Friday, September 16, 2011

Haute Couture Has Nothing Over Mrs. Grace Snyder

Flower Basket Petit Point Quilt by Grace Snyder, 1940

Grace McCance Snyder, the Nebraskan pioneer, started piecing quilts when she was only seven. Charged by her father with watching the cattle in the fields, she would lie or sit on the back of her favorite and sew all day. Through the next decades of her life, Mrs. Snyder made tens of quilts for her family and later in her life for exhibition. She became Nebraska's most famous quilter and was inducted into the Quilters' Hall of Fame in 1980 at the age of 98. Two of her quilts are on the list of the Twentieth Century's 100 Best American Quilts.

Section of the Petit Point quilt showing the needlepoint effect of the piecing.

Mrs. Snyder accomplished the Flower Basket Petit Point quilt in 16 months, basing her design on the pattern of a china plate produced by the Salem China Company of Ohio. In her design, she used a triangle for each stitch of the petit point to achieve a pointellist impression on the quilt's surface. It took Mrs. Snyder 87,875 tiny triangles, no bigger than a fingernail, and 5 miles of thread to sew to create the Petit-Point quilt!

Here are other samples of Mrs. Snyder's quilting.

A documentary segment has been produced about Mrs. Snyder's quilting, and her work and life were featured in the International Quilt Study Study Center and Museum of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

You may also want to see: Fashion and Quilting: Two Roads

Sunday, September 11, 2011

If I Could, I Would...

Evening dress, Chanel, 2011

If I could, I would support the haute couture, speaking of it here in its most narrow definition as the "creation of exclusive custom-fitted clothing. Haute couture is made to order for a specific customer, and it is usually made from high-quality, expensive fabric and sewn with extreme attention to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable seamstresses, often using time-consuming, hand-executed techniques." Its literal translation is "high sewing."

In this narrow definition, today it involves only those few houses that are official, correspondent, and guest members of the French Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
Haute couture in itself is not a road that leads to riches. The standards for hand sewing, materials, and design for those with the ability and interest to buy unique pieces of the finest clothing in the world are kept extremely high. For instance, as Karl Lagerfeld explains in describing to an interviewer in the BBC production,The Secret World of Haute Couture , the feathers for his designed evening gown composed of embroidery in the bodice and feathers in the skirt, are specially produced on a farm in South Africa. In short, all pains are taken to render an article of the highest possible quality and all the fabrics are created and treated specially. For his 2011 fall-winter collection, the designer Valentino, reported the September Vogue, showed a "magnificent coat of hammered gold brocade ... which had the brilliant texture, almost a relief effect, of a Russian icon's surface, clocking in at 750 hours' worth of embroidery."

Chanel embroidered gossamer, 2011.

Such "high sewing" could become a lost art. Twenty years ago, a haute couture designer would fashion up to 160 different pieces of clothing for a collection; today the number hovers around 40. In the years after World War II, Parisian haute couture kept 46,000 embroiderers, lacemakers, and hand seamstresses busy in subcontracting ateliers. Today that number has dwindled to 4,500. The money lies in ready-wear, which are duller shadows of the original dress.

Despising ready-wear as a form of prostitution, the French designer Alix Gres, for example, died in penury and obscurity in 1993, after creating clothes for such non pareils as Jacqueline Kennedy. Madame Gres, as she was called, was a sculptor who turned to dress design in the 1940s. Taking inspiration from the Greek and Roman statues of antiquity, she molded a dress from one, uncut piece of cloth directly on the model, through pinning tiny pleat after pleat--with exquisitely graceful results.

A gown of white silk jersey by Madame Gres, 1958

For sure there are plenty of designer clothes that I find incomprehensible or dislike. That said, haute couture repesents the pinnacle of excellence in turning a two-dimensional object--in this case, the cloth--into a three dimensional object, the finished article of clothing, in a way that expresses both the designer's and the owner's ideas and sensibilities. Those who collect haute couture regard their purchase as an investment in a work of art, in the same way that a wealthy person collects original paintings. I can only imagine that if haute couture succumbs, the quality of all of our clothes, including those in the sales bins at our favorite department store, will slip irrevocably downward.

You may also want to see:
Welcome Back Lace!
In Praise of Sewing

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Home Economics Revival?

Home Economics Class--on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1951. Today, for the most part, only private Christian schools have home economics as part of the curriculum.

Although couched in politically correct terms--as a means of fighting obesity--the revival of home economics classes as part of children's education was posited by Helen Zoe Veit in an article in the New York Times September 5. Veit feels compelled in her first sentence to acknowledge that such a proposal goes against the grain of feminism, stating this untruth right off the bat: "Nobody likes home economics."

The basis for Veit's proposal rings true though: "Reviving the program, and its original premises — that producing good, nutritious food is profoundly important, that it takes study and practice, and that it can and should be taught through the public school system — could help us in the fight against obesity and chronic disease today. The home economics movement was founded on the belief that housework and food preparation were important subjects that should be studied scientifically."

Who can argue with this, except those who feel that cooking, housework, cleaning, and other household tasks are inherently demeaning to women and should be performed by presumably paid (mostly female--oops!) servants.

Veit does admonish though that "today we remember only the stereotypes about home economics, while forgetting the movement’s crucial lessons on healthy eating and cooking. Too many Americans simply don’t know how to cook. Our diets, consisting of highly processed foods made cheaply outside the home thanks to subsidized corn and soy, have contributed to an enormous health crisis."

I believe she is right, as the effects of a diet of constantly eating restaurant food, take-out, and fast food quickly lead to body ballooning. Restaurants and processed food manufacturers have the incentive to lard their food with fats, sugar, and salt, because it is an easy pleasure for the palate and they want you to come back for more. That is not the basis for home cooking--you are already there! Here the goals are great nutrition and great taste at lower prices. Home economics classes can give both women and girls the basic rudiments of how and what to cook. Today Veit's proposal was seconded in the Food and Think blog of the Smithsonian magazine and noted by National Public Radio and The Atlantic.

Catharine Esther Beecher, who believed the education of women was crucial to the survival of the republic.

Home economics has a proud tradition among women in the United States and was first launched by Catharine Esther Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe), whose Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841) became the domestic bible for women in the settled areas of the United States. For Beecher the proper management of the home was intrinsic to the proper rearing and education of children.

Today, women of all ages can fruitfully turn to Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson (1999). Mrs. Mendelson presents clear and exceedingly helpful discussions of everything from making a bed to nutrition. Offering thorough guidance and suggestions, she never lectures. This book is a great gift for any young woman starting out in her own home or apartment or for a bride.

Cheryl Mendelson's Home Comforts. She won her way to my heart when she reported that she had held many jobs in her life, including being an attorney, but found performing domestic duties in her home the most gratifying.

But back to home economics classes. In my high school, the girls took home economics, while the boys took shop. The boys always returned from shop to academic classes with a happy sense of accomplishment. Probably we girls less so. Home economics was not taught from the height of this topic down to gritty details, but was taught like First Aid 1: clear instructions only for the most vital things you need to know. It was assumed you already knew why you needed such a course; there was no motivational excitement on the part of the teacher. I think it could be a lot more fun. Nevertheless, I took great satisfaction in making a summer skirt, and the experience of making something wearable prompted me to sew many of my own clothes during my high school years.

Ms. Veit has my gratitude for bringing up such an audacious proposal as the revival of home economics as part of the curricula in public schools. I suspect though that for many, fighting obesity is merely the calling card for ideas of reviving home economics classes and good practices. Fast food and eating out is expensive and goes out of the budgetary ballpark in hard times. Now is the time to learn to cook!