something "you already know". Re-read the book, or re-watch the movie; sure, you "know how it ends" but what did you miss along the way? Walk down the street you've gone down a hundred times before, instead of taking a new route. Talk to the person you think you'll be bored by, and try the food you think you'll hate. Your imagination — your theorizing about the future — is more fallible than you want to admit.

[This pattern is from The Pattern Fairy; click on the image to visit her eBay store.]

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

the_lazymilliner December 29, 2006 at 8:01 am

actually, Erin, my brain has the ability to zoom in (just like the Anthropologie web site) on clothing details. I installed the software yesterday.


Amber December 29, 2006 at 8:55 am

This is a fantastic musing for a blustery morning in Minneapolis. Thank you, Erin!


Debra December 29, 2006 at 9:04 am

I’m with you on this pattern–let’s make one for each day of the week and make each one totally different!


G.L.H. December 29, 2006 at 9:20 am

I loved this post! My poison is quilting, and I “see” way more things than I will ever have time to do in my lifetime. But then, sometimes when I actually do a project, there *are* surprises, just like what you said, “how the dress will hang,” or “what it will sound like.”Enjoy the journey!


Jennifer December 29, 2006 at 9:30 am

Interesting. I can’t do this with fabric, or with music. But I can do it with food, thus my real passion (and why I can’t fit into any of the little tiny vintage stuff!!).


knitgirl December 29, 2006 at 10:00 am

I loved this entry! I reread books all the time. It helps that I have a horrendous memory, but it is absolutely true, that at least with a good book, there are so many little things I miss the first time because I am so anxious to see what happens next. I am a huge fan of Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven. It’s a great big fat thing, but I’ve probably read it 4 or 5 times because her characters, including the horses, have such varied and interesting personalities.


Susan December 29, 2006 at 10:03 am

I know what you mean, which is why I have so many DVDs – yes, I’ve seen the movie before, but I enjoy watching them over and over. There are even some movies that you *have* to watch a second time, just to get what you missed the first time around, when the twist was revealed. For example “The Prestige” and “Fight Club” (both excellent movies, BTW).


robertajune December 29, 2006 at 11:05 am

Don’t even try to tell me that reading “Pride and Prejudice” once is enough. And we all know that as long as new fabrics are being manufactured the possibilities of new versions of our favorite patterns are endless.


Kate R December 29, 2006 at 11:23 am

Erin you are so clever to put into words exactly what I am currently feeling. Having received an Amazon Gift certificate for Christmas, I promptly bought 4 movies that I have already seen but love watching again and again. Rereading good books and rewatching good movies is like getting together with loved old friends.


oracle December 29, 2006 at 11:40 am

We’re watching “Weeds” reruns (originally, to catch the ones we missed so far), and are finding that even the third time around on a given episode, we’re hearing lines that we didn’t pick up before. Multi-layered, really good TV-show writing there, we think.So true of some movies, too. I saw John Cleese’s “Clockwise” (from the 1980s) last night for possibly the seventh or eighth time, and both saw and heard things I never had before! And laughed all over again.And as for Jane Austen? Well, those are books to read again into eternity … “Persuasion” is my personal favourite.With the sewing, I get so overwhelmed (or something) with the possibilities that I sometimes have trouble bringing (anything?) into fruition. Just stand there and gaze at the stash and the individual fabrics brought out to lay beside this or that pattern. Sigh.Truly wonderful fabrics to all! (Gasp I meant to say, “holidays”!)


So, I said.... December 29, 2006 at 11:47 am

jenny from the block with trombones, loved it, can I get alvin and the chipmunks singing Reggae, where do I find that? Seriously I love your website. Thank you.


Marcia in austin December 29, 2006 at 12:44 pm

I fully agree with the idea that sometimes things will surprise you, and also with the idea that re-whatevering something you “already know” can reveal new things.However, if I made six versions of one pattern, there would be one or two that I would wear a lot and the rest would languish. (Hmmm… I can almost hear the four languishing dresses talking.)


Thoughts on Life and Millinery. December 29, 2006 at 5:50 pm

I’ve re-read Little Women every few years since I was 10. A couple of years ago I read the line “Jo was the family mantua maker” and I almost fell off the couch. I had never envisioned Jo as a red hot dressmaker. I had just read Mrs. Lincoln’s Mantua Maker, and was all up to speed with the craft, so newly acquired information highlighted something about Jo that I had just blipped over previously.


john December 29, 2006 at 9:33 pm

i am actually going to rewatch The Family Stone sometime this weekend to see how they changed the house from the beginning of the movie to the very end-kinda thinking they did something other than change the lighting-and of course the actresses changed their dresses which makes this on topic-LOL


Anonymous December 29, 2006 at 10:56 pm

Does it strike anyone else as strange that the model in front looks so ready for tennis, so sporty and crisp you expect her to be holding a tennis racket. And she is holding something very tennis-racketlike, but not. What is that thing? A fan? A fly swatter? Don’t mess with me like that! Just give her a dang tennis racket! :) Pattern illustrations never fail to amuse me.


Mary December 30, 2006 at 8:11 am

I love your blog. I usually learn a new word, or develop a new insight about something (usually NOT dresses.)Yours is kind of a comfort site for me. You may not want to be that~~perhaps you do not want to be perceived as comfortable, but rather as innovative. Well, yes, you are that too.Thanks for your efforts. Your writing makes a difference in my life.


Moonwishes December 30, 2006 at 9:07 am

As another poster mentioned, this is why I can keep making the same quilt design over and over and over. No matter what my mind may think I will end up with, I am always pleasantly surprised.That pattern reminders me very much of a dress set my mother made for herself and my sister and I for Mother’s Day one year. We were all dressed alike and the whole dress (including inset) was in pink gingham. Of course as younger sister I wore out my dress and my sister’s!


Jen ~ MOMSPatterns December 30, 2006 at 10:58 am

It’s a bamboo leave fan thingy she’s holding, isn’t it?? So she can fan herself whilst WATCHING tennis, perhaps..


Anonymous December 30, 2006 at 11:41 am

Well of course she can’t play tennis! If you look close enough at her hemline you’ll see she doesn’t have any legs, and neither does the other lady. Perhaps it was meant as compensation for the legs, but am I the only one a little creeped out by their abnormally long necks?


Oldpatterns December 31, 2006 at 12:13 pm

Too cute! Gotta love those 50’s dresses. No – you can’t play tennis in that kind of dress. You need something with shorts under it! :)


Lindsey January 2, 2007 at 12:19 pm
Dottie Cline, Houston, Texas January 9, 2007 at 7:51 am

I loved your article — I used to be a pattern freak and had stacks and stacks of “to-do” sewing projects. Unfortunately I got cured when I became an interior designer and started sewing draperies instead of dresses. One thing with draperies is that the windows they fit never ever grow fat or shrink so that the draperies have to be altered. What a blessing.


Barbara Elizabeth January 10, 2007 at 4:19 pm

I just discovered this blog. The secret lives of dresses is just marvelous. I read a few of them, realized how good they were, tried to save the rest for later and immediately read them all. They are so evocative, such terrific stories. The whole blog is great — and I don’t sew at all – I couldn’t even get past my apron in 7th grade home ec. But you’re making dresses and fabric so fascinating. Someday, I hope I can buy a book consisting of a few hundred secret lives of dresses. Barbara


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