Friday, August 5, 2011

Say hello to my little friend

Chapter 26
It seems like Summer is lasting forever; but in truth August is already here, and the end of the sweltering inferno is finally in sight. Before you know it, Autumn will be upon us, and we will turn our attention again to proper suits and sportcoats. We will lay aside our summer shirts for the year, and break out the tweed! Huzzah!

This is an ideal time to prepare for the cooler months, stock up on the heavier wear, and get your Fall clothes altered, if your clothes (or you!) have changed shape appreciably over the past year. But times are tough for everyone -- the recent recessionary economy and financial unpleasantness means not everyone can afford to buy new autumn suits, or take them to a tailor to get altered. If you can afford to hire a tailor, please do -- tailors need work like everyone else nowadays. But what if you just can't make ends meet as it is? New clothes are a luxury you can't afford if your business is tanking, or you've been downsized out of your position, or are a student, or simply hip-deep in debt.

Well, I'm going to help you out a bit here. Spread over the next several weeks, off and on, we're going to begin a new series of installments on how to buy on the cheap, tailor your suits yourself, look like you spent a lot more, and keep your bank account happy, all at the same time!

The solution for the cash-strapped gent that refuses to compromise his sartorial excellence is simplicity itself -- concentrate on the fit, first and foremost. In future weeks we'll delve into the wonderful world of secondhand shops -- a treasure trove of affordable castoffs, diamonds in the rough that, with a little polishing, can regain their luster. But how do we fine tune the fit of clothes that were made for (and worn by) others, without shelling out for a tailor's expertise? Elementary, my dear Watson: self-service. As with most things, spending less money means doing more of the work yourself. Doing simple alterations on your own can make a sizable improvement in the fit of your clothes, while maintaining the size of your bank account.

Sound daunting? Well, I won't lie -- it is. If you're not familiar with a needle and thread, there is a bit of a learning curve involved. But it's not insurmountable: by the time we're done, you'll be able, at least in theory, to go out, source an inexpensive but ill-fitting suit, tailor it yourself into something quite serviceable, and end up with a "new-to-you" outfit that will save you the heartbreak of parting with hundreds of your hard-won dollars.

It's difficult to do alterations on yourself, because you can't see what you are doing while you are actually wearing the stuff. What usually happens is a tiresome series of trial-and-error try-ons, over and over. It  would be so much easier to have a body double, someone who was built exactly like you are, so you can work on yourself from the outside, as it were...

Shay 'ello to my lil' frien'.
Well, it just so happens it is not at all difficult to make a perfect copy of yourself, a tailor's form, on which you can do all your alterations. It takes most of the time and guesswork out of the process of fitting, and the best thing is, you can make a tailor's form for almost nothing, in the space of a few hours, that will last for years, (or until you change shape.) It will require the use of an assistant for an hour or so, however.

You will need a sacrificial pair of boxer shorts and two tee-shirts, three or so rolls of duct tape, a sharp pair of heavy scissors, a few pounds of polyester fiberfil stuffing, and a can of expanding spray insulation. It's also useful to have several long cardboard tubes and a couple yards of heavyweight spandex-blend fabric. Most of this can be gotten from your local Big Box Store in the craft department. If you have a local fabric store, you can probably get the cardboard tubes for free (leftover cores from bolts of cloth,) as well as the spandex.

Begin by stripping down into boxers and tee-shirt. Cut the second tee-shirt cut into strips. The goal is to have all your bare skin covered from your neck just under your ears, to as far down your thigh as your fingertips can reach, and your shoulders. Use some duct tape to hold your tee-shirt to your boxers, and the strips around your neck and thighs.

Now comes the part where you need your assistant. Taking strips of duct tape, you will be wrapped tightly, neck-to-thigh. Yes, that's right. You are the "positive" of the form, and the duct tape will eventually form a rigid case around you. Work methodically, using two-foot strips or so, overlapping the width of each strip by half, and cover every inch of unexposed flesh, following all the contours of your body closely. You're basically making a torso mannequin of yourself. Start the first layer by wrapping horizontally, wrap the second layer at thirty degrees to the first, the third at sixty degrees, and the fourth vertically. Follow the contours of the body at the fifth layer. The duct tape will by now have built up into a surprisingly inflexible shell.

Some things to keep in mind as you are being wrapped:

Choose as your assistant someone who will take you seriously, and not think you have lost your marbles.

Stand naturally throughout the process. You don't wear a suit whilst standing at attention, so don't make the form standing at attention either. The more the form stands like you really do, the better.

As your chest is wrapped, take deep breaths and fill your lungs. You want your chest measurement to reflect your deepest breath.

Take care to follow all the compound curves closely, especially your collarbone, under your arms, and below your waist.

Toward the end of your mummification, as your mobility decreases, you will feel increasingly constricted, hot, and oddly claustrophobic. Stay calm, don't hyperventilate, and don't rush the process. The whole wrapping ordeal will take less than an hour.

After you are thoroughly wrapped, your assistant must cut the shell, and may have to assist you in removing it. Since your underclothes are now attached to the tape, you must emerge au naturel. Start the cut at the back of the neck and run straight down the spine, stopping at the small of the back. Pull the back open to the sides and forward, and work your arms out. With your upper torso free, slip the form down and step out of it. If the form is too tight to slip down, increase the cut at the small of the back incrementally.

The relative position of
the interior tubes
Now that your form is complete, it's time to solidify it. Using the cardboard tubes, or a suitable substitute, cut a length that will fit inside the form from shoulder to shoulder. Be accurate enough that the ends of the tube sit just where your shoulder-bone is; this will render the shoulder points completely incompressible and rigid, like your real body. Duct-tape the tube to the interior of the form at the shoulders.

And the position of the legs
Take two long lengths of tube, and run them up the legs of the form to the shoulder-tube, in the form of the Greek letter pi. Tape the leg tubes firmly to the shoulder tube. The end of the tubes should emerge from the bottom of the form where your actual thighbones would be. Cut the bottom of the tubes so that the form stands at the same height that you do. This makes the form very naturalistic to work on, and gives you the very handy ability to alter trousers as well as shirts and jackets.

Now, stuff the form with polyester fiberfil from the slit in the back, packing around the tubes and filling out the form until it is semi-firm. (It doesn't have to be rock-solid, because you aren't.) Close the back seam of the form. Since the form was made around you, it will be slightly larger in circumference. Check its dimensions by taking your chest and waist measurement, and comparing it with the form's. Overlap the back seam slightly until the two measurements are identical, mark the amount of overlap, trim the excess away, and tape the seam firmly shut with overlapping strips of tape.

Now you'll deal with the open ends of the neck, arms and legs. Cut small pieces of cardboard to plug the holes, and use the foam can's "straw" to squirt a little expanding foam behind them. It will seal the cardboard to the form, and make the ends of the limbs rigid. Go easy -- this stuff expands a great deal! If it leaks out around the edges of the cardboard, wait 'til it dries and it can be easily trimmed with a knife.

Next, do the form's hardpoints: using a small, sharp knife, cut tiny slits just big enough to insert the foam straw. The idea here is to make the form incompressible at the same places you are. Squirt a bit of foam under the tape at the hipbones, along the collarbone, and down the spine. Insert the straw fully along the tape, and slowly withdraw it as you inject the foam, to form an expanding bead. It doesn't take a lot: the foam will expand and adhere to the interior of the form, and after it fully cures in a day, it will make a noticeable difference in the form's rigidity at these points.

Detail of stitching

It is entirely possible to use the form with no further work at this point: but you will find it is very useful to be able to pin things to the form as you work, so it is a good idea to cover the entire form in fabric. Heavy spandex is ideal: its stretchy nature makes it perfect for covering the form's compound curves without wrinkling. Just cover one side, wrap it around as far as it will go, pull it tight, and tape it down; then cover the other side the same way. Where the two sides meet, draw the halves together with long stitches. When it's covered completely, edge-stitch the halves over top the long stitches.

I'm not going to go into how to do the hand-stitching here. There are many good instructional websites that are only a Google search away to get you started -- I'll proceed on the assumption you know how to do basic stitching, and if you don't, those other sites can teach you how to do them better than I can. It's a worthwhile skill for anyone to learn, who has even a passing interest in dressing well. We'll be using more hand stitching farther along, so it'd be good for you to get familiar with it.

Dressed and ready
for work
This little doppelgänger you've created will be an invaluable resource on your path to learning to alter and tailor your own wardrobe. It's possible to proceed without it, but the benefits of seeing your clothes fit on an "other you," and the relative ease of doing alterations, far outweigh the small outlay of time and money (and humility!) it will take to complete it.

In coming weeks, we'll take a closer look at practical alterations and tailoring. No, you probably won't get as proficient as a professional tailor, but the result of even minor alterations taken on your own can be a vast improvement over wearing ill-fitting garments -- and no amount of economic hardship should be an excuse for wearing sloppy clothes!

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  1. I absolutely love this site. I've only been reading it for two weeks, but I am ready to make a little friend of my own.

    I am extremely excited about mending my own raiment to get the best fit for my budget. I purchased a slew of new clothes for my new job and spent a small fortune, even at bargain box stores. I definitely know that I want to improve the fit on some of the shirts and trousers. And getting a nice suit on the cheap that may not quite fit, and take it in myself appeals to my sense of Frugality.

    These instructions seem pretty easy to follow, but I had one question, Mr. Thompson: What, with as much precision as you can must, did you mean by, "Follow the contours of the body at the fifth layer"? I would imagine that one would have already been doing so.

    Could you please shed some light? I am eager to start my form so I can start walking on that insouciant, sartorial path.

  2. Certainly! Looking back over the post, I see that I was a bit vague on that point, so here's some elaboration; (and I'll re-word the original post too, to be a little clearer.)

    The idea is to build up a shell that resists stretching or warping in any direction, while being as accurate as possible when following the compound curves. With duct tape, it's very hard to accomplish both these goals at the same time: if the tape is pulled firm enough to wrap around a curve without wrinkling, then it has a tendency to pull its tighter edge loose and curl it outward.

    So, on the inner layers, the tape strips are pulled firm, but the overlap between the strips is kept consistent: each strip overlaps its adjacent strip by half. This insures that the shell is solid, minimizing any propensity to form weak points that would cause a split. The specific angle between each layer is less important than simply insuring that every point is covered by a successive matrix of strips that each run in a different direction, which serves two purposes. It makes the form very solid, by resisting stretch in any direction; and each layer "locks down" the layer beneath it, preventing the aforementioned curl-over.

    The fifth layer is there to prevent the fourth from curling. Since the form is solid at this point, maintaining the overlap between strips isn't important, but minimizing the curl-over IS. So on layer five, the strips need to follow the curves WITHOUT stretching around them, so as not to curl over, and lock down the fourth layer. That's what I meant by "following the contours" in that regard: those strips need to lay smoothly along the major axis of the curves, this time without respect to parallelism or overlap, kind of like a topographic map.

    Hope this clarification helps! Good luck on your form, and congratulations on your journey to sartorial excellence!

  3. That, Mr. Thompson, sir, is exactly what I needed as clarification. I could not ken why the added layer after all the others, and had no thought to account for the deformation of the tape as it was wound around the contours. This way, with the fifth layer, you're leaving a smooth surface with which to cover in Spandex later on.

    Fantastic. I love the blog. I love the advice. And, even though it took me to the age of 34 (and the receipt of an offer for a new job) to get to this point, I am very much ready to Dress Like a Grown-Up.