January 17, 2010

"Instead of Dying, I Learned to Sew"

This is the opening sentence of Gioia Diliberto's "The Collection" - an historical novel about a young seamstress' journey from provincial France to Coco Chanel's atelier and the world of
couture. Her
were her

This book, my good fortune to meet Isabel Toledo and hear her discuss her craft, reading Richard Sennett's, "The Craftsman", and hearing how Sophie Theallet describes her approach to her work have led me to consider my life as a SEAMSTRESS. I sew. I love to sew and construct and problem-solve and create - but, honestly, I don't think I'm much of a designer! Probably not where my karma lies. Maybe in my next life.

So now I am focused on these women who
I admire
, whose craft is making beautiful garments, and understanding how the seamstress lives within them.

All this leads me to May Asaki. I "met" May today - in the Washington Post obituaries (yes, I read them daily). May's story is compelling - just like Isabelle Varlet's in "The Collection", and Isabel Toledo's, and Sophie Theallat's - because she is seamstress who made a life sewing beautiful garments.
Here is May's story - sadly too late for us to get to know her

An excerpt:

"Much to her relief, however, she found herself rejected by the prospective groom [after her parents tried to arranged her marriage]. His family had concluded that the slight and cultured May Asaki would not make a suitable wife for a chicken farmer.

Her mother quietly arranged for her to move to Los Angeles to attend a fashion and dressmaking school. May Asaki had been sewing for most of her life and designed her first dress, for a younger sister, when she was 12. In high school, she made clothes for her teachers.

Decades later [following internments during WWII], her skills as a seamstress would launch her on a globetrotting career with some of the greatest ballet stars in the world...."


Toledo designs clothes that are structured, even architectural, and sometimes (as she says) "rather severe-a lot of black and strong shapes." She has always started with a shape, usually a circle or a curved line: a circle skirt, a curved bra, a flared apron overskirt, the sweeping arc of a coat. "I'm not a fashion designer," insists Toledo. "I'm a seamstress. I really love the technique of sewing more than anything else." She believes it is crucial to know fashion from the inside: through cutting, draping, pattern making, and sewing. Among the designers she admires are women like Madeleine Vionnet and Madame Gres, who also worked in three dimensions rather than from a flat sketch. Toledo sees definite advantages in being a woman designer, because they experience the way the clothing feels. Men, she believes, tend to be more "decorators of clothing."

Isabel Toledo on her love of sewing (1989):

"I really love the technique of sewing more than anything else…the seamstress is the one who knows fashion from the inside! That's the art form really, not fashion design, but the technique of how it's done."

On the inside of the clothes: It’s really important because when a woman takes off her dress you can see how beautiful the dresses are inside. I think it’s important to see the construction of clothes and make the finishings beautiful. The people who make them are really proud of their work. What we try to do is everything I learned in the studio of Mr. Alaïa. I really want to open a little shop with an atelier in the back with my two seamstresses whom I really respect because without them I cannot survive. They are so proud and I think it’s the team that’s very important.

Describing her style as “classical with French know how and polish,” Théallet’s designs are made in a little factory in New York...... Theallet’s seamstresses work like Parisian ones (read: flawless pleats, tiers, pin tucks notable for their finish). With two extremely well-reviewed collections behind her, Théallet remains obsessed with cut and fit. “Being a female designer, I know how some women don’t want to show their arms, others want to distract from their knees or like to accentuate their waist.”

So, I will spend 2010 searching out seamstresses - the famous and the-not-so. Who are your seamstress heroines and/or heroes??? Are you a seamstress or a designer?




julia said...

How interesting! I will be looking for the book!

Unknown said...

Great post, Laura! I've always thought of myself as a seamstress, but as of late have become more courageous and have been combining adjusting patterns to fit my vision. I don't sketch, and I don't know how to draft, but if I'm lucky can make something closely resemble the picture inside my head!

Meg said...

Definitely a seamstress here. Not like that's a bad thing.

ClaireOKC said...

What a fabulous post. Personally, I see so many sewists make "designer decisions" in all their sewing, that the very act of choosing fabric, pattern, fitting, and all the deicions in putting together the pattern....that's designing to me.

Today - who are my heroes/heroines - there are so many, but the one that comes to mind first is Kenneth King - he's stayed true to his style of creating beautiful things even when it wasn't trendy. And the other was my mentor - she is now gone, but I do not thread a needle that I don't think of her.

Gretchen the Household Deity said...

I am definitely a seamstress. I have knocked the very occasional item off, but I don't think I've ever actually designed anything from scratch. The technical abilities are enough for me!

Aminat said...

Wao what a great post... I am definately a seamstress, I find it dificult atimes to think in 3D, but I try to put 2D pieces together and imagine how they will look once made out... Thanks for sharing

The Fru-Gals said...

wish I were! Love you and your blog sooooo much!

I'm thinking about making some cute a-line skirts for my spring work wardrobe--I figure I can use a lot of ridiculous fabrics (sock monkey print?!!!) and wear with a nice white t-shirt and some decent flats.

what say you?