Rough Draft 4: Pauly Shore, 21 Jump Street and Vulgar Comedy

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The Pauly Shore interview on the Nerdist podcast illustrates the difference between seeing your life from the inside versus how others see you. He says that his popularity of his idiot persona faded because of bad movies such as “Biodome,” and he lamented that there seems to be less tolerance or interest in letting stupid people be stupid. From my seat on the other side of the screen, his persona was a collection of tics and catchphrases that was tolerable for the length of a sketch, but not for a 90-minute film. Contrast Shore with Pee-Wee Herman highlights the difference. Pee-Wee has an essential sweetness and an ability to defend himself that leavens his weirdness. He’s a more rounded personality.

• • • • •

I’ve been on a comedy kick lately. The wife and I settled on the couch and saw “21 Jump Street” Sunday night. Comedy in general is tough, but well-done vulgar comedy raises the bar. It’s an easy laugh to use obscenities, but a well-timed use of the word, in an inventive situation, brings a bigger payoff.

I’m reminded of that scene in “Ghostbusters” when the EPA official is arguing with the mayor about the illegal containment facility.

Dan Ackroyd: Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was shut off by dickless here.

EPA official: They caused the explosion!

Mayor (to Bill Murray): Is this true?

Murray: (deadpan) Yes, it’s true. This man has no dick.

“21 Jump Street” was “Ghostbusters-level” good, beginning to end. And in the previews, we even saw an example of horrible vulgar comedy: Adam Sandler’s “That’s My Boy.” Not a laugh in it.

• • • • •

The night before, we watched “L.A. Story” (trailer), Steve Martin’s early ‘90s romance that’s also a love letter to the city. It cycles through all of the jokes you’d expected about L.A. — the traffic, the earthquakes, the lack of culture, the architecture (one joke: “We’ve got buildings that are more than 20 years old!”), the weather — and they could have become tedious (“Futurama” played with that trope in one of its episodes). But the movie played off them successfully by making them part of the background, or integrating them into the story.

Biggest laugh: During a tender love scene, when Sarah Jessica Parker moves Martin’s hand down to her breast.

Martin: Your breast feels . . . funny.

Parker: They’re real.

Another L.A. joke, but it caught us by surprise.

• • • • •

Today’s quotes come from the “Rituals” section of the Writers Gone Wild Quotebook:

If I’m at a dull party I’ll invent some kind of game for myself and then pick someone to play it with so that I am, in effect, writing a scene. I’m supplying my half of the dialogue and hoping the other half comes up to standards. If it doesn’t, I try to direct it that way.
Evan Hunter

When I really do not know what I am saying, or how to say it, I’ll open these Pentels, these colored Japanese pens, on yellow lined paper, and I’ll start off with very tentative colors, very light colors: orange, yellow or tan. … When my thoughts are more formulated, and I have a sharper sense of trying to say it, I’ll go into heavier colors: blues, greens and eventually into black. When I am writing in black, which is the final version, I have written that sentence maybe 12 or 15 or 18 times.
Gay Talese

• • • • •

Illustrated-Times-Cover-1b-smallTo put on my to-do list: Write about the latest book coming from Peschel Press. “The Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer” is for fans of Victorian true crime with a deep interest in the notorious poisoning case. It’s a reprint of the trial transcript, published in newspapers, with 50 woodcuts, most of them restored. The text has been edited to eliminate spelling and factual errors. More than 250 footnotes have been supplied to add context to the testimony. Sometimes, excerpts from other transcripts have been added, as well as coroner’s reports and material from newspapers and memoirs. The trade paperback version comes with a glossary of medical and scientific terms, so you can tell antimony from strychnine and why invalids were fed arrowroot and toast-and-water.

This was a passion project of mine, inspired by the mention of Palmer in Dorothy L. Sayers’ novels. What began as an entry in the Wimsey Annotations blew up into what I call The Rugeley Poisoner series. “The Times Report” is volume 2; “The Life and Career of Dr. William Palmer of Rugeley” (1926) is volume 3; and volume 1, the 1856 “The Illustrated Life and Career of William Palmer” is in the works.

Versions: Amazon Trade Paperback; Kindle; Smashwords; Barnes & Noble and Nook versions; and Kobo.

• • • • •

223B-Cover-Vol-1-600pxjpgNext from Peschel Press: The first volume in the series reprinting parodies and pastiches of Sherlock Holmes during Conan Doyle’s lifetime. Volume 1 covers the Victorian period (1888-1899). I’m building the trade paperback edition now, with the goal of putting that and the ebook version into production by the end of the week.

If you want a glimpse of the contents, I’ve put four stories from the collection online: The Sign of the ‘400’; A La Sherlock Holmes; The Identity of Miss Angela Vespers (with a female Sherlock!); and by J.M. Barrie. The book will have another 26 stories, with the usual footnotes and introductions you’ve come to expect from the Peschel Press.

• • • • •

Today’s Panel Without Context

From "Luann"
From “Luann”

Home Operational Security

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Suburban stockade introductionOperational Security is a military term and is commonly abbreviated as Opsec. Opsec has plenty of real-world value and should definitely be a skill you add to your daily living toolkit.

At its most basic, Opsec means you don’t tell people what they don’t need to know. How does this apply in normal, daily living? Let me count the ways.

Good opsec can become a habit, a good one, and one that helps you live safer.
Good opsec can become a habit, a good one, and one that helps you live safer.
Opsec is why you shred your personal documents, especially the ones with bank account numbers, SSNs, credit card numbers, and other ID numbers. Carelessness with this information leaves you and your family open to identity theft.

Opsec is why you may want to use two credit cards. Your Visa card remains in the real world only and your MasterCard is used only online. This does mean having to keep track of two credit card bills. It also means that if mysterious charges appear (such as $5,000 for airline tickets to Jakarta, which happened to us years ago!), you may have a better chance of figuring out where the card got compromised. You can cancel the dead card and still have a viable card while waiting for the dead card’s replacement.

Opsec is the reason for paying cash. Not only do you tend to spend way, way less (improving your chances of Financial Independence) but you and your spending habits can’t be tracked, nor can your accounts be hacked. It is both interesting and informative to look over various card statements and see how your movements can be reconstructed. You bought gas in Hershey, Pa., again in Roanoke, Va., and then in Atlanta, Ga., all in the space of one day? Followed by a hotel room in Atlanta? Meals along the way? That was one incredibly long day you spent driving but you did start at 5 a.m. according to the time stamp on the Hershey gas receipt. Who are you going to visit down south? Your credit/debit card receipts give a lot of information away.

Opsec is the reason you may not want to use EZ-Pass. Every time you pass through the scanner, a snapshot of your movement is taken. This information, taken together with your credit card statements can show clearly where you have been and when.

Opsec is the reason for spending your cash in the real world as opposed to using credit cards in the on-line worlds. The more you shop on-line, the more the on-line world knows about you, your family, your tastes, and your spending habits. Buying a case of diapers at Amazon leads to plenty of targeted ads for your new baby, whether you want them to or not. Buying a case of diapers for cash at Wal-mart leads to a case of diapers and no-one knowing anything at all about potential new additions to your household.

Opsec is the reason for being careful about on-line searches and trying to keep your computer clean of cookies that track your surfing behavior.
Opsec is the reason for being careful about on-line searches and trying to keep your computer clean of cookies that track your surfing behavior.
Opsec is the reason for being careful about on-line searches and trying to keep your computer clean of cookies that track your surfing behavior and sells it to marketing companies. In the absence of enforceable regulations, companies are free to root about in your searches, looking over your shoulder as you surf the net, and offer ads that match your behavior.

For example, over the summer, I had to sell a junk car. A few casual on-line searches led to constant ads popping up on unrelated sites about selling my junk car. It was creepy, knowing that someone was watching me. I ended up going local, which got me more money and less oversight from Big Brothers.

Home operational security
Your anti-government diatribes? The NSA sees them.
Opsec is the reason for being careful with social media. You should never, ever consider anything you put on-line as being private. It is up for all the world to see and it is up forever. Your drunken party pictures? Future bosses will see them. Your out-of-town plans? Potential burglars will see them. The party you only invited some of your friends to? Your other friends know you didn’t want them. Your anti-government diatribes? The NSA sees them. The NSA is probably seeing this now, but I am a tiny fish in an ocean of chaff.

You should never, ever consider anything you put on-line as being private.
You should never, ever consider anything you put on-line as being private.
Opsec is the reason you don’t have loud conversations on your cell phone while out in public. You know, the ones where you discuss your child’s drug use, your angry divorce, your cancer treatment, your upcoming vacation, or your scandalously behaved minister. Nor do you place orders using your credit card, reading it out loud both to the telephone operator and everyone else in earshot.

Opsec is the reason you empty your mailbox promptly and always stop the mail and the paper when you travel. Or, you have a trusted neighbor pick up your mail and paper when you travel. Either way, you don’t let mail and papers build up, alerting burglars to an unattended house.

Opsec is the reason for a post office box in another town, when you really don’t want that vicious ex-husband to find you.

Opsec is the reason for being careful what you order on-line and have delivered to your home. Your postman knows perfectly well what magazines you subscribe to, what catalogs you buy from, and who writes to you. If you regularly order stuff, then the UPS guy and the FedEx guy start getting an idea of what interests you too. In fact, the U.S. Post Office has a program that law enforcement agencies can request (with a warrant). The postman records the return address and any other identifying information for each piece of mail that is sent to your home. Then the mail gets delivered to you, as always. You, the recipient, never see a single difference in your mail delivery. The report on who sends stuff to you then goes to the law enforcement agency who requested it. Pay cash locally and no-one knows what you buy or who you buy it from.

Opsec is the reason why you break down the boxes that your big screen hi-def TV came in, along with the boxes for ammo and guns, fancy gaming platforms, new high-end computers and anything else that signals “I got good stuff so rob me!” Break down and dispose of those boxes; don’t leave them at curbside sending signals you don’t want to send.

Opsec is the reason you don’t leave mail with the address visible in your car. Addresses can be correlated with license plates giving a potential identity thief more information about you.

Opsec is the reason you ask for identification of anyone entering your home to do work on it. Opsec is the reason you stay and supervise those workers. Are most contractors, cable installers, furnace repairmen, electricians and plumbers as honest as the day is long? Yes, they are. But if you get a dishonest one, you won’t know until its too late. You may also get a “surprise” visit from a man who says he’s from the utility, sent to check out threats. What he’s really doing is checking out your home and your valuables.

Opsec is the reason you don’t show pictures of your arsenal and your year’s supply of food around. There are people out there who consider your preparations as a reason they don’t have to make any of their own. They will just come to your house and take what they need.

Opsec is the reason you close your shades and drapes every night so people walking by don’t see into your house, noticing what you have waiting to be stolen. Opsec is the reason you have sheer curtains at every window so no one can see in during the day. Opsec is the reason for the 6-foot chain-link fence surrounding your property that is lined with an 8-foot hedge of yews and thuja. No one can see through that hedge to your extensive food gardens, tilapia ponds, rain barrels, chicken coops, and bicycles.

Opsec can make it difficult to discuss preparations for an uncertain future. You don’t want to spell out exactly what you have done and what you own, lest unwanted persons show up on your doorstep with their hands out. But you do want your family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors to be as prepared as you can get them to be. The best way around this is to talk about disaster preparedness, sustainable hobbies, and Financial Independence. These topics can lead the recipient, slowly and over time, to being better prepared themselves. Look for teaching moments using current events, novels, and movies. “Boy, I sure don’t understand why people who live in earthquake zones don’t store water and canned food and own working generators.” That sort of thing.

Opsec means thinking, every day, do I want the bigger world to know this part of my business. If you don’t care, then go ahead and talk! If you do care, then shut up. Good opsec isn’t always easy but, like any other skill, it can be learned. Eventually, it becomes a habit, a good one, and one that helps you live safer.

Home Sewing Beyond Patterns (Part 5)


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Whew! After a month of posts on sewing, we’re approaching the home stretch. For those of you entering here for the first time, in part 1 we looked at how cheap clothing manufactured overseas killed home sewing. In part 2, we discussed simple clothing repairs. In part 3, we looked at the types of complex clothing repairs you can learn how to do. And in part 4, we looked into working with patterns. This time, we’re wrapping up the series with moving beyond patterns into the wide world of creative sewing.

(And if you want to start the Suburban Stockade series, discussing how to preserve your family’s wealth and health in the 21st century, start here.)

So, what else do I sew? One-of-a-kind garments I can’t buy or can’t afford to buy. I want a collection of stylish coats as that is what everyone sees me in for much of the year. What I want is not likely to turn up at the thrift shop and I certainly can’t afford to pay retail for what I see in my mind.

I buy basic sweaters that are the right color and fit at the Jubilee Thrift Shop and then I trim them out to make them unique. I’m not keen on sewing knits and I can’t knit a sweater so this is my work-around.

I make all my curtains, drapes, window quilts, pillows, bed quilts, shopping bags, lingerie bags for fine washables in the washer, and pot holders with heat-resistant fabric. On the to-do list is a fabric bag to put a cooking pot into — similar to a haybox — for saving cooking energy. I can, for damn sure, make a cloth cooking bag for far less than Amazon charges. A salvaged ironing board cover and pad, which I already have, plus more batting and a fashion fabric from the stash and I’m good to go. I want to sew a roman shade for the dining room window to save heating energy. Again, like other unusual home-dec items, I can make this for far less than I would be charged at a store.

Queen of Hearts costume for Halloween.
Queen of Hearts costume for Halloween.
When the kids were younger, I sewed complex Halloween costumes. These got used both for trick or treating and for the annual Hershey Halloween Parade and Costume Contest. Sometimes I even won prize money.

Some of the garment sewing I do really does save money compared to commonly available ready-to-wear. I like good quality flannel or fleece pjs for me and the family as we keep the heat low in the winter (64 degrees during the day, 55 degrees at night). Better flannel goods such as Lantz of Salzburg are gaspingly expensive, and I don’t like the patterns they come in. But if I shop carefully for a good sale on flannel and pick out the best, I can make simple pajamas for far less money than I can buy them. I use the same pattern over and over so I only pay for the pattern once.

Another piece of nightwear I don’t seem to see in ready-to-wear is a flattering nightgown in flannel-back satin. The idea here is to be attractive and warm. It is possible to find a flannel-back satin nightgown, but they are uniformly tent-like in appearance, Grandma wear at its finest. This thought was confirmed when I was in Boscov’s where I saw the Isotoner gloves and the fleece shawl mentioned earlier. Since I was in the store, I spent some time looking over the ladies nightwear. It was divided up into two looks. “Put the money on the dresser” and “Don’t ever touch me again.” I was appalled. There has to be some middle ground. Am I the only woman in the world who wants to look fetching and not turn blue from cold at the same time?

home sewing nightgowns
I spent some time looking over the ladies nightwear. It was divided up into two looks. “Put the money on the dresser” and “Don’t ever touch me again.”

Moreover, the non-slut nightgowns came in two equally unfortunate looks. Solid baby-colored pastels or worse, nursery prints suitable only for baby blankies! I ask you, how can you look desirable when your muumuu-like night gown is covered with dancing lambkins and cute cows.

home sewing simplicity nightgown pattern 1260Back to the sewing machine. I spent some time going over patterns and settled on Simplicity 1260, view D. Now imagine it in deep purple satin (flannel backed for warmth, of course) with wide creamy lace and teal blue satin with narrow strips of black lace. Warm and pretty. And, they are something that I cannot buy in ready-to-wear.

So this is why I sew:

  • I sew to repair and reuse garments until I’ve extracted every possible minute of use out of them. That saves me cash, suits my philosophy, and keeps things out of the waste stream.
  • I sew to remake old clothes into new, more personal garments. This saves me more money and lets me express my personality in a way that I can never find down at the mall.
  • I sew completely new garments from whole cloth to advertise my design and sewing skills.
  • I sew to get exactly what I want, for me, my family, and my house.
  • I get clothes that are unique.

So should you sew? Yes, at a minimum you should learn to do the basic mending and repair work, and learn to rehem pants. It will save you some money and prolong the life of your clothing. After that, it gets harder. Everyone has to eat so everyone should learn basic cooking. But sewing clothing and household items is a more complex choice. Clothes are readily available and very cheap at the price. Drapes and curtains range in price from thrift shop to Wal-Mart to the sky’s the limit. Sewing all these things from scratch can be quite time consuming, taking time away from other things that have to be done. But you express your individuality and get exactly what you want while learning a new skill set.

Sewing depends, I think, on what you want from it. If you just want to keep your body covered while saving money, use the yard sale, thrift shop, the consignment store, and the clearance racks. Participate actively in pass-along and hand-me-down circles.

But if you want one of a kind clothes for you or your family, then you either pay big bucks to someone else or you learn to do it yourself. Start with remaking old clothes into new ones (altered couture). As you learn how garments are put together, think about finding the time to make some of your own clothes from patterns you design or select and fabrics you choose. Begin small with a top or an elastic waist skirt and see how you like it. Progress to simple fleece or flannel pajamas and see if you enjoy the work. If you do, you may have found a new, useful hobby/skill that shows off your designing abilities and may even make you a little money when you do sewing work for non-sewing people. If you don’t like sewing, you will still know how to do basic repair work and you will have a better understanding of how a garment should be made when you purchase ready-to-wear.

Your Basic Sewing Library

Overall, I love the Singer Sewing Reference Library series. There are dozens of books in the distinctive black bound series, covering every possible sewing topic. They are lavishly illustrated and very detailed. I buy them on sight at thrift shops and library sales. I can’t recommend them highly enough. They are wonderful.

Another amazing series is Time-Life ‘The Art of Sewing”, a 16-volume set published in the seventies. Each volume addresses a separate topic and is bound in a coordinating fabric. They are beautiful, lavishly illustrated, and go into great detail on every possible topic that is sewing related. Look past the clothing styles and be amazed at the wealth of techniques the books provide.

Basic Mending & Repair

Clothing Care and Repair (the Singer Sewing Reference Library); the editors at Cowles Creative Publishing; 1985

Handmending Made Easy: Save Time and Money Repairing Your Own Clothes; Nan L. Ides; Palmer/Pletsch; 2008

The Mender’s Manual: Repairing and Preserving Garments and Bedding; Estelle Foote, MD, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Mend and Make Fabulous: Sewing Solutions and Fashionable Fixes; Denise Wild; Interweave; 2014

Mending and Repair: Essential Machine-side Tips and Techniques; the editors of Singer Worldwide; Creative Publishing International, 2007

Mend It Better: Creative Patching, Darning, and Stitching; Kristin M. Roach; Storey Publishing; 2012

Sewing 911: Practical and Creative Rescues for Sewing Emergencies; Barbara Deckert; Taunton Press; 2001

Remaking Old Clothes (aka Altered Coture)

GladRags: Redesigning, Remaking, Refitting All Your Old Clothes; Delia Brock and Lorraine Bodger; Simon and Schuster; 1974

How to Make Something Out of Practically Nothing: New Fashions From Old Clothes; Barbara Corrigan; Doubleday; 1976

New Clothes from Old; Gloria R. Mosesson; Bobbs-Merrill; 1977

Wardrobe Quick-Fixes: How to Lengthen/Shorten, Loosen/Tighten, Update, Embellish, Repair and Care for Your Clothing: Jan Saunders; Chilton Book Co., 1995

Clothes From Your Own Patterns

Design It, Sew It, and Wear It: How to Make Yourself a Super Wardrobe Without Commercial Patterns; Duane Bradley; Thomas Y. Crowell; 1979

DIY Couture: Create Your Own Fashion Collection; Rosie Martin; Laurence King Publishing; 2012

Dressmaking: The Complete Step-by-step Guide to Making Your Own Clothes; Alison Smith; Doring Kindersley; 2012

The Illustrated Hassle-Free Make Your Own Clothes Book; Joan Wiener Bordow and Sharon Rosenberg; Skyhorse Publishing; 2008; This is a reprint of a 1971 edition. Get past the hippy-dippy text and illustrations and this is quite a useful little book.

Clothes With A Pattern

the Burda Style Sewing Handbook: 15 Creative Projects and 5 Master Patterns; Nora Abousteit and Alison Kelly; PotterCraft; 2011

The Magic Pattern Book: Sew 6 Patterns Into 36 Different Styles!; Amy Barickman; Workman Publishing; 2014

Dozens more titles on sewing can be found at any library, book store, library sale, thrift shop, ABEbooks, sewing store, and at Amazon. Quilting books do not, as a rule, ever talk about garment construction unless they specifically tell you in the title, so don’t waste your time and money on them unless you want to quilt.

Home Sewing with Patterns (part 4)

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This is the four part of the series on sewing. In part 1 we looked at how cheap clothing manufactured overseas killed home sewing. In part 2, we discussed simple clothing repairs. In part 3, we looked at the types of complex clothing repairs you can learn how to do. This time, we’ll look into using sewing patterns.

Any piece of clothing much more complex than a poncho requires a pattern. But, you can learn to make your own patterns if you don’t want to use the ones from Simplicity or Vogue. Making your own patterns is really empowering, and it lets you see how you can more easily adapt commercial sewing patterns. Homemade patterns tend to be for simpler, less tailored garments but when you are learning to sew a garment from scratch, that’s what you will be making anyway. I don’t recommend that you start out by making a complex three-piece suit from Vogue. Start small with a pullover-style top or an elastic waist skirt.

So you get a very basic book like “Design It, Sew It, and Wear It” by Duane Bradley and work your way through all the variations. When you’re finished, you have a small wardrobe, some sewing chops, a much better understanding of fit and making two-dimensional pieces of cloth shape themselves around a three dimensional body. Moreover, all these garments were made with fabric you liked as opposed to what the clothing factory thought was cheapest and would sell.

Then you move up to a slightly harder book like the “The Illustrated Hassle-Free Make Your Own Clothes Book” by Bordow and Rosenberg. Overcome your distaste for the hippy-dippy text and the very dated fashions and see that underneath those distractions is how to make skirts, pants, tops, dresses, etc using your own body measurements and copying clothes you already have.

From "DIY Couture: Create Your Own Fashion Collection"
From “DIY Couture: Create Your Own Fashion Collection”

If you then work your way through the modern books like “DIY Couture: Create Your Own Fashion Collection” by Rosie Martin or “Dressmaking: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Making your Own Clothes” by Alison Smith, you’ll end up with quite a selection of clothes. Consider your fabric choices carefully. You can make the exact same pattern several times in different fabrics and get different looking garments. The illustrations for clothes tend to all be drawn as though everything is made of lightweight cotton and the garments will only be worn in the summer. Use a heavier fabric such as fleece, make the sleeves long and raise the neckline and the pattern you learned to make for a summer-weight top becomes a winter-weight garment. The models in the books all tend to look like 24-year-old coathangers but don’t let this stop you. Since you are making the patterns yourself to fit your body and you are choosing your fabrics that suit your taste, the end results don’t have to be teenager wear.

Before you purchase any of the books I recommend, get them from the library and read them over to see if you can use them. If you really like a book, you may want to buy it, particularly if it comes with patterns, either paper or on CD. The library won’t thank you if you cut up the patterns. Make copies so the original patterns remain untouched. You may want to do this even if you buy the book so that the patterns can be reused by someone else of a different dress size.

Going Commercial

Commercial patterns don’t have to cost you as much as you fear. Not many of us pay full retail for commercial patterns from Vogue; we buy them when Jo-Ann Fabrics or Hancock Fabrics run a $3.99 sale. Simplicity, McCall, and Butterick go on sale regularly for $1.99 or even 99 cents each. A really good pattern sale lets you stock up on patterns that you think you might use later. The risk to this method is you end up with a filing cabinet of patterns that you never use.

To round out the talk about pattern prices, commercial patterns such as Burda or KwikSew rarely go on sale. You just have to pay full price. Independent pattern companies that advertise in the back of sewing magazines never go on sale at all, but they are often the most interesting. If you really like the pattern that an independent is offering, just pay for it and use the pattern several times over to get your money’s worth.

Other places to find patterns include the stashes of any sewing friends and relatives, thrift shops, yard sales, and eBay. The only thing to watch out for is that you have all the pieces and the instructions. I don’t buy patterns that have been cut as there is always a chance that some of the pieces never made it back into the envelope.

Fashions change, so patterns change all the time. The age of your pattern sort of matters; a Nehru jacket just has that particular look of no lapels and a high mandarin collar. You make the jacket exactly as the pattern calls for and use a modern material like fleece and suddenly, that garment doesn’t look so retro. Fabric also goes in and out of style so a vintage pattern in a modern fabric doesn’t quite look the same as if you tried to get a period appropriate fabric. Lapel shapes, collars, cuffs, pockets, plackets, yokes: they all can be style markers and they change as the fashion industry changes. Even how a sleeve is set in can change as the styles change, but the pattern is still perfectly usable. I think the real difficulty with using old patterns is that the directions may not be as thorough. Again, like old cookbooks, the old patterns, even the very easy ones, assume you already know the basics.

When you buy patterns, you need to know your real body measurements. Any decent sewing book will tell you how to do this, as do all the make your own clothes books listed below. Patterns are sized by tape measurements, not whatever the garment industry is currently calling a size 10. This means that if you have a 42 inch bust, you look at the back of the pattern envelope for that bust measurement and that is your size. Never, never, never assume that if you currently wear a size 12 from Dress Barn that your pattern size will be a size 12. It won’t be even close. Your pattern size may be an 18 or even larger. Get over yourself and buy and cut out the pattern that fits your actual body.

The most expensive part of making your own clothes is the fabric. A pretty basic long sleeved shirt with two front panels, back, collar, cuffs, yoke, and placket will use about three yards of 45-inch wide fabric. If you spend five dollars a yard, then the cloth alone will run you fifteen dollars, not including the thread, any pattern, interfacing, and buttons. Then factor in your time. That thrift shop shirt for three bucks starts looking pretty good.

So again, why sew your own clothes?

I sew many of my own clothes because I want something that no one else has. I want my clothes to fit reasonably well, not always easy with ready-to-wear, and I want my clothes to be well made and not fall apart in the wash. Clothing becomes an expression of myself, an artistic statement. My clothes also show that I know how to sew, which is useful when someone asks “who can mend my garment? sew my custom costume? rehem my prom dress? make my kitchen curtains?” My clothing can become my advertisement for my home sewing business, should I choose to start one.

M3253I got tired of wearing boring old t-shirts so I made myself an assortment of surgical scrubs using McCalls pattern 3253. A surgical scrub pattern lets you make a v-neck pull-on T-shirt type top with no buttons, zippers, snaps, collars or set-in sleeves. It is, other than the pivot point at the base of the v-neck, fast and easy to make. The first few tries took a little practice and some hand basting; fifty shirts later, I zip right through that part. And, because the garment design keeps the fashion fabric as one, uncut piece, I could take advantage of huge all over design repeats, the kind where the design motif is 18 or even 24 inches across.

surgical-scrubs-three-stoogesThe point of making the scrubs was not to replicate what dental hygienists and LPNs wear. It was to show off amazing, wow, look-at-me, fabulous fabrics. It is very showy to wear a scrub printed with a flowing stream inhabited by life size, accurately colored koi. This shirt pattern was so successful that I made fourteen of them, plus plenty more for Bill, older son, younger son, nephew r, nephew b, and friends. All unique. All one of a kind. Just like the people wearing them. This is why you sew.

Finding Fabric on the Cheap

So if you want this unique look, then how do you find affordable fabric to make it happen? The first thing is to get on the Jo-Ann mailing list. They run regular sales on all kinds of fabrics and always provide a 40% off coupon to ‘make your own sale’. Check out the weekly sales flier in the paper closely or go online to their website and then think carefully about what you want to make before you set foot in the store and spend your cash.

Then you spread the word that you will take unwanted fabric (and any other sewing notions) from relatives, friends, and neighbors. This is the fabric they can’t use, won’t use, don’t know why they bought it, someone gave it to them, they had stopped sewing for some reason; the list is endless. The important thing is that you take everything that is offered to you, no matter how repellant that orangey brown double knit polyester is to you. Why, you ask? Because the minute you say ‘I don’t want those grungy old shop rags the offering person will think ‘I guess you don’t want that 7-yard piece of Thai silk either.’ But I do want the Thai silk! I do want the 5-yard piece of brocade home-dec so suitable for tote bags! I do want the Christmas patterned cottons! Say yes to everything and the universe might deliver more than you bargained for. This is how you get the pickup truck load of material when the elderly sewing relative dies and you get her entire stash.

On rare occasions, I have found fabric being thrown away. I’ve picked up dressmaking cottons, home-dec upholsteries, and bags of scraps. I wash it and find it a home in my stash, or pass it along.

Other places to find fabric are at yard sales and thrift shops. Cloth here is sometimes yardage that someone didn’t want. More often, it is yardage already made up into something else like table-clothes, shower curtains, sheets, curtains and drapes, ball gowns, or wool coats. A rarely used table-cloth or queen size sheet will provide a lot of fabric, excellent for making a practice garment before you cut up the expensive fashion fabric. A set of draperies can sometimes offer two pieces of material for the price of one: the fashion fabric and the Roc-lon blackout lining, which costs regularly costs seven bucks a yard at Jo-Ann all by itself.

To turn a set of pinch-pleated draperies into yard goods, you need a seam ripper and some time. Rip out all the hems and the pinch pleating, iron the press marks out flat, wash it, iron the entire piece flat, and you have some seriously large yardage to work with. I don’t generally rip seams in the skirts of prom dresses and ball gowns unless I need every inch possible as the margins are too narrow to bother with. Hems and pinch pleating, however, can offer up as much as six extra inches of material to work with. I rip the hems in sheets and table-clothes for the same reason; the added fabric is worth the added labor.

It is well worth pawing through the bargain bins at Goodwill looking for draperies in fabric you like. Remember that you need never tell anyone where the material came from; just let them guess how you could have afforded that lovely ivory fabric (former shower curtain!) with the pattern of woven squares that you turned into a stylish coat.

Then you find all the other places in your area that sell fabric and notions. Wal-Mart sometimes sells fabric in addition to its selection of notions, patterns, and thread. The Wal-Marts that carry fabric usually have a bargain bin with dollar a yard fabric and up; start there. I do buy fabric on spec if the price is right and I really like it.

There are fabric stores besides Jo-Ann and Hancock, many of them locally owned and operated. Look around, ask around, and you may be rewarded. A terrific local shop in the Hershey/Harrisburg area is the Pennsylvania Fabric Outlet in LeMoyne which carries the most amazing array of home-dec, trim, and notions I have ever seen. It is very difficult to walk out of this store without buying something.

You may have a quilting shop in your area. Quilt shops don’t, as a rule, sell clothing patterns, buttons, interfacing, or anything else you need to make garments, but they do carry very nice cottons and cotton blends. There is absolutely no reason why you can’t make a shirt out of a fabric sold for quilting. If you like how the material looks and feels, then use it.

Whatever shop I am in, I always check out the bargain bins. You never know what you will find. As I said, I do buy fabric on spec if the price is right and I really like it. I don’t do this very much anymore as I really do need to use up the enormous amount of material I already have. That pickup truck load of material I got was overwhelming and it will take me years to work through it.

Many people buy their fabric online. I very rarely do this as I have real fabric stores in my area and I like to see and feel what I buy before I spend any money. There is no question that if you want a specialty item like Cordura or zippers by the foot, and you don’t live in a major city, you will have to go online. Try to get samples first if you can, so you can see before you buy, and make sure you know the return policy.

"I had the interesting experience of Bill discovering just how much fabric I had when he had to move all the RubberMaid bins."
“I had the interesting experience of Bill discovering just how much fabric I had when he had to move all the RubberMaid bins.”

When people give you fabric, you take whatever they give you and pass along what you don’t want or can’t use. If you are going to spend your own money on fabric then make sure you really love it. Don’t ever spend money on cloth when you are unsure of what you will make with it unless you absolutely love the fabric and can’t imagine living without it. You can fill up a lot of RubberMaid storage bins this way if you aren’t very careful about saying no to great buys. When we recarpeted our finished basement, including the sewing closet, I had the interesting experience of Bill discovering just how much fabric I had when he had to move all the RubberMaid bins. At least half of the bins were full of fabric that had been given to me; I didn’t lay out any cash for it. But I still had 100s of yards of cloth I’d been given. Gradually, gradually, it is being used up or given away. The only control to buying more fabric is shopping your own stash first. If you have sewing friends, then shop their stash and let them shop yours before you go out shopping in the real world. This saves money and gets that fabric sewn into the beautiful garment that it wants to be.

Next week, we’ll move beyond patterns into the wide world of creative sewing. See you then!

Rough Draft 3: Bob Hope, Gore Vidal, and Gilbert Gottfried

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Coke is now offering a line of premium milk that’s twice the price of regular. This will probably end as well as New Coke.

• • • • •

Harper Lee plans to release a sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” With their typical flair for marketing, her publisher decided to publish it now to capitalize on the Gregory Peck movie.

• • • • •

Terry Teachout is having more fun dancing on Bob Hope’s grave than reviewing the new biography”>than in reviewing the new biography. Yes, Hope was one of the most popular comedians in America and now forgotten today. You know what? So’s Louis Armstrong”>Louis Armstrong, H. L. MenckenH.L. Mencken and George BalanchineGeorge Balanchine. It’s not our culture anymore.

• • • • •

From the Writers Gone Wild Quotebook:

”Coming away from a violent discussion at Magny’s, my heart pounding in my breast, my throat and tongue parched, I feel convinced that every political argument boils down to this: ‘I am better than you are,’ every literary argument to this: ‘I have more taste than you,’ every argument about art to this: ‘I have better eyes than you,’ every argument about music to this: ‘I have a finer ear than you.’” — Goncourt brothers

• • • • •

Committees exist to provide cover for mediocre decisions. Focus groups provide support for bland products. When a committee uses a focus group, you have mediocrity squared.

• • • • •

Michael Mewshaw’s memoir of Gore Vidal contains an example of how publishers — in his case Doubleday — can rob writers. During the discovery phase of a libel lawsuit over his book “Life for Death, Doubleday claimed the book sold 6,000 copies in bookstores, and 275,000 copies through book clubs. Vidal showed him his statement for “Creation.” It was 90,000 in bookstores, 30,000 through book clubs. “That’s the normal ratio,” Vidal said. “Not your absurd numbers. Probably the publisher is distributing copies of the trade edition and accounting them at the book club royalty.” Turned out he was right.

• • • • •

I’ve been having great fun listening to Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast. Incredibly vulgar at times, but you get to hear from artists who were popular in their times but aren’t heard from much, like Mickey Dolenz, Barbara Feldon, David Steinberg and Frankie Avalon.

Today’s Panel Without Context

From "Hi and Lois"
From “Hi and Lois”

Rough Draft 2: Gore Vidal, Secret Adversary, Gospel of Mark

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These are luxurious times we live in. When on a cold night I can turn on the faucet and get hot water, I’m living better than 99.9 percent of every human in the whole of existence.

• • • • •

The latest Author Earnings report is up, showing that there’s a 30 percent shadow market in ebook sales that is not accounted for by publishing experts and surveys. So when if you hear from an industry “expert” saying that ebook sales are declining, that they are a fad, this is what they’re missing.

• • • • •

Maybe I’m overthinking this, but Michael Mewshaw’s memoir of Gore Vidal seems to reveal the author’s curious attitude toward African-Americans. Writing about how American movies are dubbed in Italy, Mewshaw mentions “blacks, whether street-smart, dirt-road dumb, or Uncle Tom middle-class, sounded Calabrese.” This sentence reads like he’s equating improving your lot in life with selling out.

• • • • •

Mewshaw’s attitude reminds me of the people, who are always liberals, by the way, mourning that they miss the dirty, broken-down New York City of the 1970s.

• • • • •

Dustbury links to an archaeological discover of possibly the earliest find of the Gospel of Mark. Would love to see the translation.

• • • • •

I must not visit #setlock. I must not visit #setlock. I must not visit #setlock.

• • • • •

Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence have always run a distant third behind Poirot and Miss Marple, so I’m happy to see someone mounting a “play with music” version of “The Secret Adversary.”

• • • • •

Today’s Panel Without Context

From "Gil Thorpe"
From “Gil Thorpe”

Learning to Repair, Mend and Sew, part 3

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Suburban stockade introduction

This is the third part of the series on sewing. In part 1 we looked at how cheap clothing manufactured overseas killed home sewing. In part 2, we discussed simple clothing repairs. Today, we’ll look at the types of complex clothing repairs you can learn how to do.

As we’ve always done, we’ll recommend books you can use that go into detail about these types of repairs.

Simple Clothing Repairs: Is It Worth Fixing?

Just about any garment can be repaired to get some more use out of it, just as any sock or knitted garment can be darned. The difficulty lies in deciding if the garment is worth the time spent repairing it. The other hard decision is deciding if the repair will show and does that matter to you? Knee patches on pants are a good example. I’ve put replacement patches on all kinds of pants —— sweats, jeans, khakis, knits, etc — on the outside or on the inside of the garment. The repair always shows and sometimes it shows quite a lot.

I think it is very worthwhile to patch kid’s pants. Your kids will outgrow them long before the garment collapses from overuse. Knee patches will allow a pair of jeans to last through multiple children.

If not having patched garments matters to you, then you either get new clothes or you put on artistic patches that look like you meant it as a fashion statement. That is, you cover the holes worn in your plaid flannel shirt with large flowers cut out from a floral fabric in a suitable contrasting color. And then, you upgrade the cuffs, collar, and buttons to reflect the beautiful cabbage roses you appliquéd to your worn out flannel shirt. Applique is a fancy word for patch. Patches mean you are poor and thrifty. Appliques mean you are artistic and crafty. The end result is the same: the hole in the garment got covered up. This can be time-consuming work.

If you do it right, it can look like clothing people pay to get damaged.
If you do it right, it can look like clothing people pay to get damaged. (Photo from Once Upon A Craft)

It is worth your time to do this? Only you can decide. You improve your skills with each elaborate repair job and you learn more about how a garment is put together. You keep a piece of clothing from the landfill and you save hard cash. The repaired garment becomes a one-of-a-kind fashion statement. Again, only you can decide.

Fix It In a Snap

As you start repairing garments, you will run across snaps. Very rarely, a snap just needs a touch of a hammer to flatten it so it fits better into its other half. More often, it has to be replaced. You replace snaps one of two ways: sewn on snaps get replaced in kind. You carefully pick off the damaged or missing snaps and sew on new ones. The second kind, a snap that is held onto a garment with tiny, invisible teeth MUST be replaced with a snap replacer. I recommend a specialty set of pliers from Dritz. Get it and a lot of replacement snaps in various sizes and colors at a fabric store in the notions department. A snap replacer and a jar of snaps makes an excellent baby gift as missing snaps make that onesie useless. And yet, it is an amazingly simple repair to make! I’ve salvaged a lot of baby clothes with this gadget.

Zip It Up

Zippers can sometimes be repaired. A missing pull can be replaced with a paper clip or a key ring circle. Sometimes the slide doesn’t quite grip anymore and a very gentle squeeze with a pliers will tighten it. Sometimes the teeth need to be lubricated with a wax crayon or a bit of bar soap. But if teeth are missing, the slide is missing, or the zipper is torn, you have a catastrophic failure and the entire zipper must be replaced. You can never replace half a zipper as they come in a huge array of sizes and types of teeth and you will never find an exact match in your stash. Zippers, even separating ones, are always sold as two halves for a reason.

Zipper replacement troubles range from not too bad, where you can easily see and pick out the whole old zipper, to impossible, where you have to open multiple seam lines, cut the old zipper out bit by bit, hand baste in the new zipper, baste all the seams closed, test for workability, resew, and then do the final sewing. I had to do this for older son’s pizza delivery jacket. It was only a month old when the zipper tore at the bottom. The zipper had been assembled backwards (!) prior to being installed and this may have been why it failed. Or it failed because it was a cheap, crappy nylon coil zipper.

When choosing replacement zippers, remember that you can always make them shorter but you can’t make them longer. Two other points with zipper replacement: separating zippers have to be replaced with separating zippers and get the zipper with teeth rather than a nylon coil. Teeth zippers tend to last longer and if you are going to all the trouble of replacing a zipper, you don’t want to have to go back and do it again.

Reuse Worn Clothes

Clothing that is terminally worn, as in the fabric itself is developing holes all over, may not be salvageable. If a garment has no life left in it as it is unwearable, then please don’t give it to the thrift shop. Recycle it for usable parts. You should always save the buttons, zippers, interesting patches, and any other notions before turning a garment into a shop rag. Buttons never wear out, and the larger your stash, the easier it becomes to match a missing one. Zippers can be reused, or if they are damaged, then they become really cool trim.

Getting Into Heavy Metal

As you become more proficient in your sewing, it may be time to buy an iron and an ironing board. Ironing up a hem to the correct length makes the sewing much easier. It took me years to learn that you need to spend as much time at the ironing board as you do at the sewing machine. Pressing as you sew (by hand or machine) makes the finished work look smoother and more professional. The leading cause of failure in irons is being knocked over onto the floor by bad cats, so always put your iron away when it’s not in use, and it will last for years.

The conflict between cats and irons has lasted almost as long as between cats and dogs.
The conflict between cats and irons has lasted almost as long as between cats and dogs.

If you expand your repair work, a sewing machine will be next. Start looking around for sewing machines, new and used, pass-alongs and thrift shop ones. If you choose to buy a new one, shop carefully and check to see if you really want all those features. Many places that sell sewing machines throw in free lessons. If your shop does this, make sure you take advantage of it. If you are fortunate enough to get a pass—along machine, take it into the sewing repair shop (ask at the fabric store) and have the machine cleaned and tuned up. Get a manual so you know what it can do and how to thread it. The sewing machine repair shop might be able to order you one, or you can get them online.

Be Your Own Fashion Designer

Repair work on clothes easily segues into the wonderful, amazing, eye-popping, and fascinating world of altered couture, the practice of remaking old clothes into new clothes. That’s what all ye olde sewing books call the process. Once you’ve learned to sew big cabbage roses over holes in a flannel shirt, it’s an easy mental step to removing and swapping the sleeves from the blue flannel shirt with the green flannel shirt. This work, both the ripping and the resewing, can and should be done by hand. It’s much easier to make the tiny tucks needed to fit one almost the same size edge against another when sewing by hand. When you do this work by machine, you have to hand baste it completely to make it line up right; at this point, you might as well do it completely by hand.

If you live in central Pennsylvania, you can see altered couture for yourself. Suze Moll is a long-time, local practitioner. She has small stands at various places in the area and she does the local craft circuit. Go to or her Facebook page, remixstyle, to find her stuff. She does just the best thing I have ever seen to upcycle fancy colored bras: she turns them into tiny evening bags! Just the cutest things ever, and each one is unique.

There are tons of on-line resources for altered couture and plenty of books and magazines on the topic to get you started. I’ve listed some titles that I’ve used at the end of this blog post. What does studying all these resources do for you? You see the possibilities. You get much braver about taking apart and putting together clothes. As you remake things, you learn how garments are constructed, and since all the raw materials come from the back of the closet or the bargain bin at Goodwill, very little cost in money is involved. Only time and the nerve to take a pair of scissors to a old prom dress are involved.

I have personally recycled many old prom dresses and bridesmaid dresses into new items. Those big skirts have a lot of only worn-once fabric in them. I upcycled several of these dresses into nursing tops for me. On-demand breastfeeding is way, way easier when you wear a nursing top. The ones you can buy are very expensive and tend to be boringly utilitarian. Get the patterns, learn to sew (or have them sewn for you) and you can have summer- and winter-weight tops in a variety of colors. I even colorblocked some of mine, using the black skirt from one dress as the underlayer and the bright pink skirt of another dress for the overlayer. I would show pictures but all of my nursing tops got freecycled long ago. I made them quite well, and it is possible that, thirteen years later, someone is still using them.

Prom dress turned princess gown, from Pinterest.
Prom dress turned princess gown, from Pinterest.
Prom and bridesmaid dresses upcycle beautifully into princess costumes for little girls. The easiest one is to cut off the spaghetti straps and then resew the new shoulder seams closed where you cut off the straps at the top of the bodice. The dress is now magically a foot shorter. Try it on your little princess and decide if you need to chop some of the hem off. Or, take in the side seams. Or not, as little girls get taller fast. Dear Daughter ended up with a huge assortment of princess attire that she and her friends wore for years as they enacted complex psycho-dramas in our living room. Each dress has to be handled differently but since they are free or almost free for the asking, it’s worth the risk of mistakes. And, you start getting your confidence up about taking a pair of scissors to a garment as you learn more about how a garment is constructed. Remember to save any unneeded notions. That butt bow can be made over into a massive Halloween hat!

Repairing and remaking the clothes you acquire second-hand gives you, at the cost of only your time and thread, a custom wardrobe and a better understanding of garment construction. You’ll get far more life out of your clothes. As you learn more, you can even make ready-made garments fit better; shortening too-long hems, moving over buttons, and taking in side seams or adding darts.

Your improved skill set will allow you to move naturally and easily into making your own clothes out of whole cloth, new or used. Once you’re making clothes from scratch, you will have to have a sewing machine, an iron, and an ironing board if you haven’t already gotten them. A sewing machine is an enormous time-saver for those long seams. Changing from hand sewing to a sewing machine is the equivalent of going from writing in longhand versus using a typewriter. It is that much of a change. This is why, back in the day, after purchasing a James hand washer with a wringer, the second appliance every woman bought, as soon as she could, was a Singer sewing machine.

Next week, we’ll be back with a look a sewing with patterns.

Rough Draft 1/30/2015

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Some random thoughts and observations for you this day, more or less as they occurred to me.

* * * *

Reading the reactions to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, you would think there’d be an agreement that, no matter what you think of the cartoons, they should not be punished by bloodshed. That so many Westerners would excuse Muslims slaughtering unarmed civilians over pen and ink because they can’t help it smacks of condescension.

* * * *

Just scored a new record on the Wii Fit’s snowball fight. Eighty-one hits in 60 seconds. Compared to the eventual heat death of the Earth, it’s not even a nanoparticle in an atom of a grain of sand, but it’s a lifetime achievement award to me right now.

* * * *

If you find yourself buying books like this, you might be a Sherlockian.

From <a href=
How to Be a Victorian“>MX Publishing” width=”500″ height=”375″ class=”size-full wp-image-8797″ /> From MX Publishing

* * * *

Dipped into “How to Be a Victorian” by Ruth Goodman. In lieu of regular baths, they wore linen or cotton underclothes next to the skin and rubbed down their bodies regularly with soft cloths. Great details, but even more impressive was that the author tried it out herself and found it worked. Another book for the must-buy list.

* * * *

Ironic that so many people who campaigned for free speech on campuses are equally adamant it denying it to others.

* * * *

Stuffed three novels in my head at the same time: a group’s attempt to take down the U.S., set in the near future (“The Cause”); Laurie R. King’s new Sherlock novel (“Dreaming Spies”); and loosely connected stories set on the new frontier of a slowly terraforming planet (“The Empress of Mars”). Wildly different in setting, attitude, and writing style. No wonder I don’t know where I am.

* * * *

Oh, wait, I do. Snowbound in Hershey. I’m not saying I’m hibernating, but if I see my shadow on Feb. 2, spring will come in six weeks.

Today’s Panel Without Context

comic panel without context
“It puts its lotion on its skin or it gets the hose again!” (Rex Morgan)

John Cleese Delivers Comedy Lessons in Memoir

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Monty Python has been a part of my life since the early 1970s, when WTVI in Charlotte broadcast the episodes. I can still remember the first episode I saw, which featured the Spanish Inquisition, which moved from Graham Chapman as a working man telling Carol Cleveland that there’s “trouble at the mill” with “one of the cross-beams gone out a-skew on the treadle.” Her repeated questions about that point irritates Chapman so much that he declares he “didn’t expect the bloody Spanish inquisition.”

The Spanish Inquisition: Michael Palin (center), Terry Gilliam (right) and Terry Jones as "Biggles, the Littlest Inquisitor."
The Spanish Inquisition: Michael Palin (center), Terry Gilliam (right) and Terry Jones as “Biggles, the Littlest Inquisitor.”

And in bursts Michael Palin in full Spanish Catholic gear, followed by his mates, including Terry Gilliam pulling a face so spastic that it looked like the result of your mother’s threat that your face will freeze if you keep doing that. Then Michael shouts “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is fear. Fear and surprise.” He realizes he got the count wrong and starts again: “Our TWO chief weapons are fear and surprise. And ruthless efficiency . . .”

And so on and so forth. (Note to assistant: Don’t link to the YouTube clip or we’ll never get the bastards back. Ring me in Canne. Chow! Bill)

monty python john cleeseSo in reviewing John Cleese’s memoir So, Anyway…, I won’t bother saying I enjoyed it immensely (which I did) or that I’m looking forward to volume two, which will cover the Python years (did that too) and that his “A Fish Called Wanda,” was one of the best farce-comedies I’ve ever seen (you can stop now), or that his book “Families and How to Survive Them” (written with shrink Robin Skynner) helped me understand and cope with my family’s dynamics (shutup shutup SHUTUP!).

So . . . let’s talk about comedy. Cleese seemed to me to be the intellectual of the bunch, the one who really really thought about things. This is confirmed in “So, Anyway,” because every once in awhile, he’ll stop the narrative and go down the side alley into Funny: What is it, What isn’t it, and Where did my pants go? Since I am clearly not funny, I decided to pull, nearly at random, five lessons Cleese learned about comedy and discuss them.

1. Tastes vary, sometimes radically

At Cambridge, Cleese joined the Footlights, a small amateur comedy troupe that put on a couple shows a year as well as regular “Smokers” where people got up on the small stage and tried to be funny. In this atmosphere of creative collaboration, sketches would be written, tested, taken apart, reworked, and at the end of the year a show would be held. At the end of the year, they performed the show at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, and it was so successful it was moved to London’s West End theatre for a short run.

During that creative process, Cleese discovered that nobody knew what really worked. “When members of the cast talked about the show, for example, we all felt that about twenty per cent was comparatively weak, but there was constant disagreement about which twenty per cent that was.”

2. Be inspired by great comics

When he was a young’un, Cleese discovered the “Goon Show,” a radio show consisting of three comics (Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe) performing a skit using silly voices and strange sound effects to tell insanely logical, twisted stories that were also incredibly funny and subversive towards the Establishment.

“Years later, I became bewildered by the reception of Monty Python by some of our looniest fans, I suddenly realized they were experiencing exactly the combination of emotions that had rendered me such a devotee of the Goons, and so I was able to forgive them.”

3. Anger is useful, but it has its limits

Think of Oliver Hardy’s slow burn after Stan Laurel does something particularly stupid. Or Ricky Ricardo after one of Lucy’s foul-ups. Anger can be funny, but only to a point:

“I find anger, like Basil Fawlty’s, hilarious — provided it is ineffectual, as real anger might be too disturbing. I’m terrified of violence, yet I shout with laughter at great slapstick comedy that threatens people’s physical safety (think of Harold Lloyd or Chaplin, or of Eddie Murphy crossing the freeway in Steve Martin’s “Bowfinger”). My sense of humour has been described as cruel (mainly by BBC executives), yet I am almost obsessively appalled by torture. And I howl at absurdity and nonsense when my deepest psychic fear is a sense of meaningless. Am I trying to diminish a fear by laughing at it, and thereby belittling it, reducing its threat?”

4. Even the greats fail

Watching a Marx Brothers festival, Cleese realized “just how much dross there was among all the brilliance: even the greatest comics, I concluded, frequently fail.”

5. In fact, a lot of comedy is shite

“There exist vast hordes who can write bad comedy, and they do so in immense quantities, entirely uninhibited by any awareness of just how atrocious it is. . . . So if I may give a word of advice to any young writer who, despite the odds, wants to take a shot at being funny, it is this:


“Steal an idea that you know is good, and try to reproduce it in a setting that you know and understand. It will become sufficiently different from the original because you are writing it, and by basing it on something good, you will be learning some of the rules of good writing as you go along. Great artists may merely be “influenced by” other artists, but comics ‘steal’ and then conceal their loot.”

Cleese demonstrates the principle of stealing by confessing to ripping off Professor Stanley Unwin, a comedian who turns plausible speech into gibberish.

“The first time I heard him I became so hysterical with mirth that I frightened my parents. . . . I watched Unwin obsessively and slowly figured out how he did it — which was to take certain syllables from very ordinary words and mix them up with syllables from other equally common words, so that the sounds were totally familiar English ones, but the overall effect quite meaningless.

“His version of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears,’ for example, began: ‘Once apollytito and Goldiloppers set out in the deep dark of the forry. She was carry a basket with buttere-flabe and cheesy flavour.’

“So, anyway . . . once I had worked out how Stanley Unwin produced his strangely convincing gobbledegook, it was easy to scribble out another example for the Footlights audition.” . . . The Stanley Unwin rip-off has become a standard part of my cabaret routine, last performed on my one-man show’s UK tour in 2011, fifty years after its first appearance at the Footlights clubroom.”

That’s just a few of the lessons learned from “So, Anyway.” In between, Cleese covers his life from his parents’ time to the formation of Monty Python. He talks about his influences, his friends, his stunted upbringing at the hands of a trying mother, his shyness, his backing into comedy (he was trained in law and was about to join a firm until by sheer happenstance he was invited to take the Footlights show to Edinburgh). He worked hard, tried different things, thought about what it all meant and went back out to try again. I won’t say that if you’re a Monty Python fan you’ve already got the book. I won’t say that comedy fans should get this book (and if it leads you to the Goon Show, you’ve got a treat in store).

I will say that I hope he’ll call out Eric Idle and Terry Jones as the short-sheeting bastards they are, in the hopes they’ll come out with memoirs of their own.

Why I Repair, Sew and Mend (part 2)

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Suburban stockade introduction

Last week, we looked at how learning to sew, once a skill taught to girls in the school system, has nearly vanished thanks to an increase in the supply of cheap clothes from overseas manufacturers.

But with cheapness comes a price. There’s a saying that when it comes to anything, you can have it by picking two out of these three choices: fast, cheap and good. You can have it cheap and good, but you can’t have it fast. Or, you can have it fast and cheap, but not good. Or Fast and good, but not cheap.

So how can you ensure that your family wears good, well-made clothing? You can have clothing custom-made by a seamstress or tailor. You may have to look pretty hard to find this service but these people exist. Then pay them what they ask. If you can’t stomach the prices, reflect on the fact that the local seamstress or tailor wants to earn more than the 29 cents an hour that sewing machine operators get paid in Third-World sweatshops. That the local seamstress doesn’t get to pay the lowest possible wholesale price for fabric bought in 100,000-yard increments. That the local tailor has rent, Social Security, and utilities to pay. Third-World sweatshops and Chinese prison labor is the reason why new clothes in the United States cost so little relative to the amount of workmanship, fabric, notions, and time invested in them.

How do you solve this problem of cost? You learn to do it yourself. You start with a needle, thread, thimble, and sewing scissors. Then you teach yourself to make the most basic of repairs: sewing buttons back on and closing up split seams. Thanks to the miracle of Project Runway, sewing has become popular again, and so you can now find basic how to mend and repair books with loads of pictures that aren’t sixty years old or older.

home sewing
A current book is “Mend It Better: Creative Patching, Darning, and Stitching” by Kristin M. Roach. A really excellent older book is “”The Mender’s Manual” by Estelle Foote. The difference between the two books is that Ms. Foote assumes you already know how to sew. Ms. Roach assumes you’ve never had a needle in your hand and so gives you plenty of photographs to demonstrate how to thread and hold one.

cooking-for-absolute-beginners-cover-home-sewingThe progression in sewing books is the same as that of cookbooks. Most older cookbooks — unless aimed at total newbies such as “Cooking for Absolute Beginners” by Muriel Fitzsimmons and Cortland Fitzsimmons (Dover Publications) — assume you already know what to do. More modern cookbooks have to assume you have never boiled water and proceed accordingly. As your how-to-sew books get older and older, the basic information and directions become more and more sparse with many fewer illustrations. Older books can be more useful as they assume you need to save money and so give instructions for things you wouldn’t get today such as replacing a lining in a jacket. Older books also assume that you have an older relative around whom you can ask. If you do have a mother, grandmother, or aunt who still mends, repairs, and sews you have a stunningly valuable resource. So ask for help! I’ve learned a lot from books but being shown by someone who knows what she’s doing is far better than trying to interpret cryptic instructions and tiny line drawings.

Why Sew At All?

home sewing
Cooking is drudgery. Why else would Hamburger Helper be invented?
What happened is that sewing, like basic home cooking, has become a lost art; a skill that in two generations went from the vast majority of women (because let’s face it, most men didn’t cook or sew) knowing at least how to repair a hem and put meals on the table three times a day to most women barely recognizing a needle and thimble and relying on the miracle of pre-fab convenience food cookery. Sewing, like cooking, is time-consuming work and both can turn into drudgery really quick.

If you can’t find the Zen of being bent over a sewing machine for hours on end or making a meal in an hour that gets eaten in five minutes and then repeating the process three times a day for the rest of your life, you start resenting the work. Why wouldn’t you? Especially if you can maintain some 60-hour-a-week career and use some of that money to pay poorer women of color to do the same work. And, you simply can’t maintain that sixty-hour-a-week career (this is about how many hours a week my sister the programmer works, at a minimum, every single week; during sick days and vacations she is expected to check her email faithfully and make up every single missed hour of work when she gets back) and spend three hours a day cooking and cleaning up from said work and doing all the sewing of garments, household linens, plus repair work and mending. This doesn’t cover any of the other daily work to run a house well nor does it include hours spent on exercise and other body maintenance, commuting, community service, church work, housekeeping, personal time with children, spouse, and friends, and food growing and preservation. That 24-hours-a-day pesky time-management problem reappears with a vengeance.

So, as soon as there was a little more money, a job took up your time, and clothing and household cloth items became super cheap (when all the American textile jobs went overseas to sweatshops), sewing fell off of the radar. Your time matters. It matters a lot. So again, why sew at all?

1. Repair work is easy. It is crazy and wasteful to discard a blouse because a button is missing or a seam has opened up. These are both incredibly easy fixes and take far less time and money than shopping for a replacement blouse. If of course, you have a needle, thread, thimble, scissors, and a jar of buttons and you know how to use them.

At this point, let me say that every household that plans on doing repair work to clothing should have a button jar. Take a clean, clear peanut butter jar and start saving all those buttons you find loose in the washer, you picked up off the floor, and that come attached as replacements to the clothes you bought. When you have to buy a packet of buttons to replace the one missing shirt button, put the extras into the jar. Since I sew a lot, I have collected a lot of buttons.


My buttons are sorted by type (shank or hole) and by color. For basic repairs, you won’t need nearly this many. What makes button replacement hard is that you can almost never find an exact match of even a plain ½-inch white shirt button. Even the most basic buttons comes in dozens of variations; fancy types are impossible to match. So I save every single button I come across, I joyfully accept the unwanted buttons from other people, and if I come across a jarful of buttons at a thrift shop or yard sale, I buy it and add it to the stash. This way, I can come pretty close to a match or I can replace all the buttons on the garment, ensuring they match.

To complete your basic repair kit, you need a few spools of thread: white, black, cream, and three shades of gray (light, medium, dark). The gray thread will allow you to get reasonably close to the color tone of the item you are redoing the seam on. Since this stitching is hidden, you don’t need an exact color match. If the thread is going to show, you may want to make the trip to the fabric store and buy an exact match. I use Coats and Clark thread and Gütermanns; both are widely available and work very nicely. Avoid the super-cheap no-name thread you sometimes see in dime stores. This thread is so poorly made it is not suitable for anything but hand basting as it may break apart when the garment is washed.

A book of hand needles in various sizes, a thimble that fits your middle finger on your dominant hand, a pair of sewing scissors, and perhaps a small box of straight pins and safety pins will round out your repair kit. All of these items are widely available; even grocery stores carry some of this stuff tucked away in the aisle with the household cleansers and mops.

The thimble is the hardest item to get as you have to try them on. Yes, thimbles come in sizes. You want one that fits snugly over your middle finger on your dominant hand but not so snugly that it pinches. It has to fit well so it doesn’t come off as you sew. The thimble lets you push the needle through the fabric without puncturing your flesh. It is absolutely worth the trouble to learn how to hand sew with a thimble if you are going to do any repair work at all. It increases your speed and saves your skin.

Get a decent pair of sewing scissors and mark them as such. Do not EVER let anyone cut paper with your sewing scissors. Paper cutting ruins the blade for fabric and you will then have to cut out the heart and liver of the person who ruined your good scissors as they are now useless for anything else. Damaged scissors have to be resharpened; fabric stores sometimes offer this service. You can sometimes find someone who sharpens scissors at farmer’s markets too; I got all my scissors redone at the Hershey Farmer’s Market and what a joy they were to use afterwards.

Then you get the basic mending book such as “Hand Mending Made Easy” by Nan L. Ides and you are ready to start fixing simple stuff. Once you learn to resew on buttons and close opened seams, you move on to repairing hems. When you have learned to repair a hem, you can start changing a hem. I do some sewing for money and a simple job I do a lot of is shortening the hems on pants. Depending on the type of pants, I do it by hand or by machine. Any sewing job that can be done by machine can be done by hand and hems are an easy place to learn. It usually but not always just takes longer. And, there are some jobs that even if you can do them by machine should still be done by hand. It works better, it looks better or it just takes less time. Yes, hand sewing can, sometimes, be faster than machine sewing. It can make just as strong a seam.

Learning basic mending is empowering. You no longer have to discard a garment because of an easily repaired seam. As you get better at it, you learn to do harder, more complex jobs. This saves you time and money; the time spent shopping for replacements and the money spent on buying new garments. Doing your own basic repairs will also free up the money for paying a tailor or seamstress for the much harder ones: relining or taking in a suit jacket or replacing a complex coat zipper.

Next week, we’ll take a look at more complex clothing repairs.