Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Mad Hatter Sewing Party

The Sweat Shop Paris closed. In 2012. It's 2014. How did I miss this? Because I don't live in Paris? Maybe. Because I haven't been there since 2005 and didn't have any plans of going? Most likely. But I had distant plans! Just so I could go to 13 Rue Lucien Sampaix in the 10th Arrondissement and visit that sewing cafe. A sewing cafe. Like a cyber cafe, but with sewing machines to rent instead of computers. And with coffee! And pastries. Add creative people making pom-pom sweaters or whatever crazy thing, and that's magic

I found out about The Sweat Shop in 2011. Browsing the stacks of the sewing/art section at my neighborhood library, I found a book that looked like this. A crazy collage of colors, snacks, fabrics and thread. A mad hatter sewing party. I had just moved to a new city, didn't know anyone and was sewing out of my closet. I was wishing for a community of creative types to share a space and ideas. The Sweat Shop was that. I remember telling my friend Mark that it was just what I wanted to be a part of someday, an open collective space that gave people the opportunity to create and discuss their ideas. A workshop and a living room. Like a book club, but with both minds and hands involved. 

In 2011 I returned the book to the library and forgot about it. I was starting to get costume design jobs and was focusing my energy there. Soon after, the library closed for renovation. It was an underground building, no windows. A great looking place from the outside (the book return shoot was a metal playground slide) but not the best place to be in for a long time. Last month it finally reopened, with three walls of all windows. I went to the grand opening just to browse and take in the beauty of the sun on hundreds of books. 

As I was browsing I suddenly remembered the sweatshop book! Somehow being in the space made me remember and by some trick of the mind/nieve hopefulness,  I thought it might still be there, hidden in the craft/arts section. I didn't even remember the title. 

Of course it wasn't there. But thanks to google and genius search words "french sewing cafe paris book," it came up! God I love the internet! My brain is too small and Google is too good. I reserved it, and in a week it was mine. 

It was just like I remember, but this time my circumstances were different. I wasn't reading it in my closet studio, I was in my sewing studio, on my huge sewing table. I had achieved half of what I wished for in 2011. I had a beautiful place to sew, I even drank tea and coffee there sometimes. I could actually realize a lot of the projects in the book. The part I didn't have, and still don't, is the community. A community of makers, creative partners that want to drink coffee and and make stuff. And talk about making stuff. And celebrate making stuff.  Like Adam Savage, like Nick Offerman, like The Panty Seattle, like A Beautiful Mess. I want people and I want learning! So I turn to the internet. That thing that is too good, and sometimes gives me exactly what I am looking for. 

Hey you, come talk and make things. 

Monday, June 2, 2014


I am a costume designer. For my job, I try to understand other people through the what they choose to put on in the morning. A plain white t-shirt or a flannel button down. A dark, wool pencil skirt or a pastel stripped cotton skirt. Which? And why? These are the questions I ask myself when I’m designing. A lot of other questions go in and out of my head and I want to capture them. I want to share them. Because I’ve not found very many conversations on this, and I want to know too.

In two weeks I am going to start working on two shows for the summer, Next to Normal, and the other, a musical revue of the 30s and 40s. I hope to share my process of these shows here.

Now, since I’m in between shows, I am working on this:

 This is a series of removable collars made with bias cut strips. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Personal Project: Simple Wood Shelf

Moving reminds me how much stuff I have.

I go back and forth believing I’m the type of person that needs only the amount of things I can fit in a backpack, to insisting that I keep all of my high school notebooks and collection of tiny trinkets.  Believing one day, my future child will want to read through each one. I have to save them, for my future child’s sake.

My attitude on the subject has been a constant back and fourth, but recently I’ve been accepting more than rejecting. Especially when it comes to clothes. I make the excuse that I’m a costume designer and I need to keep things for stock. What if I need it for a show, right? And even more recently, when it comes to household items, because I am moving into a place alone, I need things.

Even though this push and pull hasn’t gotten any easier, I’ve found a happy medium of sorts. Making things myself.

Handmade things are like school notebooks because they tell a specific story about your life when you made it. So sentimentality, check. Also, if I plan it right, I can also make something useful that I do need in my apartment.

Happily, this was the result of the beautiful, simple, shelf Ben and I made last weekend. On the sentimentality side: we designed it together, we did it together and he taught me how to use a table saw and a miter saw.  A fast spinning blade right next to my hand is not something I’ll forget! On the practical side: where I once had no shelving in my kitchen, I now have a one-of-a-kind shelf to store my dry ingredients, unused syrup containers and various other kitchen necessities. Win-win, I do believe.

In the time when you can buy anything for your apartment from Ikea and anything you need to dress yourself from Forever 21, making something handmade gives me meaning in a world of meaningless, inexpensive things. That’s why people are making craft beer for their friends and table runners fro their wedding. Because of the story. Because you can say, I made that and when I made that, this crazy thing happened. Stories are the currency of life, right? But when you make things you have the thing and the story. Another win-win.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Current (Problem Solving) Project: Flower Girl Dress

This past week I was asked to make a custom flower girl dress for a summer wedding. The bride wanted a simple design for her four-year-old cousin. We decided on a sleeveless, knee length dress with a simple collar.

However, there was a bit of a problem. The wedding and the flower girl were both out-of-state, so there would be no fittings.  The bride told me she was a size 4T and asked me to go from there.  When I found out my wheels started turning as to how I was going to make a dress, from scratch, without a body!

Well, here’s how it went:

First, I borrowed an old dress from my niece, who is growing out of her 4T dresses. I used that as a base for the pattern.  Then, after a few prototypes (two skirts and two bodices) I decided on the pattern. Figuring out how to make sure the dress fit was the biggest challenge, but I do love a challenge! Here was my solution: Elastic and knots.

It wasn’t all me, I consulted my mother, who is of the generation that knows everything about sewing, but never sews. I had already decided on the elastic for the waist, but couldn’t figure out how to make sure the top fit and that she could get it over her head. And of course, the answer was the simplest, which is always the hardest to find, ties at the shoulder.

I simply added three inches to each shoulder seam and there it was, an even more adorable version of the original dress.

I just gave it over to the bride, who is getting married next week. I hope all goes well and maybe I’ll even get a picture. Fingers crossed. -Alice

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Exploring A New Medium: Painting

I’ve wanted to try painting for a while. I recently read a book called Chasing Matisse, where an American writer goes to France to visit the places that Matisse lived and painted, while at the same time, the writer is learning to paint. He talks about both Matisse’s ideas on painting and his own ideas on learning to paint. I’ve always wanted to paint too, but didn’t because hadn’t taken a class. Reading about this man who didn’t think of himself as a painter, but tried anyway, inspired me to finally try it as well.

For my first painting, I didn’t paint flowers like Matisse, I painted the info graphic below. It is hard for me to go from craft (making something useful) to full art (beautiful, but not useful), so I started where I was comfortable. I also used materials I was more comfortable with and that were more easily available to me. Instead of using canvas, I used wood as a base and craft paint as the medium. Both were inexpensive, which is a plus when you’re experimenting!

In the end, I was very happy with the finished product and excited by the new medium. The act of painting, holding a brush in my hand, was meditative, like sewing or woodworking. But with painting, you have a different control and have to make different decisions. It challenged both my mind and hand. It was difficult and I made a lot of mistakes, but now when I look on my wall, I feel proud and excited because the biggest hurdle is trying the first time.  -Alice

Monday, May 27, 2013

Personal Project: “What’s in Season?” Painted Info Board

It’s finally farmer’s market time! It’s been an extra long winter in Minnesota (it’s still cold), so knowing that I can buy fresh produce means a lot for my mental health. I love going to the farmer’s market and picking out produce fresh from the ground, but being of the generation that traditionally sees produce in the grocery store more often than in the ground, I, like most people, don’t know when certain things are in season.

I’ve always been interested, but could never find the information all in one place. So when I found a flyer with the information together, I decided to make it into a big graphic piece that I could hang on the wall.

The finished product hangs on the wall in my kitchen. I love being able to look at it and plan my meal off what is in season. I also use it to know what is going out of season, so I can be sure to eat it while I still can! It’s both useful and beautiful. It inspires me to make more like it. Got any ideas? -Alice

Saturday, May 18, 2013

How to Deal with Making Mistakes

When you try to make something new (or make something at all) making mistakes is part of the process. It took me a long time to understand this. I would always beat myself up for it or not want to try something new for fear of doing it wrong or messing it up. I finally had to hear it said outright to make it stick in my mind—making mistakes is part of making, everyone does it, just accept it, learn from it and keep going.

Once this finally got through my head, and I started adding in the ‘mistake time’ to my projects, I worked better and learned more than I had before. I also got braver with trying new projects or techniques, because I wasn’t as scared of making mistakes anymore. It was a freeing experience, and vital to keeping me going and continue working.  Here are some tips to keep in mind that will help you deal with mistakes:

1.     Don’t beat yourself up- Mistakes are part of the process. Everyone does it. If you don’t then you are not learning as much as someone who does make mistake. Which brings me to number two..
2.     Learn from it- Figuring out how and why you made that mistake and then problem solving how to fix it is as important as the process of building whatever you are building.
3.     Buy extra materials.- For each project you do, especially when you are doing something you have never done, you should buy extra materials. So if you need 1 yard of fabric, buy two or if you need three 2x4s, buy four. If you don’t use them, you will have them for your next project. If and when you make a mistake, you will be so happy you don’t have to go back to the store!

I’ve seen this carrying over in other parts of my life. When making a mistake is just an opportunity to learn, it doesn’t seem as difficult or horrible. The more you make, the easier it gets. So start now! :) -Alice