Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Republic of Dresses

My Nana had amazing clothes. Here she is, most likely in 1940 or '41 in the Bronx before my Pop Pop left for WWII. They were both sharp dressers, something I didn't know until after she died and my sisters and I scoured her old photo albums looking for pictures to display at her memorial service. I was shocked; here was my Nana, who always paid attention to her appearance until her death at 90, but in THOSE shoes! Album after album were filled with images from Nana in the 30's through the 60's, dressed to the hilt as she danced in ballrooms, sat with my mother as a baby on a park bench in Brooklyn, or laughed at parties. The two and a half inch high heels that she always wore until she was 90 (and that I was always trying to get her out of and into something more level and sensible) suddenly made sense. I felt a twinge of shame for trying to take that away from her.
I love clothes, and I especially love vintage clothes. I would have loved to have Nana's vintage clothes, but they were long gone, tossed into a dumpster (including her ivory silk wedding dress from 1941) when we moved from Brooklyn to Arizona. Apparently, she wasn't as sentimental about her clothes as I was. After she died and I returned to Oregon from Arizona, I decided that I was going to try to learn how to sew. I didn't have high hopes, in fact, I doubted I could pull it off at all. I signed up for a sewing class at the UofO craft center, fully expecting to want to drop out after the first class meeting.
I went to the class, and I totally wanted to drop out after the first session. It scared the crap out of me, just like it did the other eight girls who had enrolled. There were so many mistakes to be made; I saw a sewing future full of nothing but seams to be ripped out and redone, button holes that ruined otherwise perfect dresses and piles of half-finished things sitting around my house because I had lost steam partway through. But I also knew that if I could really pull it off, that it would change my life. When I told my husband this, he looked at me much in the way my mother looked at me after I read the Little House on the Prairie books and removed the blades from my ice skates with a butter knife so I could have Laura Ingalls boots.
But I was serious. I thought of all the clothes that I wanted but couldn't afford, I thought about having the opportunity to pick out a fabric that seemed like it was made specifically for a certain dress. About using vintage buttons and beautiful trim. About making things my own, exactly how I wanted them.
By the last sewing class, there were two of us left aside from the instructor, which was great for me. I learned one on one and from an expert how to ease into a curve, sew a lining and put in a zipper. By the end of the last class, I was the only one who had finished my project, and I knew I had found something new that I loved.
I want to make clothes like my Nana wore; even though I can't pull off those heels, I can make a dress and suits and blouses like the ones she once wore. I love vintage patterns and adore the thrill of the hunt trying to find THE one in my size that drives me to distraction and has me plotting the construction while I'm trying to go to sleep. I really love sewing. I'm still not too good at it, but I can't stop now. This is my record of projects, plans, and fabric addiction.
It's my Republic of Dresses.


  1. You're bog is off to a great start. I'm in much the same situation, and a bit intimidated with my sewing, too!

  2. I love your back story. You will grow and your sewing will be beautiful. you are already off to a great start. I definitely will be following you on your road.

  3. Mazal Tov on your learning how to sew. I have felt that thrill for the last 40 years. I learned to sew in 7th grade home/ec which was required in most NYC public schools in the '60's. I also like vintage clothes, although most of the things I pick out to make are copies of clothes I actually wore in the
    '60's and '70's.
    I moved to Israel a few years ago and now enjoy sewing for my teenage daughter.

  4. I learned to knit after my gran died two years ago. Just remembering her tell me all about turning heels (sock knitting) while bombs were dropping (WWII Liverpool) made me want to make sure there are still people in the world who can make their own clothes out of sticks and wool.

    She used to go through photo albums with me, asking me if I liked a certain coat or dress, and when I invariably said yes, she would tell me she'd made it, what fabric she used, and how she made up the pattern since she couldn't find a decent one.

    I'm glad you've joined the crafting blog-o-sphere!

  5. Your post brought tears to my eyes. I've sewn and knit over the years. Last year my daughter and I took sewing lessons through our Adult Education classes here in Santa Barbara, CA. Well, the ThreadBanger's DIY site introduced me to the world of sewing and refashioning. I am so passionate about sewing, refashioning -- but very interested in learning the couture techniques. I look at people's clothing and imagine how just a slight adjustment here or there could make it even more attractive. I head off to bed with plans for the next day, while wondering what will show up on the many sewing blogs I follow. Not to mention which ones I will discover the next day. I approach my sewing projects with patience, and determination to learn and create a beautiful garment. I look forward to seeing more of your beautiful garments.