Friday, October 8, 2010

Rags Week: The Old Ways

Photo courtesy Flickr

My childhood was semi-civilized, but my friends and I snickered at one public high school classmate’s skirts: her zippers were always on the wrong side. Why Susie was willing to invite us to her house one day escapes me, but we trooped over to a modestly elegant Tudor house in a pre-World War Two suburb of privilege, the kind that preceded tract housing.

On the initial tour, Susie happened to mention that the dressmaker who produced her clothing also turned it inside out after a season to two, when it began to look worn. Thus, the zippers. Turning clothes is an old practice that made the most of first-rate fabric and of the labor it took to make it up.

No doubt the cost per use of a quality custom garment was lower than that of a mass-market model cut from boardy wool, the load on the environment lighter, and its effect on the local economy immediate. Those skirts were cut with generous seam allowances and deep hems that allowed them to expand one or two sizes and extend their useful life as Susie grew. Generously cut clothing is relaxing to wear.

Hand-knits were made with replaceable ribbing, and areas that wore, like elbows and the ribbing itself, were knit with an extra strand of fine reinforcing yarn. Socks were designed with removable toes and heels, which is why monkey socks look the way they do: that red strand was originally meant to be cut and pulled for a quick release.

Bodices were cut close to the body, as they are beginning to be again, a good strategy for warmth, reinforcing weight control, and elegant posture. The area where sleeve and bodice met was set with a replaceable diamond-shaped piece of fabric called a gusset that took the strain of the movement of the arms against the torso. A gusset adds years to the life of a garment.

Buttons were recognized for the key design element they are. A favorite trick for upgrading bargain clothes was to replace stock buttons with ones that enhanced the look. That’s why button shops survive. They’re a trip and a half.

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