Tagged: tailoring

Style Story: Angela & Made-to-Order by Mumbi

This I Wear | Angela + Made-to-Order by Mumbi

Welcome back from summer! We’re kicking off the season with a story from my friend Angela. After seeing her Facebook posts of the beautiful dresses she had made in Nairobi where she lives, I asked her if there was a story behind the dresses and, of course, there was. Angela and I met when I was her RA in her freshman year of college. It didn’t take long before I felt like she was a member of my family, but anyone who meets Angela could be similarly lucky. Angela happens to be open to the world in a way that I’ve rarely encountered and because of that, she has a way of making deep friendships wherever she goes. (Did I mention that she is also an award-winning jazz singer?). So from Angela, here’s the story of the dresses and how she came to make the switch from discount shopping to made-to-order clothing. – Rebecca

My 62-year-old mother is more stylish than I am. In primary school, I was known as “Gap Girl” because my mom bought all my clothes (from the sales rack) at Gap Kids. Somehow she managed to pull together a great wardrobe at a bargain price. By the time I was in high school, Mom had discovered discount stores like Ross. My family nicknamed her “Ross Pro” because she would dig through the store’s overwhelming clothes racks and always triumphantly pull out the best designer pieces going for about 10% of the original retail price. In short, I never had to shop for myself until college when I moved out of my parent’s house in Honolulu to Washington, DC. Even once I moved out, I barely found time to go shopping between studying, studying, and studying. My biggest clothes purchases still occurred when Mom was visiting and escorted me to Ross or her new favorite, Marshalls.

But after graduation, when I moved from Washington, DC to Nairobi, Kenya on a research fellowship, my shopping habits changed and I had to wean myself off of Mom’s help. No longer could she send me pieces from a recent snag at her discount favorites (Not only because it usually takes months or even a year to arrive, but the postal system in Nairobi also has a way of losing things…).

So when I first arrived in 2010, I checked out Nairobi’s shopping malls but quickly realized they are full of imported, over-priced and poor quality products from the Middle East and China. Next, I tried the second- and third-hand clothing markets. Those were better and reminded me a little of the discount store experience – digging through bins of clothes and never seeing the same thing twice. But eventually I tired of that too and resigned to wearing the same clothes until my annual trip home when Mom would take me shopping.

Fortunately, on one fateful day in March last year, my clothes shopping habits changed forever. I met Mumbi. Mumbi is a talkative, hard-working Kenyan lady always up for a design challenge. She’s probably in her late forties/early fifties with an energy and joy for her job that’s rare to find anywhere in the world. Mumbi has been in the same cozy studio for the past 30 years, tucked away on the fourth floor of an old building in Nairobi’s Central Business District in the bustling heart of the capital city.

I was first escorted to Mumbi’s studio by one of my AirBnB guests who loved fabric and had been recommended to Mumbi by the owner of a nearby fabric shop. “She’s really great!” my guest gushed. After previous lukewarm attempts to have clothes made by fundis (tailors), I was skeptical. “Alright, well, let’s try.” I acquiesced. Before we left, we sketched out some ideas. I look for inspiration online as I am not the kind of person who wakes up dreaming of the ideal dress I want. Then, we stopped at Biashara Street (Swahili for “Business Street”) where Indian-owned shops boasting all types of fabrics are conveniently located next to one another. After picking through vibrant shades of blues, greens, oranges, we settle on a few that fit our design ideas.

“I love a challenge,” Mumbi always tells me. Once I asked her why she didn’t save the drawings or photos of her past work in a portfolio so future clients could peruse through and choose what designs they wanted. “That’s boring! I never like doing the same design twice. I want to have new challenges,” she exclaimed. That’s why Mumbi and I get along, I guess – I keep her on her toes with my ‘new-fangled’ designs and Pinterest-inspired photos. My clothes hang next to children’s Dalmatian costumes, traditional African attire, curtains and pillowcases. I’ve learned to never be surprised at what I might find Mumbi working on when I visit her.

Mom still picks up clothes for me periodically, when she finds a deal is just too good to refuse. She saves them for me until my annual visit home to Hawaii. My husband is now also the lucky recipient of such clothing purchases by Mom and looks forward to her latest finds. That said, nowadays, it’s a reciprocal exchange: I also bring home custom-designed and tailor-made clothes by Mumbi (with some design input from yours truly), with love from Nairobi to Hawaii.

Angela Crandall Okune is making the jump from Nairobi back to the States to begin grad school. Follow her adventures on Twitter @Honoluluskye.

**If you are in Nairobi and need a new outfit, you can contact Mumbi directly at +254 724306117.

My Closet: The Emerald Skirt + Infinite Alterations

This I Wear | The Emerald Skirt + Infinite Alterations

When I was really little, my favorite color was supposedly pink. As my grandmother will tell you repeatedly, I was sort of aggressive about it, insisting that my cherub-faced little sister had to like blue as pink was off-limits. I have no idea when the transition occurred, but I remember loving blue as a kid, sticking with the cool hue for nearly everything I owned. But as of a few years ago, I subconsciously made the switch from blue to green. And I don’t just like green; I love green. Say what you will that I’ve been brainwashed by Pantone’s “Color of the Year” (Emerald for 2013) and Meryl Streep’s rant on cerulean in The Devil Wears Prada about how colors trickle down from a small group of industry leaders, but I think my choice to love green was my own.

In my green collection, I have an emerald-hued skirt, bought some unknown number of years ago for its gorgeous color, lightweight textured wool fabric, and quality construction. But as much as I loved the skirt, it didn’t quite suit me at first. The original longer length overwhelmed my petite stature; so after a few attempts at pulling it off as a knee-length skirt, I enlisted my personal seamstress, my mom, to chop a few inches off the bottom. Perfection…until I lost a little weight. Another visit home included some strategic re-positioning of buttons to take in the waist. Again, perfect…until I lost a few more pounds. But this time, I was already at home, having relocated closer to my family. So a short afternoon with my mom, and the skirt’s fit was perfect again (along with that of many other garments as well).

This skirt is perhaps my wardrobe’s best example of a piece evolving with me. It’s been through as many changes as I have; each new “alteration” was a trial-and-error process to find the “perfect” fit, only to realize that my needs and wants will always be evolving and so “perfect” is never permanent. Instead, the goal was to figure out how to make my clothes, and specifically this skirt, meet me where I was at that moment in my life, in my weight, and in my taste.

Right now, the skirt hugs in all the right places and draws me in with its vibrant color. But perhaps my favorite color will change again, or perhaps my body or style will first. At that point, I’ll be sad that I am no longer a short drive away from my mom or the rest of my family who have helped me in each of my life’s “alterations.” Instead, the skirt might be hemmed or re-sized by someone new, or maybe I’ll boldly take a stab at tailoring my own clothes. But one thing is for sure, this skirt isn’t done evolving, and I’m not done either. And as long as I don’t forget to remember how me (or this skirt) reached this moment today or that change is just part of the process, I think we’ll both be just fine.

Do you have a piece you’ve altered or changed many times? Comment below or tweet a photo to @ThisIWear #InfiniteAlterations to share your piece’s story.

The Monthly Mend: 3 tips for recognizing quality clothing

In this series, I’ll be featuring a new topic every few weeks on how to make better choices when shopping and how to take care of your favorite items once they find a home in your closet.

This I Wear: Stitching Samples

How do we shop? Each of us has different priorities, but I imagine that for the average shopper, it goes something like this: (1) a fabric or style catches your eye, (2) you look over the whole garment for cut, (3) you check the price tag, and if it has passed the test so far, (4) you try it on. For those of us without extensive garment construction knowledge, we just want it to feel good and fit our budget. But there are actually a few things you can look for in a garment to make sure you are heading home with something that will last, whether it is from the Gap or Bergdorf’s.

I’ve recruited our resident sewing guru, Lisa, to teach us how to look under the hood of a garment before we commit. So find your garment’s care label and follow Lisa’s tips:

1. The Fabric
Look for breathable long-lasting natural fabrics, such as cotton, wool, linen, and silk. Synthetic fabrics—polyester, nylon, acrylic, Spandex, and more—are less breathable. Often these fabrics simulate a natural fabric counterpart, but the quality and enjoyment of wearing is rarely the same. While Spandex is the necessary evil to getting my skinny jeans on, it can change the fabric’s overall quality and wear. Designer labels do slip in synthetic fabrics in some form in their collections, though I could argue that these synthetics are better quality that what you would find at a mass-market store. You as the consumer can tell by touch: the hand (meaning how it feels when you touch the fabric) is usually of higher quality. If you are still unsure, think about when you will be wearing the item. If you’re headed to an outdoor summer event, opt for cotton or linen rather than polyester to keep you cool. When purchasing a winter coat, an investment in 100% wool over acrylic is wise—wool is naturally water (and snow) resistant, great at regulating heat, and very durable.

2. The Details
What we don’t see is often more important than what we do see. The stitch length, thread quality, hem type, and seam finishing all come together to create a better garment. The better the details, the longer the manufacturer spent on that garment, raising its quality.

  • Stitches should be tight and close together for maximum durability; larger stitches are reserved for topstitching (the stitching you see on the outside of the garment). Thread should not be too thin or too shiny. Too shiny indicates 100% polyester or nylon thread, which can melt when ironed, particularly when the garment’s main content requires a higher iron heat than the synthetic thread.
  • Hem style depends on the type of garment. Casual pants usually have topstitched hems, but nicer pants and skirts should have invisible hems, which means you should not be able to see the stitching on the outside of the garment.
  • Look for shirts that have flat-felled or French seams. These seam finishes not only take longer to create, but they are also sewn 2 to 3 times, so that the seam is more highly reinforced. Check out A Fashionable Stitch for additional styles.
  • Finishing details are one of the simplest indicators. “X”-shaped tacks that keep slits in place show care for the garment. Same with stitches that hold pockets together. The manufacturer took the time to add these temporary stitches, so that pockets don’t stretch and slits don’t rip before they get to the consumer. Just make sure to remove these stitches when you get home! Using scissors to remove just the first stitch should make it easy to pull the remainder of the thread out by hand.

3. The Fit
Fit is vital to how we look and feel in our clothes. Many people go through life with ill-fitting clothing, not realizing that small alterations or trying a different brand that fits their body shape better could make a big difference in comfort and style. While sizing seems universal, every brand has its own exact size measurements, and this can vary by style. A woman’s size 6 in one store could be a size 4 or 8 in another. Use sizes as a starting point, but don’t rely on them to determine fit. Instead, look for key construction aspects to indicate fit:

  • Women should pay special attention to where darts (fabric tucks to shape the garment to the body’s curves) hit on their bodies: a bust dart should end close to, but not at, the apex of the bust.
  • Shoulder seams should hit at your shoulder, not below or above. (Note: I do confine that to traditional button front shirts and T-shirts, as different fashions of shirts may alter the shoulder seam placement.)

Utilizing the services of a tailor can also help with fit. If you find something you love but the fit is off, consider having it altered. I will say, having performed my fair share of surgery on garments, tailors are not miracle workers. There are things they cannot resolve, and good ones will tell you that before they accept your money. Better to return the item than to have a garment you can’t wear and have paid for twice. Quick tip—Tailoring doesn’t have to be expensive: the Japanese brand Uniqlo hems all pants bought in store for free, even for a cheap pair of jeans. Nordstrom offers free alterations on select full-priced merchandise. Make sure to ask about tailoring services when you’re shopping, especially if it is an investment piece.

Tweet your sewing questions to Lisa directly @lisammagee #themonthlymend. Photos by Lisa Magee.

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