Now that I have an an attic, a closet, and the floor under two beds crammed with my guiltiest pleasure, I know differently: Fabric, not weed, is the devil’s worst temptation. Those silks, crushed velvets, buttermilk knits, and bouclé remnants will be the death of me.
I have enough patterns and fabric to clothe the world and hoist a circus tent, but it’s still not enough for me: “My name is Susie and I’m a stash-a-holic.” My hoard of yardage makes a lifetime of prescription, OTC, and recreational drugs look like a pitiful bump.
This is how it started: It was all Aretha’s fault, my daughter. We took our first sewing class together, when she was ten. I knew no more than she did; I couldn’t have told you where to plug the sewing machine into the wall.
Aretha took an in-depth look at the pattern books our teacher offered us. “Let’s make mommy and daughter dresses that match!” she said. She was mesmerized with one of those McCall’s Stepford Duo photographs of a mother clutching the hand of her daughter in identical pink shifts, like Balthus Meets Barbie. What empty-eyed phonies!
But when your own child asks you, with stars in their eyes, if the two of you can make matching costumes, to parade through the streets as perfectly-synchronized beloveds, do you know what really happens?
You tear up, you clap your hands with joy, your voice scales up a full octave— “Oh goodie, let’s do it!”
We started combing through the color-fields of cotton prints at our local fabric shop. Aretha pulled out a bolt of tropical and dark green forest leaves, against a black background— a jungle print with a hint of abstraction.
I loved those colors, too— “Let’s get six yards!”
But then, shouldn’t we also have a Plan B, in case we screw up our first pattern? Or what if we change our minds in the middle of the night?
After all, there was a whimsically-Eloise at the Plaza print of pink poodles and Eiffel Towers that caught my eye, that I immediately dubbed “French Bitch.” I can’t resist a fabric with a sense of humor— one of my favorite dresses is made from something called “Rocket Rascals”: an Apollo-11-era design of little boys and girls running around the ether in naughty cunning space suits.
The two of us took no chances; we got everything: the Plan A fabric, the Plan B, and the Plan C. My teacher applauded our choices, as did all the other students. It’s like being in a bar at 6 AM with all your friends. Have another yard!
There are, actually, sensible reasons why serious dressmakers accumulate fabric faster than they can stitch.
Number one is, you are dealing with limited quantities of unique designs that often cost a small fortune.
If you can get lightweight sky-blue linen that feels like heaven in your hands, for under $10 a yard, you HAVE to buy it, even if your sewing machine hours are booked up until The Rapture. You are quite right to think you will never see a deal like that again.
Then, there’s the serious sewer’s tool chest. You’re going to need silk, cotton, and rayon linings in neutral colors— there’s no escape from it. If you buy a pattern simply because it has a unique scalloped collar on otherwise plain bodice, you are saving yourself many hours from drafting that collar yourself. And it’s uncanny how scallops work their way into your life!
You do need tulle— you can’t get through the holidays without it. You’d better grab it in turquoise, as well as the ivory and black. You need velcro fasteners, and 20” zippers in every shade, and polar fleece in every solid color. You do.
What is the most frivolous fabric in my stash right now? That’s hard to say.
My sweetheart just started working in hospitals, where he wears scrubs, and he noted to me that other nurses and techs show up in all kinds of conversation-worthy printed fabrics.
The traditional pale green and blue is completely out of fashion now on the ER floor— you get to express yourself! There’s a great Kwik Sew scrubs pattern that has pockets galore, so I made him an offer; “I’ll get some cotton prints that’ll make you proud, and your patients happy.”
This is what I came home with: Brokeback Mountain cowboys striking soft-porn Tom-of-Finland poses against a rodeo background. It’s cotton! It’s apparently from a whole line of “Village People” prints of hunky dudes vamping around in blue-collar poses. The store was sold out of the construction workers print, and the firefighters. I bought the last five yards of “Do-Me Cowpokes” they had left!
Can Jon wear this to work? Probably not, though I swear it’d give his terminal patients a well-needed laugh. Does he still want me to make them up? Hell, yes! He’ll be able to dine out on this outfit for years.
What’s the most expensive unused fabric I have in my stash? Italian cashmere, embroidered charmeuse silk, and some crazy scarlet faux-lamb-fur that seemed critical one winter. I haven’t used them out of sheer intimidation: “I can’t screw these up, it’s so expensive, one day I’ll be ‘good enough’ to take a scissors to it.”
Rationally, I take a dim view of these excuses. If I buy it, I need to have the nerve to cut it out. I learned that lesson after two years. All my most ridiculous purchases were made when I was a new sewer, and my eyes were bigger than my stitches.
Organizing your fabrics and patterns is the first note to the stash-a-holic that they are unequipped for their addiction. I put a floor in my attic to hold my inventory. But how to organize it all? I’ve photographed it, labelled it, and alphabetized— cut out samples and stapled bits to index cards with cunning descriptions.
But my attempts to act like I’m a lady of leisure who can spend every waking hour running a “fabric museum” is a joke. When push comes to shove, you’ll see my legs sticking out from under my bed, stuffing in another Trader Joe’s paper grocery bag of unmarked yardage.
My general system, which has survived my folly, is to use file drawers for patterns. Since most of my office work is digital now, it freed up a lot of hanging file folders for my precious out-of-print Vogues and Christine Johnson’s.
For fabrics, I separated the wovens from the stretchies, the linings and the novelties, the cottons from the wools— just the basic categories— and it really helped. It’s grotesque to go through forty boxes to find one Hawaiian print that burns in my memory, but I can stand to go through two or three. Just don’t let anyone else in my attic, because if they move one thing, my entire mental architecture will collapse.
I took myself off email lists for sales atJoAnn’ s and other fabric emporiums. I don’t let myself web-browse at EmmaOneSock unless I’m sick in bed with the flu. Until I’ve made pajamas for everyone in the Yukon Territory, I am not allowed to buy another inch of flannel, not even the “French Bitch.”
It’s hard... I still remember the innocence of the Mother-Daughter outfit days. When we put on our leafy-green shifts, people gasped, and said, “Oh my god, you’re wearing matching marijuana-leaf dresses!”
I put my hands over Aretha’s ears and shot them a dirty look. We picked our jungle print in the purest spirit of color appreciation and delight at the artist’s tropical spell. It felt great in our hands. We thought we looked so cute. No one can ever take that away from us!
This story is reprinted from Craft 08, where I am the reigning sewing columnist— yes, you read that right. I have a life outside of sexual politics and chicanery. You can see all my back issue of quarterly Craft columns indexed here. I'm working on my Xmas column right now...
Photos, from top:
1. Stitch 'n' Bitch in progress at my house with me, Lulu, Shar, and 'Retha.
2. One of Tom of Finland's "rough riders" which is exactly what this great fabric is based on... yes, I will eventually finish these scrubs and post a photo.
3. Me in skirt made from polka dots and pirate fabric. I can't resist a polka dot.