Monday, August 22, 2011

Life lessons in dress-making....

Last week, I saw a photo of a dress that I absolutely loved on a website for a shop I can rarely afford.  (only during a massive sale)  The dress was, as expected, radically out of my price range which spurred me to make a trip to my favorite little fabric shop in St. Petersburg in an attempt to recreate my coveted piece.  Of course, the shop did not have the exact fabrics I needed to make a replica, and I honestly wasn't looking to do that anyway - I have never created anything that didn't possess my own unusual spin.  I played for an hour with different textiles, laying one lovely bolt on top of another until I came up with two options that excited me, both creatively and economically.  (Even at the fabric store, I shop the sales racks.)

I purchased the necessary portion of fabric to create both possibilities, and even with plenty of materials to make 2 dresses, I barely spent half of what I would have had I purchased the dress I loved so much from the retailer I cannot afford.  It was this very conundrum that drove me to learn how to sew in the first place.  As I neared my 30s, I realized that I was no longer satisfied with inexpensive, trendy clothing.  My tastes had become much more refined, but sadly, my pocketbook could not keep up with my fashion maturation.  Never one to be defeated by any obstacle, I asked for a sewing machine for my 27th birthday, and my mom and grandma surprised me with one along with a long weekend intended to afford a crash course in basic sewing. 

I have now been sewing for 4 years, and I no longer use patterns.  My husband bought me a dress form a couple of Christmases ago, and my stepmother in-law has provided me with almost every tool one could need to create almost anything out of any material.  I am well-stocked in threads of every color, fabrics that range from high-end silks to vintage tablecloths my mom picked up at a flea market.  (these make AMAZING vintage-inspired pieces...I like to use them for cutesy little shorts and skirts)  This past March, I made the bridesmaid dresses for one of my best friends' weddings, and every once in a while, when the mood hits me, I hide away in my sewing room (which doubles as my husband's office in our tiny house) and just create until all of my restless energy is purged and my spirit is still. 

As I crafted the first of my designer-inspired pieces this weekend, it occurred to me that the progression of my sewing hobby has sort of mirrored my life to this point.  In the beginning, the matriarchs in my life gave me all of the knowledge and skill that they had to offer in the short period that they had to guide and direct me, and then, I was on my own.  In their absence I made some serious mistakes, and even had to take a few pieces apart entirely and start all over again.  Some of my creations found themselves on top of my scrap pile, half-finished, reminding me of the frustration I suffered in my endeavor to bring them to life.  Some of my work has been made better by my missteps.  I have a one-shoulder, purple mini-dress, the sleeve of which I sewed on inside-out.  But, it looked so cool, I decided to leave it.  Earlier in the year, a panel of design experts from a state fashion institute reviewed some of my work and didn't hate it.  I was even applauded for my technique and attention to detail. 

I thought back on my journey fondly as I hand-sewed a beaded/sequin trim onto my latest work-in-progress.  I thought about what it means to grow up and how necessary mistakes really are in the tapestry of life.  Like the pieces I have had to take apart, there are habits that must be unlearned and ideologies that prove to be toxic to the individuals we will eventually become.  If we don't go back to the seams and often times, undo what has taken us a long time to craft, we will never find out who we really are.  We never move forward or grow.  And, the forsaken pieces that find themselves on the scrap pile represent the relationships and friendships we leave behind.  They are no less meaningful for having been abandoned - in fact, they might be even more so.  Had I made my very first dress perfectly, there would have been no reason to continue creating.  I would never feel the sense of pride that overtakes me when I celebrate little successes like getting my zipper perfectly straight or properly sizing a bodice on the first shot.  If I didn't know how difficult it was to install a straight zipper, I wouldn't know to be excited about doing it.  Every stitch is an opportunity to learn, whether or not the piece is ever fully finished.

Having finally mastered the basics of dress-making, I have really come into my 30s as a designer as well as in age.  I am no longer as worried about just getting from point "a" to point "b"...both my existence and my design process have become much more nuanced.  I am not concerned about attaching a skirt to a bodice or a sleeve to an arm-hole.  But, because I am not so concerned with the mechanics of sewing, I have become much more attentive to the overall presentation of a piece...the way the textiles marry together...the placement of the waistline...the fit...the straightness of the hemline.  I am a participant and an observer, and infinitely more self critical despite the progress I've made in my art.  It's funny how that happens.  The better we get at something, the more we hyper-focus on our flaws.  As it is in sewing, it is in life.  At 31, I am a much harsher judge of my place, position and contribution to the world than I ever was in my 20s. 

When I finally finished my most recent creation late last night, I redressed my work mannequin as I always do, and stepped back to observe and critique.  For the first time since I started making my own clothes, my very first response was not trepidation or nervousness about what other people would think of my work.  This time, I just felt proud.  I had executed to the very best of my ability, without cutting any corners or rushing any part of the process.  I had delighted in the journey and not hurried through the less glamorous tasks like pinning the hem and centering my pleats.  For once, I made no excuses to myself.  I let down my guard and admired the work of my own hands without worrying whether someone else might find it lacking.  Stepping back from my finished product, I was content. 

Perhaps a little long-distance perspective is the answer to self hyper-analysis in life, as well.  For those of us who fixate on the problems that arise time and again, maybe stepping back and taking in the whole picture is necessary to afford real, honest appreciation of ourselves and what we've accomplished.  I can easily find myself lacking by comparing my life to those of my peers if I take myself apart and examine only the pieces....the inside out sleeves...the slightly askew zipper.  Or...I can take two steps back and look at the incredible creation my hands have wrought as a whole, and I can be pleased.  No nitpicking.  No analysis.  No comparisons.  Just admiration.  

My dresses are a collection of stitches, pleats and inspiration.

I am a collection of experiences, ideas and choices. 

I supposed I don't just make many ways, I am one.

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