Monday, May 21, 2012

Confessions of a modern seamstress

interview by Marika Azzopardi

Do you get glazed eyes from high street shopping that fruitlessly wastes your free afternoon, leaving you empty-handed? Finding the dream outfit can be hard for those whose figure is pretty straightforward, let alone for those whose physique is not your typical fashion-model thin.

That is when a girl starts thinking of alternatives - how about ferreting out a skilled dressmaker to create something truly ours, from head to toe? Meeting young Maria Muscat proves your good old-fashioned 'hajjata' does still exist, and this one comes with added flair. Here is what she says ...

When did you start sewing?
I’m 24 and I started taking sewing seriously (as opposed to just being in love with the idea) and attending pattern-making courses in my first year at Uni. I needed something more tangible to focus on outside of my course. I must have been 18 so that makes it 7 years give or take. 

What prompted you to start working as a seamstress or dressmaker?
I wanted to give it a go, it was a now or never kind of thing. Having spent a year teaching art in primary schools, I was pretty sure I’d do that for the rest of my life. I really enjoyed teaching. However, I kept cramming in sewing work which I always felt too tired to work on in the evenings. So I decided to just go for it last year, I gave up the security that comes with having a salary whilst I slowly started enjoying the perks of being my own boss which, by the way, requires a lot of discipline.

Why do people come to you?
They come to get something special done for themselves or else to purchase something particular for friends whose tastes they know inside out. I make made to measure clothing and I design shoes and bags and hats and accessories (the list goes on) so it’s safe to say that people often come for the whole experience. We sit down and talk about their needs and their ideas and then it’s up to me to come up with something that encapsulates all of that as well as push their boundaries, if only slightly. People need to feel safe but also expect to be surprised.
What is the characteristic of your work?
Much of my work is vintage inspired yet tailored to one’s needs. I try to bring up to date design elements from the past, make them more palatable for the uninitiated. My work is also detailed and favours the integration of other traditional craft elements like lace and embroidery. I’m all for luxury, in small statement-making doses.

Do you only do custom-made new clothing or do you also re-create old clothes? 
Yes, I often alter/up-do special pieces of clothing or accessories that carry sentimental value for their owner; I aim to create something even more special out of a well-loved object without destroying it’s essence. I can mend and decorate bags, I can turn a much used dress whose patterned material one has grown to love into a beg whose owner will take as much wear out of, I can up-do plain shoes that need that little bit of extra something; to a certain extent I give a second lease on life to objects that deserve it. 

Who are your typical clients?
I get a mixed clientele; from relatively young teens who have grown up in the ‘vintage-inspired’ fashion world of recent years to older ladies who are often bewildered at our nostalgia for the fashions from their teens. I also design and make wedding dresses and accessories for brides on the look out for something slightly more special than the off-the-rail or over-the-internet choices. But mainly women who miss the sentimental aspect that a tailored one-off dress brings with it. 

Which designer inspires you?
I, like many I am sure, have my own long list of favourite designers but my top 3 would have to be (at gun point): Paul Poiret, Madame Gres and Sorelle Fontana/Chanel/Callot Soeurs/ Madeleine Vionnet/ Fortuny …

Which era inspires you?
I am infatuated with the fashions from the beginning of the 20th century up to the 50s and (why not) even slightly beyond that. The first corset-less silhouettes remain amongst my favourites.

What skills do you have apart from sewing skills? 
I do embroidery and beading. I paint on some items when I feel it’s necessary and I also work with clay and copper to create my costume jewellery designs. I work with felt to make hats and fascinators and a while back I decided to take some informal training in shoe making as well. I often (if not always) feel the need to know what goes into making something before daring to design it.

How long does it take you to create a project?
Projects vary. Even similar dresses take different amounts of time. Making a dress requires time for consultation, choosing materials, drafting a pattern, cutting the material and then several fittings to ensure a flattering fit. A clay project on the other hand requires its own drying and firing time. Anything handmade and well-made requires its own time. 

Do you have a favourite time of day to work in and why?
I need the morning light for pattern making and cutting and stitching and the in-between time for answering e-mails and queries and fittings since clients often come for their fitting after work. The evening, I reserve for sketching and beading and embroidering. I like to close the day with something more creative that I can carry with me to the sofa. So I wouldn’t say I have a favourite time of day, just ideal times of day for different tasks.

What is your most useful piece of equipment & why?
I know it’s not at all romantic to say so, and that I should probably say it’s my sewing machine, but I think my laptop is the most useful piece of equipment. Perhaps I’m only saying this because I’d really like to get a new sewing machine and have been eying a sturdier specimen for a while now!

Your aspirations?
Is it ok to just hope, at this point, that I’ll be able to continue doing what I’m doing for years to come? I was never the type to aspire too highly and rather focus on achieving a little something definite every day. Of course, I’d love to have my own atelier. I already know what it’ll look like and I can assure you it’ll be a lovely place to work in and visit. However, it would be a pity to let my day dreaming interrupt my work at this crucial stage in my craft. I like to keep focused and realistic.

Is there a future for bespoke dressmaking?
I hope so. As I said, I plan to keep at this for quite a while. I sincerely believe that I’m part of a general revival. The proliferation of home based industries and the revival of an art/craft fair culture is a sure indication that the love for handmade work is back to stay. Or so I choose to believe.

Your most important project to date?
A 50s inspired cocktail length wedding dress, simply cut but heavily embroidered with the bride’s own favourite love quotes! It was also important as a project since it allowed me to collaborate with a friend for the first time. Many contender projects are in the pipeline so if you were to ask me the same question in a couple of weeks’ time I might have a different answer for you. 

What do you do to promote your work?
I use facebook a lot. I have my own page under the name of ‘Babettopolis’ where I upload photos of finished work as well as work in progress. I also have an accompanying blog ‘’ in which I post more generally about influences and the behind the scenes of projects I’m involved in like PATCHES the handmade market. That’s it really. That, and talking about what I do a lot, like I just did here.

The Malta Independent on Sunday [20th May 2012]

Thanks Marika!

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