Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Moving forward on all fronts

Although I've nothing finished to show for my efforts yet, I've been moving forward on my sewing projects. After a very intensive period at my work, including several weekends, I've decided to take a few days off work to get my sewing projects going.

First of all, I've nearly finished the nativity scene in fibre optics. The result is more impresssive than I expected it to be, I'm really quite pleased with the effect. I've done the line work with the fibre optics, but I also want to put in a few LEDs for stars into the image. I've also ordered some more fibre optics. These ones were 3 feet in length, and I found that a little short to work with, so I've ordered another 9 cables at a length of 5 feet each. The down side is that they may need a little more current - I've been able to run two 3-foot fibre optics off one 9-volt battery so far - I'm not sure if this will work for the 5-foot fibre optics cables. The circuits are hooked to the snap-ons - I will do this for the shirt as well. It makes connecting the pieces together, literally, a "snap". Also, I've realized that using a snap-on e-panel in this way, not only can I replace the panel with additional e-panels, but I can also retro-fit other garments to take the same panel design. So I could add the panel to a jacket, for example, or to a wall tapestry, as long as I build the battery holders, switches and circuits into these in appropriate ways.

I've cut the fabric for both the black pants and black shirt. I did the pants in a cotton shell first, to make sure of the fit. This is the first pair of pants I've made and I wanted to make sure the fit was right before proceeding into the fabric. The sample pair fit perfectly, though, so I cut the black cotton to make the pants, and bought myself some black elastic so I can do the belt area. For the shirt, I found a black cotton which has a bit of a crepe-like texture, very nice, and I've cut that also.

I'm also working on a princess-seam dress for a friend - I'm preparing the pattern blocks now. More on all of this later - and I'll put up some photos showing details.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Preparing a Fibre Optics Nativity Scene

Inspired by the Christmas Sew-Along at the BurdaStyle site, I've decided to put my growing electronic sewing expertise to work by designing a nativity scene onto the back shirt panel using the fiber optics cable. I can actually develop the scene ahead of actually finishing the shirt. Here is an example of one of the fibre optics cables I've bought :

It runs off a 9 volt battery, as shown in the photo. I've tested the ability to run more than one fibre optic from the same battery, and it works fine. It would be great if I could run all four fibre optics colors from the same 9-volt battery, but if I have to use two, that's not the end of the world. It may be better to use two, and drive a flashing "Star of Bethlehem" as well from one of the batteries.

Now, using an image I found on the web of the three kings looking up at the star of Bethlehem, I've drawn in a line image that I think I can reproduce using the fibre optics (see below). I've still got to experiment with hiding the fibre optics cable I don't want to see behind the fabric - I suspect it may still glow a little.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Smart shirt

I've worked out an overall design for a smart shirt - smart in the sense that it includes electronic lighting displays. Shown is the design I've come up with (as part of an all-black outfit including pants - the grey is shown only to make the design details clear). The idea is that the two rectangular front panels and the wide panel on the back are snapped on into place on the shirt. The shirt includes batteries worn at the side in specially designed battery holders, located just above the waist on either side. I plan on having non-electronic panels in a very sharp-looking design that I can wear some of the time, but also have different electronic panels than can be switched out for other panels - in this way, I can experiment with a variety of lighting ideas and not be locked into any of them. For example, I'm planning to do a lit Christmas scene that can be replaced with something else later on.

I've bought black fabric for the pants, which I'm currently making, and the shirt, whose design I am still refining. I plan to show more of the project as it evolves.

On Collections

I've been thinking about collections in fashion. A collection is really an aggregate that makes sense in relation to the designer, but not to the user or client. What the client would like is not a collection, which will contain several garments with somewhat similar concepts reflected throughout, but a group of garments that has utility in their (our) lives. This might be a set of moods, a series of events, a group of contexts in which fashion statements or identity are important... or even a combination of these. A person is looking for a "wardrobe", but, of course, this word is already in use for "all the clothes one owns" - still, it might be used here too. But other ideas come to mind. Maybe what one wants is a "semaine" - that is, a group of clothes that responds to the varied needs one might have over a week's time. Or an "event portfolio", to cover the different kinds of events one typically encounters.

Here are some possible names, therefore, for a set of garments a user might like to purchase : a wardrobe, an event portfolio, a mood suite, a semaine, a paradigm, etc. Now we will need to think about what particular mix of garments and styles would go into each of these subtly different groupings...

One would also like a very modular approach. Clothes are already modular, but clothing styles or not always so modular. One would want to design groups of clothes so they can be mixed with another designer's clothes, not just individual clothes.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Smart tapestries

Along with my collaborators, our ideas about the use of smart textiles are beginning to find root. We are going to work on a number of tapestry-like objects which react and change. In one, the tapestry will present a kind of physiological portrait of a person, in another, the tapestry will react to being touched in a variety of ways. In a third initiative, we are going to be constructing organic-looking forms that react and change shape over time. All of these are initiatives being developed in support of kids with disabilities, to provide them with environments that are more responsive to their often limited physical abilities than are the environments we usually have around us.

Some of these ideas may also be eventually incorporated into garments. We have now obtained some workable samples of the Nitinol shape-changing wire and we are progressing on the development of some simple examples of the wire in operation. At the same time, we are developing designs for more ambitious pieces. Along with the conducting thread, the Lilypad computer board, devices such as heartbeat monitors, accelerometers, and so on, as well as LEDs and fiber optics, the projects are beginning to take shape. It is all very exciting!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Multiple DIY convergences - a revolution in progress

I have to admit that after poking around in several emerging fields of activity, I am stunned to discover how many environments are becoming available to the average tinkerer. The convergence of electronics and computer programming with textiles and garments is only one among several. Sewing as a hobby requires a modest amount of monetary investment, depending on how one goes about things. If one is given a machine or buys one used, works with inexpensive fabrics or by breaking down second hand clothes and re-making them differently, one can manage with costs of the order of about 100$, what you might call a "stripped down budget". If one buys fabrics, a sewing machine and a serger, one is operating within a budget from closer to 1000$ albeit over a certain amount of time, which I would call a "moderate budget".

So-called "soft electronics", that is, electronic components that can be incorporated into textiles and garments, cost about 100$ to get a minimum of materials, and several hundreds of dollars to be operational in this regard. So this places soft electronics within the range of a moderate DIY sewing budget.

Interestingly, the use of RFID technologies (smart chips that emit an ID signal that can be picked up by an appropriately designed antenna) is in this same price range. Today, one can buy a receiver for about 20-40$ and transmitters at costs of from 3$ to 20$. So for an investment of a hundred dollars, one can create a small environment within which one can sense sensors installed into objects or fixed into the physical environment.

Another interesting technological capability in an only slight higher monetary bracket is amateur robotics. With the emergence of Lego's Mindstorms robotics platform, one can build operational robots for an initial investment of about 400$, with very little additional investment required (unless one wants more than one robot).

Hence for what I am calling a modest budget (say 500$ to about 2000$), one can develop smart garments with RFID scanning capabilities, robots with RFID capabilites, and the beginnings of convergences between these two areas (i.e. garments that provide certain robot-like capabilities). This is amazing.

Technical knowhow for none of these areas requires more than some basic electronics knowledge (I took classes in electronics over 30 years ago, and this is enough to make sense of the technology) and some basic programming capability. There are also tons of online tutorials to help out with detailed step-by-step instructions to get the "newbie" through the hoops.

As a result, I think we are going to see a revolution in creative DIY projects in the next few years, as these different environments cross-fertilize each other and we see new ideas being dreamed up and tested very rapidly.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Diverse news

I've nothing spectacular to report today, just lots of bits and pieces.

I received my LilyPad Arduido Deluxe Kit in the mail late last week. I was really excited when I unpacked it, especially given that it's got a fully programmable computer chip that you can sew into clothes, but the kit came without the USB link which is necessary to program the motherboard. Apparently the LilyPads are selling like hotcakes and they're having problems with keeping supply up. Then, just yesterday, the link arrived. Unfortunately, the uploading doesn't seem to work - it gives me an error message. So I still don't have the thing working yet.

Still, I've got a lot more ideas about what to do with it when I do get it working. Things like displaying "emoticons" that express feelings, or having a light go off when my phone, buried in its pocket rings. I'd really like a "soft phone" but I guess that's still a ways off (perhaps not so long, though), or having an indicator to tell me that I'm slouching.

Also, thinking about displaying lights on clothes got me interested in black outfits. On the weekend, I went down to the fabric stores on Queen St. West (Toronto) and found some really nice black cotton fabrics, one almost velour-like that I plan to turn into my first pair of pants, and another semi-transparent with black vertical stripes (black on black), that I could turn into a shirt. A totally black outfit seems like it would be really cool to make. So even though I started thinking this way as a background for lighting up the clothes, now I'm totally into thinking and making "black".

Monday, October 13, 2008

E-Sewing, First Steps

The other envelopes form Aniomagic arrived, with some additional esewing parts : The round dials are sensors that switch when ambient light or temperature increases above a particular level, the rectangulary boxes in the middle contain LED sequins in two different colors, and the black round items are "velcro switches". I've left a tooney in the photo so one can get an idea of the size of these components ... the sequins are absolutely minute!

Using this in combination with the earlier kit, I finally got around to sewing "my first circuit", shown first as is, and then when the "push switch" is pressed. I was worried that the circuit wouldn't close - I really didn't sew very carefully, but even with my sloppy work, the circuit did work properly!

It's nothing to write home about yet, but now I'm ready to incorporate these components into something wearable...

I have some ideas about that :

- use a magnetic compass sensor (I've seen one of these somewhere) and light up on the N-E-S-W cross the appropriate lights depending on which direction one is facing - could even use a scene that incorporates symbolic elements associated with each direction and light up parts of the relevant scence
- light up different constellations from the zodiac at different times, or maybe when one meets someone
- light up an LED to remind oneself to turn on a light when the ambient light is too low to read be (!)
- light up initials

More another time...

Monday, September 29, 2008

Moving house

I'm rather frantic right now... today is my last day in Quebec City before moving for a three month stay to Toronto, as part of my sabbatical leave. I've almost got everything done, today is for tidying up a whole slew of small loose ends. Over the weekend I packed away my clothes and tried to keep my list of what to take updated. Tonight, I'm going to be packing up my sewing supplies and machines... Of course I'm taking my sewing machine and serger with me, I couldn't survive now without them! I sorted my fabrics on the weekend and picked out a subsample to take with me - things I hope I will make, although I probably have too much. I'm going to need a box to store all my thread and accessories into as well. It is amazing how much space my sewing life takes up, not just in my life, but also in my house!

I spent some time on the weekend constructing a new bodice sloper, using Aldrich's book on metric pattern cutting. I've been using one that I scaled up from another book, but I'm ready to start making garments in standard sizes, and Aldrich's book provides clear instructions to making the pattern "blocks". It is an interesting process following her drafting instructions to come up with the blocks, which aren't really yet a sloper, they are like a precursor to a sloper. So now I have a pattern block for the bodice in a standard size 14, ready for the next stage. I am planning to make up two women's shirts using some very bold fabric I have, as the beginning of a collection. Something for my weekends while in Toronto.

I can't wait to make the rounds of the fabric stores there, too. The last two times I was there this year, I found some fabulous fabrics, unfindable here in Quebec City. I just have to be careful not to go overboard on buying them!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Design Notes : With a view towards making interesting e-textile clothes

I have been thinking about the process of making clothes using smart textiles, and have a number of reflections to share.

First of all, I am overwhelmed and a bit bewildered by the range of sites one can find on the web dealing with different aspects of smart textiles. There seem to be dozens, perhaps even hundreds of new technologies under development or emerging on the market that provide new approaches to clothes. There is definitely a revolution in the making.

I've found a very interesting source of "artificial muscles" that could be integrated into clothes (""). Environmental Robots Inc (ERI) provide a number of kits to work with these materials, ranging from about 100$ to nearly 1000$ - these are really engineering kits, however, not for the faint at heart, I think. Nonetheless, they offer interesting possibilities for the use of shape changing textiles within clothes with a modicum of technical tinkering.

I've also been investigating the use of thermochromatic inks - inks that "change color" as a function of temperature. I've found one UK company that sells these ( - I'm sure there are more around, if I went looking. These inks don't exactly change color - they fade to invisibility and back when the temperature changes, but different inks may do so at different temperatures, or if they are connected to a powered heating link, they might be controlled into fading at different moments - this is what allows fabrics to change color. I think color changing fabrics is potentially of greater interest than the use of lights within clothes and as a result I think this is an area of experimentation worth pursuing.

I've also been thinking about the process of selecting fabrics in relation to the introduction of LEDs and fiber optics. Aside from the color-changing fabrics mentionned above, it is likely that one will choose fabrics for clothes differently when one is planning to incorporate LEDs or fiber optics than if one is doing conventional clothes. A lot of sites seem to be dealing with the incorporation of these devices into t-shirts. Personally, I believe the use of lights or color changing textiles is more interesting for more complex garments, but this likewise requires more care in design. Do certain fabrics lend themselves more to incorporating LEDs? As many of these are temperature controlled or may generate a small amount of heat, I imagine that more volatile fabrics such as acetate or triacetate will need to be avoided, but no doubt this should be tested. For that matter, does conductive thread operate equally effectively in different fabrics? Again, a good subject for testing.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

E-Sewing Kit

Well, my e-sewing kit arrived in the mail. It looked like a very elegant card from someone, to the point I was wondering who my secret admirer was, when I saw the address in the top left corner, Aniomagic. I guessed that it was my electronic sewing kit, although it turns out to be only a part of what I ordered. It is the item called "Electronic Sewing Kit" on the bill of sale - one among several elements. I imagine the others will come later, but I'm already filled with my first esewing package! It's like an official launching, a ritual departure, into the world of smart textiles.

Although the packaging is delightful, the contents are rather more mysterious, as there is only a rather cryptic instruction sheet that shows how to string the elements together when sewn onto a garment. It's going to have to be deciphered to get this to work. Still, it can't be worse than a sewing pattern, which isn't always the easiest thing in the world to understand either!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Design Notes : Using Smart Textiles

I have been looking into the current situation for smart textiles, in relation to some upcoming projects with regard to my work as a research scientist and artist. There is an absolutely fascinating blog site I've added to my list on this blog, called - as of today, I count 56 pages of information about different initiatives in smart textiles!

I used this blog to identify several companies that provide an entry point into smart textiles at modest prices. Hence, for example, Aniomagic provides kits such as the one shown at right that include textile switches, batteries, small LED lights and conductive thread that can be sewn into garments and used to control either lights or other devices. I ordered some of their products to try them out, and will report back on these efforts somewhat later on. I also looked up fiber optics companies with sideglow cables and ordered some of this to experiment with their inclusion into garments.

There are roughly four categories of smart textiles under development today :

1) Controllers for accessory devices and fashion elements : There are lots of actual products (i.e. garments) now available on the market that control devices such as iPods, and some garments with lighting patterns built into them. There are also a few kits for developing one's own garments, such as the Aniomagic one shown above, but these are not very robust yet, they are really meant for home projects rather than professional use;

Numetrex Garments

2) Sensors for body states : A growing number of companies are marketing garments with these capabilities. One of the most impressive I have seen are the Numetrex heartrate sensing shirts (sports bra for women, cardio shirt for men, child's shirt soon to be marketed). These are elegant sportswear garments that also monitor pulse (they are compatible with the Polar watch devices), but they are also inexpensive - the sports bra sells for about 50$ ;

3) Shape changing textiles (also called artificial muscles) : For the most part, these textiles are still in development and not available commercially, although this will likely change over the next couple of years. Like conducting thread and textile switches, however, sample kits are available for modest costs, albeit somewhat more expensive than the former and requiring a bit more expertise. The most widely available commercial product, shown in the figure to the left, is Nitinol, available in cylindrical wire, tubes, ribbons or as sheets. These are Nickel-Titanium wires and sheets that may stretch up to twenty times their length in their "superelastic" state, but also may change shape when heated or an electrical current is applied in their "shape memory state". Nitinol is used widely in medical applications (for example, for lining blood vessels), because the alloy is also anti-corrosive and does not interact with blood. Nitinol is named after the American Naval laboratory that originally developed and tested these allows.

4) Power generating textiles : Specially designing textiles are being created that convert human movement into electrical power. Eventually, these smart textiles will generate the power necessary to operate the other smart textiles, that today require separate battery packs.

Using smart textiles

As indicated earlier, there are a variety of kits available for some of these products that can be used to experiment with the incorporation of these technologies into clothes, and a growing number of companies and designers that are including their use within commercially available products. As part of my ongoing interest in clothes for people with disability, I will be working with rehabilitation engineers to develop "smart clothes" for different challenges in relation to disability. But there are also significant opportunities to develop interesting, useful and fashionable clothes for everyday use by all. I shall report back on my own efforts in this regard.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Design Notes : Designing for the Disabled

One of my long term interests in designing and developing clothes is to develop fashion-conscious clothes for the disabled. There are a certain number of sites that provide patterns and/or clothes for people with disability, however, these are for the most part quite functional in focus and offer very little for the fashion conscious. In an ideal world, clothes should be both fashionable AND functional, regardless of who wears them.

There are many different groups within the area of "people with disability", and each group has different clothing needs. For example :

• Wheelchair users have a set of very particular needs, especially if they are partially paralized;
• People who are ambulatory but limp or who have problems with balance and stability have somewhat different needs that those in wheelchairs
• Individuals with cognitive disabilities or memory loss need clothes that "make sense"
• Amputees also have very particular needs in clothes
• People with low vision or who are blind need clothes that have color markers and the means to have feedback about overall appearance
• Alzheimer's patients sometimes need clothes that cannot be removed easily
• Individuals with sensitive skin have special needs in terms of textures and comfort, requiring flat seams, for example, among other adaptations
• Some people may find particular movements painful, and need clothes that accommodate, enable or even constrain such movements
• Women, men and children all have different needs in each group

Clothes for such individuals do not always seek to "mark" the disability - for many people, some means of "hiding" what are viewed by many as "problems" may also be of interest. Fashionable clothes must be designed with sensitivity to needs both to reveal and to hide. Furthermore, fashions need to respond to different contexts. People with disability, along with everyone else, need both casual and formal clothes, sportswear, clothes for different seasons, "sexy" clothes when appropriate, and so on.

Less anyone object that this is a "small niche market", current projections indicate that the number of people with disability will triple over the next decade or so due to the aging of the population (a planetary phenomenon, not limited only to the west). One source indicates that within a decade, nearly one third of North American families will have at least one person with a disability. The issue of developing appropriate products for this population is going global, and for those more financially oriented, it has been suggested that disability products will be one of fastest growing sectors of the economy.

There are some websites of interest - I only have a small sample so far. The UK company Wheeliechix Chic designs and sells fashionable clothes for women in wheelchairs (see photo at right for an example). The company, which saw the light of day in the spring of 2007, has already won a number of prizes and garnered a certain amount of attention. I have been exchanging interesting emails with the CEO of WheelieChix, Ms. Louisa Summerfield, regarding the design principles they use within their products. They have developed an interesting collection of summer clothes and are now working on designing winter clothes - this has turned out to be a real challenge, but they are making progress. When I first encountered their website and their summer collection, I did a "mini-analysis" of the design principles they use in their garments, as follows :

• Short and/or open sleeves to facilitate wheelchair manipulations
• Wide pant legs to accommodate catheters, etc.
• Open V neck for comfort when leaning forward and moving shoulders
• Soft elastic at waistband for seated comfort
• Front zip where possible, covered for aesthetics
• Modifiable skirt/sleeve length using side strings or zipped cuffs
• Accommodate arms with built-up muscle (e.g. capped sleeves)
• Cover/disguise any fat in stomach area
• Flexible back area (pleats, zippers, elastic, etc.)
• Magnetic fastenings for ease of use
• Longer at the back so the clothes do not "ride up" in the chair
• More ease in the crotch area, when appropriate

For their winter clothes, they are addressing additional concerns :

• Keep sleeves short or cuffs that can be pulled or folded up, as long sleeves get muddy and wet;
• Use cloak-like garments that cover the front but are easy to put on - winter coats are a real problem to get into and out of;
• Use fabrics that are light but warm and not too bulky;

A Swedish site called fashionfreaks offers patterns adapted for people in wheelchairs (men and women). These follow some of the principles outlined above, and the site provides instructions for beginners on learning to sew.

Some sites that market general aids for daily living also offer a limited range of clothing. LazarusMobility in the UK is such an example - they market the WheelieChix Chic products discussed above but also products from other suppliers.

The Adaptive Clothing site provides a useful but partial list of sources for adaptive clothing. Although there are a number of providers of garments within the list, many of these offer clothes whose primary focus is function and not fashion. There are hence huge opportunities (and huge needs to address) in the area of disability fashion.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Design Notes : Five Design Principles

Design is a process by which a global vision is brought into alignment with the technical (i.e. local) means available to realize it. This is never a linear process. It involves a seesawing between global vision and technical means, but also it means following serendipitous paths as they present themselves. Our ability to design is always conditioned by our understanding of the technical means to achieve those designs. I see the process of design as something akin to the process of "resolving paradox", since design often involves a series of tensions or paradoxes that must be resolved in order to produce good design. This is not so much an intellectual exercise, as one that consists of trusting one's intuition and unconscious processes, and letting elements emerge when they are ready to come.

While investigating the process of design related to fashion design, I have come up with five broad principles that condition the effort involved:

1) The tension between body shape and pure geometry : clothes are made, essentially, from two-dimensional shapes (i.e. geometrical forms) with a little thickness, but they must cover a three-dimensional body "manifold". Hence geometry is omnipresent in fashion design, an intrinsic part of the process. The geometry may be emphasized or efforts made to hide it in any garment or outfit. The tension between geometry and body manifold is therefore at the heart of fashion design;

2) The tension between form and function : This might seem obvious, but it comes up in situations where we don't think about it. For example, clothes that are designed to fit one body type may not work so well with another body type. Many sources classify bodies into five rough types, the hourglass, triangle, inverted triangle, pear or rectangle shape and wide rectangle or round shape, depending on the ratios between bust or chest, waist and hips. Thinking of clothes as different for different body forms and different functions is critical to good fashion design. This is even more true when one includes people with disability in the group for which designs are being developed;

3) The tension between enabling or constraining structures : All clothes are both enabling and constraining. They limit our ability to touch our skin, or to freely move certain body parts with respect to others, while allowing other movements to occur. There seems to be a common myth that all clothes should minimize constraints, but in fact constraints are a very important part of clothing design and should be thought of as an integral element;

4) The tension between what is revealed and what is hidden : Clothes are as much about what is revealed as what is hidden (this is not unlike the Japanese traditional tendency to treat empty spaces as positive design elements rather than as empty);

5) The pleasure principle : In the broadest sense of the term, all clothes are erotic. They touch us in many different ways, simultaneously. They hence give us pleasure in tactile ways as well as in terms of how they look, how they make us look, how they make us feel, what messages they send, and how they sound as we move. Designing clothes to enhance pleasure in different forms helps us be more fully human. In this sense, fashion design is a sacred task, it speaks to our relationship with the broader universe.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Brocade Blouse Project (#1)

My first learning project was to design and create a blouse made from some lovely English brocade fabric I found at one of the local sewing stores (see photo on the right). My model for this project was Marie Louise Bourbeau, who is my business partner and primary collaborator in my professional life, as well as a good friend. Marie Louise loves good clothes and is herself highly creative - she has encouraged me in my "learning to design clothes" project. In fact, she was the one who suggested that if I could make virtual clothes for virtual worlds, I should also be able to make real clothes for the real world :)

I began the project by making a "duct tape dress form" of Marie Louise. This was a bit of an adventure in itself. I downloaded instructions from the web. These indicated that the duct tape should be placed in a "loose fit". However, when it came to stuffing the finished form, the final product ended up being a 38 bust instead of a 36 bust - I overstuffed it, but a looser stuffing wasn't easy to achieve.

After working for a couple of weeks with this dress form, I started on another project involving a different set of measurements. The first dress form couldn't be used for this second project. I finally decided to purchase a commercial dress form as these can be adjusted for a range of measurement sizes. In the photo at right, the dress form is shown along with my currently still chaotic organization of fabric.

The next step consisted of generating a sloper and modifying its pattern to make something more interesting. As this was my very first pattern-based project, the only changes I made were to the neckline. I made a sleeveless blouse with a slightly dropped neckline. The difficulties encountered were numerous:

- I had trouble making my first darts (and they ended up being too long). It wasn't until I read the Margolis book that the use of dressmaker's darts rather than design darts was made clear to me ;
- I had a lot of trouble sewing the front part to the back part at the shoulders. The problem was the facings - I had put on the facings separately on the front part (button strip and neckline) and the back neckline, and had difficulty sewing them together ;
- I had trouble finishing the sleeves. I tried using bias tape (too cludgy and bulky) before I ended up turning the seams over to form a "clean finish" ;
- The fit to Marie Louise wasn't great either. I had too much ease at the front at the level of the arms, and too little ease at the waist.

Nevertheless, in my favor, I was able to complete the blouse and have it fit more or less, and the result looked reasonably good, despite the fitting difficulties.

Learning to Sew and Manipulate Patterns - Basics

Once I had decided that I need to learn to sew, I made the rounds of the fabric/sewing stores in town and purchased a sewing machine. I bought a Brother XL-3500, a basic machine, for about 150$. I didn't want a more sophisticate sewing machine - I used to have one and found it difficult to learn to use. In those days I was less motivated to learn to sew, but still, I decided to go for a basic machine and upgrade eventually if I needed to. Overall, however, I'm very happy with the machine. It does what it needs to do.

Next, I looked around on the internet for "how to" sites on sewing and on pattern manipulation. I also looked at Amazon for books on pattern cutting. I took a chance on the Hollen and Kundal book, which was clearly a textbook. When the book first arrived I was a little daunted by the complex looking figures and diagrams, but I've found that although they look complex, they are well done and extremely useful when one is actually working on patterns and clothes. The book has been a very useful guide. I've recently acquired some additional books on pattern cutting, including "Metric Pattern Cutting" by Winifred Aldrich and "Make Your Own Dress Patterns" by Adele Margolis, both excellent books that were recommended to me. I find all three books to be complementary references - there is some overlap, but a lot of the material in each book is substantially different from the others.

I found two extremely useful websites. The first of these is a collection of video tutorials made available by the Brigham Young University Family Life programme. These exceptional videos present a whole range of sewing and draping tutorials, some of them quite long (the one for the two part collar is an hour and forty-five minutes in length). These tutorials, made with video closeups on the sewing machine itself and the hands as they manipulate the fabric and the patterns, are chock full of tips, information about traps, and careful step-by-step advice on doing jobs that are often considered to be difficult (such as sewing in a zipper or button holes, sewing a collar, manipulating darts, etc.).

The second website, very different in style to the first, is the BurdaStyle site. Promoted as the first "Open Source Sewing" website, it offers a community of sewers from all over the world who are sharing ideas, techniques, problem-solving, expertise and, of course, patterns. In addition, the site is managed and supported by staff from Burda, the pattern manufacturer. This means that no one is left "hanging" for long before an answer is forthcoming, and some of the best advice around on the web can be found through the site. The site includes a wikipedia-style glossary of terms, community-uploading of patterns, how-tos, and photographs of creations, an extensive set of forums and a blog updated on a nearly daily basis. Notice that although the site has been open only since the spring of 2007, as of this moment it already incorporates 100 000 members!

Equipped with a collection of "how-to" video tutorials, access to a community-based web site for additional advice, a book on flat pattern cutting, a commercial dress form and a sewing machine, I set about making one of each of the basic garment types - a blouse, a skirt, a dress, a shirt and a pair of pants. For each project, I began with a basic "sloper" (the name given to a basic pattern) and a set of ambitions. I wasn't particularly interested in making "demo clothes" - I wanted to make, even at this stage, real clothes that would be worn. So I identified a recipient for each effort, measured them and adapted the patterns and adjusted the fit as a consequence.

Learning Strategy

I approach the problem of learning to design fashions and make clothes the way I usually tackle new areas.

First of all, even though I'm a teacher at least some of the time, I don't particularly care for courses. I prefer to learn on my own, doing my own research and learning from my own mistakes.

Secondly, I follow a learning strategy that I have learned over the years is unusual. Most advice on learning will tell you to learn "in small chunks", to "reinforce what you learn" by repeating steps, and to tackle problems that are not too challenging so you don't get disheartened when you make slow progress". I have always been interested in "learning to my maximum potential", however, and I realized as a young man that the best way to maximize my learning potential was to aim well beyond what I think are my limits. If I aim for 400% of my perception of my limits, and only achieve 30% of what I've aimed, I will still be learning at a rate 30% above what I thought was my maximum reach. Years ago, I made the mistake of assuming that other people like to learn this way and taught using this model. I quickly discovered that most people find this strategy to be too stressful - they want a steady stream of reassurance that they are doing "OK". That's what the grading system is all about, in fact. You have to be highly motivated and self-disciplined to follow this other route.

Third, I learn in "grasshopper" fashion. I jump from one topic to another, from one orbit to another, rarely following a set or ordered system. I am a chaotic learner, and I've learned to trust my intuitions about what I need to learn next.

My understanding of the "learning landscape" regarding fashion design and fabrication is that one is presented with a suite of possible paths to follow :

The main route followed is to go to fashion design school. I notice that lots of people interested in fashion do this, but then drift into other activities after finishing. So design school is not only for those who choose this as a career, but also for "interested others", although it represents a significant investment of time, money and energy. The other main route followed by many people is to learn to sew and make clothes from patterns (the yellow road in my diagram). Learning to sew may be achieved by following classes or by independent study and practice.

Another possible learning path is to study how to drape and make clothes from draping. This is covered within fashion design schools. I have not found many sources of information about this approach outside of the formal context of such schools.

Finally, the green road in the diagram is the one I have chosen to follow - learn to manipulate basic pattern slopers, and to develop garments from these. It is an intermediate path between the "sewing from patterns" route and the "design school" route.

My basic idea is to use pattern manipulation (and possible draping, if I ever master it) to develop a technical understanding of clothing fabrication, and to then combine this technical understanding with a design-oriented approach to develop garments that interest me.

I decided to begin this as a summer 2008 project, hence starting in June 2008. Over the course of the summer, I set out to design and make one garment of each basic type (blouse, skirt, dress, men's shirt, pants). Since I knew nothing about garments and clothes, I entered into an intensive learning period. I bought and studied fashion magazines, surfed the web for blog sites and "how to's" on sewing and design, investigated software for design and pattern construction, bought books, bought a sewing machine (and later a serger), taught myself to sew, bought fabric, made a dress form and then bought a commercial one, and became active within the internet sewing community. It is now late summer, and I am moving into the next phase of my learning - a kind of "knowledge consolidation" period and some risk-taking into new, more ambitious projects. More later.

Chameleon Gods - beginnings

Strange name for a blog about fashion and clothes design? Chameleon for changeable, transformation, adaptability, color, innovation, uniqueness. Gods because I am interested in foundations and fundamentals, sources, roots and inspiration.

The Chameleon Gods blog is about my journey, in learning, creativity and movement, in the world of clothes and fashion. I will try to spell out the roots of my own inspiration, and share the challenges faced so that others may benefit from my efforts.

My journey is an ambitious, perhaps over-ambitious, effort to develop fashion designs for particular areas of interest. These areas include dancing, disability, sculpture, ecologies, and identity exploration, at the moment, but the categories will shift and change over time. My journey begins with an extensive background in design from both a scientific and an artistic perspective, but no experience in clothes, fashion, sewing, etc. So everything is to be learned. I started my project three months ago, so I will be spending a certain amount of time "catching up" with where I am, and then, later, reporting on progress, as well as on odds and ends that relate to fashion, identity, sewing, ... and life :)