April in Washington means the advent of warm weather, cherry blossoms and . . . the dusting off of sewing machines.
For some, this means quickly stitching up a new spring skirt after deciding that last summer's wardrobe looks like what it is: left over. But heading for the sewing machine can also be an adventure in creating a garment "designed" by Egyptians or pioneers.
Or it can mean making a pair of pants that for the first time actually fit in all the right places. Individuality is, after all, what distinguishes the home sewer from an assembly line.
Folkwear Patterns were started five years ago by three California women who wanted to offer people something not available anywhere else. Have you ever thought of making a Guatemalan gabacha, a Ukranian shirt, a French cheesemaker's smock or a Gibson Girl blouse? They're all part of the Folkwear collection of 40 patterns ($3-$6 each), which are multi-sized, each containing an extensive history of the garment.
"Sewing can get boring if you keep doing the same normal patterns," says Hermine Dreyfuss of G Street Remnant Shop, which is hosting a traveling collection of Folkwear garments, as well as showing a group made up in their own couture fabrics. "These clothes mix well. They can be worn every day as well as serve as authentic reproductions of their time."
The company started, says Barbara Garvey, one of the founders, "because we wanted to preserve the exact cut and construction and any of the handwork and embroidery work used on antique garments. We always begin by obtaining and studying an actual garment, not just doing research in books or photos."
Each pattern comes with detailed handwork techniques and possibilities, so the individual can do as much -- or as little -- as desired to embellish the garment. And because the patterns themselves offer so much historical information some people collect them and never sew the clothes.
"I think we are offering people something not available anyplace else," says Garvey. "Our philosophy is that a really good design does not go out of style every season. We think of it as forever clothing -- you don't buy it now and throw it out after a year. If people are going to put in the effort to sew something, or put embroidery on it, or spend money on a nice fabric, they would rather do it on something much more permanent than their regular wardrobe."
Though they say they are "beyond fashion," Garvey admits that they pay some attention to general trends.
And what's currently hot in Folkwear? G Street's Dreyfuss says that Edwardian under clothes, prairie dresses and Bolivian jackets are popular at her shop. And though it may be just a coincidence, the latest word from Milan and Paris these days involves a lot of things called sarouelles (Pattern 119), tunics such as the Black Forest Smock (Pattern 108) and Chinese paneled skirts (Pattern 115).
Though sarouelles (gathered loose Turkish pants) may be the pants that designers want us to wear, the majority of us still will be running around in jeans or pleated pants.
Because sewing pants can be difficult for even expert sewers, Pati Palmer and Susan Pletsch, authors and lecturers on home sewing, have taken on the challenge with four special pants patterns for McCalls.
The Palmer/Pletsch philosophy, Palmer says, is "making it easier and more fun to sew by concentrating on simpler, more understandable ways to fit."
What their pants patterns offer is unusual one-inch side seam allowances and one-inch waist allowances (as opposed to the usual 5/8 inch) which they call their "in case" seam allowances. "They're there, says Palmer, 'in case' you need them."
Their patterns come with very clear, concise directions. "We write all the instructions themselves, which is unusual. When someone like Halston sells a pattern company a design, Halston doesn't write the directions for the sewer. What you're buying along with our patterns is our ability to write easy-to-read guide sheets with three kinds of tips throughout -- quick tips, fit tips and pro tips."
Palmer/Pletsch encourage the use of products like Fray Check to avoid having to finish seams (applied on seam allowances to prevent raveling), plus things like Ban Rol (a special interfacing to keep waistbands from wrinkling). Says Palmer, "We believe in shortcuts for doing things easier and faster, as long as the garment still looks professional."
Other advice in the Palmer/Pletseh technique involves making a pair of pants first in inexpensive gingham to determine how one's body shape may differ from the pattern.
"The gingham has built in grain line and the checks help you identify where your problems are," says Palmer. "If the checks go straight up and down your leg, they fit. If they don't, you have thigh problems and you need to let your inseam out until the checks are straight."
On the basis of helping fit 25,000 women in these gingham "shells," she says it is the only way to get a good fit and also to avoid ruining an expensive fabric.
One last thing: If you're going to wear pants, she says, make sure they fit in all places, and don't forget the view from the back.