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When I was in college, I was required by the School of Theatre to do a semester in the costume shop. Most of the other kids groaned and whined and did whatever they could to get around the requirement. My reaction was more along the lines of, “Don’t throw me in that there briar patch!” It was magical, and it changed everything about how I sew.
The lead in the shop was a woman by the name M. L. Baker. She was about four-and-a-half feet tall, and she wore very quiet shoes. She had a habit of sneaking up behind you and peering under your elbow to see what you were working on, and then abruptly interrupting in a loud voice: “David! What on EARTH are you doing? WHY would you do it that way??” Poor David. (It was always David.)
M.L. was a genius, and I adored her. She was devoted to her craft. These were costumes that would be worn on a stage at a minimum 60 feet from the nearest viewer, some of them by bit players in the back line of the chorus, and literally be visible for under 20 minutes. And M.L. would hand-turn hems and make custom pattern pieces and dip-dye fabrics to make every piece perfection. Each costume was placed in storage with a tag afterward, like an archaeological specimen, and her name was on every one, and she took very seriously her legacy to those who came after: each seam was crafted, each bead was stitched neatly in place.
M. L. (we all called her M. L. because “Ms. Baker” seemed so twee for a woman with her fortitude) was a genius in other ways. She was a brilliant organizational specialist. She was truly gifted when it came to economizing and efficiency. Nothing–for reals, NOTHING–in that costume shop went wasted or was used in a spendthrift manner. Every pin, every shear, every file, every pattern template was neatly in its place, and was always, always, always put back lest we face the wrath of this tiny woman with the big voice. Her ability to clearly see the root of problems and to solve them in the most efficient way using the technology she had available to her translated to her teaching–she was, clearly, one of the toughest professors I have ever had the joy of working under, and the way she formatted her classes impacted me more deeply than I would truly recognize until many years later.
Learning to Sew in a Group
In M. L.’s core required class, Costume Construction Techniques, every student in the School of Theatre was required to learn to sew. EVERY SINGLE STUDENT. It didn’t matter if you were in the fancy dancy BFA program and your focus was musical theatre. The School felt it was important for all students to understand how their costumes were made; to have a basic knowledge of how to create and repair them; and to gain an appreciation and respect for those who labored in the costume lab for the dozen-plus productions that were mounted every year.
Because each section of the class included about 30 students, M. L. knew the odds of ever getting one who’d even been in the same room as a sewing machine were pretty slim. I was probably the only one in my year who had actually operated a machine, and David (poor David) was literally WOWed by that. When we were learning the parts of the machine and the basic techniques of sewing darts and hems and trim, it would have been impossible for every one of 30 students to see the four-square-inches around the needle on the instructor’s sewing machine. So M. L. did something that, in 1994, was flat-out revolutionary: she put her lessons on video.
This was real video, people. Like, VHS. And it had NEVER BEEN DONE BEFORE. There was practically no internet back then (I got my first email account the same year, and the entire university had TWO SERVERS, y’all), so this wasn’t streaming video. This was a giant (cathode ray) TV on a rolling cart hooked up to a VHS player at the front of the room. And it was BRILLIANT. We could see every detail, every maneuver, every subtlety of what M. L. was working to achieve at the machine, and we could see it in 36″ of old-school glory.
What makes her teaching even more brilliant? M. L. learned, before there was such a thing as Distance Learning, that she DIDN’T NEED TO BE IN THE ROOM. Here’s how it worked: she would set the lesson, send her graduate assistant with a handout (pages and pages of detailed instructions), have him push the button on the video, and then arrive (in her quiet shoes) about halfway through the period when we were hard at work to give us critiques and rare praise. She understood what the rest of us didn’t catch on to until 2010: exceptional instruction can happen through any medium, and it’s all in the planning rather than the geography.
That’s my vision for The League of Adventurous Dressmakers. A space where we can see exactly how to achieve exceptional results in our garment sewing, using the best techniques available, to build core skills that apply across a wide range of circumstances, in a community of support and discovery.
David came out of that video environment very confident–not in love with sewing, but since he hadn’t chosen it, his sense of accomplishment may have been even greater. His seams? Totally held after the “yank test” that M. L. performed, and his baby bonnet with lace trim was truly lovely. Me? When M. L. snuck up behind me and pronounced my pintucks “excellent,” I nearly peed my pants. That’s what I want for you: not the pants-peeing part, but the sense of real accomplishment, and the satisfaction that David and I had of having gone through something special together and come out the other side better for it.
The League of Adventurous Dressmakers is not boot camp. It’s not sneaky shoes and tough criticism. It’s careful, thoughtful instruction in core garment sewing techniques, designed intentionally and deliberately to lead you to better clothing construction. Monthly up-close video lessons give you hi-def views of techniques and their variations, and a practice pattern with each lesson gives you a chance to apply what you’ve learned. A printable technique guide (which can also be read on your tablet) gives you a permanent reference for each skill, and the private Facebook group provides a familiar space for connecting with other League members. I’ll be there alongside you, researching and discovering and exulting in the joy of making garments we can be excited about and proud of.
When I named this club a “League,” I was thinking very Sherlock Holmes “Red-Headed League” and also the Superhero League, I was thinking of a group of individuals, strong and capable in their own right, who band together to form a corporate body capable of even greater things. That’s my vision for this year: a club that gets together on a single topic each month, explores it in depth, and comes out the other side stronger. We’re going to keep the world safe for better garment sewing, one project at a time.
Join us! We need your strength and we want your companionship. Learn more about the League here. Registration opens next week. Get in early, since spaces are limited!