Hand-Dyed Lace and Where Crazy Ideas Begin

**If you’re only interested in the hand-dyed lace tutorial and not all my babbling, scroll to where the photos begin!**

The process for most of the custom roller skating outfits I make is fairly simple: coach has an idea in March, we settle on a plan in early April, dress is finished by early to mid May.  Boom.  Done.

However, the process for my daughter’s annual dress is usually a long, drawn out ordeal: idea in September, dream about the mechanics and engineering of it for months, keep an eye open for fabrics and embellishments all year, settle on a plan in February, put off making it until everyone else’s is finished, then work like hell to hurry up and get it done by late June, usually stoning it in the hotel room the night before she has to skate.

This year started out in exactly the same manner — idea in the fall, long thought process, and I even cut it out and put the most technically challenging part together in April.  But it wasn’t special; it was great, and the pieces I did finish are cool, but it was predictable, a little boring, and something practically anyone else could have imagined and made.  Nothing unique, nothing striking.

Then one day in April (because goodness knows this couldn’t have happened last September, because that would have been too easy) I ran across an old photo I’d saved years earlier of a dress neckline I liked.  That’s the only reason I saved the picture, and I discovered it quite by accident while searching my photo database for inspiration for someone else’s dress.  That’s how this whole thing started, and it organically snowballed into something super cool, super memorable, and so damn simple that it’s embarrassing to admit to people just how easy it was.

The dress is made entirely of nude mesh (gratuitous plug here: my company hand dyes 17 different shades of skintone mesh to match any skin color, so the dress really disappears on her.  She’s a “chai,” by the way; I think she was hoping to be “cupcake” or “graham cracker,” but then Disneyland happened and that slight tan pushed her into “chai” territory), with a double layer of nude mesh on the skirt. Underneath the mesh (because this isn’t THAT kind of sport) is a strapless bra and underlayer of nude spandex, which covers just the parts that need to be covered to stay tasteful and costuming-rules-legal.  I made the dress in its entirety, including sewing on the skirt, before I started adding anything else.  So basically for a few days she had a nudie dress, which totally freaked out my husband one day as he came around the corner and there she was in her perfectly matched skintone dress, looking pretty much buck naked with a skirt…

Anyway, then came the fun (?) part: the lace.  I’ll add the tutorial to the end of this post; I wasn’t going to take the time to do it, but so far no one believes me when I tell them how easy it was to actually make this dress, so I feel the need to prove I’m not a liar…

This process and the results taught me a couple of things.  First, it’s ok to start over if something better pops into your head, even if you’ve had your heart set on something for nearly a year.  It takes a good designer to know when it’s time to change course or just throw something out the window entirely.  Second, don’t dismiss the value of revisiting things you once found intriguing. Had I not glanced at that old neckline photo, the rest of this never would have entered my brain, ever.  Third, sometimes all it takes to create something spectacular (and honestly, this is the first piece I’ve ever made, after 20+ years, that I would call “spectacular”) is one tiny kernel of an idea…then the rest just falls into place.  And finally, don’t assume you can’t do something until you mess it up for yourself.  Initially I was extremely skeptical that what was in my head would ever end up on her body.  It took hours and hours of research to figure out how to accomplish exactly what I wanted the end product to be, and honestly, the only reason I even attempted it was because I had that other dress nearly finished already, just in case.  I could afford to screw this one up, and that’s what gave me the courage to follow that hare-brained idea in the first place.

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Ok.  Now for the tutorial.  If you skipped all that musing and are just now joining us, welcome.

1. Finding the lace and dye materials

This part was easy.  I decided right away that I didn’t want to use paint. How did I know this?  Because I once made an absolutely hideous dress with painted poppies. I mean, the idea was terrific, and the poppies weren’t all that bad, but I hated (and still hate) the textured, 3-D effect that paint gives you; I wanted to be able to see the actual fibers of the lace because I wanted more of an embroidered look.  The only way to achieve this is with dye, not paint.  Paint sits on top of fibers, dye adheres directly to fibers.  And the best place EVER to purchase dye is from Dharma Trading.  I loved their acid dyes already, so this was a no-brainer.

But before I could order the dye, I needed to know the fiber content of the lace I’d be using.  After much research, I figure out that rayon lace was the way to go.  Coincidentally, my favorite lace supplier, Mary Not Martha (sold on Etsy), carries TONS of rayon lace, so the hardest part was figuring out which pieces I liked best.

After ordering my lace, I researched rayon dyeing techniques.  Dharma already has a fabulous tutorial here, so I won’t go into everything needed before you even begin dye painting; but I ended up needing several different chemicals on top of the eight colors of dye I ordered.  Be sure to read their tutorials FIRST so that you order everything you need at once to save on shipping!

2. Prepping the lace

Before doing anything, I washed the pieces in textile detergent (synthropol, also available on the Dharma website).  This gets rid of not only dirt, but invisible acids and grease from your fingers and anything else the lace may have touched, which inevitably would affect how the dye adheres to the lace fibers.  Then I cut the lace appliques into small, individual pieces, since I didn’t want the dress to look like I’d slapped a few big appliques on it and called it a day.

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Soaking the lace in Earl Grey

As I learned two years prior (revisit that post here), all white lace is not created equal.  Before the lace even arrived, I knew I’d have to figure out some way to fix the variations of “white,” or eliminate them altogether.  Since the dress was nude, I decided I wanted the edges of the lace to blend into the dress — so I decided to tea stain the lace.  In the past I’ve tea stained lace for an hour, but since I only wanted a slight tanning, I opted for a 15-minute soak. If you’ve never done this before, it’s embarrassingly easy; place five or six black tea bags (ok, all I had was loose leaf Early Grey with Lavender tea…so my lace smells slightly of lavender) in a bowl.  Cover with hot water.  Let sit for a few minutes, then add the lace or fabric or whatever.  When it’s a little darker than desired, remove it and rinse in cold water.  Done.  Don’t drink the tea in the bowl, because that would be gross.

3. Prepping the dyes

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Sodium alginate, urea, soda ash. Not the lime.

Again, Dharma covers this on their website. I mixed the urea and sodium alginate together, put them in a tupperware container in the fridge, and slapped a “don’t throw me away and don’t drink me!” sign to the top — because hey, I live with teenage boys…

Two days later, I mixed six shades of burgundy/pink and six shades of green by mixing various combinations of the eight procion dyes I’d ordered.  I found a terrific little bead organizer in a little acrylic box, which worked perfectly for dyes — the lids screwed tightly onto the little jars, which kept them from spilling/getting lost on my work table.  Plus, I could put the entire box into the refrigerator (which extends the life of the dye, I’ve learned) and I didn’t have to worry about twelve little jars ending up in twelve separate places in my bottomless pit of a fridge.

By the way, I initiated a discussion in some dyeing communities on Facebook because I was mixing techniques (procion dyeing and tea staining) and I wasn’t sure how to proceed, and together we decided that the best way to proceed was to tea stain the stuff FIRST, and keep the soda ash (a necessary compound in hand dyeing with procion dyes — it helps the dye to adhere to the fibers of the lace.  Keep reading to find out what happens when you skip this step) out of the dyes and to soak the lace in the soda ash separately.  This is why I only mixed up the urea, sodium alginate, and dye.

4. Prepping the lace, part 2

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Soaking in soda ash. Notice that I only placed about a dozen pieces in the soda ash at a time; you don’t want soda ash sitting on your lace fibers longer than necessary.

I couldn’t help but think about the old saying about painting — how 70% is prep, 25% is clean up, and only 5% is actually painting.  Same holds true for this process — I needed to prep the lace yet again, and prep the painting surfaces as well.  The tea stained lace soaked for about 10 minutes in a soda ash solution (and believe me, I was very relieved that the soda ash didn’t change the color of the tea staining, though the soda ash did turn slightly beige…so obviously I hadn’t rinsed the lace enough).  I pinned pieces to a plastic wrap covered piece of cardboard, small enough to fit into a 2-gallon size ziploc bag (more on why this is important later), and then, FINALLY, I was ready to start painting.  Word of warning here: I tried using leftover dye on another dress, but I forgot to pre-soak it in soda ash. I figured what the heck, it’s just a practice dress…uh, no.  An hour later all my carefully painted flowers and leaves had turned to one giant, mushy mess, and two hours later every color had bled into every other color, so now it looked like I spilled burgundy dye on the fabric had tried to rub it off here and there.  HIDEOUS.  So don’t skip the soda ash step.  Of course, this may have happened because of the fiber content of the fabric, but still, why risk it?).

Now, by this time I was completely freaked out, because I’d already spent sooo much time prepping everything and I was positive it would be for nothing since I wasn’t very optimistic that I could actually paint very well.  If there’s one thing I hate, it’s wasting time or investing a lot of useless effort into something for nothing.  So after I cried from worrying that I would totally suck at this (yes, I cried over something this stupid), it was finally time to take the pieces out of the soda ash and get busy.

5. Finally, painting!

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Finished pieces, sitting in plastic.

And what do you know?  This was the easiest part of all!  It was FAST, too…the dye, when applied with a watercolor brush, actually behaves like watercolors…touch the brush to the fibers, and the fibers drink in the dye.  I mixed up my dyes with very, very little actual dye itself, so they were rather transparent.  This worked perfectly, because unlike regular fabric paint, you can control the actual hue of the dye simply by layering it; one layer is lighter, but each additional layer darkens the color.  I started with my lightest colors and added darker colors gradually.  It was quick, it was fun, and it pissed me off because I’d worried so much about it not working.

6. Resting/rinsing

After painting the pinned lace pieces, I placed the cardboard inside 2-gallon ziploc bags and sealed them.  This is necessary because you want to slow the drying process for about 12 hours, which allows the dye molecules to really bond with the lace fibers (I’ll spare you the chemical explanation here, because frankly I’ve forgotten it by now anyway). 12 hours later, I removed the cardboard and washed the lace in cold water for what seemed like days.  Really, it took a good hour for the lace to stop bleeding excess dye.

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Rinsing, and rinsing, and rinsing.

One important thought here — as the lace dries, it gets darker.  Like, really darker.  I hadn’t read anything about this, so it really worried me, because all my carefully designed, color graduated painting basically disappeared and my flowers just looked like one shade of dark burgundy and my leaves looked like Hefty garbage bag green.  But when you start rinsing, all these color variations magically reappear.

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Lace getting darker as it sits. Freaked me out.

7. Drying

OMG I still had more to do before I could even begin using these things…

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Drying lace, day 2. I stopped pinning it by this point.

The drying process took several days, to be honest.  This was also something I hadn’t anticipated.  I wrapped cardboard fabric bolt inserts with thick bath towels and carefully pinned each lace piece flat (because I didn’t want curly edges, which is what happens when you wash lace — see below).  But after 24 hours, they were still damp…so I blotted, flipped them over, and waited.  And waited.  Multiple blottings later, they were finally dry and ready to use.

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The reason I pinned the lace to paint it and dry it — curly edges, yuck.

One additional word of caution here — don’t use towels you care about.  Even after an hour of rinsing, my lace pieces still bled a little bit onto the towels.

8. Placing

Close up of lace pieces

Close up of lace pieces

I sprayed the back of each piece with quilt basting spray, and with her in the dress, I slapped these pieces onto her fairly quickly, Tetris-style.  I did pin them as well, but using basting spray helps the edges stay perfectly in place so I only needed one pin per piece rather than several.  This saved her lots of standing-perfectly-still time, and saved me lots of pin-pricked fingers.  Plus, the last time I pinned so much lace to a dress I had to cover up several little blood spots with stones…but not this time.

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Pieces being glued down. Note the awesome stretcher frame? Available at Firefly Fabrics!

9. Adhering

Notice I didn’t say “sewing?”  Nope…I didn’t sew these on this time.  E6000 to the rescue, and it worked beautifully.  I used to sew lace onto dresses, but I learned my lesson (read about it here).  Of course, my work table looked super creepy for a while, but it was worth it.

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Mannequin arm to the rescue!

Notice the waxed paper?  This dress was made entirely of mesh, and I didn’t want the glue to seep through and accidentally glue arm holes shut, or glue the front to the back.  I lined the entire dress in waxed paper, which then pulled off pretty easily once the glue was nearly dry.

10. Stoning

Most fun part of all.  I used seven different sizes of crystal AB’s to give a graduated look, as well as every random green and purple/burgundy/pink stone I had laying around the studio.  You know — when a dress doesn’t use up a full gross of stones so I had 4 leftover here, maybe 15 leftover there, etc. — but you can’t ever throw stones away, yet how do you use fewer than a dozen of any one color?  I had saved up stones in weird sizes and weird colors, which was perfect for this dress.  I also used about a gross each of burgundy, light burgundy, and light burgundy AB stones.  I scattered 12ss, 16ss, and 20ss crystal AB stones all around the bottom of the skirt and around the neck and back openings, too — initially we were going to leave these openings without elastic and without stones, but this fabric matched her skin (at the time) waaaaay too closely, and she really did look naked with some flowers carefully clinging to her boobs and butt.  A little too Adam-And-Eve for me, so the finished edges and scattered stones really helped it look more like a dress and less like a naked forest nymph getup.

And this is it — the finished product.  Totally different than anything at all on the floor this year, which is exactly what we wanted.

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And this was the finished result!  Heading to the US National Championships in two weeks, where hopefully hopefully hopefully this dress (and the kid inside it) will qualify for a trip to Italy for the World Championships in September.  Stay tuned!

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PS: Added August 15, 2016: THE DRESS MADE IT TO ITALY! Emma placed 8th in the world…to read more about that experience, visit http://www.EmmaGoFigure.com.

 

emmasolo

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Plumber’s Paradox

I only sew (super-crazy-stretchy) knits, so how odd is it that I skipped The Monthly Stitch’s “Sew Stretchy” May?

For newcomers, The Monthly Stitch is an Australian sewing blog, to which I’m a regular contributor. Each month they vote on some new challenge, and finished products are posted on the blog. Being Australia, skating a very big there — and being the only skating dress designer and one of only a handful of US participants makes it even more fun to participate.

So this month was “Amnesty Month,” a chance for folks to re-do a past challenge or submit something they finished too late in the month to post.  While I actually sewed more than a dozen figure skating dresses in May, the business was so crazy-busy that I never posted anything during the PERFECT challenge for me, “Sew Stretchy” May.

The oddest part of that insane month was that none of those outfits were for my own daughter. We often laugh ironically at how the Plumber’s Paradox works in this house (you know…the pipes in a plumber’s house are always leaking, the mechanic’s own car is broken down, the chef’s family eats take-out, etc.). I have probably 60 figure skating dresses being worn in the world at any one given time these days, but my own child had only one dress to wear to practice.  Every. Single. Day.

I figured I needed to remedy this embarrassing (and honestly stinky) situation, so in honor of Amnesty Month, I made her a couple new pieces to wear to practice. These are not competition outfits so no one really cares what they look like, but I’m not going to sell very many dresses if my own child’s stuff is dull and boring, so we spiced it up a little bit.

The dress is made of a nice matte spandex I’ve started carrying here in my shop — super stretchy, but without the cheap-looking sheen that the older girls sometimes detest. It’s very soft and comfortable, which is a huge plus in your third hour of practice without air conditioning. It has a couple of stretch mesh inserts, and about a gross of leftover pink stones that have been hanging around the shop for way too long — the stones are a terrific color, but this specific color isn’t being made anymore so I’ve spent the last couple of years looking for a good excuse to use them up.

 

Really, the seams are super straight…the weirdness at the top is just excess seam allowance that I (oops) haven’t yet trimmed…

 

The white straps which don’t really match the rest of the dress give away the dirty secret…I wanted to surprise her with the dress, so rather than actually measure her, I cut/sewed the whole thing one day while she was at school. I have a set of measurements and a pattern I made for her in May, and I figured she couldn’t have grown that much in four months.  Uh, wrong.  She was surprised — not so much by the dress itself, but by how much skin and underwear and various body parts it showed. So I cut it up, got rid of the white stripes that originally adorned the front, reworked the design, and since it’s just a practice dress, I went ahead and re-used the white straps anyway…no sense in wasting perfectly good elastic and perfectly fitted spandex straps (a rarity), right?

So this is the finished product. Nothing fancy, but extremely comfortable (which she loves) and extremely NOT the one practice dress she’s been wearing daily for a year (which I and everyone else within smelling distance love).

Hoping to post some other designs from our crazy summer soon…

Silence is Golden

Truly golden, as in gold medal.

My blog silence over the past three months is due to a ridiculously heavy sewing load, leading up to both the regional and national championships for roller skating, my largest client base by far.

I’m not complaining…I had fifteen separate outfits in various stages of completion during one particular week in May, plus ten more waiting to be started, which made for a stupidly messy shop.  Then my oldest child came home from college, and since kid #2 had moved into his bedroom, all kid #1’s junk ended up where?  In the shop.  And since kid #4 is also a client of sorts, it meant we traveled to these various meets in the capacity of parent/coach/designer, so where did this triple-load of luggage/gear end up staged?  Yep, in the shop.  It was all I could do to just walk from one end to the other, constantly trying to stay organized, so all my non-sewing time was spent creating pathways and keeping records for the CA sales and use tax return I filed this morning, not on blogging or taking photos or, in all honesty, sleeping.

So that explains the silence.  And the golden part?  Here she is, US National Champion, again:

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Totally due to the dress, of course.

Although we’re headed into the mountains for the next two weeks, I’m really looking forward to getting caught up here and sharing everything that’s been keeping Firefly Fabrics so crazy busy.  In all, our outfits brought home 28 regional (CA, NV, and AZ) medals, and 13 US National medals, including 3 US National titles…and we still have 8 still left to skate over the next week or so.  Not a bad haul.

 

 

Fifty Shades of White

I finished this latest creation just in time to enter it in The Monthly Stitch’s July challenge, “MonoSewn,” where everything had to be black, white, or both.  You can read about it here.

I knew I wanted a completely white dress, but what I didn’t plan on back in November when I decided on this design was a) Venetian lace by the yard is lame and boring or else it’s $400/yard, and b) there must be fifty shades of white clearly discernible to my eye, and probably an additional hundred or so that are probably different but too close for me to care or worry about.

Rather than spend a fortune on a yard of Venetian lace that would then have to be cut and turned and altered so drastically that it made no sense to buy it in the first place, I opted for individual Venetian lace appliques…much cheaper, much more varied, and much, much more interesting.  However, even within the same manufacturer there are incredible color variances not visible under the dull lighting of an old lace shop, but clearly obvious in every other sort of lighting this dress would encounter.

What to do?  At first I didn’t care, but then when placing the appliques on the dress we were shocked to discover that the very yellow ones worked perfectly right in the middle of each boob…like a bright, shining beacon, screaming, “HEY!  LOOK AT ME!” Not exactly a good thing, especially considering how much we built up the boobs in the first place to make her fit in better with the girls she would skate against, many of whom would be up to six years older than she is.  Plus, the dress design screamed for boobage, and she was more than happy to comply.

Anyway, rather than freak out, I tried to figure out some way to lessen or eliminate the color variances.  A mix of four parts water to one part cheap, white acrylic paint did the trick.  I dipped each applique in the solution, wrung it out (all over myself and the garage floor, of course) and let it dry.  Added bonus — it stiffened the lace slightly, making it easier to work with and forcing the tiny detailed edges to stop curling.  Extra added bonus — it got rid of the cheap looking polyester-esque sheen that some pieces had (hey, for $3, what do you expect?), making it all appear matte, in a nice, expensive, silk/linen sort of way.

Each piece was pinned to the dress with her in it, I swear I didn’t stab her once, and I only bled on the thing in one tiny spot, easily hidden by strategic stoning later.

The finished piece was stunning…temporarily.  However, on her 14th birthday, I swear her hips moved and grew overnight because all of a sudden the trunks were too small and there was an ungodly amount of butt cleavage showing.  I know that dress fit her perfectly on Memorial Day; but less than a month later we were using Hollywood Tape to stick it to her rear end to avoid any Atomic Wedgie Action on the figure circles.  It worked fine, until we started looking through the action shots taken of her at Nationals and we had to carefully weed out all the ones where her butt just screamed a successful “I’M FREE!  I’M FREE!”

So here it is, in all its glory:

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It definitely made a statement, and it was definitely memorable… certainly not another spandex creation in a sea of similar dresses.  Will I do it again?  No.  Not because it was particularly difficult or time consuming (although each lace piece was hand sewn in place, and it probably took a total of 30 or more hours to finish just that aspect alone), but because I want to try something different for her next year and I won’t copy this dress for anyone else.  One and done, and happily, I’m pleased with the result.

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.

 

 

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: 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.

A Creator’s Evolution

(Title irony intentional, of course)

This week I’m celebrating (and by “celebrating” I mean I briefly thought about it when it popped into my head at the grocery store while choosing bananas) the twenty year anniversary of the creation of my first skating dress.  This slightly unkind reminder of my own personal aging process brought to mind just how much has changed since those first very stressful days, and I realized that documenting my continuing journey, as well as memories of obstacles past, would be a perfect addition to my company’s website (gratuitous plug: http://www.shopfireflyfabrics.com).  So here we go…

Twenty years ago, my skating dress sewing goal was simple: don’t make my kids look like dorks.  It evolved, as did I, through so many phases: the “make my skaters blend in so no one will know I have no clue what I’m doing” phase, the “make my skaters look better than (fill in the name of some coach who seriously bugged us at the time)’s skaters” phase, the “only have to redo the skirt twice” phase, the “how can I make this dress look like they spent $800 when I only have a $40 budget” phase (which, sadly, still lingers in too many clients’ minds), the “I don’t care if I don’t sleep for six days as long as it’s done on time” phase, the “if it only needs one safety pin it’s a success” phase, the “how can I make you look 50 pounds lighter and three inches taller” phase, the “yes, I’m sure I can finish 18 more dresses in two weeks” phase, and the “if you don’t want to pay this (extremely and ridiculously reasonable) price, then I don’t feel the need to sew for you anyway thank you very much” phase.

Thinking about how much has changed really brought to mind the phrase “blood, sweat, and tears” — lots of pricked, bloody fingers (and yes, this one time I did rip the skin off my leg when I tried to peel off some dried E6000, but that’s another story…), sewing in central California July heat so intense that I had to stone over the sweat that dripped onto and stained the fabric, and, of course, many, many tears when what was in my head just didn’t translate into a finished piece (see a future post on the “Las Vegas Underwear” dress).  But since those less than illustrious beginnings, I’ve probably sewn 300 dresses, many of which are still in circulation many years after their creation, and I see them when we travel to meets both in and out of state.  What used to take me several days now takes a couple hours.  What I used to give away because it felt too unprofessional and crappy now is a full-time business.  What used to embarrass me now fills a portfolio.

Aside from sharing lessons learned over the years, I’ll also share tips and tricks I’ve figured out along the way.  I’ll post current projects and share steps of the design and creation process.  As the business grows, I’ll share trends and new fabric finds.  If you’re an old pro we can commiserate; if you’re a novice you can avoid many of the setbacks and sidetracks I encountered.

And just for kicks…this is a photo of that very first dress I made twenty years ago, which took about two weeks:

Tiny Katey, in my very first dress

Tiny Katey, in my very first dress

And a dress I made 19 years later, which, beginning to end, took about six hours:

Emma at the Pan American Championship of Clubs

Emma at the Pan American Championship of Clubs

Let’s continue to evolve together, shall we?

Guilty Pleasure to CEO

Four months ago, at the constant urging of my husband, I quit a job that was making me angry and resentful and began working instead on trying to dismiss the guilt I’ve always felt for wanting to do something that a) doesn’t require the multiple college degrees I hold, and b) doesn’t feel like a job because of its sheer awesomeness.

For years I’ve designed and sewn skating and dance outfits as a…wait for the dirty word…hobby.  But in September 2013, I realized that working in a place where mediocrity is rewarded and you get paid the same whether you are fabulous or absolutely disgustingly lazy and incompetent, was making me nuts; so I knew something had to change.  My husband was sick of my complaining, my not sleeping because my sewing was relegated to the wee hours of the morning, and stepping on all the straight pins I inevitably dropped on the dining room floor; so he knew something had to change, too.

So we did it.  In one whirlwind month, we turned half of our very large garage into a bona fide shop.  A little creativity and reuse of excess furniture,  a marathon day of filing business and licensing paperwork all over the county, a slightly creepy but nonetheless amusing exploration of a nearby warehouse where old store mannequins and retail accoutrements go to die, and several trips to IKEA later, and this is what I have:

Shopcorner

The back corner of my little shop, complete with crystal chandelier and a place for my daughter to nap…uh…do her homework…

On the left you can see Marie, as in Marie Antoinette, our headless mannequin with magnetic arms that is a perfect Firefly Fabrics stock size Adult Small, and our yet-to-be-named adjustable child size dressform. You can’t see Buttsy, our waist-to-thigh child butt mannequin for skirt adjustments, and Peg, our oldest but dearest ladies’ dressform, so named because of the peg stand that sticks out of her nether regions (yes, I did let the kids name them, obviously).

Behind the camera is the sewing area, with my two machines and my daughter’s Christmas gift (her first sewing machine), my huge cutting table, the shelves that will eventually hold about eighty full bolts of fabric but now just house thirty or so two-yard sample pieces and three circular racks full of dozens of bags of rhinestones, and a seriously sick amount of color coded, separated and organized scraps of spandex and other stretch fabric, for when I only need 1/4 yard or so of “something green but not too green” or “six shades of sparkly blue — you can do that, can’t you?” Someday I’ll post those photos too, but hey, right now it’s all about the crystal chandelier.