Saturday Sayings: Burning Out the Pain

“Find a place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.” — Joseph Campbell

Except that Joseph wasn’t talking about literal burning; painful, blister-inducing burning.  But I promised this story, so here it is.

Once upon a time there was a skater.  A very sweet, very earnest skater, who wanted so badly to do well; so, so badly, that her coach, with all good intentions (very very good intentions, I might add), sewed her the most beautiful dress she possible could at the time, and worked for hours and hours to get it to fit just right.  In fact, she even lowered the skirt just a couple days before the state meet, just to make that dress “perfect.”  Did I mention that Coach’s intentions were super duper good and honorable and not malicious, not one tiny bit?

Ah, but every fairy tale has its sinister side, and this time it comes in the form of a dress lining that was accidentally caught up in that last-minute skirt re-do, so that when Sweet Skater put on the dress again right before she needed to compete, the dress that fit ever-so-perfectly, the dress that she didn’t try on earlier because she wanted it to stay super clean and nice and perfect, it now created the hugest, most indecent wedgie known to man.

So Sweet Skater put on the dress and, like a very good competitor, kept it covered until just a moment before it was time to take the floor for her very brief 4:30 min. warmup period.  One camel and one double salchow later, it was apparent that something — anything — had to be done to fix the gigantic wedgie (ok, for those of you who aren’t my age and don’t know what a “wedgie” is, try out these synonyms: butt floss, thong action, ride up inside…get it?).  We were desperate, and time was ticking away.  Coach didn’t want Sweet Skater to worry or be distracted, but holy moly, this was some serious TMI on the floor.

Coach scanned her not-working-very-well-at-the-moment brain for some sort of solution, and remembered that once she accidentally glued her own nylons to her leg with a hot glue gun.  Coach immediately thought, “Aha!  Glue the trunks of the dress to the tights with E6000, the world’s miracle glue!”  So she quickly sent another parent in search of the only vendor selling E6000 in the arena, and $7.00 later (rip off, totally) they had their solution.  Coach squeezed a glob of glue to Sweet Skater’s butt, pressed the Beautiful Blue Dress into the glob, and squeezed her butt cheek until it started to set.

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Voila!  Success!  Beautiful Blue Dress stuck to Sweet Skater’s tights, and with about 15 seconds left in her warmup, it was apparent that she wouldn’t be putting on an extra burlesque-style show during her routine.  Warmup was over, and it was time to rest for about 15 minutes before it was her turn to compete.

After about two skaters had finished their routines but before Coach could finish her pre-performance pep talk, Sweet Skater started to squirm in her chair.  She claimed her butt was burning, but Coach didn’t have time or brainpower for a Plan B.  Besides…Sweet Skater was sort of picky about itchy fabric, so Coach just assumed she was being a little bit whiny.  And Coach, with her BA in psychology, also assumed that maybe there was some transference going on here…Sweet Skater tended to get nervous before a routine, so maybe the “burning” was just a physical manifestation of these nerves, the same way some athletes feel like throwing up before they skate.  Plus Sweet Skater’s mom came to check on her and her now-public buttcheeks, and told Sweet Skater it was in her head, too.  No worries!  Coach pressed Beautiful Blue Dress against Sweet Skater’s tights one more time, for luck I suppose, like football players smack each other on the butt before a play, and it was her turn to skate.

Sweet Skater did great, and no one filed any sort of indecency complaint.  Sweet Skater came off the floor and took off her skates, determined to get out of Beautiful Blue Dress a bit faster than usual.  Still, no worries; everything had turned out great.  Right?

Ten minutes later Sweet Skater returned to the Ready Area in her very nice little sundress, ready to head back to the hotel for a much-anticipated swim.  Sweet Skater sat down, but quickly got up again, announcing that her butt was burning…a lot…and it hurt to sit.  Coach, calm at this point, since all World’s Greatest Wedgie adrenaline had subsided, took Sweet Skater into the restroom to check out her complaint.  There, plain as day, was a red, angry blister — the exact size and in the exact spot where the E6000 glob had been.  The biggest, meanest looking spot of skin ever, just mocking them.  Fortunately Sweet Skater couldn’t see that part of her rear end, so Coach was able to lie to her and say it didn’t look so bad.

Of course, Coach was me.  Sweet Skater was my Stephanie, who you can read about HERE.

The moral of this story changes every time I tell it.  Sometimes the moral is “Listen to everything a kid tells you.”  Sometimes it’s “Try on every damn dress after every damn alteration.”  Sometimes it’s “E6000 is Satan’s Syrup.”  But this time, the moral is simply, “Steph, I miss you.  No one has ever been as good a sport as you.  Ever.”

The “burn out the pain” in the Campbell quote is obvious.  Stephanie’s attitude was the “joy.”  I felt so, so terrible for years after that incident, but I can honestly attest that her butt is not scarred and no long-term physical damage occurred.  Plus she hit a very lovely double flip that day.  Maybe she just didn’t want to fall on her blistered butt, but I have a feeling she remembers the joy of that day (and the good laughs we’ve had since then over this…and every time I see that dress on someone else I get to relive it, because that dress is still in circulation, being worn by little girls ignorant of its almost X-rated past) more than the pain.  I know I do.

 

 

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Saturday Sayings: When It’s OK to Stink

“For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer.”  – Ira Glass

Before you read this post, check this out.  It’s short, I promise, and it’s brilliant.

I was thinking about this quote this weekend at a skating meet we attended a couple hours away.  As I sat in the lobby waiting less-than-patiently for my skaters’ turns, I realized that everywhere I looked I saw dresses I’d made…but they were on skaters I didn’t know or had never seen before.  At one point I counted nineteen dresses that I could see just from my perch in the glassed-in fishbowl where coaches and judges can safely escape the competition noise and drama (which is ironic, since there is always more noise and drama inside that room, but I guess it’s like changing your own baby’s diapers as opposed to someone else’s baby’s diapers…it just doesn’t seem so bad when it’s your own).

The number of dresses didn’t leave an impression on me, though; instead, what struck me was how much I still hated the oldest ones, which were now cherished by some new skater who doesn’t have a clue that what she sees as beautiful really falls in about the neanderthal stage of my costuming evolution (australopithecus, actually, but I’m trying to be kind).  I saw the dress I made when I first experimented with paint because the client didn’t want to buy as many stones as the dress actually needed, and it made me cringe; yet, this is the fourth skater I can recall wearing it, so to her, it must not be as bad as I think it is.  However, I also saw one of my favorite dresses on one of her teammates, shown below, and I love it today as much as I did back then.

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Beautiful Blue Dress. The photo doesn’t do the 15gr. of tiny, tiny stones or the very intricate stonework justice, and the mesh actually DID match the original skater’s skin; but my favorite skating story involves this dress, a wedgie, a tube of E6000 glue, and a frantic 3 min warmup at the state meet…maybe I’ll tell it sometime.

Beautiful Blue Dress is about ten years more evolved than Ugly Purple Dress (which I refuse to post, because seriously, it’s hideous), and I immediately assumed everyone around would obviously agree with me.  I was highly, though privately, embarrassed; thank goodness that dress has passed through so many hands that no one could possibly know I’m the one who made it.  As I was deep in my own self-flagellation, I realized the little group of girls with Beautiful Blue Dress and Ugly Purple Dress were fawning over and admiring Ugly Purple Dress, and she was beaming.  Weird, I thought, with Beautiful Blue Dress standing right next to her, but still, Ugly Purple Dress was visibly quite pleased.  Strange to me, but sweet.

I also recall one particular dress from about fifteen years ago that I was so, so excited about — until the skater put it on and we realized it looked more like Las Vegas lingerie than a skating dress (sorry Katey…you always ended up as the target of my failed visions, it seems).  It was disgusting, and it immediately went into my kids’ dress-up box, where it was (not surprisingly) never worn, even as a joke when my then-6-year-old son wanted to crack up his little brothers.  But the idea in my head was amazing, and it’s still there.  In fact, I think I’m going to recreate it this year, because I think (hope) I am finally skilled enough to pull it off, or at least to make it worthy of staying out of my kids’ Halloween Options stash.

After listening to Ira’s brief message for about the tenth time today, I understand that I did have a much different vision back then for Ugly Purple Dress, so it’s not ugly because I had no taste; it’s ugly because I had no skill.  If I redid that dress today, with the same drawings and the same picture in my head, it would turn out much, much different (at least it sure as hell better).

As Ira said, I do wish someone had told me twenty years ago that I would suck, and that it’s ok, because at least I had the good ideas in my head — better there than nowhere, I guess.  I never understood why I hated so many of the dresses I’ve made over the years, while clients were thrilled with the results.  I was told I was too much of a pessimist, a perfectionist, a whiny bitch (no, not joking), etc.  But really, I was just frustrated that, for some reason, what left my workshop didn’t match what was still in my head, and I didn’t understand why.  Now I do, and I guess I’m ok with it.

These days, more stuff leaves my workshop looking as I intended rather than just coming as close to what I want as I’m capable of producing, but that’s only because I didn’t give up and I kept churning out as many pieces as possible over the years…even when I swore I wasn’t going to make another one.  Each time, I think they come a little closer to what I have in my head, and today, garments sometimes even leave better than I envisioned.  I’m trying to forgive myself for things like Ugly Purple Dress, and remember that at least I had the idea and the taste to create it in my head — putting me way ahead of many others in this line of work, I hope.  At the very least, I’m trying to remind myself that this is the case; because as I learned watching the girls on Sunday, true beauty is in the eye of the wearer, not in whether or not it matches what was in the producer’s head, and that’s a good thing.

 

Saturday Sayings: It Must Be Show Season

“You have brought forth something ordered and beautiful out of nothing.” — Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration

Skating people know this quote means it’s show season.

Show season for us is a strange thing; all our energies and focus are on competing the entire year, so shows are at the same time a distraction, a relief, and a giant pain in the rear.

Show costumes are one of the worst parts of show season.  Shows are not serious business for us as they are for many other teams; they’re just for fun, a chance for last year’s national champions to show off a little, and an opportunity for the kids who don’t compete yet to do something interesting for grandma and grandpa to brag about.  As a result, costumes are not a huge priority, but they have to come into existence somehow.

We use scraps of this, pieces of that, leftovers from this box, stuff we’d otherwise throw away or never use for a real competition outfit, and it’s always the goal to go to Herculean lengths to spend as little money as possible.  So this morning I was handed less than a yard of gorgeous kelly green slinky found in a drawer somewhere.  With a little frugal creativity this would have been great for one outfit; but I am expected to somehow turn this remnant into two complete dresses.  I’ve been staring at it all day, but no matter how I turn it, no matter how I envision it, no matter how I chop up the patterns, it just isn’t going to happen.

So obviously I’ll need to throw in other remnants, additional pieces of (hopefully) coordinating fabric that can be used to somehow complete the puzzle.  And skin…lots of uncovered skin.  Sleeves went out the window immediately, as did a covered back (any back, really), but now I’m thinking that even covered sides are going to bite the dust.  Luckily both young ladies are very fit, very muscular girls, so lack of side fabric won’t bother them much.

Still, I need to constantly remind myself that really, it’s just a show.  I shouldn’t be spending time thinking about this, because I still have those two DeBeers pieces pinned to Peg the Mannequin in the shop that I haven’t made up my mind about; yet here I am, worried that the shade of kelly green spandex I have decided to use under the skirt (where it’s minimally visible) might not perfectly match the slinky (see my post on OCD, Obsessive Color Disorder).  Bringing forth something ordered and beautiful is always the focus, and whether or not that final product came from a vast inventory of fabric choice and unlimited budget, or from nothing (or next to nothing, as is the case today), doesn’t really matter.  No one will really care if all I have leftover after I’m through is a piece of fabric 2″ square and six 3″x1″ strips (yes, that’s happened before, and I was naively amazed that no one else was impressed), because all they want is something ordered and beautiful; the “from” part is completely on the shoulders of the creator.

But maybe that’s the way it should be.  I’ve always told my kids they’re not allowed to be bored, because I can always find something for them to do (and obviously my choices were not nearly as interesting or not-chore-related as anything they invented on their own); maybe this challenge of coming up with something out of nothing is a simple way for me to not get bored, too.  If nothing else, rearranging pattern pieces on this irregular piece of fabric in my head will give my brain something to do during a six hour practice session tomorrow (no, not joking, though two of those hours will be show practice, something I, as a figure coach, am ever so gratefully exempt from having to manage).  Wish me luck, on all accounts; I’m going to need it.

Saturday Sayings: When OCD Stands for Obsessive Color Disorder

Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment  — Claude Monet

Well, it was yesterday, anyway.

The problem I have doing anything is my tendency to obsess over every tiny detail.  Last week I decided the photos I have of the fabric in my store really stink; the color is completely off, and obviously it looks different on every single device we have in this house (and with a husband who works in technology, that number is pretty substantial).  So I spent all week obsessing over this, and yesterday I finally decided to go out in search of a Pantone color chart, so that I could include the Pantone number in every fabric description for folks who don’t have time to order swatches and wait for them to arrive.  Little did I know that said color charts are actually around $400.  Uh, no thanks.

So then I decided to just use Pantone’s $7.99 app instead, which includes a color picker, allowing the user to point the device’s camera at something and the app gives you the corresponding Pantone color names/codes.  Perfect.  But in researching this, I discovered that without calibrating the color on the computer screen, the app is useless.  I then spent three hours researching this whole calibration thing, just to finally conclude that I simply can’t do it; not because I’m particularly dense, but because, short of “rooting” the tablet (don’t ask), it just can’t be done.  I spent the next few hours trying unsuccessfully to figure out work-arounds, short-cuts, or cheats.  Nothing.  I did, however, learn all about computer stuff I will probably forget by tomorrow.  Thus my torment.

Finally I came to the realization that fabric manufacturers use dye lots.  Each dye lot has slight variations; a bolt of fabric that matches Pantone 188 today might end up a Pantone 186 when I re-order it.  So if the entire world of fabric is ok with slight color variations, why in the world was I obsessing over a minor color variance on my tablet?  If I tell a client that a piece of fabric is a Pantone 280, will they really reject it based on the fact that it is actually a Pantone 281?  Obviously not.  Finally, I achieved “joy,” the third and final portion of Monet’s famous quote.

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$400 worth of color chips. No thanks.

I decided to use an excellent and free download from a 21-page Pantone color chart.  I also found this one, which also gives RGB and CMYK translations, but since it’s web-based, I figured I may not always be able to access it.  I looked up the Pantone color that most closely matches each piece of fabric in my shop (and with, oh, 100-ish shades of blue, this was quite an investment of time, energy, and discernment), and included the number in my self-generated SKU’s.  This way, I can call a vendor and ask for fabric not by color name (I found hundreds of ridiculous color names online while in the course of my obsessive research, including “Cal Poly Pomona Green” — too obscure, despite the fact that my husband is an alumnus and kid #1 is currently a sophomore there — and “Sunset” — useless, since last night our sunset included about sixty colors, pinks, blues, purples, and oranges), but by Pantone color.  Plus it makes me sound super intelligent.

Obviously I’d rather reorder fabric by dye lot.  But this isn’t always possible, and if I focus on it too much, I may fall back into the obsession phase of Monet’s quote.  For now, I’ll include the warning to all clients that they may not always be able to come back later for an exact color match, and focus more on the second part of Monet’s quote — just how many different shades of blue mesh I actually have in my shop at the moment.  It’s truly a joyous thing to behold.

Saturday Sayings: Deciphering the Message

“Do what I want.  Not what I say.” -Brian Fitzpatrick

Brian Fitzpatrick may not have much of anything to do with sewing costumes.  As the head of Google’s Data Liberation Front and its Transparency Engineering Team, he probably knows less about encasing elastic or princess seams than my 18-year old son (granted, my other two sons know more about these things than they’ll admit, simply because they skated from the time they could walk; but my 18-year old “retired” at the ripe old age of seven…but that’s another story).  Instead, his quote comes from a lecture he gave, outlining various aspects of customer service in the modern age.  And when dealing with garment design, nothing could be more fitting — no pun intended.

When I first started creating custom outfits, I used to adhere exactly to what the customer told me she wanted.  If she said “light and flowing,” she got it.  If she said “low cut front,” she got it.  And if she said “17 gross stones,” then dammit, that’s what she got…even if I secretly knew light and flowing would make her look like an Easter egg with wings, low cut would make every spin a flirt with Janet Jackson-ism, and that many stones would make a skirt so heavy it would bruise her partner every time they changed positions.

However, over and over I was stunned when, after producing an exact copy of a drawing the customer had provided, or after creating precisely what I was told to create, the client wasn’t satisfied.  Often she’d ask for alterations, changes, complete re-dos, etc…even though I followed her instructions perfectly.  It confused me, and since, for me, the line between being confused and being infuriated is extremely short and straight, I spent much more time hating this work and the people involved than loving it.

Listening to words rather than needs

The last straw occurred when I worked for a very, very long time on an outfit with intricate inset appliques and cut-outs that had to line up over sleeve seams, back seams, and hip seams…not an easy task.  Plus they were white (more on this type of fun in a later post), and the edges weren’t going to be stoned — so they really did have to line up precisely.  They turned out perfectly; really, just perfect.  I was so proud of the work and so excited to show them; but when I did, rather than share my own personal ecstasy over the surprising success of the endeavor (my first mistake — expecting other people to understand these little personal engineering triumphs), the client’s mother told me she wanted more room in the outfit so that the skater could grow and it would still fit next year.  I was frustrated; defeated, but complacent.  I reworked the entire design, cut a little here, added a lot there, until, once again, everything lined up perfectly.  Then after putting it on, mom said oops, she liked it better fitted, let’s just put it back the way it was in the first place.  Furious doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt; but surprisingly enough I wasn’t angry at her — I was angry at myself for listening to her words (“make it bigger”) rather than her unspoken desires (“make this kid stop growing because she’s a huge complainer when things get snug and I am frankly too tired to even listen to her anymore”).  In case you’re wondering, yes, I did fix it, once more, and it looked wonderful.  But will I go through that ever again?  No way.

I learned that what people really want isn’t necessarily what they tend to say upfront.  “It needs to be tighter” is often an adult performer’s way of saying “I want to look thinner after having these three babies,” and making a fitted garment tighter isn’t going to be nearly as successful as using a different design, cut or fabric.  “Copy that dress for me” is often not a desire for an exact clothing replica; usually it means “I’m not confident making design decisions and I don’t yet trust you to decide for me.”  When a man says “I want white pants,” after barfing a little in my mouth, I stop and realize that he really just wants what’s familiar, and in the case of skating, those (nasty, disgusting, hideous) white pants were all the rage when today’s middle-aged skaters were young and oh-so-cool.

I now ask questions.  Lots of questions.  I also won’t sew something that I know is going to look horrible.  People would ultimately rather be wrong than look bad, honestly.  These days, when I know that what the client says she wants is something I’d never want to admit I made, I gently guide her to a different outlook or vision; but if that doesn’t work, I make something I’m willing to put my name on, knowing very well that since it doesn’t fit the client’s request there’s a chance it will end up on my sale rack.  So far, this has worked beautifully; each time I’ve listened to a customer’s wants rather than her words, she’s been thrilled with my interpretation — even though it doesn’t look exactly like that picture she drew.  I know the day will come when a client won’t be happy with what I know is best, and when it does, I am in a place to politely but firmly suggest she try a different designer.

In the meantime, I’m not ignoring the voice in my head, the voice with twenty years of experience, telling me “ohmygod don’t put that woman in neon pink spandex, no matter what.”  I know I’m not alone, but it certainly took me a long time to get here; so I can only hope that more craftsmen and women do more listening to wants rather than words — even if that want includes neon pink spandex.

Saturday Sayings: Thomas Paine and Charging What We’re Worth

That which we obtain too cheap we esteem too lightly.  — Thomas Paine

Ok, I know Thomas Paine was talking about freedom, not figure skating dresses. But bear with me here.

One of the hardest things I encountered when starting my business was evolving beyond the strange guilt I felt over charging a fair price for my outfits. For years I only charged for materials, but I gave up that practice when I had to pay for a hotel room, schlep my four tiny kids several hours to a meet I wasn’t originally planning to attend, and stay up 48 hours straight just to tailor and fit dresses for people who were “too busy” to come to me in the weeks leading up to the meet. In the beginning it was very difficult to justify charging people for my time and work (it sounds weird now, but it’s really not that uncommon), so I spent more time apologizing for my insane $45 bill than I ever should have. I figured out that even when I didn’t have to draft a new pattern, when everything worked perfectly, and nothing had to be redone or refitted, I was still working for about 1/6 minimum hourly wage. I don’t even want to think about the very lavish outfits that took more than twenty-five hours to design/cut/sew/fit/stone…and for which I also charged $45. That was completely unacceptable, and dare I say it, stupid.

The final straw came when I accidentally discovered one of my dresses in an eBay auction.  The seller’s reserve was, no joke, more than ten times what she’d paid for the dress when it was brand new.  I was so angry that I didn’t even check the final bid amount, but it didn’t matter — the fact that someone else not-so-happily paid my stupidly low price and then turned around and sold the item for its true value, of which she was obviously aware all along, was a huge wake up call.  For someone who can’t stand feeling stupid (me), nothing could have been more of a slap in the face.

I know I still don’t charge what I should, but I’m increasing my prices slowly.  I made a conscious and huge mental shift from “this didn’t require my college degrees, so why should I charge a lot for it?” to “if you don’t want to pay my prices, that’s ok — others do.”

 

The only one who gets free outfits these days...

The only one who gets free outfits these days…

And guess what?  I’ve sold more than ever.  Sure, some people still experience sticker shock…until they have a bad experience purchasing super cheap outfits on eBay and realize that you truly do get what you pay for, or until they try to explain what they want to an otherwise excellent though cheap seamstress who may be great with linen but who can’t begin to wrap his/her mind around the weirdness of Lycra and four yards of elastic (and the weirdness of skating people, I might add).

I also found that when I sold outfits for the price of the materials only, I ended up redoing them over and over because people were never satisfied and they expected an unending chain of extensive tailoring and design changes. Now that I charge (almost) what they’re worth, people don’t complain and most expect to pay for after-the-fact alterations and adjustments.

I used to resent it when, on rare occasions, people were not completely satisfied with their finished product.  Rather than focusing energy on trying to make them happy, my energy was instead funneled into a strange cycle of anger and frustration over the knowledge that every other industry professional in this state would have charged six or more times my price, and I daresay quite a few would have turned out something worth half the measly amount I was charging.

I  also realized that my work was beginning to mirror its pricetag, and that was just plain wrong.  Occasionally I’d stop sewing to discover I was getting sloppy, and my designs were tired re-runs of stuff I’d made years earlier that I knew was no longer in circulation.  Rather than increase prices to match my abilities, I had decreased the value of my products to match their pricetag.  So charging what items are worth (or at least attempting to do so) actually has a psychological effect on the manufacturer, too — willingness to increase the level of workmanship is much easier to come by when you’re actually making money rather than losing money in the process (i.e., the hotel story above).

But I think the best part about charging for my services is that I no longer feel so guilty about quitting my “regular” job so that I can sew during normal business hours rather than hours kept only by vampires and one of our house cats. I used to feel like a schmuck for wanting something for which I was earning less than $1/hour to actually turn out beautiful and perfect.  I may still be earning less than minimum wage for these creations, but at least there is now some degree of justifiability for my anal retentiveness.

This is still a work in progress, of course.  I still feel a little sheepish as each invoice prints, but it doesn’t last as long anymore.  I still want everything to be perfect, but I am willing to make outfits to fit the budget rather than my vision.  Sure, I still throw on too many extra stones and I still don’t charge enough.  But I’m getting better.