Mad Skill

Mad Skill

Clothing is a basic human need; self-expression, a basic human impulse. And that’s where getting dressed stops being simple. The ubiquitous rise of “fast” fashion – trendy, artificially affordable, and short-lived garments – has altered our relationship with clothes. What once was valuable is now disposable. What we once might have mended, we now replace.

Which is why Sonya Philip’s challenge to herself this past January was radical, despite its simple mandate: Sew 100 dresses. Do it in 365 days. The San Francisco-based fiber artist wasn’t an experienced garment maker, but that was part of the point. She named the project 100 Acts of Sewing, and as she washed, ironed, cut, and stitched, she meditated on skill and labor, fashion and consumption, expression and autonomy. And through workshops, exhibitions, and a robust online presence, she made 100 Acts into a public dialogue.

We spoke to Philip in September, just as she turned the corner on dress 67.

Where did the idea for 100 Acts of Sewing come from?
I originally conceived of a project based around a uniform, one that would involve making sets of dresses, pants, and sweaters to wear in a variety of  combinations on a rotating basis. What kept me from jumping in was my limited experience in garment making. So I began refashioning thrift store dresses; then I took a class on flat-pattern making. After making one dress, the delight of having made something that held together and was wearable ignited the desire to make more. The number 100 popped into my head as a lofty yet achievable goal.

Talk about making the project not just a personal one, but also a public one.
I knew early on that I didn’t want to make dresses to sell. I wanted to begin the conversation at a more primary stage. This country’s shift from a manufacturing economy has led to the devaluation of craftsmanship. Making creates an inbuilt autonomy, opening up infinite potential in comparison to what’s available off the rack or on the shelf. But how can people appreciate the quality of handmade clothing without a vocabulary or practice to reference?

For some women in my workshops, it’s their first time making a garment; others are returning to sewing after a long hiatus. At events like Maker Faire, I reach a more diverse audience, including men who learned or are learning to sew, as well as men and women who want to talk about the mechanics or history of the sewing machine.

In the future, I’ll probably expand to include unisex garments. One of the goals is to make sewing approachable and accessible. Because we need to tinker and craft. We need to make mistakes and try something again or in a new way. We need to make practical things that satisfy a purpose and beautiful things that satisfy a desire.

You weren’t an experienced sewer when you began. How long does it take you now to make a dress? Are you faster? Has your approach evolved?
I can complete a dress from cutting to finish in about three hours now, so I have indeed become faster. I also take fewer shortcuts; I’ve learned that rules and techniques are there for a reason.

When I reached 50 dresses in mid-July, I did an assessment to decide how to extend the scope of my skills. Sleeves still prove challenging, as do buttonholes, and I want to improve in these areas. I also want to incorporate more vintage and salvaged fabrics.

Has your relationship with clothing changed?
I just don’t go into clothing stores anymore. When I encounter clothing in a magazine or online, I consider how I could make it myself. I also pay more attention to what people wear. I was at a doctor’s appointment recently and found myself concentrating on the doctor’s dress. It was made out of a shirting material, with serged edges, simple bust darts, and an exposed, large-toothed zipper up the back. A year ago, I wouldn’t have given it the same degree of observation or analysis.

So have you bought any clothes this year at all?
Aside from undergarments, no. Mainly to make room for incoming dresses, I’ve donated many things I never wore.

With the sewing machine out all the time, it’s also easier to mend my clothes; I recently darned a favorite linen tunic that was almost threadbare.

What do you think are the biggest barriers, physical or conceptual, between people and making clothes?
This is something I’ve thought about a lot. A sewing machine is an investment, and the machine itself can be intimidating. Sewing also perhaps has a greater degree of delayed gratification than other needle arts. There isn’t just sewing – so much as sewing, along with cutting and pinning and ironing. And that leads neatly to the issue of time; sewing is a craft that requires both time and space.

Some people might wonder if making clothing is “realistic” for everyone.
It may be unrealistic for everyone to make their own clothes, but everyone should know how to sew. At one time students did learn in home economics. I went to an international school overseas where all students – male and female – took needlework and cooking, as well as woodwork and metalwork classes. Maybe it was this experience that informs my thinking – that even if a person doesn’t make their own clothes, knowing how to sew leads to appreciation of skill and recognition of quality. It also enables people to mend or modify the clothes they purchase, helping extend the life of garments.

The act of making anything by hand comes from a place of contradiction. It will probably always be cheaper, faster, easier to buy a mass-produced item. It’s the way the market functions, economies of scale.

To go counter to that comes from a place of concentrated intention. Can we begin to see labor and craftsmanship as valuable? Can we go beyond labels and logos? Can we determine value in the context of provenance, memory, or lineage?

We need to fill our lives with meaningful objects and not simply quantities of stuff.

Speaking of meaningful objects: Do you wear the dresses?
I wear the dresses every day. When I don’t wear them – say, I have them all washed and ironed for an exhibition – it feels strange. And it’s usually a fair bet that I’m the only one in a room wearing a hot-pink dress with all-over eyeglasses pattern.

Visit Sonya Philip’s website for a complete list of upcoming workshops and exhibitions.

Julie K. Hanus is American Craft’s senior editor.