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"D" is for Dressmaker

I’m going to deviate from the Alphabytes
official wordlists today because there is a “D” word which sums up my most notable talent and one of my maddest passions. Dressmaking. I’m a seamstress, sometimes designer, and milliner by nights and weekends. During the workaday work hours, I’m a municipal phone-jockey, but on my own time, I operate in a more creative world wherein my efforts net a visible, tangible, wearable result.

I made my first dress when I was 7. It was a little, mint-green, polyester dress for my Barbie, inspired by images from an old Sally, Dick, & Jane book. Granted, because I was 7, it didn’t really look that good, but I made it, by myself, and it was recogniseable as a dress and it did largely fit my doll.

I got my first sewing box when I was 8, a woven hemp affair with a red satin lining, red naugahyde trim, and a wicker handle. The notions tray has since broken, but I still have the pincushion, the small but grown-up sewing shears, and some of the set of clumsy, oversized darning needles, selected for ease of use for clumsy, undersized childish fingers. Alas, the heart-shaped, retractible measuring tape has gone missing. I had it up until college, but apparently lost it in one of my many, many moves since then. My first little sewing basket is now a repository for buttons, which I buy on impulse when they are marked down cheap enough. I rarely have to buy buttons for my ad hoc sewing projects where I decide to make myself a “freebie” garment out of scrap fabric. I also like to buy those mayonnaise jars of loose buttons at thrift-shops and antique marts whenever I find them. I’m a button slut!

I kept on with my hobby of making clothes for my dolls throughout my childhood, and probably extended my doll-playing years a good two or three years. For as I progressed past the age of playing make-believe with my dolls, I did find them to be useful manniquins, and created sumptuous period costume and avant-garde creations simply to test my sewing skills and see my designs in three dimensional form.

Just about the time that I was once and for all outgrowing dolls, I started branching out into modifying my own clothes. Around the age of 14, I suddenly started receiving boons of secondhand clothing from aunts, from one of my mom’s friends, and from raiding my mom’s own old-clothes box. The main problem was that at age 14, I was a total shrimp, and so all of these wonderful, stylish, and above-all free clothes that I didn’t have to go to the mall to get fit me like a shar-pei’s hide. I learned the secret capacities of darts, adjusting seam allowances, and creative tucking and shirring, hidden elastic, and faking it like you’re making it.

I didn’t start sewing whole, new clothes for myself until college, and that only came about after volunteering in the theatre department’s costume shop for a while. I had a good general idea of garment construction, but had never worked with a sewing machine before that time. After sewing enough dresses for ladies-in-waiting for a production of “Once Upon a Mattress,” and a whole raft of stained shifts and ersatz straight-jackets for a production of Marat-Sade, I was advanced to working on gentlemen’s jackets and trousers for a Sheridan play, and had the fun and edifying opportunity to arrange the panniers on a few dresses and manufacture sets of “bum rolls” for most of the female cast. Let me tell you there is no opportunity on this earth like one that allows a person to construct an undergarment with the evocative name of “bum roll.” Giving people big butts for fun and profit! What could be better? Actually, inflicting codpeices upon actors offers slightly more satisfaction, especially if the actor is a pompous and self-aggrandizing one, and the codpiece is particularly protruding, ostentatious, and slightly cumbersome.

After a long enough period of making goofy clothing for other people to wear whilst portraying characters, I felt that it was high time to move into the arena of creating goofy clothes for myself, to wear whilst projecting whatever image I felt like for the day. I frequently don’t get dressed so much as play dress-up, like a little kid, so it is very much to my advantage to be able to make my own clothes that fit the kinds of moods I am usually in. Therefore a lot of my clothing is either kind of punky and rough around the edges, or else insane and silly as a Japanese pop song. Actually, I fairly frequently look to Japanese street fashion for inspirations as youth fashion in Japan tends to be pretty experimental, colorful, eclectic, and creative.

Now, of course making clothes for myself is fun. I get unique clothes that fit my particular figure and its peculiarities. My sewing skills have improved considerably since my apprentice costumer days, and I have the portfolio to prove it. Getting my own sewing machine, with which I could experiment at will, helped improve my skills exponentially. Not being afraid to mess up somebody else’s sewing-machine settings was a great motivator right there.

Most of my sewing work for other people since my theatre days has been in the form of wedding dresses and alterations. I’d love to get the opportunity to make more daywear and suits for people, and I’d be flat-out ecstatic if anyone ever commissioned a hat from me, but I enjoy the work that I do get. I just finished with a wedding dress; a simple affair which has a kind of early 1960s A-line feel to it, and was just sent back to its owner following some minor alterations. Doing fittings via airmail is more challenging than you might think. One of my current commission-fantasies is getting a request to do all of the dresses for a Big Production Number Catholic Wedding. A large, fluffy, meringue-type gown with a trailing, bustle-able train, a phalanx of bridesmaids, and a couple of little, sassy flower-girls to kit out. If I could pull down a couple of jobs like this, I could afford to finish the basement out and buy a used pickup for hauling lumber, mulch, etc.

To this end, I have every intention of advertising more next winter/spring before wedding season kicks off, and just promoting like a mad thing. Formal-wear is fun to do, and I think if I played it right, I could ultimately get a pretty steady stream of wedding/prom/quinceaneras/gala work, if I could just get established locally. Maybe someday I will be able to say I am a dressmaker in my regular workaday work hours, and something else funky as a part-time job. I hope so!

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