Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Meet Your Maker: A look inside Jena's studio

This weekend I bought a pair of jeans that sported a "made in the USA" tag.  Most likely, the denim pieces were cut in layers of plies by a mechanized laser cutter and the jeans sewn by a number of people on a factory line, each sewing a small part of the whole piece. One person makes the pocket, another installs a zipper, and yet another produces the hem. Fortunately, after trying on numerous brands, I found a pair of jeans that fit. I felt surprised. Usually, I can't find jeans that are sized appropriately for my skinny legs and wide hips. But customization isn't the nature of mass production. 

In my mind, one of the things that distinguishes mass produced garments from "hand crafted" is customization. When someone orders a garment from Ooh La Jena, they are asked for detailed body measurements - and the pattern is graded to fit the person perfectly. Grading to fit is a time consuming process. Not only am I tailoring the design for each unique body, but I cut and sew everything in my two room home studio. I use a pair of sharp shears to cut out one garment at a time. (Yes, that's right, one garment at a time.) Most garment manufacturers would gasp in horror at such "inefficiencies." Additionally, I sew each piece of the garment together, press the seams, and carefully inspect the finished garment for exquisite quality before I ship it.  

After selling nearly 400 customized pieces on my Etsy store, I have come to understand that no two bodies are the same, and that each garment is - and should be - uniquely personal. The best clothing fits like it was made for you. Mass produced garments, like the jeans I bought this weekend, are not tailored for the individual, but for the masses. That's why most of them don't fit. And good luck trying to see where they are made and who makes them. It often takes investigative reporting to figure that out. 

In the interest of highlighting the personal, human connection that hand crafted clothing offers, I invite you to an insider's view of Ooh La Jena's Philadelphia, PA studio.

1) The drafting table. So much happens on this 6'X4' space: pattern construction, laying out and cutting the fabric pieces, packaging, blogging and - yes - dining, chess playing and wine drinking. After all, this is a two room space and every inch of it is set up to be as efficient as possible.

The Hamilton Drafting Table (custom made for me by Artist Aaron Birk) shown here during pattern drafting session

2) The wall where I hang my instruments of pattern construction. It separates the living room/pattern making/cutting area from the kitchen.

Tools of the trade: hip curve, 4 foot straight edge,  french curve, L square rulers
3) The magical, monstrous Chinese wardrobe where Ooh La Jena's fabric is housed. Plastic storage containers would not do for this gal.

These shelves hold many yards of organic cotton, modal, and silk.  

4) The sewing station. This area has gone through several transformations. After I sold my industrial leather machine, I needed a sturdy table that could hold both machines with plenty of space for garment construction. Thanks to Artist Aaron Birk (who also makes graphic novels in addition to tables) for creating this sewing table and adding the leaf for extra work space!

I sew at a lovely bay window, resplendent with natural light. Lucky me :)

5) The super-disheveled thread box. Oh my.

It's a mess, but at least it's all in one place.

6) The seamstress' side table. I usually have an assortment of bobbins, pins, scissors and my pattern instruction booklet at the ready.

These little tools are right by my side as I work. 

Now you have something that most people don't; an insider's look into a custom clothier's studio. It's still clothing manufacturing but at a level that is more basic, more personal, and in my opinion, makes clothing that fits better than those that are mass produced.

There is a lot more that could be shown of Ooh La Jena's garment making process. We'll just save that for another post.