I swear I’m going to talk about my dress, but first I have to tell you a story. I lived in San Francisco for about 10 years. After I moved from New Orleans to San Francisco, I got swept up in the outdoor adventure culture. Living in New Orleans, when I would tell my friends that I was going to workout, they would say, “Uh, wait, what are you going to do?!” Not that I’m knocking New Orleans. It remains my favorite city and I miss it everyday, but it’s not necessarily known for fitness. So, when I got to San Francisco and everyone was so active, it definitely marked a change in my environment. I would casually ask a friend what they were doing over the weekend and they would say, “I’m going to climb Mt Hood”. Then it was my turn to say, “Uh, wait, what are you going to do?!” With all this going on around me, I decided to get on board. What I settled on was swimming.
I heard from a friend’s husband that he was planning to swim a race across San Francisco Bay. I know, I know. I’m like you. I didn’t think people did THAT. I mean, haven’t we all heard the stories about how you couldn’t escape from Alcatraz because no one could swim the bay? Apparently, you CAN swim the bay and people do it all the time. The trick is swimming at high tide when the waters are at their calmest.
Yep. This is what I decided I would try. I registered for the race that began on the beach of Angel Island and finished on the docks of Tiburon. I bought a wet suit and trained for months at the relatively quiet, but frigid waters of Aquatic Park. On the day of the race when I would finally be hitting open water, my friend Kenneth gave me some very important advice. He told me to count my strokes and go to a high number like 50 before I looked up to see where I was. He explained that when you get in the bay, everything seems very far away and it’s hard to judge distances. Count your strokes, check to make sure you are headed in the right direction, then put your head down and do it again.
Of all the training I did, this was the most important lesson of all. You can’t imagine the overwhelming feelings that come when you find yourself in the middle of San Francisco Bay with the waves pounding you and the tide pulling you and you can barely see the shore. It would be so easy to panic. But Kenneth taught me the right mindset. Head down, stroke hard, stay measured, check your bearings, then do it again.
Lately, I am having days that feel like I’m in the bay. With the ground shifting beneath my feet, it’s no accident that the creative project I turned to involved slow, measured hand sewing. This is the Factory Dress from Alabama Chanin’s Build a Wardrobe subscription. A completely hand sewn garment. Obviously this approach to sewing is very different from sewing on a machine in a whole slew of ways, but to me the most important aspect is that you cannot be focused on finishing. If you are sitting there trying to figure out how much more you have to do before you are done, you will be miserable. The point is to sit down, breathe, and stitch. I’m actually always a little surprised when I reach the end. I wouldn’t say that it takes patience so much as determination. I’ll be forever grateful for that lesson I learned swimming. Put your head down, do the work, but also enjoy the journey. Feel good about your focus and your strength, whether physical or mental. And know that you may not see the finish line, but each action gets you closer.
Okay, more about the dress. First of all, I encourage you to check out this year’s Build a Wardrobe subscription. I think the patterns are amazing, each one lending itself to so much customization. You can really get creative! I love the basic silhouette of the Factory Dress but there are a couple of changes I made to the pattern. I enlarged the neck opening one inch equally around the neckline. And I added sleeves! I drafted a puff sleeve, with a puff to the cap but not the hem. And of course, I had to embellish it with a triple stripe stitched down the front with the rosebud stitch (my favorite!). I made the stripes using strips of matching jersey cut about 3/4” wide and stitched over. Let’s talk about the rosebud stitch a bit. I think it’s so lacy and beautiful, but if you try it, be prepared to use up a lot of thread. I think that I went through 3 spools on this dress. Each thread length (I use a length that reaches to my elbow) stitched a little less than 2 inches. Yes, the going is slow! Now you can see why I told my swimming story. I have about 200 inches of the rosebud stitch on this dress with the stripes, the neckline, and the sleeve hem. That’s a lot of rosebudding! (Instructions for the rosebud stitch are found in all of Natalie’s books.)
If you haven’t tried an Alabama Chanin project, I highly recommend it. And when you complete your garment, you can give yourself a big pat on the back and all your friends will be so impressed when you tell them that the garment is 100% hand sewn! Bragging rights for life! Because let me tell you, I’m still bragging about the fact that I swam the bay. Whenever I took my kids on the ferry, I would make sure that I was surrounded by tourists, and say VERY LOUDLY, “Hey kids, your mommy swam from there to there”, dramatically waving my arms and pointing from Angel Island then way, way over to Tiburon. I was sure to get at least a few oohs and aahs from someone. My children, not so impressed. They just roll their eyes, “yeah, yeah, whatever”.
Lessons learned from swimming. Lessons learned from sewing. Lessons that come in handy when I’m trying to maintain balance in this ever changing landscape we live in. You may laugh but I keep thinking about what Dory sang in Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming”. Or if it applies, “Just keep stitching, just keep stitching”.
Pattern, Factory Dress, Mid Length Option, Build a Wardrobe 2017
Pattern Adjustments, Enlarged Neckline and Puffed Sleeves
Fabric, Alabama Chanin Organic Cotton Jersey in Plum
Thread, Coats and Clark Button-Craft in Black
Stitching, Fell Stitch and Rosebud Stitch
Photography by Santiago Vanegas