Interviewsand Articles


Cotton and Silk

by Susan Vorbeck, Nov 8, 2017



Vorbeck quilt, detail

I’m working on the last panel of a pair of drapes for my client, Kelley, a young, talented designer. She and her husband bought a house designed by Julia Morgan, the break-through woman architect who gave us Hearst Castle. They’ve been restoring and remodeling the house for over a year.
     I’ve been working for at least nine months on my contribution of custom window treatments, and am looking forward to our next installation, which will take place two days before Christmas. Now we can walk around in the almost finished house and remember when many men were at work as we yelled at each other above the sawing and banging, laying out our plans. Trying not to trip over the boards and cords covering the floor, we visualized the completed design as we held up a 5 x 8 inch fabric swatch before an unfinished window—the wall still exposing its inner structure of 2 x 4s, electrical conduits and insulation.
     Kelley and I had worked together with other clients, and I was excited with the prospect of helping to restore the beauty of this Julia Morgan house, with a carriage house in the back! I’d also felt somewhat daunted by the scale of the project, but having continued my pledge to be willing to take on challenges, had looked forward to the adventure.  
     So here I am, working at my table on the last panel of the last large, complex drape I will make. At least that’s what I’ve told myself, wanting very much to do some of my own work, something creative, for myself.  I think we call it “art.”
     My lifetime of sewing and perfecting my skills has given me a body of knowledge, and I remember the day when I realized I’d mastered my craft. Along with my feelings of accomplishment, I’d also always harbored a perhaps misguided sense that to be someone who sewed was to be part of a disdained, lowly profession—one that conjured images of poor women slaving away in sweatshops for pennies a day.
     When someone asked me my profession, I tried to come up with an elaborate, elevated word for “seamstress.” And when I tried to describe what I did, people’s eyes glazed over and their gaze wandered as they lost interest in what I was trying to say, and I experienced a sad, lonely feeling; I would never be a member of the club.
     Well, you are what you are. Eventually, I discovered that the whole point of life is to know yourself. This long process has been, and is, much more interesting than trying to find myself in someone else’s eyes.
     From lowly seamstress to designer-fabricator, I gave myself new labels and carried on with my question: “What are you interested in? And do you have the courage to pursue it?”
     Approaching my deadline of December 23rd, I find myself marveling at the creamy butterscotch silk beneath my hands. I’ve already joined the three lengths of fabric needed for the width of the panel, hand-stitched the hem and applied the two-inch embroidered, flat braid that falls along the leading edge. Now the three layers, the face-fabric, inner lining and lining must be joined together.
     The silk has a luminous tissue-paper surface that moves at the slightest touch. I press its inner side to get it ready to receive the next layer of inner lining, a thick soft cotton flannel that has the wonderful smell of natural fiber as the heat and steam from the iron hit it. I become part of the process of transformation and feel the silk and cotton layers as my arms move back and forth across the surface. Under my hand I feel the two layers embrace each other—the delicate silk, needing structure, and the humble soft cotton relishing the shiny, delicate surface of the silk.
     The third layer, the lining, is a completely different experience. I’ve had it hanging on the clothesline for days to try to dissipate the smell of the chemicals with which it’s been saturated. It’s a product and symbol of the corporate world, which controls all our lives—and there I go, beginning my inner rant as I try to avoid the chemical odors rising as I add its layer to my drape.
     Now my hands feel the slippery surface my iron leaves as I smooth the smelly fabric into place, and my inner dialogue completely loses its romantic images. Now I rage against our corrupt government under the control of the proliferators of poison. As our ardent but mislead millions pour billions into finding a cure for what ails us and our environment, industry continues to pour toxins into our air, water and food—the ultimate absurdity and proof that propaganda pays off. Who would have thought that even in the humble setting of a workroom the dynamics of world commerce would influence and have an impact on a seamstress’s mental and physical well-being?
     When all my layers are in place and the leading edge is finished, I begin the process of forming the header, which will be French pleats. These will join at the top where it meets the ring, making a downward luxurious fan shape that leads to the cascading silk surface which is no longer tissue paper but a voluptuous ripple of undulating butterscotch shimmer as it reaches the floor with a break, causing a slight upward movement. 
     Of course, I’m visualizing all this in my mind because I cannot really know the image I will see until the drape is hanging at its window with leaded glass transom surrounded by ancient, wide-plank oak paneling and William Morris wallpaper completing its backdrop.
     My drape is a careful combination of math, skill with the materials, my ability to visualize color, space and form (hopefully with a little help from my subconscious) giving me a friendly warning when I have not figured correctly. So I will leave it there, a brief glimpse into the world of the almost extinct profession of seamstress.    

About the Author

Susan Vorbeck is a seamstress and textile artist living in Petaluma, CA.  To learn more....


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