Sunday, August 28, 2011

Putting yourself in another's shoes

Me to my son (age 6): "I wouldn't do that if I were you." My son to me: "if you were me, you'd like what I like, and do what I do"

One of the great challenges when it comes to dressmaking, is understanding that the client's vision isn't necessarily your vision, and what they like, isn't necessarily what you like. There are jobs that should be turned down for this reason. How do you learn that?

The hard way.


Sometimes a client will ask you to create something that you are excited about, and can see clearly in your head. Then, when you create it, the client is disappointed, or says that it isn't what she wanted/expected. Doesn't matter how good you are at your craft, this will happen.

So what do you do? You change it. You listen in a little closer. You figure out a solution that is fair to you both. You try to pull in any lesson(s) you can from the experience. Then... you move on!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Careful creativity

(Originally written 11/15/05)

Tonight, FIVE plus years later, I am turning this same shirt, which still looks brand new (belongs to my husband) into a short-sleeved version. Amazing how long something well-made can last...

I know now, more than ever, that everything, no matter how small, is worth doing well. We all prioritize, and make choices in life, but each time I go to the Met I am reminded that many, many people have created truly beautiful works of art, knowing that they may never be recognized for them. In the Asian art section, there are these tiny, intricate carvings, so detailed and beautiful. That is why I concentrate on a pocket, a cuff, an idea for hours, days, weeks - I am into my second year of a quilt project. And if it is worth it to no one but me, that has to be enough.

Pictured above: the "casual" french cuff - my own invention. Like a permanently upturned cuff with a button and loop closure. The collar of the shirt I just finished - casual and crisp.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Tumble out of bed and stumble to the kitchen;
pour myself a cup of ambition,
and yawn, and stretch, and try to come to life...

-Dolly Parton, Nine to Five song lyrics

Originally posted 9/28/08, and still true (except for the coffee part... I now have maybe 3 cups a week...?)

I've done it. I actually plugged in, and started using... the coffee maker! A few months without regular doses of coffee, and I've been craving it. As much as I like to keep my counter tops clutter-free, I think this is a necessary contraption right now.

A nine-to-five life sounds like a dream vacation right now... But, the danger is, my workaholic personality would get me so tangled us in my life as a cog, that if I actually had a 9-to-5 (which is a rare schedule in New York City anyway), it would rapidly expand to 9-to-9 somehow, and the rest of the REAL stuff -- connecting, quality time with the kids, conversation, creativity, and other important details of life could whiz past in a blur as my spinning wheel accelerates.

On a rare outing about two weeks ago, with two women I really respect and admire, I found myself listening to their conversation about how stupid and pointless blogging is. "Who reads them, anyway?" they asked. (Guess they forgot... or I forgot to mention... I have one????) Rather than defend it, I just listened, and thought to myself, "Anyone who wants to read something specific, real, not necessarily motivated by the desire to sell you something, or push some agenda... Don't you ever long to read or participate in, appreciate, live vicariously, or just be a fly on the wall for, some one else's life?"

Okay, maybe the blogosphere isn't interesting to EVERYONE. I fully accept that. But it clearly isn't a waste of time, either.

I am a faithful reader of the blog. The writing is so beautiful, I recently decided that there was probably some very astute marketing whiz with a talented team of writers and photographers creating the posts. But, whoa, Hannah has come out of the shadows, and if things are as she claims, this wonderful blog is the work of one exceptionally talented 19 year-old. I love spending time inside her creative brain every few days. Mind you, I've chosen an extreme example of greatness here... but it seems people who dismiss the blogging world don't know what they're missing.

But alas, I'm preaching to the choir, I guess!

Above, my daughter, and my GRAND (or is it "Great"?)niece and nephew. Yes, really!!!

In the weeks since my grandmother's death, I have come to realize a few things... It is only natural to want to slingshot past the accomplishments of my parents. I have been working hard and long at having more, doing more, blogging more and being more, in an endless attempt to build the perfect mom/wife/entrepreneur resume. And why? I have to learn to appreciate that we already have more than enough, and that everything else is just gravy.

My parents did the best they could, considering the opportunities they had. And they did a phenomenal job of that, too. Good gracious -- my own parents couldn't even choose which water fountain to drink from. My Mom-in-law just recently mentioned that the water fountains for "Colored" people in the North Carolina town of her childhood contained warm water. Imagine a hot day in the summer, stopping to quench your thirst with dirty, warm water from that fountain. The water in the "Whites Only" fountains was clean and cold. When my own mother was a child in Cincinnati, she could go to the local pool only on a specifically designated day of the week, after which, the pool would be promptly drained and cleaned, so that it would be suitable for use by White people again the next day. My own grandmother grew up in a town in North Carolina where she was a member of the only Black family living there. The town had a lynching tree.... Can you imagine? A lynching tree? In a town where there are only about seven people who are candidates to be hung there? Can you imagine the pressure?

Wow, when I look at our lives now, I am just AMAZED at how different my children's opportunities and experiences are. Ambition is good, and improvement is always good, but keeping it in perspective adds an attitude of gratitude to the people who, despite daily assaults on their self-esteem, sought to place their hopes and dreams in their children, raise them in an environment full of love and respect, and not harbor any ill-will towards those who treated them like second-class citizens. What a journey that must have been!

Maybe I've come to this realization later than most people do. But it gives a new meaning to a quilt made with pieces of a grandmother's house dress, a grandfather's work shirt, a baby's receiving blanket... It gives a new meaning to the recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation, the home remedies that got you back to work/school sooner, the dimples, hair color, or the gap-tooth smiles that characterize a whole line of descendants... It all matters. Much more that I realized.

I will not lament the absence of a 9-to-5. While I don't have an inbox filled with papers needing signatures and projects to complete, my inbox is full of lessons to pass on, children to raise and nurture, and a lot more to learn.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

On being American

Sometimes you need to go somewhere else just to find out how American you are...

In 1991, I spent a year abroad in Paris. So odd to have an internship for an oil company in that wonderfully diverse city, and to be looked at with such curiosity whenever I spoke. (long story on how I ended up working for an oil company, since I went there with a fashion goal) For some reason I will never be able to understand or explain, although French is not my first language, when I hear it spoken, I understand almost as clearly as when someone speaks to me in English. When writing, I make spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, but when I speak, for some reason, I sound like it is my mother tongue, with an odd accent that people do not identify as American. I have never been to the Antilles, but that is usually where people guess that I am from when I speak. People tell me that I speak in a way that is poetic, because my word choices are unusually descriptive. because I learned via the Dartmouth Method, I don't speak "translated English"; I have learned to get a feel for the language, and make ample use of inflection and idiomatic expressions to get my point across. It is tiring, though, and I certainly have less t say when having conversations in French, because it takes a lot of work!

In Paris, I first tried to live like an American... I sought out Oreo cookies ($6 a box! In 1991!) and tried to eat meals at odd hours... and it was expensive and stressful. When I adapted to French life, I realized that it was far more budget friendly to live like the locals, taking lunch at noon, having a small dinner, having small pastry and fruit for breakfast, going for walks after dinner... lost 12 lbs almost immediately!

Despite everything wonderful about Paris, I missed home in a way that could never rival the way I feel about Paris. I never knew how American I am until I went there.

When it came to clothing, I loved their philosophy. Great quality. Few items. I wish we Americans could do more of that! To this day, I would rather have just a few great pieces than a closet stuffed to the brim with poor quality stuff. And when you look at cost-per-wear, the cheap modern clothing is more expensive than ever! How did we all fall into this trap?

So I am creating some of the magical pieces for myself that I've been dreaming of forever, as soon as I get some more current projects off my plate. It has been a tough road this summer, fighting energy and mojo to get things done. I'm refueling to regain some speed and efficiency in the Fall!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


I often find myself in interesting situations, among people who are foreign to me, and I think "Wow, what a diverse group!" So many times in my life, I haven't noticed that I brought the diversity... that I was the "exotic" in the group.

I remember going with my Dad to my grandmother's Baptist church on that visit to Hot-As-Heck, North Carolina so many years ago, where everyone inside was just so warm and loving, and all of the black people united under one roof, singing the longest renditions of "Amazing Grace" and "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" I had ever heard. In that place were warm smiles, deep hugs, beautiful hats and fancy dresses. "Where did all of these people live?" I wondered. They were absent on the streets, in the stores and neighborhoods we'd seen.

Now, as an older person, I see that all of these people had gotten used to the rules of the town, the patterns and schedules of their neighbors, and the rhythms of these long, long, long songs. I felt I fit in there, but I was very much a "big city girl" to them, and my family made that particular service "diverse", in their eyes.

And diversity isn't always welcome. I'd like to think that everyone wants to inspect and explore other people's surroundings and customs, get to know what makes them "tick", see what things they have in common... not necessarily. Sometimes, it is "Welcome. When are 'ya headed back?" And that has to be okay.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Small Doses

My son was diagnosed with Autism in 2007, and he has since made really ASTOUNDING progress. Some will argue that he may have been misdiagnosed. I disagree. I think we just buckled down and did the work, 27 hours a day, 10 days a week, round-the-clock therapies and carry-over got us to where we are today, with the 6-year old WONDER of a kid we now are so blessed to have in our lives.

Case in point: We live in a busy, bustling NYC environment. There was a time when a fire truck whizzing by used to send our son into a full-on, wild tantrum, from which he found it nearly impossible to climb out, and self-soothe into a peaceful state for at least 1/2 hour or more. I heard about this "Bounce" (Spectrum Connections) set of DVDs, requested them from the library, watched them WITH my son, and WE developed a new plan for these events. When the loud noise would send him into a frenzy, he would say "Break!", and throw up one hand like a stop sign, entitling him to a tight hug for as long as he needed, until he could regain his composure. I didn't care how crazy it looked, frozen in a hug on the street until he was calm again, because I could feel his racing heart gradually slow down, and he was able to tell me when he was ready to resume our activity. Over time, his need for this decreased, and even now, approximately 2 years later, a loud siren will happen, he will look over at me, whispher "Break", and smile, knowing he no longer needs the hug. If I stop and feel his heartbeat, it still races, but he has learned to cope, and now accepts that it will pass.

He is extremely energetic and highly distractible. Despite his highly ADHD behavior, we fought to get him into a regular school for kindergarten in a co-teaching situation (some disabled kids, some not), and he has thrived! His teacher is truly impressed with his progress, and despite her not being allowed to suggest that we medicate him, shared a story of medicating her own ADHD child in an "FYI" (wink, wink) sorta way. She explained that tiny doses could be prescribed to start, and we could gradually find what could work for him, to get him relaxed enough to participate calmly with the other children in a more predictable way. I got it. No, we didn't medicate him. By the end of the school year, he understood what was expected of him, and had achieved his/our/her goals. Beautifully.

The process has been like eating an elephant. Making wedding dresses was great preparation for raising my son... No, really... It was!

If I were to try to make "a wedding dress", I could get trapped in the size of the project, and the work, staring at the dressform, wasting hours, fearing failure, the magnitude of the garment's importance, the pressure of the deadline, and end up procrastinating. Just horrible. This is why I have to think, "Pattern, cut, muslin, fit, fix, cut, sew insides, sew outsides, zipper, buttons, hem..." Small doses gets it done.

I make lists. If I can check each item down a list as I go, it becomes doable, and remains enjoyable! Nothing feels better than to complete a gown for a happy bride.

Thursday, August 04, 2011


The best thing about hand made items, is that they are only meant for one person. A personalized label, a little "secret" snap or closure, and embroidered date and initials on a the inside hem of a wedding or christening gown...

If you've been following my blog so far, you know that my grandmother was born in a middle-of-nowhere town in North Carolina in 1913. This was a time when birth certificates for "negroes" weren't really considered important. As far as our government was concerned, she wasn't important. She was raised to become a wife and mother, and practiced the standard domestic duties reluctantly. If you ask my Dad's closest relatives, she married a saint of a man, but would occasionally disappear for days at a time, leaving her kids and husband to fend for themselves, return drunk, ruin things, crash cars... just a "hot mess" in general.

When we had to write an obituary for the local newspaper, I needed some details to put together, so I went on a search. My Dad had died 6 years before she did, and her siblings didn't have much to add, so I knew there was a mystery to solve. My mom directed me to a box she kept beneath the bed.

"I don't have the time to go through this myself," she said, "but, just in case you come across it, I've gotta warn you that you might find something in there that needs explaining."

I had no idea what she meant. I searched through the box, found some facts, but nothing controversial. When I told my Mom this, she sat me down to tell me what she knew about my grandmother.

"You didn't find a letter in there?" She asked.
"Nope. Is this something I even wanna know?" I wondered.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Best-kept-secrets (NYC fabric stores)

I am so glad so many people have found and love this post! If, after reading this post, you crave more recent info, stop over at my current blog,!

NOTE: YOu will NEED more current info than this!  This post is more than three years old!

I am updating this post, because my stats tell me this is the most popular entry on my blog these days, and much of the info is outdated.  As of 11/19/11, see the most recent update to this post here.

This post was originally inspired by Cindy, of Wall Street by Day... who wondered whether it was worth venturing out of Manhattan to go to some of the fabric stores in Queens.

Update: Now that info is seriously outdated. I would no longer recommend going to Queens to fabric shop (EVER), but I would recommend a trip to Westbury, Long Island for home decorating fabrics. The Joann Fabric store there has a really stellar selection. I can only assume the reason is the beautiful homes nearby.

Okay, on the subject of New York City fabic stores, I can tell you that I am an absolute connoisseur. Depends on what you are looking for, but New York City is positively bursting with fabric stores. I have been fabric shopping in this city since my obsession began, when I was 12 years old (no kidding). That makes 24 (now 28) years experience. I can tell you that there are just too many stores to count... Due to the changing real estate market in the garment district (sky-high rents leading to lease terminations), some of my very favorite stores have long since disappeared, and have been replaced by porn shops, food chain restaurants, and electronics businesses. But many gems remain...

First off, I assume everyone knows about Mood and B&J Fabrics, because of all the publicity they get on the popular sewing/design shows, right? Okay, done with that.

None of these reviews have been solicited. It is simply my true opinion. These stores are mostly within walking distance of one another. For the best experience, go on a weekday, not a Saturday, and know that in the garment district, when buying yardage, prices are almost always negotiable.

My all-time favorite has long been Rosen and Chadick on (40th Street and 7th Ave). They have moved from their old location, but the new location has a very bright and efficient layout. They sell better fabric, so it isn't cheap. This isn't a store you go to with a "list" of things to find. Just let it unfold. The staff is amazing. When you go, tell them "Mimi" told you about the store. I've spent so much time in that store, they know my kids, too! When you exit the elevator on the 2nd floor, they have a beautiful selection of printed cottons resting neatly in the front windows. They really know how to choose the exciting prints. They also have a great selection of suitings, woolens, silks, linens and shirtings. Just a great assortment of stuff.

The most amazing recent find I've seen there, is a gorgeous ruffled organza fabric. Imagine a wide ruffled trim, applied in parallel strips to a fine netting. White AND Black. The time that can save when making a big, ruffled ball skirt... man! Truly hard to find. Run your hands over some cashmere while you're in there, too, and you won't be able to sleep until you buy some. Some really inspiring and amazing fabrics reside there.

Paron on West 40th between 7th and 8th always has some yummy fabrics, and the designer names they are associated with. Only thing, go with money to spend, because when it's gone, it's gone! You're not gonna find it there again later. For that reason, they aren't really keen on swatching. It is a waste of their time, so just buy it if you like it. Otherwise, just admire!

Another favorite is New York Elegant Fabrics (no website - 222 W 40th St
between 7th and 8th Aves). They have EVERYTHING. I'm not kidding. Do not skip the second floor, which has some really to-die-for unusual stuff for home dec and coats. Again, not inexpensive, but just a great experience. Walk in - go to the middle of the store, look to your left... then to your right. Catch your breath. Lean against the bolts if you need to. Fabric heaven. You can tell Tony that Mimi sent you.

For leathers and suedes, you MUST go to Leather, Suede, Skins on 35th Street (11th Floor). Again, not inexpensive, but they have the greatest, to-die-for pieces, as well as trims and bindings you won't find anywhere else.

I made this baguette using fabric I found there.

I cant say enough about Manhattan Wardrobe Supply (245 W. 29th Street between 7th & 8th Avenue). They have all the solutions for your bustline, every kind of elastic or thread you could ever want, and lots of other useful stuff. Great website, too!

Update: Pretty sure this next store is gone now...

Written in Dec '07:
Assuming it's still there (I haven't been in about 2 years), It's a Material World on 39th Street between 7th and 8th, has a HUUUUGE selection, and very low prices. The atmosphere is more like a fabric jungle than a store, both upstairs and downstairs. If you've ever seen "Goodfellas", you may rememeber the scene when DeNiro points out the location for Lorraine Bracco to go get the clothes from some "connection" in a dark alleyway? Well, the interior of this store feels like that!

Something has happened to my beloved Daytona Braids and Trims (251 West 39th Street). While still a great store, they have reduced their inventory significantly, and the shopping atmosphere doesn't feel as fun. But they are stil a great resource for trims and notions. I'm currently the Mayor on Foursquare, but that can be easily snatched away...

You can't miss M&J, for every button, zipper and trim you can imagine, but then, who doesn't know about that one?

SIL has the best zippers. EVER. I wish I had known about them sooner. Coulda saved me a lot of heartache. The zippers are expensive, but you can find ANY zipper in almost ANY color you'd need in there. The invisible zippers are amazingly strong, and great quality.

Jonathan Embroidery will do your buttonholes or many other services for you. They have the world's worst website, but don't let that dissuade you.

Steinlauf and Stoler is for the serious sewer. When you need serious equipment, many choices for interfacings, closures, bra cups, swim cups, shoulder pads, dress forms, hams, clappers, labels, muslins in a variety of weights, get your scissors sharpened, buy patternmaking paper... a million things. Go there.

The bookstore at Fashion Institute of Technology for every quality sewing publication you could possibly need, every tool you could want, and a great art supply selection. No, you don't need to be a student to shop there.

Kashi (at Metro Textiles 265 West 37th Street Suite 908), goes without saying, right? Inexpensive and fun!

Greenberg & Hammer is another favorite for notions, tools and supplies.

Pacific Trimming on 38th Street btwn 7th and 8th has a WORLD of trims, notions and fun stuff. Things you never thought of. It will blow your mind. Not to mention they were playing Prince music (loudly) on my last visit there. What could beat that?

Spandex House is no joke. If you are making a swimsuit, or need any kind of stretch fabric for ANY purpose, they are likely to have it! They have some great prints!

I made this swimsuit cover-up with fabric I found there... among a million other swimsuits, stretch pieces and beach cover-ups!

And... if you're hungry while shopping... I can absolutely tell you where to eat and rest your tootsies!

Ben's Deli, Simply Pasta, Lazzara's Pizza (great pizza, has a really strong "garmento" vibe), Veronica's (now gone- 2011), or the quiet Andrew's Coffee Shop (now gone - 2011).

This post is incomplete, but I'm outta words!