Little Black Overdress

I decided not to buy clothes anymore.

Then I decided to put my sewing machines in storage and only to sew by hand.

The Inspiration – Little White Overdress in Cuba, December 2018

I found the little white voile overdress pictured above in a shop in Cuba in 2018. I have worn it often ever since in the way you see above, over a simple white, gauzy FLAX dress I found at a second-hand shop. The little white overdress is one of my most favorite pieces of clothing. So I decided I wanted another version in black. White, as a color, is vulnerable and the lightness of the voile feels summery, even though the style of the dress does not confine the design to a particular season.

The little white overdress worn in the wild and reflected in the window of a gallery in Porto, Portugal, during a trip with my photographer-friend Bruce Falkinburg. It’s a covert selfie of the two of us. I was also after that message on the gallery wall – “Fuck Art Lets Eat”

I thought about the black version I wanted to make for a long time before I started. At one point I took detailed measurements and plotted them on a drawing, but something else snagged my attention and I wandered off and it took me a long time to wander back.

The next time I approached the project, I started with a decision about material. I have a bolt of crinkly cotton that I got very inexpensively years ago; because I have a lot of it and because it was cheap, it is a low-stakes fabric that I have used before as an alternative to muslin in design experiments for which I needed better drape than muslin offered. In addition to deciding not to buy new clothes, I have decided not to buy new fabric when something in my stash will serve the purpose well. In sum, the crinkly black cotton is black, inexpensive, and I already had it, so the little black overdress would be made in the crinkly black cotton.

Finally, in April after at least a year of intention and deliberation, I traced a pattern from the existing dress, chalked the pieces onto my fabric, pinked them out, pinned, and started sewing – by hand. I did not document my process. The first image I have is from May 5 when I was sitting outside in back of my house gathering the skirt onto the bodice of the dress and feeling like I should post something, anything, to Instagram. In the image below, I had already sewn the bodice and sleeves, attached the sleeves to the bodice, and constructed the skirt. You can see the side seam of the bodice in just about the center of the image. and just above the middle of the left side of the image you can see the seam joining the sleeve to the bodice.

The story this image is trying to tell has to do with the joining of the bodice to the skirt. On the left you can see my thread-tracing on the stitching line of the bodice. Coming from the lower left, you can see where I have basted my skirt gathers and then pinned the skirt onto the bodice.

As I was back-stitching the skirt onto the bodice, I noticed something very interesting. Before I tell you what it was I will give you a little bit of context for why I decided not just to sew my own clothes, but to sew them by hand with a needle and thread.

I have sewn since I was a child. My first projects were dresses I designed and sewed by hand for my dolls, cutting pattern pieces free-hand based on existing shapes and stitching them up with a needle and thread. By the time I was in college I was making almost all of my own clothes using a machine, most of them my own design. I didn’t have any training. I worked intuitively and no doubt did many things wrong by industry standards. But I was only trying to please myself, to make things I wanted to wear.

After college I got a job stitching in the costume shop at the Arena Stage Repertory Theater in Washington, DC. There I learned to flat pattern and began to learn couture sewing techniques. I loved the long days of sitting at big tables sewing by hand, talking to the other women in the costume shop. We only sewed long seams on the machine. Everything else was done with needle and thread. During a brief gap in between shows when we had finished checking the costume archive for moth damage, I made a sloper for myself and took a first pass at my perfect jacket. I’m including a recent picture of myself in that jacket below. It still fits well and feels pretty incredible to put on (and I need an image to break up this post lest you stop reading!).

These photographs are by my dear friend and collaborator Bruce Falkinburg (Instagram: @bruce_falkinburg) and were taken in his amazing studio. He was practicing lighting configurations on me and I got some pretty terrific shots of this jacket out of his experiment. (Please ignore the folds; I hadn’t gotten it out of the closet in a long time and didn’t get it pressed before the shoot.)

I did not succeed in making my perfect jacket, though at the time I felt it was closer than I do now. The armscye is too big and the sleeve cap too tall for what I want now. There are no drag lines when I stand with my arms down. But I want better range of motion without distorting the body of the jacket and changing the feeling of the bodice.

I didn’t stay much longer after this jacket at the costume shop. Arena didn’t pay well enough for me to support myself so I got another job. But I kept sewing, went to graduate school in Anthropology, stopped sewing, started chain-stitch embroidering during a post-doctoral fellowship in Australia, kept embroidering after leaving academia until arthritis made it too painful. Now, 30 years later, I am returning to this long-neglected passion for hand-sewing, having forgotten many things. At the same time I am rekindling my embroidering, having largely resolved the pain of arthritis by shifting to a non-inflammatory, plant-based diet.

In so many ways I feel I am starting again at the beginning. I often think – I don’t know how to do this! And then I tell myself, usually saying it out loud – Ok, Laura, so you don’t know how to do it. Do it anyway.

I love to sew. But I don’t want a lot of things. Sewing by machine, then, is too fast for me, my me-made equivalent of fast fashion. If I want to exercise my passion in an on-going manner, I will produce too much, outpacing my need. My production becomes consumption. My making suddenly bleeds into waste and I don’t want to create waste. I don’t want to consume more than I need. I don’t want to participate in fast fashion. I don’t want to make things and then question whether I should have. I don’t want to feel crushed that I have cut into fabric too hastily.

And I find working with a needle and thread to be meditative, contemplative, pleasurable, good for thinking. To me, sewing garments I design for myself, that fit my body and are creative expressions that emerge from my life and reach toward the life I want to have, represents a poetics of intention. It’s slow. And I want it to be slow. I want to sew because I love to sew. I want every stitch to be pleasurable. I want the making to be a slow and emergent joy in the practice that starts with the idea, changes into a new kind of sensuous appreciation at that first wearing of the final garment and is renewed and extended every time I put it on.

So what to make of the fact that, when I was backstitching the gathers of the skirt to join them to the bodice, I felt impatient? I noticed the feeling and, as I mentioned above, thought – now that’s interesting. What is that about? I realized I was valuing different stitches differently . . .

Author: Laura Bellows

Designer, Anthropologist, Writer

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