The House of Tatterdemalion


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Still to be Neat

November 2nd, 2008 by tatterdemalion

Still to be neat, still to be dressed,
As you were going to a feast;
Still to be powdered, still perfumed:
Lady, it is to be presumed,
Though art’s hid causes are not found,
All is not sweet, all is not sound.

Give me a look, give me a face
That makes simplicity a grace;
Robes loosely flowing, hair as free:
Such sweet neglect more taketh me
Than all the adulteries of art;
They strike mine eyes but not my heart. —Ben Jonson

Sometimes I need to be reminded of this. I’m not sure how it happens; it’s always very sneaky and insidious. It happens just a little bit here, and a little bit there, and one day you wake up and realize you keeping thinking about how to make your clothes look nice, how to make your house look nice, how to make you look nice—and that somewhere along the line, you forgotten or misplaced the fact that it isn’t those things that matter at all.

For me, it starts sneaking in when you supposedly see supposedly perfectly normal people who supposedly have it all together (sometimes you know better on at least one of those counts, if not all three, but that’s where it starts anyway). And for me, the place where it all comes crashing down as the nonsense it is is when I look through fashion magazines. Not that I have a lot—one time I got a one year’s subscription to Burda and one year I got a subscription to Vogue Knitting.

In some ways it is so fascinating to pick apart their sets. How do they get these garments to give the impression of the theme they want to give? Mostly, the garments don’t have much to do with it—it’s the accessories or the locations, or the way they painted the models. I can spend time wondering how and why they chose that accessory, or marvel at how they can make a perfectly plain sweater look amazing by wearing it over a breath-taking dress. But the more I look at them, the more it all crumbles away.

Have you ever looked at artwork from years past, or old photographs? And when you see a beautiful woman, what do you see? I can never remember their clothes—but their faces can make a huge impression on me. Their eyes and their lips, mostly, and they are alive. And you see the eyes and lips of the models, and—besides being covered in gobs of makeup—they look haggard, tired, sad, empty, dead.

They’re supposed to be the beautiful ones, but the more we look at the them, the more we pull back. When we look at pictures of someone who is really alive, like a young child having the time of their life, it’s different. The more we look at it, the more we are drawn in. The first has been carefully arranged to strike our eyes, and the other rings true in our hearts.

And there is another thing that makes me sad about looking through these magazines, every single time I do it. They assume your only goal is to catch the eyes of every and any man. Can that really have any appeal? No, wait—let me change that. It’s not what I meant. Can that bring any respect? Can they have any respect for one who presents themselves as so shallow, one who wants to take nothing but the eyes? Can they have any respect for someone who acts as though the ones they are trying to catch have nothing worth catching except the eyes? I don’t really need an answer to those questions, because I know the answer for myself.

The people that fill me with respect are the people who catch the hearts of all who see them. No one cares what they look like, but everyone wants to be with them. The writing that I enjoy is not the carefully-honed-for-public-presentation, not the songs that have been carefully formulated to become hits—but the ones from the heart. The ones that look at themselves and life without flinching, and are honest when they speak of it. The ones that don’t really care about the way they’re supposed to be, but who really care about the way things are.

And everyone admires these people, the ones who strike the heart, but most of us just don’t have the guts to do it. We admire the ones with character and love and life graven into their faces, and yet we pursue whatever means necessary to keep ours young and smooth and line-less. We love the houses full of warmth that doesn’t come from a heating system, houses with no pretension and no scorn—and yet find ourselves trying to mimic the ones that are neat and “just so” and void of life.

Like so many things in life, I think it comes back to the illusion of control that we all want to cling to. In our heart of hearts, we’d like to just be the way we are, and be loved anyway. But we’re pretty sure, if we open up our hearts like that, no one will like us and it’ll hurt an awful lot. At the same time, we somehow think that if we can make people like what they see, they’ll like us. Or approve of us. Or respect us. So we hide away the heart, which is too risky and too dangerous, and carefully present ourselves to the eyes. Then, we think, we can control what people think of us.

But it is only an illusion. We have no more control, no more safety. I know that lots of time people will tell you this–that beauty is only skin deep, and about truth being more important than appearances. But we just don’t have the guts to say “I don’t care what people think they see. I don’t care what people think about what they see. This is life.”

And it goes so much deeper than just the clothes we wear or how often we sweep the front steps and whether or not our drinking glasses have chips in the rim. People will give you the lip-service—they’ll tell you the best things in life are free, that no one ever wished they’d spent more time at the office. But no one really believes it. The things that cost money look good; the time in the office looks like the way to get ahead in life. The people who’ve had it all and done it all are the only ones who mean it. They took what looked good, and found it still left their heart empty. They try to tell the people who come behind them, but the people who come behind can’t quite bring themselves to say, “I don’t care if it looks like I’m wasting my life. That looks good from over here, but I know it’s just a painted face.”

Because the people who say the best things in life are free aren’t really quite right. It’s closer to the truth to say things like “freedom is never free.” You don’t get the good things in life without a cost. You can’t live the life you admire and respect without giving other things up. Maybe it is money, maybe it seems to be the admiration and respect of others, maybe it is giving up the illusion that you know what you’re doing and where you are going. But there is a cost for the things that are worthwhile, and you will have to pay it. There will be no defaulting on this bill; you’ll be looking it in the face every day of your life.

But people—they don’t make a conscious decision, usually, to follow the eyes and never mind the heart. It sneaks up on them, in some insidious sort of way. They kind of don’t realize it’s happening, until maybe one day they wake up and realize they wound up where they never thought they were going. We some how get it into our heads that the important choices will be huge and looming, and announced with sirens and bright lights: Here is your important decision. For the right way, go that way. For the easy way, go that way.

We never really suspect that it’s the little choices that matter. Are you going to eat the right thing, or the easy thing? After a hard day at work, are you going to treat your family the right way, or the easy way? Are you going to go to bed at the easy time or the right time? We can imagine the life we love, all right. But we tend to forget that it doesn’t just “happen someday”. How we live our todays is how our somedays happen. Our somedays can look pretty cool in our minds, but until we’re ready to pay the price, it never happens.

And we all like the picture in our heads of lives touched by our lives. Of people gathered on your funeral day, saying how you inspired them, you helped them, you changed them forever. Of people saying you didn’t play follow-the-leader, you always did what you thought was right. People saying you made them sit up and take notice when you showed them what life was really about. About you being a breath of fresh air, being vibrant and alive. Bringing a smile to people’s lives, having a spark dancing in your eyes. You took their breath away—you were so honest. You said the things they felt, but never had the courage to say. You meant the things you did, meant the help you gave.

Everyone wants to hear that spoken about them, but we don’t usually have the guts to pay the price. We don’t have the strength to rock the boat, so—we’ll just try to make it look like we know what we’re doing, make people like us or respect us or admire us—we’ll just try to keep things neat and under control. We’ll strike the eyes of those of us around us, because it seems so much easier than striking the hearts. But in our own lives, we tend to forget the charm of those that strike the eyes, and carry with us the impact of those that touched our hearts.

Yet in our own lives, we tend not to live it. Not because we don’t want it, but because it seems so much easier not to. It seems much too hard to look to where you want to be, and go where no one else goes. It’s just too easy to be swept away with the crowd. And then you look over your shoulder, and you see someone off to the side, away. And it looks really good over there, but you’d have to fight so hard to get there, and maybe someday you will. Maybe tomorrow. But tomorrow never comes, it’s always today, and today it’s easier not to think about it.

And that’s when you need a splash of cold water, whatever that means for you. Looking through a fashion magazine, or finding again a poem you knew spoke the truth, and realizing that what you live today is what you’ll live tomorrow. If you have a someday painted in your head, you have to start living it today. And if there is anything in life that you admire, you’ll have to pay a price for it. For me it is the reminder that if one wants to strike the heart, one must forfeit concerns of how one strikes the eyes.

(And that’s why I’ll never be a fashion designer. I’m too pig-headed about doing it the way I want to do it, and “never minding” how other people want it, how it would sell, and how it’s supposed to be. I know it seems really odd to write something like this on a sewing blog where I’m all about making clothes, but that’s kind of the point. As soon as I start compromising on how I think things should look, I start really not liking what I’m doing. I can’t do it the way it’s supposed to be. ‘Cause someday I’m going to be an eccentric old lady, and the “old” part is the only part that will take care of itself. If I don’t be my eccentric ol’ self right now, I’ll always be bending to how other people think I should do it. Me is me.)

Posted in Contemplations | 2 Comments »

Meet Deirdre

November 1st, 2008 by tatterdemalion

Do you know I was the cutest kid in the whole wide world when I was 3? No, really. I’ll show you.

me being cute


still me

See? I told you so!!

So what happened between then and now? I don’t know, but I’m counting on it to happen to Deirdre. Because I have taken to telling her “See, when I was your age {technically, I was younger in those pictures than she is now—she’s six}, I was cuter than you. And now look at me. So when you’re my age, you’ll look even uglier than me!!” This infuriates her, but she has no come-back except to say, “Yeah, well I’m not yet!!”, to which I laugh evily. (Isn’t evily a word? Maybe I have to say wickedly. If you ask any 6 year old, I’m sure evily is a word.)

Yes, she is cute. She has been cute since the day she was born, and she continues to be cute. And everyone tells her so, so she knows it. Which makes me have to do horrible things like let her see a glimpse of the future in me. And laugh evily. She is not only cute, she knows how to dress herself, when she puts her mind to it, proving that Mr. Sartoralist is looking in all the wrong places for his fashion shots. He should come out to out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere to see the real deal.


This picture was taken at the end of last January. No one in their right mind would be wearing a sun-dress, but, undeterred, she found not only blue-striped tights but a perfectly coordinating blue-striped shirt, with silver shot though it. And then accessorized with green clogs, blue hair bands and two braids. And a yellow necklace for accent, and who told her that yellow is the official accent to blue and green? I didn’t even know she owned half this stuff.


But she, apparently, knows her stuff, and will not be stopped by things like inclement weather. Here, she decided she would wear her getting-smaller-and-wrinklier-by-the-minute princess dress that I made her several years ago. That it was April and frigid and the dress was short-sleeved was immaterial.


No one even noticed the shirt she was wearing under it wasn’t part of the dress. . .though if the bodice hadn’t covered the perfectly hideous decals someone who manufactured shirts thought was stylish, it would have been painfully apparent.


But of course, you can’t see, and it looks perfect. And she looks stinkin’ cute, but don’t tell her I said that. And on her feet she wears. . .


Those striped blue tights again, which I never knew striped tights could be so versatile, but the just go with so many different shades of blue. And her blue sneakers, which also match.

And none of this was deliberately bought for the occasion or the outfit. She just puts things together like of course that’s what you’d do.

I am pretty sure that maybe we aren’t related.

Anyway, Deirdre has come to kind of sort basically take my sewing for granted, without realizing the difficulties involved. I can seemingly make up dresses in no time, but she doesn’t realize the effort that goes into them. Here’s a picture of her and her cousin, last December I think. I made them stop playing to snap this picture, so don’t expect them to look all put together.


In about the space of two weeks, I realized it was nearly Elizabeth’s birthday, and set about making her a dress, which, if you ask me, was a very clever feat. See, someone had given me a half finished project (why is that people say, Oh, you sew; here, have my half-finished projects? Exactly what do they suppose is the appeal of someone else’s half finished projects? Don’t they suppose I can make my own half-finished projects?). It was a very ugly project, I am sorry to say. It was hideous. It was a women’s dress, barely knee length. It had poofy darts at the waist. It buttoned down the front. It had a long, deep v-neck. It was made out of polyester and some awful coral/cantaloupe color, or at least I color that looks awful on me. I nearly chucked it in the trash, but at the last minute I changed my mine. I don’t like that color, but surely there is some little girl in the universe who would like that color.

So when Elizabeth’s birthday came around, I remembered that ugly, hideous, half-finished dress. I had this princess pattern that someone had given me, and that was my starting point. I’d scan it in for you (it was Simplicity, and I’m sure out of print), but I’m lazy. You can see a picture of the pattern here. I was sooo clever. I had to piece those puffy sleeves from the sleeveless bodice of the hideous dress, though you can’t tell it from here (and alas, I only have a few pictures of this dress, most much worse than this). I used a different fabric for the bodice (which has batting in between it and free-motion quilting), a very versatile fabric that I actually used some of in Millie’s original fancy dress (but I am too lazy to dig up a link back that dress, so either you remember it or you don’t). I didn’t quilt the sleeves, though the called for it in the pattern, because that made them stiff and ugly, and you need to feel like a princess. You can’t see it in this picture, but the sleeves come down to a point on her hands. I just gathered the original (hideous) skirt, so it wasn’t as full as the pattern called for, but it was as long.

I was so please with my turning this awful half-finished monster into a cute princess dress for a cousin.

Deirdre was rather blase about the whole thing, because, well, of course. That is just what I do, I make dresses out of nothing on short notice. Big deal. She has taken to coming into my sewing room and saying “You’re still working on that?!” Which is so annoying, because for one thing I agree with her, and for another, what does she know? She doesn’t know how hard it is to make things, or at least make them come out well.

So when Millie’s birthday started inching squinching closer, I began plotting. First I was just thinking I’d make a dress, because little girls’ dresses are so much easier to make, and it would go very fast. And then I thought, what on earth? Millie is Deirdre’s friend! Deirdre should be putting some blood, sweat and tears into this. It’s about time she stopped taking for granted every stitch that I sew.

Naturally, I didn’t phrase it quite that way to Deirdre.

And naturally Deirdre took the bait.

First I picked out a pattern. It was one of those “9 great looks in one pattern!!” deals, which means you had the same dress nine times with minuscule differences, which means you can offer a six year old a choice without really offering her a choice. Brilliant, that. It was a very simple dress, so that we could actually make it in time. It had a perfectly rectangular skirt, gathered to fit. It could be either sleeveless or have ruffles at the shoulder, but none of that fussy-sleeve setting business. Simple, yes?

But you see, Deirdre is related to me.

She didn’t want to make it simple. She wanted to make it fancy. I wanted this dress to be from her, so I didn’t want to over-ride her artistic choices. Some how, we agreed to put a ruffle all along the bottom of the hem in this synthetic suede. And she did want it to have pockets. I was afraid she would pick the curvy, hard-to-sew heart pockets, but was hugely relieved when she said she was not going to do the heart pockets, because she has some pants with heart pockets and it’s way too hard to get your hands into them. (Yay, she has some shared practicality with me!) But the pockets, too, must have ruffles.

It started off well enough. We prewashed the fabric in the sink. She learned why we prewash as one of the fabrics bleed dye profusely and refused to stop (well, hey, I’d bought it off the $1/yard table at Wal-Mart. You get what you pay for). In had been almost a velvet; when we ditched that was when we decided to use the suede. Guess why I had that on hand?

isn't she cute?

It’s leftovers from a dress I had made her when she still needed help to stand! Since it doesn’t ravel, it was the perfect choice for the ruffles so we wouldn’t have to hem them. Some of the other fabric was the same as what I had used to make clothes for Millie’s piggy last year, and some of it was a coordinating print to go with fabric I had used for Millie’s piggy. So it was all come along oh so perfectly.

Deirdre helped cut out. She did the square and rectangular shapes, and I did the bodice and the ruffles. And that was all for the first day, which pretty near burned her out.

We sewed a little bit here, and a little bit there. It worked best, I found, to have her sit on my lap. We both guided the fabric, and she put her foot on top of my foot, which was on top of the pedal. She got to make it go and stop, but if she inadvertently “stomped” on the pedal, I still had veto power and could keep her from sewing through her finger. And we sewed.

We sewed some here, and some there. We used the iron. She was amazed by the wonders of turning things out, like lining the bodice, and turning the ties. Ruffling the sleevelets was just too cool.

But we were running out of time.

And she was finding it more and more and more tedious.

Finally, there was the last day. And we were not done. And we MUST finish. Deirdre clung to images in her mind of Millie’s face when she opened it, much the way I always do when I slogging through the worst of a project. We were making progress quickly, though. We put in the zipper; we finished the edges of the seams with a zig-zag stitch so they wouldn’t fray. We put the pockets on.

But then we came to hem ruffle. Oh, the hem ruffle.

First of all, it was about sixty-three miles long once it was pieced together. Holy moly. But we bravely forged on, and put two rows of long gathering stitches into that whole long snakey thing. And then we gathered it. And we gathered it. And we gathered it some more. And then it started snagging, and we started hearing very scary snapping noises. The synthetic fabric was seriously abusing the gathering thread. We didn’t have it gathered anywhere near enough, and our thread was threatening surrender.

This turned it from a very tedious gathering project to a walking on eggshells disaster. If we didn’t gather it enough, we couldn’t attach it to the skirt. If the thread snapped, the altogether too much time we’d already spent gathering it would be wasting—precious time we couldn’t lose, because it was now three o-clock in the afternoon, we were supposed to be there sometime in the early evening (6 o’clock?) I had yet to take a badly needed shower, we still needed to eat supper, and of course there was the 45 minute drive out to Millie’s. We could cut our losses and just drop off the ruffle. But that was the fancy part, and we’d already put so much work into it. And we were nearly there, it’s just that the last 20% needed to be very gently eased along, tiny bit by tiny bit.

Deirdre and I tried to hold onto our patience, but it was rapidly getting as frayed and worn as the thread. Hurrying would undoubtedly undo all the progress we’d made, but how could we not want to hurry with the second-hand sweeping around the clock with alarming speed? There really wasn’t much Deirdre could do with such a delicate situation, so she finally delicately suggest she might play outside until the gather part was done. It was a wise request, and probably the only thing that saved us from inter-personal disaster. Plus it meant I could focus my few shreds of sanity upon the uncooperative ruffle.

After what seemed like more time than any earthly ruffle ought ever be allowed to consumed, I did finally manage to get the ruffle gathered and pinned onto the hem. I called her in, and we sewed it on.

And then I quick took a shower and we ate supper very quickly, and in the car—-every true to form—I hand sewed the lining down (someone else was driving, honest!), and crammed it into a gift bag.

Finished! And in time! By about . . .5 minutes!! Yea, verily, I am teaching her to follow in my very footsteps.

The ruffle really made the dress. Perseverance pays off, although it does take blood, sweat and tears. Or at least sweat and tears; I think we avoided the blood, and even technically (and narrowly) avoided the tears.

And also, Millie always makes my (and now, Deirdre’s) sewing look good, as does Abby’s photography.


Look. At. The. Dress!!





(I stole these pictures from Millie’s mom’s blog, because she is forever and never not sending me pictures. If I ever get better ones (higher quality files) I will try to fix the post.)

Posted in Completions, Projects | 3 Comments »