This post first appeared in JP Loves Cotton, 12 Dec 2013
I’m not sure if she was insane, or simply eccentric. My friends who own the antique store didn’t seem alarmed at the lady holding up the camisole for inspection. Her accent was heavy – perhaps eastern European. And maybe the item of clothing was not strictly a camisole , but a light cotton shirt.
I could see from five feet away that the garment was ornately embroidered – and that it was all handwork. The lady said, “My mother made it for me forty years ago, but my own daughter is too large to wear it.” The antique dealer’s wife, the one that ran the bakery and coffee shop out of the back of the store looked interested.
The antique dealer shook his head. He offered thirty dollars. Without skipping a beat, the woman said, “fifty.” At this point, I’m thinking to myself that even at thirty, it was a bit of money for an old shirt. But then, all of that hand work.
They finally settled on forty dollars and a breakfast. I’ve had many a biscuit made in this shop, and I can tell you, the meal was worth it: also; all made by hand.
I can appreciate fine shirts as well as fine baked goods. At least the former can help me appear a bit thinner.
I own one bespoke shirt – a light blue cotton piece. I bought the right to the shirt at a charity auction for a hundred bucks, and then was told that I had “scored,” that the shirt was a bargain at five hundred dollars. After making an appointment, I had to travel to a brownstone building in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. I rang the bell, and was shown into a waiting area in a marble foyer, and then finally, to the penthouse fitting room.
I chose the fabric, the cut, the collar style, and even the cuff style. Later, after receiving the actual shirt, I showed it to a custom shirt maker down the street. “Absurd,” he declared. “That much hand work is just absurd. It could all be done with a machine much more quickly – much less expensively.”
When I have a special meeting, I wear the shirt as a sort of talisman meant to bring me all of the good luck of the universe. The good mojo of the universe is all drawn to the hand stitching; the gods and muses all must realize that such a shirt deserves their good favors.
How we’ve lost touch with our clothes. Even while ironing a shirt, my mind plays over the various parts, but most particularly on the shirt yoke – that bridge of cloth over the back shoulders of the shirt. I met a girl when I was a teenager who wouldn’t have anything to do with me. She was a good church-going girl, and she recited the line from Corinthians, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” Ironing the yoke of my shirt reminds me of that rejection each and every time.
The creation of clothes must have been an incredible task in the days before the industrial revolution. Combing cotton, the creation of thread and cloth, the tailoring of a shirt – how many hours went into any given piece of clothing? Handwork was unremarkable in a time when everything was done by hand. But how very valuable each and every piece of clothing must have been.
We live in a time where we are still privy to these little reminders – these bits of handmade clothing. We might hear a refrain from Summer Time – “the catfish are jumping, and the cotton is high,” and remember that cotton itself played a role in the American Civil War – that it was a key commodity in the world, and required great amounts of labor.
Today, when I went to the coffee shop, I noticed that the baker was wearing the shirt. This relic of a faraway trousseau was not only being worn, but appreciated – pointed out, felt between curious fingers. These cotton threads – not only between bits of cloth, but from another time and place.