Newest Endeavor

A while back, dressmaker Colleen Murphy contacted me about collaborating on a very cool project: an ID dress reproduction of a full sized, hand embroidered velvet dress…for an American Girl doll!  I was intrigued so, of course, said yes.

The original dress is unbelievable!  Black velvet, orange crocheted collar, and some of the most interesting & beautiful Celtic/Irish hand embroidery I have ever seen.  I will admit to being intimidated on SOOO many levels, but the challenge could not be ignored.

Colleen is game for me to write about this, and I will include pics of my work, but I will not post pics of the original dress until I am sure it is ok with the owners.

Photos arrive…and I sit there and stare…and stare…and stare some more.  So many things are going through my head about  colors, stitches, faithful reproduction, artistic license… have I bit off more than I can chew?  I dreamed about this dress and how the gryphons and lions chased me while I was trying to thread a needle! 

My biggest obstacle was dealing with my “feelings,” my philosophy on faithful reproduction.  Besides the fact that neither my embroidery software nor machine can manage a chain stitch, there is the integrity of someone else’s artwork to consider.  As you may know, I am a retired dance professor/dancer/choreographer/artistic director…the issues of artistic integrity are part and parcel of who I am on so many levels.  My master’s degree encompassed directing and Labanotation/movement analysis, and it is this training in Labanotation in particular that honed my focus on/obsession with faithful reproduction. 

Labanotation is dance notation, a logical though complex system of symbols and rules used to first record dance and then to reconstruct it again on new people, sometimes decades later.  If you are interested, you can learn more here: Labanotation.

Not long after I got to grad school at Ohio State, I changed my concentration to include Labanotation.  I was fascinated by and drawn to this extremely logical approach to dance.  Now, I am sure my professors would tell you they shook their heads many, many times at my emo approach to dance in general, but I will never forget the day I let the logic take over…Vera Maletic gave me a very rare smile and nodded her head before turning away to bark at me to do it again!  Not only did my symbols need to precisely record illogical movement, but when I read notated scores and performed them, it better look the way Doris Humphrey demanded decades before!  It was a very intense LOVE/HATE relationship.

So, here I was 24 years later, looking at someone else’s beautiful art with the intention of reproducing it.  I swear I felt Vera thwack the back of my skull.

The animals were glaring at me, so I chose a knotwork braid to start with.  That I could handle easily.

vertical braids by you.

Now, I have not ever done anything as small as was going to be required here, but I knew that I could not do this the way I would if it were going to remain full size.  So, even though I did the original digitizing in a decent size, instead of outlining all of this with a satin stitch, I chose a backstitch to approximate both the look of the chain stitch outlines and to accommodate what I knew would end up being very narrow lines.  But, after doing this design, I knew I was going to have to do a test dress to get a real feel for the size and to get a sense of stitch density for something as small as the designs on an AG dress.

Colleen sent me pics of her pattern pieces & dimensions so I could digitize the outlines to use as templates.  I then used one of my designs.  Even though I have not done mini-designs, I have enough experience by now to know that if I used the same stitch density that I use for the ID designs, I was going to be tunneling to China!!  Too many stitches in such a small area was only going to pull in, and perhaps make holes in the fabric no matter the pull compensation, so I lightened the density a lot.  Here’s the result:

dolltestdress 011 by colmurph2000.

And here is it finished…I am so tempted to buy an AG doll for the youngest Diva!

AG test dress by you.

(I feel the need to say here that I so admire that Colleen likes doing these little dresses, and she does them so well!  I have this psychotic aversion to sewing things with small pieces which is why I am not a quilter…these dresses qualify as beautiful small things that make me twitch!  I know I do applique with small pieces, but like every other psycho, it is the context…it goes on a BIG dress.)

So, I learned I was right about stitch density.  The test turned out well…and everyone in my family got a big kick out of this tiny little dress.  Even the macho hubby talked to it like it was a gerbil…

The next design I tackled was what I call the Nessies:

nessies by you.

This design took me days.  Why?  Because I kept finding myself mired in choices…colors (decided Colleen can match colors since she has the dress, but still wanted to match as closely as possible so the client could have a visual); stitches (leave plain or play with texture?); overs and unders (fix them so that they make sense or keep them as they were originally stitched?); symmetry (make things perfectly symmetrical as I imagine they were intended and as I can with the computer or stay true to the actual pics keeping in mind that over the years the fabric changes and hangs differently now?); handmade look versus computerized perfection…haven’t there been more than a few artists driven insane by the demands of their art?!?  Ya know Van Gogh and that ear…???

I cannot count the number of times I would find myself just sitting in front of the computer contemplating the photos…I imagined how much of it was done in the company of other women doing exactly the same thing.  I wondered how many mistakes occurred and were then simply incorporated because the embroiderer got caught up in a conversation with her fellow stitchers.  I wondered how often the zen of the repetitive needlework sent the embroiderer on a quiet journey of her own…and then I would start.

I decided that if this were me doing the hand stitching, I would work for symmetry.  I would work for the logical progression of the overs and unders, but I would get over myself when the logic failed.  I decided I would follow the handmade lines but clean things up when unique moments took on the aura of a mistake.  I decided I would try to keep the look of its handmade beauty while using my technology to enhance it where applicable.  I decided less was more…and that was hard!!

And this is what I have so far:

vertical braids by you.birds by you.

nessies by you.

winged lion by you.

serpent braid by you.

eagle by you.

braid by you.

waist braid by you.

griffins by you.

And here are the dress pieces:

reproduction front skirt by you.

reproduction skirt back by you.

reproduction bodice by you.

This weekend, I will do another test.  I will post pics of it, succeed or fail.

Griping & trying to Grin

So… I borrowed the following quotes from another blog because I have never read them:

When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us. –Helen Keller

To stand in your now, looking forward with deliberate intent and anticipation of what is to come, is infinitely more satisfying than to stand in your now, looking back, retracing your steps as to how you got where you are.–Abraham-Hicks

They were part of a nice blog post…that did not speak to me…but these little quotes spoke to me.  They rather rattled my cage and the thoughts stuck in it.  Let’s see if I can articulate…

I will be honest here and say that sticking to my resolution that I will no longer post on Celtic Flame at all and only rarely on the others is difficult for me.  My practical Buddhist brain asks me why I bother then if I am not going to add anything helpful to the discussions.  My cranky lizard brain demands that I stop reading at all since it can have no satisfaction by setting some of the stupidity to rights…or at least by calling it out for the stupidity it is!!!  But, I am starting to find I am becoming more removed from it since I am not using valuable energy to formulate hopefully helpful answers anymore.

When this blog went private, so many of you told me of your reasons for no longer posting on or even reading the boards anymore…I understand even better now.

Why do I keep reading?  Part habit, part wanting to stay informed about the happenings, the opinions…the occasional altercation…I know, I am a rubber-necker!  But who can resist the morons when they tap dance on a train wreck?!?!?!

But since I changed the blog, other doors have opened for my energy, even in my own head.  Other thoughts are formulating in different ways because we are a smaller more open group.  (I feel the need here to apologize to anyone who was gearing up for a very active group here…we have slowed down…mainly because I wanted it to.  Don’t get me wrong – the number of members that we have is incredibly gratifying…I feel more like a rock star than a loser now that there are so many “friends!”  But I did feel very overwhelmed there for a bit.  I am figuring this out, and we can be as active as we want.)

My current thoughts are spawned by the continuing questions about how the BNs do things, make and design dresses, etc., as if there are rules that must be followed…fsm forbid anyone should be creative on her own…

You may remember this from my response to the first CCD:  [A] thing I have stopped doing is letting the nebulous “rules” about how these dresses are “supposed” to look influence me.  The only thing that influences me anymore is what the client wants.  I suppose if I made OTRs I would pay more attention to the trends…or maybe not.  The fact that the dress styles actually have very little to do with the dancing offends my artistic sense of what is supposed to be important!  The costume should complement the dancing, not hinder it.  The heavy, stiff dresses that have developed over the past 20 years are actually quite astounding to me.  As a choreographer, dancer, artistic director and professor, I stood my ground many a time with a costume designer who tried to force an undanceable design onto a dance!  The dance and dancer are most important and the role of the costume is to enhance the message and look that the choreographer wants.  It is not the role of the costume designer to force change and accommodation…I fired or failed those designers who could not understand their complementary role! 

Don’t get me wrong…I love making these wild, amazing, “ridiculous” pieces of wearable art.  These fanciful confections have developed in a very specific environment and would not be worn by anyone else!  But I find that I am increasingly interested in the comfort of the dancer.

I would very interested in that particular moment in time when someone decided that the ID dress needed to be more prominent in the dancing picture, because from there ID costuming evolved with no real thought as to the dancer or the dancing.  I think this strange mindset is what informs the creation of these dresses still.  So many questions about dress construction make it clear that the triangular, wide, flat, stiff shape of the dresses is considered to be traditional!  Granted, there also seems to be a renewed interest in the history of ID costuming which may or may not shoot that thought down…

But what is interesting to me are the objections, subtle or not, to dresses moving towards the soft skirt again, and my fascination is partially because it is still in my head that the dresses still need to be wider than any normal person would wear…although some of the fashion links on the boards have shown the fashionistas to be wearing pretty poofy skirts!

There is also, and still, this irritating idea that somehow the BNs are the gods of ID costuming who must be emulated at all costs!  Why?  Not too long ago, someone who claimed to just be making a comeback to ID pointed out that all of the current dresses look the same, no matter who made them!!!  I have to agree!  We are ALL doing panel dresses right now.  There are more folks trying to solve the soft skirt problem in many creative ways…but how many times have you read the same question on the boards:  “How do ED/Gavin/SR, etc, etc, etc…make their skirts look like that?”

Susan said something to me about how the harder people try to be different, the more they conform…  Wouldn’t you say that most dancers want to set themselves apart from the other dancers?  So out come the wild colors, the sequins, the crystals, the feathers, the 3-d flowers, etc, etc, etc…and what happens?  They not only all get lost in the cacophany of dazzling color, they all look the same!!

I have no earth shattering solution…I love making these dresses.  Each one is my baby.  When one client says subtle and elegant, that’s what I do.  When another asks for more sparkle, I do that, too.

I love our new tunic dresses mainly because I think they are constructed with the MOVING dancer in mind.  But being panel dresses, am I a sheep, too?  I think Susan and I, like so many other dressmakers, were interested in a different shape for designs so we were drawn to the panel look at probably the same time as everyone else!  I am quite sure it was a lone dressmaker somewhere who came out with the first one, but the second that a BN produced one, they were given the credit and proclaimed GODS once again…gag.

What is my freaking point?  Well, maybe it is that we all as dressmakers ought to slam the door on what OUGHT to be and open a new one doing what we want to do.  Yeah, when a client comes in asking for a dress like ED, you have to deal (or not), but when I expressed that I wanted to explore these soft tunic dresses, we got 3 clients in a row!  And we just turned down someone who wanted us to make a new jacket to match her ED skirt…I understand what she wants, but I am the wrong dressmaker for her!  I am not interested and told her the reasons why.  I suppose I could simply have said that we are booked up for quite a while (as we are), but I actually felt a bit insulted that I would be asked to essentially recreate someone else’s work, so I explained why I was not interested in taking her on.

Maybe this is it…newbies or not, we are each valuable artisans in our own right.  Perhaps not every one of us calls ourselves an artist, but we are.  Maybe our first attempts are less than stellar and actually petrify brain cells when we look back, but they are still created by us is “artiste mode,” sublime or not!

When a young choreographer is beginning her journey, yes she looks to the masters for information, inspiration, and guidelines, but she is also taught and guided to find her own voice.  The point is to bring to life her OWN vision.  We as dressmakers need to change our mindsets to #1 realize that the BNs are NOT the masters (far from it), and #2 that our visions are just as valid as any one else’s!  Maybe they are not all ready for prime-time right out of the gate, but we have to start somewhere.

So, open a door…and I’ll get off my soapbox before the swelling music in my head deafens me…

“Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike”

Food for thought: “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike”

I am often struck by those on the boards who want to know all of the “rules” of Irish dance costuming: how short, how many panels, soft skirt, stiff skirt, fabrics that must be used, etc.

We get in our own way, in the way of our own personal creativity when we believe there are rules to be followed.  And I understand (per the article) how once we are in it, once we “know” the rules, our own sense of adventure gets stifled.

Very interesting.

“Pricked: Extreme Embroidery”

(“Death of Blinded Philosopher” (2006), embroidery on silk shantung, by Angelo Filomeno.)

Perusing the New York Times this morning and came upon this: Needling More Than the Feminist Consciousness

I am always amazed by artists who push boundaries like this.  I feel something turning in my brain…I often feel that we as ID dressmakers make wearable art.  A client and I were just talking about this…we make gorgeous, over-the-top, fanciful creations that no one in their right mind would wear…except to DANCE in front of a judge!  Every once in a while, the bizarreness of ID costuming spins my head around.

I love it.

More interesting reviews: Village Voice, Whipup (lots of pics here),

The exhibit is the second one in the textile vein.  The first was last year’s Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting.

Criticism II

I posted this back in May: Criticism.

My last post, Letter to Dressmakers…or…Cogitating on Popcorn Thoughts…whatever, sparked  wonderful discussions on IDD and some great comments here.  It is so wonderful to read not only the opinions and perspectives but about the unsung support networks that have bolstered others, as well.  I love hearing from all of you as you make me think.

Ali always makes me think.  Her comments helped me organize this post which was sparked by all of you who commented here and on IDD.

(Cindy, I enjoyed reading your perspective on all art being derivative…that is another post that I need to ponder.  Susan & Ali, maybe you can write about that as designers.) 

Gina got this thought process going with her thoughts on the silence:

The easiest way to create silence and Pablum is to post a picture of your new creation on a board and ask “tell me what you think”. Regardless of the true nature of the beast, inevitably it’s “Great” “lovely” etc etc etc.

…[Einstein] said that above all we should be honest. If we feel we can’t be honest so that we spare someone’s feelings, then we should be silent. Didn’t Thumper’s mother say “if you can’t say nuthin nice, don’t say nuthin at all”?

The other side of this coin is – are we REALLY helping the blossoming seamstress by sugar coating the truth? They go blithely away thinking everyone loves their work – yet we are wondering at “Didn’t she realise the design has a hidden mouse?” “That dress is way too large in the neckline”, “the colors just do not work for that dancer” etc etc etc.

Should we be honest? IMHO Yes, but dare I say a word? No, because I use my name on the boards and would never hear the end of it.

Ali’s response:

“Should we be honest? IMHO Yes. but dare I say a word? No because I use my name on the boards and would never hear the end of it.”

As is often the case, Gina and I are in agreement.

I think the largest white elephant in our collective room is the fact that we are all consciously aware of each other still. We know our places in the network of dressmakers and designers NOT in a collaborative sense, but in a competitive one: “I charge less than X and Y, but draw better than Y and Z, produce a more coherent product than Z and A, and I know X and A won’t take clients for reasons 1, 2, 3…” and so on. Whether we fit in as moms or dancers (oh, heavens, lowest of the low ;) ) who are trying out designing or dressmaking for the first time, or as dressmakers of limited/some/extremely great renown, or as designers only (relegated into a sort of “separate but equal” mental status, usually), once you’ve been around–yes, even on our beloved CF board–for a short while, you start to get the feel of the community. It is, as you said, Ann, one so entrenched in not just competition but secret competition. We know it, and it makes us uncomfortable, and so we act “nice”.

Gina’s example is good: it doesn’t matter if the dress is crap or the best thing ever. If a dressmaker asks for feedback on her new creation, we will not give it. We will be kind to a fault and probably even lie–at the very least, lie by omission by choosing not to respond.

When we are not nice, we are especially vicious. We can rip others to shreds. So we usually avoid it–it makes so many of us uncomfortable to see any sort of “mean” comment that all criticisms are often avoided. Of course, knowing our internal social structure, we feel free (largely) to snipe at the biggest names. They are impersonal corporations, far away and faceless; they are the President to our local political action committee. We pose no threat to them, but they do to us, so we feel comfortable making real criticisms there and only there.

What the community needs is three things, to my eye: a) to learn that criticism is NOT meant to be mean, it is meant to help you grow, b) to learn that criticism of one’s work is not criticism of oneself, and c) to learn how to give criticism in a way that gets these points across. Musicians, dancers, other artists all manage this. It baffles me how stifling the ID community, and the dressmaking community within it, can be on this point. I think that innovation can only flourish when people both expect to receive and feel comfortable giving constructive criticism.

I responded:

As usual, your insight is right on, Ali. You know I have ranted about exactly the same things. Thank you, once again, for saying it so well…

And then she wrote:

It’s because we both come from a heavily academic space, I think. This is not to imply elitism, but I suppose it could be read that way. You taught for years, and I’m pretty over-educated for my age. DWe have stubbornly refused to let go of the idea of constructive crit being required for a healthy community; what baffles me is that, after seeing the poll on CF of what other dressmakers and designers do or previously did as their main job, we are the exceptions! The DM community as a whole seems to be pretty awesome based on that poll: we have biologists, engineers, teachers, social scientists. We have so many well-educated people, whether by formal or self education, who MUST have learned how to give and receive concrit at some point. Why do we allow ourselves, as a community, to follow the secretive, deadening path that Irish dance as a whole follows when we KNOW better? We are smart and creative. Let us set the example for how to criticize, critique, and share in an open, honest way. If we’re lucky, it will catch on to the whole of ID.

And then, before I could notate my profound thoughts on the subject,  Suz got in on the action:

You got me thinking on why we can take criticism in our “real” professions but not ID. Just my first ‘gut-reaction’ here but my two worlds were built different!

My ID world formed WITHIN my family’s cultural life while my professional life is OUTSIDE my family. The university not only allowed me to evolve independently but encouraged me to be independent! In my science based career I was taught to question the methods and practices of other scientists to get ‘proof’ for my opinions!

My ID life has evolved AND involves numerous family members both immediate and extended. I already had my ‘place’ given to me because I was hopelessly unable to dance. Unlike the DANCERS(said in revered awe…) I could make my way around the left side of my brain as well as the right side so I chose to join the ’support staff’ as a dressmaker….really as an avenue to remain ‘in the family’. (Whole ‘nother psych. paper in that statement!!) So I do have enormous problems separating criticism of my work as not being criticism of me personally. By the end of a dress it is MY CHILD and the more difficult the ‘labor’ the more I tend to want it to thrive. So if it is “bashed” (as stagemoms are so apt to do these days) I am hurt. I’m sane enough to know the defect in my thinking, and do know how to consider the source, but that would be my brain’s left side which does not always control my world!

I had begun to focus in on that in a different way, Suz.  I wonder if the fact that most (nearly all?) independent ID dressmakers learn and function in relative isolation has something to do with the resistance to constructive criticism.  In terms of ID, even though I began on my own, when I started working with Susan I put myself into apprentice mode.  The first time I brought a dress that I had finished on my own at home to her for inspection was so stressful (in fact, I think I brought my mother!)!  I just KNEW she was going to rip it apart…when she smiled after she inspected it, I almost swooned (ok, a bit of hyperbole for effect!)! 

I also feel that my dresses are my “children.”  I felt that way about everything I ever created.  But, I think I am pretty open to true constructive, intelligent criticism (“The practice of analyzing, classifying, interpreting, or evaluating literary or other artistic works.” ).  As not only a young artist studying dance and choreography but also a university professor and professional choreographer, criticism was part & parcel a given, proven part of the process and the culture.  I learned early on that since art really is a subjective form (there is no objective right & wrong), that criticism is irrevocably tied to the critic’s subjective eye and taste no matter what anyone says!  However, what I learned from the best of my professors was that a good critic helps you evaluate your own methods, thought processes and techniques so that your vision is as clear as it can be, regardless of whether or not they like it!

Do I always graciously give my thanks for negative criticism that helps me refine something?  Of COURSE I do as I am a perfectly formed female specimen of fully-evolved higher intelligence……………………………….NOT!!!!!  If I am unsure to begin with, the process is quicker, but for the most part I whine, I bitch, I argue, argue, argue (ask Susan).  I do, though, take criticism that is clear, well-articulated, and right and assimilate it.  Sometimes the criticism, while valid, serves to point out a flaw in my thinking that creates a different view than I meant and arguing the point helps me make it clear.

Do I want to hear when someone does not like what I have created?  If you are going to be mean for mean’s sake, no.  Go suck a lemon.  If you are going to explain why, and are open to a discussion (unlike a recent naysayer on the boards who hid behind “It’s my opinion which is enough and nobody’s business”…ppphhhththth!), then go for it!  As I said in the last post, I totally appreciated the person who said the red tunic dress looked like Renaissance armor and then provided pics! 

Why can’t we not only take the real, helpful criticism, but try to also be truly CONSTRUCTIVE (“Serving to improve or advance; helpful.”)?  Maybe we should each ask ourselves what we truly want when we post pics of our creations on the boards (I am asking myself this very question as I write this).  If true constructive criticism is not what we want, then we should not post.  If it is what you want, but folks are only being nice, be clear that you are open to it all and hopefully someone will take you at your word.

Will all of the competition that Ali pointed out disappear?  Probably not.  We all want to be liked “best.”  But, we all can learn so much from the rest who want to share, not tear down.  And, it has been my experience that sometimes there is an epiphany waiting to slap our foreheads because of a statement from the “new” one in the back who restates a known fact in a different way because she just figured it out for herself.

Brain Warp

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(Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketSmart ass alert.Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket)

I received a phone call this weekend from an Irish dance mom. She was told by her daughter’s teacher that her competition dress needed jazzing up. The child is 9 or 10, and the dress is new, made especially for her. The color is perfect for her, and she looks gorgeous in it. She is in the preliminary level which is just one level away from the top.

This young dancer just placed first in her level.

And the teacher thinks the dress needs to be changed.

To make sure she places…to make sure she gets first…the dress she just wore when HER DANCING was deemed worthy of a 1st place needs to be changed…so she wins…

Can you see my problem here? I am warping my brain trying to understand this.

The teacher says the dress needs a shaped hem and a jazzier neckline…so the dancer places.

I am on the verge of running around my neighborhood, laughing hysterically, ripping off my clothes…but I don’t want to be arrested.

So the dress arrives yesterday…ID mom and I stand there and look at the dress. We look at each other and then stare at the dress some more. I finally give her my opinion: shaping the hem on this dress will not make her place better than she already has…1st place. She says that’s what she thinks. We stare at the dress a bit more. There is plenty of sparkle, but I volunteer that perhaps we could put some crystals around the neckline…so that she places first…again. The mom’s mouth is beginning to twist a little as she asks if I really think that crystals will help her place first…again. I think about it and then muse on the possiblity that the judge watching her might be susceptible to the hypnotizing abilities of the magic crystals that I will place on the neckline…so that she places first…again. After all, everyone knows that Irish dance judges are not very bright and are easily influenced by Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPhoto Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucketsparkles.Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPhoto Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

ID mom finally laughs, takes a breath, and says no to the shaped hem and yes to a few crystals. Just in case the magic in them can really help her daughter to place first…again. She went home to call the teacher, and since I have not heard a thing, I shall work my magic with my neckline crystals.

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