EDITOR’S NOTE: When Katrina and I were first discussing this column and comparing notes, one of the people we both had on our shortlist was Sonya Philip, who was a big influence on me when I began knitting and sewing again a few years ago. Not surprisingly, Sonya was apparently also on the radar of my friends over at Mason-Dixon Knitting, where she was recently announced as their newest columnist. Go, Sonya!
BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // It’s a pleasure to introduce friend, artist, maker and homemade-wardrobe icon Sonya Philip of 100 Acts of Sewing. I’ve known Sonya for several years, and her work and personhood are true examples of the intertwining of one’s passions with their values, lifestyle and work. Sonya’s homemade wardrobe is inspiration for so many of us who sew, stitch, knit, crochet or otherwise make clothing, but this inspiration was also always present in our San Francisco Bay Area outings and adventures. Whether we were meeting for lunch, walking our kids and dogs around the neighborhood, gathering with other artists for meals or backyard dye parties, I always felt inspired by Sonya’s aesthetic but also by her outlook, opinion, influences and the way she generally shows up with open arms to make this world a more beautiful and encouraging space.
There’s a depth to her work as an artist and maker that stems from her very center as a human — her work, her home, her writing, her inspirations and her very being all seem to align towards an intentional and thoughtful compass that guides her forward. The 100 Acts of Sewing project retains its authenticity and influence as the outcomes shift from Sonya’s personal wardrobe to her classes, patterns and public offerings. On a practical note, Sonya’s dress patterns are some of my personal favorites. They are simultaneously stylish and simple, and yet they allow for an assortment of design choices that shift the entire garment — bright pockets on the Dress No.1 and a contrasting binding make for a very different dress than sticking to just one fabric for bodice, pockets and neckline. These choices, of course, are left to the individual maker.
It’s a great honor to share Sonya’s story and her wisdom in this series: Her steadfast commitment to honoring our bodies, our wardrobes and our journey as creatives is a testament to what slow fashion can achieve inside and outside of our wardrobes. Sonya’s version is grounded, inspired, authentic, and her wholehearted vision feels like a balm to the messages we typically receive from the fashion world. In Sonya’s version there is not just a beautiful homemade dress and a coordinating shawl but there’s a healthier, happier and more confident human underneath.
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Hello, my friend. Taking your 100 Acts of Sewing workshop was such a pivotal moment early in my slow-fashion journey. Even though I’d made garments in high school and college, your gentle approach to sewing and discerning patterns was such welcomed encouragement. I get the feeling I’m not your only student who feels this way. Can you give us a brief overview of the 100 Acts of Sewing project? When did it start and how did it shift from a yearlong project to an ongoing endeavor including teaching and design?
I learned to use a sewing machine in middle school and it seemed as if each sewing project from that point on resulted in an unwearable botch job of cloth and tangled thread. My love for textiles found an outlet when I learned how to knit in my early twenties. Then in 2007, I joined a Flickr group called wardrobe_remix. It was started up by Tricia Royal as a place for people from around the world to share what they were wearing, from handmade, ready-to-wear, to upcycled or thrifted pieces. Taking photos of myself and sharing them made me think about what I was wearing and what I liked to wear in a way I really hadn’t up until that point.
Even though I failed at many attempts to sew garments, I had some success at refashioning some long linen thrift store dresses. Finally, at the urging of Kristine Vejar, I took a pattern-drafting class with Cal Patch at A Verb for Keeping Warm. A week later, I had drafted a pattern and made three dresses. That was late January 2012. After it became clear sewing dresses was all I wanted to do, I decided to turn it into a project — making dresses for myself and others, and documenting the process by posting photos online.
What I wanted, because I was making dresses for all different women of all different sizes, was a basic template. For me, the pleasure wasn’t so much in the construction but in combining the patterns and colors. I approached each dress like a fabric collage. I started teaching classes and, because of the response from people seeing my dresses, released my first pattern in the spring of 2013.
I love your approach to garments. I love your sewing patterns and simple lines but also your personal aesthetic, use of fabrics, and that your garments can really be layered to create an entire wardrobe. On your website you say, “The pattern consists of just four seams and a hem. The simplicity of the design makes it accessible, meaning people leave [workshops] with an identifiable end-product and an important sense of accomplishment.” Do you draft all your patterns with this guiding principle of four seams and a hem? Do you consciously take this firm minimalist approach when designing so the patterns remain accessible?
What I strive to do in all of my patterns is really distill a garment to its most basic form. I do this very purposefully, making a pattern appropriate for a complete beginner, but then someone with a little more experience can modify it to make it their own. Before I started 100 Acts of Sewing, I would periodically wrestle with my sewing machine, fabric and a commercial pattern. Those patterns always seemed to have about two dozen different pieces and one would invariably get lost or put in upside down.
I bring all those memories of frustration to the way I design patterns. I make a garment over and over again until I’ve made all the mistakes and I’m confident I can clearly walk a person through the construction. While seams and darts are wonderful for shaping, they also add a level of complexity that a lot of people aren’t ready for, especially when they are just getting used to operating a sewing machine.
You and I have talked quite a bit about perfectionism — about how it works as a roadblock in so many creative pursuits. And yet, we’ve both shared our appreciation and admiration for incredible craftsmanship. But I think there’s something to overcoming fear of making a mistake that you address beautifully in your workshops and your work. Can you talk about perfectionism?
I think there’s an ingrained rigidity which appears to take over once we leave school. It’s as if children spend all these years being receptive to learning and then the tolerance to being a beginner declines sharply. Much of sewing is about rote learning, getting better at doing something incrementally by doing the same thing over and over again.
Our collective patience grows more and more thin as each new app and device makes waiting for things obsolete. It’s as if the involvement of a machine increases this expectation for instant results. While the mechanization does produce faster results, it is still a tool. We tend to see mistakes as personal failings, rather than necessary steps on the path towards proficiency. I tell my students to laugh at their mistakes.
What started out as a personal project to teach yourself to sew has become something of a political statement against fast fashion and against the underlying messaging in mainstream fashion or overconsumption. Your project encourages us to make our clothes, love our bodies, and define our own personal style. You write, “When we know how to sew with our own hands, we can make and remake and make well. We become more discerning of our goods and create the possibility of rejecting mass produced items.” Did you intend the project to have this political message when you first began?
100 Acts of Sewing started out with just so much joy, I was doing something I had convinced myself I could not do, and then to find out otherwise was thrilling and I couldn’t stop. So in the beginning it was really just a giddy rush of creativity, and that started to fold into my worldview — one of supporting indie makers and small businesses. But in actuality, it was pretty easy for me to step off the fast-fashion train, because it really wasn’t something that I was on in the first place. Having a larger body size most of the clothes in stores didn’t fit me, so most of my shopping was already done in thrift stores. I was coming from a place where my needs were already under-served.
You write so beautifully, “Alternately encouraged by and excoriated by the media, women in the US forge a deep discontentment with their bodies that leads many on a constant search for clothes that alter appearance.” Can you talk about this media effect? And how your work is something of an antidote or balm?
This is something that I have been thinking about a lot lately. It’s not just the media — I feel that the media just amplifies a lot of the messages. Women are judged by how they look and what is considered beautiful at this given moment. Oftentimes the value is based upon someone else’s judgment. It takes individual thought and desire out of the picture and discounts them. Consequently the quest for external validation is incredibly insidious. It makes getting dressed a very fraught experience, filled with the anxiety of not being enough, whether thin enough, young enough or any number of harmful self-judgments.
Dressing for your true self is in effect creating agency with the pleasure derived from how the clothes make a person feel, be it by the cut of the garment, the color or material. All of these choices are in the hands of the maker rather than handed over wholesale to another, unknown person.
We tend to put such an emphasis on formal education but sometimes we forget that informal education is just as important if not more influential. Although you’re self-taught as an artist and designer I believe your father was an architect and your mother was an interior designer. Do you think this access to arts and design at home influenced your thinking as a child and even as an adult? Meaning, do you think this informal training acted as a form of early arts education for your current design work?
I travelled a lot with my family, and every trip would involve stops into museums, churches or castles. I think it absolutely taught me to look and notice things. I find myself always pointing things out to my kids and in turn they show me things. That act of noticing and describing is really important to me, that way we interact and process the physical world around us. Observing what we find pleasing is a way of developing our own tastes.
You and I also have this other random connection that we went to the same MFA Creative Writing program at Mills College, although we graduated in different years. Do you think this parallel study of writing and poetry somehow influenced your work in fashion and craft? I sometimes think that training in any creative medium allows for a certain exploration, deepening of engagement, attainment to details, and ultimately creating a toolset of inquiry, critical thinking, observation and experimentation that can be adapted to other art forms. While you didn’t formally study design you formally studied poetry — do you think there’s a link between the two?
What I learned with poetry was the importance of developing a practice, as well as using a series as a means to construct a larger body of work. My poems, like my artwork, are very small, and grouping them together to create a larger and more sustained piece was a big Eureka moment. From my education as a whole, I loved being an undergraduate — each new course catalog was a packed full of possibility. I am thankful that I was able to take so many classes in many different subjects and really feel there was opportunity for a cross-pollination of ideas among them.
Your work sits at this intersection between fine art, traditional craft, fashion, social practice and contemporary design, but it also sits in the larger community of Slow Fashion. Can you name 3-5 leaders in the movement that you find the most inspiring right now?
For me, Cal Patch is the godmother of 100 Acts of Sewing — without her gentle guidance I would still be convinced I couldn’t sew. Another person I gain lots of inspiration from is Tom van Deijnen and his Visible Mending Programme. His care and attention to detail just blows me away. Lastly, if you haven’t looked through the photos of Kate Fletcher’s Craft of Use project, you need to set aside a few hours to look through this incredible site.
Looking outside of Slow Fashion at your earlier and ongoing work in fine arts, fiber arts and poetry, can you name 3-5 artists, authors or poets who continuously inspire your work in Slow Fashion?
I am enjoying both the fiction and nonfiction work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — she writes so eloquently about feminism as well as the experiences of immigrants. Another person is the artist David Ireland, after visiting his house at 500 Capp Street, I was in complete awe of his work, this embodiment of social practice. Lastly Ruth Asawa is inspiring to me as a hometown artist, but also as someone who worked to create an arts program in local public schools when the budgets were cut. I greatly admire balancing those roles of artist, activist and mother.
And lastly, three creative tools you could not live without?
I could not live without a notebook and a pen — I am always writing lists or jotting down thoughts. Also I would be pretty lost without a sewing machine!
Katrina Rodabaugh is an author, artist and slow-fashion advocate. Visit her website www.katrinarodabaugh.com or follow her on Instagram at @katrinarodabaugh
PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizens: Liz Pape of Elizabeth Suzann
Photos © Sonya Philip, used with permission