I’m written several times about my current obsession with creating clothes entirely by hand following the methods in Alabama Chanin’s third book, Alabama Studio Sewing + Design. Don’t worry: this isn’t actually about sewing. What it’s about is what I’m learning about the way we learn.
Before I began this project, I would have said there are two parts to the process of creating a series of something, once you’ve got the idea of what you want to do. Meaning, once you have the inspiration for something new, there are two stages to the work. The first stage would be learning and then mastering the techniques needed for the pieces in the series. In my case, that would be learning to sew sturdy seams by hand and bind raw edges and the basic techniques of working with cotton knit. When I spent a year making hand bound books, that part of the process was learning to sew the signatures and case in the page block and cover the boards. This part is the basic foundation work of learning what you need to know to create what’s in your head.
The other part, I would have said, is the actual making of the pieces, working out designs and seeing how the pieces in the series evolve. For me, this would be the ways I choose to make up the garments, the fabrics and embellishments. Or the designs of the individual books–fabrics or papers for the covers, page weight, spine embellishment. I would have said that these are the two main parts of creating a series of work of any kind.
What I hadn’t thought about before I began this wardrobe project is an in-between part, a part I’m thinking of as The Tweaking. That’s where I am now, and I’m finding that I’m actually learning more here than I did in the first stage. This is the part where you create something, finish it, stand back and look at it, and then figure out what you want to do next time to tweak it just a tiny bit. It’s the part you have to do when you haven’t quite gotten where you want to be in order to start creating the actual pieces. You aren’t that pleased with it yet, and you know there’s something more you’ve got to figure out before you proceed. Make it larger, make it stand up on its own, make this part able to open or turn. For me, it’s adjusting the patterns I’m using. I want sleeves, but not like any of the ones in the patterns. I don’t like the way the neckline lies, and I have to adjust that. I want more flare on the sides and less in the front, and it would be nice to have pockets. I’ve got the basic skills–my seams are nice and even, I can work reverse appliqué, the binding around the neck is lying flatter and smoother–but I’m not ready to start the real work of creating a series of pieces. There’s still tweaking that needs to be done. When I was binding books, this was the part where I had to figure out how much space to leave between the boards and the spine. Too little and the book wouldn’t close all the way. Too much and that gutter would be loose and a little floppy. Too many pages would make the covers flare out, and too few would make them sink in. Some fabric and handmade paper wouldn’t work for the cover because it was too bulky to make neat corners.
Working out all these little details can seem time-consuming and fussy when what you really want is to get to the fun part of making finished pieces, but I’m discovering that it’s actually really satisfying. You get to watch how your own creative brain solves problems, and you have to hone your skills even further to be able to work out all the little knots. I’m trying to come up with The Perfect Pattern for a basic top, and I think I’m almost there. The first one was a disaster, and I had to cut it up the middle and insert an extra panel. I tweaked the pattern, and the second one was better, but it still didn’t fit right, and in fact I’m wearing it backwards to make the neck work the way I want. #3 was much, much better–it’s almost where I want it to be–and I think #4, now in progress, is going to be pretty much The One. Once it’s finished and I try it on and wear it a couple times, I can make a final master pattern and get on with the fun of creating fully-embellished garments. But I’ve got to admit: this tweaking part is kind of addictive. Even now, as I work on this fourth top and see it working out the way I want, I find myself thinking, “But I wonder what would happen if I cut it in just a tiny little bit over here? Hmmmmmm. . . .”
There’s a whole nother world in that middle stage, and who knows what you might discover there?
Ricë also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.
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