In a couple of weeks, it will have been a year since I drove myself to Northwestern Alabama and spent a magical weekend at the Alabama Chanin factory. With this approaching anniversary, I suppose it’s finally time to talk about the dress. The dress has been finished for a while now – 5 months to be exact – but for some reason it has taken me this long to photograph it. It’s actually a very difficult piece to photograph, and the fabric never seems to be the right color no matter how many different light situations or Lightroom adjustments I try. The dress is really best seen in person.
After the weekend workshop, I sewed on the dress a lot (when I wasn’t pouring over the Alabama Chanin website trying to keep every moment of the workshop alive). I completed 3 of the 8 panels before I had to put it down for a little while. When I chose my workshop project, I picked the dress I loved the most (the 8 panel corset dress), the fabric that caught my eye (peacock, a dark teal color), the stencil (Anna’s garden) and applique (negative reverse) that made my heart ache, and the paint (gray) and thread color (black) that worked best with the fabric. All of these ingredients were exactly what I wanted, but they were not the easiest with which to work. The gray paint is almost the same shade as the peacock fabric, making it hard to see the shapes at night, when most of my stitching time happens. The negative reverse applique requires more attention, as you are stitching on an invisible line an 1/8 of an inch inside the shape. Finally when every shape on the panel is stitched, you still have to cut away most of the top layer fabric, a 3-4 hour process during which I was always terrified of accidentally cutting a hole in the bottom layer. So, it wasn’t that surprising I needed a break from this dress despite my love for it.
At some point in the late Spring, I started to think about an October wedding in LA, and what I was going to wear to that wedding. A local outpost of my favorite department store had finally opened after years and years of planning and I knew I could find a dress there, but then I saw the obvious – the dress I should wear was the one I was making completely by hand. So Operation Finish-the-Dress began, and I spent every free moment during the Summer sitting down and stitching the remaining 5 panels, the brightest lamps set up next to the sofa to illuminate the fabric at night.
I didn’t keep track of how many hours went into this dress. The larger back panels took about 20 hours apiece from start to finish, and the smaller front panels took about 15. Then I had to sew everything together, fell the seams, and bind the neck and armholes (Oh Cretan stitch how much do I love thee? Let me count the ways). If I had to guess, this dress took 140 hours. Maybe more. I even managed a completed dress with a couple weeks to spare, giving me time to go to my favorite department store and find the perfect shoes and undergarments. It was at this point while in the dressing room, I realized the straps were too long. I didn’t want to rip out the binding I had just spent hours on, so with the flight to California quickly approaching, I decided to fold some of the strap over itself at the shoulder and stitch it down. I figured this could be a temporary fix to get me through the wedding, and I could do a better job later on. No matter what I told myself, fixing the straps this way seemed wrong and I felt like I was letting my dress down.
In my life, I have been a perfectionist about many things. I’ve also learned to let go, knowing good enough is often the better choice over the unattainable perfection. Being a mother and having children has led me over and over again to the good enough path whether I wanted to be there or not. Yet every time I make an Alabama Chanin garment, I want perfection. They are just so beautiful, it seems a shame for them to be anything less than perfect. Yet they are made completely by hand and, of course, can never be perfect. Some stitches will be longer or shorter than others, a painted area of the stencil will have a smudged line instead of a crisp line, one panel will be cut a little skinnier or wider than its twin, and – my worst fear come true- an accidental hole will be made in the fabric with scissors. Often when I’m engaged in something that takes a lot of time, I think about Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. Most people know about one of the basic premises of the book, that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. Gladwell uses The Beatles and Bill Gates as two of the supporting case studies in his 10,000 hours theory. If I wanted to become an expert at stitching Alabama Chanin style, I would have to make somewhere between 70-100 garments, a number that will not happen in my lifetime no matter how much I love making and wearing them. I am never going to achieve perfection with these pieces and that is okay. In fact, it’s more than okay, and often what is most beautiful to me is the part that is flawed. The temporary fix to the straps is going to be the permanent fix, as the dress is done and I want to move on.
Today I’m waiting for UPS to deliver the newest Alabama Chanin book (which to my sorrow now seems will arrive tomorrow), and dreaming about my next project. I have two weddings to go to later this year, and I don’t want to end my tradition of wearing Alabama Chanin. After these weddings, I may be a little closer to my 10,000 hours, but sewing by hand isn’t about becoming an expert. It’s about stitching and making and learning about myself in the process. The finished garment is really just a bonus.