Sewing the Seventies: My Plan

I’m that person who posted about not really joining sewing/knitting/photo challenges, right? Just confirming. I am indeed that person. But I’m also currently participating in the Burda Challenge and now… I want to Sew the Seventies. I guess, eventually, the challenges find you ūüėČ

I discovered Sewing the Seventies last year — too late to join, but not too late to enjoy the Steely Seamstress’ posts (scroll through for last year’s posts). Seventies’ fashion reminds of my dad’s craziest clothes, which I only know from photos and his stories. It was also the time my dad learned to sew — taught by his friend’s dad. For him this new skill set meant inventions such as secret pockets for ciggies on a pant leg and refashioning regular pants to make them flared when flares were hard to buy but everyone else seemed to have a pair…

For me, dad’s sewing meant awesome doll clothes during my — very intense — Barbie phase. Later, life got too busy and dad stopped sewing. Much later, I learned to sew myself, thanks to Craftsy and YouTube, and blogs, and books…

My aim with this challenge is to time-travel a little.

burda70sWhile I’ve scored a few authentic 1970’s patterns along the way, I find myself drawn to one particular dress that I found in a¬†Burda Vintage¬†special issue I got as a gift.

The more I looked at the dress, the more I realized how much it looked like a crazy dress my grandma (dad’s mom) owned when I was little. By that point, the dress had been retired to the depths of her closet and I would dig it up for dress-up parties with the neighbors’ kids. My grandma would have worn it to parties in the mid-70s.

The cut was, to tiny me, the height of sleek sophistication, paired with a fabric that today’s me would honestly call¬†bonkers. When you’re about five, nothing beats a combination like that. The dress was green, printed with a pattern of majestic white storks with red beaks and red legs. It was everything. Even if it was — and it surely was — polyester.

If I could find a similar fabric, I’d sew a replica of that dress. (Maybe that’s a fabric designing and printing challenge for the future, come to think of it?)

For now, I think, I’ll make it in a more subdued navy poly print that’s been sitting in my stash for a while.

Without further ado, here’s the pattern:

Burda-DonnaDress1970s
The Donna dress from Burda Vintage 1970s issue 3/2016

What puzzles me about the dress is that the sample is sewn up in a sequined jersey but the recommended fabric is embroidered silk?… If I’m reading between the lines correctly, it’s more likely drafted for a woven than a knit fabric. There is a zipper in the back and neck darts.

I think the simplest answer right now is make a muslin.

I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, here’s the Steely Seamstress’ post about this year’s challenge and her first challenge garment: a beautiful popover shirt in Liberty lawn.

Think you’ll join in?

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Burda #103 from issue 2/2012: pleated pant adventures continue

Sometimes on this blog I feel like a kid who just can’t tell lie for fear of [insert some sort of punishment idea from an ’80s fantasy movie]. Typing this post, I realize how fitting it is for the Burda Challenge that this pattern is from a February issue… However, I most definitely didn’t just make it. The Burda Challenge project is still in the midst of fitting and all the head-scratching that entails. Since it’s another pair of pants, I thought that writing about these might be a way to think through a few things.

I finished these a couple of months ago and have been in two minds about them ever since.

It’s the pleats.

BurdaPleatedGreen+HNPlantain-1

It seems that I can’t resist pleated pants. I see them on someone else and just want to make a pair for myself, and once they’re closer to being finished, the doubt sets in.

In this case, Jasika Nicole’s post about her pink pair got me obsessed with this pattern. One thing I didn’t ask myself till I was deep into making the pants was what differences between us (apart from the fact that I’ve seen her on TV and if she saw me on TV I’d worry about a candid camera scenario) might be significant in terms of the end result.

Three pairs of pleated pants later (this one being the third one), I think I’m beginning to get it.

I mostly see those gorgeous pleated pants on women with figures very different from mine, and so the proportions work out differently.

Now, I’m a strong believer in “wear what you want to wear, however you may describe and see your body type.” And I wear these. But I do accessorize them with second thoughts, and that’s not ideal.

It seems that pleats and round tummies may not be a combo for everyone. Pair that with a flat derriere, and you get even more questions.

I think I’d like to get away from the pleats for now in favor of more fitted silhouettes.

BurdaPleatedGreen+HNPlantain-2

Some thoughts on making and fitting these:

I always baste pants together after cutting out the pattern pieces, and that always reveals a host of necessary changes. Out I take¬†Pants for Real People¬†and begin to move seamlines, pin out excess fabric, etc. I definitely can’t claim to be an expert in fitting myself at this point, but I think I’m at least on track despite not being able to ever get a fitting buddy to help with this process.

Actually, it’s such a downer to read advice such as “If you can’t get a fitting buddy, maybe don’t bother because it will be very hard to fit yourself.” Well, what if you can’t — should you just give up on sewing altogether because you can’t create this perfect situation?

It’s all experiment here, with multiple goes at basting. I find that reading the Palmer/Pletsch book and sewing blogs is helpful as long as you don’t limit yourself to the scenarios you see described. Mostly, I’ve encountered fit alterations to give more room in the hips and derriere, with fabric taken in to accommodate a smaller waist, which is the opposite of what I end up needing.

Matchstick legs paired with a flat bum and a round tummy give you some interesting shapes to play with. Long story short, I end up adding and cutting fabric in slightly different places than I usually see described, and, obviously, that leads to more head-scratching.

In a nutshell, figuring out fit by yourself can be extremely helpful for getting clothes that actually correspond to your figure… but it can also be crazy-making.

As for this pattern in particular, I didn’t follow instructions too closely — because it’s Burda, and I don’t speak Burda even when I can recognize the words from languages I know. Put together, the words rarely make perfect sense. Burda is a language of its own, and I’m not sure anyone but the pattern writers speaks it.

So I made these on the basis of earlier pants I’ve sewn and some arbitrary choices about, e.g. whether and how far to sew down the front pleats, whether to stabilize pockets, how to hem them, what closure to put in, etc.

My one discovery with this pattern is that the side-seam pockets really work well — I had some doubts and even thought of altering the pattern for slash pockets, but I might actually play with adding side-seam pockets like these to other pairs of pants.

Any pearls of wisdom to share from your own pant-fitting adventures? I’d love to hear from you.

Helmi plus Cotton and Steel

I’m late* (fashionably?) but still timely with this post. Late, because I made this dress earlier in January but just couldn’t get it photographed. And then, over at Belle Citadel, Claire wrote a great post about sewing garments with quilting cotton.

So here’s my timely follow-up about sewing with quilting cotton despite all the doubts I always have about it.

Helmi-c+s1

It’s the print that was the decisive factor in this case, since, to be honest, whenever I’m considering quilting cotton for a garment, I always question that choice. Most of the time, I think it doesn’t work because a bit of give, fluidity, and drape makes a significant difference for how the garment hangs.

But I keep seeing a lot of successful projects that use quilting cotton — maybe the bold prints make up for drape sometimes? Claire’s post lists several shirt patterns and it’s shirts in quilting cottons in particular that catch my eye on Instagram.

And I guess that’s how I ended up choosing this print for yet another version of my favorite Helmi pattern from Named Clothing.

Helmi-c+s2

I discovered this print thanks to this dress made by Natasha. The birds kept reminding me of this mitten pattern by Spillyjane, which I made years ago. The birds must have imprinted themselves in my mind because I found myself remembering it repeatedly, looking it up, then deciding against it because what am I going to sew with quilting cotton… until I just went for it before last Christmas.

And that’s how you end up with a print that feels kind of outside your comfort zone but also kind of familiar. There’s a story in there, very different from Daphne du Maurier’s The¬†Birds,¬†unless it’s a sequel in which the birds give up murder, take some marketing seminars, and settle on using subliminal advertising to sell cotton prints.

Helmi-c+s3

The Helmi was the obvious choice. By this point this pattern must be imprinted, like the birds. I guess I just have to keep making it. I’m thinking about another version as I type these words…

I went with Esther’s (@estjune on Instagram) suggestion and elasticated the back. I like the look of the original pattern sample¬†on the model¬†but I don’t think I could pull it off most of the time. I also shortened the bodice slightly and added side-seam pockets, and skipped the hidden placket yet again because I found these buttons in my button box.

And that’s all, folks. Tell me about your sewing adventures.

Burda 7198 for the January #burdachallenge2018

I don’t usually participate in challenges. No fear of missing out can overcome my desire to be free to sew whatever I want whenever I want. Here, the stars have aligned: I know I’m in good company and I mostly want to sew Burda patterns anyway these days.

Burda7198-1

I had my eye on several patterns from this and last year’s January Burda magazine. I noticed that in past years, the challenge participants would aim to sew something from the current issue and, if they didn’t particularly like anything from that issue, went for past years’ issues from the same month. A neat way to keep things challenging but fun.

However, my Burda magazine collection isn’t that expansive, so I’d have just two issues to choose between, and then the patterns I liked from both were on the more involved side… complications from the get-go.

So I decided to sew a stand-alone pattern from Burda that would allow me to refashion an unworn dress into something I’d actually wear. You can’t get stars to align even more without causing a cosmic disaster.

The pattern is Burda 7198 and the fabric was harvested from this dress (a Burda pattern, by the way, and a poor pairing of pattern and fabric on my part).

Refashioning felt really good.¬†I don’t know about you, but it really bugs me to see unworn clothes staring at me when I look into my closet. That dress looked much better in photos (blurry though they were) than in real life. And I only wore it for those photos.

I ripped into the seams cautiously, to minimize the damage to the fabric. Still, the fabric frayed with a vengeance. Luckily, I was able to rescue the zipper and hook-and-eye, and  undo the hand-sewn hem without problems. The skirt became the front and back of the blouse, and sleeves I re-used without any changes. The benefits of a consistent drafting block: they went in beautifully, with minimal easing.

Since the sleeves had the navy detail — and cutting into the bodice of the dress would have only yielded minimal amounts of usable fabric — I reached for leftover fabric from these two projects for the yoke and neckline binding.

My thoughts about this pattern… a mix of good and, hm, less good ideas.

I really didn’t like the suggestion to leave the bias binding just sticking out with a raw edge on the neckline. I don’t think that’s a good look. I wish I had cut the binding strip a bit wider, but I did manage to coax into compliance with an iron and patience. I applied it in a similar way I did the contrast cuffs on the sleeves: like a facing that has a folded edge and goes on the outside.

I also didn’t like the godets and left them out because the back and front pieces come together nicely, and with enough room on the hips. The triangle shape you can see in my last photo isn’t a godet — I had to piece the fabric on the back pattern pieces.

Any problems I had while sewing came up due to the poor quality of the black fabric. It’s a pretty fragile and thin poly crepe. Making up the button placket in it was flimsy and annoying. You may be able to notice that the bottom of the placket has something that looks like a tiny pleat. It’s not really a pleat, but I could neither snip into the corner far enough nor press out the placket aggressively enough to eliminate it without risking damage to the fabric.

I guess I’ll have to see how long this top lasts. Unlike the dress, it’s getting some wear already, luckily.

Verdict: Pretty good pattern, especially if you’re willing to tweak its less convincing details.

On to the next month.

Pulmu

It’s all thanks to the Compulsive Seamstress, Anne. Her post about the beautiful version of the Pulmu pencil skirt from Named she made for her daughter got me to finally stop procrastinating and make it. And I had a pretty good amount of very nice black suiting fabric left over from making these pants, so I just had to finally get to work…

Anne gave me really good tips on shortening the skirt pattern. The key: don’t take out a chunk in just one place. I shortened the skirt around the hip line and then above the vent, taking out in total about 3 or 3.5 inches. You have to adjust both the skirt pieces and the lining pieces, so I’d say the other key is patience.

I’m very happy I shortened the pieces because I’m quite a bit shorter than the height Named draft for and I’m not a fan of mid-calf length…

Here are some blurry photos of my black skirt in January darkness:

(Skirt paired here with a Plantain tee with a somewhat modified raised neckline.)

A heads up, too. You are likely to see quite a lot of black garments paired with black garments here for the time being. I’m finding that wearing black right now is helpful right now. While, yes, I do expect someone might at some point crack the old inappropriate joke about my clothes, it hasn’t happened yet, and I’m getting a degree of psychological comfort from this tradition… But, obviously, cat hair doesn’t care, so I haven’t suddenly become more elegant. The lint brush is my best friend.

Back to the skirt. My measurements fell between sizes, so I decided to cut out the larger size and then baste the skirt together with a 1.5 cm rather than a 1 cm seam allowance. I ended up taking out a bit more width in the lower hip, so the basting proved very useful — as it always does, honestly.

I had a slightly smaller D-ring set in my stash, so I also “skinnified” the belt by sewing it with a larger seam allowance. And it all worked out.

Difficult parts: attaching the lining — lining the vents in particular. It took some head scratching but I got there, eventually.

My one complaint is that I maybe should have been smarter about my main fabric and lining pairing. I really wanted to sew this skirt entirely from the stash, so I ended up with a really lovely, somewhat stretchy suiting and, unfortunately, a completely non-stretch lining. It’s okay so far, but not an ideal combination. The fabrics move a bit differently.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Again I’m very impressed with Named, and I love this design made up as much as I loved the idea of it. In the fabric I chose it ends up being a pretty comfortable pencil skirt.

Have you made a Pulmu skirt? Maybe a better question: what Named patterns do you have on your to-make list?

 

patience

fleta-folded-front
The biggest project of 2017: cables for months and an incredibly satisfying final result.

Hello, and let me clear the cobwebs off this old blog. Thanks to everyone who got in touch here and during my occasional returns to Instagram over the past months.

I have missed the conversations on blogs and over sewing-related content in other places; however, I really needed the time away and FOMO or any other tether of our interconnected world was not strong enough to keep me from what I knew I needed. Which was to be away and focus on what was necessary.

Usually, it’s the online sewing community that gives me a nice sense of temporary escape into a much-loved hobby, but there comes a time when things are not usual any more, and this was one of those times.

Over the years as a pretty avid blog reader I’ve definitely drawn inspiration and a sense of meaningful connection from writers who’ve written candidly, beautifully, and often with a sense of humor and insight, about their experiences of illness, hardship, and loss. Without naming specific people, I want to thank those of you who write about life in this way. You help others by allowing them to think and feel together with you. And, in their own trying times, to remember, and feel less lonely and more capable.

I’ve discovered that I’m not that kind of blogger. I really enjoy blogging as a means to get away from all the emotion-laden real-life challenges. While immersed in them, I try to be there as fully and honestly as I can, but I don’t share it in writing afterwards. Hence the blog silence.

So while I was away from the blog I was with my family as we faced the challenge of terminal illness and loss. My dad passed away after a long struggle against cancer.

We’re here, still supporting each other. Some days are really difficult, others are easier. I don’t have any wisdom to share other than let yourself feel your feelings fully, no matter how strong they are. And be there for the people in your life, in your own imperfect but true way (even if, like me, you can’t write about it).

fleta-mod3

While I usually enjoy the fact that sewing can take you much faster from idea to its realization than knitting can, in those months knitting helped me work on my patience, while sewing was mostly beyond the attention I had available. Knitting demanded less immersion while bringing a perspective of relief and time to think.

And so I completed one of the most involved knitting projects I had ever undertaken: a cabled cardigan modified from a pattern I had long admired. The pattern is Fleta, from Norah Gaughan’s pattern book #9 for Berroco. I changed the neckline to get a silhouette I find more wearable (as I usually wear cardigans unbuttoned) and I shortened the cardigan slightly.

I haven’t bought new yarn in a long time and this was part of my mission of stashbusting. As you can see, the bottom was knitted in a different type of yarn to use up a partial skein and get the necessary yardage.

Apart from the cardigan, my other important project was the dress I made for the funeral ceremony. I had not planned to sew initially, but searching for an appropriate dress online was really disheartening. There’s a rant in me that I really don’t have the time for right now but… why is there this pervasive idea that women wish to look sexy at all times?… Most of the dresses I was able to find online were too revealing, no matter how I limited the search.

Sewing was my best best, I realized, and reached for the October issue of Burda, in which dress #103 caught my attention.

My photos — taken hastily on a dark January day — don’t do this dress justice. It’s really nice, with clever shaping using double darts and a flattering neckline that doesn’t hit too low (what a relief!).

 

 

Bad lighting and posing, good dress.

I was also amazed how little adjusting I had to do in order to get a good fit. I needed my usual broad upper back front shoulder adjustments, but apart from those, initial basting showed I could continue as is, which meant quick work.

Iwould like to make this dress again later. When I do, however, I will finally commit to the one adjustment I keep meaning to incorporate into my Burda sewing but tend to skip — I’ll raise the armhole by 1cm to get a slightly closer fit (and better range of motion).

That’s it from me for now. I hope 2018 is off to a good start for you, not just in terms of sewing, knitting, and other projects ūüôā

away

It’s been quiet here for a while and I wanted to clarify things a bit. I really apprieciate all the conversations I get to have through this blog and your blogs, and I didn’t want to disappear without a word. As you know, I don’t ever write too much about my life here. I’m dealing with a serious family emergency right now. I myself am fine but need to attend to the situation with as much presence, insight, and (hopefully at least a scrap of) wisdom as I can muster. It may take me several weeks — or longer — to return to these lovely online conversations, so in case you leave a comment and it’s hanging around without an answer, please know I didn’t suddenly quit or become indifferent to what you’re saying.

But this corner of the internet might stay silent for a long time.

Wishing you all all the best.

 

In which I hack a pattern I hadn’t sewn before

Hi there. I posted a photo of this shirt on Instagram a couple (a few? time flies) weeks ago. Funnily enough, I was on the fence about this fabric until I wore the shirt. But the comments expressed so much love for these polka dots, I began to wonder…

burda-shirt1

The fabric is pretty stiff: the dots add texture to a pretty densely woven cotton. It is wonderful to sew with — doesn’t budge and shapes pretty easily with steam. But, unlike Jess from¬†New Girl, I don’t usually rock too many polka dots and am never sure if they’re not too twee on me. Also, I’d prefer not to sew darts in it. That’s based on my previous experience with this fabric, where I ended up converting darts into gathers (dress from Day 29 of this Me-Made May roundup).

All fabric doubts dispelled upon first wear. I love this shirt. I think this is one of the best things I’ve made. And it made for a glorious conclusion to what was a summer of shopping the stash. I didn’t announce it as a challenge or anything but just found myself consistently choosing projects based on what fabrics I already had.

So I went sleeveless here not just because it was hot when I made the shirt but because that was what the amount of fabric allowed.

Here are some not-so-great photos of the shirt when worn:

The pattern

The pattern is Burda 7136. I’m glad I took the photo below because I’d never be able to remember that number, and I do recommend giving this pattern a try even though I have yet to try it in its proper incarnation.

burda7136+pattenv.jpg

Siobhan made a great version of this pattern with a really neat print here — the bonus is that she offers some criticisms that should give you an idea whether this pattern might fit your body type. I’m shorter than Siobhan and, I guess, short-waisted, so the fit felt all right to me on this first and wild, untested, drive. I obviously have yet to try out the sleeves, so more detailed points will have to come at a later date.

Because I’m definitely going to reach for this pattern again. The only criticism I have right now is the length. I don’t want to be like the guy from those annoying UntuckIt commercials, but I was slightly unhappy with how long the shirt was. Now, I’m not going to start a company and make like I’ve invented slightly shortening clothes, but I chopped 1.5″ off the hem and I think it’s still a decently long shirt. You can tuck it in if you wish, but you can also wear it untucked with low-waisted pants (that ’90s hangover that remains the bane of my existence because, well, it tells you something about my wardrobe and the age of some of its components).

OK, one more criticism: the collar stand is pretty tall, and I double-checked that I was sewing it with the right seam allowance. I was. I think I might reduce it by 1/4″. Maybe with a collar attached it works better. Here, with a pretty stiff fabric it stands tall and proud and so I skipped that collar stand button so as to soften the look of it a bit.

Apart from that, Burda pattern drafting is strong with this one: my usual forward-shoulder adjustment would be in order to get the eam to land where it should. And I think I’d raise the armscye by 1 cm next time.

The inspiration

I hear that many sewists out there despise the word “hack” for pattern changes. I hope no one breaks out in hives reading this. I kind of like it, since it spans changes from breaking and complete remolding to ill-conceived “life-hacks” that don’t really make our lives easier at all. It’s your call where my changes to this pattern land on that spectrum.

So, in the interest of honesty: the idea for this shirt partly came from limitations of fabric amount and my desire to avoid pressing out dart points in this stiff cotton.

And then came something unusual for me.

While I enjoy looking at makes inspired by movie costumes, I’m often not so sure about the appeal of the garment at the heart of the craze. Case in point: that cardigan worn by Keira Knightley in¬†The Imitation Game.¬†I don’t really get what the fuss was about with that one, since there are so many gorgeous fair-isle patterns out there, and with more compelling color combinations. I’m really not sold on the pairing of beige and green.

Whoa, tangent. Stop.

But then I found myself watching another movie about World War II.¬†Miasto 44, a Polish movie about the Warsaw Uprising. And I got stuck on one particular garment worn by Zofia WichŇāacz. And that was it.¬†Coup de foudre, my friends. I fell in love. Not even the dust, bomb blasts, and destruction of the city could distract me from studying the details of that one. (By the way, please don’t think I’m taking the subject of the film lightly.)

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Image from Onet.pl

Still, I didn’t want to go full-on re-enactor here. Don’t ask me how historically accurate this garment is because I haven’t looked into that. I loved the gathering over the bust and the collar stand. And I wanted to make something with those details.

I’d love to try this on a shirt dress, though that is going to take more work. But if I do, then probably not in a grayish blue because things might get too somber (even for me). I’m also not a fan of the vertical buttonholes. But, you know, this is something worn by a young soldier of the Home Army, so, again, unless you’re taking part in a re-enactment, it’s probably better to steer things in a slightly different direction.

Feel free to criticize my lack of love for polka dots or that sweater from The Imitation Game. Tell me what film-inspired garments you have sewn. I could use some vicarious sewing pleasure right now because I don’t have much time for sewing.

And, as always, thanks for reading.

those elusive wardrobe goals

The impossible happened: I found an image on Pinterest that captures all I want from my work wardrobe. Just like that, it expresses exactly the look I’m after. Here it is, folks, the essence of my wardrobe goals:

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Image found on Pinterest hereabouts.

Before finding this gem I was very skeptical of Pinterest as a helpful tool for me where style is concerned. The site still in fact keeps suggesting images of waifish Olsen twin lookalikes carrying enormous cups of Starbucks coffee while sporting sack dresses with knit cowls the size of millstones draped around their long, slender necks.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s more than fine to be waifish. Hey, it’s okay to be an Olsen twin or an aficionado of the sisters. It’s not fun to be constantly flashed the message that that’s¬†the way to be¬†though. It gets exhausting. Oh algorithms, oh the shortcomings of our culture, oh my poor little head.

Brace yourselves because I have yet deeper thoughts about why that image above speaks to me. It’s not just my non-waifishness and aversion to the pairing of thick woolens over summer dresses (throw in some boots and you get a popular combination that is completely unwearable to me). It’s a combination of — as one musician said about touring (and life and the universe at the same time) — good shit and bad shit. Pardon my language.

I like to be comfortable at work. I often have to stand in front of people and talk, which has gotten easier over the years but is still challenging on some level because I don’t really enjoy being looked at all that much. Overall, I feel must comfortable at work when my wardrobe tilts into a somewhat androgynous, menswear-inspired zone.

The way it makes me feel is good. And many of you, I think, will agree there can be something very stylish and appealing about that.

Bear with me here because we might disagree on what I say next. Part of the reason why clothes like those make me feel so good is positive, maybe even wholesome you could say. Hurrah for flat shoes, hurrah for pants that let you move around, and shirts with neat details.

But here’s the dark side. These clothes make me feel comfortable because they make me feel¬†safe.¬†More feminine clothes make me feel unsafe and bared to judgment. It sucks.

I’m not invested in ideas of modesty — that’s after a lot of thinking about the subject, and after being brought up to be modest and¬†dress modestly, and after a lifetime of listening to women being described in terms that implied that their dress conveyed something about their morals and, sadly, value as fellow people.

I hate all that with a passion. But as much as I examine my own thinking about other women, when it comes to getting dressed, the “good shit” still mixes together with the “bad shit.” Plainly: I’m both enthused about those lovely menswear-inspired outfits and kind of scared of dressing “too feminine.” Here’s where that leads me sometimes: I will look at a coworker wearing a dress and think that she’s really brave. Yeah, that sounds weird, doesn’t it? But it’s true.

I’m just going to leave this up here and close with some images from my “work” Pinterest board, including some slightly more feminine ones (how brave of me, after what I confessed above — Please note the sarcasm).

What’s your mix of good and bad when you figure out how you want to dress?

All images can be found on Pinterest. You can also take a look at my “work, work” board where I collect wardrobe ideas and then get this kind of deep thoughts.

nonrequired reading: how Connie Willis saved my life

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Dive in, or the post will grow and grow like an unwanted giant in a half-baked fantasy story, I tell myself.

You could say that Liza’s IG post mentioning¬†po-mo pink¬†from Connie Willis’¬†Bellwether¬†was a fateful sign that made me check in with the unwanted giant after several months of hiding him in the draft box. I was in the middle of¬†Bellwether¬†when Liza posted about po-mo pink, so I decided I’d call it fate and here we are…

So how did Connie Willis save my life? First, by writing with a sense of humor, though not always writing books that could be called funny. Secondly, by doing research, enjoying the process, and infusing her books with that enjoyment. And that’s easier said than done. There’s something very classic about that approach to storytelling but it’s always been a challenge for storytellers. How do you turn your reader into a fellow victim of folie a deux?… Connie Willis knows how.

Last winter I couldn’t help feeling that parts of reality were dissolving. The whole concept of people researching something to test how the thing in question held up to scrutiny… well, it felt like that was under intense questioning (but not scrutiny) all of a sudden. You’d turn on the news and hear a person talking very loudly about how, in their opinion, feelings are more important than facts… Nothing new in the world, you might say. But the volume got suddenly cranked up to 11 and my head hurt.

Willis’ writing brings you the comfort of familiar plot ideas. We start out with time-travelers stumbling into trouble in the past, well-worn details of near-death experiences that we’ve all read somewhere, telepathy a lot like what you’ve seen on¬†Star Trek… and then the narrator takes you by the hand and you land somewhere completely new. None of those familiar popular ideas hold. “Isn’t it silly how many things we take for granted? Isn’t it silly how solid some of our baseless convictions become?”, asks the narrator and the cogs in your brain box start turning. And you’re on an adventure. Scary or funny, you’re not going into it alone, and that, I think, is a wonderful quality of Connie Willis’ prose.

I first heard of¬†To Say Nothing of the Dog¬†years ago but it kept being that book you want to read but somehow don’t get to it. Years passed, Willis published several other books, and finally last year,¬†Cross Talk.¬†And I listened to this interview and knew that I needed to get my hands on it immediately.

After¬†Cross Talk¬†I read¬†Passage, which was haunting but still had that comforting aspect of having someone think through the dilemmas — and the fears — it threw your way¬†with you, allowing you to both be scared and trust you’ll make it through to the last page. I don’t know about you, but it’s something I cherish in scary novels. Maybe because so few of them attempt it.

Willis, I imagine, would have some smart and sarcastic things to say about my claim that “fate” was at work when Liza’s mention of¬†Bellwether¬†coincided with my reading of it. And I hope she puts it in a novel. I’ll definitely pick it up.

Right now I’m reading¬†To Say Nothing of the Dog. And there’s¬†Doomsday Book¬†waiting on my nightstand.

What are you reading?