I had the most remarkable weekend and want to tell you guys all about it, but it’s big jumble of a story about friends and family and bust size and handmade clothes and … I hardly know where to begin. So let me start here:
When I was at Squam last June with lots of people asking about our decision to move to Nashville, several said, “Have you heard about Anna Maria Horner’s thing, Craft South?” I hadn’t, and I knew the name Anna Maria Horner only as someone big in the sewing world, which I wasn’t especially tuned into at the time. When I got home and looked it up, I discovered that Craft South was a yarn and fabric store that was nearly a year from birth, but in the meantime it was a series of weekend-long workshops, one of which was three days with Liesl Gibson, a pattern designer I’d been following on Instagram (where she’s @lieslgibson and @oliverands). This was around the time I took a solemn vow to get past my Lifetime Beginner status as a sewer, and I wanted desperately to sign up for that workshop, but it coincided with the move in a way that just wasn’t possible. Plus it was crazy expensive and we were already taking on quite enough crazy for one summer, thankyouverymuch.
Shortly after we got here, I got a long and very sweet email from Anna Maria out of the blue, introducing herself and welcoming me to town, and her friendship has been one of the great blessings of the move. As Craft South got close to opening a few months ago, they sent out their workshop schedule for the new space, and I was thrilled to see Liesl’s class on there again. There was still the hard-to-swallow matter of the expense and it wasn’t entirely clear what it was about, other than something to do with fit, but I figured whatever she was teaching I wanted to learn it, and I didn’t want to miss another chance. So between Friday night and yesterday afternoon, I spent a total of 22.5 hours holed up at the shiny new shop with Liesl and Anna Maria and another 15 talented women, having a complexly wonderful and challenging time.
A few weeks ago, we got an email about what to bring to class and the main thing was “a fitted dress sewing pattern with either princess seams or a basic bust dart.” In other words, the last garment you’d ever expect to see me in! But whatever — I want to understand how sewing works at least as well as I understand how knitting works (so I can be free to modify or improvise in the same way I do with knitting), and if that meant learning the mechanics of bust darts, I’m game! So Liesl — who is utterly lovely in every way — taught us how to do a Full Bust Adjustment (FBA) and its more applicable counterpart, in my case, the Small Bust Adjustment (SBA). She taught us how to make a Muslin like a pro, and we all spread out with our tracing paper and muslin and deliciously old-school carbon paper, and we sewed our first drafts. For the rest of the weekend, we took turns putting on our muslin, being pinned in by a friend, and having Liesl go over it with us inch by inch, explaining and marking tweaks to be made to get our bodices to more perfectly match our bodies — or in some cases, instructing us to start over, for whatever reason.
I started out thinking it was a slightly abstract exercise for me — that I was absorbing pattern theory to be applied in other, as-yet-undetermined ways — but somewhere along the line I got hooked. The main reason I’ve never worn a lot of fitted garments is that fitted garments don’t fit me. (You’ve all heard this song: If they fit my giant shoulders, they’re huge in the torso, and if they fit my torso, I can’t move my arms without ripping out the seams.) But it slowly dawned on me that here I was on the brink of having markings on a piece of tissue paper that I could translate into a closet full of garments that actually fit. Exactly the sort of total control I live for.
It didn’t hurt that I was just plain having a ton of fun, 100% absorbed in the activity, and happy in the company of these women. I was also riding a wave of nostalgia. We’d all talked on Friday night about how and when we learned to sew, and Liesl said something about her mom that rang so true for me but that I’d never specifically thought about — as hers had, my mom taught me at a very young age that patterns are modular and adaptable. And what an enormous impact that has had on me.
My mom is always with me when I’m sewing, as is my sister, in a sense. Each time I wind a bobbin or watch for the right seam allowance marking as I feed my fabric through the machine, I still hear my mom teaching me how, and I also hear myself teaching my sister, which I hope to finally do one day soon.
When we were little and shared a hideous inherited bedroom — our Holly Hobby bedspreads (made by mom) plunked down in a room with two bright yellow walls and two that were papered in a wide black-and-white stripe — my sister and I used to take my mother’s tracing wheel and run it all over our hand-me-down dresser, entranced by the constellations it carved in the soft old wood. Using Liesl’s carbon paper and tracing wheels, which I haven’t done since my mom first taught me how, I couldn’t help but think of them all — my mom and sister and my dad, who got so mad at us about that dresser — and the fact that they were together at a family reunion I was missing in order to take this class. There was some kind of Old Country radio show playing on the shop’s sound system, and in the afternoon it was a vintage recorded performance of Merle Haggard’s. I died the moment I heard him tell the audience the next song would be “Corrina Corrina,” the song my dad sings to my mother, Colleen, as “Colleena Colleena.”
On my drive home late Saturday night, I found myself elated at the prospect of being back there at 9:30 in the morning to start over. At that point, I had a pattern that fit me perfectly across the chest and shoulders, which I knew I’d be able to adapt to all sorts of sleeveless garments the likes of which I’d been unable to draft for myself before. But Liesl had marked a change to the armhole on my muslin that would make a sleeve fit me correctly. (In theory — I still have another draft to attempt.) I was savoring the notion of getting out my tracing paper again, tracing over that first draft (eliminating all the extraneous markings from the SBA in the process), making the armhole change, and marking up a new muslin. The prospect of seeing myself in a “garment” that fit me simultaneously in the torso and the sleeve was compelling enough all by itself, but the fact is, I had fallen in love with the process. It dawned on me that it has everything in common with what graphic design was when I was in art school in the ’90s, all the aspects I loved that were lost when it became a computer job — rulers and mark-making devices and meticulously annotated layers of tissue.
So I loved every minute, and walked away with three priceless slips of tracing paper and all the magic they contain.
Special thanks to Kay Gardiner, who happened into the shop on Saturday afternoon to my great delight, and who snapped the pic above of Anna Maria and me, wearing my first draft.