The House of Tatterdemalion

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Why I did what I did

August 31st, 2008 by tatterdemalion

I believe in taking responsibility for my actions. No denials, no excuses!! So here’s what I was thinking when I made the infamous cherry dress.

I’m sure you were all hoping for something much more scandalous, but no. In my own quest to better my design skills, I have attempted to read all sorts of materials on design. Mostly, they don’t say what they were thinking; they just throw out vague mumbo-jumbo that roughly translates “you just kind of wing-it, and hopefully it comes out good”. Or else they apply such strained concepts and methods that the end result is something that would be worn down the runway, which is to say, no sane human being would ever willingly, mindfully wear it.

So I may not be any great, grand designer, but I can at least show you the thought process I went through as I made this dress. You may not ever want to make anything remotely like it, and that’s okay. The idea is to be able think more consciously about what you are doing and why. This is necessary when it comes to that all important step called “editing”. You will not be able to figure out what you need to add or take away from your design if you have no idea why you ever starting making it the way you did in the first place. An idea, that is, besides the altogether much too vague statement of “Because I like it.” (Not that such a statement doesn’t have it’s uses—it does, and I use it regularly—but when one is trying to improve something, one really needs to have much more focused thought.)

So, the dress.

I started with this pattern (note the “start”. I wound up drafting my own pattern from scratch, to my measurements).

pattern

I liked it because it had such clean, flowing lines. It was a neat fit at the top, but with a nice full skirt. It wasn’t fussy, though it could be elegant if it were made in the proper fabric. I liked how the darts in the back of the bodice turned into pleats in the skirt; I liked that vertical structural line, because I’m doing just fine in the “short” and “wide” categories, and I think it works better with my proportions to encourage vertical movement.

Short side note: Note I say “my proportions”. I am no proponent of us all looking alike—far from it. I don’t hold to an ideal standard that all women must aspire to. But you have utterly no artistic ability at all if you can’t differentiate between proportions that are pleasing to the eye and proportions that aren’t. Some people refer to this as “phi” or the Golden Ratio. Some people have noted that children seem to have an innate sense of balance in their drawings. Some people study the shapes and proportions in nature. Architects (or the good ones, any way) are hugely concerned with proportion. To pretend that pleasing proportions is something that relates to everything the world except the human form is just plain silly.

The job of the clothes designer is not to say—this is an awful form, bring me another one, preferably a size 2 1/2, with high cheekbones. The job of the clothes designer is to trompe-l’oiel, to fool they eye. Anyone who firmly believes seeing is believing hasn’t been seeing well enough how he’s been fooled. Guiding the eye to believe what it is seeing is the job of any artist.

For a most basic example of this: grab a pen and a piece of paper, and draw a square. Don’t use a ruler, or any other measuring device. Now turn the paper sideways. Does the square still look as square? Probably not. The eye tends to squash things. You probably drew your square taller than it ought to have been. When you turned the paper sideways, this was revealed. Now that you have your paper turned, it looks a little more like a horizontal rectangle and a little less like a perfect square. You can search for geometric optical illusions, and you shall find fifty hundred other examples. The point is this: Your job is not is not to fault the form, but to simply present the form in it’s most favorable light. You can change what is seen simply by guiding the eye as you choose—leading it ignore some things, and focus on others. You can make anything look awful if you abuse it enough, and nearly anything will strike the eye if it’s presented properly.

And all of this is to say, I want to hear nothing at all along the lines of protest when I say something isn’t flattering to my proportions. This isn’t about rules, and this isn’t about standards. All this means is that you, as the designer, have the power to lead the eye. Make a conscious decision to do so.

Now, back to the dress.

This is the fabric that I chose.

fabric

I chose it because it had my two very favorite colors in it—red and green. It reminded me of the most wonderful part of summer. It was cheerful and full of life. It was meant to be a picnic dress—the sort of dress you can wear when you are celebrating the chance to relax, and the sort of dress you can get muddy without worry.

Hear comes the first design issue. The background color of this fabric is much too similar to the tone of my skin.

withoutpiping

Everything needs a good strong frame. Look at paintings, look at windows, look at gates. Nothing looks so awful as something that bleeds into its surrounds, without the dignity to stand up and be proper about it. It weakens whatever it is, to have the edges fade off in a sickly sort of way. So the first order of work was to contain this fabric, so it didn’t bleed away into me. The goal of this dress is NOT to make it appear that I am wearing nothing more than a few vines with red berries on them, thank you very much. The garment is separate from me.

Enter the piping at the neck and sleeves. This creates a line distinguishing the dress from me.

piping

Having placed that red at the sleeves and neck, you can see why it was a necessity to put it at the bottom as well. In part to keep from having the dress fade out weakly at the bottom, but in a part because continuity demands it. The eye is very disappointed when what it expects to see is simply missing. It’s like missing a button off your shirt, when all the rest are very regularly spaced. Your eye just wants it to be there. It should be there. It’s the logical conclusion. Not putting a band on the bottom now would be like writing a story with no resolution. It would be most unsatisfying.

This is what we have now:

withoutsash

Do you notice any problems?

The eye is attracted to strong colors; it moves from similarities to similarities. (You’re going to be hearing a lot about the “eye”, just so you know.) The eye doesn’t have much initiative, it likes to be led. So it is dutifully following where it is being led, jumping about from cherry to cherry to cherry. But the eye is also lazy; it really doesn’t like all this running around. It wants to rest. This is utterly too much work. It would rather look away than keep moving around on this crazy surface.

And so, the waistband. It needed this solid block of color to give the eye a rest. There are those, by the way, who inform you with rigid rules and firm rebukes that you should never ever ever never ever have a belt, waistband, sash, etc unless you have a size 2 1/2 waist. Because, they say, this draws attention to the waist, and unless you have the most beautiful waist ever in existence, it’s basically a sin to wear anything that draws attention to the waist. I would maybe go so far as to caution that I think it’s generally more flattering to wear a dark, receding color, if it’s going to be at the waist like that. A bright, light color looks bigger than a dark color. If you’ve ever seen a black refrigerator, you’d know what I mean. Not that I subscribe to dark colors all the time, every where, by any means, and of course every rule or guideline is meant to be broken, but that’s my two cents.

withoutsashwithsash

I suppose at the this point you might be disagreeing with me.

You might be saying you preferred the dress without the waistband. You might be saying that the waist band chops me half, that it totally defeats the purpose of trying to encourage a more vertical leaning of the eye. You might be saying, that darn band is the first thing that pulls your eye, and it makes you look short, short, short.

You may have a point.

I still hold that the fabric I chose demanded that treatment, but therein lies the problem. This is why you can’t just design off of ideas separate from people. This fabric, on someone else, could have been wonderful. I still love this fabric. Just, as a table cloth, or curtains, or something else besides on me. The flaw of my design was not my design, per se, just that I really had no idea what it would look like on me.

In retrospect, this fabric doesn’t suit me. Even with the solid bands of color, the eye simply does way too much moving around, and usually the more your eye has to move, the wider things appear. Since I am already short, adding in more horizontal eye movement is only making me look shorter, and my frame just can’t handle all that busy-work.

undertree2

What works better for me is solid colors, like this:

undertree2

It’s not to say that I can’t use textures or details, but over all, I am more flattered by simple shapes and solid blocks of color. See?

undertree2undertree2

(I made the wool skirt. I did not make the wool blend sweater, but I did accidentally send it through the dryer once. It doesn’t drape as nicely as it once did. . . )

You will note that when we compare those two pictures side by side, your eye is instinctively drawn to the the picture on the left. You will also note that as soon as the eye has looked to the left picture, it also goes immediately to my face. If you make yourself look at the photo on the right, you will notice that your eye does indeed get stuck on the red sash. For one thing, it is the largest solid block of color. Your eye wants to rest, and that’s a good place. For another thing, my face is still basically the same color as the background of the dress. It fades away into the background. When I wear the cherry dress, your eye is not instantly pulled to my face. It forgets about my face and pays attention to the dress. This is a problem. Well designed clothes do not draw attention to themselves, they draw the attention the the wearer.

The outfit on the left understands this; it grabs your attention with its large blocks of strong colors, and then promptly shoves all the attention to my face. The dress on the right doesn’t understand this, or else is simply being willfully selfish, because it isn’t interested in sharing any of the attention. Your eye can get distracted jumping from cherry to cherry to cherry for a good five minutes, but it your eye is extremely unlikely to be interested in paying attention to my face. (This is most obvious in a still photograph. In real life, the eye is attracted to movement, and as I’m nearly always running my mouth off, that would give my face a chance to be noticed. Or my mouth, at any rate.)

Does this mean that the pattern draft was a waste, and that I should burn it and never look back? No! I would still like to make the “cherry dress” pattern again—just, with a few modifications and a solid color of wool crepe. The lessons here to be learned are:

(1) Good fabric stores ought to have full length mirrors in them, so you can better approximate how a fabric will look on you, and

(2) You can’t design clothing apart from the people who will be wearing them. The idea might sound perfectly grand on paper, but in real life is where it counts. On paper, this dress might sound wonderful, but in real life, I feel uncomfortable and awkward wearing this dress. Because I worked from ideals without seeing how it would work in reality, I failed to meet my ideals that I started with.

Posted in Design, Projects, Technical, Tutorials | 1 Comment »

What I learned from knitting. . .(and it isn't what you think it is)

August 9th, 2008 by tatterdemalion

[ed. note: ‘Tis easier to write than to mess with pictures, and ’tis better to post without pictures than to not post at all. My promised post on design is still in the works, but you get this while you wait.]

You may recall that my elderly neighbor (old enough to be my grandmother) taught me how to knit. I don’t remember what all I said on that subject; I don’t think I mentioned that I had been trying to get her (back) into sewing. I like sewing. She thinks sewing is too fussy, too time consuming. So she wouldn’t jump at my bait to sew, but I jumped at her bait to knit. I think I did mention that I opened her knitting world up by introducing her to knitting books, knitting magazines, mail order yarn, and free patterns on the internet.

She tries to pretend she’s an old coot. She claims she can’t understand all this fuss about knitting with lace, and I get out books like Lace Style so she can see what people are doing. She complains that all the sweaters aren’t designed raglan sleeved, top-down, the only way she believes in making sweaters. In Lace Style, there is this truly ethereal garment—it is diaphanous, floaty, it plays with the sunlight. It is also, of course, meant only for effect. It’s insubstantial as a garment; it is meant as an accessory, to bring it’s unique appearance. I sit there and marvel at the huge effect that has been captured by a simple garter stitch in plain white yarn. She fusses, because what kind of a garment is that? And kids these days. . .!

But it’s all just a charade.

‘Cause a couple weeks later, she’s telling me about ravelry.com, and the “naughty” tab, and generally giggling like a teenager. My mind struggles to grasp this—I can look at a garment I would never wear, yet still cataloge and be captivated the various elements I could take and use as see fit. She can look at the same garment and deride it as utterly useless, not being able to harvest anything from it. Yet a few days later, she can be getting her chuckles from the same sorts of things she derided in the garments, now in a more blatant form. She is still a kid; she’s just still stuck in the time period she was a “kid” in. The problem for her is never really that anything strikes her as too sassy, sultry, attention drawing, etc. (My google-ads are going to be just awful as result of this post. . .) The problem is that it seems to her to be strange, foreign, unfamiliar. They are speaking in a language she can’t understand.

I get out Elizabeth Zimmerman’s A Knitters Almanac, and enjoy it thouroughly. She looks at it, and say “I don’t have time for that!!” and instead reads Things I Learned from Knitting, by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, self-described as “The Yarn Harlot.” In this book, my silver-haired neighbor discovers that she is “addicted to knitting”, and she gets thrills from this. She isn’t in the least bit disturbed that she has this compulsion to knit, knit, knit, KNIT!!

Whoa. Get a grip, lady.

And then I think, is this how it seems to people I am about sewing? I hope not. Sewing isn’t my addiction; sewing isn’t my religion. I don’t really come across that fanatical about sewing, do I?

Here I am learning the wonders of knitting—don’t worry about being exact; it’ll stretch. And here she is, counting every single stitch, repeatedly checking her gauge on the project she’s working on, and still being in a snit because one sock turned out 1/4″ longer than the other. Here I am learning about how life isn’t that big of a deal; if you mess up, no one is going to count every single stitch you made and deride you for the place you made a mistake or two. And here she is, ripping and re-knitting and re-ripping again.

And from this I see that, (1) In my sewing, I have much more the attitude she has about knitting. Which is ironic, because she doesn’t want to become involved in sewing for that very reason. And (2) I would much rather my attitude toward sewing be more like my attitude toward knitting.

It really isn’t that important. Chill out, dude.

Not that I don’t value excellent work; I do, and I strive for it. But it becomes paralyzing. Is this pattern perfect? I can’t cut this fabric unless this pattern is perfect. No, don’t be silly. You’ll wear it anyway, perfect or not. You’ll learn where you went wrong and do better next time. For now—cut. People give you funny looks when they find out how much work you put into an everyday, ordinary garment, and with good reason. It’s just a regular old, ordinary thing—and you’re obsessed over it? You do realize, don’t you, it’s just a piece of clothing? It will serve it’s purpose and wear out. It’s a temporal, fleeting thing. Ride the waves and get on with life.

I am reminded of this every time I hear her obessively counting stitches, which I know is a futile thing because her gauge will change from moment to moment depending her mood. She is worrying futily, and it opens my eyes to the futility of my worry.

I am also reminded that human nature has never really changed from the beginning of time. The scandal of one generation at another generation is largely just a scandal of the differing ways of expressing the same basic humaness.

And age bears no realtion to fuddy-duddiness. She, being many years my senior, would be considered less fuddy-duddy than me, the one who has no interest whatsoever in clicking on the “naughty” tab on raverly.com.

And that time will march on; if you won’t make the effort to keep up, you will be left behind. You sometimes don’t realize how true this is, until you have become accustomed to watching late-middle aged people struggle with new technoloy, and then—having been thouroughly inoculated to the whole old-people-don’t-get-it—seeing a most definitely 100% of the way senior citizen whip out a digital camera and use it without hesitation. Suddenly you forcefully realize that the process of being confused by the world starts very early. If you are not prepared to look the future in the eyes and grab it by the horns, you will become confused. Perhaps it won’t be noticable until you are middle aged, or until you are firmly in the senior citizens territory. But if you don’t hang on now, it will be too late to grasp out for handholds later on. You won’t be able to grasp making sweaters any other way than raglan sleeved, from the top down. It becomes nearly as much a law as gravity itself; it is insurmountable. Meanwhile, “kids these days” will be doing some incomprehensible thing that seems utterly pointless and bizarre.

People don’t really change. But if you loose your ability to communicate with them and interact with them, it seems like humanity totally reinvents itself on a regular basis. And if you are from Humanity 1.08, how can you understand Humanity 1.5?

It seems as though the best way understand the world around you is to have one hand in the past, one hand in the future, and your head firmly in the present. If you don’t understand at least some of the past, you can’t understand the present you are in. And if you don’t keep an eye on where the future is heading, your time in the present is very limited; shortly you will be living in the past.

It sounds very endlessly difficult. But generally speaking, we’re going to either die young or grow old. And if you’re planning on growing old, you should start figuring out how to do it sooner rather than later. The course you set now will be the one you will be walking on when you’re older, because once you are old, you haven’t the strength to change the course.

Posted in Contemplations, Knitting | 1 Comment »