Revisiting Wardrobe Architect, Part 1: Inspiration and Silhouettes

In March and April of last year, I examined how the clothes I like (and don’t) make me feel, what clothing shapes I gravitate toward, and what combinations of shapes are most comfortable and “me.” While I felt like I did a pretty good job of responding to the prompts, answering honestly, and collecting inspiration that actually resonated with me, in hindsight I see that somewhere along the way there was a disconnect between the style that I aspire to and the style represented by my capsule selections. My proposed capsule was too bright, with too many repeated colors and not enough pattern or texture to break it up. It felt too casual, instead of channeling the sleek put-togetherness that my inspiration images embodied.

At the time it was easy to overlook (and later shrug off) these shortcomings on the grounds that it was more an exercise than a concrete plan—that I was challenging myself to venture outside my style rut, not committing to making those precise pieces. While it’s true that I wasn’t locked into sewing what I’d sketched out, having a guide that was more puzzle than passion meant I didn’t have much more direction on actual garments than I’d started out with. As a result, I made a few questionable fabric purchases, added more patterns to my collection, and continued to waffle between potential projects because I wasn’t particularly excited to sew the things I’d laid out for myself and there was a lingering division between the clothes I wanted to make and the supplies I had to make them.

Now, a year later, it feels like it’s time to step back, reconsider, and figure out where I went off track so that I can create a sewing queue and wish list that I’m genuinely motivated to tackle.

To kick things off, I revisited my inspirational collage. Since we’re already well into spring, I removed the more autumnal and wintry photos and replaced them with warmer-weather pictures; I may bring the old ones back in a separate collage when it comes time to make fall/winter sewing plans. I also culled photos where the silhouette didn’t seem like 100% my style or the colors weren’t my favorites. That’s not to say I’d never sew or wear anything like them, but I wanted my collage to showcase only outfits that I would wear pretty much as-is—distilling all of the available inspiration to a style concentrate, if you will.

The result looks like this:

2015-05-04_My-Style-Collage

I had the hardest time choosing dresses, no doubt because I wear them so infrequently. I don’t dislike dresses, but in the spring it’s often chilly enough in the mornings for tights but hot enough in the afternoon to make them oppressive, and in the summer there’s the constant tension between sweltering temperatures outside and frosty air conditioning inside. Suffice to say that always-cold me usually plays it safe by wearing pants. But I’d like to change that, because rotating in the occasional dress makes me feel a little more feminine and, ironically, like I made an effort, even though they’re usually less effort to style than a pair of pants.

Speaking of pants, let’s talk about those palazzo pants. They represent the biggest gap between the image shown and the finished items I’m looking for, mostly because it can be so hard to find a specific, illustrative image online when you already have the perfect vision in your head. But when I was a kid, I had a pair of rayon challis trousers in sage green with tiny white flowers to wear to a semi-formal summer event outside. They had wide, straight legs and a narrow elastic waistband, and the material and drape of the fabric made them wonderfully comfortable in the heat and humidity of high summer in Virginia. I wore them with a sleeveless white button-down shirt that knotted at the front waist and a pair of white sandals. I remember feeling very glamorous in this outfit, and that’s a feeling I’d like to recapture. Plus, matched with the right top and shoes, I think it can work equally well for work or play.

In terms of silhouettes, I think these images capture my preferred looks exceptionally well; they represent not only my my favorite colors and moods, but also the specific combinations I’m drawn to. They also neatly illustrate one of the principles of fashion that I picked up from (of all places) a dressing room ad, and have since found works very well for me: pair a loose top with a fitted bottom and a fitted top with a loose bottom for instant visual interest. (Not everything fits this mold, nor does it need to for me. But if one of my outfits is feeling off, it can sometimes be remedied by swapping out one piece to create this appealing contrast.)

If I had to sum up my silhouettes, then, they would be:

  • Skinny trousers with a draped blouse (blazer optional)
  • Skinny jeans with a relaxed tee or tank top
  • Flared skirt with fitted t-shirt and cardigan
  • Flared dress with cardigan
  • Wide-legged pants with a fitted tank top or slim-cut blouse

When it comes to tucked versus untucked shirts, I generally favor untucked. The exception is probably tucking a t-shirt into a skirt or palazzo pants; for those instances, I’m thinking I may pick up the Closet Case Patterns Nettie Bodysuit. For shoes, I tend to wear heels to work and to go out to restaurants or movies, and stick to flats for casual Fridays and errands. I love the look of skinnies with heels—they make me feel taller and feel inexplicably chic—so I’ve been wearing that combination more often lately. I’m still on the hunt for a pair of flat sandals that aren’t unbearable to walk around in all day when I want to look cute during a weekend excursion, and I’d love to save my running sneakers for the gym and get a pair of cute, casual sneakers for casual days when it’s too cool, wet, or walking-intensive for sandals. Accessories are a moving target, but statement jewelry and smaller, colorful handbags are on my list, and I’m in dire need of an attractive pair of sunglasses.

My first inspiration collage brought a sense of relief that maybe I had a burgeoning sense of style after all. This one brings a spark of real excitement, because I can actually see myself making pieces to create outfits like these, and I already can’t wait to wear them and show them off. That’s how I want to feel about my handmade wardrobe.

Have you ever gone back to an inspiration board or a sewing/knitting/design plan to refine it? Did it change a little or a lot? What effect did this have on your craft?

On Me-Made-May 2016

Do you remember when you first heard about Me-Made-May? Do you remember what you thought, how you felt about the idea?

I can’t recall which year it was, exactly, that I first stumbled across this month-long making-and-wearing challenge. I don’t remember which blog I saw it on first, although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Zoe’s. It may have been a daily or weekly check-in post, or an end-of-month wrap-up. I don’t think the event was actively running at the time. In fact, come to think of it, it may not have been a Me-Made-May event at all—it may have been Me-Made-March or Self-Stitched September, two forerunners of the annual tradition we know and love today.

It’s strange to me that I can’t remember it, because I do remember how intrigued I was by the whole affair, how readily I soaked up page after page of outfit photos and introspections. I loved seeing the real clothes that real people wore to their real jobs, real family dinners, real vacations—clothes that they had made themselves. I deeply admired their commitment: commitment to finishing what they started even when they had to rip out the same seam three times; commitment to sitting in meetings next to coworkers wearing luxury labels and not feeling faintly embarrassed; commitment to exposing the fact that they “cheated” on their pledge or that they will never, ever sew their own tights, even if they could, because they just don’t to want to.

When I discovered Me-Made-May, I hadn’t sewn any garments for daily wear, just costumes and props for various dress-up holidays, parties, and events. (Truth be told, I’ve sewn very few garments since then, and that weighs on me. But we’ll come to that in a minute.) I knew you could, of course, and it was a thing that I wanted to do, but I hadn’t really seen anyone do it in a way that was meaningful to me. I understood that buying something off a rack in a store was a relatively recent development in the history of human fashion, was aware of the decades of where even the less-well-off might have clothing made-to-measure by a tailor or dressmaker, had heard stories of people’s grandmothers and mothers making their own or their children’s clothing, but I hadn’t seen anyone of my own age, of my own lifestyle, make more than the occasional garment. I’d never seen anyone attempt to systematically build a wardrobe.

And I wanted very desperately to be that person. While I’ve had my share of ill-fitting and poorly made garments that made me crave a custom fit, what really drove me was the desire to be able to say “I made this,” not just about an apron or a taken-in dress, but about the trousers I wear to work and the t-shirts I wear to the grocery store. And I wanted very, very much to participate in a community that challenged—and rewarded—this. I wanted to be able to post daily outfit photos, each with the implicit caption “I attempted this and succeeded. I didn’t just dress myself today—I crafted my image with my own two hands.” I wanted to be embraced, and celebrated, along with the other Me-Made-Mayers. I wanted to belong to a group of people who seemed so very, very cool.

Each year since, I’ve thought about participating, but lamented the fact that I have nowhere near enough things to wear, even if I committed to just one piece a few times a week and wore the same pieces multiple times. Whenever I thought about remedying this problem, I quickly succumbed to what I perceived as a lack of necessary skills, then a lack of appropriate patterns, then a lack of suitable fabric. Now I have a fair amount of all three, and it’s clear that the only thing I truly lacked was the sense to make good decisions, and the nerve to follow-through and just do the thing already.

This, then, was going to be my year. In my mind, I quietly committed to spending March and April steadily sewing up a few versatile pieces so that this year I could get in the game. I resolved not to do any frantic, last-minute sewing, but to try to make sewing each week a habit. I acquired a few more patterns, treated myself to some fabrics that I was really excited about, and set up a queue of projects in Trello (thanks for the idea, Camille!). The only thing stopping me this year was me.

And then life went sideways. At the end of March, Justin’s best friend fell into dire straits and very much needed an opportunity for a fresh start, so we invited him to live with us for a couple of months while he reestablishes himself. Suddenly everything stalled or had to be put on hold. Our plans to paint and furnish our guest room were suspended because it was abruptly occupied. Our desire to seek out and adopt a dog was deferred, because our new resident has a small dog of his own that’s living with us, and we didn’t want to bring a new pet into the mix. My hope of creating a dedicated sewing space was stifled, because the guest room is currently off the table and our office is too crowded with displaced items from the guest room to admit more furniture.

To add hardship on top of difficulty, tax season was not particularly kind to us. Purchasing a house, which we’d been told many times was a huge boon from a tax standpoint, turned out to be a burden this past year. We don’t regret becoming homeowners—not by a long shot—but we definitely felt an unexpected pinch this April, which further prevented any new home or craft supply purchases while we bounced back.

And, because I have an amazing ability to kick myself when I’m down, I recently resolved to go back to working out at the gym. It’s a positive change that I can absolutely see the physical and emotional benefits of, but it’s eating into my free time, especially since the gym is in the opposite direction of my house. Taken all together, I started to feel as though I had neither time nor resources to do anything at all that I really want.

If this all sounds like a lot of whining to you, you’re absolutely right (and I appreciate you sticking around this long in spite of it). The realization that, once again, I can’t participate in Me-Made-May the way I want made me rather miserable, and, quite frankly, miserable to be around. But after a good, long wallow, I’ve finally realized that I can still make a pledge. It’s not an official one—I want to save that until I can do it properly—but it’s what I can manage this time. I credit it in no small part to Gillian at Crafting a Rainbow, who with her own pledge managed to penetrate my thick skull with the radical notion that the most important aspect of Me-Made-May is thinking critically about wearing clothes, and that if circumstances don’t encourage a lot of wearing, there’s still a great deal of value in thinking about handmade. With that in mind, I’ve figured out what I need most right now, and what I can reasonably do, and what I want to say:

I, Caitlyn of Practice Makes Pretty, sign up as a follower of Me-Made-May ’16. I endeavor to revisit my Wardrobe Architect journey, revise my ideal palette and silhouettes, and develop a sewing plan that more accurately reflects my sartorial aspirations. I further endeavor to put this plan into action during the month of May by sewing, mending, or knitting at least three days each week.

Now, I’m not the best with intentions. (Hello, passel of New Year’s resolutions that I’ve made no progress on to date!) But if there’s one thing that motivates me, it’s a deadline, and May won’t last forever. Peer pressure is also hugely underrated for its ability to effect positive change, and I cannot thank the sewing community enough for how much it inspires and drives me to become the person I admire in others. I’m not sure I can (or ever will) contribute anything meaningful to this amazing online community, but you all have given so much to me, and I appreciate it. Thank you, every one of you.

Old Year, New Year

Yikes, where did the first day of the new year go? Justin and I were having so much fun visiting with family that we lost track of time. No matter—it’s never too late for a recap and a look forward!

I launched this blog almost a year ago, after a feverish four-day weekend spent customizing my site. In my time online, I’ve made 64 posts and garnered 8 comments. While I’d hoped to connect with more people, I’m proud that I’ve averaged just over a post a week. I know that these posts have been concentrated in the beginning and end of the year, so I’d like to work on increasing both my frequency and regularity of posting. I really do enjoy the writing, even if I’m excruciatingly slow at it.

A long car ride on New Year’s Eve gave me plenty of time to mull over my goals for 2016, and I feel confident that these are the things I want to focus on, and that they’re all achievable. In no particular order:

  • Set up a permanent sewing space. In our last apartment, I had plenty of space to create a dedicated sewing area, but I never bought or built the furniture I needed to make the space work, so it mostly served as a dumping ground. In the new house, we have an office and a guest room, both of which provide a place to put a sewing table and possibly a cutting table. Having my machines, tools, and supplies ready to go at all times will enable me to spend less of my time preparing to sew and more of my time actually sewing.
  • Stop feeling constrained by my fabric stash and sew the garments I need and want. As I’ve mentioned previously, I have a small bin of fabric that consists mostly of quilting project leftovers and de-stash pieces from my mom. Not wanting any of this material to go to waste, I’ve often looked for projects to use it up. The problem is that these projects are not themselves necessarily things that I need or want, which means even when they’re successful they’re not particularly useful. If I want to make T-shirts, I need to buy fabric suitable for T-shirts. I don’t have to use up the scraps first; they won’t go bad. If I need them for a project down the road, they’ll be right where I left them; if I don’t think I’ll ever use them, I don’t need to contrive a purpose for them—I can just give to someone who will use them.
  • Be a more productive knitter. I completed only 6 knitting projects in 2015, including one I started in 2014. This is roughly on par with previous years’ output, but I know that I’m capable of more. I’m a largely monogamous knitter, and I don’t suffer from startitis. Quite the opposite—I usually struggle to decide what to cast on, which means I can go days or weeks between finishing one project and starting the next. I don’t enjoy these long breaks, and become anxious and dissatisfied until I get a new project on the needles. To combat this, I’m going to be more mindful of queuing projects so that I have time to purchase patterns or choose yarn before I finish my current knit. That way, I’m not trying to decide on a new project while feeling agitated that I haven’t started something yet. I may even try out casting on before my current project is complete so I never have a time when there isn’t something on the needles.
  • Learn how to dye fiber with natural ingredients. Dyeing, particularly natural dyeing, is an art I’ve wanted to research since I visited Old Salem for my birthday in 2014. Justin gifted me The Modern Natural Dyer for Christmas, and I’m eager to start learning and experimenting.
  • Transform one area of our new house. It doesn’t matter to me what room, or part of a room, we change. It doesn’t matter if we accomplish the transformation with paint, furniture, art, textiles, or a little bit of everything. I just know that after living in our last apartment for two years, you could count on one hand the number of differences between the way it looked on the day we moved in and the day we moved out. I don’t want that to be true of our house. I don’t expect to “finish” the house in a year, but I want to be able to look back at the before photos and say, “Wow, can you believe how far we’ve come?”

On the whole 2015 was a good year for us, which makes me even more excited for the possibilities of 2016.

2016-01-02_1_Stripes

If this is any indication, things are off to a great start. 🙂

Wardrobe Architect Week 14: Overcoming Editing Hurdles

It’s fitting that the final assignment of the original Wardrobe Architect series would be about editing. As a writer, I’ve heard all the aphorisms and pithy advice about the importance of revision, that the real work—and real success—comes not from writing but from re-writing. Once you have both the idea and the raw material, you have to lay one over the other and trim away all the little bits that don’t line up. You change one to fit the other; in the end, you’ve changed both. It makes sense that cultivating a wardrobe is much the same: you’re continually trying to shape what you have to match what you want, or reconsidering what you think you want in light of what you’re actually buying/making.

I know these things, but man! is it hard to live them. This is probably because, as a writer, I am a terrible editor. Wait, I retract that statement in favor of this one: I am a terrible self-editor. I can be absolutely brutal when I’m revising someone else’s work, scratching out words and rearranging sentences or paragraphs with cruel efficiency, with no regard for the author’s feelings. But when it comes to my own work? I’m basically useless.

You would probably assume—completely understandably—that this is because I think my work is too precious to be changed, or because I can’t take criticism. Not so! (Okay, a little bit so for the second one, but I’m working on it.) Really, it comes down to how I write. I’m a slow writer. A really slow writer. (The last time I clocked myself on a creative writing assignment was in college, but I remember that it took me an hour per page. The pages were double-spaced.) I deliberate over each sentence, each word, because I crave coherence, and I need each part to hang together with all the rest. I can’t move forward if something doesn’t make sense or doesn’t flow. I tend to edit as I go; in fact, I tend to edit before anything actually makes it out of my brain and on to the page screen. So when I come back afterward to do that all-important second pass for revision, it’s hard to imagine things written any other way.

It’s a little bit like that with clothes, for me. I don’t shop for clothes very often. I never have. I usually buy things in small groups: a pairs of slacks and a couple tops for work, a handbag and a pair of shoes to match a dress I own, or a sweater in three different colors. The items in these bundles usually work with each other, but they don’t always work so clearly with other things I have. Sometimes I’m in a pinch for something specific, like warm tops in winter, or there’s a sale, so I buy something that’s not quite right. I don’t usually fall prey to trends (at least not in the sense that I-must-have-this-only-because-it’s-popular), but I’ve certainly bought things I didn’t love to fill a hole or score a deal without a lot of consideration for the long-term.

And because I don’t buy clothes very often, it’s hard to get rid of things. It took time to accumulate what I do have, so if I give something up, my brain reasons, it will take a long time to replace them. It’s faulty logic, of course. If I’m barely wearing something anyway, and I don’t particularly enjoy it when I do wear it, it’s no great hardship to give it up. Even if it were, if I have a clearer idea of what I want instead, I can deliberately seek out or make a well-made, well-fitting replacement, rather than hoping to stumble upon something or continuing to fill up my closets piecemeal with whatever seems important in the moment.

After repeating these things to myself a few times, I scoured my closets and drawers and came up a little pile of clothes.

2015-07-08_01_Clothes-for-the-Outbox

The only thing I’m really bummed about are the two pairs of light grey slacks toward the bottom. They’re two different cuts and fabrics, but they’re identical to several other pairs of slacks I have in black and brown. But for some reason, they’re just tighter in the waist and shorter in the rise than the other colors, which makes them just too snug for comfort. I can only assume that they’re on the extreme end of the sizing tolerance. If I thought I could let them out I would, but they’re not exactly a high-end brand, so they don’t really have seam allowances to work with.

To be safe, I’m not going to get rid of these garments immediately. Instead, I’ll let them marinate in the Outbox until I have a chance to go to a used clothing or thrift store. That will give me a chance to rescue anything if I change my mind. But most things that go into the Outbox don’t come out again, so I’m pretty confident I’ll finally be letting these go. It feels a bit tough now, but I know it will be a relief later. I’m looking forward to things that will take their places, because they’ll be thoughtfully planned and carefully sewn me-mades.

Wardrobe Architect Week 13: Downloadable Planning Worksheet

Since this week’s “assignment” was originally just a giveaway with a bonus (free!) one-page downloadable worksheet to plan sewing projects, I decided to print one off and use it to jot down my intentions for my OAL 2015 dress. I’ve gathered most of the things I need already (although I realized I’ll probably need to pick up some lightweight sew-in interfacing, since I’m not sure what I have lurking in my stash at the moment), but it gave me a chance to look over the pattern and anticipate the next steps, like what size I intend to cut and how I want to deal with seams and such. Plus, I got a chance to bust out some long-neglected color pencils and do a little drawing.

2015-07-01_1_Sample-Worksheet

Cute, yeah? Figuring out what size I want to sew was the hardest part, because the back of the pattern envelope lists the finished measurements for the bust and hip only, and it’s the waist that usually trips me up. I had to carefully unfold the tissue so that I could find the marking for the finished waist size. With any luck, the largest size in the envelope should be big enough. But I’m planning to muslin at least the bodice before I cut into my fashion fabric, just to be sure. I have Friday off from work, so I’m going to try to do the bulk of the sewing then. Wish me luck!