Interviewsand Articles


Art of Living: Gabriel Russo: Living on the Selvedge

by Gabriel Russo, Jun 13, 2011



"You've got to make the turn on the pocket. Make sure it's straight or it will have a crease in it and you'll have to redo it. It takes a year of doing welt pockets every day to get good at it." I've heard Max say this more than once, talking above the noise of the sewing machines, showing someone how he wanted a pocket sewn or how the corners of a collar should be finished.
     This was Mary's job. Making pockets. All shapes and sizes. Didn't matter if it was coats, pants or finely-tailored suits. Max said that Mary was the patron saint of pockets. Mary was a piece worker. Which meant that you got paid by the number of pieces you finished, not by the hours you worked. Five cents a pocket. Most of the time she had to fight for a few extra cents for pockets that were difficult and required her to work so close to the needle that she was sent to the emergency room more than once with a needle stuck in her finger or one that went through it. It was a result of the frenetic pace they worked at, the number of pieces that had to be completed for a day's wages. And everything had to be showroom quality. It had to have the right drape and hanger appeal. The incessant buzz of a hundred sewing machines and Max walking up and down the aisles checking the quality of the work or settling a feud between sewing operators in the cramped working conditions was constant.
     After school I would walk a few blocks to where Mary worked. She was at the end of a long line of sewing machines next to a second floor window. I would pick up little pebbles from the street and pitch them at the window to get her attention and ask for a dollar or whatever change she had. I didn't call up to her or go into the factory because Max would put me to work if he knew I was there. He would have me sweeping the factory floors or running errands for him. When the window would open sometimes it was not Mary, but cranky Max who would stick his head out and yell down at me, "Your mother works hard for her money! If you want money come up and work for it!" Then I would have no choice but to go up. Filtering down from above as you walked up the crickety old stairs you'd hear the constant buzz of sewing machines like a concerto of fog horns and cellos inhaling and exhaling.
     When you opened the factory door, adding to the industrial melody was the hissing sound of Angelo's iron presser. He was always in a t-shirt even in winter because of the heat from the big iron press. He'd lay a garment down, push down on the presser foot and lower the top of the presser clam, and the iron would release a big plume of steam. He'd lift the top of the clam and the garment would be as flat as a board. I remember the time he pressed my best pants for Easter Sunday. The creases were like knife pleats and lasted till I grew out of them.
     I can still sometimes hear the moaning of machinery filtering out of a building, reminding me of those pants I ripped on that Easter Sunday. The smell of the steam when it heats wool brings me right back to Max's factory. I can see Mary going into her purse and throwing some change out the window to me below. These memories lead me to consider the shape of a pocket that I have just sewn. Max would probably have me redo it.
Go See Big Frank up the Street
Nat was a short man, heavy around the middle.  He always had a cigarette hanging from his lips and there always seemed to be a long ash that could never shake itself loose. You could always catch Nat on the corner of 35th & 7th Avenue before eight in the morning. This was where garment cutters, pattern makers and other factory workers met before they started their workday. They would exchange war stories about their jobs, place bets with bookies and schmooze. Weather permitting, this went on throughout the work week. In bad weather it went underground to the Horn & Hardarts' cafeteria below Macy's.
     Nat was a connector, the mayor of 7th avenue. He had the inside word on what fabric-cutter and pattern-making jobs were available. How he knew this and how it came to him was a mystery to me. I would watch men walk up to him, shake his hand then lean in close and they would have a brief conversation. Nat would stick his hand in his pocket, fish around through slips of paper and, finding the right match, hand it to the person, and then the man was gone. Then there would be some male maneuvering, some posturing and repositioning, and then another man would approach. This same ritual would be repeated. It was like watching the documentary March of the Penguins.
     One morning, when I went to see Nat, there was a line. It was like waiting to receive Holy Communion. When it was my turn, I leaned in and told him Louie sent me. He nodded, fished around in his pocket and pulled out some papers. He handed one to me and said "go see Big Frank up the street." In the building occupied by Big Frank, the elevators, like most in Manhattan, opened up right into the factory. When the elevator door opened, there sat Big Frank in front of the cutting tables dwarfing an old wooden desk. I told him Nat sent me and he put me to work with one of the head fabric cutters. Later that morning the fabric cutter and I had just finished laying up plies of cotton tubular fabric that were stacked up really high on the cutting table. A blueprint paper was laid on top of the fabric. This schematic of the graded pattern pieces is used as a cutting guide. On each edge of this paper, the front, back and sleeve and other pieces are folded on the half to accommodate the tubular fold. The fabric cutter is supposed to cut around this piece and not cut off the tubular fold. The head cutter went to lunch and asked me to get the cutting machine ready for him. I did this and decided I needed a little practice to advance my apprenticeship. Without any knowledge of what I was doing, I proceeded to cut off all of the tubular fold.
     The head cutter came back from lunch and took one look and noticed all the tubular fold had been cut away. He stood there staring at what he could not undo. A fabric cutter's crime scene lay before him. Something had gone terribly wrong. The apprentice cutter had ruined about 500 tubular tops! He shouted. "Oh no! Frank the f**kin' kid has ruined the order for Macy's!" I can still hear it today as if it's coming from the next room. There was a long moment of silence. Then Big Frank's frame filled the doorway. His look cut deep and I knew that there was no explaining my way out of this. As I said before, the elevator opened up into the factory loft. I couldn't just go over and push the button and stand there and wait for it. I was standing near an emergency exit door that looked like it hadn't been opened since the civil war.
     I caught one last look at Big Frank; he didn't look good and he was bearing down on me. I pushed and kicked open the door to the emergency exit and leaped down landings over homeless people who were sleeping in the halls. I could hear Big Frank yell down the stairs "If I ever see you on this street again...*@#*#!..." and his voice faded as I fled out of the building. After that day, I decided to work in Brooklyn for a while and stay out of Manhattan.
Uncle Vinnie in Florida
Franky Stunziata pulled up to the curb in a shiny buffed out '67 Bonneville. The top was down and it was freezing outside. We loaded the trunk with about 500 cut garments that his uncle Vinny was going to sew in his factory in Florida for a cheap rate. All we had to do was drive it down and pick up a tan while we waited for the blouses to be sewn. I never saw Stunzi driving this car so I asked him about it and he said that he borrowed it from his cousin Crazy Sal to make a delivery to Uncle Vinnie in Florida. Unbeknownst to me, Crazy Sal was looking for him and his car for the past few days. Heading out of Brooklyn we run into Crazy Sal in another car and he starts chasing us at speeds that felt like 100 mph. Stunzi's speeding down Fulton street yelling "Oh, shit" and I'm crouched under the seat peeing in my pants. I'm thinking, "let me out of here!" since I knew Crazy Sal and his neighborhood reputation. But my world investment is loaded in the trunk!
    Before long we're speeding over the Brooklyn Bridge on our way to Uncle Vinnie's tropical paradise. We finally lose Crazy Sal and his crew somewhere in New Jersey. We pulled off Hwy 95 and backed the car into some high weeds way off the road in the dark night so we wouldn't be spotted by Crazy Sal and his crew. We fell asleep, and deep in the night we hear a loud rumbling sound and see a huge headlight coming straight for the car. It was speeding right at us. At the last moment an enormous train turned on the track just barely missing the car. Stunzi starts the car, floors the gas pedal and the car must have slipped on ice or mud because we skid closer to the tracks and the car turned. Now we're facing the train just inches from it. We jumped out of the car and crawled away. We waited till the train passed, which seemed like it was the length of New Jersey. Pushing the car up the embankment didn't work, so Stunzi decided to drive the car on the train tracks!
     We finally got to a highway diner as the sun was coming up and I'm trying to convince Stunzi that he needs to return the car to his crazy cousin or we'd have been better off being crushed by that freight train. Finally Stunzi makes a call to his Uncle Vinnie who, by the way, is Crazy Sal's father. Uncle Vinnie is pissed that Stunzi took Crazy Sal's car.
     Later that day we drive back to New York and I drop off my garments at a local sewing contractor. We leave the car a few blocks from Crazy Sal's house. Stunzi calls Sal to tell him where he can find the car. A few days later I see Stunzi. He has a busted nose and his arm is in a sling. I always have a candle lit for Stunzi cause he told Crazy Sal that I knew nothing about it.
     I received a letter a few years later when I was in Los Angeles telling me that Stunzi died as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. All I kept thinking about when I was holding the letter was when we were riding on the train tracks and the car was bumping up and down. He was singing, "Who put the bomp in the bomp shu bomp shu bomp? Who put the ram in the ramalama ding dong?"
Pattern Tools: The Heinisch Scissor
I remember back in the early '60s working in the garment center as a fabric cutter. When scissors needed sharpening you would never take them to a cutlery shop, you'd wait for the scissor man to stop by. He would come around about every other month. He'd push his four-wheeled cart in and out of elevators from 35th to 40th Street and east to west from 5th Avenue up to 10th. He knew most of the fabric cutters, pattern makers and clothing designers in this fashion jungle. He'd show up in the factory with his pushcart and a grindstone wheel on top. He'd walk up and down the aisles and ask who needed their scissors sharpened. It used to cost about a buck to have your scissors sharpened back then. Pricey! The Heinisch scissor would set you back about a buck and half because of its size. Fourteen inches edge to edge. The cutting blade alone was 7-inches long, and weighed in at almost three pounds. These scissors were so enormous that they had a support rest for the thumb when you were using them to cut fabric. 
     The scissor man would set up his temporary shop at one end of the factory loft. He'd pump that grindstone peddle with one leg and get the grinding wheel humming. He'd set the blade on it and you could see the carbon sparks flying off and the shrieking sound of the grinding wheel as he kept pumping the pedal. The Heinisch would always stand out as the luxury model on the cutting table with the other scissors that had just been trimmed. 
     R. Heinisch sold his business to the Wiss family in 1914. The foundry was located in Newark, New Jersey, on the corners of Bruce Street and 13th Avenue. The pair that I have sitting in my studio probably have cut through enough yards of fabric to stretch across the states. The old bones of the tailor's hand seems to have shaped out the handles of these scissors like an old pair of gloves.
Pattern Tools: The Hip Curve
Choosing the right tool(s) is essential because it speaks to the work that you do, and the respect you have for it. The hip curve tool is used to create the soft curves on a pattern for making clothes. It allows the eye to shape from the waistline to the thigh area. It also allows consistency with all of your hip shapes. I also use part of the curve to shape the knee area of the pattern, and just above the hem. It also has a nice line for the slight curve from the armhole at the shoulder just before it takes its deep turn toward the sideseam. This curve shape is everywhere. I never know when I will encounter this shape and fall under its hypnotic spell. You can see it in the adobe-shaped mosques of West Africa, at Buddhist temples and other spiritual destinations. It's in the slight curve of the horizon. It's Picasso's Blue Nude, Coltrane's horn. Rothko used it in The Omen of the Eagle, along with a few French curves. Ellsworth Kelly used it in his piece called Blue Curve. I see it in the softness of the round tables that line the cafes along the St. Germaine des Pres and the curve of the stairs that lead to the top of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. Le Corbusier used it at Ronchamp. Richard Serra genuflects to it.
     If you can find a vintage wooden hip curve made by Luftkin of Saginaw, Michigan, that would be a prize catch. The one I purchased at a garage sale some years back has the name Yoko carved in it. Then on the other side are some initials that read SGW. Could sound like the abbreviation for the town of Saginaw where this ruler was made. It's not uncommon for pattern tools to have names on them. Working in a factory or design room people tend to borrow them and forget to return them. I wonder if Yoko and SGW lost these tools or they were just passed on. Well, I think it's time for me to carve my name into it also...?
The names of characters in this narrative are fictional.    
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