Because It's There

So the other night I went to a Designers + Geeks meetup because it was about “.” I always think that I will like the idea of fashion tech design but I usually come away slight less than whelmed.

The speakers were fairly interesting — my favorite was Meg Grant, you should check out her work — but they left me with more questions than answers, the biggest question being, “Why?”

Grant’s work was a very straightforward answer to the “Why?” question … much of her work is art-project-y, and and such raises art-project-y questions. There are dresses that emit poems when touched, and gloves you can whisper secrets into, and a blouse where lights shining behind you seem to shine right through you, thanks to a clever arrangement of light sensors and LEDs. They’re intelligent and thought-provoking, but not something you’d necessarily wear every day. (Her recent work is investigating wearable textile solar panels, which *does* seem to answer a practical “why?” question — it makes perfect sense that if your , a sunny day would be even better.)

The other two speakers’ answers to the “Why?” question were less satisfying to me —  being able to is cool, but just because something is cool is not really reason enough to do it. Tech as decoration is really just battery-powered embroidery, or a new kind of sequin.

Sensoree’s answer to the “Why?” of tech + fashion was more therapeutic: their  is essentially a mood ring. Only, you know, in sweater form. (It also comes with a new word, extimacy, ‘externalized intimacy’.) Given how much trouble some people go to in order to hide their moods, I’m not sure that the mood sweater is really ready for the office. (Boss: “Here’s your 3Q goals!” Employee’s Mood Sweater: RAGE.) Sensoree also makes for people with sensory integration disorders, which seemed very practical and helpful.

The separation of “fashion” and “technology” just seems weird to me. I mean, clothing IS technology. We’ve been making clothing for tens of thousands of years. And we improve our clothing with “technology” all the time — what else would you call Scotchguard, Lycra, or laser-cut leather? And we apply technology to the fashion industry as well — what else would you call rapid prototyping, the rise of online shopping, and Pinterest? But when people talk about bringing technology to fashion, what we often mean is making it so a pair of jeans now needs batteries, and I’m not sure that’s really either a pressing need or an appropriate goal.

If you say that, no, what people mean by technology + fashion is adding sensors to clothing — making your shoes part of the Internet of Things — then again we should answer the question of “Why?” Do you want to put sensors in clothing so that you can track them as they pass through the economy? Then you’d better be prepared to only license your designer handbag, and give up the right to resell it, like you do with ebooks. Do you want to use sensors to track your health? Okay, then who has access to that data, and what happens when your sister borrows your dress? Who gets notified when your waistband figures out you’ve put on five pounds? Your spouse? Your doctor? Do you want to track your kids’ whereabouts through their sneakers? What happens when the signals are hacked and everyone knows where your kids are? Or griefers decide to make it seem as if every high-school freshman is now at the local dive bar in the middle of the day? (Which will happen …) Should the sensors communicate something about you to the world around you, a new form of self-expression? Then be prepared to listen to half a dozen PSAs at the movies telling you to please switch off your scarf and enjoy the show (after visiting the concession stand, of course).

Just because you had to solder as well as sew doesn’t mean that your dress is all of a sudden more “techie” than it was when the highest-tech thing about it was the zipper. Technology isn’t a seasoning — it’s a solution. And if you’re not solving an explicit problem, then you’re leaving your solution open for other people to match their problems to. (And if there’s one thing nobody wants, it’s other people’s problems!)

But solutions wandering around in search of a problem to solve often cause more trouble than the problems they end up being applied to … and we haven’t even touched on the ecological and human-welfare problems involved in manufacturing clothes that integrate electronics.

That said, it’s perfectly okay if the problem you’re solving is “I’m bored and I want to make a dress that lights up!” I will totally admit that I’m a big fan of kerblinkety lights, and I do have half-a-dozen “LED Dress” tutorials bookmarked. They’re fun! (Watch this space!) But just because you can add a battery pack to something doesn’t mean you should.

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Today's Pattern Story: McCalls 5136

 

Frieda: That’s … interesting. Syncopation is not everyone’s friend.

Melba: My goodness! Her frock is … only fringe. Entirely fringe! Over no combinations! Mother is certainly going to need some sal volatile.

Evelyn: Too, too tedious, darlings. Do you know if Jimmy brought the cocaine?

(See the Vintage Pattern Wikia entry for this pattern .)

Oh and hey if you are in a voting-ish mood, and enjoy this blog, would you consider nominating/voting for MilitaryHumveeAuction in the new ? You know, if you have nothing better to do …

A shirtdress MADE OF SHIRTS

So as you all already know, I love shirtdresses. Love ’em. Buy tons of shirtdress patterns! Which then languish, mostly unmade, in my sewing lair.

Because, as it turns out, I love shirtdresses, and I really really love shirting fabric, but I am not really enthused about:

  • sewing buttonholes
  • making plackets
  • creating collar stands

So a while back I saw a really cute project where someone (uh, Martha Stewart) had used an old men’s shirt to make a , and I thought, “Hey, what about …”

Behold, a shirtdress made of old men’s shirts. Here’s the bodice, which uses the collar and placket and sleeves of a man’s shirt.

I kept the collar buttons for the center skirt piece, because: why not?

The sleeves are bound in bias tape made from (you guessed it) shirts.

Different bindings for each sleeve. Note the visible french seam here in the bias binding, I really liked it.

The skirt is an adapted BurdaStyle Heidi skirt! And as you know, I think you can never have enough pockets:

I originally made this too long, but I really liked the effect of keeping the shirt-tail hem as the “skirt-tail” hem. So I just cut the hem off, then reattached it with more “made from a shirt” piping. (I very rarely meet a seam that is not improved by piping.)

Here you can see the color-blocking of the different shirting patterns, and the SECRET POCKET inside the pocket.

Each pocket has a secret pocket. Oh and I piped the pocket edges with more bias trim made from a shirt, because why not?

Here’s the (inexpertly-ironed, it was late) back view:

I wore the longer version of this last weekend and loved it. SO comfortable and fun to wear (although the previously very long length made it more difficult to walk in, and weirdly made it feel slightly more “Japanese designer” than my usual efforts). Thus the skirt-shortening.

Because I like how this turned out so much, I plan to make another one (or possibly two — I bought a lot of old shirts at Goodwill!) and post a full tutorial. You know, the kind with instructions and pictures and everything. (I have a few tweaks I’d like to try, like maybe doing tucks instead of darts in the bodice and making the skirt fuller with a wider center panel.) This is really ridiculously easy to do, once you have the model of how it should work straight in your head. (The tricky parts to figure out were how to bodice-ize the shirt and how to get the skirt hems to line up nicely.) Everything else is a “simple matter of engineering”, as they say.

Today's Pattern Story: Butterick 3613

 

ANNOUNCER: Today’s elbow-wrestling contestants are Katrina Williston and Melody Gunnersdottir, both of Pleasant Prairie, Minnesota.

COLOR COMMENTATOR: So a real home-town grudge match, huh, Tom?

ANNOUNCER: Well, Bob, Pleasant Prairie has been a hotbed of elbow-wrestling since a spate of unfortunate hand amputations from thresher malfunctions back in the Great Depression. But it’s only been in the last five-ten years that women’s elbow-wrestling has been drawing such a high caliber of athletes. Melody was All-American in elbow team shuffleboard in high school, before switching to elbow-wrestling as a college freshman.

COLOR COMMENTATOR: And Katrina’s background is interesting as well, isn’t it, Tom? She’s the foreman — excuse me, foreWOMAN (laughs) — at the local poultry processing plant, is she not?

ANNOUNCER: Evidently gutting thousands of chickens an hour is a fantastic training regimen. She was the cleanup wrestler on her plant’s intramural elbow-wrestling team and her manager encouraged her to go pro.

COLOR COMMENTATOR: In fact Prairie Chicken Processors is her #1 sponsor. She has a great chicken recipe blog, viewers should check it out at KatrinaKlucks.com!

ANNOUNCER: And we’re starting the match. Melody is really taking advantage of choosing the Upper position in the coin flip. Look at that leverage!

COLOR COMMENTATOR: But these women are such showing such true sportsmanship — sorry, sportsWOMANship (laughs). Gravity may be a bitch, but these wrestlers are pure ladies.

ANNOUNCER: You said it, Bob.

[Pattern available .]

 

Hearts and Bones

I finished this dress up last weekend:

This here is the part I like best. I was going to do plain red piping, but the reds didn’t match. (And neither did the maroons or blues. I have more piping than a Scottish funeral.)

The striped piping is from Britex. Every time I go in I have this little surge of hope that they’ve decided to carry even more patterned cotton piping, and then I see that the choices are basically pinstripes, leopard, and neon. I’ve bought all the stripey ones; I’m just not really a leopard-print kinda gal; but I’m sure someday I will manage to avoid the gorge-rising nausea upon seeing neon colors that the early 1980s left me with and you will see some fluorescent pink piping here in these pages.

Here’s an off-center and slightly unfocused front view!

I suppose at this point I should mention that the bodice is Simplicity 2389 (again) and the skirt (for a change) is BurdaStyle with some alterations.

What alterations? Well, I added 6″ to the skirt center back and front, and lengthened the skirt by about 8″ to ensure a deep, deep hem. I really like this version of the Heidi skirt — it’s very comfortable, and for some reason manages to cohere with the 1940s bodice and feel modern at the same time.

I piped the back yoke seam this time, too:

Except I forgot that the yoke has to meet the facing at center back and had to kludge in a little bit more piping. Also, the back facing DID NOT want to turn nicely over that piping bit, so I finally just said “this is a design feature” and left it at that.

Here you can see the piping meeting at the underarm (probably another reason that piping the back is not as good an idea as it might seem), as well as the pocket piping and the zipper:

The whole back view (I’m not sure what was up with the lighting when I took these, weekends have been fairly sunny lately):

 

This voile is lighter than I’m used to, so I thought I might have to line it. Instead I settled for a heavier slip than usual and cutting the pocket lining and neck facing from this weird pale pale pink linen/cotton voile I had lying around. Since I’m mostly pale pale pink too, it seems to work. I have another one cut out where the fabric really was translucent, so I ended up underlining it in black voile, which is creating a kind of goth-flavored mallard color effect (that fabric is teal).

I ended up wearing this to a last week — I hesitated a tiny bit about wearing something so flat-out girly, as the gender ratio at these things approaches that of your typical offshore oil rig and/or professional football team (only with more ironically-worn mustaches and skinnier jeans). But it wasn’t as if I was going to magically become any less of an outlier in a plain denim dress (choice #2) than I was in this one, and since I hadn’t really worn it yet (and really wanted to), on it went.

Honestly, since I’m not looking for a job, I have a whole lot less risk in wearing something super-girly at tech conferences. And if I wear something like this, I can set some kind of upper bar and make other people look moderate in comparison, and gradually move the whole bar of “conference wear” further in my direction, right? That’s the plan, anyhow.

It was a total luxury to be able to go to this conference, by the way. I’ve been dabbling in Node.js for a bit and have finally reached the stage where a tiny archipelago of scattered knowledge is emerging from the receding seawaters of my ignorance. However, I am still looking for navigable channels between the islands, and a conference is one of the fastest ways I know of to connect the dots.

There’s something about going into a talk where you know nothing about anything in the description, grabbing onto the first idea tossed out by the presenter that connects to anything you know, and following along, knot by knot and intersection by intersection, until you have a lovely net with which to catch the entire topic.

Usually when I learn anything new it’s like taking the Tube in London: I get on at one subterranean stop and clamber back up the light in a completely different place, and couldn’t for the life of me say how to get back to the first stop overland. Going to a conference is like riding around on the top of a bus: I can finally see how all the different neighborhoods join up and how to walk between them. And coding is such a lovely city …

 

Today's Pattern Story

 

Claudine: Move it a little more … a little more to the left.

Claudette: My left, or your left?

Claudine: Um, his left? Oh wait, he’s left. Smoke break.

Claudette: Goddamn illustrators. Bunch of nicotine fiends.

Claudine: Might as well put it down before you get dizzy from the rubber cement fumes.

[Pattern is if you want it. Thanks to Tammy O. for the suggestion!]

Book Review: Super Stitches Sewing

When you’ve been sewing for as long as I have (30 years!), it can be hard to discover the gaps in your own knowledge. You have your own routes to the places you need to go, and time doesn’t always (or even usually) permit the kind of aimless wandering that leads you to new discoveries.

So when I was offered a review copy of (subtitled: A complete guide to machine-sewing and hand-stitching techniques), my thought was that it would be a great entry-level book to suggest to people just getting into sewing.

I wasn’t really wrong … I was just thinking too small. is a great book for people just getting into sewing, but it also revealed to me a huge blind spot of my own: turns out, I have been ignoring about 70% of what my sewing machine is capable of.

When I first started sewing, I used a machine that had a straight stitch and a zig-zag, and a buttonhole stitch that could charitably be described as “cantankerous”. My second machine was at about the same level of sophistication (albeit with a buttonhole stitch that could be described as “temperamental”). My third machine was a 1950s throwback (with cams that, while cool, I never really bothered to learn to use). So when I moved up to a brand-new machine that added a blind hem stitch to my repertoire, I patted myself on the back for joining the modern age. “Whoo-hoo, now we’re cooking with gas!” I believe I said.

As it turns, out there is SO much more I could be doing with the stitches on my machine (even leaving aside the alphabet-embroidery stuff that I’ve used exactly once). Machine darning! Sewing on buttons by machine! Shell stitching for scalloped piping! And pages and pages of stitches that might just be the key to me finally starting to sew with knits.

And I haven’t even mentioned the hand-sewing section yet … which even includes pad-stitching instructions for those of you interested in classic tailoring techniques.

So: in short,  is a great book, highly recommended. Even if you’re a machine maestro, the simple instructions and clear illustrations make this worth keeping on hand as reference.