Self-stitched September

A few years ago, before I really entered the blog scene, there was a blog challenge called Self-Stitched September. A group of sewing bloggers signed up to participate by wearing at least one handmade garment every day in the month of September. Wow! I want to get in on that party! Wait…it was years ago, you mean it’s over? Well, this is true of me and anything trendy. I even miss the trends in the world of home sewing – surely that’s at least a special skill?

In any case, I’m also skilful at going it alone, so:

For the month of September in 2014, I will wear at least one handmade or altered garment for at least five days of the week.

My goal is to photograph each outfit and blog about at least some of them.

Why?

So what’s the point of this exercise, aside from being fun?

1. It helps in taking a practical view of homemade clothing. One pitfall of home sewing is that it’s really easy to make somewhat impractical garments. Your closet is full of summer dresses while you actually wear jeans most of the time. Being ‘forced’ to wear your homemade garments is a good way of honestly assessing whether they work in your wardrobe, and identifying what you really need to be making in the future if you want to make things you’ll wear often. I’m hoping that this will also lead to learning new skills associated with more practical clothes, like making a basic tee.

2. Much like projects involving a limited or capsule wardrobe, like the one on this blog, it fosters creativity and possibly better decision-making. Having fewer options in anything really does change the way you think and make decisions. Many people find that being limited in what they can wear actually spurs them to be more creative, enjoy their wardrobe more, and think more clearly about what they acquire. I’m curious to see whether being forced to wear a few homemade things over and over will have a similar effect.

3. It’s also an opportunity to talk about clothing, which is something that really interests me. I don’t often mention to people that I love clothes; and I choose those words specifically, rather than saying I love fashion. I enjoy clothing as a form of art: I like to compose outfits like I would compose a painting, playing with proportions, seeing what the eye does in response to certain shapes, the effects of colours. And, ever since I was little, I’ve seen clothes as evocative, full of associations and memories, historical allusions. My mom can tell you I had strong opinions about what I wore from a very young age, and this was a result not of practicality or comfort (some of my choices were decidedly impractical) but out of a desire to express some vision or narrative. I think I viewed getting dressed as a form of dressing up, getting ready for some great adventure. While, later, I realised that clothing could also be a way of trying to blend in, feel good, or redeem a bad day. So let’s see how these topics present themselves over the next month.Pink dress

 

The Great Tee Shirt Measuring

One problem with sewing is that often the easiest projects aren’t the ones you wear most often. There’s actually a widely-accepted term for this in the sewing blog community: you sew too much frosting and not enough cake. In other words, you focus all your efforts on making the kinds of clothes that are special, oddball, or extravagant and don’t spend time on practical garments.

I think there are reasons for this, but skipping over that, I’ll just say that I recently decided to master the skill of sewing a type of garment that definitely represents cake in my wardrobe: a basic tee shirt. I wear these nearly all year long, except on the hottest summer days, and a plain cotton tee is something I typically wear almost every day in the winter under sweaters. The reason I haven’t made these in the past is that the stretchy fabric can be harder to find, difficult to work with, and less forgiving of mistakes in sewing. The lack of a good pattern also hampered me.

But look! I did it!

IMG_1745

This tee is made from a charity shop tee shirt, which I bought because it’s a cotton/Modal blend, one of my favourite fabrics but not something I often find. It was a larger size than my own, perfect for this project because I could cut it down, according to my own pattern, and re-sew it.

The other component to this project was that I decided to take the opportunity to fine-tune a pattern for the perfect tee. Actually, of the tee shirts I own, it’s only about one a year that really fits all my requirements for fit. I think I’m very picky about clothes. Rather than fitting a pattern by trial and error, I decided to get all quantitative and measure a variety of tees I already owned, both the ones I liked and the ones I didn’t. I took all kinds of measurements, such as length, shoulder width, width at bust, width at waist, armhole depth…

IMG_1786

Some trends emerged, for example an ideal armhole depth that was consistent across all my favourite tees. I then compared these measurements to a basic pattern I had, which I made from an old tee shirt which I cut up when it wore out. This proved exactly what I needed to get this pattern fitting correctly. Having the exact measurements from ‘perfect’ instances, I transferred these measurements to my pattern and adjusted it accordingly. I also raided the 2-for-£1 bin of old clothes at a charity shop for some grungy tees I could use to make samples and test the fit. I decided that, for 50p, being assured of the right fit was worth it.

This turquoise top is imperfect mainly in length, because I was limited by the length of charity shop tee. Ideally it would be longer, but it’s okay. The really delightful thing was that I finished this project in an afternoon. I’m not really a fast sewer, but I can foresee that if I get the technique down on this type of project, I really could churn out a new top in an afternoon or evening, which is quite satisfying and economical.

I’m trying to learn to look comfortable in photos. Somehow I assume a ramrod posture when I know I’m posing for a picture – either that, or I curl up like a slinky creeper. Here’s where Mike was trying to make me relax by saying, ‘Pretend you’re sightseeing at the Houses of Parliament’ and pointing. So I looked over the fence to where he was pointing.

IMG_1754

 

Writing Lessons from My Younger Self

I’ve recently been doing a little creative writing… In fact this was always my first love, but during my postgraduate degree days I’ve channeled that interest into academic writing, which is not as dissimilar as you might think.

In revisiting the long trail of half-written fiction from my past, I’ve seen how much my writing has changed over the years. I started impulsively writing a novel at the age of twelve, coinciding with learning to touch-type (a revolutionary skill), and during my teens I cranked out a slew of fantasy and historical novels that were variously shallow, melodramatic, and improbable. They were filled with immortal prose:

The afternoon sun was warm, wispy clouds drifted lazily across the blue sky, and cardinals swooped and played  together.

This, the opening sentence to my first novel. What a grabber! In fact these words came to my mind the other day as I was walking outside, in weather aptly described here, though minus the cardinals. Do cardinals actually swoop and play together in real life?

I think my writing got better over the years. However, I also drifted towards a different set of problems. When I look at my later jottings of story ideas, I’m always surprised that a concept which seemed huge and magnificent to me at the time is really nothing but a loose set of atmospheres and ideas, almost bereft of plot or character. One might say it was maturity and thoughtfulness gone too far.

In fact, my younger self, pounding unselfconsciously away at the family computer, knew two things that I feel are worth revisiting, and are actually good basic advice for writing.

1. Write regularly, whether you feel like it or not

You know what I did when I was a teenager? It sounds so preposterous now. I decided that I would spend an hour a day writing, whether or not I wanted to. And I do remember some days, when the plot wasn’t going well, sitting and waiting for the clock to run out, looking forward to the end, suffering under this entirely self-imposed schedule! Of course it’s funny, because how many fourteen-year-olds impose that kind of structure on themselves to achieve goals entirely of their own making? I took myself way too seriously. But at the same time, not only is that exactly the writing advice you hear everywhere – set a time, write regularly – but I adopted that plan precisely because, in my naiveté, I did take myself quite seriously. It didn’t seem unrealistic to me to assume that I could have been a brilliant novelist by the age of eighteen if I only plugged away. While that makes me smile ruefully now, I do think that level of seriousness and optimism is exactly the way to succeed at a self-imposed goal. The seriousness goes hand in hand with the gritty discipline: I imposed a schedule because I took my writing so seriously; and conversely, it’s sticking to that kind of structure that makes any craft a serious one. If you stick to it, you will take yourself seriously, and very likely other people will as well.

2. In good fiction, stuff happens

Now, hmmm, I’m thinking whether there are exceptions to this. I’m tempted to blacken the names of some of the twentieth-century writers that make me want to bash my head against the table. But let’s leave aside any possible nuances of debate over the terms ‘happen’ and ‘good fiction’, and simply say – in the case of a book that I want to read for enjoyment, one that I will pay 40p to reserve at the library, one that I will eagerly save to start only after leaving the house for a holiday, one that will make me sorry when it’s over – in that kind of book, stuff always happens.

I mention this because my older self became esoteric, trying to capture auras and atmospheres and ideas in my writing; whereas my younger self would introduce a plague and famine and kill two people within the course of a chapter. I certainly didn’t have a handle on the art of suspense. But in a way, big stuff happening is better raw material, ripe for elaboration, than a vague notion. Even in the novels that are profound and thoughtful, and even in those that are slowly paced, things do happen: people decide, betray, sacrifice, discover, adventure, deceive, try, and fail. Also die. This focus on stuff happening is what makes my first few novels, although head-bashing in their own way in their bathos and abruptness, at least vaguely interesting in a plot summary. At least, if you asked me what happened in The Last of the Unicorns (oh yes, that was the title!), I could tell you, and although you’d laugh, in the narrating and responding we’d have the bare bones of a good storytelling experience. So, to my older self, I say: make stuff happen.

In Praise of Slow: A Book Review

Remember that I mentioned the slow food movement with reference to sourdough bread? It’s one of those things that I’d never heard of until recently, but once I heard it the first time suddenly it was cropping up everywhere.

Hence, I read this book, which is about slow everything – the Slow movement, to be precise. The main point of In Praise of Slow is not, as you might wonder, simply to claim that doing everything slowly is a great idea. Rather, it suggests that Western culture in recent decades has tended to default to a fast speed in everything, and challenges this unreflective approach to time. The author, Carl Honoré suggests that we should sit back and reconsider whether some aspects of our lives might benefit from a slower tempo, and argues that even areas which must remain fast and efficient can still benefit from the slowness of other activities.

Honoré covers different facets of the Slow movement – slow food, slow exercise, slow leisure activities, slow education (homeschooling for the win!), slow cities, even slow sex – with that personal investigative style you often find in these documentary-type books. Throughout, in different activities and realms of life, what recurs across slow practice is an emphasis on a rhythm of thoughtfulness, meditation, savouring, doing few things well instead of many things poorly, giving time to good things, and seeking a purposeful balance. Honore argues that these approaches yield better mental and physical health, and often benefits outside ourselves in the quality of our work or the nutrition of our food.

Now, you should know that I was already prepared to be convinced by the argument of this book, simply because it’s something I’ve already thought about. ‘Slowness’ is also something I tend to practice anyway, since I already enjoy slow leisure like knitting (which gets a mention in the book), and what I find most restful is a day with spaciousness in it – a long time for a few things.

However, I did also come to the book with a certain caution, because from my perspective there’s a possible pitfall in Slow practice. Namely, it can become almost a form of experience-worship, a way of crafting a life full of ideal experiences, and glorifying the experience of experience as the goal of everything. I see this as a pitfall simply because I don’t believe this is the goal of everything, and as a Christian I worship God rather than any part of my own life or experience. Nor, in Christian terms, is it always a good thing to make experience itself better; or, rather, that shouldn’t be the end goal of our most important activities.

Having said that, though, as a Christian there are a multitude of reasons why I think that slowing down is a good thing, in all the areas the book covers.

For one thing, with this on my mind, I kept noticing how often rest, sleep, and meditation crop up in the Bible.

Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still. (Ps. 4:4)

The emphasis in the Psalms is often that we can rest because God has everything in hand. There are also the Old Testament rules about letting land lie fallow in regular rotation and animals rest as well as people – which seem to me (aside from any symbolic significance) exactly like the small-scale farming and permaculture recommended by Slow Food.

It is also often the case that our most busy, frantic undertakings are, upon examination, a result less of necessity than of pride or insecurity. One huge importance of taking a Sabbath rest is that it forces us to practice humility, releasing control by ceasing to work for a day. I think a similar self-examination, and a similar relinquishing of control, is fostered by slowness.

At the end of the day, this book has prompted me to examine the pace at which I undertake certain activities and ask whether I’m going too fast, why, and whether I could fruitfully slow down – as well as to observe the consequences of both approaches. Often, I find that my moves towards ‘efficiency’ turn out to be the opposite – either they end up wasting time, or if not that, they at least make me frustrated and frantic. Doing multiple things at once, resulting in fractured attention. Saving up small tasks (like dishes or ironing) into a big batch to tackle with maximum efficiency – which ends up being overwhelming and stress-inducing, more so than simply doing little things as they arise, though this is arguably less efficient. Or, simply, insisting that every moment be full and productive, instead of welcoming little gaps of time, breathing spaces, empty space. And I can tell you that in all these everyday activities, when I stop and say, ‘Do this slowly,’ I feel more peaceful, less anxious, and tend to enjoy things more.

The Slow Food movement is probably the first and most iconic of the movements Honoré examines, and it also furnishes the most apt metaphor for the fruits of slow practice. One member of the Slow Food movement is quoted in the book:

‘McDonald’s [or other fast endeavours] is not genuine food; it fills you up without sustaining you.’

That, I think, is the contrast that is most helpful to examine and meditate upon – the difference between what fills, and what sustains.

 

Estonian Lace Scarf

I finished a recent knitting project: a scarf. It’s blazing hot right now, so hot that I completed the last of the knitting with my hands directly in front of the fan (it’s impossible to knit with sweaty hands), so this will probably not get an inaugural wearing until cooler weather.

IMG_1707This was made from one skein of yarn, which I bought in York on the day of my PhD viva as a celebratory purchase. It’s definitely the nicest and most expensive yarn I’ve ever worked with, a merino/silk blend locally hand-dyed. And ooh! It was worth every penny. Like most knitters, I learned to knit with inexpensive acrylic yarn from the craft store, but since branching out into good wools I see what I was missing. This wool also has a smell, which I didn’t notice while I was knitting, but when I tried the finished product around my neck, I realised that it has a sweet, sheepy, haybale scent.

I did try my hand at designing a lace pattern to knit with this, but decided I just don’t have enough experience yet to design a knitting pattern except by random trial and error, so I decided on a hybrid approach, taking stitch patterns from a book but planning the layout myself. Both designs are Estonian, from a book called Knitted Lace of Estonia, the two ends comprised of a lace edging pattern and the main part a design called ‘ligonbery’. So I feel that the overall result is unique, even if the actual stitch patterns aren’t my own.

IMG_1712This project was also my travelling project for our recent holiday. Now that knitting is licit on planes again (it wasn’t for a while after 9/11), I like to travel with a new project. And I felt the pale green-blue, with its variegated shades, and the undulating lines of the lace pattern perfectly reflected the colour of the sea in the shallows.

IMG_1088

Getting Things Done: Reviewing

It’s been a while since I started a series of posts based on the book Getting Things Done, but I never actually completed all of the steps outlined in the book. Or, I should say, I never wrote about them all. I got this far:

Collecting
Processing
Organising

And, in fact, I would say that what I implemented in those steps has stuck, for more than  year now. Our file system has been maintained, the household inbox still exists and serves the same function, and I do periodic collections of stray items around the house and try to feed them into the system. I definitely feel more on top of things.

IMG_9566

Not pretty, but still functioning!

However, there was a fourth step that I never really got a handle on: reviewing. In the book, Allen describes reviewing as the process of looking over your whole organisational system in order to ensure it is up to date, refresh your memory on the status of certain projects, and see what you need to do next. You should review the whole system regularly, he suggests weekly. It’s quite clear that reviewing is a major lynchpin in the success of organisation. I would add, too, that regardless of whether you follow the Getting Things Done procedure exactly, no system will work without some kind of of reviewing. If you don’t update your lists, your calendar, or check them regularly, they won’t work because they won’t be kept current.

But frankly, reviewing is also the least interesting part of organisation. I think most people, myself included, will acknowledge that the initial gathering up of a load of clutter (physical and mental), sorting through it, and slotting it into a comprehensive system is very satisfying. But maintaining that system doesn’t have the same cathartic release as a major overhaul. Hence why I often get lackadaisical about reviewing.

However, I decided that I need to make it part of my weekly routine to review my system. For me, Monday mornings are ideal, because I start work (at my job) slightly later and thus have an odd hour, first thing. I thought to myself - I hate the idea of reviewing because it sounds stressful, but if I only have an hour, I can only spend an hour. No risk of an entire morning being sucked away in this horrific task.

So:

  • I made a pot of coffee.
  • I made a review list – oh yes! A list of items I ought to review each week.
  • I gathered all the stray receipts and input the grocery receipts into my account sheet.
  • I went over my master to-do list and updated it, ticking off things done and adding a few things that came to mind.
  • I went through my to-do folder and finally called the painter who needed to come fix our wall…after months.
  • I checked my schedule for the week and made sure all the details were there for appointments, any food prep necessary ahead of time, or due dates for certain tasks.
  • I checked my library books to renew any that needed it, and marked the day to return some of them.
  • I reviewed my list of sewing/knitting projects, updated completed items, and considered which to tackle next.
  • I went through the household inbox file folder, which contained odd bits of paper that needed acting on, filing, or data inputting. None of the papers went back in once I was done! I was a good girl.

In the hour allotted, I also had time to hang out a load of laundry and gather my stuff to go to work.

Although this is a lot of individual tasks, most only took a few minutes. That is one major point about reviewing: if done regularly, it should never be an enormous task. I hadn’t tidied up my system in a few weeks, so if I were to do so regularly, it probably wouldn’t have taken me even as long as it did today.

Moreover, the after this exercise I had such a feeling of clarity and peacefulness. This is just what is promised by Allen’s method: confidence that nothing was slipping out of control, no task was lurking half-remembered in my consciousness.

Concomitant with this feeling of mental clarity was a great feeling of power and control. Because I knew everything that was going on, everything I needed to do, and was confident in the completeness of all this information, I also felt that what I did would be my choice, not dictated by sudden emergencies. I also felt that because my system was functioning efficiently, if I wished, I could choose something else to accomplish. You’ll notice that in my list of review tasks I consulted a list of sewing and knitting projects. This isn’t household administration or PhD work, but I included it because they are projects I work on every week and I simply wished to take them seriously. And I think there’s no reason that, if you have a good organisational system humming along with regular reviews, you can’t simply throw personal projects into it and allow them to be administered as well. Reviewing one additional list isn’t a big extra task if you already review several others. Does this make sense?

This leads me to my final thought, one further reason why I really want to incorporate a regular review into my schedule. This is that while reviewing everything, and feeling on top of everything, I felt like I could take myself seriously as a person capable of doing things. I often find – and I suspect this is common – that I have a lot of aspirations that live in a limbo world: ‘I’d love to ____, but I suppose I probably won’t.’ I don’t mean big life aspirations, but more short-term projects: learn a skill, cook a certain dish, knit a certain sweater, write something, maintain a blog, or even just have guests over more often. But because I label those things as ‘personal’, not ‘work’, I don’t take them seriously, and because I often fail to follow through with them I’m never willing to grant them real ‘project’ status because that would just make their failure that much more official. But I find that all of this tends to make me timid in undertaking things, self-depreciating about my abilities, and genuinely doubtful whether I can accomplish any of the things I think about. Thinking about things and never accomplishing them is depressing after a while. Today, when I was reviewing my little administrative demesne, I realised that simply being regular in this kind of review-and-update routine would enable me to accomplish things, if I wanted. Not everything all at once, but it could bring certain personal projects out of pie-in-the-sky status and into the status of something regularly pursued and taken seriously.

So here I am, saying that I intend to start reviewing my system regularly! What do you think? Is reviewing something you do, or think would be useful?

Practical Sewing

I’ve started sharing more of my sewing projects here, but one temptation in getting to ‘show off’ your creations is the temptation to focus on little details, complex construction and fitting. I’m going to share a project today that has nearly none of those things!

This is a skirt I made, the first time around, at the end of last summer and wore just a few times before the weather cooled down too much.

IMG_1210

The style is called a dirndl, which is a skirt consisting of a large rectangle gathered onto a waistband – very simple and traditional, and something you would often encounter in the national dress of various countries. Stylewise (not a real word, but useful), it can be a bit controversial because it’s not always easy to make it flattering to all figures, for the obvious reason that there are gathers right at your waist, hence bulk. Keeping the waistband wide and snug and ensuring that the hem has enough body to stand out a little are the best ways, I think, to make this style pleasantly vintage rather than simply frumpy.

I mentioned that I made this skirt ‘the first time around’ last year. Well. I made it a second time this year because I just wasn’t happy with a few things about it – and by ‘made a second time’ I really mean cutting up the same skirt and sewing it all over again. After some tweaks, it was better. Then I redid the waistband a third time and finally got it right.

With the tweaks, I have reached for this skirt a lot once the weather warmed up here. On our recent holiday, I wore it at least four times during the week. It’s incredibly comfortable, cool in the heat, and easy to mix and match with other things.

IMG_1052

Now, in my head, this skirt is also the perfect ‘Brits abroad’ style, and as I was packing my suitcase my sartorial imagination was dancing with images of white and cream linen and all the lovely fabrics of warmer climes. But my husband reminded me that my concept of what British people wear on holiday comes from Audrey Hepburn and not present-day reality. Also from Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier, so apparently I can’t claim to be a paragon of contemporary style.

More seriously, as I was incessantly wearing this skirt, I decided it was worth a mention because it’s a perfect beginner sewing project, and actually very full of flaws. I’m not even that proud of my handling of it, and yet I have loved wearing it. In fact I am wearing it right now as I type. If there are any beginning or aspiring seamstresses out there, please know you don’t necessarily need advanced skills to begin to make garments that are quite wearable. For this style of skirt, you don’t even need to buy a pattern, because you can draft one based on your own measurements.IMG_1343

Nor did I really invest a great deal of love (or money) into my materials for this project. The fabric was the lining left over from a set of curtains from which I made a dress. It’s nothing special – a polyester cotton blend would be my guess. I also messed up the pockets, so there’s a little pucker of fabric on the side seams. My zipper is imperfect, and I’m not sure about my handling of the back of the waistband, where I tried to put some little panels of elastic to give some breathing room. And yet, I love it anyway!

Isn’t the setting of these photos beautiful? Obviously they are from our holiday. Mike chose the location, and I felt quite pampered.

For anyone who is interested in making a skirt like this, here are some good online tutorials. I didn’t follow either exactly, but used them as general guides.

Tilly’s version from Tilly and the Buttons:

Gertie’s Full Gathered Skirt part 1

Gertie’s Full Gathered Skirt part 2

Homemakerly Thoughts

Recently, PhD events have meant that, for a while, I have a lot more time on my hands. For a few months I have been in some kind of occupational limbo, and though I have a part-time job, other than that I have felt that ‘homemaker’ well represented a large portion of my role for now.

IMG_0318Today, for example, I cooked some eggs for breakfast (we’re trying to learn to like them), and set off with a long list of errands in town, in preparation for an upcoming trip. I also did over an hour of ironing (how did that happen?), baking for a friend’s party, and developing a knitting pattern for a project I’d like to work on while we’re travelling.

If you know me, you know that this is something I have always loved – and that the description above is basically a paradisal day in my opinion. I’m an introvert, a homebody, and good at finding things to occupy myself. When I got married, I was excited to have a home and an outlet for my love of homemaking, more than I’d had before. I have been curious, however, to see whether in practice I really enjoyed this role, or whether it always seemed so desirable just because everything else was always getting in the way – the grass is always greener, etc.

One of the biggest challenges of homemaking is, I believe, simply our perception that these activities are menial, unimportant, unenjoyable, or basic necessities and nothing more. I don’t feel able to parse all the cultural trends that contribute to this view, but there’s something insidious about it because while I do not overtly believe any of this about domestic work – contrarily, I have always thought it interesting and certainly valuable, and personally quite enjoyable – I feel the constant need to justify this view because I feel inherently insecure in it. I’ve noticed the same with stay-at-home mothers, the genuine belief in the value of their occupation with a simultaneous insecurity and defensiveness. It is, I suspect, due to some kind of internal conflict between what we really think and what we think we should think – or what we think others think we should think.

But clearing away that cobweb of confusion, it’s not particularly groundbreaking to say that if you don’t see your work, whatever it is, as having both some kind of inherent reward as well as being valuable beyond your own enjoyment, you will either be grimly depressed or else hopelessly defensive about it. I would say that for anyone finding themselves in a non-job occupation, whether a role of caring, homemaking, child-rearing, or simply an unintentional period of unemployment, contentment and patience in that role will depend on finding a way to see it as valuable.

IMG_0319

In my case, I have never struggled to find homemaking enjoyable, but here is my first point: during this phase of ‘occupational homemaking’, I have needed to find ways of seeing my daily activities as valuable.

But let me anticipate criticism and say – I don’t want this to sound like a project of defending lazy time-wasting by making up ways to see it as valuable. Rather, my second and closely related point is this: I have also needed to have an honest look at my time to find ways to make this role valuable.

In particular, some days have really felt like a lot of ‘pottering’ around being generally active while accomplishing very little that I deemed important. Certainly very little that was interesting to tell Mike when he got home – I washed the dishes, I altered a dress, I cleaned the bathroom, I spent half an hour doing home admin phone calls. Although for the most part I enjoy such a day, it was hard to feel that it had any claim to being really useful or important. At such times what I found most helpful was to ask how the particular advantages of my position could be used for things I did perceive as valuable. Thus, I have reframed quite a bit of housework in my thinking as not merely ‘doing the needful’ that any old body could do, but as serving, chiefly Mike but also as part of serving anyone I cook for or invite over. Because my time is freer, I’ve also been able to visit a few people who have had babies or been ill.

Let me make a third point, though. Namely that I am beginning to wonder if it might be a good thing not to see all your work as hugely valuable in a grand sense – or rather, in the usual senses in which we define valuable work. Maybe having a humbler opinion of one’s own work really represents a more mature understanding of much of the work we actually undertake? Let me explain. It’s becoming fairly commonplace now to malign the overly busy ethic of contemporary Western society, the impulse towards doing things faster, doing more, and so forth. There’s a book on my shelf right now about this very topic, called In Praise of Slow, which I intend to read soon. Of course many reasons are proposed for why we have an addiction to busy-ness, but I often feel that one cause is simply that we are trained that what we do needs to be hugely valuable and important. We are told that we can ‘make a difference’, and that we need to get the skills and do the work necessary to achieve that. And I think we expect that somewhere out there is our true vocation, a career that will verify our meaningful contribution to the world by being so important. It’s natural (I think) to wish to do something meaningful with one’s life, but I wonder if it’s much more culturally specific to us, now, to channel this desire so forcefully into ‘work’ or ‘occupation’ specifically.

If, however, we see our work as hugely important – or feel a need to convince ourselves that it is, or convince others it is – it creates a very clear sense of priority which makes other activities much less worth our time, and hence the objects of scorn and impatience. Isn’t it our scorn for ‘lesser’ activities that makes us rude drivers, grumpy in the post office queue, infuriated with paperwork, or stressed by a host of little things that inhibit us doing what we consider the big things? In which case, I wonder if thinking a little less of our ‘work’ might really be better for our stress and for others around us.

To take a small example, in my errands this morning, I decided to buy some fruit at the market in town but didn’t have enough cash. No problem, there’s a cash machine nearby. For some reason it ate my bank card, with a little internal shudder; it ‘told’ me what it had done via its emotionless blue screen, and didn’t even have the dignity to advertise itself as being subsequently out of service. The nerve. This is the kind of irritating event which has been known to ruin a whole morning for me at times when I had lots of PhD work I ‘ought’ to already be doing. Losing my card created admin to be done, delayed my errands, and of course happened right before a trip so that I can’t even get a new card in time for travelling – nor buy the foreign currency I intended to buy in preparation for said trip. I almost lost my cool. But then I realised - None of what I had to accomplish was really that important or urgent. Neither was a half hour of my time to sort out the mess really that important. I’m a household manager right now – dealing with household problems is part of my job.

Of course there are a few lessons this episode could teach: the value of stopping and breathing, the value of a less jam-packed schedule, or just ‘how much time you have on your hands when you aren’t working full-time, duh’ (I do recognise that). But as a person who easily stresses out over plans gone awry, I noticed my lack of stress and my reasoning for it (the unimportance of a little time), and took this lesson: there is a great relief and freedom in seeing my work (in the form of my to-do list for the day) as being needful but not groundbreaking, useful but not urgent, beneficial but not revolutionary.

In short, this phase of homemaking has both required me to look for value within it, but also to appreciate that the very desire to ascribe so much value to specific work is a crippling habit, and not really necessary to enjoyment or or accomplishment. Dare I say it, the obsession with seeing any work as magnificently important, though apparently so altruistic, is easily a bit self-centred. So I feel that it can be beneficial to look for more unconventional value in the unimportant work, as well as to view the common forms of ‘important’ work in humbler perspective.

Maxi Dress

This dress is a recent project which I planned for a while but saved for after I handed in my thesis. I wanted it to be something I took my time with, rather than filling the role of stressed-out sewing as some garments do. In the final result I love this dress, and so far it is probably the handmade garment of which I am most proud.

IMG_0923

I had been contemplating maxi dresses for a while, because since they came into fashion a few years ago I thought they were a really practical, lovely style – comfortable, easy to move in, elegant, and useful for those summer days (common here at least) when you never know when it might get a tad chilly. However, I honestly never saw a maxi dress in any store that really called out to me in any special way. Admittedly I have a lot of requirements of my clothes. So I never bought one.

One reason I am so pleased with this dress is that I drafted the pattern myself, and instead of rushing I purposefully took a lot of time getting it just right, making a few mock-ups of the bodice out of old charity shop sheets, and tweaking it through several iterations. Because I purposefully postponed working on this dress, I had time to think through a few design features before starting the drafting, which I should probably do more often.

The fabric is a cotton poplin print from Ray Stitch in North London, and not really like any maxi dress print I have seen in stores. To me, the basic maxi dress shape most clearly evokes either early nineteenth century styles (think Jane Austen) or early twentieth century straight ankle-length skirts, and hence to me the fabrics it calls for are filmy pale cottons or small garden prints.

The shape and style of this dress are not revolutionary, but I worked out a lot of small details that I feel really made it work the way I wanted.

I included the little back neckline darts to which my mom introduced me, which help garments to sit more evenly on my (rather bony) shoulders. I often find that I am tugging dresses forwards or backwards because somehow they don’t sit with the right balance on me – these darts eliminate that problem.

IMG_0867

I also raised the waistline about 1/2″ above my natural waist, which helps the comfort a great deal by giving some freedom at the waist, but still gives a waistline seam close enough to the waist to wear a belt.

IMG_0925

Finally, the back waistband has elasticated panels which cinch the back to fit while still allowing some give. You will often see shirring performing this function in purchased clothing – parallel lines of thin elastic along the inside of a garment. I opted instead for an inset panel with nine (NINE!) separate horizontal casings, each with elastic inserted. It was the most fiddly part of the sewing, but makes for a nice, clean finish.

I added pockets, aligned the repeats on the print of the fabric so everything is symmetrical and matches up at the seams, and put the zipper in by hand.

IMG_0866

Pockets!

Overall I am so pleased with this project. I’d be making another in no time if it didn’t require so much fabric! I guess maxi dresses will have to remain a splurge.

IMG_0915

Overdressed: A Book Review

I recently read Overdressed by Elizabeth L. Cline, a book which according to its subtitle is about the shockingly high cost of cheap fashion. From reading reviews beforehand, I knew it was a book about how the West buys its relatively inexpensive clothing, and the global systems which support the industry: about ‘fast fashion’ as the phenomenon now seems to be called. In case you’re interested, I wanted to give a short review here, and also share some reflections on the subject. I’m not really interested in ‘fashion’ per se (defined as trendy things, designer things and such), but I am interested in clothing, its history, its part in culture, and its part in how we all manage our own households and budgets and the related decisions in our personal home economies.

First of all, this book traces the rise of fast fashion from an American standpoint, as manufacturing of clothing moved overseas through the mid-late twentieth century and as prices for clothing dropped. Meanwhile, clothing stores selling cheaper clothing – in contrast to traditional department stores – promoted frequent shopping by replacing their stock at quicker intervals, effectively creating multiple ‘seasons’ per year and meaning that shoppers could return to the same store every single month and see something new. As fashionable shoppers became accustomed to lower prices, they also adjusted their expectations of what clothing ‘should’ cost and became unwilling to spend more than the amounts they would pay at places like H&M, Target, Old Navy, or Walmart. Indeed, the impression for consumers becomes that nicer department stores are simply ‘marking up’ goods far beyond their real value, or else charging more for designer labels when you could have a non-designer equivalent for a tenth of the price.

Cline spends a large portion of the book investigating the overseas factories that have made such low prices possible. In some sense, this information is now becoming more common knowledge – i.e. poor wages and working conditions, and long hours for workers in factories in China, Bangladesh, and South America. These factories don’t always have good waste disposal practices, meaning that air pollution is bad and that farmland is damaged as well. For comparison she investigates some domestic factories in Los Angeles, where manufacturing is still done, most notably for American Apparel, but even there it appears that the ‘good’ factories are perceived by employees as being merely ‘less bad’ than the others. A factory in the Dominican Republic does receive a fairly good report for working conditions and wages, interestingly staying afloat against cheaper factories because it produces college apparel (i.e. t-shirts, hoodies and the like with university branding) for colleges where students staged large-scale demands for ethical clothing.

One particular result of the rise of fast fashion which Cline identifies is the growing gap between cheaper fashion on one end of the price scale, and designer fashion on the other. She paints a picture of two types of consumers. Some, like the people she interviews in the book, have tight budgets – or simply shop frequently – and consider anything over $30 to be expensive. Others chase designer items as status symbols and pay anywhere from $200 to $2,000 for a piece of clothing. She says that designer brands have gotten wise to this and raised prices, realising that people will pay them. Meanwhile, as she points out, there’s a huge gap in the middle for mid-priced, quality, domestically (or ethically) made items which for the most part don’t exist.

But concomitant with fashion’s cheapness is not only its affordability but its ‘cheapness’ in the grander sense – it simply doesn’t last, but because it is inexpensive we don’t mind that it doesn’t last. We may also suffer a misconception that donating our worn-out clothes to charity redeems what would otherwise be wasteful, but as Cline details, charities are overrun with a surplus of clothes; there is no need that is being met by many of our castoffs.

The overall argument of the book is that cheap mass-scale clothing production has often resulted in compromised ethics, the inability of fashion companies to account for how their garments are produced, and a decrease in clothing’s disposability (and hence waste).

Finally, in light of these problems, Cline makes some suggestions for how individuals can adjust the way they buy and care for their clothes. I had a conflicted response to this final section of the book. On the one hand, Cline’s focus throughout is so sweeping and global that her final recommendations seemed a little mundane to me – not really the revolutionary approach I was expecting. She suggests making clothes last longer by altering and repairing them, planning a few thoughtful purchases of good-quality clothes, looking for sustainable fibres like organic cotton, wool, or recycled materials, and avoiding trends (and their coming and going) in favour of a more personalised style with more longevity. In a sense I felt that this was advice I already knew. However, on the other hand, I realise that her concern is to pose practical options for normal people, so in this sense I grant that her recommendations are precisely what is needed.

Personally speaking

I really want to share a few of my own thoughts on this subject, bearing in mind that none of this represents a fully-formed way of thinking; simply some things I’ve pondered in the last few months.

First of all, lately I’ve been thinking about the value of labour and the work involved in production. For those of us who engage in ‘knowledge work’ as our profession – pushing information around, generating it, thinking about it – we can pass through an astonishing amount of our lives surrounded by the results of (physical) labour without ever witnessing or knowing anything about it. Often, the only ‘production’ in which I engage is cooking, taking raw ingredients and processing them as necessary to produce the final result. I think this kind of knowledge-work lifestyle ironically fosters an ignorance about the production of common goods and the relation of labour to the finished product. My home is full of stuff, but for the most part I have little idea how it was made, by whom, how long it took or how much it cost in raw materials, and what wages were paid to the people who physically put it together. I’m not talking about wanting some quasi-spiritual connectedness to others via my physical stuff, but rather simply wondering what human (or other) situations are being funded by my money. What factory, what working methods, what wages am I ‘voting for’ when I spend my money on a given item?

Likewise, a lack of knowledge about production and the labour involved leads to an ignorance about what things are really worth. At the end of her book, Cline asks (and I think it’s a really important question), ‘What should clothes cost?’ She’s not talking about overpriced designer items that ‘should’ cost less than their name-brand markups; she’s talking about it the other way around, normal clothes that probably should cost us more than they do, if they were responsibly manufactured by workers fairly paid and well treated, etc. If we know nothing about how clothes are made, our only system for gauging what something ‘should’ cost is price comparison, yielding conceptions of worth which can be quite skewed from the actual materials and labour involved in a garment.

I’ve been asking myself lately what I think clothes should cost. My own sewing repeatedly makes me realise all that is involved in constructing even a simple garment (and even mass production still relies on people to run individual sewing machines to stitch every seam). Sometimes I calculate the cost, in labour and materials, of what I make, and it’s rare to come in under about £60 for something simple. Now, I realise that if I were involved in clothing production, I’d have cheaper materials bought wholesale and probably faster production with better equipment and less time lost to undoing mistakes (oops). But even so, I’d never be able to make a tee for less than £20, and of course that doesn’t include any business overhead or store markups. For a dress with a lining, I reckon I’d have to sell it for £200, easily, just to make ends meet. Indeed, as I did some looking around online, I saw that Pendleton Woollen Mills in Portland – a US-based and vertically integrated clothing company – charges $200-$300 for some of their basic (albeit nice) skirts. That feels totally out of my price range – but I venture to suggest it’s probably a fair price considering the materials and labour involved.

That brings me to a final thought, a soul-searching one. One possible knee-jerk response to all of the above is this: Okay, that’s all fine for the wealthy, but I can’t afford to spend more on my clothes. Actually, this is my knee-jerk response. And Cline at least touches on how cheap fashion has a certain traction in our culture because its affordability makes it ‘democratic’ in a sense; advocating for clothing to cost more, can, frankly, seem elitist. Firstly, if that’s your thought, don’t let it put you off reading Cline’s book, because I actually found it to be quite down-to-earth in that regard; she doesn’t pose as someone who used to love designer fashion and now spends $10,000 a year on ‘ethical fashion’ instead, but as someone whose closet was full of clothes for which she paid an average of $30 apiece but who now approaches buying differently. In other words, she addresses an audience of people on relatively normal budgets. At least I felt this from her book.

But secondly, I find that knee-jerk responses – like I can’t afford that - are often the ones I need to re-examine; that they can be defensive rather than truthful. Personally speaking, my clothing budget is not huge; it’s kind of moderate, I’d say. But could I, for example, go for a year or even two years without buying anything new? I could; in fact I have done so before just out of necessity. I could save two years’ clothing allowance and in the third year buy a few excellent garments, well-made, that would last. I could also, for example, in a given year buy half the number of new clothes as I normally would and spend twice as much money on each item. I could also have fewer clothes. And those options don’t even take into account making my own clothes (which suddenly seems fantastically affordable), shopping secondhand, or taking care to ensure that things last well.

I don’t want to be guilt-mongering or suggest how you should spend your money. I have come to realise, however, that for my own part there are some ways I need to reexamine how I buy and value clothing.