The House of Tatterdemalion

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Dyeing to know?

November 17th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

So you may possibly remember me mentioning my efforts to dye yarn green, and having less than stellar results. The most civilized answer to what color the yarn is has been “kahki green” or “something you would wear with combat boots”. I don’t have any combat boots. . .

Things got odder and odder when I tried dyeing test swatches with (alternately) slipskin grapes and pokeweed berries. Though the dye bath was deep purple and a brilliant fuschia, the yarn kept coming out brown, of all absurd things. So I inter-library loaned 14 hundred million books in an attempt to figure out what on earth was going on. I found lots of dots, but didn’t managed to connect them all until the 14 hundred million and one book. Dots:

  • Don’t use well water for washing your wool; the minerals in the water will form soap scum!!! (Big deal.)
  • Iron added to a dye bath will “sadden” or “dull” the colors.

For some absurd reason, it took me until I found the The art and Craft of Natural Dyeing by J.N. Liles before I finally realized what my problem was:

. . .for practically all natural dyes except madder, logwood, weld, and brazilwood, soft water is best. In former times, rainwater was considered ideal, riverwater next best, and well water the last choice since it often contained the largest amounts of dissolved salts. Not only do salts alter tehcolor of some dyes, but they can sometimes cause spotting, particularly on piece goods. Iron contamination can really create havoc with bright colors.. . .If iron contamination is suspected, dissolve a few crystals of potassium ferrocyanide in about one-half ounce of water. Add a little vinegar or weak acid. If the solution remains clear, it is iron free, but if the solution turns blue, iron contamination is present. The blue color results from the formation of Prussian blue, which is iron dependent.

Alas, I don’t happen to have a few crystals of potassium ferrocyanide hanging around, but I suspect (very, very strongly) that this is the problem. Certainly I was using well water, but my first reaction was “we don’t have that many minerals in the water!!”. After all, a few houses down the street has huge problems with iron staining, and if you go up the street the other way, there is so much sulfur in the water I can smell it across the room as soon as the tap is turned on. Our water, on the other hand, is wonderful. It has no off tastes of either iron or sulphur (is it sulfur or sulphur? they both look wrong at the moment). The fact of the matter is, it’s probably closest to spring water, as the well is very, very shallow. (We sometimes joke it’s just a buried 5 gallon bucket.) The water table in general runs very close to the surface, and it is not at all unusual to have a bunch of springs spontaneously pop up in the lawn every Spring, sometimes force the water several inches into the air.

However, I should have known better. Because it is also a plain fact of the matter that there’s a lot of iron in the ground around here, and you don’t have to go far to find it. When I dig up potatoes, I only have to go about 8 inches down before I find pale gray clay streaked with the rust of iron. So even if our well water is practically little other than run-off from the hill, it stands to reason it can pick up a fair amount of iron on the way.

The bad news is that I won’t be able to use my most ready supply of water for dying.

The good news is that I probably won’t ever have an iron deficiency, and that my water probably provides more essential vitamins and minerals than your average breakfast cereal.

All of that fascinating discussion aside, I do highly recommend The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing. He takes his dying seriously, and goes into detail. Of all my inter-library loaning, it is the only book I actually want to buy. Most other books give such scant information, or absurd repetition (pick plant; crush plant; soak plant; dye with plant. Pick some other plant; crush plant. . .etc) that they’re simply not worth it. This book is very fascinating, packed with information, and not something that someone only interested in quick-and-easy novelty dying would be interested in. If you really want answers, get this book.

Posted in Books, Color, Dyeing, Technical | 2 Comments »

Under the Microscope

July 28th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

So in my previous ramble, I talked about this book called Woven into the Earth. I kind of expressed my uncomfortableness with having my work taken under the microscope, as the work of the women of Greenland was literally done. And I also mentioned another book, a kind of mock-up (in more ways than one) of modern America being unburied and discovered at a later time.

Kind of bringing both of those thoughts together, I’ve been thinking a little about what people would find—if they excavated my house, or more broadly, this country. These excavators try to find meaning in every artifact they uncover, to point to the kind of lives and the kind of people who lived there.

For example, they pay special attention to any designs or symbols. And when they find initials, they ponder their meaning—the initials of the owner? Perhaps the suitor who gave it as a gift? The highly skilled craftsman who made it? Perhaps it stood for a meaningful phrase, as R.I.P. stands for Rest In Peace.

And what meaningful things would they find if they dug up our civilization? What would show them what kind of a people we were? The brand names stamped on our every belonging? The little bits of metal we use to start our cars and open our doors? What would they make of the letters or numbers on those oddly shaped things? The songs on our iPods?

I try to think of things in modern houses that get a lot of use, things that are important, things that are personal. Unfortunately most modern houses strike me as rather sterile, and it seems the most important things in the houses are the microwave and the TV. The houses look mostly unlived in, as most people spend their time living elsewhere, and only come home to sleep.

I suppose that might be a bit harsh. I suppose we must all personalize our house in some way, with a few odd mementos. But, I suppose, that is really what I’m noticing—they’re already mementos, and we’ve yet to be dug up. They’re already markers of what was, not things that are sustaining what is.

Before, it is assumed, symbols had meaning. Now, they don’t mean anything, we just like they way they look. Before, the style of dress changed less frequently, a part of the culture. Now, it is virtue to keep up with the changing tides, to be careful not to look “dated” or dressing from the last season. Before, a well made tool would be passed from generation to generation. Now, we dread that our technology is out of date a few months after meaninglessly purchasing it.

People say this is the advance of civilization, but I think it is more accurate to say it is the advance of technology. It’s rather ironic, but our technology has improved to the point we have nothing worth keeping. What items do you use on a regular basis that you would you pass down? Most things are not even made to be durable enough to do so; either it is assumed that you won’t use it enough to make the item capable of sustained use, or it is assumed that it will shortly be superseded by superior technology and you wouldn’t want to keep it anyway.

People speak of heritage, of roots, of getting in touch with the past. But what about the present? Why bother “get in touch” with the people of the past when you are already so distant from the people of the present?

I mean, sure, you hang out with people in the present. And instant message them. And text message them.

Is that all civilization is? Idle chit-chat?

It’s funny, but when I hear the word “civilization”, it makes me think of people helping each other toward the things necessary for life. Or treating each other well. Of giving things to each other. More than that, of loving each other, and sacrificing for each other. A civilization is not about one person—you—but of people: together, not separate. And those things are necessary for people to be together; otherwise, regardless of proximity, each draws into self.

I suppose that may be considered a rather narrow definition of civilization. Certainly it is not the dictionaries understanding of such things.

But I do think that it is a reason many people feel a pull from the past—it was much more personal. I think also that it is a pull for many people toward hand-work as well, whether it be poor or perfect. It can seem to be almost a part of the person, wiggled-loose and given away—even given to you. Into the thing you hold was poured the other person’s time, talent, personality, intentions. It was deliberately made, and deliberately given, with one person in mind.

Perhaps some would say that it is superseded by modern technology. Perhaps. Perhaps the things that are massed produced, coldly and uncaringly, do have greater strength or fineness or precision. But does greater technology have greater value?

And on the flip side of that, does something from the past have greater value? Simply because of nebulous things like “heritage” or “culture” or “roots”? Or is the desire for heritage a desire to belong, to be part of something, to be valued? Even, to be loved? Could that desire even be satiated by the past? Surely, you can see love shown in things of the past, but it’s not directed toward you.

Here is the microscope. And there is the object. Now tell me, which is more important: the manner of how it was constructed, or the manner of why it was constructed?

Posted in Books, Contemplations | 6 Comments »

A Brambly Ramble

July 21st, 2007 by tatterdemalion

This has been a most unsatisfactory week. Among other life-changing crisis’ (crisises? crisi?) is when I discovered a nice, big, fat, thick book I had been reading and enjoying didn’t have a three week lending period, but a two week lending period. Drat! I was just getting to a good part, too. It was called Woven into the Earth, by, um. . .I don’t have the book to check it against. Else Ostergard? I suppose I should look it up. Ha! I remembered right. Here it is. I actually find that the best thing to use Amazon for is to keep feeding its preferences so that it starts recommending you books that you never knew existed but desperately need to read. That’s how I found this book. (And then I inter-library-loaned it. And it was out of system. And they wouldn’t let me renew it. And I think they place a two-month restriction on getting the same book out of system. It’s sad. Really sad. A tragedy, almost, I think.)

Anyway, so this book is about the clothes they found when the excavated old settlements in Greenland. Greenland, they say, was settled during a warmer time, and lasted for only a brief 500 years. And I get all caught up in how sad that is, that a little civilization was just a blip on the timeline, only a mere 500 years. And then I remember that the US is only 230 years old, give or take a few decades depending on who’s counting, and that people think the original pioneers are an ancient people, and that anything from the 1990’s is vintage. And then I go to see if I really remember how old the US is, and then I realize that, duh, it has nothing to do with when the first European settlers/immigration started happening (if only the natives knew about border security), which really started back in the 1600’s, which would be, like, 400 years ago. (Ya think we only have another hundred years to go?) And that if you try to do an internet search on things like that, everyone is more interested in telling you how Columbus wasn’t the first, and the first settlers weren’t either, and besides, real Americans were mound builders and crazy people living in Alaska, or anyway, the land we call Alaska now, even if that wasn’t what it was called then, and if you want to know anything about the Mayflower, all they can tell you is the complete passenger list and genealogy of everyone descended from the Mayflower, well, not the Mayflower, exactly, because that’s a ship, but anyway the descendants of the people who came over on the Mayflower.

Where was I?

Oh, yeah.

So Iceland got over populated, and there wasn’t enough land to support everyone, and so people started dying left and right. Then a bunch of people thought to themselves, “Hey, if we stay here, we’re going to die. If we build a ship and sail off into the sunset, we might die, or we might find some place where we can live and not die. Any chance is better than no chance!” And away they went. And they found Greenland, which was green at the time, but is now quite icy, thank you very much. So was it a weird 500-year warming? Or did we go into an ice age, and now we’re returning to normal temperatures? Was it just the auto-thaw feature of this world? It’s kind of hard to believe in global warming when you’re digging old civilizations out of the ice, you know.

Wait, never mind. Pretend I didn’t say that. I can be plenty controversial all by myself with out getting started on controversial subjects. Let’s not go there.

Anyway, the point is, they buried people in the ground when it was thawed. Then it got cold, and basically put the whole area in the deep freezer. So what garments that were buried are still quite well preserved. This book is all about the clothes.

It’s about what fibers they used, and how they twisted them (s twist or z twist?), and how they wove them, and how they dyed them, and how they sewed them, and lots of other stuff. They scrutinize things so carefully, it makes me feel rather embarrassed. Imagine having your sewing literally taken under the microscope! Other times, the hypothesizing of the writers made me feel embarrassed in a totally different way, a la Motel of Mysteries. There was one point where they were saying (basically; I no longer have the book in my hands to properly quote it), “In this house in one of the back rooms, we found a whole sack full of what looks like the loom weights we found in the other houses. But they can’t be loom weights, because the loom was in the front of the house, and this was a much smaller room with a lower ceiling, and in the back of the house, probably a bedroom. So we don’t know what these things are that look like loom weights, because they’re in the wrong room.”

Anyone who currently has an item misplaced or stored in it’s “improper” room, please raise your hand!

Although it was fascinating reading, it was also rather melancholy. They talk about cracking open the bones to eat the marrow, and using stale urine to treat the fabrics for dying, and taking all the pen cleanings, cutting it into chunks and using it for a fire. I know all these things. I’ve long known that if you’re starving, you’ll love eating the marrow out of bones. I’ve known for ages that urine was frequently used in treating fabric. It’s well known fact that dung has multiple uses. I know the old adage that every animal has “just enough brains to tan it’s own hide”.

But it’s melancholy because it speaks of a daily struggle just to stay alive, to feed and cloth the ones you love. Nowadays, people don’t even know what they’re saying when they say “what do you do for a living?” They think they mean something like “what meaningful contribution do you make for society?” or “what do you do besides eat and sleep?”, but no one really means “what do you do, in order that you may live, and not die?” Nowadays, people consider living not as a privilege or something earned, but as something they have a right to. They don’t believe in the “right to pursue happiness”, but the right to be happy—something they are owed, something they reasonably expect to have. People not only believe they have the right (that is, if need be, everyone else has the responsibility to see to it, if they aren’t) to eat and be clothed, but that they have the right for medical care that someone else pays for. They deserve it. It is only reasonable. It is what life should be like.

But this book speaks of a different type of world, a world of which I sit at the cusp. I can see into it, just as I can see into the world where people clamor for things they think they deserve even if they don’t pay for them.

I don’t provide food for my entire family from the labor of my own hands and the sweat of my own brow. But I’ve made enough meals, worked enough ground, gutted enough animals that I can taste the effort that goes into it. I can guess all too clearly what it is like, the quiet anxiety in the back of the mind as you put the garden in, that it will fail; it won’t produce enough. I know what it is to put away food in hopes of sustaining people in the winter. I know what it is to feed people who are exhausted in every fiber of their body. All too clearly I can feel the hopes of the women, weaving hoods as tight as they might—not out of pride, or amusement, or entertainment, but out of a strong urge to protect. The tighter they weave, the warmer and drier their loved ones will be. Every stroke, every effort, is not some meaningless occupation but provision and care for the men and children and elderly they love. Every action has behind it, driving it on, love for those who will be on the receiving end of those actions.

I can see, in bits in glimpses from my life, my imagination, things I’ve read, things I’ve seen. I can imagine spinning, spinning all the time, hands working independently of anything else. I can see people working together, laughing and coordinated, young with the old. I can see truly working for life.

But only in bits in glimpses.

Because I have yet to see it fail. I have held many children in my arms, but I’ve yet to lay one in the uncaring dirt, dead and no longer anything but an empty body. Sometimes, after reading disturbing things, I have actually dreamed of holding dead children, children I know and love. But I have never felt life stir within me, set my hands to spinning, and then weaving, and then sewing—and knowing with each inch of progress that this work will clothe my child. I have never put hundreds and hundreds of hours into the work of making a child’s clothing—clothing that is meant to carry the child on in life—and then, seeing it have no use but to carry the child in death to the ground.

You see the perfectly preserved clothing for a child, the child itself long gone, and you wonder what the cause was. Did it get too cold? Did it get sick? Did it starve? Did it have a freak accident?

And you know you are no better. If it was you, and your hands—nothing except your hands—could you have kept it from dying? Could you even have kept it alive for so long! Stupid mistakes are so fatal. They say the first person who tried to settle Greenland forgot to gather hay the first summer he was there; and naturally, the animals starved and the people were quick to follow, though I believe it said some were able to escape, to flee back to populated land. Could you learn quick enough, hard enough, fast enough to keep your loved ones alive? Or would you have to watch them die at your failing?

How hard, how hard to live each day as a struggle for life, but how much harder to struggle and fail.

And that is the end of my blitherings for now, though I have a lot more to say on the matter. If I was proper, I’d edit this thing down from a ramble and try to knock it into a shape that vaguely resembles an essay, but the hassling week is not yet over, and I’ve things I must do before I sleep, so I can do things as soon as I rise tomorrow. It’s not quite so brave as struggling for life, but it must be done anyway, and so I go.

Posted in Books, Contemplations, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

'Coco'—continuing "The Secrets of The Couturiers"

June 7th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

I have tried hard to like Chanel’s work, but I just have never quite managed it. People would say her work was the epitome of luxury, the definition of chic elegance, that she had the perfect taste. I tried to see it, but I couldn’t. The “classic” Chanel jackets simple looked like an old couch we once had, square, scratchy, and totally un-special in every way. Her “typical” clothes reminded me of stuffy people who put on overly-dignified airs.

All the proclamations of perfection made me wonder if I was the only one who saw the emperor had no clothes, or if I was really just so different from everyone else. It didn’t help that they insisted she knew all there was to know about looking good, and yet in the first picture I saw of her she looked a good deal like a pickled frog (something like this, only perhaps even more so).

I have done further research into Chanel since then, and even though I know she did more than that infernal tweed, and even though I agree with some parts of some of the things she has said, I still can’t find anything in her clothes that appeals to me. (Though I have found that once upon a time she was quite pretty.)

Perhaps the greatest surprise to me was how greatly our outlooks clashed. It was a bit of an awakening to me how much our philosophies affect our work, which sounds positively obvious when I write it. And I guess it is. But I never looked at Chanel’s work and loathed it for what she was saying. I never even stopped to consider what her thoughts behind it might be. I just knew I didn’t like it. In reading the piece about her in The Secrets of the Couturiers (a book by Frances Kennett), I discovered I disagreed with her thoughts as much as I did her work.

As I said, that should have been obvious to me. But when one reads of someone’s thoughts, and then sees the work, one has already made up one’s mind on their opinion of the work. They will see the thought reflected in the work. It was very interesting for me to do the reverse—to see a work and find it unpleasant (without even considering what it was saying), and then discover that it flowed out of thoughts I also disagree with.

You see, Coco was a feminist. And I am not. Even though I am female. This can seem unheard of, as though of course if you are female you are a feminist; to do otherwise is to betray the core of your being. But to tell you the honest truth, most feminists make me ashamed of being female. Or at the very least, highly embarrassed. If being female means you have to be a feminist, I’d rather not be female. But if I can be a female, without being a feminist, I am perfectly okay and at home with that.

And that is my first point of contention with feminists. They aren’t perfectly okay with being female. They are not perfectly okay with accepting that men and women are different. They make a huge, ludicrous scene, marching out and declaring “Women are just as good as men in everything!”

And that just makes me want to crawl into a hole and die.

First of all, it’s a blatant lie. And if you really, truly honestly believe that, you are so ignorant and unobservant you need nanny and a seeing eye dog. Men have their strengths, and women have theirs; and we both have our own sets of weaknesses. Neither is the same as the other. We are different.

Secondly, they are admitting defeat before the battle has even begun, and so it is no wonder they’re the laughing stock of men. To say that you are just as good as someone else is to already admit they are better than you. Why else would they be used as the standard of goodness?

Chanel, in her own way, commits both these crimes. Secrets of the Couturiers quotes her biographer Marcel Haedric as saying:

Her stroke of genius was to transpose the masculine English fashion to the feminine with taste that precluded any ambiguity, as she had already done with hats. She transformed everything she touched—her jackets, her blouses, the ties on the blouses, the cufflinks at the wrists, everything she borrowed from men became ultra feminine through her magic.

But why? Why even bother “borrowing” from men in the first place? It’s like trying to make a dog look like a cat, or vice versa. Sure, they both have the same number of limbs, but what’s the point to it? If you want a cat, get a cat. If you want a dog, get a dog. Why try to make a cat look like a dog? Even a catty looking dog? Isn’t the cat good enough as it is? Why mimic the dog?

Some of the descriptions from her earliest shows sound as though they may have been more interesting.

Her first collection, 1922, showed Balkan embroideries on black crepe de chine; in 1924, she showed gorgeously drooping chiffon with floating sleeves and long loops of glass and cut steel beads.

But the things she famous for. . .

In 1925 she revolutionized ‘separates’ with her cardigan jacket two-pieces. In 1926, her straight-hanging jersey dresses epitomized the look of the Jazz Age. Square-necked, or adorned with simple white collars, the bodices hung straight to the hips, modified by careful seaming to give the eye interest. From the hips, the dresses would break out in easy pleats as the wearer moved, but the overall silhouette was one of sleekness, an uncluttered elegance. Topped by the ubiquitous cloche hat, it was a look that women of all ages (particularly young ones) could wear from morning till night. Plain, quite drab colours, beiges, fawns, greys, navys and even black, in spite of recent enforced wartime use of the colour—became ultra smart.

This style of dressing changed hardly at all through Chanel’s long career.

. . .were for the most part, shapeless. And with the tweeds she used, they constantly bring to my mind a burlap sack. Utterly straight cuts are generally most suitable on utterly straight bodies. The uncomfortable fact of the matter is that the majority of women are not utterly straight. (Though, I will grant that Chanel appears to be.) Men are straight. We curve. That’s who we are. Why try so hard to get a straight line out of a curved body?

This shapelessness is usually defended as practicality and freedom.

Possibly Chanel was thinking of Courreges’ structured creations when she said:

Men make dresses in which one can’t move. They tell you very calmly that dresses aren’t made for action. I’m frightened when I hear such things. What will happen when no one thinks as I do anymore?

Well, you certainly won’t see me sticking up for Courreges. And her complaint does hold a certain grain of truth. As the book mentions in a later chapter, p. 85,

It is no coincidence that all the women featured in these profiles of the couturiers have injected a strong note of practical innovation in their designs. There is an appreciable difference of approach between male and female designers.

To be sure; female designers have the added caution of having their bluffs being called. One who makes clothes for their own gender is expected to wear such clothes; one who makes clothes for the opposite gender does not need to face that danger. But there is a difference between being practical, and being ugly and unflattering, which, even if it is my own opinion, is what most of Chanel’s designs are for the average woman. (I do consider the fact that her cut of clothes was perhaps a tiny bit more suitable to her body-type. But even so, there is the problem that the majority of women claim that Chanel’s clothing is the epitome for a well dressed female, and it is there I strongly disagree.)

And Chanel’s complaint, ultimately, is not against the male designers, but the females which flock after them. I assure you, there are a plenty of women who were quite capable of action all throughout time; they just weren’t always the “glamorous” or “fashionable” women. One who is willing to give up her freedom for the sake of looking modern is going to be at fault regardless of what the designers are thinking.

But the thing that bothers me about Chanel’s “fear” over “un-active”, or perhaps one might say, un-independent, woman is the hypocrisy of it all. Chanel didn’t get her business going by her own independence or action, unless you count the “action” of “bewitching her lovers”: from her first boutique to her couture house, Chanel was funded not by the work of her hands and the sweat of her brow, but by the rich men she liked to hang out with.

. . .At around the age of 20 she had a job as a nightclub dancer at Pau, in the Pyrenees, where she met a young English man, who subsequently set her up in business with a small hat shop in Paris. . .During the First World War, Chanel moved out of Paris to Deauville, to work for the Red Cross. The next step in her career is so well known that it too seems almost legendary. Based in a little boutique (supplied again by some bwitched lover), Gabrielle watched the war efforts of the wealthy, at this most fashionable seaside town. . .After the war, Chanel returned to Paris and opened her salon, this time under the auspices of a wealthy English peer—the Duke of Westminster.

Don’t worry, she did have some morals.

. . .The English peer, though married, offered to divorce his wife and marry her, but Chanel refused when he made it a condition that she would have to give up her work and live a more suitable life. On the brink of considerable independent success, such an idea was not attractive to her, in spite of the inevitable loneliness which became part of her life.

Sadly, hypocrisy and a willingness to compromise everything for fashion are also things that bother me about feminism as well. As Claire Shaeffer points out in Couture Sewing Techniques, p. 17,

Poiret. . .introduced his infamous hobble skirt. Although so narrow that it had to be worn with “hobble garters” to limit the wearer’s stride and keep her form splitting the fabric, it was popular among fashionable women, including suffragettes.

Arrgh. I can just see it now. “We are intelligent!!” Hobble, hobble. “We are capable of making discerning and insightful decisions!!” Hobble, hobble. “We won’t be dragged about on senseless whims, but will make practical and productive choices for our country!!” Hobble, hobble. Not that men are without their hypocrisies and even horrible and pointless fashions, but geez, ladies, what a way to present your cause. I think I shall die of mortification just thinking about it.

To me, there is nothing appealing about nearly all the work of Chanel. You might say it’s because I don’t like tweed. (Which would be true.) You might say it’s because I find straight boxy cuts completely unflattering. (Which would also be true.) But I would say that, despite all her talk of freedom and independence for women, she never really treated women with enough respect. A woman who truly respects herself need not chase after every man and all of his fashions. A woman who feels no need to apologize for being female need not worry herself comparing herself to men; she will consider herself and who she is, not to men and how she measures up to them.

Since I am entirely comfortable with being female, I feel no need to wear men’s clothing. Even if it has been touched with Coco’s feminine magic. It offers me nothing.

Except to remind me of an old couch I used to do somersaults on.

Which was fun.

But not worth wearing tweed for.

Posted in Books, Chanel, Contemplations, Couture, Design, Fashion | 3 Comments »

Vionnet Bias

January 14th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

Everybody loves Madeline Vionnet.

Most people will tell you this is because she created the bias.

Some people will be technical enough to say that she was the first to work with fabric cut on the bias, but even that I must confess I am too jaded to believe in it’s entirety. Certainly that is what Vionnet is famous for, though, and the word “Vionnet” and “bias” are sometimes almost interchangeable. If you wish to study clothing that has been made by being cut on the bias, you of course will be studying Vionnet.

In a large part, this is due to the fact that most people don’t do work on the bias. I’ve yet to try it myself, so I don’t know if there is a good reason for that, or just because there are too many rumors that it is scary and difficult, best left for experts, geniuses, and other people of human-surpassing ability. I’ve never been one to be put off by scary rumors, and from what I’ve seen of working on the bias, the hardest part is that it can unpredictable, and many people find unpredictablity scary. Since in this method the fabric hangs without either the support of the grain or the cross-grain, the fabric is very unstable, and much more susceptable to the whims of gravity.

Most of my study of bias hasn’t really been in conjunction with Vionnet, however. It’s actually been in conjunction with Charles Kleibacker. Since I find working on the bias to be intriguing, I also find Vionnet to be intriguing. I have sadly managed to see very little of Vionnet’s work so far, though everyone I’ve ever heard say anything about Vionnet pours out effusive praise until my eyes glaze over. Some day I will either dredge a copy of Madeline Vionnet by Betty Kirke out of the library by means of out-of-system inter-library-loan, or break down and spend the heart-skipping amount of money on buying the book.In the mean time, I did read the short (very short, even by the book’s standard) little piece in Secrets of the Couturiers by Frances Kennett. Sadly, it had very little to say, and certainly not even about the bias, or designing by draping (the other thing Vionnet is famous for). In fact, in reference to draping, it even goes so far as to hand out the stiff warning that “Modelling a toile [that is, draping a design right on a dressform or model] is a very complicated business. It takes many years of practice (besides a great measure of natural aptitude) to perfect, and is not something that can be learnt from a book, but only through experience.”

I suspect this is nothing but more scary rumors, which if nothing else certainly serves to heighten the fame and glory of Madeline Vionnet, who happened, then, to be twice brilliant: once at the terrifying bias, and secondly and the heart-freezing draping. Perhaps her chief trait was simply being brave, and not listening to nasty rumors. I believe that draping is simply a different way of thinking: those who like mathematical precision will always be scared by it, but those who are visual learners could quite possibly find it easier.

At any rate, Kennet spews the usual amount of superlatives, and assures that no matter how you cut the word “couturier” Vionnet made the cut: Supporting the Chambre Syndical de la Couture Parisienne, high class clientele, suitably innovative and original, shocking yet classic, a great technician in construction, and a right good old business woman.

On page 39, Vionnet is quoted as saying, “One must examine the anatomy of every customer. The dress must not hang on the body but follow it’s lines. It must accomapany its wearer and when a woman smiles the dress must smile with her. The direction of the material, the weave, and the cross lines on the one hand; precision, cut, proportion and balance on the other–that is what I oppose to the term fashion, which is an empty word and completely meaningless to a real dressmaker.

I am sorry to say I don’t think she held too fiercely to that sentiment. Later in that same page, it goes on to say “When stiffer, wider-skirted styles seemed to be returning in the autumn of 1934, she had the courage to scrap an entire collection in time to start again, producing clothes that captured the mood of the moment to perfection, including not soft-draped satins but wide-skirted taffetas.” I should like to think I would have designed what I wanted to and never mind what anyone elses mood might be, but then, I probably would have wound up eating out of dustbins. One cannot overly begrudge one for wanting to keep a bit of padding in the bank account. Nonetheless, the virtue of “being sensitive to the mood of the moment” is often and loudly brought up throughout the book, so I suppose it ought to be added to the list of couturier requirements (and yet another reason why I fail).

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