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Greene: Dressing Up

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http://www.vpr.net/audio/programs/56/2013/01/GREE-010313.mp3

(Host) People looking for an excuse to dress up have found one in the new season of Downton Abbey on PBS. Writer and commentator Stephanie Greene takes a look at a growing trend in fine fabric and period costume.

(Greene) The day after Downton Abbey's final episode last year, I was in a fabric store, when someone mentioned the show and every single customer laughingly confessed to being inspired by the series to buy a beautiful piece of cloth.

Jan Norris, owner of Delectable Mountain Cloth in Brattleboro, says she often sees such waves of enthusiasm ignited by the costumes of films and TV series. With the upcoming PBS Gala in Burlington this weekend, timed for the premier of Downton Abbey's third season, more ambitious sewers have been flocking to the store.

Things have changed.

When I brought my sewing machine to college - admittedly, a few decades ago - my peers found it hilarious. I was routinely greeted with cries of, It's Susie Homemaker! We young feminists were supposed to be beyond all that home-economics drudgery. We'd change the world by studying law, not pattern drafting.

In fact, many of us even considered certain women's under-garments to be a thing of the past.

Well today, there are not only corset makers who are thriving, there is a growing number of people willing to spring for natural, fine - and pricey - fabric from which to construct truly elegant garments.

There are obstacles to overcome, schooled as we are in bargain hunting. As we ponder the political, economic and human consequences of buying that tempting five-dollar t-shirt, we also should consider the fact that fine cloth is something of an endangered commodity. If we want to have it, we have to protect it.

And the return to natural fabrics and home sewing can be seen as more than a reaction to cheap, Pacific Rim-produced clothing that doesn't hold up. People crave beauty and value, and even (surprise, surprise) find meaning in tradition.

So,apparently, people are taking up sewing in droves, and with an eye for natural fabric. According to Mark Penn in his book, Microtrends, sales of sewing machines shot up after 9/11, part of the nesting instinct that followed the attacks. Young professionals are eagerly embracing sewing and knitting as creative outlets.

Jan Norris started her fabric store in 1978 as a source for natural cotton quilt fabrics. Frustrated by all the fabrics she couldn't find, she came to see her mission as preservation. She began acquiring beautiful pieces of cloth from all over the world.

People often ask her how she finds so many old pieces. But none of them actually are old - just similar to pieces you'd find 150 years ago.

Doll makers, historic re-enactors, fabric historians from old Deerfield and Plimoth Plantation are among her clientele. One Plimoth project used linen and silk from her stock to recreate a 1620's jacket from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It took 300 people 4000 hours to make and embellish it.

For my part, as I galumph into winter wearing my sensible boots and parka, I suppose it's only natural that my thoughts should stray to voile and velvet.

After all, beauty is always in season.