Costume vs Historic: The Art of Sewing Vintage

 Posted by on Jul 12, 2013 at 11:28 AM
Jul 122013
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~ Costume vs Historic: The Art of Sewing Vintage ~

30s double bow gown30s double gow gown madeI’ve been sewing since High School. When I watched Demi Moore in “About Last Night” and coveted her wardrobe, but knew I couldn’t afford it, I pulled out my sewing machine. Putting those same thrifty sewing skills to work in my first studio apartment, I crafted matching pillows, curtains and slip-covers. But it wasn’t until I started swing dancing (Lindy Hop, Balboa and Collegiate Shag) that I really honed my sewing vintage skills. I drooled over 1940s peplum jackets and skirts, glamorous 30s evening gowns and “Rosie the Riveter” overalls, but even working two jobs, I couldn’t afford the boutique prices and was easily outbid on ebay.

vintage orange tie top matching

Once I wed and hadmother daughter front tie midriff babies, I was obsessed with matching outfits for me and my brood. My husband, a sailor, frequently deployed to Iraq, made it hard to maintain our vintage lifestyle. I thought if the kids and I were in matching outfits–no matter what event, swing dance, Lindy by the bay, vintage expo–and if (God forbid) one of the kids wandered off, people would know they belonged to me. I found matching patterns and sewing vintage made us a mini version of the Von Trapp family.

chas flying monkeyclara as Marie antionetteHalloween became the next outlet for my sewing vintage obsession. It’s the best holiday with all the fun, food, decorations and parties of Christmas, without the stress of gift-giving. I created elaborate costumes sometimes using three or four different patterns and created my own pieces. I spent hours pausing the DVD to sketch the intricate pattern of the Flying Monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz.” I love the problem solving aspect of having a vision, watching it come to life and the satisfaction of having made it with my two hands.

Sewing blog ad steampunk Memory CoatWhen we moved to little Lockhart, Texas and became involved in the local theatre, once again, my sewing vintage skills were put to the test. Most recently I worked on costumeSteampunk patterns and props for a wonderful mixed cast (adults and youth) production of Still Life with Iris. Since my kids and I were fortunate enough to get cast in juicy roles, I volunteered to make our costumes. What I learned was this: I am not a costume maker. I am a garment maker, a crafter of beauty, an artisan. Try as I might I couldn’t “throw together” our garb.

I can’t help thinking of my vintage clothing: I am wearing something someone made decades ago, so might someone wear something I am making now, years from today. Maybe it’s a little vanity, maybe it’s a little mortality and longevity, but my mother’s voice in my head reminded me to finish the seams, not to cut corners (unless the pattern says so), and don’t be in such a rush not to baste the seam. I finally made my peace with the extra step of basting, running the quick stitch through every patchwork piece of my difficult costume. I gave into the slow rhythm of stitching and ironing, stitching and ironing.

Then, there’s the awkward moment when you realize you’ve sewn the  pattern piece wrong to right side, or upside down, or the button-hole is on the wrong side. Out comes the seam ripper like a Mother Superior scolding you and insisting hard labor for your sewing transgression.  Sometimes it seems like I rip more seams than I sew.
My son’s laughter interrupts my concentrated bent. I wonder how many years I have left before his high-pitched giggle turns to a manly guffaw. How many big things in life are there to look forward to, to marvel over, to see the magic in. There’s been nothing quite as amazing as the wonders of motherhood, but that time is pressing forward faster and faster.

sewing tableReturning to my sewing I contemplate: There may not be many big things left or new things but there are so many little things I may have overlooked.  I must learn to revel in the small things, like figuring out how to make my daughter’s Marie Antoinette costume fit both her and her understudy. The light in my son’s eyes as his Young Mozart costume comes together with silver trim against the deep blue and lacy jabot. The half-moon curves of the bodice to my Steampunk “memory coat.” The clipped cloth, blossoming like flower petals under the hot iron, allowing the fabric to lay flat and, at the same time, fit the contour of the female form.  There is magic in everything, even sewing. You just have to know where to look.


Have you made magic with fabric? What’s your fave sewing projects? What era do you sew?

Tam Francis, authorTam Francis is writer, blogger, swing dance teacher, avid vintage collector, and seamstress. She  shares her love of this genre through her novels, blog, and short stories. She enjoys hearing from you, sharing ideas, forging friendships, and exchanging guest blogs. For all the Girl in the Jitterbug Dress news, give-aways, events, and excitement, make sure to join her list and like her FB page! Join my list ~ Facebook page

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  8 Responses to “Costume vs Historic: The Art of Sewing Vintage”

Comments (8)
  1. Tam, I wish I could sew and the more I read your blog, the more I want to start learning how to do it.
    And as Shari, Jacqui and Elizabeth said, you are really inspiring and creative. :)

    • Well, thank you. I encourage everyone to TRY to sew. Start simple. This summer I’m going to try to do a video of making a simple A-line Jitterbug skirt. Maybe that would help?

      Thanks for stopping by the site. I LOVE it when people comment. It lets me know you’re out there. Any suggestions for articles, just let me know!


  2. Your blog is inspiring, and you are an inspired, creative woman who puts love in everything you make. Regarding your son’s interest in sewing more than your daughter’s ~ never forget, some of the most successful designers and coutourriers (I can’t ever spell that word, but I’m sure you know what I mean!) were/are men!

  3. You are an inspiring, creative, busy woman!
    How fortunate are your brood to have their custom made costumes, and a peer in dramatic productions!
    I too can’t “cut corners” and French seamed costumes, with lace and tucks on Little Miss Muffet’s bloomers, etc.
    It must help when your sailor husband is away to make beauty with your machine.
    Thank you for your post, and also the one on The Thin Man, one of my favourite vintage film series. You have inspired me to watch all of them.

  4. I just want to thank you for all the awesome sewing for Still Life with Iris, Mrs. Memory Mender!

    • You’re quite welcome Mr. Matternot/Mr. Daybreaker! Wonderful show, wonderful cast! Can’t wait for the next. Thanks for the visit and comment!

  5. I love this. My mom taught seeing in her home economics class. Growing up all of my Halloween costumes and a lot of my clothes were home made. I had a sewing machine at the age of 7. I kep up with it until about the time my daughter was born. But you’ve inspired me. Maybe I’ll pull it out and see what I can still do.

    • Thank you so much for visiting and commenting. I love sewing and really do think there is a bit of magic in it. It’s funny because Chas is more interested in it than Clara. It’s a great skill to have!

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