June 2009 Archives

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Guess what I made?


That's right, ladies and gentlemen: it is now within my power to whip up a well-fitting pair of pants whenever the mood strikes me.


This is kind of a personal Everest for me. What you have to understand is that I despise pants shopping. I hate it with a white-hot, eternal hatred that will never abate while I still draw breath. It is always an excruciating ordeal to locate a pair of pants that comes even close to fitting, and even when they "fit" according to the lights of their designer, they VERY seldom align with my own dreams and desires about how a pair of pants should hang on my body.


Given my penchant for making my own clothes, you would think that I would have got myself together on the pants-making front before now. The thing is, that I always left the acquisition of new pants until the absolute Last Minute Possible, because I dreaded the experience so much. By the time I had admitted to myself that I really, really needed some new pants, I was in desperate straights and couldn't wait the week or so it would take to locate a pattern, make a fitting shell, alter the pattern, and so on. Not this time, though! This time, I did just that: three iterations of a fitting shell on some rotten old corduroy I picked up at Goodwill ages ago for $1.99, and the fabric was about ready to fall apart (one of the butt pockets actually did rip out about six hours after completion). But! I was now possessed of a pants pattern that fit me like I wanted it to, and I exulted in the glory as I made them up again, this time in a nice, light denim.


These are descended from V2907, the Vogue pattern of an Alice + Olivia design. They have a number of modifications, though. The original pants have a HUGE bell-bottom, which I altered to almost a straight leg. They also hung unflatteringly low on the first run-through with the muslin, so I sliced over an inch out of the hips and butt to get them into a more figure-flattering shape. They're now slightly less of low-riders than in the pattern, but still sit low enough on my waist that I don't feel like I'm being suffocated. And I love the cute little waist tabs! I lined the pockets and yoke with some cotton I had left over from my Walkaway dress. I think it's super-cute:


But what's really exciting is the repeatability of these! I picked up two mill-end lengths of corduroy, in olive green and baby blue, and I'm currently in the midst of a winter version of these babies in the olive, with jeans-style back patch pockets instead of welts (the welts are adorable, but I think they're kind of a weak point in the design, since the seat gets a lot of stress and welts require cutting into the fabric). I have to admit, I feel a little like the Queen of Sheba. All the pants I want! It really is a dream come true.




WOW. Thank y'all SO much for the enthusiastic response to Julia! She loves you too, even if you can't tell by her aristocratic British facade. The other accessory patterns are progressing apace, but in the meantime, I thought you might enjoy this review. I wrote it for my other blog, but since Family Trunk Project visitors are, by definition, at least somewhat interested in how clothes tell stories, you might dig it too. This book is definitely a lovely way to pass a drizzly Sunday afternoon. Enjoy!


I first encountered Deborah Nadoolman Landis's Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design in a cozy bookstore in the Paddington, New South Wales. I was waiting for David to be done looking at something, and I casually picked it up, thinking it would be a pleasant way to while away a few minutes. Two hours later, David had forcibly to interrupt my delighted retelling of costume-related old Hollywood anecdotes, and remind me that three o'clock was getting on past lunchtime and we still hadn't eaten. Reluctantly, as I didn't have the cash in my pocket or room in my suitcase to bring the book home with me, I left it on the shelf, adding it to my mental list of books to be checked out of the library. Imagine my surprise when, six months later, it appeared in my pile of birthday presents, waiting to be perused at my leisure! David is a very canny gift-giver, people. Very canny indeed.

I think Dressed is so captivating to me because it moves beyond the standard conceptions of Hollywood "glamor" to examine clothes as an integral element of storytelling. As someone who has always been fascinated by stories explicitly involving clothes, and by the more subtle narratives evoked by what we wear, I can't resist poring over the accumulated experience of a century of American costume designers who get paid to think about these issues in an intense and systematic way. Despite its low text-to-image ratio (this is an art book par excellence - not something to tote to the bus stop or the doctor's office), I found some of the ideas in Dressed to be quite thought-provoking. Here, for example, is Edith Head talking about designing for Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress:

Olivia's character, Catherine Sloper, was slightly clumsy and awkward. You had the feeling that she wasn't quite put together...I had to get across how uncomfortable she was with herself in whatever image she projected. I could not do it by giving her inexpensive or ugly clothes, because her father was a wealthy man and everything she wore was of the finest quality. No matter how much money she had, she never looked soignée because she was insecure. Rather than give Olivia a perfect fit, I made things purposely gap or wrinkle in the wrong place. I would put a collar too high or a sleeve a bit too short. If her dress had ruffles, it had a few too many ruffles combined with too much robbon and a bit too much lace, reflecting her unsophisticated taste.

As Landis points out, so much of the effect that costumes produce in films are perceived by audiences only unconsciously, as part of the larger effect. I think a lot of what Head is describing here - Catherine's maladroitness, despite her father's wealth - would be perceived as de Havilland's acting job, but it's interesting to realize how subtleties in the costumes contribute to the whole.

Numerous actors talk about how the costumes helped them to "find" the characters in the first place. In one of the most extreme examples, costume designer Anthony Powell recalls Glenn Close's instructions to him about her outfit for Cruella de Vil: "When I asked her for her thoughts on the character, she said, 'You just design it, and at the end I shall look at myself in the mirror and then I shall decide how to play the part.'" Kim Novak describes a subtler moment of transformation regarding the costumes for Vertigo (designed by Head, but minutely supervised by Hitchcock):

When I played Judy, I never wore a bra. It killed me having to wear a bra as Madeleine but you had to because they had built the suit so that you had to stand very erect or you suddenly were not 'in position.' They made that suit very stiff. You constantly had to hold your shoulders back and stand erect. But, oh that was perfect. That suit helped me find the tools for playing the role. It was wonderful for Judy because then I got to be without a bra and felt so good again, I just felt natural.

As someone trying, in my own modest way, to tell stories about character through clothes, detailed revelations like this are so interesting. I could have predicted that a bra (or lack thereof) would affect someone's silhouette, but I would never have thought that it could have such an affect on the final interpretation of a character.

Plus, whoa Nellie, the book is BEAUTIFUL. The layout and presentation are truly stunning. It's full of fascinating sketch-to-garment layouts like this one, of Faye Dunaway's pink Bonnie and Clyde suit:


I loved getting a glimpse of the original costume sketches for Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis's outfits in one of my all-time favorite films, Some Like It Hot:


I think it's worth remarking that this original version of Jack Lemmon's costume was even more outrageous than the one actually used in the film.

Many costume designers talk about adapting their original ideas, or adapting period costume, so that it not only fits the actor but expresses the truth of the character or creates a desired response in the audience. Rita Ryack, costume designer on Casino, was lucky enough to have access to the entire closet of the real person on whom Robert De Niro's character is based, and used his clothes as points of creative departure. But she altered the styles and color schemes to be more in keeping with story they were trying to tell: "Lefty's own clothes, which were, in fact, mint and lavender and all these crazy colors, were a little too conservative for De Niro's Ace Rothstein." Similarly, Edith Head talks about costuming Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting:

Both Newman and Redford look extremely sophisticated in suits. To keep Bob from looking too worldly, I gave him a newsboy's cap and a garish wide-patterned tie. Coupled with his impish grin, they made him look rather naive. When I wanted Paul to come across as a tough guy, I made sure his undershirt was showing.

Dressed is full of luscious little tidbits like this, but there are also, of course, the times when it's just plain eye candy. And I have no problem with those times, no problem at all. Occasionally the preparatory sketches are as beautiful as the finished stills; check out this gorgeous spread from Gigi, designed by Cecil Beaton:


I could go on and on about this book, but I won't. I do highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of Hollywood, or in the narrative potential of clothes. I'm now off to the video store, to rent a few of the films alluded to within its pages!

Moving right along


Thank you so much, everyone, for your comments, emails, and Ravelry messages of support about my lost day job. It was a sad time, making it through my last week there, but now I feel I can start looking to the future. Not that I've been idle in the meantime, mind you. I had to be knitting something during all those Miss Marple episodes, after all.


I finished this design during my last week of work, so I was thinking of naming them for something related to the whole experience - "Anxiety," "Melancholia," et cetera. But then I thought, why belabor the obvious? David and I were listening to The Night Watch by Sarah Waters while I was designing these, and as I knit them they began to remind me of her character Julia Standing, on whom I nursed a bit of a crush. So I'm calling these the "Julia Socks."


The Julia of Waters's novel, living in London during and after World War II, is a semi-bohemian mystery novelist. She's feminine, but has a bit of a swagger, wears trousers, and doesn't mind getting her hands dirty (during the war she works as an assessor of bomb damage). I thought these socks mirrored her character - a little bit arch, a little bit glamorous, but slightly menswear-inflected and casual enough to wear while sitting around the flat listening to the wireless.


I worked with a new technique for this design, one I found in a Japanese stitch dictionary and with which I'm now quite enamored. I'm not sure what to call it - if you know, please tell me. The lace-looking units that form the diamond shapes are worked over three stitches: you pull (elongate) and then slip the third stitch on the left needle over the two in front of it, then work a k1tbl-yo-k1tbl over the two stitches remaining. Working groups of these units (I'm calling them "pull stitches" in the Julia pattern, but I'm open to better ideas) creates very distinct, pretty designs that are easily distinguishable even in a semi-variegated yarn like this one: Sundara Sock in colorway Peach over Pear.


And it's easy! I'm surprised it's not more widely used, but I, for one, have a few more experiments up my sleeve involving this technique.


As for the Julia pattern, it's ready for test-knitting as we speak, and I'll be releasing it in the late summer or early fall as part of my accessory line. As I'm envisioning things right now, all or almost all the patterns will be available singly, and they'll also be purchasable at a discount en masse, in e-book form. I'm not sure how many patterns will be included, but I already have three finished and two more in the works, so it should end up as a satisfying little collection. Inspired by Julia and an earlier pattern christened "Gerda" by my internet friend Homero, I've decided to name all the accessory patterns for fictional characters, who are, after all, pretty much members of my family too. Maybe I'll even hit on a few of your favorites! Stay tuned for more previews as the summer progresses.


Summer vacation


"Summer vacation" is my euphemism of choice for the fact that as of this Friday, I am unemployed. The start-up I work for is closing its doors, a complicated casualty of the recession and the banking system (a few of the grisly details are over here).

My bosses have been in negotiations with their landlord for over two weeks (after attempting for nine months to enter into talks), during which time everything has been up in the air and nobody has been allowed to discuss the situation, with clients or the community. For a Taurus like me, the indecision has been utter hell; I have to admit to a certain grim relief at knowing for sure when and how we're closing, and being able to discuss it freely. At the same time I'm also feeling really sad - for my bosses, for the community who used our services, and for myself and fellow staff. I've worked in the same place since before we opened our doors two and a half years ago, watched the company grow and change, becoming a hub for the Portland tech community, until today, when we're - paradoxically - busier than ever AND about to close. It really feels like the end of an era, and it's an era I would have wished to end on a much happier note.

As for myself, I'm trying to look at this as an opportunity. Hopefully, with a period of unemployment ahead of me I can focus on publicity, submissions, and commission work for Family Trunk Project. I've been thinking for a long time about starting to teach design classes, and this seems like the right time to start working seriously on putting together a syllabus and contacting local yarn shops. Trunk shows and similar events - things I haven't had time to think about until now - are also on the horizon. I'll be looking for other, part-time work in addition, but hopefully unemployment benefits will give me a bit of breathing room on that score. Despite my anxiety, I know I have a wonderful support system. I'm sure things will work out.

It just sucks, you know? It sucks that something worthwhile (that had, incidentally, just turned profitable) has to end because of a corporation's unwillingness to negotiate reasonably. It sucks that a bank that accepted bailout money from the federal government would refuse to grant any leeway to other victims of the recession. Stuff like this happens all the time, but it still sucks. There are a lot of heartbroken people in Portland tonight.



I apologize for the sporadic, distracted nature of my blog posts lately. I have a storm of stressful dramas unfolding in my work and family life at the moment, and I'm not yet allowed to talk about any of it on the internet. Some of it's good but stressful, some bad and stressful; most of it makes me ambivalent; but one thing's for sure: it's all combining to sap my energy and reduce me to a puddle of nerves. I've been coping by going jogging, making sure I get my daily dose of reading, and, most importantly, knitting while watching extremely silly movies. Like, Gidget-level silliness. The Addams Family. Miss Marple.


There's some great knitwear in the Miss Marple movies (in a different way than Morticia Addams's many-limbed baby garment could be termed "great knitwear"). Lots of lovely fairisle pullovers and vests make their appearances in between the village gossip and stuttered professions of innocence. These are horrid photos; I just snapped a few stills as note-taking for future 1940's-inspired designs. Which leads me to a bit of a design mystery:


Again, crummy photo. The character is a gardener by profession, and she stands behind that bush throughout the entire scene. But! Look at the neckline on her sweater - it's a v-neck, yet there's a band of stranded colorwork that follows the line of the neck, echoing the V shape. I'm curious as to how this was accomplished, since a regular steeked construction would have the knitter still working perpendicular to the v neckline as she formed the upper body of the sweater. (I think this sweater probably WAS steeked because of the classic drop-sleeve construction and the other band of colorwork under the bust.) The only thing I can come up with is that a person would knit the sweater body with a very wide and low v-neck, then cut the steeks and pick up stitches around the circumference of the v neck. The knitter could then work the band of color in the round, following the contour of the v, and top it off with a bit of i-cord or ribbing in the color of the sweater body.

I'm still puzzled, though, because the knitter would also have to be decreasing at the point of the v as she worked upward, to maintain the shape so that the finished fabric would lie flat instead of pouching out at the center top of the neckline. Centered decreases would do it, or even a sewn seam after the knitting was done (an unsatisfying but functional solution). But in the photograph it doesn't seem like either of those techniques were used. Look at the point of the v. There's a medallion motif right on center, where I'd have thought the decreases or seam would need to go. I'm trying to think of a way to combine decreases/seam AND a centered medallion motif, but it kind of jams my brain. I have to admit, though, it looks great! I don't think it would look as good without that centered medallion.

So this is how I've been spending my time: obsessing on small details of film costuming so as to distract myself from The Drama. It's kinda sorta working, but man, I'll be glad when I can get on with my life.

New pattern: Portlandia Cloche


Here's a little something pretty. You can make it if you'd like.


I've been wanting to do more accessory patterns for a while now, but felt conflicted about devoting an entire "person" in the Family Trunk to, for example, a hat, which only takes me about a week to knit up. I wanted to spend more time than that with each family member, really thinking about who they are/were, and my relationship to them. So I decided to branch out and design some smaller patterns not specifically inspired by anyone in my family - more just knitterly exercises in style and form.


The Portlandia Cloche is the first pattern in the new series. I started working on it in Hawai'i, as a bit of a brain break after Charles Victor, and I think it turned out to be a nice, pretty little hat, lacy and art nouveau-inspired. It's one of my simpler patterns: the only skills necessary are knitting and purling in the round, k2tog, ssk, and yarnover. Not only that, but it knits up quickly to satisfy those short summertime attention spans. It's priced at an affordable $3.00, or two pages of your story.


I had some truly great test-knitters on this project, one of whom took it upon herself to create line-by-line instructions from my charts. Way to go the extra mile, Susan! I've included them in the pattern, as well as excellent comments and suggestions from my other test knitters. Thanks, ladies! You're awesome.


Anyway, I hope you like the cloche! I'll be spending the summer working on a whole slew of accessory patterns which I'm hoping to release en masse in the fall, both individually and as some kind of e-book. I haven't decided whether to show them to you in progress or not; they'll be largely cool-weather knits, and will seem more appealing once the air turns brisk and the dogs stop panting in the shade. Maybe we can compromise with some nice teaser shots as the pieces come together. Soon, too, there should be a non-trunk pattern page for easy browsing of all available patterns. Enjoy the your summer projects, and happy knitting!