Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bedskirt, pillow shams, pajamas...upcycled dance costume!

You can make something out of anything, and a somebody out of anyone. Start with that premise, and be amazed at how far you can go.

I started sewing my own Halloween costumes in 2000 for the company contest (which I won that year). From being a speechwriter I reinvented into a dance instructor in 2007, so in addition to the ghoulsfest, the annual dance showcase challenges me to stretch my resourcefulness. I am committed to reducing wasteful consumption by refashioning clothing. I come alive during the process of fleshing out a character through costuming and choreography. My twin passions intersect when I plan for each showcase. This year we documented the journey.

Paso doble costume for a male

Materials: Faux leather coat, bedskirt, two pillow shams (one with bullion fringe), belt buckle, satin polyester pajama top, pleated tweed skirt

I'm guessing the $5 faux leather coat had been someone's pirate costume. It had gaudy gold strips outlining the thick cuffs and collar, both of which I cut off to neutralize the pirate look. I had a vague idea to make a combination of Hugh Hefner's lounge robe and a ringmaster's waistcoat.

With a little trepidation I shortened the front to waist-length. I cut a swallowtail hem in the back and edged it with crinkled copper fabric from a bedskirt. Fortunately, the faux leather was supple and easy to pierce with a needle by hand.

Still unsure of how to complete the look, I went back to my favorite thrift store and roamed the aisles. Voila! I spotted paisley polyester pajamas, from which I harvested cuffs and collar, as well as a silky throw pillow sham with an exotic medallion design. That's the wine-colored square on the back of the leather jacket.

At this point it was starting to resemble my vision. But it needed some edge. I found a $2 pillow cover with fat gold fringe and cut two of its corners to serve as epaulets. Now it had a touch of the matador. I'd had a stretch belt with an ornate buckle tucked away in a drawer for a while. Its time had come. The buckle added substance to the epaulets.

So much focus was poured on the jacket, while the ascot was an afterthought. I'd seen a tattered lace ascot on etsy. That inspired me to quickly fashion one from the pleats of a $2 gray tweed mini skirt. It has a pin back to attach to the collar.

We planned the choreography to include my peeling the jacket off my partner and tossing it aside. It came off easily during practice, but at the performance I panicked momentarily when it wouldn't budge after the first tug. We had three seconds to accomplish the disrobe before the tempo changed and we commenced the next pattern of steps. Watching the video now, it took me just four seconds, but felt like quite a stretch of time.

Paso doble costume for a woman: For this project I pictured a blend of bawdy bordello/burlesque and dainty, demure coquetry. The most delicious decision was choosing the colors. The first piece I picked was the iridescent pink top that must have been part of a prom or bridesmaid gown. After that, everything else in my roomful of used clothes in any shade of pink or green clamored to be included.

Stripes were a must-have because they added punch to many of the boudoir-themed costumes I viewed online for inspiration. Lace alluded to peekaboo naughtiness. For extra glam, I purchased the handpainted lacy fringe and wide swath of beads on etsy, as nothing else at the thrift store thrilled me.

I accept any and all possibilities before I edit the pile on my dining room table. Sometimes adding one element opens up new forks in the road. I start new piles without putting away the previous piles. Tidying is antithetical to the flow! But perennial piles render sit-down dinners impossible. This is partly my strategy to get my husband to  take me out to dinner often : ) Today I had to throw down a comforter and some pillows on the floor of our family room/home gym to meet with an editing client, as nowhere else was uncluttered.

Step into my office

I usually perform two dances per showcase, each needing a costume with numerous parts. So I show up with carry-on luggage. One thing I've learned: Pack the pieces in the order they need to be put on. See that dark green lace cropped shirt on my table? I didn't get to wear it during the performance. I'd already donned the bustier, tightened the corset back, and chained the bustle's leather straps to my choker. The shirt was supposed to go under all that.

The skirt: The hardest part was settling on a design. I had intended to create a cage skirt but veered off in another direction. That often happens during my process. Sometimes I get stuck on the dizzying merry-go-round of options. I have to fling myself off, hit the ground hard and just pick one because I don't want to have to climb back on and resume spinning.

I wanted the skirt to be short enough to show off the garter belt snaps that I had intended to dangle from the "cage bars." Both the cage and the garter belt were eventually dropped from the plan when I realized it might be overkill to have more vertical lines on top of the striped hosiery. Overkill? Ya think? It seems moot to have worried about it now, looking at the finished product. Over the top, without apology.

For the top half of the skirt, I cannibalized a stretch pair of purple pinstriped pants. The chartreuse lower part of the skirt is a strip cut from a stretch shirt so huge I've used so much of it for other projects and still have lots left over. The pink lace hem is from a camisole so tight I resent anyone slender enough to fit it. : )

The bustle: The paso doble conveys the female dancer's imperious attitude with much swishing of the skirt. Since I'd be wearing a mini skirt, I needed something else to swish. The bustle met this need perfectly. I started with one of my earlier thrift store finds. It was a black skirt with a cascade of organdy ruffles topped with a satin waistband. As soon as I saw it, I knew I would find a use for it eventually.

Using an old leather belt, D rings from other old belts, grommets, and strips from the front of the faux leather coat, I made a harness for the bustle. I didn't want the shoulder straps to keep slipping off during the dance, so I added a strip of leather across the front, just under the bust. Then I took a chain from an old dress and used it to connect the back straps to my leather choker. I was so grateful that a fellow dancer was in the dressing room with me to help me dress.

The fabulous orchid is a scarf handmade by etsy felt artist evgene from Latvia. I basted it onto the bustle and will detach it to wear as originally intended when cooler weather comes. I can't wait! In the interest of full disclosure, this item was my splurge at around $80 (including shipping). There was no way I could make it myself, and it's something I'll be using season after season. All the materials for the male and female costumes each totalled under $20.

Since our choreography involved an over-revealing dip with high kicks, I wanted something under the skirt more unpredictable than black shorts. In my washing machine I dyed a new pair of knickers purple and gathered strips of nylon from a vintage nightgown to form ruffles along the bottom. Then I could kick without a care.

We performed the paso doble to "My Sharona" in front of a vocally appreciative audience of fellow dance lovers last summer. It's easy to see the transformative effect of costumes and confidence. It's what I love best about being a ballroom dance instructor: being instrumental in guiding a soul toward transcending perceived limits. It's also what I value most about the craft of upcycling: being a catalyst in the shift from the ordinary to the remarkable.

*Photography and art direction for costumed choreography poses courtesy of Heidi Gomez, You Can Dance Co.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The personal blogs I love and adore

What makes you listen to any blog above all the noise? For me, it's the voice. Whether it's a personal or professional blog, if the writing sounds like a real person talking, I'm in. And if that person sounds snarky-funny, all the better. In fact, if they're uh, funnarky, if you will, the post doesn't have to HAVE a point. Sometimes it's the stuff beside the point that's the best part (and compels me to comment).

I like picture blogs, too, but unless captioned with some insight, they leave me feeling like I just viewed an impersonal slideshow. I start thinking that the operator behind the scenes is just clicking on the Next button. Painless posting, I call it. So if you publish picture posts, please scrape off some of your sweet tortured soul and sprinkle it like chocolate shavings on a divine dessert. Thanks for the yummy.

In the blog world there's this phenomenon of passing awards. A bit more pleasant than passing out, and certainly more socially acceptable than passing gas. Early in my blogging year I received the Irresistibly Sweet Blog award from my My Niece the Novelist. (Thanks, Bubs!) Now those of you who know how this works know that you would then write a post mentioning the blogger who gave you the award, reveal a handful of things about yourself, then pass the award to five or so other blogs, with links so your readers can enjoy them, too. Except at the time, I was underexposed to the funnarkiness of the blog universe, and did not have a respectable list of irreverent blogs to share with you.

That has changed. Perfect timing, too, as the Liebster Award has been passed on to me by Michael Ann of Thinking In My Head (a preschool teacher who recently confessed to having a potty mouth). AND, the Versatile Blogger award came my way from Joy Page Manuel of Catharsis (a self-described astrophysicist, gazillionaire philanthropist and goddess). Thank you so much, Michael Ann and Joy!

Tadah! My scarcity days are over. Here's my list of funnarchists, chosen for having The Voice. I've taken the liberty of selecting a post from each that snagged my attention. This is how they do it at the Oscars, after all, which winners snag for a particular role.

Unmapped Country by Hope Perlman, who also goes by Ms.Hap
Great post about people who believe in us (known as loving mirrors and safe havens) and the role they play in our success. Even better, the accompanying black and white photo of a monkey in front of a mirror, grooming a unibrow and exhibiting other behavior to be expected of monkeys. This is characteristic of Hope's style: thought-provoking but never pedantic, thanks to lighthearted quips. Hope likes to refer to her readers as "my tens of readers." It's just a matter of time before tens turn into thousands.

We Find Ourselves Hilarious by Chris, nicknamed by a boss The Butcher
Chris holds an art degree and knits sock monkeys. "Quickly I realized that this monkey...had become a full-fledged obsession and a much more satisfying creative outlet than I’d had in years. I knew I was out of control when I was pouring over my daughter’s anatomy books to get the embroidery on the muscles just right." In Is it a Hobby or is it Art? she takes us through the thought process on inspiration, pricing, and legitimacy as an artist that many of us who make things with our hands experience.

Flailing Idiots by Aubrey Bemis
The 24-year-old (unless she's had a birthday and hasn't updated her profile) New Yorker describes her blog as "an inconsistent, unpredictable act of total online self indulgence." She isn't sure what to do with her master's degree in humanities and social thought. In Funeral: A Farce, she captures the delicate treatment of her sibling's transition from Nate to Elle, and her aunt's deadpan remark when the one of the pallbearers causes Grandma's coffin to tilt alarmingly to one side.

Filling in the Gaps by Myblik
I remember being 19, because that's when I gelled into who I am. So Myblik's posts as she "figures out how to be an adult" ring true for me. In How I loathe social networking sites (not the title, as there isn't one, but the opening line), she writes about the excruciating news she finds out on Facebook, which does nothing to diminish the already substantial contempt she has for it.

"Now I have to endure mind-numbingly dull status updates and photos of people trying to reassure the rest of the world they’re great and happy by offering us a forged window into their lives with their shameless self-propaganda."

Square Peg Nation by Clarity Collins
This metalsmith from North Carolina creates lusciously fluid jewelry and writes piercing, honest observations on life as the mother of a child with special needs. Special Needs Amnesty Day and If You Can't Beat 'em, Join 'em are two excellent examples. I reserve a special place in my heart for Clarity, as she was my first commenter who is not related to me, and we both have etsy shops with the word "Scrollwork" in the name. Plus, she and I both adore the wisteria in our yards, as we found out on Flickr.

Scratch and Peck by Lauren Scheuer
You know what I said about picture blogs? This one is storytelling at its most excellent. Lauren is an illustrator by trade and a chicken whisperer by avocation. Her blog instantly charms. You know how I found Scratch and Peck? I was doing research for my post, Do chickens deserve diapers? and other deep thoughts. By research, I mean I googled "Chicken couture" and randomly followed the links, one of which led me to Lauren's Chicken socks post. And thus I fell in love. Lauren is never snarky, so technically she's not a funnarchist, but hey, it's my list, and I say she stays on it!

There's a statistic out there that one of every six people blogs now. And only one of every three reads blogs. Not the ideal ratio of supply and demand. This is your assigned reading for the week, peeps, these blogs I recommend with full-on ardor. Which one struck a chord in you the most?

I know I'm supposed to list several things you don't yet know about me, per the rules when you receive a blog award. I'm breaking that rule right now. Let the focus be on the bloggers on the list! Besides, Mr. Scrollwork has come home, and our Friday night celebration begins with dinner out. Happy weekend, quirkistadors! I must remember to notify the awardees so they can pass on the awards, too. First, food.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

10 tips for newbie bloggers

Almost daily on etsy's forum you'll find requests for tips on blogging success. I've also been asked by several friends. Here's what I've learned in my first year of blogging:
  • Keep most of your posts between 400-800 words. If you find yourself getting long-winded, consider breaking it up into a series of several posts. This is how I did my posts on being a fool.
  • Use at least one photo per post. I've had triple the page views on my posts which are more of a photo essay. Readers flit. Attention span on the web is shorter even than your average TV viewer, but a WOW photo holds them for a few seconds longer and draws them in. Get familiar with for free photo enhancement.
  • Name your photos on your blog with SEO (search engine optimization) in mind. I've had people find my blog just from googling "kissing fish therapy," "hen fighter" and "crinkled shirt"—all of which, believe it or not, led them to photos I've used to accompany posts on kissing styles, feeling oddly ducky in a chicken world, and textile therapy trumping aromatherapy. So, yeah. Whatever works. I named the photo above "fairy butt." 
  • When you write your titles, hint at what's in it for the reader. For instance, rather than "Unfolding" for my last post, I titled it "You are a masterpiece unfolding." Which is not to say you can't talk about yourself, but you need to tie it in with your readers' experience and opinions.
  • Ask for comments at the end of every post—by posing a question. Comments are the currency of the blog world.
  • Visit loads of other blogs and leave comments/follow. Scratch their back, they'll scratch yours, and that's really the only way to begin to build a virtual community without celebrity status. The challenge is to find quality blogs in the niche similar to yours so that like attracts like. 
  • Syndicate your blog on NetworkedBlogs so it distributes on Facebook automatically. You can then send invites from NetworkedBlogs to all your FB friends to follow your blog.
  • Track your readership stats regularly. On blogspot's upper right corner, click "Design" then "Stats" on the next screen. See where your readers are coming from, what search terms they entered that made them stumble upon your blog, and which posts are your most popular. Let this inform your decisions about future posts.
  • The professional blogger sites I follow are and Cat's Eye Writer blog. I also follow (via Google Reader) scads of personal blogs that inspire, entertain, sharpen my writing/powers of observation, or provide an escape hatch.
I'm sure there will be more tips that will come to me after I hit Publish, but I will follow my own advice and keep this brief. Let me turn the floor over to you. Got something to share? If you're on Wordpress and would like to leave a tip for Wordpress users, be my guest!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

You are a masterpiece unfolding

Unfolding, originally uploaded by scrollwork.
Happy birthday, Scrollwork's blog. To commemorate your birth I am presently engaged in meaningful activity: swatting at house flies. Although I suspect these are actually field flies, as they are much more savvy about evasion.

We will put them to the test this evening when the hubby comes home. If he is able to flick them with his index finger, they're house flies. If not, they have come in from the fields of cow dung that dot the landscape around our lovely pastoral setting. In which case I must've missed the memo: The annual plague of flies is in town. Keep your jaws clamped and cover all the food.

So you turned a year old last August 18. Sorry I forgot. I'd been thinking you were born around the end of August. Some time today. Lucky I dismissed the advice from Judy at Cat's Eye Writer blog to take the archive off my home page. How else would I have checked?

But hey, I forgot the 26th anniversary of my immigration back in June, too. At least I'm consistent. Maybe a sign I'm less self-involved? I can only wish.

This is the part where I'm supposed to come up with a list of things I learned during my first year of blogging. That sounds like a lot of work, frankly.

How 'bout just one thing, and not necessarily about blogging, but about life? Blogging, life, who can tell the difference sometimes, you know? Absent from one, present in the other, to paraphrase Paul the apostle.

My friend, Randi, posted this quote on Facebook the other day:

"What would it be like if you lived each day, each breath, as a work in progress? Imagine that you are a masterpiece unfolding every second of every day, a work of art taking form with every breath." ~ Thomas Crum

To this, Randi added, "What a beautiful, open, and expressive way to live. This would surely take years of practice, but what an extraordinary accomplishment in the long run. This is the quality I see and feel from truly gifted people."

One of Randi's friends, with whom I am not acquainted, responded, "Beautiful but exhausting. I think sometimes we need to just 'be'." Does that sound like someone you know? Your own thoughts? Are you just barely getting to work on time after getting the kids out the door?

Randi then noted, "Ability to just be is sometimes a very hard place for those very driven gifted people to reach. So it all takes practice practice practice no matter what!"

Ever the contrarian, I weighed in.

"I am a masterpiece unfolding" sounds tranquil, not exhausting. It means to me that I feel no pressure to hasten God's work in me. Just being, I already please God because He gets all the praise for the hard work He is doing in me and through me. I am not driven to practice, only to manifest what my spirit urges.

This non-denominational opinion brought to you by Jiffy Peanut Butter."

I won't lie (I can't! I suck at it!) I'm not as Zen as that makes me sound. This unfolding thing, it looks less like the leisurely blooming of that agapanthus I documented in my front yard and more like the brittle, measured opening up of scales of my etsy-purchased cuff, above.

Sometimes it's scary. What if I unfold like an artichoke and get scraped across someone's teeth?

In the ideal unfolding scenario, we could all sit prettily on the window sill of life, strong as bronze (brass? I don't know the difference), glowing in the reflected wisdom of quotable quotes.

This is the tableau in my entryway, the face I aspire to always present to the world as it enters my domain. Now THAT's exhausting! It is the opposite of unfolding. It's staging. It's giving in and curling my hair, darkening my lashes and creaming up my face when I just want to show up happy, dammit.

In real life, this is my compromise: I unfold to my full length and breadth when the heat is on, when the sun is beating down on me and I need to muster all my strength. (Those of you in Canada and other cold climes can substitute "pouring rain" for sun; I'm in California's Central Valley, where we dry to a crisp in August.) Plus, look, this is a picture of a parasol, not an umbrella, for crying out loud.

When the test is over I tuck back into myself. Even a peacock knows how to do this.

Then it's time to go into seclusion.  Stop seeking approval, counsel, likes, attention, thumbs up. Check in with myself.

And dial up to my source.

I don't mean organized religion. I mean that direct line to the Almighty that every human being has, whether utilized or not.

And that's how the unfolding can continue. Some days I just manage to get by, tainted and imperfect.

But the potential is always there, always a possibility in waiting.

Are you getting by today, or unfolding toward the masterpiece you were meant to be?