Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sleepless in Kyoto

I sit at a strange Japanese keyboard at five in the morning. Other than my frustrating tendency to wake up at four each day, the trip so far has been amazing and totally fulfilled my dreams. (I did forget to bring my camera cable, so you'll have to wait for pictures.)

Tokyo, where we spent our first three days, is truly a great city. The energy is astounding, and there is absolutely everything there that you could ever imagine. The people seem incredibly chic and well groomed, and styles indeed range from Goth Lolita to traditional kimonos to Parisienne elegance.

We took a fantastic bike tour (Tokyo Cycle Tours) that led us all over the city. Our charming guides (Masa, a travel journalist, and Yuchiko, who also works in the travel industry) led us through the fish market, shrines, the Imperial Palace, out to the futuristic new dockside area, the Tokyo tower, and all kinds of surprising places in between. Even though it was my first time on a bike since my accident last August, I managed to keep up and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

We stayed in the Dai Ichi Annex, which I booked online and got a great bargain for the most luxurious hotel I think I have ever stayed in. I have enjoyed the amazing variety of toilets, everything from the traditional squat model to the ones with every direction of sprays and musical accompaniment you could imagine. People are indeed polite and helpful, and with the help of a translation book, we have even been able to communicate. I have the not-so-sneaking suspicion that we are regarded as horrifyingly coarse, unkempt and huge foreigners, (no one wants to sit next to us on the Metro) but Japanese manners go a long way!

We met up with our friend Jean-Pierre on the second night and he took us out to Harajuku and the Meiji shrine the next day. Then we got in the shikansen bullet train to Kyoto, had a glorious view of Mount Fuji on the way and arrived just as the sun was setting. Today JP and I will go to the temple market hunting for old kimono, and geta for my dear friend Gretchen.

Wish you could all be here!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Working With Vintage Cloth

I have been working with vintage cloth pretty much exclusively for quite a while now. (And at the rate my stash is growing, even the new cloth will be vintage by the time I get to it.) I still have a bit of a thing for Alexander Henry patterns, and contemporary Japanese prints, but I'm trying to limit acquisitions to old cloth.

Jude Hill has some particularly evocative writing about old cloth.
I thought I would share some of the things I've learned - working with delicate, worn fabric possesses some different challenges.

1. Launder with care. Old cloth may come to you with stains or musty odors. First, check for the strength of the fabric. Run your fingers over it, gently pull at any suspiciously worn spots. If it feels like it's going to give way, it doesn't mean the cloth isn't usable, but it will need special care. I give thin, tender or delicate fabrics a soak in a basin with Orvus paste ( I get a big jar from a veterinary supply shop) suds, rinse with a minimum of handling, and roll it in a towel before drying flat.

Cloth that seems strong just goes in the washer and dryer - if it's going to fall apart, I might as well know - then I will proceed to step 2.

Cotton loses its strength over time, especially in dry conditions. It will give way first along creases and folds, which is why it's recommended that quilts be refolded a different way each time. This is also why it's good to check the spools of thread you inherited from Great-Aunt Margie before using them to sew - otherwise you might be frustrated with the thread breaking on you too often.

2. Reinforce. When I have a piece that is very shabby but I still want to use, I might back it with new cloth. I prefer cotton batiste or muslin - any thin, firm cloth will do. If I'm not concern about archival quality, I might (horrors) use Heat'n'Bond or fusible web to fuse the layers. If it's something I think I might sell (and I do have a few things in museum collections) I will use tiny handstitches to tack the fabrics together.

3. Emphasize the signs of age. I love to highlight a piece of cloth that has been mended. It feels like a way of honouring the care that someone before me took, and I believe mended cloth has the power to speak. it might tell of thrift, or poverty, or love. Just as the lines on our faces reflect our experience, so do the signs of wear on cloth.

Alternatively, you might want to:
4. Embellish or cover up the flaws. Holes and stains can be embroidered or appliqued over. Sometimes top dyeing can even out or enrich discolouration.

5. Know your fibres. Fabrics age in different ways. Cotton, as mentioned, tends to weaken and break along folds, whereas silk just rots - the whole fabric can go. Wool and other protein fibres, especially angora, are susceptible to moths and felting. Along with knowledge of the nature of different fibres goes:

6. Appropriate care. Light, heat and moisture are the biggest enemies of cloth. Think of how window curtains will fade and even fall apart on the side of the fold that is exposed to light, while the side facing in will be okay. Protect finished pieces if you want them to last - rotate the quilt collection, hang embroideries away from direct light.

And enjoy the character and imperfections. Appreciate the enduring nature of cloth. Become sensitive to the organic life force of cloth.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Book Review/Rave: Madeleine Vionnet

This gorgeous, expensive book by Betty Kirke is an eye-filling, brain-expanding delight. Madeleine Vionnet was one of the most innovative, influential designers of the 20th C. Known mainly for her flowing bias cuts, she ran her own haute couture house in Paris, invented ready-to wear, had progressive and fair compensation and benefits for her employees, and dressed everyone from royalty to avant garde artists. She was anti-fashion, always striving for complete, timeless unity between the body and the fabric. Many of her designs from the 20's and 30's could be worn today without a hint of vintage fustiness.

The really amazing thing about this book, and what makes it worth every penny, is that patterns for over 30 designs are included. They are astonishing in their complexity and mathematical sophistication. Vionnet worked by draping a 80 cm "doll" sized mannequin, and had assistants scale up the toiles to a client's measurements.

I completely adore this beaded, embroidered chiffon dress, and would love to try making something similar.

The book reveals the many, many details that go into the making of a couture gown, for example this hand embroidered silk chiffon fabric. I was struck by descriptions of techniques that are so time-consuming, and require such skill, that it would be surprising if anyone living today would still be capable of matching them. Vionnet herself worked within the industry from the time she was 11 1/2 and it took her 20 years to open her own atelier.

Here is Vionnet at age 78. If I look half as bright and chic when I'm that age, I'll be happy!

Telling a Quilt's Story

While I was showing people the quilt in the previous post, it was fun to point out the various fabrics and tell how I found them. My husband said it would be a shame to have the quilt go out into the world and lose the stories that went into it, so I thought I would take a snippet of each fabric and put them into a little book.

I used the coptic binding method, covering book boards with fabric, making signatures from a nice recycled letterweight paper, and stitching it all together.

A sample page or two.

This is a variation on the family quilt where one can point to a certain fabric and say, that was from a dress of Aunt Margie's, or that was a skirt my mom made me when I was a kid. I'll send this book off with the quilt - it should be a fun little extra.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Quilts and Coffee

I realize that I haven't posted anything that I've made for a while. Part of that is due to travel, part due to my recent "takeover" of the coffee bar in the studio building I work in, and part due to a giant quilt project I've had on the go. So here's my cat Angus checking out the new quilt, which is made completely from reused materials, including clothing I found on the street during last summer's garbage strike.

The coffee bar has been fueling the creative energy of the building for the last 12 years, serving coffee, sandwiches and snacks. My studio is adjacent to the coffee bar, and while I've been sewing away, I've heard the voices of my fellow artists as they chatted with Sylvia, the proprietor. When Sylvia decided to retire just before Christmas, she offered the business to me, and I happily accepted. It's a small shop, with the usual slow stretches during the day when I can still work on my own stuff. But it also gives me the chance to contribute to the community of 1000 Parker. The painters, furniture makers and sculptors who share the space are interesting folks, and I love to hear of their successes with their work. Two of the artists have turned their studios into galleries, and it will be interesting to see if the building becomes more of a public space, rather than a primarily work space.

And I've been busy behind the scenes at Swap-O-Rama-Rama. Looks like I will be involved in SORR's in Seattle, San Francisco and Austin, as well as producing my fourth one in Vancouver. A busy year ahead!

I'll be off on my trip to Japan on the 20th. I'm feeling that it's crazy to go off on an expensive trip at this point - my mother even advised me to forfeit my non-refundable ticket. But my friend Jacquie, who went on a similar trip last year, says it will be absolutely worth it. Debt be damned, Japan is my dream destination!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

On My Soapbox...The Sequel

And now that I think about it, blogging is certainly in the grand old tradition of carrying your wooden crate down to the town square, standing on it, and taking a chance on whether people will listen to what you have to say.

I have been thinking a lot about the comment issue, and appreciate the perspectives that have been offered me by my dear readers. As well, the discussion has helped me remember why I started this blog in the first place, and made me more aware of how I respond to other people's blogs.

I know a couple of people who don't accept comments on their postings, mainly because of extremely nasty, threatening comments they have received. And, going back to the Yarn Harlot, good things can be achieved by the community developed by a popular blog - Stephanie raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Doctors Without Borders (Medicins Sans Frontiers).

I began this blog mostly because I like to make things, and I like to show what I've made to my friends and family, and a blog seemed like an elegant format to reach a number of people. I like to write, and take pictures, and Blogger makes it easy to put them together. But I have been very gratified to find that people from all over the world have stopped by to visit, and I have made connections with so many lovely people that I can truly say that blogging has enriched my life.

I also know that I have people who read and never leave a comment. I only find out about them when I run into them in person, and they say "Oh, I haven't phoned because I read your blog." I find this very funny and still love them anyway! Time is a big factor, I know - it's the main reason I leave comments when I do. Often I'll read a post and just be in a rush and not leave a comment. And when I do have the time I usually say something, trying to be honest and genuine (and because I'm Canadian, polite.) I have also developed the bad habit of leaving messages for people that should probably be in an email, but that time thing squeezes me into a double duty comment.

And there's more to say, I'm sure, but that's enough from me.

Going off on a completely different path, I am lucky to have several people in my life who are born in February and I have been thinking about them a lot these days. Happy Birthday to my brother Rob, the handsome, brilliant and fabulous engineer and volleyball player; Helene, the wise, brave and beautiful artist; Shauna, so talented, funny and true; Arden, the nephew I barely know; and Reid, whose voice I will always hear in my heart.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

On My Soapbox...

I see there's quite a shitstorm of discussion going on over at the Yarn Harlot. Apparently someone left a comment about the socks Stephanie was knitting, calling them "fugly". Stephanie was slightly miffed, pointing out that her blog was like her living room, and it would be rude for a guest in her home to say "Gee, that's an ugly couch", so why do visitors to her blog feel they can say whatever they like?

Well, at the risk of putting my foot into it, welcome to the world, girls. When I first encountered the sublime realm of knitting blogs, I was quite put off by all the mutual adoration going on. Everyone seemed so nice, freakishly so. Of course it's great to hear total strangers say "You're brilliant", but when that's ALL you ever hear? Just not realistic. People have all kinds of different tastes and abilities and that's what makes life interesting.

Given all that, I still like the Yarn Harlot, mostly because Stephanie is a compelling writer, with a Leacock Award-worthy gift for humour. (Stephen Leacock was a very funny Canadian. There is a yearly award given in his honour.) But the fawning that goes on in the comments section! It's a bit scary. The Harlot has a huge, well-deserved readership. It would be normal for there to be some difference of opinion. But now I see it - step out of line, get a little loose with the "fugly", and it will be noticed. I feel great sympathy for the poor reader who dared to differ - she was swiftly and universally shat upon by, at last count, over 550 commenters.

Compare that to the comments typically received by another of my favourite bloggers, No Impact Man. Colin regularly gets nasty comments, sometimes quite personal. But he doesn't get hundreds of comments from people leaping to his defence. Why? Not only can he defend himself quite well, the topic of discussion is at a different magnitude, and correspondingly passionate. How to reduce one's environmental footprint to save the planet invites debate. Whether or not it is worth one's time to knit grape leaves on socks is apparently sacred.

Now, I have been following the progress of the socks in question, and while I can see that the design is ingenious and the challenge for many an accomplished knitter quite irresistible, I wouldn't make these socks myself. Why? There are not my style, not to my taste, just not my thing - in other words, I THINK THEY'RE UGLY AS SIN! They are, as my mother would say, galoptious, meaning overly decorated. I would say they have lost their integrity, and their relationship to function. But go ahead and make as many as you like - have fun - (and the most sacrilegious thing I will say tonight) it's only knitting!

Don't get me wrong - I love knitting, and I believe it brings good to the world, in many ways. I have done my share of waxing metaphoric about the divine structure of knitting. But I also believe knitting, as a form and practise, is tough, and can withstand critical thought. I'd love to see more lively, gritty discussion about knitting - now that so many knitters have developed the skills and techniques to tackle complex projects, there are a multitude of paths that can be explored.

And if that's leaving myself open to comments from people who disagree, fine!