know thyself

Why didn't I think of this before? A collection of swatches on a corkboard means I don't have to retrieve fabric from the basement to remind myself what it looks like (and then have to put it away again).
Why didn’t I think of this before? A collection of swatches on a corkboard means I don’t have to retrieve fabric from the basement to remind myself what it looks like (and then have to put it away again).

Going through some Shitty Stuff last fall and winter, decluttering, and getting some sewing done over the summer. The connection? I learned some things about myself and began to apply them.

The Shitty Stuff led me to be more introspective, or rather, “more introspective than usual”. (Given how introspective I already am, being more introspective is something of an accomplishment.) I realised that, although I already knew myself pretty well, there was still a lot to figure out.

First, the physical. I already knew that my colouring is soft summer (cool and muted/dusty). As for build, I’m short and slim. My horizontal measurements make me look a little broader than I like, even though my side view is narrow (I’m elliptical, using the terminology on Inside Out Style), and I’m short-waisted. Thus, waist seams bad, princess seams good. But then I got stuck trying to figure out style because in some ways I didn’t know myself well enough.

As an introvert, I will never be the life of the party, and I’m not an attention-seeker.

I recently discovered that I’m a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). Now some traits that I was already aware of began to coalesce into a pattern. Interestingly, many of these traits align well with my physical characteristics (colouring and build):

  • I’m very tuned into subtlety > soft summer colours are considered subtle and elegant; I prefer solids, but subtle stripes could work
  • sharp contrast is too “loud” > I prefer monochromatic or analogous colour schemes; I’ll take a low-contrast stripe – no black and white
  • I have a good eye for proportion
  • I like clean lines rather than fussiness > accords with advice I’ve heard for petites; I prefer to keep accessories to a minimum
  • I’m sensitive to texture > I prefer natural fibres, smooth textures (not chunky, some sheen is OK but not shine)
  • I’m graceful and quiet when I move (I keep accidentally sneaking up on people!) > this might be considered elegant
  • I like harmony, not drama > my style will be understated, not dramatic
  • my clothes have to be comfortable
  • I can easily see or feel when clothes don’t fit well (though how to fix it is a separate issue!)

Feeling out of step with the rest of the world is also pretty common among HSPs. Story of my life! Maybe this is why I can’t relate to any of the predefined styles out there. I’m petite and have a pixie cut, but I strongly dislike most things considered “feminine” (including most pinks, pastels, frills, lace and crochet, flounces, most florals, bows, blouses, blouses with bows [shudder], anything that can be described as sweet or cute). I definitely have edge and opinions; I don’t relate to much in the dramatic style but I do like garments with some structure (if I can get them to fit). I like an ethnic/worldly flavour, which suggests bohemian, but I don’t care for the fussy prints, crochet and fringe that tend to go with it – odd and authentic silver toned jewelry is better. I’m too unconventional to be “classic”, but perhaps my unconventionality is subtle. I tend to go for a uniform.

I recently did a little some image searches re basic styles. Most resources seem to focus on a handful of styles, but there isn’t a lot of consistency in which styles. International resources offer different viewpoints and different terms.

At this point, I’m investigating “Parisian chic” as a base style. Some of the premises resonate with me: invest in a capsule of good quality basics in neutral colours and natural materials; basics include a motorcycle jacket (aka moto, aka Perfecto) and well-fitting T-shirts; it’s not an overtly sexy look and always has a bit of edge; err on the side of under-dressed (although with strong basics you’ll never look schlumpy); use accessories to change up your look.

(I’ve never been huge on accessories, but I’ve got a little collection of scarves now (started as dance costume and now expanded to “real clothes”), and since I’ve organised them I’ve been playing around with them more often. They’re also make for an interesting experiment in this not particularly stylish corner of the world. No one looks twice at my muted gunmetal and purple leopard-spot pashmina, or the slightly-less-muted beige, deep pink and berry ikat cotton scarf. But a narrow, predominantly red and pink, boho-ish printed silk scarf flutters in the wind and I get Looks.)

Some Parisian basics don’t grab me quite as much: white shirt (shirt yes but white not so much, though maybe I haven’t found my best tint yet); basics in black or navy (again, perhaps a mere colouring issue – instead of black I’ll try charcoal, and instead of a deep navy maybe a medium one); trench coat (but if it fit well and wasn’t beige…).

More thought and exploration is required…

Does style spill over into other areas of your life? What sorts of style struggles do people have – especially if you sew your own clothes and theoretically have absolute control?

England and France

Immediately after I got back from a trip to England and France (like 2 months ago), I had this idea for a post and am only getting to it now. Where does the time go?

As with the previous trip, there were noticeable differences in fashion in London versus Paris. In London, the look is relatively uniform. The majority of women (like 95-98%?) had a skinny silhouette for the legs – nylons or tights with a short skirt, leggings or skinny fit trousers. I saw a couple of women in a wider trouser, which struck me as unstylish in the context. (Too bad for me that that was my look too!) In Paris it was much harder to generalize because everyone seems to be doing their own thing, but the skinny silhouette was apparent there too.

Our base of operations in Paris was in the Sentier, which is the garment district. You’d think it would be great for shopping and perhaps it is, but between the language issues and the sheer number of shops, plus a healthy dose of “my proportions are odd so that nothing’s likely to fit me anyway”, I found it all completely overwhelming and didn’t do much more than peer into windows.

On weekdays, there was a constant bustle in the area – little vans dropping off bundles of fresh boxes, men rolling carts laden with massive bolts of fabric over cobblestones, rolling racks filled with multiples of a single style and colour of garment being trundled out of mysterious doorways and towards waiting vans. I’m pretty sure there was a manufacturer just down the block from us but nothing looks like a factory so I couldn’t be sure. Half of the clothing shops in the area indicate that they don’t sell retail. Stationers sell clothing-industry-specific items such as big paper bags and tissue paper, mannequins, tape measures, chalk, stiletto wheels, pattern drafting books, etc. There are trim shops, button shops, thread shops, fabric shops – all for the industry. I took photos on a Sunday when all was closed and quiet. The first three photos below are within a block of where we stayed.

Mercerie de France. Trim, yarn and various bits.
Boisson et Compagnie. "Fil" = "thread". "Fil" includes both sewing thread and yarn. Heavier weight is "cordon" (cord), which they also sell.
Boutonnerie Saint-Denis. Buttons.
Fabric shop - wholesale only.

These are the goodies I came home with. Yes, the purchase of books on trips is quite normal for us.

Aside from the books, I got a tailor's chalk that uses powder cartridges and refills, a stiletto wheel, and a wee plastic case from Muji to put together my own travel sewing kit.

back to basics with shape

I’ve found that trying to figure out my style, revamp my wardrobe and figure out where I should be spending my sewing time is such a big topic that it’s hard to even know where to start. After posting about sorting my stash on the basis of colour, however, it occurred to me that maybe that was the start: although everything changes to some degree over time, colouration is probably a person’s most immutable aspect, and is thus foundational.

soft summer palette, which seems to be the most flattering for me

OK, so what comes after colour? I’d say physical proportions are next. Even when weight gain or loss isn’t an issue, shapes change over time according to physical activity and aging.

I think I’m what you’d call a petite hourglass, but for me the focus on top is shoulders rather than bust (unlike my great-grandmother, who was reportedly described by my great-grandfather as “boobs on legs”). Considering Imogen’s analysis of vertical proportions over at Inside Out Style gave me some insight into my shape and some of my fitting issues.

1. At 5’2″ (157.5 cm), I’m short. This I knew.

2. All things considered, however, my vertical measurements are pretty well proportioned. My torso and legs are close to the same length. This could explain why a guy friend in high school exclaimed with teenage male tactlessness, “I didn’t know you were so short!” Although I am short, I apparently don’t necessarily “read” as short. Once when I worked in retail, a mystery shopper credited me with an extra 3″ of height – and I was wearing sandals! (Thank you, mystery shopper :-))

3. Despite generally even proportions, all hell breaks loose between my waist and leg break. As far as I can figure, this is down to having a short waist (my hips bones are close to the bottom of my ribs) and a short pelvis, of all things.

(Ali over at The Wardrobe, Reimagined posted this interesting discussion of proportion and fashion rules in the context of being short-waisted. Imogen offers tips for dressing a short waist generally, as well as tips for the short-waisted X-shape.)

This could explain a few issues: the curvy, hard to fit bottom; the fuller upper thighs; my obsession with (and unattainability of) completely flat abs despite being slim; why my tum seems to inflate like a balloon when I get bloated.

This is where the bulk of my fitting issues seem to congregate. Regular (non-petite) shirts fit well enough on the top, but my waist starts a little higher than they expect, and my hips flare out quickly, which results in the bottom of the shirt riding up a bit with loose horizontal wrinkles across the back. Trousers/pants are all wrong at the top. Petite pants are still too long in the rise, while regular pants that come to the natural waist are up in my ribs – blech. Regular low rise is like a mid-rise on me, but I still need to cinch in with a belt because the garment’s hip curve is too gradual.

4. My ribcage is narrow and almost columnar. Not a major issue, but it certainly makes finding non-sports bras a challenge, and my preferred bra style has a nasty habit of showing at the neck of T-shirts. (It appears that my narrow ribcage is indirectly responsible for my preference for crewneck shirts, and thus the too-small necks of the T-shirts I made last winter.) Clingy tank tops are unflatteringly boyish.

5. My feet are short. Like, vertically. (Not a clothing issue, but still…) Shoes tend to gouge the sides of my ankles while boots compress down and get wrinkles, or at least they did until I discovered heel lifts.

exhibit A
exhibit B

And then there’s the photographic evidence. Funny how you can look at yourself in the mirror everyday and yet the photos look different somehow. (One kindness about photos: you don’t get the top-down view of tum.)

OK, so here’s what seems unfamiliar to me about these photos: my tum looks flatter than I expected; despite the fact that in certain trousers, my front thighs feel prominent, they don’t look it; the front/back view is a fair amount wider (and to me looks heavier) than the side view.

So, the basic points I’ve gleaned for my shape are:

  • I need waist definition
  • but no belts at the waist
  • no baggy tops, no dropped shoulder seams
  • tops should end at about the high hip
  • waistbands must be contour (and below the natural waist) as there’s not enough real estate there to accommodate an unshaped waistband (just thinking about it makes me feel claustrophobic)
  • no detail or bulk at hips or waist (which is just as well – then I don’t have to worry about fitting trousers and putting pockets in them)
  • loose trousers should probably be approached with caution – fabrics will need decent drape
  • avoid garments that increase width (whatever those might be)

Oh dear, it’s sounding like everything should be fairly fitted. I guess I’ve got my work cut out for me, because fitting is the part I struggle with the most.

back to basics with colour

You know what’s easier than making trousers that fit? Rifling through the stash and reorganizing it, that’s what.

I started re-thinking colour a while ago, once it occurred to me that perhaps I was choosing particular colours for clothing out of habit or availability and not because they necessarily did me any favours. This led me to doubt all assumptions and take a fresh look.

I got a bee in my bonnet last week about figuring out my palette. When I was in high school I self-diagnosed as a Summer (when there were only 4 categories to choose from), but there were still a lot of colours that didn’t grab me. Now each season is subdivided, so you can be either a “true” whatever, or that season influenced by any other season, which makes for a total of 12 categories. I believe I’m a Soft Summer. Claim to fame: apparently the most popular palette for towels.

So I went through my stash: everything that I wouldn’t want to wear – whether because of fibre, fabric type, weight, etc – went immediately to the non-clothes pile (for use as home dec, muslins, whatever). I then sorted on the basis of colour by holding every piece up to my face in front of the mirror to see whether it looked good. Why bother using fabric for clothing if I can tell before I start that the colour will keep me from wearing it? Here’s what made the cut:

reds & purples with berry tones; greens on the blue side (including teal) - these completely hit the spot for me
smoky blues, bluish greys, black (not fantastic, but fine for bottoms); purply fuchsia wool (which didn't fit in the other box) - I feel mostly meh about these ones

Most of these colours have a muted quality, a certain fogginess – this is the softness of the Soft Summer. I feel a little iffy about most of the smoky blues themselves – they look OK and they appear on the same palettes as those other colours, so I think they technically suit me. However, I find that most of them look really washed out, and I tend to favour more saturated tones. So we’ll see what happens to these.

A note about fibre: I was on a wool kick when I did my most recent batch of collecting, but I never got very far with sewing it. As a result, I have a pile of wool in the stash that I’m not sure what to do with. I guess trousers are the obvious choice, but I’m not going to cut until I feel like I have a fair chance of success and I’m just not there yet. I rarely wear skirts, but I’ve been wanting one that works for fall so I can get more use out of my awesome riding boots.

A note about storage: I fold my fabric in half selvage to selvage and wrap around a flat core. I used to keep these bolts on shelves at my old place, but now that our storage is all in the basement (which has some wildlife in it), it needs to be in something. I discovered that when I take these tidy bolts and fold them once more, they fit into letter/legal size file boxes quite neatly. Narrow stuff (45″/115cm) goes widthwise, while wide stuff (60″/150cm) goes lengthwise. Wish I had known this when I was packing last year!