A good workwoman praises her tools

sewing kit

I travel with an old French sewing kit my friend Thora gave me.

Which, on the face of it, is ridiculous. I love this kit (antique! French! useful!) and would be heartbroken if it were lost. Even though I don't pack it in my carry on, all it would take would be one overzealous or light-fingered TSA agent to decide it was dangerous contraband (small red box full of sharp things?) and it would be Gone Forever.

Here's the inside:

sewing kit

See the cunning little scissors and the darling awl? And the thimble, which I never use? Why on earth would I risk losing this to satisfy the government's desire for Security Theater?

I bring this kit with me for two reasons: first, because I do more sewing in hotel rooms than I have previously cared to admit. (The way it goes is, Erin decides to make new skirt at last minute. Erin does not have time to do hand-hemming of said skirt before packing it. Erin throws appropriate bobbin into sewing kit, stays up way too late in destination city hemming said skirt and watching what is always available on every hotel TV in the land: reruns of Law and Order. Limit one per trip.)

Also, if I left this kit in a drawer at home, I'd probably never use it. I have multiple pairs of new, sharp, ultimately disposable scissors scattered around the house. Ditto seam rippers. (And we all know I don't use thimbles.) The box would sit in a drawer, being kept "safe" (next to all the jewelry I never wear) and that would be tragic. Tools are meant to be used, and every time I use these I am another woman in a line that probably goes back more than a hundred years. Every time I use these little scissors I think fondly of my friend Thora, who is a remarkable person.

Most importantly, every time I use these I enjoy using them. Their beauty somehow improves the mundane work of hemming — it seems to go faster with this little box open beside me. So much of sewing is about enjoying the process (if you don't enjoy the process, it's not worth doing), and this box makes what could be incredibly annoying (hemming a skirt in a hotel room in poor light with the TV blaring — most hotel rooms have two volume settings: mime and football stadium) a small and quiet pleasure.

Here are the scissors and awl out of the box:

sewing kit

If you have a chance, do something with your favorite tools today — write something with your favorite pen. Cook something in your favorite pan. Take a minute to acknowledge the pleasure of good tools …

HOWTO: Buy Fabric

ebay item 8305987417

[Above: Fabric purchased on one day in July, 2006]

Margo left a comment recently asking me how I bought fabric. I thought replying just "Like a drunken sailor on shore leave, if drunken sailors bought fabric" probably wasn't helpful, so I thought I would lay out some rules for buying fabric that have served me well over the last few decades.

1. You never have enough fabric. If you tell yourself "I have enough fabric," you jinx yourself and will immediately need more fabric (except now that you've angered the fabric gods, everything will be horribly polyester and $15/yard). You ALWAYS need more fabric.

2. If offered an opportunity to shop for fabric, take it. You never know when you're going to need more fabric (oh, wait — yes you do know, and the answer is "all the time" — remember rule one: "You always need more fabric"?). So take advantage of every opportunity to shop for fabric.

3. If it is $1/yard and not aggressively hideous, buy three yards. If it's $1/yard and acceptable, buy five yards. If it's $1/yard and, if the fabric were a man [or woman] you would agree to meet him [or her] for coffee (but not a dinner date) buy ten yards. Any liking over that requires a fifteen- to twenty-yard purchase.

4. The basic unit of fabric purchase is four yards of 45" or three of 60" wide. Any less than that and you won't be able to get a fullish skirt out of it. If it has a large repeat (the amount of space it takes to repeat the pattern) or is a border print, or has stripes, or really, anything out of the ordinary, buy five yards. Don't bother carrying yardage for specific patterns with you: if you do buy exactly enough for a particular pattern, you will then cut out one piece wrong and when you go back out to buy more it will be all gone.

5. If you really, really, really love it, buy it right then. Otherwise it will sell out in less than 24 hours. (The corollary to this rule is that fabric you hate will clot the tables and racks at the fabric store until the place goes out of business or burns to the ground.)

6. If the fabric is too expensive to buy at least two yards, or is less than 40" wide, you can still buy it, but only as an objet d'art. You will never make a garment out of it. As long as you accept this up front, you'll be fine. (I have a one-yard piece of Matisse-print "Jazz" silk that I just pick up and look at every once in a while. It was $10/yard when that was astronomically expensive for me.)

6a. If you regularly wear halter tops rule 6 does not apply to you. But you will be making a LOT of halter tops. (Note: conversion from non-halter-top-wearing to halter-top-wearing just to use up your stash is not recommended.)

7. The proper ratio of prints to solids in your fabric purchasing is 10:1. The rationale for this is that good prints are fleeting but solids are always available. In fact, you should never actually have any black fabric in your stash. That is because keeping black fabric in your stash means you won't have a reason to go to the fabric store when you need black fabric, which would contravene rule 2.

8. If you make theatrical costumes, or participate in historical reenactments, or have ever thought "Someday I am going to make the Kinsale Cloak" you may only buy velvet in 20-yard increments.

9. Always make time to buy fabric when traveling. Global Economy, Schmobal Economy. They got different stuff there, wherever "there" is. Pack an extra bag, if you have to.

10. If you think, while looking at fabric, "I'd have no place to wear this, even IF I made it into anything," close your eyes and envision yourself in tears of rage and disappointment, having been invited at the last minute [but with enough time to sew something] to JUST the perfect place to wear something made of that fabric. The most horrible thing in the world is regret: protect yourself from it by buying fabric. And besides, how dumb will you feel when you're freezing to death in the coming nuclear winter/ecological catastrophe, if you don't buy five yards of that wool now?

11. Fabric bought online doesn't "count" against any self-imposed quotas (quotas which violate rules 1 and 2 anyway). Fabric purchased on eBay DOUBLE doesn't count.

Further thoughts: if you have small children, raise them in the belief that the fabric store is the best place in the world to go, ahead of Disney and Chuck E. Cheese. Resort to bribery if necessary. (Also teach them the "one finger rule": they can touch ANYTHING in the store that adults are allowed to touch, if they do so with only one finger. [Check that the finger is clean!] First violation is a warning. Second violation, they must clasp their hands on top of their head for the remainder of the visit.)

Know to the minute how long it takes you to get to each fabric store in your area. This will allow you to plan quick anonymous stops between other errands.

It is better to go to the fabric store without a particular fabric in mind. When the buyer is ready, the true fabric will appear.

So Margo, I hope this helps you, but I'm afraid I cannot be held liable for the size of the stash that will come from following any of these rules. Obey at your own risk.

Again with the Summer

Butterick 5248

I know, I know, there's still snow outside (at least there is in Chicago) and I'm jumping ahead again to the summer dresses. What is wrong with me? Can't I live in the now? Stay in the moment?

Well, no, not when the weather in the now sucks so badly. In general, too, I much prefer the future to the past, but vintage sewing gives me the best of both worlds. I can rummage around in the so-called dustbin of history for aesthetic flotsam like sewing patterns, and then wear them in front of my computer. I can't imagine that the makers of this pattern, for instance, ever even touched a computer. Maybe they never even saw a punch card! And yet the only way I could really find their work now is through one. It kind of gives you hope for all sorts of other things assumed to be ephemeral. Perhaps our work will live on in ways we never intended or imagined?

I love the brown version here — I love brown for summer, especially brown and yellow — although the border print is really cute, too. Although right now, with the snow and the cold and the having to wait yet one more week for Daylight Savings, I'd probably like anything that promised summer!

As you can see from the image, it's B32. Click on the image to visit the eBay auction … I think this is at about $12 right now.

if you're as tickled by this as I am …

ebay item 140087788663

Holly has this lovely feather-print dress up for sale, and it's really adorable. It almost made me forget that it's snowing outside, thinking of wearing this in the summer with little blue or yellow flats and a yellow raffia or canvas bag.

There's really something to be said for a summer wardrobe of full-skirted novelty-print dresses and little flats, isn't there? It's so easy and fun and light-hearted, after a winter of heavy wools and dull fabrics (okay, maybe not in my closet, but, you know, in general).

Lately I'm so desperate for green that I've either bought fabric for (or miracle of miracles, sewn out of my fabric stash) three green skirts! (One plain, one bandana-print, and one a shades-of-grass-green camo print.) All I can say is, there better be some crocuses around here soon, or I might start painting myself green …

This dress is B42 … a nice size, in pristine condition, with a BIN of $74.99! Here's a closeup of the fabric (but you should click on the picture to see the back view, which is really pretty):

ebay item 140087788663

[Oh, and just a reminder: you guys know that all the images I show here (unless they're of my own dresses or patterns) are clickable, right? You click on them, and you go to the source site: ebay, the seller, a museum, what-have-you? You do? Good!]

A Biased Opinion

Simplicity 2230

Laura and I are in accord: this is one of the most gorgeous patterns we've ever seen.

It's at Vintage Martini, for a not-unreasonable $45.

I love the tulip sleeve, and if I were, oh, five inches taller I would be buying this and making it. Or maybe it would make me LOOK five inches taller?

Don't miss the pocket — see, there, on the right?

If I had seen this in time I would have definitely put this in the Oscar-dress lineup. I liked Gwyneth Paltrow's dress this year fine, but this one would have been even better.

I think you could get a really interesting effect by doing the gathered parts in an ombre fabric — it would be difficult, but really beautiful. Maybe in shades of blue, for a brunette?

In a very dull, matte black, with an updo, this would be a great dress to show off a pair of spectacular (borrowed) earrings, although I wouldn't do much more jewelry than that.

How would you make and/or style this dress?