Posted on May 18, 2016
Stephanie Kwolek isn’t the first name that springs to mind when you think “famous seamstress.” But her scientific contributions have made more impact on our world that you might think–and it all started with a sewing machine.
Born in 1923, Stephanie Kwolek was the daughter of a scientist father and a seamstress mother. While her mother never sewed professionally, she did pass on a love of textiles and fashion to her daughter–in fact, Kwolek said at one point that her mother hoped she would pursue fashion as a career when she left high school. Kwolek was, in her own words, “a very creative child…I watched my mother sewing and making patterns. I imitated…what she did..I remember lying on the floor and drawing, making costumes for these paper dolls. [W]hen I was slightly older, then I made actual clothes from fabric.”
Kwolek’s mother passed on that most basic love of creativity, the satisfaction that comes from the finished product that springs from our own hands: “I used her sewing machine when she wasn’t around; it was fun, and it was creative, and it gave me a great deal of satisfaction.” Combined with her father’s love of botany and their shared garden, this exposure to sewing had a deep influence on Kwolek, as did her time in a one-room schoolhouse in her early years.
Kwolek’s academic skills earned her a scholarship to study biology, but she still thought that she’d end up a fashion designer. In an interview, she says that people in the scientific community seemed to respond positively to her work, and kept inviting her to present papers and research, and she was flattered and enjoyed the pursuit, so she continued. It wasn’t until later, when she’d finished her undergraduate degree and was considering going to medical school, that she began her career in chemistry in earnest.
She went to work for DuPont, despite the fact that she never anticipated spending her entire career with the company. She immediately began doing research in the lab where DuPont had created the world’s first synthetic fiber: nylon. Said Kwolek later, “Eventually the work became so interesting, and I had the opportunity to make discoveries, I made up my mind that I would stay with the work that I was doing, particularly since I found it very satisfying.”
As it happens, Stephanie Kwolek, this accidental scientist with a background in textiles, was assigned in 1965 to a DuPont team seeking a new fiber to replace steel wire, a task brought about by the looming gasoline shortage: lighter tires equals better fuel economy, and lighter tires require something other than steel wire. Kwolek and her team were working with extended-chain polymers, which are spun like cotton candy into fiber. The man working the spinneret, which took the liquified polymers and made them into strands, refused to work with the solution Kwolek produced at first, saying that her solution was too thin and cloudy to spin successfully, but in the end acquiesced–and soon learned that Kwolek had invented what would become known as Kevlar.
Kevlar, five times as strong as steel and vastly more lightweight, is best known for its use as body armor–highly valued by police, military and even journalists in war-torn areas around the world. It’s also used in hundreds of everyday items, from gloves to roads to, yes, tires.
Bulletproof vests work by layering Kevlar fibers, which work with a little give to “catch” the bullet and offer wearers 40% more protection over similar garments, such as helmets, made of steel. I love that Kwolek, who understood fabric and textiles, had a major hand in revolutionizing the way we think about the properties of fibers and what they are capable of doing. Kevlar today is used even in fiber optic cables, and so Kwolek’s work is accessible to us now through the internet–which travels along and in some places is made possible by those very cables. In fact, if you’ve ever completed the “rope trick” in a high school chemistry class, you’ve benefitted from Stephanie Kwolek’s contributions to science and sewing very directly.
I doubt that Stephanie Kwolek ever regretted not spending her career in the world of sewing. Her life story indicates that she thirsted for research and experimentation, and that she valued her ability to offer something lasting to others through her work–Kevlar has done that. I also doubt that without a background in sewing and textiles, her scientific experience would have led her to create what she did. Seems to me, after years of working with various fabrics and playing with shapes and weaves and weights and drapes, one becomes much more willing to trust the fiber and see potential where you might not otherwise. Kwolek didn’t listen to her lab colleague, who was sure her extended-polymer solution was too watery to spin into a useful fiber, or reject her own solution because it didn’t meet the expected parameters. She trusted her gut, and spun something revolutionary.
She may have only indirectly entered the fashion industry with the bulletproof vest, but she made a greater impact than any of the bullets Kevlar ever blocked. According to one source, with her discovery, Kwolek “challenged the concept of what material is capable of.” Kwolek said later in life, “I don’t think there’s anything like saving someone’s life to bring you satisfaction and happiness.” She is one of a very few women to be awarded the Perkin Medal, the National Medal of Technology, the DuPont Company’s Lavoisier Medal, and to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Here’s to Stephanie Kwolek, a Great Woman in Sewing.
Posted on May 9, 2016
And then one day you catch yourself thinking, “Well, sure. Of course I’m going to make my own underwear. I mean, why didn’t I think of that sooner??”
But let’s back up a bit.
I came to sewing as someone who makes clothing. I didn’t start out making quilts or bags or even really home decor. I thought sewing WAS making clothing, for a big chunk of my life. All the other stuff came later. But even as someone who came into sewing making clothing, it never occurred to me to make…ALL my clothing. ALL of it? Like, ALL all??
Over the past few years, I’ve been moving gradually away from making the majority of my garments from novelty prints, things that get worn once or twice but then hang in the closet, to trying to create a wardrobe of things that I really reach for and want to wear each day. First-choice garments, if you will. And I’ll be honest, it’s been hit-or-miss.
I get bogged down because I have Big Plans, but I have a hard time always executing them. Or I get all my patterns and fabrics and piles all organized, and suddenly the seasons turn and none of those garments have the instant gratification attached to them that makes me want to wear them RIGHT NOW. Or I’ll make the first thing in the pile and it will have THE most disastrous fit, and I’ll be completely derailed.
And then there’s the issue where I end up with piles of garments and not ONE SINGLE OUTFIT. Not one. And it’s so discouraging. Like, I spent all this time and effort and, let’s be honest, money–and I still have nothing to wear? I have three new dresses but not the right shoes, and one of them is too short because somehow my knees got old before I could finish sewing, and there are a couple cute tops but they don’t work with that skirt, and gag, I’ll just throw on jeans and a tee shirt and call it a day. Are you smelling what I’m stepping in?
Our family is going on an Epic Vacation this summer, and we’re all pretty excited. Because I am an unapologetic planner, I started putting together fabrics and thinking about ALL the new clothes I was going to sew, pretty early on. But I did something I haven’t really done before: I started by thinking about my PALETTE. Now, I’ve told people for years and years that they have a “secret palette,” the colors they turn to again and again whether they realize it or not, and I knew that I had certain colors that I love–turquoise, pomegranate, avocado–that occupy most of my sewing.
But–and this pains me to type or even to think out loud–I was never really deliberate about building around that. I mean, for reals?? I HAD MY COLORS DONE BACK WHEN IT WAS COOL, YOU GUYS, I SHOULD KNOW BETTER. (I’m a spring, by the way.) But I seriously never used that as a STARTING POINT? I sewed and sewed, but didn’t work intentionally toward building a wardrobe. For myself.
This giant epiphany wasn’t anything as organized or strategic as the Wardrobe Architect series that Christine has been working through using the guides created by Sarai over at Colette. You all know how I love a printable worksheet and a Master Plan, but this was much more organic than that–and maybe that’s what has made it stick so much with me. This was me thinking, “Hmmm…what if all the things I’m making WENT TOGETHER?” Kinda like a capsule wardrobe, but just for this one trip.
And so I pulled a few fabrics I’d been hoarding. And then I dug around the internet for some color swatches and printed out a few pages of “palette ideas.” And then I dig around my zillions of stashed fabrics–all yardages of two or more, because who loves a crazy lady?!?–and started making piles. And you know what I learned? THEY ALL ALREADY WENT TOGETHER. I just wasn’t sewing with them that way.
The other truly life-changing (or at least habit-changing, boat-rocking) thing that has deeply affected me this year has been the League of Adventurous Dressmakers. Working through the topics we’re covering each month has been inspiring, mostly because I really feel like we’re all in the same boat together: we all want to make better clothing. Boom. No more, no less. And so I’ve been making more things for myself, and have been asking more questions than I ever have previously: WHY doesn’t this work on me? WHERE can I change this garment to make it perfect? WHAT constitutes a really, really good fit at the shoulder or at the bust? HOW can I work my handmade clothing even more deeply into my wardrobe?
Suddenly I was printing out PDF patterns I’d forgotten I had and making obsessive, exhaustive lists of garments to sew. This was right around the time that my husband and I did our bi-annual Major Closet Purge, and I started asking myself all these OTHER questions, too: do I really NEED all these new clothes? What “spot” are they taking in my existing wardrobe? Do I wear these things that I already have, and just because I paid a lot for it, is that a reason to keep it when I know I don’t wear it? Those tee shirts that are quitters, should they really even be able to sell those for five dollars? AND WHY DO THESE UNDERWEAR RIDE UP SO MUCH?
And so what happened was that I got rid of about 35% of my existing wardrobe, because I’ve been working through some issues of my own greed. And instead of replacing those garments at a store, I’m planning out–strategically, intentionally, deliberately–garments to replace them. And as I plan those garments, I’m carefully taking my measurements and making muslins, sometimes two or three or even four, to make certain that I get the right fit, so that the new garments last a really, really long time. And I’m avoiding duplicates, because I can have fewer and wear each piece more often, to get more wear out of each one by combining the elements in different ways. And I’m working with a highly defined palette–because I realized when I pulled all those fabrics for my “vacation wardrobe” that I could make SIXTY-FOUR different garments without buying a single yard of fabric, and ALL of it was already within that palette (and also, I realized why I never ever wore some of the garments that I tossed, because duh, they didn’t work with anything else I owned).
SO much thinking–so much thinking I THOUGHT I was thinking, but that I couldn’t have been thinking, or it wouldn’t seem like such a revelation. You do all that kind of thinking, and then suddenly you find yourself on the shores of that last remaining dresser drawer: socks and underwear. And I’m already knitting, so why not socks? And I have all these tiny scraps of jersey and interlock left over from making tee shirts, so why not underwear THAT DON’T RIDE UP?
And that, my dear friends, is how making your own clothes becomes the most natural thing in the world. Not by being the best seamstress. Not by being the busiest or having the biggest stash or by spending the most time sewing. Making your own clothes becomes natural to each of us when we have that AHA! moment, when we realize WHAT we want to build and begin to seek out the HOW of beginning to build it. Never mind that I made my very first garment (cough) over seventeen years ago. It’s never too late for an epiphany that can change your whole closet, one hanger at a time.
Posted on April 14, 2016
I finished my first sweater and cast on stitches for a second sweater. I know! Not only that, but this second one is TO GIVE AWAY.
So the standard is a little higher. I really, really want this second sweater to be gift-worthy. When I made the Agnes Sweater, I flew to Pasadena and knitted most of the body along the way. I was juuuuust about ready to knit the sleeves on the flight home, and didn’t know how to use double-point needles. I asked Jaime of Fancy Tiger at a knitting-and-coffee session she hosted, and she said she NEVER uses double points since the learned the Magic Loop.
Posted on March 28, 2016
For nearly ten years, I have used and strongly endorsed Rowenta irons. They’re heavy, which is a good thing when you’re sewing and seeking to press rather than iron. They have a steel sole plate, which heats quickly and evenly for good results on the fabric. And they have a solid steam function that really shoots steam into your projects.
But in the past two or three years, Rowenta has really been leaving me cold, if you’ll pardon the pun. The issue: leaks. Oh, the LEAKS!! I have absolutely had it with my leaking iron. That water is HOT, y’all, so not only is it splashing and sputtering all over my project when it’s on the ironing board, but it’s dropping on my feet and scalding me. My feet! Unacceptable.
So a couple weeks ago, I’d finally had enough and decided to put the suggestions I’ve received to the test. Instead of getting another Rowenta to replace my leaky iron, or even another brand of iron, I upgraded to the gravity feed iron, in hopes that I’d never have to carry a pitcher of water from my kitchen to refill my reservoir ever again.
Today, then, in the ring: the Rowenta versus the Gravity Feed Iron.
Posted on March 23, 2016
Posted on March 15, 2016
I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. The earliest school memories I have celebrated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March from Selma, and the Civil Rights movement in a very personal and immediate way. We drove past the sites of these historic events on a daily basis, and it was an ever-present part of my childhood–both the vestiges of racial tension and the legacy of the changes in our social fabric wrought by Civil Rights leaders short decades before I was born.
Posted on March 14, 2016
When you think of the word “seamstress,” what image springs to mind?
When you think of the phrase “famous seamstress,” whose image pops into your head?
Would you be surprised to learn that there are far more famous seamstresses than you may realize? And that a lot of them are not only household names, but have changed the world for the better throughout history?
About a year ago, just for kicks, I did a search to see how many famous seamstresses I could discover, and it was delightfully productive. I love the word seamstress, and I love the legacy that these women have left behind with their needles. They’ve influenced civil rights, women’s rights, worker’s rights. They’ve impacted religious freedoms, fashion trends and workplace laws. They’ve labored for soldiers overseas, for students in classrooms around the world, and as artists making statements about their time.
I want to share these women with you. I want to research and treasure their stories, and be inspired by their vision, their influence, their achievements and their passion. Starting tomorrow, semi-weekly posts here on the blog will point you toward women who have made a difference with their needle. I hope you’ll follow along–and share in the comments names you’d like to see featured so I’m sure not to miss anyone!
Posted on February 29, 2016
It’s only February, and I’m deeply immersed in the League of Adventurous Dressmakers. I feel so inspired and motivated and excited about the garments I have in my queue. Part of what slows me down, looking back on past years and the to-sew lists that never get completed, is that I love the planning stages of a sewing project, but don’t always feel accountable–everyone who reads and comments on my blog is super encouraging (loving you guys!), but you’re so supportive and understanding that when a project stalls, there’s no real pressure to pick it back up. With the League, knowing that there are folks who are excited and asking questions and posting photos and watching to see what comes next really gets me sitting down at my needle.
Posted on February 17, 2016
On the first night of Intro to Sewing class, a young woman walked in with a brand-new sewing machine still in the original box and set it on the classroom table. This was certainly not the first time that a student had arrived with their first sewing machine to their first sewing class, by any stretch–on a regular basis, someone would come to class direct from the checkout line at the big box store and set their shiny purchase in front of their chair. Invariably, their faces wore a look of embarrassment, as if they should have had more experience sewing before coming to class.
Posted on February 15, 2016
Were you hoping to join the League of Adventurous Dressmakers this year? Today could be your lucky day! Over on Sew, Mama, Sew you can enter to win THE ENTIRE YEAR of League membership for free! There are very few entries at the moment, and your odds are so, so good. Hop on over and add yourself to the list of hopefuls!
For everyone who doesn’t win, you’ll also find a discount code to get one month FREE when you join the League.
Can’t wait to see what you’ll make this year!