Monday, 7 November 2011

A conversation with Sarai Mitnick


Today, I'm completely delighted to be a stop on Sarai's blog tour to celebrate and publicise the launch of her book the Colette Patterns Sewing Handbook (which I reviewed yesterday). When Sarai asked me if I'd like to be involved, my mind instantly leapt to all the technical pattern drafting questions I'd like to ask her. However, I've realised that they somehow got lost once I'd begun reading her book - partly because it answers so many questions, but also because lots of new, non-technical questions bubbled to the surface in response to her writing. I hope you enjoy reading our conversation. Photos throughout the post are by Colette Patterns.

Hello Sarai, I’m so delighted to be a stop on your book tour. At the time of typing these questions I’ve just finished your book and it’s wonderful! It’s the book that I’d hoped it might be when I learnt that you’d written one, and then so much more. But it’s left me wondering how you managed the last year of keeping your pattern company and blog running without any visible sign of being distracted by writing what is, not only an incredibly comprehensive sewing guide to dressmaking, but also a deliciously lovely handful of new patterns that have been carefully designed to showcase the skills you teach within the book. How did you do it all?

I'll be honest, it's been a challenging year! I tried to approach the whole enterprise in a very organized way. I knew I'd need a lot of limits to keep my sanity in check.

While writing the book, I divided my weeks roughly in half and spent three days a week working on writing or editing or pattern making or illustrating for the book (yep, I did all those things), and three or four days a week on my pattern business. It was a bit grueling at times, but it helped to know that the book was a limited time project and I'd be able to return to a relatively normal life when it was complete. Of course, that hasn't quite happened yet!

I also got more help during the time I was writing. I brought in more guest bloggers, and had an extra pair of hands in the studio to help me write tutorials for the blog. It also helped that I have an extremely supportive partner. That can't be underestimated!


The book feels very different to any other I’ve ever read on dressmaking. Your tutelage is given with an affirming voice that embraces the many different body shapes to be sewn for with kindness, warmth and acceptance and an awareness that body image is (or at least should be, if it’s to be most successful) inextricably intertwined with dressmaking. Has this positive voice grown and come about as a result of your dressmaking journey with Colette Patterns or was this ethic rooted within you even when you were working in an entirely different sector in an earlier life? And if it was, who was the lovely person who taught you to think in this way?

Like most women, I've struggled with body image my whole adult life. Actually, even before I was an adult, which is so sad thinking back on it! I think it was probably when I was about 18 and started reading feminist classics like Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth that my eyes were opened to how women are surrounded by images that reinforce our negative feelings about ourselves.

At one point, I remember thinking, wow, this is the only body I will ever have and I'm wasting my best, healthiest years feeling bad about it! It's just ridiculous.

I think sewing your own clothing forces you to confront your body in a way that can be a little painful, if we're not careful and loving about it. I think it's important to remind ourselves that body variations are normal, healthy, and part of what makes women beautiful! No one looks like the model on the cover of Shape magazine. Not even she does.

I love that throughout the pages, the psychology of dressmaking is touched upon, as well as the skills and techniques needed to make it all happen. For example, as a result of reading your book I rethought the way that I shopped for fabric and realised that I’m often guilty of buying materials that I like to think I’d wear, rather than being honest with myself and admitting that if it’s not minimal, navy (with the occasional hint of mustard) and rather plain, then I probably won’t wear it. For me, the dressmaking psychology aspects ended up being just as essential reading as the more technical chapters. Did you waiver over whether to include the less conventionally covered dressmaking issues, or did you begin writing with a very clear idea of what you wanted your book to be?

I think I had a pretty clear idea. A lot of those topics came from my experiences blogging. With a blog, you have a chance to have a real conversation with other sewists, not just instruct them on techniques. I've found that a lot of us encounter the same types of issues, and that they're just as important to our creativity and pride in sewing as the stuff that's normally covered in books.

Blogging really was essential to coming up with the concept for the book as a whole. It really filled me in on where a lot of us struggle, the questions we have, and the pitfalls we face. I really wanted to address the big issues in sewing, rather than write a straightforward reference book. I think there are a lot of great options for that out there.

I love that the book doesn’t give any illusions that a pattern should just fit without any tweaking, whether it be a Colette pattern or anyone else’s, as such an expectation often leaves one feeling as though the hours of hard work have all been pointless due to ultimately finding that one is in possession of an upsettingly non-standard body shape. The book explains the many fit issues in a clear and simple way, covering everything from full and small bust adjustments, to sway back or large waist. I remember the very first time I made something from a pattern and on discovering that it didn’t flatter me when I’d carefully chosen which measurements would fit me from the back of the packet, I felt a little cheated. Have you felt that this beginner’s naivety is a hurdle that does need some educating or do people generally seem to come at a project suspecting it may take a few toiles or at the very least a seam-ripper to get the fit right?

That's exactly why I included so much information on fitting! Normally, it seems like fitting is considered sort of a big, scary topic that's left for more advanced sewists. But the reality is that most patterns could use a little tweaking here and there to fit properly, and if a beginner recognizes this up front, she'll have a lot more options.

A lot of it just comes down to confidence. I wanted to show that, while fitting can be a complicated business, often you just need to learn to make a few tweaks that you can use over and over! For example, I'm quite short waisted. Shortening bodices before sewing is a really easy fix to make, but it took me years to realize that this was something I should do. I felt "safer" following the pattern somehow.

I just wanted to tell others what I wish I'd learned as a beginner: It's totally fine to play with your pattern until you get it the way you want!


The Colette Patterns brand aesthetic (that sounds terribly corporate – sorry!) is now a very recognisable one: pastel colours, full lipsticked lips, wonderfully feminine and often with a strong feel of vintage boudoir glamour running through the photo shoots. Are these the colours, fabrics and feel that you’re drawn to when putting together your own personal wardrobe or is it an aesthetic that’s come about as you’ve created a brand image for Colette? I suppose what I’m also trying to ask is, is your vision for Colette Patterns a direct extension of your own personal style and taste or are the two things very separate?

That's a really interesting question. I would say that generally, it comes from my own personal style. I love bright pastels (is that an oxymoron?). I think of them as ice cream colors. In my own wardrobe, I tend to temper them with a lot of black and white to cut the sweetness a little, but I can't help but love really pretty, saturated, feminine colors.

I also like clean sort of styles and graphic patterns like stripes and polka dots, so I use a lot of that. I think it would be really hard to create a brand that didn't connect to your own personal aesthetic. But of course, my taste changes a bit, especially with the seasons.

You and your husband have recently moved into a new home together…do you find yourself tempted to dive into making quilts and soft furnishings or is your mind entirely dominated by dressmaking when it comes to sewing?

Oh gosh, yes! I just made my first quilt this year (a baby quilt for my cousin), and recently made a blanket from Pendleton wool. But I have tons of home sewing projects lined up in my mind. I just don't have the time to do them right now!

I think it would be really fun to move into some home sewing and craft topics. I am a really domestic gal at heart. I love most aspects of domestic life, from DIY decorating to cooking. The only thing I'm not so much into is cleaning.

Photograph by Clever Nettle
I only recently discovered that Colette Patterns is named after your cat, Colette, who is named after the writer. I haven’t actually read any of Colette’s writing, but when I did an internet search for her, I found that she was strong, passionate, French, took part in controversial performances at the Moulin Rouge and wore her sexuality on her sleeve. About.com offered me this as an opening line in explanation of who she was: Colette was a writer known for her novels in which women were depicted as full sexual beings. And somehow it all made perfect sense and I could see how your Colette photo shoots give a nod to this spirit. I found little to précis her work in more detail, however, so I’m wondering was it her writing or her person that drew you to name both a cat and a company after this spirited woman?

I adore Colette as a writer. It isn't just her depictions of women, but her recognition of the beauty and pleasure of life in general. When you read Colette, you can't help but remember that there is so much wonder in the world.

Colette was also an animal lover (as I am), and in particular she loved cats (as I do). She said, "There are no ordinary cats." So it was a fitting name for my very elegant, demure black cat.

You write beautifully and clearly have a voice that has much to give outside the parameters of sewing as well as within them. Did writing this book ignite a desire in you to write more widely on other subjects too? Are you able to tell us what might be coming next (aside from a well-deserved rest)?

I've always loved writing, and it's really flattering to hear you say such kind things about my writing style! I've been thinking up other ideas that I may explore more next year, after a break. I am really interested in domestic life, as I said, and sewing has always been connected to that for me. I think creativity in everyday life is such a wonderful antidote to the harried, rushed, money-oriented lives most of us have to lead. I'd love to explore the ideas around creativity and self-sufficiency in different ways.

Finally, while I have this opportunity to ask away, I wonder if you can fathom a fitting issue for me that my covert studies suggest is a problem that many other women struggle with too. The denim (or corduroy) jeans skirt. I love that it can be dressed up or down and look feminine without having made too much effort. However, I am yet to find a skirt that has this conventional jeans fly zip at the front, where it doesn’t cause an odd stomach pouch to form the minute I begin to move. It bulges out over my stomach in a way that jeans never do and it doesn’t matter if the skirt is too big, too small or just right…they all seem to produce a fly that won’t lie flat the minute I start walking. Do you have any idea of why this style so often doesn’t seem to fit and if it can be made or bought in a way that would solve this issue?

I can see why that is. I've had denim skirts that do the same thing.

I think the issue is that, with pants, you have a lot more shaping at the center front seam. That seam really curves around your stomach and between your legs. A skirt can't have that much shaping at the center, though. The seam is meant to go down toward the floor rather than form all the way around your body.

When you bend at the waist in pants, the seam that goes all the way from the center front to center back stays pretty much the same. There's no need for it to bunch up because your legs can move on either side of it. However, in a skirt, the fabric around your legs is connected to the center front seam, so the seam HAS to bunch up when you bend.

This can be an issue with a fly because it adds so much bulkiness. It wants to buckle if it's not held in place. Think about the way a zipper will buckle on a dress sewn in a really lightweight material.

I can't think of a way around it! If it bugs you, I'd say to try eliminating the fly front and using a side or back zipper!

Thank you so much for answering my questions and giving me a sneaky peek at your wonderful book. I hope that you take sewing onto the best-sellers list with it!

Thank you so so much, Florence!

If you'd like to buy a copy of the book you can find it here. You can follow Sarai and her book on the rest of their blog tour below:

Nov 2: Craft Buds – interview and giveaway
Nov. 3: Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing – lace insertion tutorial for the Licorice dress
Nov. 4: Sewaholic – book excerpt
Nov. 8: Flossie Teacakes – Interview with Sarai and book review
Nov. 8: A Fashionable Stitch – book excerpt and review
Nov. 9: Pink Chalk Studio – Book review
Nov. 10: Craft Gossip – Interview with Sarai and giveaway
Nov. 11: Bolt Fabric – book review
Nov. 14: True Up: Fabric Fives with Sarai
Nov. 15: Frolic! – On styling the book’s photos
Nov. 15: Threads Magazine – Giveaway
Nov. 16: Whipstitch – book review
Nov. 16: Honey Kennedy – Styling ideas
Nov. 17: A Dress a Day – Interview with Sarai
Nov. 18: Not Martha – book review
Nov. 28: Casey’s Elegant Musings – Project Planning, book excerpt and Casey’s thoughts
Nov. 29: MADE – giveaway
Nov. 30: Sew Weekly – book review
Nov. 30: Oh! Fransson - Elizabeth’s version of the Taffy pattern
Dec. 1: Sew Mama Sew – Guest post from Sarai on grainlines

I hope you enjoyed reading.

Florence x

8 comments:

  1. Great interview, showcases Sarai so well and the ethos that drives her, loved it!

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  2. Mary said - wonderful interview, well done and Sarai sounds a lovely/inspirational woman.

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  3. This was pretty interesting, I must say. I like the sewing/gender politics cross-over!

    Florence or Sarai, do you know of a company that makes really good and stylish men's patterns? I know there's a Colette shirt which looks great. My boyfriend really needs some new casual trousers, and ethical options are both few and expensive. I think he'll just end up buying some sweatshop cords - but I was wondering if in future I could make some. Maybe I'll just have to draft my own pattern...

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  4. Thanks so much for your comments Kerry & Mary - I'm so pleased you enjoyed it.

    Nina - I'm about to embark on the same thing as I've just finished making a winter coat for myself and now my husband would like one too. I'm lucky in that his coat is so old that I'll actually be able to take it apart rather than having to draft a pattern - I've never done it this way before as I've always wanted to keep the garment intact that I've wanted to make a replica of, so I'm excited to see how much it will simplify the process.

    I don't know of any other really good men's pattern than the Negroni - which is still my husband's favourite shirt.

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  5. Fantastic Interview Florence - I can't think of anything better than my two favourite bloggers chatting together in one blog post! I have the new book on pre order from Amazon and am waiting impatiently for it to arrive. Even if I never made a thing, I know that the book itself will be a thing of beauty that I will look at time and time again. Sharon x

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  6. as my grandmother is in hospital I am a little behind on my reading but I am happy I have some time now to catch up! What a lovely interview!!!

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  7. Loved the interview! Elegance shouts from all the pictures.Beautiful.

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  8. What an awesome interview and the book looks like it's going to be this year's 'must have'!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a message - it's always really lovely to hear from people.

I now tend to reply within the comments section, so please do check back if you've asked a question or wish to chat.

Florence x