Great Women in Sewing: The Seamstresses of Manzanar

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I taught tenth grade for a long time.  Part of the curriculum for that level in the state of Georgia is to cover the Holocaust, a tough topic no matter where you live.  Here in the South, discussion of any type of racial or cultural discrimination inevitably leads to discussion of the legacy human slavery has left in our backyards.  As Oprah pointed out in an interview with Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz and author of Night, we don’t compare our pain, and the heartbreak of the concentration camps can’t be held against the heartbreak of African slavery in the 19th century, but they both beg the question, according to Wiesel, “What is there in evil that becomes so seductive to some people?”

Heavy stuff for a sewing blog, I know, but I promise that I’ll bring it all back around.

When I was teaching this topic, I used materials provided for free by the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose mission is to combat hate, intolerance and discrimination through education and litigation.  They not only include primary documents related to the Holocaust and to the Civil Rights movement in the American South, but also the Japanese internment camps in the United States during the second World War.

The who in the what?  I had no idea what that was.  Japanese internment?  Like, concentration camps?  IN AMERICA?


Yes.  In America.  And this year during spring break, my husband and my children and I visited the most famous of them: Manzanar.

You may not think you’ve heard of Manzanar, but you have.  If you watched the original Karate Kid, you saw Miyagi mourning the death of his wife and son–the telegram tells him they died at Manzanar.  If you loved the original Star Trek, you are familiar with Lieutenant Sulu, played by George Takei--who spent a part of his childhood living at Rohwer, another camp similar to Manzanar.  If you’re younger, in the past fifteen years you may have read a young adult novel called Farewell to Manzanar, about the experiences of children living there.


It’s a hard story to tell.  Fearful that Japanese living in America would feel greater allegiance to the Emperor of Japan than to their adopted nation, the United States government made the decision to centralize Japanese-American citizens in camps like Manzanar for their protection.  The argument was that they were a security risk, and so the entire West Coast was made off-limits for anyone with Japanese ancestry, including both issei (those who were born in Japan and emigrated to the US, and who may or may not have obtained citizenship) and the nissei (those of Japanese ancestry who were born in the US, and were by definition all American citizens).


The area of California set aside for Manzanar, west of Death Valley but east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, is breathtakingly beautiful.  The mountains rise 6000+ feet above the valley floor, and the wind whips the snow from their peaks with a constant, tugging power.  The wind, the wind, the wind there never, ever dies.  It is an all-encompassing presence at Manzanar, as real as the buildings and the sandy soil that gets into every crack.  This is desert country, with desolate stretches that seem devoid of all life.  It is not a hospitable place to live.

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At the time of the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, approximately 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry were living in the United States.  In a nation already rife with racial prejudice, the Japanese community found itself under concerted efforts to isolate and eradicate them.  Although many were born on US soil and fully citizens, processes were put in place to move all Japanese Americans away from the “military areas,” in this case defined as those parts of the country closest to Japan and thus at greatest risk from spies and Japanese on US soil loyal to the Emperor.  This included the entire west coast, from Southern California to Washington state.

In February 1942, with the US fully at war with Japan, Franklin D Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, and while it was not specifically worded with this intent, it authorized the removal of all individuals of Japanese ancestry, both immigrants and born citizens, away from Military Areas and to neutral territories–mostly to the central United States.  The camp at Manzanar was one of these evacuation areas.  Called internment areas or relocation centers, they were for all intents and purposes concentration camps for American citizens, on American soil.

IMG_2058It is a breathtaking place.  The air whips around you, the mountains tower over you, and the desert sand flies ahead of you as you walk the trails that were built by the hands of individuals who had only days to gather their worldly possessions, load onto buses with their families, and arrive at a destination where they knew nothing and no one, where even the buildings to house them had not yet been constructed.  The barracks would be built by their own hands after their arrival.

Left behind were businesses and homes, no longer considered the property of these individuals who had been denied due process and rights to citizenship.  When they returned, there would be nothing left.  The families were assigned registration numbers, their belongings were catalogued and confiscated, and by November of 1942, the relocation was complete and all those with Japanese ancestry had been transported to one of ten camps east of California.

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It is the reaction of this community that most astonishes me about this place.  They arrived at one of the most desolate and lonely locations I have ever encountered, surrounded by high fences and barbed wire–not that it mattered, because they were hemmed in by the desert and the mountains and they had nowhere to go.  In this place, they built gardens and ponds, homes and workplaces, cemeteries and hospitals.  The signs still stand at the National Site to mark where they would send their children to school over the coming years, where they would hold sock hops and weddings, where they would bury their dead and mourn their losses, celebrate victories and fight for peace.

Mrs. Mary Nagao | Seamstresses of Manzanar

We also saw there the factories that were built, built by Japanese who had been evicted from their homes and transported away from civilization, built so these individuals could voluntarily contribute to their nation’s war effort from behind their barbed wire fences.

The young men at Manzanar, as at every other relocation center, were given the opportunity to enlist.  They did so at disproportionately high rates, although doing so was challenging for many: in order to enlist, they had to denounce their allegiance to the Japanese Emperor, something the nissei (born in the US) could not do, as they had no loyalty to denounce–they were American citizens, and had no political ties to Japan.  The question was equally troubling for issei, born in Japan but immigrants to the US, because as Japanese citizens living in America, denouncing the Emperor would mean they could never return to the land of their birth, and despite their willingness to fight for the US, that was a difficult line for many to cross.  Eventually, the question was re-worded in a way that made it simpler and clearer to answer, without asking enlistees to claim or deny loyalty they did not hold, and thousands joined the 422nd Infantry, one of the most decorated units in World War II.

Back at the internment camps, women and men worked behind the scenes to weave camouflage nets for the army and to sew uniforms.  Alongside these factories, small cottage industries sprang up–tailors and seamstresses from their prior lives began to offer their services to the families inside the barbed wire and create clothing for them.  According to one source, one popular shop took in 220 orders a week, all sewn by hand until machines became available in 1943.  Residents of the camps refashioned World War I surplus garments into fashionable clothing, transforming pea coats and men’s shirts into dresses, dress shirts, slacks and skirts for families to wear.

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Having seamstresses inside the camps was essential not only for providing adequate clothing, but for basic necessities.  It took a full three months after the arrival of the buses before shower curtains could be sewn to allow internees to bathe in privacy–as many as FIFTY DOZEN to ensure that the common complaint that the communal showers lacked privacy could be addressed.

Eventually, seamstresses in the camp would also produce dish towels and aprons for the mess hall staff, and mailbags for the internal mail service.  They even made smocks for barbers.


Sewing in the camps served other purposes, too.  It allowed the culture and identity of these families to continue.  When they arrived, they had no idea how long their incarceration would last–even if it would ever end.  The attempts of these families to bring beauty and tradition and a sense of belonging was essential to getting them through the years that would follow.

It also allowed them to build trust and lasting friendships.  While all but a very few* of these families was Japanese in origin, they were mostly strangers to one another, and forced to start over building networks and relationships.  The ability to create small gifts and tokens in a place where every resource was appallingly scarce offered them an important link to one another.


I am tremendously grateful to the National Park Service for creating a memorial for the hardships that the internees endured, but even more than that, I am grateful for the snapshots of the lives they lived while inside the fences.  Many of the women and men who arrived at Manzanar did not know how to sew.  They learned while they were there–for work or for recreation or for connection and community.  For all those reasons.  And sewing was something that gave them meaning and purpose and relationship when all that had been taken from them.


In a very real and practical way, sewing tied a large group of strangers together into a community.  Tensions still ran high, fights broke out, and life was difficult.  But there was something tangible in sewing that improved their time together and that leaves a legacy for us today.


In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, acknowledging that the United States government had acted against due process and that the internment centers were unconstitutional.  It formally apologized for Manzanar and the other camps, and paid financial restitution to every family that resided there.  It took ten years of congressional lobbying by Japanese American groups to gain approval for the act.


Sewing was not ancillary to the events of Manzanar.  It was not an afterthought or a footnote.  It was central to the experiences of the people who lived in the camps.  It was a skill that was brought with them from the outside, something that had value to those both within and beyond the fences.  It was an activity that made use of the time they had once their homes and jobs had been taken from them, a way for them to be useful again themselves.  It was a connection to the war effort, a partiotic activity that allied them with the nation they called home, working on American soil for American soldiers.  It was a community they built amongst themselves, a means of finding security and interdependence with others who shared their circumstances, a method of making something beautiful from an uncertain future.

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Sewing creates the world around us, in no small way, every day–in wartime and in peace.  It is not a secondary part of our days, or a secondary part of our lives.  It is literally the thread that ties us together.  Manzanar is a painful reminder of this beautiful truth, and remembering the lives that were lived there gives power to the magic that your needle wields.  I am grateful that this part of our history is memorialized, and is shared.  I was deeply affected by our visit there, and startled by how moved I found myself of looking at images of women sewing, women who but for time and circumstance, could have been me.

I am grateful for the seamstresses of Manzanar, unsung Great Women of Sewing.

We are all seamstresses.  We sew the world, together.



Many of the images in this post were shot by Ansel Adams on a visit to Manzanar.  You can see a teacher’s lesson plan for using these images, and access full-size files with educational copyright permissions, here.  Other images are direct from the National Archives, here.  All other photos were taken during our recent visit to the National Historic Site in California, where honorable American citizens insisted that the words “concentration camp” be used to give weight to the sacrifice of the families who lived there, despite political pressure to tone down the language of the signs at the site.
*One of my favorite stories from the National Monument displays was of a white American wife of a Japanese-born husband, who on learning that her husband and son would be sent to Manzanar and that she wouldn’t “have” to go, flat out refused to be left behind.  Over the course of the days before the buses left, she repeatedly packed her bags only to have them rejected by the authorities, as she was not Japanese.  They finally allowed her to accompany her family, and she lived with her husband and son at Manzanar until their release in 1944, stating that if they were going, she was going, and the government wasn’t going to keep her out.


How to Store Wool Yarn & Fabric

how to store wool yarn and fabric | whipstitch

When I started knitting, I realized I needed to think about storing my textiles differently.  For one good reason:  MOTHS.

Moths are the enemy of long-term textile storage, which we learned the hard way at our house from one vintage jacket purchased at a second-hand store that worked its way through three prized sweaters before we discovered what was going on.  Textile moths LOVE wool, which is why closets have been made of cedar and old ladies have smelled of naphthalene for decades.

With my fabrics for sewing, I admit that I didn’t think too much about storage, certainly not specialty storage.  I mean, cotton, right?  Fold it up, stick it on the shelf, done!  I have had a number of wools rolled up in a basket for years and never gave them a second thought, probably (and I’m ashamed to admit this, but it’s true) because I got them cheap at a closeout sale, so I didn’t ascribe any particular value to them.  Insert conversation about cost vs value here.  Sigh.

But yarn!  Oh, my, yarn.  One of the first yarns I really splurged on was from Purl Soho, their wool/silk Mulberry Merino blend, and even though I got that on 30% off sale, it was still GASP levels of pricey.  It hurt to purchase a sweater’s worth of this stuff–ten skeins, even at a discount, was a major chunk of change.  So I suddenly was enormously invested in thinking about how to preserve my precious new preciouses.

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Almost all of the yarn I have purchased comes in a plastic bag, so that’s how I’ve chosen to protect them.  Mostly, your choice is between storage containers or bags, anyway, and bags are inexpensive and take up very little space.  Plus, as an organizational tool, I like using very large zip top bags and placing one kind of yarn in each, either every skein I have of one color, or all skeins of one type, like sock yarns.

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We also liberally employ lavender oil to prevent pests (read more about that in this article, along with other tips for preventing moth infestation).  In every load of washed laundry, we use these dryer balls with a few drops of lavender oil to both freshen the load and to keep pests away (at the very least, I HIGHLY recommend using dryer balls with lavender in your linen loads, because it can make ALL the difference for kids who are reluctant sleepers–soothes them right off to dreamland!).  On top of that, for garments that can’t be laundered, we use small sachets with lavender flowers and oil, tucked into dresser drawers or on shelves in the closet, to protect our clothing.  Same idea applies to stored yarns and fabric, where sachets can be placed in bins or between bags of stored textiles to keep moths from eating their way inside.

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And don’t overlook the obvious: vacuum and dust often, to keep your collection fresh and keep an eye peeled for any developing pests.  When we discovered them in our closet chewing through our knits, they’d done some damage to sleeves and hems that couldn’t be repaired, but if we’d caught it sooner maybe there could have been some mitigation?  I don’t know, that’s what I tell myself now, as I’m spending weeks knitting a sweater and trying not to think about the ephemeral nature of all making.  At a minimum, you should be able to eliminate an infested item before the creatures move on to another pristine selection that you treasure.

Again, these tips apply both to fabrics AND yarns, including WOOL BLENDS.  Just because an item isn’t 100% wool doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be protected!  For basics on mothproofing before a problem starts, Martha has a list of tips–and she’s got you covered should you discover the little buggers nibbling away at your favorite wools, too.

Because making stuff is more fun when you don’t find holes in your fibers before you even get going.  Have fun, you guys!

Hand-Knitted Socks

Hand-knitted? Hand knit?  Whichever.  I thought at one point I would never, ever, ever knit socks.  The stitches are just soooooo tiny, you guys.

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But my friend Alexia assured me that once I got going they were really fast, and the appeal of knitting something that was so eminently practical was pretty strong.  Like when I started thinking about Sewing All The Things, the idea that another entire sector of my wardrobe had the potential to be Made By Me was hypnotic.

I cast on.  And then I ripped it out and I cast on again.  For some reason, getting the in-the-round thing going was super tricky for me, even though I’d done it before.  Finally, I got it going and started my first pair: Hermione’s Everyday Socks,  which I found on Ravelry (you can find me there as @whipstitchdeborah).  I used a beautiful yarn I scored from an IG sale with @skeincocaine (most aptly named IG account EVAR), and it’s lovely and squishy and soft, and did most of the knitting in the car on the drive back from Grand Canyon.

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These were much easier to knit that I would have expected.  And fun!  I know, I know.  But really, I’m not just saying that.  I can’t read in the car, and I want to talk to my husband, anyway, but I intensely dislike wasted time, and cross stitch while riding shotgun was just too finicky.  All the switching colors and splitting floss, yikes.  This is vastly more straightforward and easy to manage without making a mess.

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I got the first sock mostly done in the cozy car hurtling east on I-40 between Arizona and Atlanta, even working while we out-raced a winter storm to avoid getting stuck in Little Rock.  I cast on the second once we get home, as IG friends with far more knitting and sock experience than I have (I only wear them three months out of the year, after all–hooray for a warm climate!) suggested that starting to knit socks two-at-a-time was maybe a recipe for frustration, and learning sock “structure” by knitting them individually first would be a better approach.

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Maybe you’ve never read or heard people geek out about “turning the heel,” the point in sock knitting where you take the tube part–either coming from the top down or from the toe up–and make it “bend” to head the other direction at 90 degrees.  Most of the time, whenever someone uses this term, it is followed very closely with the word “magic.”  There’s a reason for that.  IT IS MAGIC.  There appear to be lots of ways of doing it, but they all seem to involve grabbing stitches that are headed north/south and knitting off them to head east/west.  It’s a little tricky and took me a couple YouTube videos to understand what I was sticking my needle into before making the next stitch, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty fun–and the results feel like you’ve just gotten your letter to Hogwarts in the mail.

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These are the completed socks, which have seen heavy wear, and have also faded every so slightly from washing.  I’ve been running them through the washing machine and then hanging to dry.  They are soft and squishy in a way that I never comprehended a sock could be before I knitted my own–even better than the $20+ socks from the outdoor store that you would swear are your favorite socks ever.

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Naturally, because it’s me and I can’t bear to do things the easy way if there’s any chance for there to be a method of complicating matters, I cast on a second pair that were far less simple: these are lace and mock cables, and they’re so, so pretty.  The pattern is the Monkey socks, and it feels wild and carefree compared to Hermione’s socks. The yarn is Sea Witch by House of a la Mode on StevenBe, and it was the colors that drew me in.

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I mostly worked on these on the sofa and at ballet classes; thought I’d only done half of one, but looky!  I find I am far more industrious than even I thought.  I set these aside for most of the spring, and worked on a sweater for my daughter instead–I don’t really like having more than one project ever going at the same time, for exactly this reason.  I had actually almost forgotten about these, and they’re still unfinished–and with the pattern, it’s not quite suitable for knitting during the church service, which I freely admit I do.

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The yarn overs–where you wrap the yarn around the needle but don’t stick it through a loop first–make the lace pattern, and they also feel wild and daring, because you’re basically making a hole in your knitting AND THAT’S JUST CRAZY.  The interaction of those strategically-placed holes and the winding pattern makes “leaves” and I think these might be the prettiest socks I’ve ever (almost) owned.

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I vaguely recall the heel on this being made differently from the Hermione heel, but it’s not a clear memory.  It looks pretty good, though, yeah?

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At some point this spring, I cast on a third pair, I think right before we left for our big family trip this summer as a project for the planes/trains/car while we were in France.  These are the same as first pair, but without the repeating pattern, so they’re basically just a plain sock in the same dimensions and with the same heel.  They’re FLOWN along, and are so pretty.  The yarn is a commemorative Prince colorway called I Wanna Be Your Lover, dyed by LushKnit and snapped up in one of her Instasales.  They’re bright and bold and PINK and I love them.

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I worked on these all the way to, through, and from France this summer, followed by on the drive back from South Florida to Atlanta after seeing family in July.  Because there is no pattern, it’s just around and around and around, which makes the time fly by and makes it easier to concentrate on conversation (or on finishing up the Harry Potter audiobooks which SAVED OUR LIVES when all three children had to sit across a single back seat in the rental car and were on the verge of eating one another–put on a little HP and TOTAL SILENCE while looking out the windows, enraptured!).

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I’ve just got to finish off the toes on these and they’re done!  I was traveling without a blunt darning needle, so I had to work a temporary solution on sock #1 to free my needles and cast on sock #2; so far, so good.

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Believe it or not, I tried to make them match exactly, but the “striping” effect didn’t play out quite the same between the two–one had big fatty stripes, and the other they’re a little skinnier.  But who cares?  And I don’t even mind at all that no one will know by looking at them that this is a commemorative Prince-themed yarn BECAUSE I WILL TELL ANYONE WHO STANDS STILL LONG ENOUGH.

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None of these socks are perfect.  There have been dropped stitches that I had to find and drag back up to the needle, which causes a little under-breath muttering that may or may not go over poorly at church.  There are a couple rows where something got away from me or where I split the yarn and didn’t get a smooth result.  I honestly don’t care.  I sincerely enjoyed knitting all of these, and wearing them will make my winter so much cozier.

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Finishing is FUN!  I had read people complain about the Kitchener stitch, which makes an invisible join along the toe but requires “sewing” the toe closed, but once I tried it, I loved the repetitive nature of the stitch and found it pretty easy to pull off.  As long as I could remember the steps, that is.
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Why bother to make socks, then?  Seriously? It IS a lot of work, and I do live in a climate where it’s over 80 degrees for six months out of the year.  Is this really the best investment of my time, if we’re being analytical?

The truth is, they really do feel amazing.  So, so much softer than I can describe.  Plus, unlike a lot of other shapes, it’s simple to knit with large sections that don’t require referring to the pattern.  Knitting socks is easy to transport, which gives it an advantage over almost every garment sewing project, and they’re quick to complete.  I like that as you’re working on socks, everyone can tell what it is, deflecting lots of irritation questions about your “what is that, crochet?”

And maybe the strongest argument: sock yarn is SO PRETTY and very affordable.  I may or may not have two dozen more colors waiting to go–which gets me one step closer to, well, maybe not a 100% handmade wardrobe, but at least one where 100% of the categories have at least one handmade option in them.  It’s a mountain I am willing to climb–in hand knitted socks.

Fiesta Fun Fabrics Romper for Summer

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I first met Dana through a benefit auction online.  I offered up one of the dresses I used to design, and she was the second bidder–outbid by a dollar.  And we bonded over how, in a benefit/charity situation, maybe our goal shouldn’t be winning the auction by the least amount possible, because maybe the goal isn’t winning the auction, but rather making an impact and the “winning” is icing on top.  We became fast friends.

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Last Chance to Find Your Sewing Buddy for 2017!


TODAY is the final day to register for the 2017 Sewing Buddy Project!  After nearly a decade and over 1000 sewing friends matched, the Project is here to find you your perfect sewing pen pal!  A one-time fee gets you hand-matched to another sewing enthusiast for a year of sewing prompts, chances to connect, and the kind support of someone who really GETS you.

Already registered?  Don’t forget to log on to your account and visit the main group page to complete the Google doc with your information in order to be matched!  Matches will be emailed directly to your inbox by Feb 2, 2017.  I can’t wait to introduce you to your new sewing best friend!

Find Your Best Sewing Friend: The Sewing Buddy Project

sewing-buddy-button-2017At the beginning of 2010, I sent out a quick survey to see what it is that most of us see as the reason we aren’t able to successfully get our sewing goals met each year.  Is it time?  Or how much space we have to work in?  Is it lack of accountability?  Or something else?  The answers were varied and came from all over the globe, and I was fascinated to see what everyone had to say–and even more fascinated to know how many of us are having the same experience, despite very different backgrounds!

The results of the survey said that all of us had some goals to meet–goals we’d been sadly ignoring in years past.  Some of them were expected, and others were a surprise–not all of us felt the same way about every aspect of our goals and obstacles, but there was a lot of overlap in the answers.  Want to see my super-scientific-I-have-a-social-sciences-degree analysis of the answers that were submitted?  Here ya go!

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Make This The Year You Sew Your Own Wardrobe: The League of Adventurous Dressmakers

Years ago, before I started Whipstitch, I was a schoolteacher.  Schoolteachers are not, as a cultural group, widely known for their fashion sense.  For the most part, I suspect I dressed like a sad librarian.  I know this because the most common days on which I received compliments from my students for looking “nice” were the days when I DIDN’T get dressed by choosing the top thing from the unfolded pile of clothing and instead ironed something that had been in the closet.  Short version: I didn’t dress like I cared all that much about how I dressed.

But that wasn’t a wholly accurate reflection of how I felt on the inside.  In point of fact, I cared a great deal about how my clothing fit and looked.  I was (and remain) particularly focused on silhouette, and in how garments work together to create a pleasing whole when layered and combined.  Most of my inspiration came from magazines and window shopping–this was before the internet, so I couldn’t Pin my ideas or create a virtual inspiration board.  Instead, I tore sheets from fashion magazines and made literal, actual, old-school bulletin boards of looks and colors that I loved, that I felt reflected on the outside how I saw myself on the inside.

A teacher’s salary, though, wasn’t really up to the price tag of my taste level.  Most of the clothes that I admired were far beyond my reach financially.

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The Murder Mystery Quilt and The League of Adventurous Dressmakers: BACK FOR 2017!

This past year has been one of the happiest, most rewarding years I have ever spent sewing, and that is down to a single factor: the people I spent it with.  I made the decision almost exactly one year ago that I was going to focus on two groups in 2016: The Murder Mystery Quilt and The League of Adventurous Dressmakers.  The first has been a pet dream of mine for ages, because who doesn’t love a mystery??  The second was a passion project, born directly out of my desire to sew better clothing with people who love to learn.

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The End of the Stash

I wore my Driftless Cardigan–photograph below from Instagram, and yet another garment I have yet to blog about because I’m too busy wearing it–this morning, and a friend asked if I had made it.  And what I told her is this weird revelation that I’ve been having over and over, and that feels so obvious that I keep doing a double-take, because how have I failed to see the truth of this so many times?  It is this: I wear the clothes most that I like most.

navy Driftless Cardigan | Whipstitch

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Do I Really HAVE to Block My Knitting?

It is finished!  My amazing yellow yellow merino-and-silk sweater is all done.

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Well, finished depending on whom you ask.  Seems like nearly all the knitting sites I’ve seen say it isn’t really finished until I block it.  Which appears to involve soaking it and laying it out to dry, and if I understand it right, will make the fibers fluff up and then hold the shape better?

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