Spotlight: Suzanne Mahoney

(I would like to start posting “articles” written by our members.  They can be about anything as long as they have you at the center of the story.  I think we have much to share with each other and learn from each other. 

 

This article brings up an issue that is rarely talked about, but it is real and even disturbing.  I want to remind everyone that whatever gets written and discussed here, stays here.  This article does not name names, but the subject matter is here for our discussion only.  Can I stop you from discussing things written here with other people?  No.  But I ask that we all respect the privacy of this blog by not posting about our discussions in other places.  This is supposed to be a safe place for us all now that it is private…if our discussions and/or subject matter show up outside of this blog or our forum, then our safety and privacy is null and void.  So here I invoke the Vegas Rule.

Now, after that totally ominous introduction, please enjoy Suzanne’s piece.

Cheers, Ann)

 

 

 

Lifting the Veil 

 

Long ago, when making an ID dress was much less technique sensitive, I dove in with youthful zeal! Trained in the necessary skills of the day, I bought the crepe gaberdine , skeins of floss, and mailed off an order for the iron on pattern of shamrocks surrounding a harp. The days waiting for the embroidery pattern were happily filled with family conferences around the dining room table (a.k.a cutting table) as my mother, sisters, and I planned the best, most efficient way to proceed. My mother was my ‘partner’ in the beginning and this first little class costume made it’s St. Patrick’s Day debut right on schedule. Deluged by requests from the ’non-sewers’ in the school, my mother smartly bowed out but encouraged me to do ’a couple for pin money’. Many a night I wonder where my life would have led had I bowed out too!! Just as many nights I wonder why we ‘decided’ that moving to a more competitive school was a good idea!!! 

 

The first time someone ‘lifted the veil’ for me was in the vestibule of the ‘new improved’ dance school and it was less than fulfilling. The Irish matriarch of the TC made it clear that there was only one acceptable path to a class costume and that path ran through her doorway! Two sisters dancing multiplied by the cost of two new costumes was beyond our families means. At that moment, my mother was DONE with Irish dancing. In a full frontal assault by myself and my sisters, we hammered out a compromise which involved a budget and me taking responsibility (at 16!!!) for the transportation.

 

The second time the veil was lifted was glorious! Another matriarch from Ireland who also had several daughters in dancing took pity on us ‘orphans’ and gave me the name of a recently retired dancer who might be convinced to part with her costume for a fraction of the new price. At 16 I had already been taught the values of a resale market! That ‘officially’ made dress became the template for my first ‘knockoff’!  I spent countless hours dragging this dress to commercial embroiderers and finally found an African-American tailor who agreed to tackle the job for a price within the budget!

 

In the day, I had more time than money and more stubbornness that sense. The hook for my addiction to this crazy world of ID dressmaking was set when the ‘knockoff’ went undetected at the first feis! At the venerable age of 17 I embarked on my first solo! The silent society refused to move the veil a fraction! In the many years that followed I stubbornly tried to force the veil open. Once in a great while the secret society would slip and the veil would crack for a moment and I tried to use the information to my best ability.

 

I experienced the same ups and downs as most dressmakers. Pride at the first ‘stranger’ to trust your skills and place an order. Pride-hurt at the first public criticisms. Giddy when the first little girl hugged her new dress in joy! Tearful when the first Mom slammed the dress down in disgust. In those years my connections to TC’s also grew and evolved. Then one of them ‘lifted the veil’ and showed me something so revolting that I still wrestle with the implications years later.

 

 

I still relive the moment and it has been over 14 years since the phone call that rocked my world. The TC opened by explaining that her established school was looking to develop a new school costume to ‘update’ their look.  I had some doubts since I was the person who had designed the competitor’s team costumes but vanity can cloud one’s judgment. We talked at length and then the reality struck and I asked how many dresses she was talking about, in what timeframe, and at what price point? The number of dresses and timeframe were reasonable BUT then came the discussion of money. She really wanted the price her dancer’s paid to be $X and she EXPECTED at least a $Y KICKBACK from ME for every dancer she sent to me!!!!!  I reacted with such negativity (and am still to this day DISGUSTED at the thought that a TC would expect to make money off of the sweat of my labor) that she ended the call. When I brought this information to the TC’s in my family they condescendingly informed me of my naivete. Everyone of them had some anecdotal and/or personal experience with the practice! One, in all earnestness, encouraged me to consider the “overwhelming benefits” of giving a TC kickbacks!!! This was one time that I wished I hadn’t looked behind the veil! My life used to be so black and white, and I found I did not like the gray palette! I no longer wanted to be in the ‘business’ of ID dressmaking. I had lost my reverence for An Comisun and most all of it’s members……how could they ‘do that’ to their dancers? The very few people who had the courage to talk with me about the subject fell into two camps:

  • 1) Forget about it. Don’t talk about it. It’s a sacred cow not to be disturbed and you will be targeted by those with the most to lose if they feel threatened! (Such sages! It played out just as predicted.)
  • 2)Fish or cut bait! Either join/condone the practice or get out of the business.

 

It must have been one of the survival genes that I wasn’t given because  I cannot ‘go with the flow’ on this one! A depression has waxed and waned for years, and I used to blame my Irish ancestors for donating a little bit too much moodiness to my mix. In a rare moment of clarity, it came to me! I have been avoiding having to acknowledge that the person I have spent 30 years forming must now change…and significantly. I had to ‘fish or cut bait’! I would never ‘fish’ so I guess it’s ‘cut bait’ time.

 

Just how does one just walk away from that much of their life? Especially when so many family members are still so very active in ID? Is there a compromise position I could accept?  I’m actively working on the new me. Some of my closest ID dressmaker friends have been some of the best help! They’ve given me ‘permission’ to re-invent myself and promised to support my decisions no matter the direction they go. Some things I do know include:

 

  • 1)I’m too addicted to walk away cold-turkey! Hopefully my gradual retirement will be graceful?
  • 2)I love to play with material! Like in the Sound of Music, “somewhere God will open a window” and the new venue will include sewing!
  • 3)I’m not in the ’business’ anymore. The very FEW dresses I make are for my enjoyment not for my bank account. 

 Some things I haven’t resolved are offered for your discussion…please.

 

  • 1) Trying to decide what factor my age may have played in all of this! At what stage in your life did you come to ID dressmaking and what place does it hold in your identity (be truthful with this part if you don’t want to ‘fess up to the first part)?
  • 2) Was a “veil lifted” on any part of ID that has shaken you to the core? …and how did you address the knowledge?
  • 3) Did you ‘know’ about the kickbacks? How long had you been in dressmaking when you found out? I’m open to any discussion on this since it has been a conversation killer within my circle!!!
  • 4) Would you/do you ‘lift the veil’ for other dressmakers and/or clients? How has that gone?
  • 5)Anyone willing to share other sewing venues that do not involve stage mothers, business models, competition and bashing? Oh, one more criteria…can it produce enough income to at least pay for the materials?? Going broke sewing fleece blankets for poor children which is the current project!!!              

Colleens’ of Canberra

I received this yesterday:

Hi Ann,

Of course I do not mind! Changed it!

I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading about Caroline and especially her great tips! I so agree with you when you say we can all learn from each other. In fact, that is why I started Colleens’ of Canberra.

At the time (long before I became so familiar with my computer) it seemed no one would share any information at all about making ID dresses, and not being a sewer, I found the whole process very difficult. That was until I met Margaret Carroll. So nice it was to finally meet someone willing not only to share but show me as well! I decided maybe others would find a website helpful. I’m so happy to see that you think along the same lines.

Thank you for the link to Colleens’ of Canberra. Would you mind if I ask one small favour? The day I made my website Colleens’ rather than Colleen’s was a day I should have considered other people’s confusion! The word Colleen is the Irish word for girl and my site back then was meant to be more about the girls of Canberra as opposed to me, hence Colleens’ rather than Colleen’s. I was desperate to somehow use the initials of my very Irish maiden name (Colleen O’Connor) so that is how I decided on Colleens’ of Canberra. Would you mind changing the link? I do hope you won’t mind?

Keep up the great work!

Colleen
www.colleensofcanberra.com

I loved learning about the origin of the name and just a tiny bit about Colleen’s journey. I have asked her to be a Spotlight…cannot wait to work on this one!

Spotlight: Caroline Vermeulen

My first official spotlight is about ID dressmaker Caroline Vermeulen. What an interesting young woman!! I have truly enjoyed doing this. Caroline also had a good idea – creating a “tutorial” about a particular way of doing things. Hers will be in a separate post following this one.

Caroline lives in Holland (mainland Europe) in a town called Sassenheim, which is close to the center of the famous Dutch tulip industry, the beaches and the capital of Holland: Amsterdam.

I asked Caroline how to say “Vermeulen”: I don’t know how to explain the EU-sound. I guess if you say “Europe” first and then try to get that EU sound into my last name you get pretty close.

And here is Caroline.
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPhoto Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

She describes herself as a “curly, messy, lovable, chaotic, energetic know-it-all and do-it-all. I study science, but all I wanna do is dance and sing and sew dresses.”

As you can see, she is an Irish dancer: Yes I am. My only spite in this life is that I discovered it too late. I started when I was 18/19 years old. Not that I could have danced anyplace before that, though. There simply was NO irish dancing in Holland. I love my teacher (for coming to Holland) and I am truly blessed that she understands my love for dance. It is one of the most important things in my life. Not to compete, but just to dance. I just….need to. It is an expression that comes straight from the heart and soul and I hope to dance till I die. Why Irish?…I dunno, it just “clicked.” I went to the All Irelands this February, and I was just thrilled to be there. The people, the dancers, the stage. I am truly blessed to be able to be a part of it all. And guess what…I did not get last place… 47 out of 52 ….w000000000t!

Caroline has sent dresses to Germany, England, USA and Canada, fabrics to France, Switzerland and Denmark, and designs to many more international addresses. If the postman can reach you, so can she!

I asked her when she learned to sew? When I decided to make dance dresses. My mother had shown me the sewing machine once when I was 8 years old, but I never used it for anything. Once I got the embroidery part down I started learning about the construction of the dresses and after that I also started making ‘normal’ everyday clothing for myself.

What started you along the path of Irish dance dressmaking/design? My friend Lynne needed a solo. She was an adult beginner and there was no school costume for her at that time. She was brave, irish, and had a mother that had knowledge of the past where irish dance dresses where not made by dressmakers, but by the people themselves.

So, she got a pattern and figured it out. The only thing she could not do was the appliqué on her dress. It seemed to scare her a bit. I was fascinated by the whole process and I told her boldly: “Sure, I can do that”. I had no idea where to start, but you know -Google is your friend- and so I started out to learn about appliqué.

I borrowed a neighbour’s machine and started to experiment. Soon I had a knack for it, and I transferred a lovely blue knot design onto her circular skirt. The dress was lovely, simple, and classic and is still going strong in our school.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketLynne

After that, I kept looking at dresses with a dissecting eye…and I knew that it was very well possible to make your own. Lynne and I realized that dresses were very hard to come by in our area, so we started offering our services to our fellow school dancers.
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketLynne & Caroline

How many dresses did it take before you felt like you were getting the hang of this dressmaking thing? I think 2. The first one Lynne and I really made together as me as the designer/embroiderer and she did all the construction work. Then later on I started to make a few on my own to learn the way they were put together. I was fine with the embroidery after the first one, but the construction took me a few more to get right. Not really how to do it, but how to do it neatly!

Do you have a favorite dress? Yes I do. It is my own gold solo dress (see above). The design had come to me in a dream, literally. I had done really well dancing a slipjig the night before at a major competition and I won it. I really danced like I never had before, and I could feel the difference. That night I dreamt about doing that slipjig again, and I saw myself dancing in this dress. It took a while to extract the design from my dream, I actually had to dream it a few times over again (which strangely I could…weird, eh?), but I succeeded. The dress represents a whole new level of dancing for me. A transformation into a higher level of dance. Even though I have a new solo dress now, people still love this one and tell me it was my best dress ever, because it just ‘fitted’ within the picture of me.

What have been the most valuable lessons learned from other artists? Nobody is perfect – don’t overdo it with the self-critique. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and step back and admire your own work sometimes. I was really afraid my work would not be up-to-par with the rest of the DMs out there, but I learned that this is a process you go through and you learn from each dress and they do get better. And share… I see beginners now that create a first dress that is already “professional” in every aspect. I think it is because we share our knowledge of the process and are able to avoid common mistakes this way.

Why should people buy from lone dressmakers vs the BNs (the big names)? Because we care. We care about the dresses and the dancers. We want to create a dream, a princess, a picture of a beautiful and strong Irish dancer. Big companies are….big…they are less individual and are not able to provide you with the personal touch we have. They mass-produce (you can see that clearly in the designs from BN’s) and charge a fortune for their work. I am not going into the quality issues.

What pattern do you use? (This is not a trick question…I may send dressmaking pookas to mess up your bobbins if you don’t use the Feisdress pattern, but I truly would like to know as would the ID dressmaking community at large!) I use the bodice pattern from Feisdress for my teens and adults. I use the Simplicity pattern for small tots and for the skirt I draw the pieces individually for every dancer using Anita Moyes’ technique. I like the way the pieces are drawn, much faster and simpler to me than fiddling with the skirt pattern pieces and getting that side-wedge thing (sorry Susan). I adore Susan and her pattern however, as the bodice is just perfect and easy and everything I wanted. I simply haven’t gotten around to ordering it for smaller sizes, and thus I use what I have for that from Simplicity. I do not follow Anita’s method completely – only the drawing of the outline of the skirt and the back skirt. Then I create my own front and sidepanels and pleat pieces. It really depends on the style of dress where I put my pieces. Thus, it is faster for me to draw a new skirt for every dress than to re-arrange and scale existing pieces.

What types of sewing/serging/embroidering machines do you use? I have a Janome 6500 P and I love it! The Janome does all the embroidery and the construction work. I recently got a serger too for being able to get that “professional” finish I really needed.Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Do you interface all the fabric you use in an ID dress? Yes, I do. First of all, it provides a certain tension for the embroidery and the seamlines. Secondly, you can easily draw your pattern/design onto the pieces backsides. Thirdly….it just looks SO much better and neater in the finished result. It really makes a difference.

What kind of stiffener do you use? Something Freudenberg (Vilene) sent me called “S105.” The factory sits in Germany (next door), and I just contacted them directly (for) samples and (told them) what I was looking for. I have no idea what this is used for, but I am guessing it is for belts and bags or lampshades. I am thinking of switching but am unsure if they will have anything else I’d like. This stiffener is lightweight and fairly thin. It can recover from creases, but not that many times. The crease will become a weak spot over time. When fused with wonderweb however, it becomes as stiff as a board and is just perfect for those front panels. For the back I use B508 (as B509 is no longer made here, they tell me).

How do you use your stiffener? I use two layers in front, fused with wonderweb for extra sturdiness. I use 2 layers for the sidepanels, one for the pleats and none in the back. I use B508 in the back to keep the pleats in and give the skirt a little sturdiness, yet keep it soft enough for dancers to be able to sit down.

How do you embroider your dresses? Meaning, do you digitize and use an embroidery machine? Or do you size designs, cut appliqué, and satin-stitch manually? I use a drawing/design that I transfer by hand to the pattern pieces. I tried printing, but it became chaotic. I work best just copying the shapes by hand. I draw them in with chalk on the back of the interfaced pattern pieces. If I need to outline any embroidery lines I do so with straight stitching. I then satin stitch with the machine by hand-guidance.

What’s in your stash? I have several “base fabric” pieces that are either 3 m long at least or have a special character. I have loads of appliqué fabrics: satins, glitterdots, foils, brocades, etc. They are either remnants from an earlier dress or something that is rare to find around here. I do not keep general things like glitterdots around in large quantities as I know where to get them and all colors are readily available. Sequins are the hardest to get by, so when I spot something it usually comes home with me. Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Where do you get your fabric? I order a lot from Whitelodge and sometimes from Spandexhouse.com . I find a lot on the market and some specialized shops in Amsterdam.

What is your favorite fabric to work with? Holographic Lame from whitelodge. It is shiny, it is pretty, it is light, but it is sturdy. It won’t crease easily and its perfect for base, lining and appliqué once interfaced (but that also works just fine).

What is your least favorite fabric to work with? Elasticated sequin. I will NEVER use that again. Runner up: satin, because it is so slippery and warps easily.

Are you a neat dressmaker or the messiest ever born? (Right now, I believe I hold the title of messiest.) You MUST include at least one photo of your mess or (heaven help me) your unnatural neatness. There will be a Hall of Fame for ID dressmaker sewing rooms in the future. Hehe…no I am messy. I try to bring structure to my work and storage everytime, but then I just pull it all out as the creative juices can only flow in a free and unrestricted space of movement I guess. I do put it all back after a while, but sometimes the fabrics boxes are everywhere! (see the pics above and below).
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPhoto Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

What was your best dressmaking/designing experience? As for purely dressmaking, I had one dress that just came together like a dream. I loved that dress for being so easy on me. Bodice fit perfect first time, skirt hung right, sleeve and zipper were a dream…ah yes if only….

What was your worst dressmaking/designing experience? Measurements that made no sense, and I got blamed for it… how to handle it? GET IT BLACK IN WHITE WHAT THE MEASUREMENTS ARE and then refer to them when needed.

Where do you go to get questions answered? Celtic Flame.

What are your favorite dressmaking links? Celtic Flame, Feisdress Blog, IDdressmaking group, Taoknitter, FeisAnne.

What inspires you? Everything. Music, buildings, flowers, clouds, smiles, anything happy I guess.

What are your design inspiration sources? Well, one cannot be without the “Elevation” influence these days….but I mostly look at pictures of dresses, and patterns in nature, celtic art resources, wallpapers, quilting stencils, logo’s, tiles, Islamic art….again anything really.

Counting designs that you would not show your dog, how many designs would you say you have drawn? About a hundred or slightly more.

What purpose does dressmaking serve in your life? It is a balancing and creative outlet. I could surely paint or something, but it does not create the same beauty I see when I finish a dress. A dress is a lady, a statement, a dream. And I just love to create dreams, I guess….

After a long day of creating, what is your favorite alcoholic beverage? Irish Coffee.

Apart from creating ID dresses, what do you do? I dance, I study at the university, I take care of my boyfriend and my cat and I loooooove to cook and create a new wardrobe for myself.

Tell me about the “new wardrobe?” When I started sewing Irish dance dresses, I was borrowing a machine from my neighbours. I soon had to buy a machine for myself, and because I was into this business to create a bit of extra cash -being a poor student- it was an extremely large purchase for me. I realized that I needed to make the most out of this machine and soon got the idea to start making my own clothing. I would use the machine for what it was worth and I would also save loads of money not shopping for clothing!

I stumbled upon the “Wardrobe Refashion” blog (link below) through some other sites I was browsing that explained simple sewing techniques. I was intrigued by the refashionistas that were making a stand against the consumerism we are all so used to now. They realized that clothing is valuable and should be given a second chance. Also, many of them also feel they have to make a stand against the big brands of the fashion industry and fight against so called “sweatshops.” All very noble indeed, and it made me realize that I also could be a part of this group. I was certainly inspired to. I had a closet full of clothing I wasn’t wearing anymore and had no money to buy new. So I joined. I joined to learn and be inspired by all the other great refashionistas in this global group. I needed to learn how to use what I have, get ideas for new projects, and exchange knowledge. It got me sewing, re-using old stuff and creating new, or simply adjusting a baggy top to make it fit again. I love the creativity that comes from this group and am very happy I decided to stop simply being a “consumer,” to start thinking about my behavior and taking care of my own. And besides, I love the stuff I make for myself!

Read any good books lately? Het Maakbare Brein, a dutch book about how the brain works and how our behavior creates the brain and vice versa. Good book that makes you realize how powerful the brain in in deception, but also how new behavior actually changes the structure of your brain. Good stuff.

In ten years you’d like to be… Married.

Resources:

Lowland Designs Blog, Caroline’s Refashionista blog

Feisdress

Dancing on Eire

Celtic Flame

Feisdress Blog

IDdressmaking group

FeisAnne

Wardrobe Refashion

Caroline’s shaped sleeves with French seams

The fashion fabric is backed and lined. This particular fabric already had a nice design at the hem so I decided to follow that. As you can see I am using a strip of B508 to make sure my stitches are nice and flat.Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Carefully cutting out the shapes. Use a REALLY SHARP knife for this to make your life easier!Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

A trick I picked up from Celtic Flame: cover the white fluff with a special t-shirt ink sharpie!
I did this after the satin stitching here, but if you want, you can first straight stitch the design, then cut out the shapes, use the sharpie on the white edge and then satinstitch around.Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Removing the back part of the vilene with my blade.Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I do a french seam for the sleeves. I start with stitching the fabric WRONG sides together.Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Then, I turn my sleeve inside out.Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Then I press the fabric (actually I didn’t do this in this picture, but you should!) and really press in the seam. You can then stitch the seam again, making sure you encase the raw edges inside the seam. Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
As you can see, this method might require a bit more seamwidth, but I think it is nicer than leaving serged edges inside and you can still keep some extra seam allowance for alterations.

The seam from the inside (very unpressed, sorry).Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Seam from the outside.Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket