At the 2013 fall Creativ(e!) Festival, I circled round the alpaca at the Sultan’s Fine Fabrics booth like a dieter around the desert table at a holiday party.
I really shouldn’t … but it was so nice … but so expensive! and unnecessary! … but soft and warm and lovely … oh, but too much, and I’d regret it later … but how often does an opportunity to buy alpaca fabric come along? and how much would I regret it if I didn’t take the opportunity?
And so on, and on, all day, as I wandered into the booth, felt up the alpaca, wandered away again to look at other less expensive things, wandered back, ad (near) infinitum.
I took the plunge. They offered me a “special deal” of about $115/yard, if memory serves. I bought 1 1/2 yards, enough to make a skirt.
And then I didn’t make the skirt.
I never wear skirts in the fall and winter, I reasoned. To use the alpaca for a skirt would be to waste it. Wouldn’t it be better to make pants? But then did I buy enough for pants? And should I use the stripes on the right side, or the reverse? Or should it be a skirt? But I’d never wear a skirt. Pants, then. But what kind of pants?
Two years, it took me. Two years.
To be decided largely by impulse after making up the wool Katherine pants and deciding that I loved them.
I do, too. They’re comfortable, stylish, work-appropriate, have great pockets, and go together well. The basic modifications I used in the wool version worked very well and made for warm, comfortable pants that can be worn to work all winter and look like I bought them in a nice store.
(O/T: I went shopping for an afternoon during my impromptu vacation. I looked in all the stores, Dear Readers. The cheap stores, the mid-range stores, the young-professional stores, the middle-aged stores, the old-lady stores, the one-percenter stores. Everything was fucking polyester.
Let me rephrase, as that is giving me some unfortunate mental images: No x-rated behaviours involving oil-based synthetic fibres were going on in any stores. Everything was made out of fucking polyester. It felt cheap and plasticy and yet somehow it cost a fortune. Apparently not buying myself clothing for a few years threw me right out of the mindset of being able to appreciate what’s on offer at your standard suburban shopping mall. $100 for an acrylic cardigan. $95 for a poly t-shirt. I was outraged. In a very western, first-world kind of way.)
Anyway, on to the pattern review and construction notes:
In this version I fixed a few of the issues from the wool ones, and made some aesthetic changes:
1. Fixed the lining around the front fly.
I had no instructions for this in any of my books and it’s not included in the otherwise-excellent Craftsy pants-class by David Coffin, but I was able to find a good how-to in a Threads article from 2011. Highly recommended. It works like a charm, but only if the underlap is narrower than the overlap top-stitched to the pants front. This is not the case in the Katherine pattern, so I left the underlap on the inside instead of tucking it in to the lining, and catch-stitched it down on the bottom. (If this is something you want to address in your own Katherine pants, I would suggest widening the overlap piece. I found it pretty narrow.)
I also changed the underlap pattern piece. Instead of one piece of self-fabric folded in half, stitched and flipped, and then attached to the zipper (as one does), I cut it in half lengthwise and added a seam allowance, made the top piece from the self fabric and the bottom piece from the lining. The side that was sewn over the zipper tape was lined up with the selvedge on both pieces so there’s no risk of fraying.
By the way, if you too are attempting to line the Katherine pants and want to know how I made the front lining piece, I just traced all three of the front pattern pieces onto tracing paper, lining them up along the stitching lines, and turning the resulting front princess seam into a tuck (the back dart was also tuck-ified). This version I lined all the way down; the wool ones I lined to the knee.
In order to help hold the lining in place, the bartacks on the pockets and at the bottom of the front fly went through all layers.
This version is much neater than the wool one.
2. The waistband on this version was lined with muslin.
The original wool pants used wool on both the outside and inside of the waistband, but I wanted to do something a little different here. The flannel, as thick as it was, was soft and I feared a bit malleable for a waistband, even interfaced. I wasn’t sure it would hold up over time. But the bemberg would be too slippery to hold still when worn with a shirt tucked in. Also I polled my lovely friends on IG and FB and they told me that stable cotton would be what they would do, so:
It’s a good, solid muslin, never washed so still very stiff and starchy. I’ve got no plans on introducing these pants to water in any form at any point ever, so I think the lack of pre-shrinking will be ok. I added interfacing scraps at the centre front overlap so it would hold up even better with closures. And then I used a long 1″ strip cut from the selvedge of the rayon to wrap around the bottom edge so I would have to worry about flipping it under to sew it down; just stitch on the ditch on the right side and catch the inner waistband, finishing already complete.
When everything else was done, I did a bit of catch-stitching to hold the bottom edge of the inner waistband down, but just along the seams so it wouldn’t restrict the ability of the tucks to expand.
And then I added an overly-precious cross-stitched sewing machine motif at the centre back of the inner waistband as kind of an “I made this” label. Not for any reason really, but if you’re going all out to make a pair of literal fancy-pants from a piece of alpaca you’ve been hoarding for years, why not spend the extra hour on a bit of unnecessary cross-stitch?
3. And we’re still on the subject of the waistband…
It’s got a double-closure: hook-and-eye on the outside, and a button on the inside, to keep everything extra flat and tidy. My buttonhole foot resolutely refused to stitch a buttonhole on the inside waistband with all of that bulk in the seams, so I did a bound buttonhole. Yes, I did. Mostly by hand, too. It was so small that it was mostly easier to just do it by hand than it would have been to use the machine.
And the button and hook were sewn on just to the inner waistband, before it was stitched down, so that there would be no stitches visible on the outside.
4. The pants were serged for construction. I know, I know. But I wanted a seam that would hold up for the long haul under the lining (which was also serged).
5. I used the pockets instructions from David Coffin’s Craftsy class and used Liberty lawn scraps. Good and sturdy, very light, hopefully won’t wear out, and with the lining I wasn’t worried about the sticky factor. It makes for very big pockets, but they work well for my insulin pump and I like them.
In case you can’t tell, I love these pants. Now my only problem is going to be working up the courage to wear them in the winter when the sidewalks have been salted. I am already shuddering.
To say that the second half of my period of unemployment did not go as planned would be an understatement. Rather than a bit of a break wherein I tried to catch up on things and also had some extra fun and sewing time, I ended up spending a hefty chunk of time in the hospital with my father before and after he had emergency brain surgery to remove a tumour. Yes, you read that right. Not all eventualities can be prepared for and brain tumours, as it turns out, are one of those unplannable things.
He is recovering at home very well now. The pathology results have come back and I’m not sure if or when I’ll be talking about them here.
Sewing and making things is how I manage stress, so what will probably happen, in blog terms, is more sewing and less sleeping. My plan is to keep this a cancer-free space, for my sanity if nothing else. Please don’t think me heartless. It’s just that most of you I don’t know all that well.
So I still did a good bit of sewing, mostly in the middle of the night when I should have been sleeping. I managed not to sew through any body parts (thank goodness), but I did make a series of embarrassing mistakes, like sewing the wrong part of the crotch curve together when making up the pants. I thought briefly about making the rear fly pant closure the latest internet sensation, and then shook my head and tore out the offending stitches.
I managed to get the First Day of the New Job outfit all sewn up and ready before the first day of the new job, and I pressed it and had it all ready to go, and then Frances got sick the night before I was to start. So I spent that day emptying and cleaning out puke buckets (oh the fun things you get to read here!) instead of becoming orientated. I thought briefly of putting the new duds on anyway and taking some photos of myself, sleep deprived, at home, doing Mom On Sick Duty things, but fortunately for you I was just too tired and decided to pass.
Anyway. After much ado, here is the outfit:
The top is Vogue 8689, and the pants are the StyleArc Katherine pants. The Vogue shirt I’ve made before, so I’ll skip most of the verbiage:
1. Blue rayon challis. Very soft and drapey and wonderful to wear as a shirt.
2. 1/2″ self-cover buttons. I couldn’t find any pre-made that matched.
3. Faux-french seams. Serged the seams then top-stitched them down w/ a 1/4″ foot.
4. Shortened the sleeves about 1 1/2 “, and cinched in the cuffs by about 3/4”.
5. Made a total mess of the back of the collar. Good thing no one can see it.
6. Basted the middle of the button plackets to keep all the layers in place while putting in buttonholes and sewing on buttons. But they still seemed to get all out of place when washing.
7. Oh, and I very quickly added a 1 1/2″ ease pleat to the centre back, just under the yoke. I wanted a shirt that was very drapey and loose and would give me lots of movement when driving to and from work, so I just moved the back pattern piece about 3/4″ off the fold line and notched the top seam line where the original fold was so I’d know where to put the pleat. Then I trimmed the shirt down a bit more in the waist so it wouldn’t be too baggy all the way down–just a bit extra across the upper back.
Also, in proof that stylistic inspiration can be found anywhere, this was a shirt conceived after watching Deep Impact on Netflix. That girl journalist had a very nice drapey blue work shirt with a very nice ease pleat in the back.
So that’s the shirt.
The StyleArcKatherine pants were new for me. I thought about doing up a muslin … and then impatience overtook me and I just added some of my standard pant alterations:
1. 1 1/2″ extra on the crotch curve
2. 1 1/2″ extra between the hips and waist, front and back. Lengthened the underflap and overflap pieces for the fly to match.
3. Slimmed the waist down a bit
I used the wool I bought at King Textiles last year in Toronto, a lovely dark gold with a faint plaid to the weave. To combat itchiness, I lined the pants to the knee with bemberg, but imperfectly because I had no idea what I was doing around the fly.
I mean, it works, and no one is looking at my pants on the inside except me, so whatever. But it’s not elegant. And I discovered while wearing them that they really need bartacks on the pockets, otherwise they bag open, even with interfacing to reinforce the opening.
They fit nicely. They’re a smidge on the loose side, which is by no means a negative when you’re going to spend most of your time in them sitting down. My doctor switched out one of my medications recently and I think it’s made me lose a few pounds; I’m never sure whether a medication-induced weight change will be permanent or not, so I left the pants a bit big. I didn’t want to make them small enough to be snug now, only to gain five pounds next month and then I can’t wear them anymore. So.
Also, I sewed in a buttonhole and then decided I didn’t want to interrupt the waistband with a button, so I didn’t slash it open and sewed hook-and-eye closures in instead.
The pattern overall was simple to sew together, and the pockets and the front seam detail add a nice touch. Pieces match up and sew well, with the exception of the smaller pocket bag piece. It didn’t match the side seam of the pants at all. I cut out four of the larger pocket bag piece and trimmed two of them down to fit instead.
And now if I can finish the blazer I have on the go from the same fabric … I’ll finally have that suit!
That’s the quick-and-dirty version. I’ll share some more details when I write up the pair I made from the alpaca flannel I’ve had in my stash for years.
I made it purposefully quite loose, even adding extra space to the sleeves, and then dug through my Fabric Manipulation book to get some ideas for adding a little something extra. Originally, I wanted to do something like this:
It’s just little angular bits of self-fabric sewn to the t-shirt in the centre (storebought). But the bamboo jersey I made for this renfrew was too high quality to curl up at the edges, gosh darn it, so I looked for something instead that would force some floof and curl into the fabric and settled on the split circle technique. It’s a denser, heavier look, to be sure, but I like it. It adds a little something to what is otherwise a very basic pattern.
And then I took some spiral bits and folded them and stitched them over the cut edges of the split circles so you can’t see the ugly bits.
The embellishment took longer than it did to make the shirt (but isn’t that always the way?). But I’m happy with how it turned out and have already worn it a ton, and it was a good use of fabric scraps, too.
I haven’t been sewing, because Real Life has been eating into my free time something fierce. I realized at the end of July that I needed to find a new job. Not because I’d lost the old one, but because it was not working in so many different ways all at once that the rest of my life was becoming unworkable. Have you ever had a job like that, Dear Readers? Where one day you realize that, yes, they are paying you–but it’s not the job you signed up for, you’re not doing the work you agreed to do, and not only have things not been getting better, but there are no plans on the horizon that will result in things getting better, nor any realization that they should?
I had such an epiphany at the end of July, which is why after the completion of the dragon shirts, I pretty well disappeared. I did everything I could think of–reached out to former clients, applied for jobs, signed up for volunteering gigs, showed up for community and networking events, and did a pile of research on self-employment.
Two of the very first things I did–the second job I applied to and the first former client I spoke with–panned out in a really spectacular fashion just when I needed them most. But let me backtrack a little on that job application, because it’s funny:
City job, close to home, fewer hours than I am currently working, unionized so better benefits, pay cut but not an unmanageable one, working in air quality and climate change, which as you likely know are both near and dear to my heart. Applied end of July and heard nothing for months. Gave it up for dead, as one does. At the beginning of October, they called me in for an interview.
The week before the interview, Frances got sick. Then she kindly shared her cold with me, bless her heart. So picture me, the morning of the interview, wearing my suit with the citron silk-cotton blouse, filled with enough Tylenol cold medication to fell an elephant, and awake only in a technical sense, at a government interview. Have you ever been to a government interview? It is not a conversation. It is a test. (They’ll try to reassure you that it’s a conversation, but don’t be fooled.) There are questions on sheets of paper with checklists which you can see the interviewer checking off, or not, as you answer them; so the temptation is to just dump your entire brain on the table in a big gelatinous heap, in the hopes that the next thing you think to say will get another item or two ticked off. Everything is scored and the candidate with the best score gets the job offer. I was barely conscious and full of drugs and yet I managed to fill 90 minutes answering seven questions. At the end, with all my nerve endings dead from the neck up, I staggered down to my car and laughed and laughed. Well, I thought, I’ll call back in a few weeks and when they tell me I didn’t get it I’ll ask them for tips for next time, and apply for the next job that comes up. Oh my god. Was I even speaking english? What did I even say?
Then I went home and slept for three hours.
Precisely eight days later, I was laid off.
There are a number of things which I could say about this in a more private setting. I can’t say it was a complete surprise, given that I’d had very little to do for a very long time, and in a consulting environment the lack of billable hours is a killer, but the timing was surprising–I had no warning at all.
The day before I was laid off, the former client emailed me about some freelance work.
The day after I was laid off, my references told me that the City was calling them; and then the day after that they offered me the job. “You interviewed so well! We were so impressed! We’d be really lucky to have you!”
I laughed, Dear Readers. I honestly have no recollection anymore of what exactly I said, except for my very distinct impression that what I was saying was completely wrong. But hey, who am I to contradict them? They offered me a job I really wanted and the timing could not have been better. Yes, if it had come through sooner, I would not have been laid off; but I also would not have received severance pay. It should be enough to finish paying off the furnace and get me completely out of debt (except for, you know, the mortgage), and I should be able to freelance for that former client at the same time. So.
Since finding out about the contract offer and the job offer, I’ve finished a muslin shirt for Frances (that will double as part of her Hallowe’en costume), a bamboo knit drapey t-shirt, a new Linden for me, an embellished Renfrew, a new button-up blouse for me, planned as part of my First Day of the New Job Outfit (I can’t be the only person who does this), and a first go of the StyleArc Polly top. I’m going to have a solid month off before the new job–paid–in which I plan to cram as many of Frances’s appointments and tests as possible. And I’m going to see friends. And sleep. And read. And sew. I’m going to make a new pair of pants to go with the new shirt, as well as some knit shirts for myself and my girl, and I may try tackling pants for Frances again. And then I’m going to start a new job while the old one is technically still paying me.
I sewed through my finger for the first time ever in the making of this dress.
Not intentionally–though I have been assured that this sewing-through-fingers business is a rite of passage–but I still think it could add a touch of gravitas: I bled for this dress. Stupidly.
You know how it is. This fabric is a super slippery, very slinky rayon jersey and it did not want to stay lined up properly, so I was using my fingers to hold edges together even though I’d used a ton of pins, and the machine was going really fast and my finger went up and over the presser foot and, yeah. Yelling. Blood. Half a roll of toilet paper to staunch the bleeding. Band-aid. And then, because I am hardcore, right back to the sewing machine to finish the dress.
(OK, it’s not that big a deal, but it’s the first time it’s ever happened to me. Any sewing injury stories to share, Dear Readers?)
The dress, by the way, is the Burdastyle Twisted Maxi-Dress 02/2013 #115. It turns out pretty much exactly as it looks on the web page, it fits well, it’s very heavy due to all the fabric in the folds and twist, it’s incredibly low-cut in the front so beware of that (I ended up stitching the front pieces together an extra 2″ or so to provide bra coverage), and the front twists and folds are fiddly to put together. There was quite a bit of sitting on the floor with the fabric pieces and the instructions, and squinting back and forth from one to the other to figure out how it went together–but it did, and here it is, and look! Not bad, eh?
It would look really smashing with a border print, if you have a border-print jersey. If you don’t, it looks plenty nice in a regular jersey cut on the straight-grain, which is what I did, so long as it’s a four-way stretch. It took 3m of narrow fabric and I cut a size 40/44 mix with a bit of shoulder-broadening thrown in for good measure. The hem was just finished with the serger.
The fabric, by the way, was dirt cheap at $6/m, so altogether with the thread and pattern this is a $30 dress, sewn up in a fit of productivity/procrastination for the Dragon Ball. It’s also super-comfortable to wear, and you can’t even see the blood.
Look, everyone! I made more StyleArc Jasmine shorts! Fiddled with the pattern a smidge more (lengthening the crotch curve, mostly) and got it just perfect. Used leftover stretch pique from the sheath dress, which is super comfortable but stretches out quickly.
Went on a hike with my camera and thought, what the hell. So here you go.
This makes my fourth use of this pattern, so I’d say I got my money’s worth.
These pictures were taken in the Dundas Valley Conservation Area, which is enormous, and a five-minute walk from my front door. It still took me about an hour of hilly hiking before I got to the spot with the big mossy rocks, but it was worth it for this.
One cannot be the Dragon Mistress at the Dragon Ball without a dress to wear.
Well. One can. We are all about the feminism and free choice in clothing options at Casa McDowell, and I can frequently be found pleading with Frances to just try on the boy’s jeans, or let me try a boy’s jeans pattern for her. “But you like them!” I say. “They’re baggy and loose and that’s just what you like! All of the girls’ jeans are skinnies! You HATE skinnies.”
“They’re boy pants, Mom,” she says, and that’s that.
So one can be the Dragon Mistress at the Dragon Ball while wearing bermuda shorts and a caftan, if that is what one wants to wear, but when one wants a dress, well then, the Dragon Mistress needs a dress.
Even when said Dragon Mistress decides she needs that dress a mere week before the Ball in question, and she happens to be spending that week at her Dad’s house, and when her seamstress is in the midst of assembling a small army of dragon t-shirts.
Fortunately for me, I found this lovely cotton print at Fabricland for $4/m. And even more fortunately, Frances has recently decided that she is perhaps not completely opposed to all prints–that it may be acceptable, from time to time, to wear something not a solid.
So a $4/m print in one of her favourite colours was an easy decision.
The pattern came out of the Summer 2015 Ottobre magazine–the Daisy dress, so I’d already paid for it. I have about a metre of the print leftover. That makes the effective cost of this dress about $10.
Here she is, presiding over her dragonish domain, and looking pretty fabulous if I do say so myself.
The dress was lined with white voile left over from the Math Skirt.
The dress pattern was easy-peasy. Three pleats, yoke and skirt pieces, lining, bam, done. The instructions were clear and followed a logical order. I used a combination of sewing and serging to put it together, and the hems were first serged (to make them even) and then stitched up once with a very narrow top-stitch.
If you hadn’t guessed already, you’ll be seeing more Ottobre projects here in the future.
Once upon a time, a highschool friend, Frances and I made up something called the Dragon Tea Society. It was very simple: get dressed up; go to a fancy place that serves afternoon tea; bring a stuffed dragon; consume. The trickiest part was getting to the restaurant, which invariably was in downtown Toronto.
My Aunt Sue, when I was describing this to her a couple of years ago, thought this sounded like the best thing ever, except that it didn’t go nearly far enough. So last year, Frances and I headed down to Ottawa and, together with Aunt Sue and Uncle John and cousin Shauna and her children and Mary, a family friend, we had a Dragon Tea Society weekend. It involved stuffed dragons, tea and little sandwiches, of course, served at a historic mill by a river; it also involved dragon cupcakes and handmade dragon jewelery.
When my Aunt Sue was describing this to my Aunt Heather last year, Aunt Heather thought this sounded like the best thing ever, except that it didn’t go nearly far enough. So this year, Frances and I headed down to Aunt Heather’s cottage where–together with Aunt Heather, Uncle Brian, Aunt Sue, Uncle John, cousin Sarah and her family, cousin Shauna and her kids, and my brother Matthew and his family–we had a Dragon Ball, involving Dragon Egg hunts, dragon crafts, a talent show, contests and prizes, tents, feasts, a dance party, an unbelievable multi-person dragon costume (I wish I had a picture that did it justice), and my main contribution to this enterprise: a small stack of dragon scale t-shirts.
The dragon scale fabric was the main inspiration; once it had been seen, it could not be unseen, and it demanded to be made into something appropriate for young children loose in the woods on a dragon-themed weekend. It came from Glimmericks‘ shop on Spoonflower, and I bought it on the organic cotton jersey. A few fabric notes:
1. It is thick. A very beefy knit; just a layer of fuzz removed from sweatshirt jersey.
2. It has a decent but not overly generous amount of stretch.
3. It’s very soft.
4. I’m glad I ordered swatches. Some of the prints didn’t print as well and were quite pixel-y (the ones I ended up going with are tree dragon and sparkle blue ice metal dragon). All were run through the washing machine and the dryer to test for fade, and both of these passed nicely.
My serger absolutely hated this cotton. Don’t ask me why. I had to turn the tension dials all the way to 8 to prevent an unbelievable amount of grin-through; it was like every seam had teeth.
The original idea was to make Frances dragon-y pajamas, because this is a girl who adores dragons in every incarnation you can picture. She has a small mountain of stuffed dragons. She has every remotely child-appropriate dragon novel ever published. She has a small collection of dragon movies. She has a bazillion dragon figurines. She makes dragons out of polymer clay; we have about ten and the family is constantly growing. And so clearly she needed to have dragon-scale pajamas, so that she could be a dragon while sleeping or lounging around the house. Right?
And then dragon-scale pajamas for the Dragon Mistress became dragon-scale t-shirts for child attendees of the Dragon Ball, or at least, for those whose parents cooperated with my request for height and waist measurements. This totalled four.
Ottobre is a quarterly magazine of patterns for children’s clothing, made in Denmark but published in several languages, including English. Their clothing styles are simple, modern, comfortable, and stylish. No dresses or pants loaded down with five pounds of ruffles, and no weird quilting cotton monstrosities. Just good basics, mostly out of knits. The magazines themselves are a good quality, with good photographs and good (if short) instructions on assembly. The sizes cover newborns to teens and there’s something in every issue for every size range. There is a fair amount of pattern tracing, but it’s totally worth it.
With the five issues of the magazine I have already, there were lots of t-shirt patterns in a variety of sizes to choose from. Two of them I’d already used to make Frances all of the (non-dragon) t-shirts she needed this summer, both with and without sleeves, and they needed only minor tweaks to the sleeves to get a good, comfortable fit (plus the standard fitting adjustments we make to every pattern).
– widened and lengthened the sleeves
– slightly enlarged the armhole on the sleeveless shirt (but not enough, per the recipient. Rats. Sorry, Dani!)
I added the seam binding, too, and embroidered each kid’s first initial onto it so that I could tell them apart when we got there.
The boys got black ribbed trimming at the neck, and black cotton jersey sleeves, for a bit of colour-block style and a touch of added toughness (not that dragon-scale really cries out for street cred–right?–or would that be cave cred?). And also to preserve the very expensive spoonflower fabric. (Shhh.)
The smallest recipient was shorter than the size range of the patterns I’d used before, so I experimented with a smaller drop-shoulder t-shirt pattern. It seemed to work.
I ended up grabbing measurements for the last two kids at the camp, so I’ve got two dragon t-shirts left to make. And then most of a year to figure out what we’re going to do for next summer!
[Spoiler warning to end all spoiler warnings. You will find out about just about everything that happens in these books.]
I have, as I’ve said before, a considerable taste for dystopian and apocalyptic fiction, moreso in recent years than previously; and according to actual published scientific research (!!!) it is not just me. Apparently, the future disappeared as a place people could fathom and predict about thirty years ago, and it has not come back. (But more about that when I review the book I read this in. I’ll have to finish it first, which is going to take a while, because I can only read it in thirty minute increments on the elliptical machine. Any more than that and I find myself clutching my head and wondering what my daughter’s life will be like.)
But when I hear the Southern Reach books described as horror, I can’t agree. The Southern Reach trilogy is only a horror series if you see Nature as other. If you like boundaries between Human and Nature, you will find these books horrifying, because they erase those boundaries. But nothing dies in these books–at least, nothing that people don’t kill. Any damage done by Area X to human beings is either to our artefacts (and big deal) or to the specific shapes of our bodies. Humans become Other in Area X: first utterly entranced by the cornucopia of wilderness on every side, then changed, then something else entirely. It’s hard for me to see becoming a bird, or a marmot, as a terrifying fate. Particularly when through this process the rest of nature is saved.
Southern Reach inspired the kind of detailed, nerdy, reference-saturated book reviews typically reserved for english theses, and for good reason: a reader could spend a good long time peeling back the layers without hitting the core. Widely agreed on is that they are densely atmospheric, eerie, concerned with our environmental plight, filled with alienated characters whose human identities are slowly stripped away, and not the least bit concerned with your personal need for closure. The books rate a bunch of 5-star ratings and a bunch of 2-star ratings on Goodreads: people either loved it, or complained bitterly about how odd it was and how they wanted it all tied up with a nice neat bow. (Hint: if you like your bows nice and neat, pass this series by and pick something more traditional up.)
So you may (almost certainly in absolutely no way whatsoever) be interested in the main themes of the novels, expressed as a collection of analogies and metaphors:
1. Decay. Things rot, fall apart, rust, are covered in lichen, are soggy, soft, falling down, skeletons are bleaching, floors ripped out by seedlings, and so on–a few times on every page.
2. Light. Specifically, from Area X. Area X is jam-packed full of light references. Stars. Sun. The moon, sometimes with a halo. Area X infections described as an internal brightness. Things glow that shouldn’t. From other geographies and locations, no light. Lots of darkness.
3. Birds. In a larger respect flying things in general, such as insects and bats, but mostly birds. Birds everywhere. Birds all over the damned place, including one small bird in the Southern Reach cafeteria who took up a fair bit of page space in volume 2.
4. Sea monsters. Sometimes just fish and other watery critters, but sea monsters mostly. The word “leviathan” comes up an awful lot.
5. Unhappy marriages. Spouses either die or get divorced. All of them. Or people stay single and are never married. There is no one in these books who has a happy marriage. Relationships in general are fraught. Some friendships are close, but the characters are in general people with few connections to the people around them. Parents are abusive or at least not affectionate or die or abandon children or are otherwise lost. Friends lie to each other and keep secrets. People fall in love with people who don’t love them back.
6. Alienation, particularly with the Biologist. I’ll come back to that.
7. Religion, but no faith. Preachers, sermons, gods, shrines, temples, etc., all over the place. No prayers. A very odd, central piece of religious writing apparently conceived by Area X, without any reference to any deity.
8. Nature vs. civilization. The human destruction of the environment is a constant drumbeat under the story. Pollution, toxic waste, illegal dumping, extinctions, and so on, are constantly discussed, and constantly contrasted with the “pristine wildnerness” of Area X: “The air was so clean, so fresh, while the world back beyond the border was what it had always been during the modern era: dirty, tired, imperfect, winding down, at war with itself. Back there I had always felt as if my work amounted to a futile attempt to save us from who we are.” (p. 30, book 1) (I hear you, B.)
9. Transformation, succession and transition. Things are constantly changing from one thing into something else. Most notably (and I venture to guess for most people most frighteningly), people become something else: animals, monsters. A lighthouse doubles itself and becomes a tunnel (that the biologist insists on calling a tower, and which seems to have a lot of light in it for something underground).
First Digression: Succession ecology:
One of the things I loved about this series is that Vandermeer so clearly did his homework. The biologist is a succession ecologist, and it is a perfect fit for the themes of the books, so it’s worth exploring what that is a bit more.
Succession ecology is the discipline that studies the transformation of one kind of environment into another kind of environment. When a forest grows in an old meadow, for example. Different communities of plants and animals succeed each other in more or less predictable ways in a journey to what’s called a “climax ecosystem.”
The first and most major caveat of succession ecology is that there are no value judgments.
Forests are not “better” than meadows. The various successional habitats that will grow and change on that landscape on the way to the forest are not “improvements” or “progress.” It’s just a description of what is, what it becomes, and why. As a professor of mine put it, a trucker drives by the same forest every few months and throws his cigarrette out the truck window. Sometimes it starts a fire. The first three times, the forest grows back. The fourth time, it becomes a blueberry patch. The forest is not better than the blueberry patch. The blueberry patch is not better than the forest.
But the progression of the burnt patch of ground (it could be caused by people; alternatively, by a natural process such as a storm or disease) towards something stable and long-term follows a fairly well-known progression. You start with the opportunists, the pioneering plants who like lots of space, sunlight and nutrients, all of which you get in the newly disturbed ecosystem. We like to call these plants weeds, and indeed weeds do love human habitats because human habitats are constantly disturbed. Lawns are little more than intentional high-maintenance disturbed habitats which, if left to their own devices, would become climax ecosystems. In my part of the world, if you leave your lawn alone for ten years, it becomes a young forest (probably maple/ash/beech). But we don’t leave them to their own devices; we interfere constantly with succession, and then complain when the opportunists love all the light, space and nutrients we so thoughtfully give them.
In a non-human environment, what happens is that the pioneers (weeds) start to crowd each other out: there is less light, fewer nutrients, and the plants start to cast shade on the ground, making it difficult for their own seeds to grow. A new community of plants and animals adapted to conditions of greater scarcity starts to take root. This process then repeats itself until a plant and animal community that is compatible with the conditions it creates–that can grow and flourish within the nutrient, sunlight and space it itself makes–establishes itself. These may oscillate over time (for instance, maple trees make conditions that are hard for maple seedlings but great for ash/beech seedlings; ash/beech trees make conditions that are hard for ash/beech seedlings but great for maple seedlings; so over time you see them shift back and forth along a continuum that is more or less stable overall). These tend to be diverse, complex, and dominated by species that conserve resources within their own biomass. Forests with big trees in them, for instance. Weeds no longer flourish there.
Succession ecology, both mentioned explicitly and implied as part of the Regular Planet-to-Area X transformation, is referenced constantly. What impresses me about this is Vandermeer’s ability to remain consistent with the value-neutrality of succession ecology when used to discuss what is happening in Area X. Part of Florida coastline becoming a segment of weird-ass alien ecology? Just part of the circle of life, friend.
Second Digression: Invasive Species:
The thing to remember about climax ecosystems is that they’re not permanent. They are very stable, more stable than the various stages that lead to them, but plants and animals are more or less mobile and they like to move around, expand their territory, and find new niches to exploit.
It is perfectly natural for living things to move about. Ecosystems are not museum displays. They change, constantly.
What happens when a species arrives in a new habitat can follow a number of different trajectories, broadly divided into failure, naturalization, and invasion.
A failed species is one that tried a new habitat and did not survive.
A naturalized species is one that tried a new habitat and found a good niche, something that it could use without negative impacts to existing plant and animal communities. It fits in. Queen Anne’s Lace here in Canada is an example. Most of the plants we in Ontario are familiar with are actually not native.
An invasive species is one that tries a new habitat and is able to successfully compete with the existing native species, to the point where it damages the local environment.
Invasive species come up a lot–as examples and as metaphors–in the Area X series.
Is Area X or its originating agent an invasive species, destructive of the environment it found? Or is it an opportunist, exploiting an ecological niche and creating a new climax ecosystem? Or is it a saviour of the existing environment, containing the true destructive agent (humanity) on behalf of the rest of creation? No answer to these questions is ever provided, but they are asked–more or less explicitly–all the time, in all three books.
10. Thistles. These books are obsessed with thistles. I don’t blame Vandermeer–I love thistles too. I don’t love pulling them out of rose gardens (don’t ask), but as wildflowers, I can totally understood a good non-tactile love affair with thistles. But these three books talk about thistles to the exclusion of almost any other wildflower that may be present in Area X.
11. Control, and the lack thereof. One of the characters is named Control; he keeps trying to exert influence on the situation and is thwarted at absolutely every turn. But it’s not just him. The Southern Reach agency–an offshoot of Central, which is only two letters off from Control–as a whole is trying to control Area X–contain it, understand it, influence it, and failing for decades. Ultimately every human attempt to understand and prevent what is happening in Area X is an utter failure; the only remotely successful human interaction with it takes place in a context of acceptance (also the title of the third book). As one of the incarnations of the Biologist says, “I’m not an answer. I’m a question.”
At the very end, Control (the character) manages to affect Area X is some unexplained way, but mostly by giving up control, or any attempt at it. He’s just going to throw himself into the mystery and see what happens.
Third Digression: The Biologist & Alienation:
I LOVE THE BIOLOGIST.
What a great character. But so odd (which, to be honest, is why I love her so much). She just hates everyone, doesn’t she? Even the man she married she seems kind of iffy about (at least until the end of the first book).
The Biologist, in both incarnations, is a person who values nature over other people. She can’t keep a job; she doesn’t really have any friends; her marriage is on the rocks; she’s surly, argumentative, obstinate, prickly, and fiercely protective of non-human nature. SHE IS AWESOME.
She’d hate me–I’m human, after all–but I do adore her.
Random selection of quotes from/about the Biologist:
“when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.”
“All three stared at me then, as if I were the strange cry at dusk.”
“I made no friends there, and I wasn’t sure that even long-standing neighbors were friends, either. … I wasn’t looking for much of anything from anyone.”
“I would not become that person the locals saw out on the rocks and still thought of as an outsider.” (but only because she left before they could.)
“At some point during our relationship, my husband began to call me the ghost bird, which was his way of teasing me for not being present enough in his life. … If we went to bars with his friends, one of his favorite things to do, I would volunteer only what a prisoner might during an interrogation. They weren’t my friends, not really…”
“But fun for me was sneaking off to peer into a tidal pool, to grasp the intricacies of the creatures that lived there.”
And at this point, Dear Readers, I have chosen only a handful of relevant quotes from just the first half of the first book.
It’s relentless. Reminders of the Biologist’s alienation from humanity and civilization and her preference for non-human nature aren’t just constant, they’re celebrated. She is the only character who really adapts well to Area X, who copes with it, and can establish herself there. Her alienation ultimately leads to her transformation, not into a fuzzy earth-mammal or -bird, but into an alien, capable of travelling between worlds.
The biologist is not the only alienated character, but she is the only character who appears in all three books and never gets a name. Control has a name–John. The psychologist has two names–Cynthia and Gloria.
In one of the reviews I linked to up-page, the reviewer suggests that Vandermeer is claiming our identities are the source of our misery. Enh. I’m not sure about that. If so, the Biologist would surely be brimming over with joy, but she never is. Her lack of human-identity makes her uniquely suited to long-term adaptation within Area X, but it doesn’t ease her misery. Ultimately, if the books are about anything, I think they’re about our limitations: Area X utterly confounds us and we never are able to solve the mystery. It is alien, truly alien rather than big-bug-eyed-monsters. In her own way, the Biologist is also alien, which may be why she gets along so well there–and why less alienated folks find Area X to be so very frightening.
I guess I know what I need to fix for the next one. Plus a wedge taken out of the centre back.
Anyway. This post is less about the Renfrew, which poses obvious challenges to those of us not a pear-shape, than it is about what I used it to experiment with on my cover-stitch machine, which is: covering the back neck and shoulder seams!
This all started years ago, when Frances would complain bitterly and endlessly that the seams on the knit shirts and pajamas I made her were itchy.
I top-stitched the serged seams down and they were still itchy. I replaced regular serger thread with woolly nylon and they were still itchy.
So I looked at her store-bought t-shirts. They all had fully enclosed neck-back and shoulder seams. And so did mine, when I went to look.
Casual t-shirts, dressy t-shirts, workout t-shirts, all those seams enclosed–usually with a strip of self-fabric.
I spent a few months squinting at different kinds of bound seams.
Some had a double-row of chain-stitching. Some appeared to be sewn on with a regular straight stitch, or a narrow zig-zag. Some had only one visible row of stitching on the outside, indicating that they’d been sewn on in the ditch and then flipped over like a quilt binding. And some, where they were only sewn over the neck-back seam and not the shoulder seam, appeared to have been serged in when the neck binding was sewn on, and then flipped over the seam and stitched down afterwards.
Generally, the casual and workout t-shirts are the ones where the binding extends through the shoulder seams. Dressy, drapey shirts tend only to bind the back neck seam. The casual shirts are also more likely to use a chainstitch rather than (what looks like) a straight stitch.
Guess what, Dear Readers? Coverstitch machines can do chain stitches when you use only two needles.
Anyway. I’ve now experimented on half a dozen t-shirts for myself, Frances, and Mysterious Others, and I’ve found the following very helpful:
1. Cut an on-grain strip of self-fabric about 1″ wide.
2. Pin it so that the bulk of the strip faces away from the seam allowance to be covered.
3. Using the chain stitch, stitch in the ditch on the inside. So make sure the looper thread matches the fabric, because it’ll show.
4. Trim if you want.
5. Fold the edge, then flip over to cover the serged (or other) seam. Pin excessively.
6. Stitch as close to the edge as possible, trying to keep an even distance from the first seam.
It’s best if you do this right after attaching the neck binding and before attaching the sleeves, so you can bind the shoulder seams right up to the edge and neaten the ends up when the sleeves are sewn/serged on.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the factories have special machines that do double rows of these stitches at once so there’s less room for error. The store-bought ones are remarkably even, though they do occasionally wobble (I’ve squinted at a lot of these seams by now). But thanks to long hair and personal laziness, I’ve decided I’m ok with the odd more-than-wobble on my own neck and shoulder seams–it’s not that obvious. Best of all, Frances does not complain about itchy seams on these shirts.
And they do look nicer when you’re not wearing them, don’t you agree?
I know! It’s a tutorial, kind of! I’m appropriately ashamed. In my own defence, I did a bit of half-hearted googling and I couldn’t find this elsewhere, so may it be useful to you, and may you soon exceed my limited skills and be producing bound neck-back-and-shoulder seams of great evenness and beauty.