To dress or not to dress, that is the question!

In honor of William Shakespeare’s birthday yesterday, we found this list from Harper’s Bazaar online of the best-costumed films of his plays:


clrnleo1.  Clare Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio play the leads in “Romeo and Juliet”, in Baz Lerman’s 1996 film. This is a modern-dress adaptation of the play.  We don’t have this movie, but we have various copies of the play on the 5th floor, in the Main Reading Room at PR2759 .G8.



lizanddick2.  Liz Taylor plays Katerina in “Taming of the Shrew”, in Franco Zefferelli’s 1967 film, based on the artwork of Raphael and Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1530s).

While we don’t have a copy of this version where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play the tempestuous Katerina and Petrucchio, we do have the play itself on the 5th floor, in the Main Stacks, PR2832.A2 H3.

We have lots of great books on Elizabeth Taylor and her personal style, as well.  For example, here is a new book on her: Elizabeth Taylor : her life in style, kept on the 4th floor in Art Reference PN2287.T18 K45 2011.



3.  Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting play Juliet and Romeo in Franco Zefferelli’s gorgeous 1968 version of the play.  Costumes for both this and Taylor’s version of “Shrew”, above, were designed by Danilo Donati, who won an Oscar for these.  We have a copy of this film down in the DVD collection on the 5th floor:  DVD PR2831 .A23 2000.


kennemma4.  Kenneth Branagh made this adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” in 1993, when he was still married to Emma Thompson.  The two of them play the central pair of lovers in this comedy.  We don’t have the film, but the play can be found on the 5th floor, in the Main Stacks, PR2828 .A1 2007.



kennkate5.   Kenneth Branagh also made this version of “Hamlet” in 1996, with Kate Winslett as Ophelia.

We don’t have this version of the show, but we have several other famous film versions.  These are in the DVD collection, on the 5th floor: DVD PN1997 .H3649 2007.  This version stars Ethan Hawke as Hamlet and was directed by Michael Almereyda.


Another version we have is the famous 1948 film which stars Laurence Olivier as Hamlet.  This is also in the DVD collection on the 5th floor: DVD PN1997 .H365 2006.


6. The next stars on this list are Dame Judi Dench and Gwyneth Paltrow in “Shakespeare in Love”.  The costumes were designed by Sandy Powell, and all three of the above-mentioned women won Oscars for this film.  

gwynI confess that this is one of *my* personal favorites, partly because of the beautiful and fun ways Tom Stoppard adapted Shakespeare’s own words, and partly because the costumes are so sumptuous (even if they are a bit Victorian-looking.)  We have this film on the 5th floor, DVD PN1997 .S49 1998.


midsummer107. The last film on Harper’s Bazaar’s list is the 1999 version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, starring Michelle Pfeiffer as Tatiana, Queen of the Fairies.  This is another movie we don’t have a copy of, but you can find the play on the 5th floor in the Main Stacks, atPR2827 .A1 1993.


We hope this listing and the pictures it included will encourage you to hunt down all of the film versions of Shakespeare’s plays.  And in the meantime, Happy 450th Birthday, William Shakespeare, Poet of Our Hearts!



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From winter blues into rainbows of ornament




I am one of those people who hates the drear of winter time.  It’s a time of year when everything seems muted, gray, dingy, and brown.  I feel muffled and dulled by so many coats and scarves and such heavy boots.

The best cure for this I have ever found is to play with colors and textures.  This year, the cure has been a combination of knitting projects and one big embroidery project.  I’ve been accumulating embroidery flosses in silks, cottons, and wools that just seem to leap into my hands over the last few years, and begged for my attention.

The inspiration for this embroidery project is an old illuminated book called the Winchester bible.  You can see a capital initial “P” (on the left) from this gorgeous book.

I love how this illuminated letter shows the layers of clothes this guy is taking off in his haste to carry news to heaven.  I love the intense, rich colors the painter used.  But mostly, I love the curvilinear vines that recur over and over again in art throughout history.








Here is some of my collection of embroidery floss, all laid out to begin the project.  There is a group of golds, a group of reds, a group of grays, and a group of greens.  The slate blue-gray underneath it is the basecloth I’ll be using for the project.  (The dog is just a local helper, Coco, who believes that my lap is her special home.)


I know exactly what these threads want me to use them for.  These leafy vines are a motif that’s reworked and re- reworked throughout history, and now it’s my turn to have my way with them, too.

The close-up below was scanned from Hanns Swarzenski’s Monuments of Romanesque Art.  This is an old book with black and white photos, but it contains images of most of the major works of Anglo-French art from 1050-1250 c.e.   We have copies both on the 5th floor Main and downon the 4th floor in Art Reference.  N6280 .S9




Above is a close up of a border from the bronze doors of the town of Gnesen in Liege, c. 1127.  Here is a picture of one complete door, just so you can get an idea of the scale of the thing.  Pretty impressive casting job, right?

Being in the design-mode for an embroidery project makes me more aware of the patterns around me, both on the street and in the library.


These viney motifs have a long history.  They have been used and reused many times as decorative borders.  I found one as a window-frame carving as I was walking on the upper-east side  a few weekends ago.





Look at how similar these curving vines (probably carved in the 1920s) are structurally to the ones from the bronze doors.  Curiouser about these motifs now, I began looking them up in sources here in the library.  I began with that great compendium of design motifs from around the world, The Grammar of Ornament, by Owen Jones.  The corbel and archways below were redrawn by Jones from the church of St. Sophia in Salzburg, Austria (c. 767 C.E?).

jones arabian

Owen Jones (1809-1874) was an architect and designer who used his Grand Tour of Europe to research some of that continent’s most important architectural sites.  He was especially interested in the decorative patterns in stonework, tile, stained glass, or painting he had seen at each place.  His first book of drawings was about the Alhambra, the Moorish palace in Granada, Spain (c. 1278 C.E).

Because of his knowledge, he was appointed one of the chief designers of the Christal Palace Exhibition in 1851 in London.  This exhibition, focused the supremacy of British design, was sponsored by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert.  The organizers of the exhibition hoped to inspire manufacturers to design their products with beauty, not just usefulness, in mind.

Jones eventually published the drawings of many motifs from his travels in his major work, The Grammar of Ornament, reprinted in various editions between 1856 and 1868.  This book, like the exhibition, was designed to provide artists and designers with new ideas for their products.   It has been a huge influence on art and design through the current day.  The library holds copies of this book both on the 4th floor in Art Reference and up on the 5th floor in the Main Stacks NK1510 .J7.   We even have a copy on disk at the Access Services Desk on the 5th floor.

Jones and his colleagues felt that artists didn’t just need training in art history, but that they needed to understand the variety of world decorative motifs.  Remember that this was before photography was widely used to document historic sites.

jones byz

Like the architect from the apartment building on the upper east side, and like me, Jones was looking at 12th century artwork to get these images.  The above two were drawn from the Norman cathedral in Sicily.  Apparently these vine motifs were so popular that they were carved or painted all kinds of places.  Here are a few more from Jone’s work, redrawn from various illuminated manuscripts:


Church columns, corbels and walls, boxes, tombs, combs, book covers and pages all were painted or carved or enameled in these kinds of patterns.  The Winchester Bible is a masterpiece of this form.

Here is a picture of the bible so you can get an idea of the scale of it:


This book was written by hand in this large format so that many monks could use it at one time.  It was a prestigious item for the Cathedral at Winchester to have commissioned before 1160 and 1175 C.E. because before the invention of the printing press in 1448, books were both valuable and rare.   The Winchester Bible was intended to be precious from its beginning.  In it, capital letters were embellished with real gold leaf and lots and lots of glorious, expensive, decadent colors.  We know that the colors used in books like these were imported long distances and were expensive to purchase.  The orangy-red in these letters was made with vermilion, imported from Spain, or China, or made synthetically with a mix of sulphur and mercury.

The blue on these pages was made of ground lapis lazuli, imported from the area where Afghanistan is now. (Winchester is in the south of England.)

Look how gorgeous the illuminated letters on the book are.  They were painted by a group of four artists nearly nine-hundred years ago, and they still take my breath away every time I look at them.


Here are some more:


The parts that especially fascinate me are the filling details within the outlines of the letters.  The undulating curves which are played out in carefully-painted white washes so that these acanthus leaves flow and fold around everything delight me.


winchQnQAnd then the ends of all the letters trail off into this surreal flowering of strange colors and leafy shapes.  The H above has knotting scrollwork around it, but the Qs to the right have this riotous abstracted foliage that may have begun as acanthus leaves, but has become something else in translation.

These are the knotwork and vine-leaf patterns that interest me so very much.  I’ve embroidered them a few times before.  Here is a version of knotwork (the name for this type of interlacing motif) I plotted out a few years ago:

yellowcuff.inprogHere is the original plan, so you can get a sense of the design.


For the current embroidery project, on the slate-blue linen, I think I will make the vines burgundy, with shaded stems.  Here are some of the patterns I’m working on.

portal vine collar scroll collar anmlsBoth of these are keyhole-shaped neckline templates.







Here is a similar leafy design I’ve already embroidered:

red viney cuff_edijpg12thEricleaves

The design I’m working on will probably be worked in more muted colors, like greens, silvery-grays and purples.  But I still have to decide.  The vines themselves will probably be one main color with related shades and tints to imitate the white painted detail-work in the manuscript.  Then the vine ends can have different colors at each place where they end or a different leg of the vine starts up.  Watch this space for progress on this project.

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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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