Some kinds of sewing are beyond me, probably for ever.
A standard business shirt, for example, male or female. Look at the collar: the precision of the points, the stiffness, the way the left side looks exactly like the right side, only in reverse. The cuffs. The conventional but complex seams. All those little buttonholes, just the right size for their tiny buttons. It’s the outcome of an industrial process: the pattern based on god knows how much market research, the fabric stamped out of the roll by some vast machine, the pieces sewn together by people – women, almost definitely – who have spent years doing this, getting faster and more accurate as they go. You could not possibly compete at home.
(Having said that, however, there are sewing bloggers out there who do precisely that. Check out Peter Lappin in New York, and his Male Pattern Boldness blog. He’s constantly developing his skills, and this lovely piece of work is only the latest of many classic shirts he’s made.)
Shoes. OK, there are make-your-own-leather-sandals classes out there – but I’ve got a pair of leather sandals bought from the maker on some market stall years ago, and they don’t get worn: no cushioning on the soles, and they jar my aging skeleton with every step. Like business shirts, making a good pair of comfortable shoes seems to be a high-tech enterprise.
(But then again: here is Carolyn in Western Australia, who never shies away from a technical challenge. Clearly she has got tired of producing immaculate versions of Issey Miyake, and of projects using entirely local materials, right down to thread and fastenings – because here she is at work on sneakers, and aiming for a pair of leather shoes for winter. I’m gobsmacked, as always, by what she does.)
A tailored jacket. Now, I don’t wear tailored jackets on the whole. I like my clothes loose and comfortable. Look at the construction of even the cheapest synthetic office-y jacket from Target – like a business shirt, it is a complex object, knocked out by the tens of thousands no doubt in some Chinese factory, but based on an immense amount of experience, from design to execution.
But there’s a Vogue pattern by Claire Shaeffer which I’ve been thinking about for a year or two now: a Chanel jacket.
Shaeffer is a pattern designer, a teacher and the author of Couture Sewing Techniques, an excellent book which is oddly reassuring for the unskilled clothes maker. Sewing machine won’t produce predictable buttonholes? No worries: make them by hand, which is what happens at the highest end of the market anyway. Seams won’t lie flat? Go to Chapter 3: ‘Shaping the Garment: Seams, Darts and Pressing Techniques’. Somehow over the last year, partly under Shaeffer’s influence, I have begun to pay attention to ironing, after a lifetime of crumpled clothes.
Shaeffer’s Vogue pattern gives very detailed instructions, far more than you’d get with an ordinary pattern. I’ve read them, and it was almost as good as taking a class. A Chanel jacket requires a specific kind of wool: boucle, so that you can run a line of stitching across it, quilting the lining to the outer fabric, and because of the raised texture of the fabric the lines of stitching will barely show. There was a roll of boucle wool at Rathdowne Remnants a while ago at $45 a metre, and every time I went in I’d stop and stare. Soft black wool, with little bits of pink, red, green and blue woven into it. I was trying to restrict the exponential growth of my stash at the time, not to mention non-essential spending, and resisted temptation. This was a big mistake.
Because that roll of wool isn’t there any more. And a Chanel jacket, oddly enough, uses remarkably little fabric. In its own way it’s probably an industrial product, designed for economic use of expensive materials. In my size, that Claire Shaeffer design would need 1.5 metres – plus a good quality lining and lord knows what little extras in the form of braid and buttons and bits of canvas to hold things in place out of sight. But I could have had my length of wool for under $70.
Not being a Chanel jacket kind of person, I’m clearly living out some kind of fantasy here. Has it got anything to do with the cool blue motorbike helmet dangling from the model’s hand? Her matching blue leather gloves? Quite possibly. But if that boucle wool ever reappears in Rathdowne Remnants, I’m afraid I won’t be able to resist it. And that will lead to a whole new drama: sewing so far outside my comfort zone it won’t be funny.