Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mud cloth vest: How long did it take you?

Vest back
Vest front, collar turned down 

My latest wearable creation is a cross-cultural fusion, representing the global marketplace at its best.  I used the pattern for a traditional Tibetan panel coat from Folkwear, with the outside panels from handwoven mud cloth from Mali and commercial black linen fabric, which were then embellished with batik-dyed bone beads from Kenya and cowrie shells.  The vest is lined with a cotton print that has a hand-dyed look and cream-colored linen fabric.  The facings are in a wine-colored linen fabric.  I can see that this is yet another example of my penchant for wearing costumes

Back of vest, half-beaded. 
See the difference the beading made?
Vest front, half-beaded 
The beading made a huge difference in this piece. Before the shoulder pieces were beaded, the vest wasn't particularly flattering. The visual weight took the eye downward, toward the wider part of the panels. I tried out a couple of different fabrics for the shoulder pieces, but none of the colors looked right. (I don't have much in the way of earthtones in my fabric stash.) In the end, I went with a heavier-weight black fabric (cotton? silk? I'm not sure). This helped support the shoulder line of the garment, but didn't create much visual contrast with the rest of the vest. Once I sewed the bone beads and cowrie shells on the shoulder pieces, the shoulders gained greater visual weight and looked wider, creating more balance with the width of the bottom of the vest. I also like the way that the batik-dyed bone beads blur the line between the black and white spiral mud cloth piece and the shoulder piece.
Vest back, detail of beading

Vest, front left shoulder, detail of beading 

Vest, left side
I knew I wanted to put the spiral bone beads under the arm to connect with the spiral mud cloth fabric of the front panels.  I also wanted some more cowrie shells, and I figured putting them underneath the spiral beads would camouflage the slight puckering of the linen fabric underneath the shoulder accent piece.  This ended up becoming a line of cowrie shell and spiral bead fringe, which has a lovely movement and sound as the shells bump into each other.  As a happy coincidence, this creates a visual line at the waist, which is flattering, particularly in a loosely fitting garment like this.  Who knew? 

Armhole, beading detail

This vest is a great example of why I have trouble answering the question, "How long did it take you to make that?"  First of all, I don't keep track of my hours in any precise way when I am involved in a lengthy project.  Second, I tend to work on multiple projects simultaneously, and I may put aside one project for months (or even years) before getting back to it.  This tends to happen when I hit a snag in the design or construction process.  
Vest front, opened to show lining
I started making this vest a year ago.  It took me a day or two to cut out the pattern pieces; this process was complicated by the fact that I was trying to maximize the visual impact of the mud cloth design from three separate pieces of mud cloth.  There were a few places where the weave needed to be reinforced, so I backed those sections with a piece of cotton fabric, using fusible web. I also had a hard time finding a lining fabric, as I have little in my fabric collection that fits with the muted earthtones of the mudcloth, so there was some hunting and pondering time in there.  I don't remember how long it took me to sew the panels together, but I put in extra time serging the raw edges of the fabric to keep the handwoven fabric from raveling.  Unfortunately, just as I was serging the last seam on the lining, I ended up cutting into the fabric.  Argh!  This kind of snag is what usually makes me put the project aside until I feel ready to deal with it again. 

Closeup of patch on lining
What with my work schedule and other projects, I didn't get back to this vest until a month ago.  I've been on a mission to finish up my works-in-progress, so I pulled this project out as the next to be completed.  I decided to put a patch on the cut section of the lining fabric, so I had to hunt through my stash again to find a complementary fabric.  The cotton print with cowrie shells seemed perfect, so I fussy-cut a patch and fused it onto the lining, using a decorative stitch to anchor it.  It actually looked neat, kind of like a postage stamp or a designer label.  In fact, I liked it so much that I was sorry to see it partly covered by the facing.  It's nice when a mistake turns into a design feature. 

The next challenge was basting the outer layer and the lining together.  The outer layer had stretched quite a bit more than the lining, and I ended up basting, ripping out the basting, and re-basting, which took quite a bit of time as it was all done by hand.  Once that was fitted together, it was time to do the facings and the neckband, which I hand-basted, machine stitched, and then hand-tacked to the lining.  The facings and neckband alone took several days to complete, largely due to the hand-stitching.  It helped that we were snowed in, so I had a week to work on the vest (between bouts of shoveling snow, that is). 
Auditioning beads       
Then I auditioned various possible shoulder fabrics in between sewing cowrie shells by hand on the neckband.  I finally chose the black fabric and hand-stitched the shoulder pieces in place.  It was clear that it needed more beading, so I tried out various bead arrangements (more pondering time here).  After deciding on the bead design, it was just hours and hours (and hours!) of hand sewing the beads and then the whole garment was finally complete. 

I could, of course, try to estimate all the time involved in the design, construction, and embellishment of the vest.  But that isn't even the whole story.  Really, this vest began a decade ago, when I first had the idea of making a panel coat from mud cloth, and I began my search for the fabric and beads.  I got gorgeous pieces of mud cloth from African import stores in Georgetown and purchased bone beads in Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan (neighborhoods in Washington, DC).  I searched online for cowrie shells of the right size and color -- I only found the ones I used here quite recently.  Or maybe the story really began twenty years ago, when I made a Tibetan panel coat for my sister and dreamed of having one of my own (I probably should have kept that one and given her something she would have liked better -- I doubt she got much use out of it).  How do we count the hours of imagination and dreaming and looking for supplies?  

This is why I never know how to answer the question, "How long did it take you to make that?" except to say . . . "A long time."


  1. This is gorgeous, Zareen! I especially love that you talked about all the steps you went through to make this. I have been doing more embroidery of late but recognize that it would be fun to post the middle steps the way you have, such as, "I chose a medieval stitch here but then I realized why they only used it to save expensive thread -- it's a real drag to do it over and over again as a main stitch!"

    Thanks so much for posting your latest creation and also for talking about the process. :-)

  2. Thank you for the compliment, Christy. I'm glad you enjoyed the saga of its creation. I like to hear about the middle steps, as well, and it helps to keep a record of the process for future work.

    I've done some hand embroidery, but I've never heard of medieval stitch. I'll have to look that one up. My big revelation came from trying to fill a fairly large shape with a very time-consuming stitch -- boy, did I regret that choice.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I love seeing what people did during the Snowpocalypse!

    Can't wait to see you in this! Nice job!

    P.S. We have similar problems! There are some projects that who knows how long they've taken for me to complete! ;-p

  4. Thanks, Ladyaelfwynn! It was a treat to have a whole week of Snowmaggedon to work on the vest. Part of the reason I got to thinking about the time issue is trying to price my work for sale. At one point, I thought I might sell this vest, and I was trying to estimate the number of hours I had put into it. In the end, I figured that it would be a challenge to find someone willing to pay for the time I put into it, so it's a good thing I like wearing it. :) I think for personal projects, we often don't bother to keep track of the time invested. So when someone asks, how long did that take, what do you say?

  5. Your creations are marvelous!! I would proudly wear any of them, and appreciate your lengthy explanation of your process.

  6. Greetings Deborah,

    A beautiful wearable work of art. Learning of its process helps to understand the creative process.

    I have worked on a painting for almost three years and so understand the need to set a project aside until we are ready to move on to the next step.

    Thank you for sharing,

  7. Beautiful Deborah! What an accomplishment to spend so much time and have such a beautiful, ethnic object of wearable art to show for it. Not only is the design aspect well thought out and manipulated, but the construction appears to be extremely sound. That takes talent. So I can clearly see that you are an ARTIST as well as a crafts person.

  8. Wow, that's really cool! Do I recollect you making a statement to the effect that you were not an artist? Was that an unconscious cognitive thought?(hahaha) Your work is beautiful!

  9. Thanks to you all for the nice compliments!

    Kathy, there is no higher compliment in my book than being willing to wear the work with pride. Thank you.

    I'm glad to hear that other artists sometimes need that cogitation time, Egmont. I'd love to see your three-years-in-the-making painting!I always fear that if I put the project aside, I won't ever finish it. It's just too easy to move onto a new project. So I've been pushing myself to complete stalled projects.

    Thank you Pam and Stan! I appreciate the compliment of the artist label. Honestly, I usually identify as a craftsperson or an artisan, but that isn't to denigrate my work. I just recognize that my work doesn't always fit the "art" category easily: I use others' patterns, as I did here; I often don't have a strong meaning to convey with the work (other than "beautiful"); and most of my work is functional (e.g., wearable) rather than solely decorative or ornamental. So it just seems easier to identify as an artisan than an artist. Or, maybe I should just echo one of my friends, who says that he "makes stuff." ;)But I do appreciate the compliment, particularly on such a time-consuming piece of work. Thank you!

  10. That 'vest' is GORGEOUS!
    To answer the question, I would just say I worked on it for over x years once I got the idea. Then I searched for the fabrics, beads, shells, etc.
    I hate it when people ask me that question, because I take a LOT of time in conception and design.
    Your 'vest' is really a work of art. Thanks for showing all of the steps. If you hadn't shown the photo of the half emblished and the other half not, I would not as easily seen the BIG differenct that made. Congratulations on a marvelous project.
    Wishing you joy on your journey,

  11. Thank you, Ann, for the nice compliment! I know what you mean about spending time with the design and conception component, which is so important to the final piece. Most people only think of the construction part of the project.

    Thanks for stopping by and for participating in the discussion.

  12. This is BEAUTIFUl!. I used to make art wear back in the 'day' and have a special appreciation and fondness. Selling art wear is no easy task- no one would really buy it for you to actually get enough back in return.

  13. When people ask that question it's like they are "trying" to quantify the artistic process. The next question is often - what would it sell for? (see what I mean).

    I think an answer for them could be that it is has been a creative journey for you. That you have worked on it at different times and have not only time, but also have inspiration, heart and soul in it. It is wearable ART not just a vest. It IS very hard to quantify thinking/pondering time. That's why not everything we make has a price tag on it.

    Years ago I watched a documentary on Mi'maq and Maliseet artists Atlantic Canada. One fellow (I'm sorry I don't remember his name) said when asked how he reconciled making art with earning money from art "some things you make for the pocketbook, some things you make for the soul" For me it clarified the whole struggle earn money from art. I have things I design and make for sale - and I have things I make for the soul that are not sold regardless of $ offered. This garment is a "soul" garment when I look at it and hear the story.

    If you do want to sell it - it's a one of a kind garment - price it accordingly and then up the price. And DON'T APOLOGIZE or explain. The price is what it is. If someone wants it - they'll pay for it, no questions asked. I recently sold my most expensive piece of artwork on display at a sale. The person asked the price and said "I'll take it". Just like that. I use a $/square inch price for my work atm.

  14. This is a beautiful piece of art and you can wear it forever.

    I have pieces (clothing & jewelry from shows in the MD/DC area) that I'm still wearing, and receiving compliments, after 30 years. I rationalize--whatever the price, I divide by 50--$1,000 for a piece equals $20 per year. Enjoy your expensive vest!