My first job, at the age of 14, was in a little fabric store called L.T. Henry fabrics, which was owned by a man from New York who sent things down that he couldn’t sell in his main store in the garment district. It was one of those stores that was tidy but packed with things, some of which had been there for a long time because they were so unusual.
I used to wander around the store, when there were no customers, hunting, finding new things, hiding the ones I like behind and under the other bolts. The store had the conventional broadcloths, tweeds, double-knits, seersuckers, light suit wool, tulle, flannel (in the days before fleece), interfacing, bias tape, thread, zippers. But there were also extraordinary silks, brocades, designer fabrics in a little fabric store in a shabby strip mall with a KMart and a People’s Drugstore.
I used published patters at first and then I started cutting my own patterns, winging it really. I habitually skipped the pressing and the interfacing. I always wanted to wear it the next day so I cut corners. But over time I got better and eventually got a job in the costume shop at the Arena Stage repertory theater in Washington DC. There, I learned couture and custom tailoring techniques. I learned to measure the body to make slopers and how to manipulate a sloper to make flat patterns. I got really good. Before I left the theater I made a beautiful custom tailored blue brocade silk jacket. It still fits magnificently. This is not a good picture. I’ll take a better one. It doesn’t convey how beautiful it is. It took a long time – all those tiny, invisible stitches to marry the interfacing to the fabric on the underside of the lapel that I shaped over a ham to create a sensuous rounded fold.
And then I stopped. I went to graduate school. The independent fabric stores had already begun to close by then. I stopped for 25 years except for the odd, exquisite, custom-tailored Halloween costume (remember the beautiful, green, full-length coat in The Little Prince?) for my son when he was a little boy.
A few summers ago I took a class at the Haystack school of craft. It was supposed to be about designing your Uniform. I had long found that idea incredibly appealing and was so excited to go out and buy fabric for the Uniform I imagined – a series of long, fitted jackets and coats in wools and linens in a grey to black palette. Fitted collarless blouses in linen, long skirts, flared pants. The class was a disaster. The instructor led us astray by starting with industry blanks instead of measurements to make our slopers. The blanks, of course, didn’t fit anyone so they needed to be fit and made again. No one had experience fitting so the students waited to be fitted by the instructor, moving the alterations onto paper, cutting muslins again, repeat. The instructor had advised the students to add seam allowance to the pattern, rather than have the edges of the sloper pattern represent the stitching line, as I had learned in the theater (I ignored the instructor and my patterns edges represented the stitching line so I added my seam allowance every time, which was very slow). If a student failed to add seam allowance to her pattern, the muslin wouldn’t fit. Because there was so little seam allowance (students were advised the garment industry standard of 3/8″ rather than the custom tailoring standard of 1″, which allows for alterations on the muslin or the finished garment), the entire muslin would have to be made again after trying to figure out where the muslin had gone wrong.
And the problems go on like that. I had to stop what I was trying to do for three days (the course was only 2 weeks!) to read a book on fitting so I could interpret correctly what the drag lines and drapes in the muslins meant and how to fix them.
Needless to say I never got to fabric. I kept wishing I could remember everything I had known so well 25 years ago when I was at the theater. I was so angry after the course that I didn’t continue to work on any of the projects I had set out for myself.
This week I’m starting again. I’m going to cut two linen skirts, one short in grey, and one long in black. I hope to wear the black one to my 10,000 Small Businesses graduation on August 2. I’m starting with a commercial patterns that I am tweaking. I will keep you posted!