The Science of Wearable Art

If you don’t think nuclear physics and wearable art have anything in common, you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing the beautiful creations of our guest presenter for October, Eve Kovacs. Sadly, the many pictures I took of the beautiful samples Eve showed us disappeared when my camera and wallet were stolen while I was on my way home from the meeting. What wasn’t lost is the lasting impression Eve’s work and words had on all of us.

Eve’s day job is nuclear physicist. And she has won several awards for her wearable art. Given her background, it was not surprising to learn that Eve keeps notebooks with samples of techniques, her ideas and many variations that she tests out before deciding how she will execute each part of her designs. One example she showed us contained about two dozen versions of a single machine-embroidered rose using various combinations of thread colors until she achieved the effect she had in mind. She says her process is really quite similar to the process she uses as a scientist.

Eve’s comment resonated with me. I’m no scientist, but when you think about the process of designing and constructing a garment, experimentation is exactly what takes place. You start out with an idea that you think will turn out a certain way, and then you test it. Sometimes it comes out the way you think it will and other times it doesn’t. Maybe some tweaking is needed. Or maybe the project was ill-conceived and needs to be abandoned.

Eve acquires fabric in her travels around the world, and often finds herself needing more yardage for a project than she has of any single fabric. This is where the virtue of a consistent color palette becomes evident. She mixes fabrics from her stash, many of which are purples, and the end result is added interest that looks intentional. It’s nice to know that a predictable pattern of color choices can yield such beneficial results.

Eve said something else that has stuck with me. She was describing the steps in a sewing technique and when she reached the end, she stopped herself from saying that the result will be perfect. Instead, she said it would be nearly perfect, or as near to perfect as possible. Hearing those words from a woman who produces intricately-sewn and embroidered garments with painstaking attention to detail made me deliver a mental elbow to the ribs of my Inner Critic, the Paralyzing Perfectionist. How many nearly-finished garments have I abandoned or relegated to wearing only in the house because of what I see as a glaring imperfection? Too many to count.

Eve’s presentation made me renew my commitment to mastering individual sewing techniques by making samples before trying them out for the first time (or even the second or third time) in a garment. I’m in the process of preparing a notebook of these techniques to demonstrate at Sew Chicago meetings next year. Stay tuned for that.

Also, the parallels Eve draws between scientific experimentation and garment design and creation made me realize the time I spend visualizing how a garment will come together only goes so far. There is no substitute for actual experimentation. Yes, that means more muslins. In some cases, that means using a fabric with a similar weight and drape to the fashion fabric. It means time and–the hardest part for me–repetition. It’s fun to discover how a different presser foot can make it easier to achieve a certain effect, or learn shortcuts or find new products that help us improve on standard approaches, but none of that is a substitute for piercing fabric with needle or pressing it with heat and steam. Our hands need to develop sense memory. Our eyes need to learn how our projects should look at each stage of construction. I think that’s what it takes to create work we can be proud of.

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