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Monday, June 18, 2012

Part 2: Retro Polka Dots, Why I Don't Love Lucy

In my last blog post, I wrote about my recently sewn polka dot tee shirt. I’m a brand new convert when it comes to these retro-style spots, but I also knew there was some vaguely uncomfortable memory, that I associated them with. When I put on my new sleeveless tee, with it’s draped neckline,  I really liked what I saw in the mirror. The wisps of what I disliked were the the shades of a far-from-favorite old television show, in those vibrant polka dots.

Though I’ve come to love that tee shirt, what I still don’t love is the I Love Lucy television show, because Lucille Ball's portrayal of Lucy Ricardo was no role model for a budding, mid-twentieth century, feminist kid. In my modern-woman household, those polka dots represented some pretty old ideas of woman's place in our society. And they were ideas we were still fighting through in the sixties. In my mind, those old-style feminine behavior patterns were linked with images of the ubiquitous polka-dot dresses* that Lucy wore on the show.

I’m the first to admit there are things to admire about the television and movie comedienne whose career in film, television, stage and radio spanned a period of over forty years. No pawn for the film moguls, Lucille Ball was a hard-working woman, driven to succeed on her own terms. For those of you gals who weren’t around in the fifties and sixties, I can tell you that wasn’t an absolutely stellar time to stand up for yourself if you were born female.

Lucy made the most of her unusual looks. Instead of fitting into a standard style, she created her own. Her personal-style sense back then, is an example for us sewists who are always working to create fashions that make the most of what we were born with.

Besides that she was the first obviously pregnant woman on television. Before that, maternity was considered not very nice. Children were great, but the evidence of where they came from, and the affects of gestation on the body of a stylish woman, were something that weren't on display on the box.

My problem with the show is Lucy Ricardo's relationship with her husband. As a television star, Ms. Ball was in the role-model business, and the model of married womanhood that she represented was one that made irrational, dependent, subterfuge looked cute. Lucy, as the center point of the show, was always doing something silly because, apparently, she didn’t have any wits. The show made it clear that husbands really adored a lack of brain in their women. Cute, huh? 

Almost as cute as the fact that Lucy needed to wheedle money out of her man whenever she went beyond the financial parameters he laid out. Another great life lesson for the sixties-era female, particularly those like more than a few of the adult women in my extended family and town, who were married to somebody who were physically or emotional controlling. 

There’s also nothing cute about fooling your spouse to get what you want (instead of discussing important issues and finding ways to compromise on the priorities for a joint partnership) Pretty much every episode played up this amusing angle.

So what does Lucy’s story leave me with?  

Just fashion.

The women I see around me these days have come far enough from the dependent, ditsy, second class role that we saw on the screen back then, that we can begin to have a little fun with Lucy's style.

Nowadays, when I think of Lucille Ball, I'm just going to see spots - polka dotted spots that is. 

And I’m not the only one. In an article in “Flaunt” (“A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE POLKA DOT), Jake Levy says that a polka-dot dress was a staple wardrobe item in the “I Love Lucy” show. I would go so far as to say that Lucy was the Queen of polka-dots.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Part 1: Retro Inspires Sewing with Polka Dots

Associating Them with Skin Problems,
LR Shimer's Never Been A Fan of Polka Dots Before
Until She Picked Out the Wrong Fabric and Decided it  was So Right
A couple of months back, I was searching for a tee shirt knit with a print of white pin dots on a black background. I was so happy to find my black with white dotted cotton interlock material at Fabric.com, that I didn’t think to check the online sample image that showed the size of my dots. So I was disappointed when my order showed up, to realize that my pin dots were polka dots. I also wasn’t crazy about the fabrics hand, that tactile response we sewists get to the heft and feel of our yard goods.

How is a pin dot different than a polka dot? For me, the individual spots in a pin dot print are about the size of the head of the basic little flat, metal pins I use for marrying a couple of yards of cotton to it’s tissue paper pattern. The tiny points on a piece of stiff dotted swiss are about the right size. (Does anybody sew with dotted swiss these days? When I was a child, that was a real glamour material.)

On the other hand, I would say that a polka dot is a bigger spot. Anything the size of the rubber eraser on the back of a yellow number 2 pencil and beyond, qualifies as a polka dot in my book.

And what I had ended up with were four yards of polka dots, a print I wasn’t at all fond of, because they reminded me of the story about moucheron, the tiny patches that historical ladies like Marie Antoinette and her court wore as a fashion statement, a practice that originated in times even before those stylish gals came along, as a way to cover pimples. (Talk about making lemonade when you’re handed a lemon!)

Polka dots also reminded me of some of some aspect of my childhood I didn’t like, but couldn’t really identify. I just didn’t like them. What's the story there?

The material’s price had been right, why not use some of it to make a test garment out of my new McCalls pattern, M6078?  I fashioned view B, a sleeveless tee with stitched front pleats, neck drape and shaped sides.  That test garment changed my entire attitude about polka dots. When I put on my new tee shirt I felt suddenly glamorous and pulled together. The shirt cried out for some earrings that mirrored the dot shapes and a string of pearls. I have twice worn my pearls with the tee shirt to parties, but for my usual walks and school work they stay at home in my jewelry box and I just pop on some dropped, jiggly multi-pearl earrings that echo the shapes on my tee. The top goes with my black capri jeans and my straight legged black pants. It would go great with a slim-fitting black skirt if I possessed one (or indeed ever wore skirts) . 

Despite the fact that I intend to make a new version of the tee with some of the remaining fabric, (see Planned Alterations* below ) my polka-dotted tee shirt has really worked out for me. It's become what sewists with a plan call a '... go to wardrobe item'. And oddly enough the fabric's hand feels fine to me now. I've gotten used to the slightly stiff fabric that doesn’t stretch unexpectedly over time, like some of my other knits. It also seems to breathe just fine on a warm day. It’s not what I was used to but I’ve grown to like the feel of it and the way it works.

But what was the story from my childhood that affected my attitude about polka dots? More on that in my next blog piece, Why I Don’t Love Lucy

* Planned Alterations

I like this tee so much, I'm going to sew up a new and improved version from my remaining fabric. Next time:

• I will definitely not use a white fold over elastic to cover the armhole edge. I plan to try a self-fabric band using the same techniques as I use for self-fabric tee neckline bands. I learned how to do this from Lori (of Sew Forth Now fame). Here is her tutorial for neckbands. I sew it out of a slightly stretched cross-grain strip and I always, always baste these first, and test it folded down with pins in place, as every knit stretches differently. 

• I'm going to add 1 -2 inches to the torso length because I'm long waisted.

• I'm going to cut a deeper (higher) self-lining part on the top of the front piece. The entire front is one piece and the top part falls back and lines the drape. But the drape wasn't quite long enough to hide a glimpse of the wrong side of the fabric at the neckline. I added a strip of selvage and it could still use a bit more inner lining. I will probably add another 1-2 inches to that curve.

• I will add more to the sides and make it a tiny bit less fitted. I have a rectangular figure (I don't go in much at the waist or out much at the hips) and the shaping on this top fakes a waistline. More curvaceous ladies wouldn't need to do that.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Caps Off: Chewing a Bun with Tuppence

Laurel (L.R.) Shimer wearing her new cap
Inspired by a time travel jaunt back to visit with Tuppence
Using a pattern in the book, One Yard Wonders (first book)
My all-time favorite Agatha Christie book is the first Tommy and Tuppence story, The Secret Adversary.* So you can just imagine my pleasure when I had a chance to travel back through time recently to chew a bun with that romantic young girl. It was, of course, shortly after the war (WWI that is) and Tuppence was still pretty down on her luck. I mean, you could tell by the hole in her stockings, the one she had darned a good few times. Still, the plucky girl filled me in on some big plans she's been making with her old chum, Tommy Beresford. Golly, I hope something comes of them.

In case you're wondering, my time portal was an old blue willow tea cup that belonged to my grandmother. You've heard of reading tea leaves I'm sure. I've found that reading them through grandpa's old magnifying glass, provided exactly the second necessary ingredient to assist me in heading back to the time just after what was then referred to as the Great War.

When I popped-off back home I remembered that I'd been particularly struck by Tuppence's rakish close-fitting cloche hat. Those of you who've followed her other adventures, as penned by Mrs. Christie, probably recall that Tuppence was extremely partial to hats. I'm not a slavish follower of historical fashion, preferring to take my inspiration from styles of the times I visit, and apply them to my modern life style. However a good hat  is as important to me as the next plucky dame. As a regular hiker and walker I always need something to keep the sun out of my eyes and protect my skin. I found the pattern for the low-browed, cloche style cap I used, in the first One Yard Wonders book (my public library has both the first and second volume) and it worked like a charm. I particularly liked the fact that the author directed me in the techniques for measuring my head and indicated how much to add for those of us who tend to tuck up our hair. As a hiker, that's particularly important. I have quite a large head and can never find hats that fit, except for adjustable baseball-style caps. They can usually be made to fit, but they don't offer a great deal of protection. This one does. I think I've worn it every single day since I first finished it, about two months ago.

Bare Bones Basics: I made the cap in a simple 100% cotten denim with a faint etched print of roses. The pattern indicated that I should form the band out of  three strips (lined with 3 more strips). After sewing two strips together the cap was plenty long enough. Maybe that's because I made the top of the cap good and wide. I used a total of 4 strips outside and in. The main circle/top of the hat is also self-fabric lined. I hand-stiched the circle on top to the bands. I used Peltex interfacing for the brim, which is also self-fabric lined/backed. The project didn't take a great deal of time, though I spent some careful time double checking my measurements and calculations when I first planned the project.

All I can say is that I love it and it works great. I plan to make another soon.

* Though I'm also quite partial to other Tommy and Tuppence books, my second favorite Christie is her autobiography.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

1001 Nights: Scheherazade's Peacock Purse

Scherazade's Purse Sewn by L.R. Shimer
Hot Patterns Vintage HotPatterns Hangbag Heaven Nairobi Handbag
Iman Home Fabrics, Punjab Peacock Radicchio
Do you laugh when people ask you... "But where do you get your ideas?" Ideas are not our problem, are they? I know that my head is tumbling full of them, and I bet yours is too. It's completing the projects inspired by these thousand and one ideas that's the challenge!

Our sewing stories are like the thousand and one stories that Scherazade told her husband. There's always another one waiting to be imagined. Still, I thought it would be fun, perhaps for the sake of the people who don't think the way many of us do*, to think about where the inspiration for each of my sewing stories comes from.

Do you recall that it was Scherazade's own idea to be married to the shahryar who was infamous for having already married and beheaded a 1001 wives? To my mind the man sounds like a power-mad brute, but Scherazade saw him as a challenge. She believed that he was just one crazy, mixed-up dude who, having been betrayed by one woman, had gone mad by love. Her plan was to keep him entertained by telling him story after story. Of course she told him that the stories were for her little sister, Dinazade. As the light of morning broke after a dramatic story filled night, Scherazade always managed to leave her most recent story hanging. Her version of story-telling therapy worked. After a thousand and one stories, the shahryar was cured. The couple went on to a happy life together.

Who'd a thunk it? Well, I guess marriage is always a chancy business.

I can fit four dvd boxes to go back to the library in my bag. I like to envision Scherazade, perhaps with help from Dinazade, packing her toothbrush and nightie in a bag much like mine, when she went off to take her chances on marriage. When I walk off to the library, or downtown to buy a box of bandaids, with my Scherazade-inspired purse hanging over my shoulder, the beautiful Rimsky-Korsakov symphony runs through my head. You can listen to it here.

Sewing Details:

I finished creating Scheherazade's peacock purse last week. Bare Bones: It's made using a "Vintage HotPatterns Hangbag Heaven Nairobi Handbag" pattern. The material is designed by Iman Home Fabrics and is called "Punjab Peacock Radicchio". ( Updated Note - That fabric doesn't seem to be available anymore, but I found a very pretty print that is, the NY Fashion Center one shown above) I'm not sure if I managed to cut it out of the half a yard the pattern suggests, because I had bought two half yard pieces. I sewed a simple tote for my daughter out of some of it. Also I wanted to have a lot of peacock eyes nicely displayed so I'm sure I used more fabric than I normally would, laying out the pattern pieces just so.

I also quilted, in the ditch, along the seam lines, using scraps of some type of cotton heirloom quilt type batting that I happened to have on time. It gives it a nice shape and heft. The lining is a jade green poly/satin I recycled from an old bridesmaid dress I found for free. Instead of the pocket included in the pattern, I cut off a small poofy sleeve from the dress and stitched it down inside. The sleeve had elastic at top and bottom. It works great as an inner pocket.

*Hey some of us are network/web thinkers and others are more focused and linear, right?