Friday, 22 May 2009

fabric led journeys

Firstly thanks for all the lovely comments about the jacket. I was getting a bit nervous that all my self-promotion would turn out to be a case of emperor's new clothes. Glad everyone is affirming me in my self-delusion.

The whole jacket experience has had me thinking. What was it about this experience that was so special? I love the jacket and all, well obviously, but there's been a certain kind of magical experience which surpasses the obvious gains.

And I'm not really sure, but it has something to do with the fabric. You see, I think I don't really like the act of sewing so much as I like the act of transforming fabric. You might think I'm splitting hairs here, since the two are so closely aligned, but the truth is I love fabric, not sewing. I love it in the way some people love works of art or food or dogs. I love it passionately. I love the miracle of its construction, its variation, its wildly divergent properties and effects. I love what you can do with it, the way it feels, the way it behaves. I love that it even has behaviours.

There was a time, a while ago now, that I did quite a bit of work with wood. D and I used to plan and construct all manner of things. His knowledge and vision is far superior to mine in that medium, but at the time while he taught me about that kind of construction we planned for me to teach him about construction in fabric.

It was a disaster. D just couldn't make the transition from inert materials to fluidity of fabric. It keeps moving! he'd say, how are you supposed to know how to measure and cut and how it will look when you're finished?

It is exactly this problem which has resulted in my many and varied sewing disasters. Fabric cut just a whisker off grain, with more or less give, with more or less drape, with a sheen with transparency. Patterns used twice with different fabrics creating such remarkably different garments. There really are a remarkable range of variables.

So I guess it isn't surprising that a range of quite human metaphors might be used to describe fabric. That it is alive and behaves, unlike wood or steel which (in the main) just is. So there is always the element of surprise, no matter how skilled or experienced you are, there is always a sense that it isn't until you are finished and trying something on that you can really know what you are getting.

This unpredictability is what gives rise to the Rules. I learned to sew largely through trial and error (a process I have described elsewhere on this blog), in other words I tried to discover the rules through first principle experimentation. In this way I learned quite a lot about fabric, fibre, cutting, fit and construction. This wasn't a plan or anything, just a kind of obvious and understandable drive to get all those variables corralled to raise the chances of successful outcomes.

By the time I supplemented my first principle learning with pattern drafting skills my success ratio, or at least the predictability of my outcomes, had radically increased. And this was one of the things I recall about sewing in this phase - my incredible confidence that I could start and complete a project in a fairly straightforward trajectory. My recent revisiting of a slew of garments from this phase attests to that. I am proud of the work I did then - the garments still hold up well in their fabric choice and execution.

And yet.

And yet, they are boring, uniform. It occurs to me that the learning and execution of the Rules is an exercise in taming fabric and while that clearly reduces waste and disappointment, it also diminishes excitement and unexpected moments of grandeur.

The jacket experience thrust me into a more experimental way of sewing precisely because the fabric itself did not conform to the rules. It was obvious from the start (witness me needing to completely re-cut all the pieces because of how mistaken I was about the way the fabric would work) that simply cutting out a pattern and sewing up wasn't going to work.

Now I'm not advocating abandonment of the Rules. The machine embroidered oatmeal skirt I sewed recently is a perfect example of the excellent and practical use of the Rules. Good basic and predictable fabric, good basic and predictable pattern plus a couple of hours creates a good basic and predictable (and high wearable!) garment. There's nothing wrong with this kind of sewing and on a feel good level it is definitely up there.

But what I tend to feel lacks for me as a home made clothes maker and wearer is that garment which defies immediate understanding. That thing which engages my mind on the wow, what is that? What is it made from, how is that collar attached, where is the seam?! The moments that are almost alchemical when fabric has been transformed into something a new - something now separate and greater than its origins. The garments which might, on a good day, be mistaken for the work of a designer but never for something mass produced.

So my point here is that the jacket, as study in this kind of departure, was a journey most certainly started by the fabric. I didn't picture that jacket and try to find either the fabric or the pattern for it. I found the fabric and then tried to work out what it wanted to be. I didn't try and tame it, I tried to work out how to make a garment that was simply a showcase for the fabric's unique properties.

And I think what was so magical was that the fabric took a while to make itself known to me, it was a little moment of courtship while we got to know each other and I worked out how to treat it. So I think I'll be trying a little harder int he next few sewing adventures to really think about what my materials are telling me and be more prepared to put the fabric first and the pattern second.


Lisa said...

Suzie, this post is EXACTLY why I love your blog. And your jacket.

flapple said...

Maybe you could carve out a space for yourself here as a meta-narrator about alt-craft. Soaring above the day-to-day humdrummery, and finding patterns and meaning behind the actions.

At least that is what I think I would do.

eeloh said...

Wasn't it Rodin who said that the stone already contained the sculptured form? It was just a mater of chiselling away to find it?

Prism said...

OOOH--I loved reading this! Although I am perfectly capable of sewing boring, normal, useful clothes, I hate to. I LOVE to sew "organically" where I start out with an idea of what the finished product MAY look like--but it hardly ever does! However--They almost always turn out better than I had imagined. It does seem a bit risky to sew wedding dresses this way, but I have done two (using recycled vintage material) and they both turned out fabulously.

PS I found your blog through EleanorFromTheCommentBox.