To craft or not to craft…

New research explores the effects that different types of handwork have on the brain of the artist:

You won’t get any argument from anyone here about the benefits of making things!


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Needles in the Stacks, Couture edition


Denise n Beth

Here in the FIT Library, we have many many books on how to make clothing.  There are different points of view on techniques, as well as different types of machinery.  In our last post, we spent time reviewing books about the serging or merrow machine and covered a few of our favorite how-to-get-started books on sewing.  This time we’re going to present to you our take on some of the more advanced sewing techniques, known collectively as “couture”.  You probably want to have some sewing experience under your belt before you start working with any of these books.

Unlike “ready-to-wear” or “pret-a-porter” (i.e. ‘ready-to-wear’ in French), couture implies a super-expensive, highly-skilled approach to the construction of a garment which is made to fit a specific person.  This includes doing much of the finishing work, like zipper insertion, putting in linings, seam finishes, buttonholes, setting the collar, and any embellishment, using hand-sewing techniques.  This attention to detail ensures that each layer of the garment lies where it should, and that the garment’s inside looks as finished as the outside.  While couture and “tailoring” overlap, couture more often refers to dressmaking in softer fabrics, and tailoring usually refers to the use of wools with interfacings stitched to create shaping, such as collars and lapels, as well as a particular type of fit.

Most clothing these days is ready-to-wear:  made to generalized sizes, either Small-Medium-Large-Extra Large, or 4-6-8-10-12-14-16.  If you shop in stores, this is what you are buying.

Cool Couture, by Kenneth D. King

4th Floor Art Reference TT713 .K54

king couture

Kenneth King (Fashion Design: Apparel) is one of the professors  who teaches in the Couture Certificate program here at FIT.

As I mentioned above, you will need basic sewing knowledge to make best use of this book.  Some of Professor King’s explanations use garment-center jargon, and some techniques require specialized equipment.  Thankfully, the book has clear easy-to-follow photographs.   “Cool Couture” covers a lot of techniques, including fine finishings for eveningwear fabrics,  a wealth of tailored-pocket finishes, and some really creative trim- and embellishment-techniques.

king trimmed


The author promotes funky novelty linings, beading, embellishing with cords, findings, uses for braids, as well as demonstrating complex piping and seam finishes.  He goes further by presenting elaborate tassels, multiple-rows of piping, curved pockets, and built-up passementeries.  The author says in the cover, “I believe it’s better to spend a bit more time with a project and achieve something very special, rather than try to save time or money by sewing running shorts and T-shirts…My wish is for this book to stimulate your sense of creativity and adventure.”  It certainly does ours!

The Dressmaker’s Handbook of Couture Sewing Techniques Lynda Maynard

4th Floor Art Reference TT713 .M37

dressmaker couture techDenise and I are cheering the trend to print hands-on books with spiral bindings, so they will lay flat while in use.  This well-written book presents useful techniques in an up-to-date layout with clear photographs and lots of small sidenotes.  The author explains how and what her solutions help (e.g. there’s a lot of info on backing fabrics and why use which fabric.)  The book includes really beautiful seam, neckline, waist and hem finishes, using ribbons, bias bindings, and organza.  While detailed, it misses some techniques that more basic books (e.g. our old favorite, the Reader’s Digest Guide) include, but includes many that aren’t in those.  It also includes very detailed descriptions of fabrics used for linings, interlinings, eveningwear and daywear.  While this book may be less inspiring than Professor King’s, it’s probably a more thorough workbook for commonly-used finishing techniques.

Modern Dressmaking Made Easy, by Mary Brooks Picken

Art Ref  4th floor TT515 .P55 1949

picken 47Mary Books Picken (1886-1981) was an early and prolific writer on the subject of fashion and sewing.  Some of her accomplishments include publishing 96 books on sewing, fashion, and the textiles arts, teaching the “Economics of Fashion” at Columbia University, founding a school for women, specializing in the domestic arts, in Scranton, Pennsylvania (in 1916), and being one of the founding members of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.  She was also the first woman to be appointed to the Board of Directors of FIT, in 1951.

This book covers all the basic sewing needs: there are illustrated sections on hems, gathers, pleats, godets, decorative hand- and machine-stitches.  One section instructs the user about making alterations, and another how to choose flattering lines for all figure types.  These sections always reflect the contemporary fashions more than any other, and this book still shows the shoulder pads, bias cuts, and sweetheart necklines of the WWII era.  The book even includes some background on color theory and fashion-design concepts.

Picken’s book provides a wealth of info for sewers of all backgrounds, most of it still applicable today.  Several sections reflect the era of its publication, however, including the how-to on putting on stockings.  Not pantyhose, mind you, stockings.

picken corset fitPicken was concerned with the whole self-presentation of her students, and her books reflect this, including not just sewing instruction, but also a section called “First the body, then the clothes” with calisthenics and poise-posture notes.

m b picken 25

The author setup a school for young ladies in 1916, and this appears to have been a compendium of their course of instruction there.  This includes some rather dated information on posture and leg-position-while-seated that will amuse many.

Curiously, an earlier version of this book (1924, shown at left) was illustrated with photographs.  While they are black-and-white and their quality is good, in the 40s reprint, the photographs have been replaced by simple line drawings, not unlike those used in Vogue magazine to illustrate new styles.

However, the drawings are pretty clear and the range of techniques demonstrated is impressive.  It’s also an insightful peek into what was expected of a young lady, whether entrepreneurially- or house-wifely-minded, in 1949.   Rather a treasure, all around.

The Dressmaker’s Technique Bible, by Lorna Knight

4th floor  Art Ref TT705 .K553

dressmkrs bibleHere is another spiral-bound book, which we like.  And it’s a handy small format, so it’s not difficult to carry it for reference.  It provides a solid introduction, with descriptions and photographs of many tools, including machines.  Then it proceeds to working with commercial patterns, including a detailed section on how to adjust for common fitting problems.   One excellent (and rarely-found) section included here is a style guide, to teach a new sewer what different garment shapes are called.

This is a good basic guide to carry around to teach techniques.  It has many of the same basics as the larger format Reader’s Digest or Singer guides, but presented in a smaller format and without the extra projects.   Mind you, that means the type is a bit small.  Also, some of the finishing techniques I expect in such a book *are* missing here.  I would want a bit more detail in a standard reference, but this book includes  the short version of most of the simpler things I need to explain when I teach first sewing principles.  And that style guide section is quite useful for working with beginners.  Denise and I found this to be a solid basic book, especially if one’s eyes are still good.

Dressmaking, the Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Making Your Own Clothes, by Alison Smith

4th Floor  Art Reference, TT515 .S645

dressmking smithThis book has beautifully-clear photographic layouts which include arrows and details drawn on top of them for clarity’s sake. It begins with a layout of sewing tools, including a computerized sewing machine and a serger.  The sections on taking measurements and reading pattern-packages correctly are well laid out and easy to follow.  It includes detailed instructions on making alterations once one has chosen said pattern.  This book is much more a basic sewing manual (say, AP 143) than others reviewed here.  It also includes some great instructions for mending ripped garments and customizing patterns with simple embellishments.  It includes twelve simple patterns and then walks the reader through the process of making them simply or more elaborately.  This is a good book for someone who is trying to teach him or herself to sew.  It can also be treated as a basic dictionary of sewing rules and tools.

The Art of Couture Sewing, by Zoya Nudelman

5th Floor Main Stacks TT515 .N83 2009

art couture nudelmanThis book contains basic instruction for the first four draping classes I took here, as well as several of the eveningwear specialization and embellishment courses I took afterwards.  We recommend this as probably the best all-around reference for beginning draping and the sort of fabric manipulation, seam finishing, embellishment and undergarment construction that someone will use working as an eveningwear designer.

The one thing we disliked about this book was the sleek, computerized illustrations used for everything, including the how-to images.  The fake shadows and flat coloration on the sample images sometimes obscure how the stitches or layers actually go together, in our opinion.  However, the scope of this book (reflected in the pricetag, alas) really makes up for the image quality, if you have enough understanding to be able to interpret the images.  This is not a book for beginners, although it contains a lot of basic information explaining fiber and fabric properties as well as basic seam finishing.  It includes detailed information on sewing tools and their specific applications.  It also contains such fancier techniques as basic beading, smocking, and embroidery how-tos, shirring and fluting, corset-making, and flower-making.

Alabama Studio Sewing + Design, by Natalie Chanin

5th Floor Main Stacks TT590 .C45 2012

Natalie Chanin began the company Alabama Chanin in 2000, in her hometown of Florence, Alabama.  Her original garments were handsewn by local workers, and offered a high-priced but ethically-and American-made womenswear line that allowed her to work exclusively with high-quality organic materials, forward-looking embellishment techniques, as well as bring jobs to a depressed economy she’d grown up in.  Gradually she added products for the home, and DIY products that are cut out in their factory, but assembled at home by the purchaser.  From there, it’s a small step indeed to this how-to which includes patterns for her signature silhouettes and detailed information on how to create her favorite types of embellishments.

Her clothing is simple, but made-to-order, and includes elaborate embroidery, applique, and beaded details.  It’s sort of Eileen Fisher ++, very understated and comfortable, but still funky and elegant.  We thought the techniques demonstrated here were new and different and inspiring.  Once I found out more about Chanin’s company, I am only more inspired.  And I want everything she makes.

Alabama Studio Style, by Natalie Chanin

5th Floor Main Stacks TT157 .C367

FIT’s concerns expanding, of course, to housewares and interior design, we also have the Alabama Chanin style book depicting the general studio and marketing stylebook.  Come take a peek!


This has been another issue of Needles in the Stacks, by Beth McMahon and Denise Ingram.  We hope to see you in the FIT Library soon!


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Menswear again: down, not up

In my slightly obsessive following of menswear trends (and their marketing mojo),  I found this businessy tidbit:


Not being a huge fan of the hoodie, this caught my eye.  I mean, seriously:  Why a hoodie?  I like a bit of wool in my outer layers, because it keeps me warmer.  A hoodie?  I was raised in an era where sweat clothes were too casual to leave the house in (ok, so I took a pass on the whole velour tracksuit thing when I was growing up.) (No, maybe I just wasn’t the right demographic for it.  My friends were wearing thrift-store jean jackets and army shirts.)  But ok, so, a hoodie.  Useful at the beach, or around the drafty house, or for those spring days when you’re running errands.

I know I’m out of sync with the world around me.  Because I see younger (as in “under 35″) guys wearing hoodies under jackets, with jeans and they look hot and kinda semi-casual.  Can it be that the hoodie is stepping up in the world?  Is it the anti-fashion to the jacket-and-tie’s new hyper-fashionability?  Or is fashion just moving on and the hoodie is slowly replacing the jacket?  Is this an example of the world getting more and more knit-centric?  Will wovens retire to the background in this century?

I began reading this article about the profitability of this particular hoodie.  Every reviewer stresses first that it is actually made from a heavy weight of pure-cotton fleece.  Woo hoo!  At last someone is finally complaining about the progressively lighter (i.e. wimpier) fabric weights that we’ve been slipped year after year.  The standard T-shirt weights now shipped are see-through compared to what was standard when I worked in the industry just 20 years ago.  And if you look at a concert T from the 70’s, the finishing on it is a whole ‘nother category.

And this hoodie is apparently “shockingly well made” (quoted from the American Giant website testimonials).  When was the last time you saw a garment that shocked you by how nicely finished the details were?  For less than $100?  I’m not saying that $89 is inexpensive for a hoodie, but if it were made like old army-issue, hmm, maybe?

So I can understand why the writer at Slate raved a bit.  Yeah, I’m in favor of a better quality standard item.  I want that item to be jeans or a denim jacket or a good black wool skirt, but ok.  Hoodie it is.

Bayard Winthrop, who began the company, says that the reason he’s able to keep the cost of his items down is that his company spends no money on marketing or distribution.

How will this play out over time?  Is it a sustainable business model?

seaglasshoodieThey make said perfect hoodie for women, too, although we don’t know what sort of perfecting they did to make it better suited for our rather different shapes.  Women are offered two versions: the heavyweight one the lads get, and in nearly the same grim (i.e. “basic”) color range.  Or a lighter “mid-weight” version that comes in basic colors and two fashion colors.  “Seaglass” is the one shown above.

The other super-cool thing is that these items are manufactured in the United States.  And the company is profitable.  Not just profitable, but the men’s basic hoodie is back-ordered for months.  And people keep ordering them.

So here is another question:  Many companies have made their mark on the retail world by selling American-sportswear-styled basic garments.  I give you the Gap, Ralph Lauren, Levis, Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, Diesel, American Apparel, among others.  Each works at a different price point and from a different business model. Will this new business model remain successful?  Or will the company need to create an advertising program in order to sustain interest in their products?

If these garments are so basic and last forever, what will they come up with next to keep enticing new customers into the fold?  How many hoodies does the average person need?  How will they be able to maintain this business model with respect to distribution channels, if they begin selling abroad, where American-styled sportswear is hot?

What do you think?



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World’s Fair Site: can you get there from here?

New_York_World's_Fair_August_1964(Thank you, Wikipedia, for this image of the Queen’s World’s Fair site from August, 1964!)

We interrupt the longer blog post we’re frantically working on to bring you this urgent debate concerning one of New York City’s most interesting historic sites.  I know you Manhattanites have trouble crossing water, but waaaayy out in Flushing Meadows stands a relic of our glorious past:

021814worldsfair(Thank you to wallyg for this image from

This structure, the “Tent of Tomorrow”, was designed by architect Philip Johnson.


The world’s fair site in Flushing Meadows was part of Robert Moses’ larger project to refurbish the area from it’s past as a dumping ground for industrial ash (which was referred to in the Great Gatsby.)  The project was funded privately, and lost participants when it remained unsanctioned by the Bureau of International Exhibitions.  Nonetheless, the 1964-1965 World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens, hosted 51 million visitors.

You can find out more of the background on the site here:

What do you think?  What happens when prophetic-seeming Tomorrow-lands become rusty Yesterday-lands?  Should these buildings be saved or torn down?  What should Flushing Meadows Park be used for?  How much of our history do we need to preserve?




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Well Suited

A few days ago on my FB feed, my gentleman acquaintances were discussing this article.  Do you agree or disagree with its many pronouncements?  Heaven knows that today would be a great day for a tweed suit with a vest.   As would many of the days this past month.

The more-formal approach: Double button, notched lapel. And saddlestitching!


Not that it’s surprising that this image of a formally-, but also dashingly-dressed man happens to be Matt Bomer, in his role as Neil Caffrey (a con man gone with the Law) on the TV show “White Collar”.


Huffington Post’s version of the Do’s & Don’ts begins with the 15 things our reporter keeps seeing but would prefer not to.

Huffington Post feels this guy is wearing too much blingy "style over substance" here...
Huffington Post feels this guy is wearing too much blingy “style over substance” here…


Which is ironic, since this kind of bling is a cultural subversion of the conservative stereotypes of suit-wearers (who are frequently white and conservative) in the trash.  Bet that writer is over 40 and white!

And then this huge, hopefully comprehensive guide…

suits_elegance_2_4_evssIt makes perfect sense that a menswear magazine like Details should include this kind of how to.  It’s the most helpful of the lot, I think, including as it does the arrows with individual descriptions:

Rule #2
Some think button-down collars are for casual wear only, but they can work great with dressier looks as well.

Rule #3
Polka dots are a great way to bring energy to a suit. Make sure they’re big enough to be recognizable, but not so large that they’re goofy.

Rule #4
A tried-and-true pattern like herringbone or glen plaid in a muted shade makes an impression without crossing into the realm of garishness.

And even the sales pitch, so that you, the newly-educated young-man-on-the-rise can dress this well.  Some year:
Above: Suit ($3,595) by Isaia. Shirt ($550) by Kiton. Tie ($150) by Alfred Dunhill. Belt ($295) by Ermenegildo Zegna. Shoes ($660) by Church’s.

It’s especially nice that this article was actually written with the consultation of six bespoke tailors.

And I found at least 6 or 7 other articles, of which these are but a few…

What’s going on here?  Do men even still *wear* suits these days, other than ironically??  If so, why do they need so much advice on how to wear them?  Or is it that bloggers have the space to write and book contractors are giving money to menswear projects?  Are people reading these blogs and buying these books?   Here are a few recent publications we have at FIT library that seem fascinated with this “new” old form of elegance:

I am Dandy : the Return of the Elegant Gentleman

4th fl.  Art Reference GT6720 .A33 2013

dandy cover


While I love the diversity and colorful aspects of these men, I wonder how many of them function in America’s mainstream?  Or live west of the Delaware?  Or east of the San Andreas fault?  Or am I missing some important trend in American menswear (not being one, afterall).



Artist, Rebel, Dandy: Men of Fashion

Art Reference GT6720 .I78 2013


This book highlights many of the same gentlemen seen in the above book, but also includes carefully photographed pieces of clothing that have been worn by exquisite gentlemen of the past.  This is one of a pair of spats.





Vintage menswear : a collection from the Vintage Showroom

4th fl.  Art Reference GT1710 .G85 2012

This one is so gorgeously photographed that I wanted to become suddenly a WWII vet, so I could have aged leather bomber jackets.

Fuck Yeah Menswear : bespoke knowledge for the crispy gentleman

5th fl.  Main Stacks TT617 .F83 2012

This last appears to be a book form of some highlights from this quite outspoken blog (warning, it isn’t a polite place, even though it’s elegant):

Where is all of this interest in menswear coming from?  What is it a reaction to?  Have men gotten tired of the slouch of Abercrombie, or does that inform this?  Is it that men have embraced the DIY movement by finally doing their own shopping?  Or embracing the vintage looks parallel to those of their hipster girlfriends?  Or is this new dandyism a reflection of the joy of formalwear and the flowering of gay culture that has sprouted from the recent legalization of gay marriage in so many states?  I’m curious as to your takes on this.  And, as you’ve seen, gorgeous tailoring is a topic I return to over and over again.







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