Sewing Lessons by Ellen Haynes
Last spring, as the weather was warming up in New York City and I was retiring my wool coats for the season, I felt the familiar mixture of hope and dread. My hope arrived with the weather for wearing beautiful dresses. The dread was knowing the agonizing process of finding a dress that actually fit. I, like most women, was not born with the proportions of a clothes hanger. According to the sizing logarithms of clothing manufacturers, there is anywhere from a two to six size difference between my upper and lower halves. Off the rack dresses that fit my hips, balloon at my torso, and the ones that fit on top squeeze across my lower half like they’re auditioning for a Mariah Carey video. While I’m in awe of women who can pull off the bo-ho- chic shapeless dresses, it’s just not my style. Alterations on styles I like tend to cost as much as the dress itself. Yet, every year, like the blooms on the trees, hope would return that I would find a dress that suited me.
When my quest found me in an Ann Taylor dressing room surrounded in a sea of dresses in four different sizes each, I gave up. I’d had it with feeling like I was disproportionately assembled. In my anger, I realized that it wasn’t me that didn’t fit the dresses—the dresses didn’t fit me. There’s a saying in German, when kids at the dinner table are hunched over their food, that the king doesn’t go to the spoon to eat his soup. The spoon goes to the king. The principle applied here too. No more trying to fit to the dress. The dress must be made to fit me.
I didn’t need an Ann Taylor dress, I needed an “Ellen Tailored” dress.
So began my adventures in rediscovering my love of sewing. Reaching past the winter coats now in the back of my closet, I pulled out and dusted off my Kenmore sewing machine. I googled “sewing dresses” and was floored by all the resources that appeared. My first encounter with sewing was nearly two decades ago, in the pre-internet era. My mother spent hours teaching me when I was a little girl growing up in Miami. A close circle of my childhood friends learned from their mothers too, and we’d wear our home-made sundresses to school and admire one another’s creations. Clicking through the google search results, I discovered there is a whole online sewing circle of people sharing their tips and creations.
In a creative frenzy, I downloaded a free dress pattern off the BurdaStyle website, Elaine May’s “Coffee Date Dress”, printed it on 8 1⁄2 x 11 paper and taped the pieces together. I cut the pattern to match my measurements and pulled out the two yards of navy cotton brocade I’d found in a fabric store downtown. I felt the excitement of creating something beautiful. As I pinned, cut and stitched the fabric together, I remembered my mom’s instructions and guidance—phrases I hadn’t heard in years came back to me: right sides facing, seam allowance, press darts.
My navy blue dress, spread out in pieces on the hardwood floor of my apartment, was coming together. I missed my mom’s helpful hands as I tested the fit, and twisted in the mirror to place pins in the hem in the back. Thankful that I’d at least gone to one yoga class that month and was able to twist just far enough to place the pins, I plowed ahead. Along the way I improvised a number of alterations to suit my taste. I placed the zipper at the side instead of the back, added a sleek lining and created a waistband. Nearly finished, with a shock I realized I had skipped an early step of sewing the shoulder seams together. There was no going back without un-doing many other seams, so with a few snips of the scissor and a number of creative hand stitches (this dress would be one-of-a-kind in more ways than one) I made it work. After a few nights of sewing, the dress was complete and I was overjoyed! I reached out to the online sewing circle and posted pictures of my creation. Several cyber-compliments later, it felt like I was back in the company of my girlhood friends. Wearing the dress, I felt the satisfaction of a made-just-for-me fit.
With visions of a wardrobe filled with custom dresses, I daydreamed about my next project. Would it be a breezy sundress? A form hugging sheath? A flirty cocktail dress? With spring in full bloom, I found inspiration all over the streets of Manhattan. Seeing a businessman’s pinstripe suit, I imagined the fabric transformed into a sleek, belted, just above knee-length number. The umbrella on a baby carriage brought up visions of a vintage yellow picnic dress. A young man’s messenger bag painted the picture of a one-shouldered sexy- yet-structured dress. After several weeks of swimming in a sea of inspiration, I realized I was caught in what Barry Schwartz would call the “paradox of choice”. Since the possibilities seemed endless, I didn’t know where to start. How to narrow it down? I realized that the frustration of not finding a store-bought dress that fit was a replaced with a new challenge. How to choose the next step in the face of endless creative paths?
Finally, after weeks had gone by without starting a second dress, I sat myself down to make choices in two categories: fabric and color. I picked cotton broadcloth and pink. With those stakes in the ground, I grew bolder and decided to draft my own pattern. It would be a strapless A-line dress. Now I could get to work. The pattern drafting was fun, even though I often felt I had no idea what I was doing. Laughing at myself, I wrapped my torso in butcher paper and made folds and cuts to fit my shape. With that framework in place, I began to cut the fabric and stitch it together. The process was precarious. Unlike my experience with the coffee date dress, where I saw it coming together, this cotton pink dress seemed on the brink of disaster at every turn. The top was saved from shapelessness by improvising four more darts, but was nearly ruined when the zipper didn’t line up properly.
After many further twists and turns the dress was finished. It fit me to a “T”. But I felt no thrill wearing it for the first time on a walk in Central Park. My heart sank. I didn’t like the dress. The flimsy cotton clung with each step. The fact that it was light pink made it seem even flimsier. The zipper pinched at my armpit, and how did I not know that strapless is not a good look for me? Returning home in my awful pink dress, I looked to the online sewing circle for comfort. Relief came in the form of a definition. A “wadder”... a project you “wad” up into a ball and throw away. I wasn’t alone in my failed attempt. It was part of the process.
I took off the dress and felt the temptation to use the fabric for another project. What if I cut it up and stitched the pieces into a quilt? Never mind that I didn’t know how to make a quilt, I could learn. I bet you- tube’s filled with how-to’s. I felt a whole swirl of possibilities welling up. I could make little satchels, pillowcases, or travel toiletry cases. I could do this, I could that, I could this... Another of my mom’s German sayings came to my rescue. “Du kannst auch ein Knopf auf die Backe nähen”. “You could also sew a button on your cheek”. Grateful to see the absurdity of being bewildered by many options, I chose the option that fit me best. I tossed the “wadder” and got the task of picking a fabric and color for my next dress.
“But out of limitations comes creativity.” -Debbie Allen
To find out more about Ellen, please visit:
www.imdb.com/name/nm2946758 and www.facebook.com/ellenursula
Please note that not all experiences, beliefs and ideas are shared by each member of the “The New Hollywood.” We are a group of shepherds, not sheep.