DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!


May 29 2015

Common Threads

by Dea Anne M

Regular readers of this blog know that I have been teaching myself to sew. The whole process so far has been more fits than starts, if you know what I mean, but I think that I finally might be making some progress. I’m not really hoping to save money by eventually making most, or some, of my clothes. Fabric can be pricey, after all, not to mention thread and zippers and buttons and all the other notions necessary toward finishing a garment. Home sewing used to be a way to save money, but we live in a world now, and in a country, where clothing is available to us at price points that would have been inconceivably low some 50 or 60 years ago. A page from a 1955 Sears catalog shows a full-skirted, beautifully-detailed, satin dress on offer for $6.98, which would cost about $62.00 today. Jonathan Logan, a company that specialized in designing and producing higher-end dressy and career apparel for younger women throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, typically offered dresses hovering around the $25.00 mark–which would be about $220.00 today.

“$220.00!” you might say. “For one dress? I could get two dresses at Banana Republic for that kind of money–maybe three if I hit a sale. Or five dresses at H&M. Good dresses too. For $250.00 I could get ten dresses at Target. Ten dresses!

I suppose one could be forgiven for believing, given today’s array of choices and prices, that we are living in a Golden Age of clothing. But are we really? That vast selection of cheap clothing relies on the overseas outsourcing of nearly every aspect of the clothing production process. In 1950, 90% of the clothing worn by Americans was produced in this country. That percentage has dropped to 3%. The workers who make these clothes are almost always drastically underpaid and perform their jobs in conditions that can be shockingly unsafe. The 2012 fire that broke out in the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh killed 112 people and carries eerie echoes of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in this country. More recently, the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza, a complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which included several clothing manufacturers, killed over 1,100 people.

And, really, how good are the clothes? My experience of cheap clothing is that it often falls apart very easily. I have a two cardigan sweaters, one from Ross and the other from Target, that developed holes in the elbows after a mere two months of wear.  Necklines stretch out of shape and colors fade quickly. Most of the time, you can forget about quality details like French seam finishing or linings–even with higher-end goods. Now I don’t want to misrepresent myself here. I buy, or at least have bought, as much inexpensive stuff as anyone else. Lately overdressedthough, I’ve started to seriously rethink that clothing strategy, especially after reading Elizabeth L. Cline’s fascinating book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. Candid and well-written, I highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about the fashion industry and perhaps concerned about their own choices.

According to Cline, in 1930 the average American woman owned about nine outfits and probably considered herself well prepared for any given situation that might come up in her life. Today, the typical American–of any gender–will buy 60 or more pieces of clothing in a year. Yet many of us face cluttered, overstuffed closets combined with the nagging feeling of having nothing to wear. Weirdly enough, although the cost of clothing has overall gone down, our total spending on it has increased. In 1950, we spent about $7.82 billion dollars on clothing. Today, that number is about $375 billion per year. What are we getting for that money?

I don’t believe mass boycotting of companies that use overseas labor is necessarily the best answer to the ethical concerns that currently plague the fashion industry. The reality is the economy that we live in today is largely a global one. I do think there are steps that concerned folks can follow to reduce the negative effects of the clothing industry (which can be environmental as well as ethical). First, one can choose to spend more money on fewer clothes that will last longer and then take very good care of them. I know from experience that I have often “felt broke.” I’m also aware there are many, many people who truly have no money to spare. But maybe, those of us who can, should consider saving our dollars up a little longer for more special and durable items of clothing.  There is also the option of buying second hand clothes from thrift stores and consignment shops. Now, this has always been something of a yes-and-no proposition for me. I don’t always have the patience required to go through rack after rack of clothes to find something that appeals. Still, there are plenty of people who love the challenge and there are many sound reasons for giving a pre-worn garment a second life.

Finally, there is learning to sew well enough (not to mention enjoying it!) to construct some garments from scratch and to “refashion” other items that don’t quite suit. There’s a lot of help online should you be interested in pursuing this path, and two of my favorite sites are Refashionista and verysweetlife. The Refashionista is Jillian Owens, a South Carolina native who does some incredible transformations on some pretty hopeless looking thrift store goods. The mind behind verysweetlife is Sarah Kate Beaumont, who since 2008 has made all of her own clothes–and I mean all her clothes including lingerie and hats. Such skills do not come without years of dedicated pursuit and, in fact, both of these women are accomplished seamstresses. My ambitions, for now, tend towards the more modest end, but I have to admit to a personal desire to start doing some refashioning myself. This can be something as simple as switching out the buttons on a shirt to remaking a garment into something entirely new. Are you interested in pursuing this way of thinking about clothes? If so, DCPL has resources to help and inspire.

I have mentioned this book in a previous post, and Threads Sewing Guide: A Complete Reference from America’s Best-Loved Sewing Magazine remains an excellent reference for basic and more complicated sewing. Thismccalls book will be especially useful to those of us who need to alter the fit of purchased items (for me this is most of the time). Also, the photographs are beautiful. Another recommended reference for those of us interested in altering clothes to fit us (or others) perfectly is McCall’s Essential Guide to Sewing by Brigitte Binder, Jutta Kuhnle and Karin Roser.

An sewingapproach to “green sewing” is presented in Sewing Green: Projects and Ideas for Stitching with Organic, Repurposed, and Recycled Fabrics, Plus Tips and Resources for Earth-Friendly Stitching by Betz White. The idea here is to take a recyclable garment and turn it into something completely different. Thus, men’s dress shirts become aprons, pretty sheets become lounge pants, and a couple of old wool sweaters become a cute, felted scarf. Toys, baby blankets, colorful shopping totes–they’re all here. White’s ideas are really creative and, as a bonus, the book features profiles of designers and craftspeople behind such innovative companies as Harmony Art and Alabama Chanin. Very wardrobemuch worth your time.

Finally, keep an eye out for DIY Wardrobe Makeovers: Alter, Refresh & Refashion Your Clothes, Step-by-Step Sewing Tutorials by Suzannah Hamlin Stanley, which is currently on order at DCPL and promises to be a treasure trove of methods to help you–as the book’s subtitle indicates–alter, refresh and refashion your existing wardrobe.

How about you? Are you a lover of second-hand? Are you interested in refashioning and/or sewing clothes for yourself or for others?



Aug 22 2014

Exploring a Lost Art

by Dea Anne M

In 1960, the average woman at Cornell University owned 2.9 pairs of pants. That .9 is really worrying me. Where did the rest of the pants go and, more important, what was left? Were the side seams missing to such an extent that the pants flapped wildly around the poor woman’s legs providing neither warmth nor coverage? Did the pants lack a waistband altogether so that she had to use duct tape to attach them to her skin?

Now I know perfectly well that this .9 is probably the statistical result of some of those women owning 1 pair of pants, some owning 2, and some owning a full complement of 3. Yet the possibility of a .9 pair of pants affects me in a way similar to the way learning as a child that “the average American family” had 2.5 children affected me. Where, I wondered, was my half-sibling? And by “half-sibling” I didn’t envision a child who shared only one parent with me. No. I imagined a literal half-child who was bisected down the middle and wearing half a shirt, half a pair of pants, and one shoe.  She or he was a potentially tragic creature–one that my parents had to be hiding somewhere, but where? Certainly not anywhere in our house–a Central Florida ranch model that had no basement, much less anything resembling an attic. Was there a place in the country for all those .5 children that the average American family kept producing–some haven where each child was allowed ice cream every day and the pet of his or her choice? Childhood poses many such odd questions…or maybe my brain was just a weird place to be.

That 2.9 pants statistic comes from an entertaining new book The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish by Linda Przybyszewski. Przybyszewski is a professor in the History Department at the University of Notre Dame. Among the courses she teaches is A Nation of Slobs, which introduces students to “the art, ethics and losteconomics of dress in Modern America.” According to the book, American women were considered some of the best dressed in the world up through the earlier half of the twentieth century. Since then, we’ve experienced the explosive growth of the garment industry and its subsequent globalization–as well as the impact of far-reaching movements for social change and an increasingly youth-oriented culture. All of these have altered the way we think about attire and its importance. As far as women and their pants go, the book posits that prior to the late 1960’s women simply didn’t have that many occasions to wear them. Trousers were considered “proper” for women when engaged in sports, for at home wear or when in the county or suburbs. The ubiquity of pants in women’s wardrobes today can be traced to the advent of the mini-skirt (introduced by British designer Mary Quant in 1964) and the subsequent (mostly female-led) backlash against such a revealing garment.  Throughout, Przybyszewski argues her points tartly and often humorously–and whether you agree with her or not, the book itself is well worth reading. In fact, I’ve already read it twice!

Dr. Przybyszewski attributes the former wide acceptance of certain standards of women’s dress to a couple of things (and these standards didn’t necessarily embrace an adherence to luxury but rather ideas of appropriateness and artistic harmony). One was that, until fairly recently, American consumers didn’t have the sort of access to low-priced, mass-produced garments that we do today. Instead, the average woman either sewed her own clothes or shopped very carefully for the highest quality garments that she could afford. In fact, it’s surprising how very few clothes were considered necessary to be well dressed.  For work, some experts ruled that 5 outfits were enough and some declared 2 or 3 ample with clever changes of accessories. That’s difficult for many of us these days to consider desirable…or even possible. Though I do love the idea of a well-edited wardrobe and the so-called “capsule wardrobe” really appeals to me.

In any case, I want to upgrade my own clothing and in service to that goal I’m slowly teaching myself to sew. I don’t expect to save money this way. My main focus is on learning to create garments that fit well in colors that flatter me. Most of us who shop for clothes will eventually feel frustrated with the poor fit of so many off-the-rack garments and, as for color, there isn’t always a good choice available. Fortunately, DCPL has plenty of resources to help me in my sewing adventure. If you share my aspirations, these resources could help you too.

Here are a few of the titles that I’ve found helpful:

Sewing Solutions: Tips and Advice for the Savvy Sewist by Nicole Vasbinder

200 Sewing Tips, Techniques and Trade Secrets by Lorna Knight

Sewing In a Straight Line: Quick and Crafty Projects You Can Make by Simply Sewing Straight by Brett Bara

And here are three titles that will be of special interest to those of us who are interested in creating clothing:

The Complete Photo Guide to Clothing Construction by Christine Haynes is technique-based and beautifully illustrated. I’m not ready yet for pleats or contour darts, but when I am, this is the book I will turn to.

Skirt-A-Day Sewing: Create 28 Skirts for a Unique Look Every Day by Nicole Smith provides instruction for making exactly what the title promises. These skirts are adorable and could keep you happily, and beautifully, clothed for some time.

If you’ve already been sewing for a while, How To Use, Adapt, and Design Sewing Patterns by Lee Hollahan will show you how to alter paper patterns for an absolutely perfect fit and personal detail.

I’m still very much a beginner to sewing but I’m happy to say that I’m enjoying the process of learning. Who knows, maybe some day soon you’ll see me wearing a beautiful garment that I made with my own hands!

To go, briefly, back to The Lost Art of Dress, the author frequently mentions Elizabeth Hawes, a clothing designer who was active professionally from the mid-1920’s through 1940.  As a political activist and a champion of gender equality, Hawes was very much ahead of her time. She had plenty of provocative and interesting things to say about clothing and the fashion industry. She was also, in my opinion, a brilliant designer who created some of the most original and beautiful hawesclothes I’ve ever seen (with some of the most interesting names). The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has an online archive of its collection where you can view the work of many designers, including Elizabeth Hawes. Check out the amazing evening gown called It Is My own Invention (see photo, right) as an example of her talent (and click here for a larger picture).

Do you sew? Do you enjoy making your own clothes? Guys, you may be feeling left out of this post, but I would love to hear from any men out there who already sew or are interested in learning.