My Old Hell Freezes Over Friend (OHFOF), who despite everything I still love, and I once walked into a gallery in the National Women’s Museum filled with headless, bowed, and seated human figures sculpted by Magdalena Abakanowicz out of glue, burlap, and three thousand years of Polish mysticism.
Backs, by Magdalena Abakanowicz
Tears shot out of my eyes.
An art historian, my friend explained that Abakanowicz had invented the medium of burlap stiffened with glue because there was nothing else to sculpt in Soviet Poland. No bronze foundries, no marble, no chalcedony. So she re-invented sculpture.
Just so, my friend explained, did the Poles invent and re-invent their clothing. Famously the Soviets made one size bra – enormous in the back and in the cups and light blue, as the New York Times reporter noted, the same reporter who noted that the Russians look like us but are not like us.
The Poles are more like the Russians than they are like us. Unlike the Russians, however, they had all inherited a Savile Row tailored suit from their grandfathers, and a hand-crafted umbrella. Working with the venerable fabric like the genius Abakanowicz, they mended and refashioned and maintained their grandfather’s beautiful 1927 suit for the 50 years of the Soviet occupation. There were guys in tiny three-foot-wide stalls who made a living patiently repairing stretchers and ribs, tubes, tips and triangular waterproof silk panels of heirloom umbrellas. People stepped out in the meticulously mended and re-fashioned wool suits their grandfathers had been married in, carrying the umbrella he held up against Hitler.
They made eye contact, my friend said, on the sidewalk, as people in North America do not. There were no invisible men in Poland. Reinventing your inheritance, mending invisibly the cuff your grandfather’s 50 year working life had frayed, made the Poles the most elegant, the sexiest, and toughest captive people she had ever seen. It was she who also elaborated on the point, briefly noted once every 15 or so years in the West, that there can be no counterculture, no Abakanowicz, where there is no Stalinist socialist realism, no oppressive official culture, and the form-conferring clothes were just as much a part of the resistance as the form-seeking stiffened burlap.
So I started looking online for refashioning blogs and communities. I wanted to see how people in a recession were altering thrift store clothes for their children. This quaint idea I got from a vintage British sewing book recommended by the Intelligent Craftafarian, Dr. Kate Davies. It’s The Pictorial Guide to Modern Home Needlecraft, the 1946 edition of which emphasizes thrifty, mend-and-make-do counterculture strategies to deal with World War Two fabric rationing. My favorite is the maternity dress cobbled together from two old dresses, and topped with a Rosalind Russell chapeau. There’s also a tailored jacket from a swing coat, a bolero from a jacket, a child’s dress from a skirt, a layette from old silk nightgowns, pinafores from slacks, a day dress from “a dance frock”, a pinafore frock from a worn dress, blouses, rompers and children’s clothes from men’s old shirts, a lady’s suit from a man’s suit, blouses from dresses, cutting down children’s garments, enlarging children’s knits. What most interested me was how to make a child’s coat from a man’s, and how to make your own teddy, bra and panties from silk nightgowns.
I Googled re-fashioning and upcycling and came up with hundreds of blogs about turning t shirts and pillowcases into little girl’s clothes. How can I put this nicely? I am a veteran of the laborious embellishment of sow’s ears, with hand-crocheted lace and loving embroidery, from new cheap shitty sheets into cheap shitty sheets with about 200 woman-hours of labor rendering them painful to behold, painful to launder, the only sheets I have which require ironing. These prodigies of labor did not render them passably comfortable to sleep on. I had fun, the sheets are almost useless, and, but for the handmade lace and embroidered shamanic phrases, look terrible.
Imagine expending far less labor on turning your old Metallica wife beater into a dress for a little girl with a gelled Mohawk. Or, 10 thrifted t shirts, lovingly cut up and re-assembled into a piecework masterpiece Joseph coat, with a gigantic Hobbit hood, of many colors no child would be caught dead in, because her homeys in the old Metallica wife beaters and Rihanna booty shorts would beat the living piss out of her.
A popular internet upcycled t shirt project.
You couldn’t even get away with it for Halloween because you basically freeze to death in an ankle-length Donny Osmond coat made out of t shirts.
Osmond on Broadway in the Bible musical.
And, little girls in midi-length sundresses made out of dingy, pilled-up, flowered polyester pillow cases have a nasty affect redolent of ‘70s sex. And not the pastoral, innocent shepherdess fantasy kind, either. I was similarly skeezed by numerous blogs in which gorgeous thrifted men’s jackets were “upcycled” into tote bags. How many hairy hobo bags, chafing the tender underflesh of your upper arm, does a girl need? There’s a reason they call tweed jackets outerwear. As someone else has said of cooking, “It’s not easy, and it’s not creative.”
I think the homeys in the Metallica t shirts would also beat little girls wearing tweed coats cut out of old men’s coats, which have their own unsavory affect. But if artistic and useful recycling of vintage tweeds, silk, and wool knits is the goal here, small garments of larger worn ones is going to be the end product, and our idea of what cool children wear will have to change. So they’ll look like like John Roberts’ children at the announcement of his appointment to the Supreme Court. We can teach them how to fight.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, his President, and his family.
A truly useful, and sustainable, refashioning tutorial would teach parents how to make children’s coats out of thrifted adult fleeces and down jackets, which are the clothes children can wear at the bus stop without attracting driveby shootings. I have Googled every which way to locate such a tutorial from an experienced blogger, and have found no one willing to tackle it. I suspect the principles, as outlined for cutting a cloth coat down by a Depression-era granny in a sewing forum, would be the same for down jackets. You carefully pick it apart, have it cleaned, pin your pattern pieces to the non-worn parts of the down jacket, with many pins to prevent the escape of the down insulation, and then sear the seams as per this expert’s instruction.
Children’s hats and gloves can be made from thrifted fleece; the best fashion forward look I’ve ever seen involving a fleece vest was a street fashion shot of Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley striding down Fifth Avenue in a tailored suit with an orange funnel-necked fleece vest over the top and, I believe, a yucho.
Yucho patterns from Ravelry.
Hand-knit hats, as ALT demonstrates, are always preferable, and you can, according to the 1946 needlework book, cut knits down for children. I cut down a fake Fair Isle vest for a hot water bottle cover.
Six-dollar thrifted Fair Isle vest becomes hot water bottle cover.
The Big Book of Needlecraft, Odham’s retro masterpiece, contains patterns for knitted undershirts and underpants for adults and children. For, you know, when the lights go out.