Archives for the month of: November, 2012

As a knitter, the Intelligent Craftafarian, as I call Kate Davies, is at the forefront of the British fashion sustainability movement (I say it’s punk, and it is spectacular). She has been asked by the awesome women who grow and shear their own sheep at Juniper Moon Farm in Charlottesville, VA to design a sweater made from heirloom hardy wool suitable for outerwear. (Dr. Davies gently sneers at the little girlie merinos, silk blends yet, that I’m crocheting useless little girlie garments with, which, she assures me, will pill and look ratty before they’re off the needle. So femme, my bad.)

The straight skinny on sustainable choices for fashion design. My theory is that the British art and fashion schools developed these curricula from straight edge punk culture. Alexander McQueen was the apotheosis of this.

There’s nothing I love more than a process story, about how things go from the sheep’s back to my back. The women will shear, card and spin the hardy wool, commission sweater designs from masters like Dr. D and then commission master knitters to make them. All by hand, for a sweater of hardy wool, barely twigless, that will outlast hard wear on your herring dinghy in the North Seas, perhaps, or digging peat on top of Ben Bleak, for perhaps three generations. Dr. D’s post touches too on the celebration of 21st century sheep farming as women’s work in the logo the ladies have designed, featuring ladies as both shepherd and shearer. (And sheep, too, I think. No nasty horns there.)

Juniper Moon Farm logo for their sheep-to-sweater project.

I can’t wait to see the heirloom/21st century Ninja shepherdess sweaters Kate and her colleagues design. This has set me to thinking about my local heirloom Navajo churro sheep, their hardy wool, and getting somebody to design an undyed fisherman’s type sweater based on Navajo designs.

From To Walk in Beauty: A Navajo Family’s Journey Home, by Stacia Spragg-Braude.

Thinking about the way housekeeping, home economics, domestic science, is the lineage of the matriarchy and many other pagan practices. Martha Stewart unapologetically credits the Polish peasant in her late mother, Martha Kostyra, for teaching her everything she knows about celebrating the seasons with appropriate house cleaning activities. Stewart dedicated one of her major philanthropic contributions, a hospital wing, to her mother, Big Martha.

There’s a good amount of control freak in it too, of the kind Mark Twain fulminates against in his misogynist materialism, objecting to the moralistic nit picking of women in his famous excoriating essay on the founder of Christian Science,  Mary Baker Eddy. Today’s equivalent of Huck Finn’s repellent, canting Miss Watson might well be the germophobe former professor and author of a 400 page book on laundry, Cheryl Mendelson. The laundry book was an excerpt expanded from her nearly 900-page 1999 best seller on cleaning house, Home Comforts.

The rise of Martha, Cheryl and what the Brits call pinny porn appears to be related to post-feminist backlash against the baby boomer mothers who did not keep house because, first, they chose to work, and second, because they then had to work as single parents. Home. Comforts. Speaks of mother love, and in Mendelson’s case, of scary tiger mom love with enemas and starched pajamas.

Not for nothing did the Brits, who do so love their nannies and what in the case of Dr. Johnson was called “cupboard love”, of the cozy and sometimes painful kind nannies dish out, perceive the erotic infantilism in all of this, and coin the immortal term pinny porn. The best book I know about the empowerment of domestic science is Laura Shapiro’s classic, Perfection Saladnewly reissued in a Modern Library edition. It deserves a place next to Anne Higonnet’s equally fascinating and dispiriting book on how — among other things — female art students were tracked into commercial art at the turn of the 20th century, and were much responsible for the development of — well, baby flesh porn. Maude Humphrey Bogart is said to have sketched her baby as the first Gerber baby.

The new edition of the Shapiro classic.

I’m for it. But scrubbing the boxspring for dust mites? Not so much.

What’s good to eat Thanksgiving week is favorite no-cook food, and lite faves. I’m getting fresh home style cottage cheese from the supermercado, maybe mix with shredded carrots, capers, scallions and maybe not. I also scored a deal on mangoes and papaya chunks.

My favorite peanut butter for grownups sandwich, the Tineka,  my candidate for one of the best sammies of all time,  from Cafe Lula in Chicago. It is electrifying with chili paste, sweet soy sauce, cukes, red onion and sprouts.

Ima cook one big meal, aside from the turkey one, and eat it all week, including Ottolenghi’s sweet slaw (with lime, papaya and mango, eat your heart out).

Roast pork shall be eaten hot, cold, shredded, stirfried or nuked until it’s gone. I am lucky to love fruit and eat a bunch of it, clementines and honey crisp apples now. Hummus for healthy lunches.
I think maybe after the turkey Ima go to Costco, get a crate of mangoes and make mangoneada popsicles. The supermercado has the sekrit ingredient, chamoy sauce.

If like me you are a diehard lover of cities and the sidewalk, where democracy is formed, you’ll love Chop Shop,  now streaming at Netflix. Ebert says it’s one of the best movies of the oughties. I wouldn’t know, but it has many virtues.

The 12-year-old actor Alejandro Polanco celebrates Willets Point, Queens, in the 2007 neo-realist movie, Chop Shop.

First, it is neo-Marxist. Modernity, it is argued, began in public space with the uprooting of the cobblestones people used to throw at the Bastille. And democracy itself was invented in the plazas of Athens, where citizens gathered to vote on civic matters. Willets Point is not a planned city – so far from being planned it overlooks Rikers Island, the nexus of New York City chaos – and has no sewage system or streetlights. It is an organic, Systeme D — the back channel economy in which half the world’s workers now labor — explosion of auto parts and repair shops where there used to be junk yards.  Visually, cinematically, it is the opposite of the planned, organized, civilized city and much more in the realm of the visual chaos Robert Venturi first discovered in Las Vegas, and Rem Koolhaas celebrates in Lagos.

Willets Point is the urban version of the vast parking lot in which most suburban Americans live, and which academic architecture, who fancy themselves the avatars of modernity, are just beginning to address.  It is not the architecture of reassurance symbolized by Disneyland and everything else Hollywood builds into a set.

The suburbs – I suppose Queens could be considered a suburb of Manhattan – are where all the entry level immigrants now live. The outer boroughs are no longer for white people only, and that clash and ascendancy of cultures is what Chop Shop is partly about. Shea Stadium is right there; the kids sneak into baseball games; everyone in the world wants to own an American muscle car and comes to Willets Point to get one.

Second, the  neo-realist story idea arose from reality. No member of the chattering classes has ever laid eyes on Willets Point, Queens. No Spielberg or Bruckheimer has the nerve to emerge from un-air-conditioned space to regard actuality.

The Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani, guided there by a roadie who’d had his own car chopped there, spent months hanging out in Willets Point.  He didn’t know what his story was going to be. He waited for the neighborhood to tell him. In the visual chaos, he slowly began to see that there were children who lived and worked there.* That children in America live and work in junk yards is something you’d never know unless you just quietly hung around a place, not re-conforming the reality to make it videogenic. Apprehending, I don’t know, reality.

Third, he had no casting director and basically no lines to memorize, only a carefully rehearsed and diligently pre-shot, shot and re-shot improv script. He found the lumniscent young actors who play the orphaned brother and sister himself. Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales epitomize the lure of British television and movies to me – indeed Bollywood, Australian, Spanish movies and movies everywhere else but America – they are real faces. Uncut, unBotoxed, shining out light the way no Hollywood mask can.

Gonzales and Polanco live in a crawl space above the chop shop.

Polanco looks, walks, speaks, and acts everything that is good about boys of all ages, and the poignancy of his being 12 years old, a little man — sometimes trudging like a tiny pigeon-toed old man —  is the heart of the story of the working child. Gonzales has the more unsympathetic part, more difficult, perhaps to play than the beautiful boy, but her face in the scene in which she embraces her little brother and swings his legs around in a kickball game is one I will never forget. Then there’s the pigeon scene at the end. Oh me.

Gonzales and Polaco kick ball in Chop Shop.

Finally, there are scenes in the movie, notably one in the subway where Polanco and his much shorter sidekick sell candy, in which there are no actors whatever. Every candy buyer in the subway cars – mostly hard-looking young African-American men – is a real New Yorker caught by Bahrani’s hand-held camera. Bahrani says, “That’s the great thing about New Yorkers is, they’ve seen so many cameras they don’t really care. (Laughter) I’m amazed still. Like, that woman who—not even once does she look into the camera, or even care! No one asked any questions, either, like, “Why is there a camera and five people following?” They just bought their candy and went… It’s amazing, you know? Thank you, because that was like New Yorkers; they allow these things to happen.”

Totally open, and totally cool. The new Jerusalem, the city on the hill for which we left so much behind. Run, comrade. The old world is behind you.


*The NYT has a wonderful piece about the single, lone legal resident of Willets Point, Joseph Ardizzone,of the auto repair ghetto where so much life goes down.

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.

%d bloggers like this: