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Author Lucy Adlington first read about the fashion salon at Auschwitz while researching the Nazis and the fashion industry. The idea of Jewish women, skilled seamstresses, forced to make clothing for the very people who were in fact killing them, has to be, as Ms. Adlington said in one of her recent online presentations, “one of the most grotesques anomalies ever.” She explains that she tried to find out more but only had nicknames for the women of the salon and she reached a dead-end. But her mind was whirling with what it must have been like working in the Auschwitz fashion salon. So she wrote a novel, The Red Ribbon (Hot Key Books). After the worldwide publication of her book in 2017, the emails started to arrive: My aunt was a dressmaker in the fashion salon at Auschwitz … my mother … my grandmother …

Connections were made, interviews happened, and Ms. Adlington was finally able to write the true story of Marta, Irene, Renee, Bracha, Katka, and Hunya; just six of the twenty-five women who created beautiful clothing for SS wives.

In The Dressmakers of Auschwitz: The True Story of the Women Who Sewed to Survive, Ms. Adlington weaves the stories of our heroines, some who knew each other before the war and all accomplished seamstresses (Marta was a master cutter and Hunya had once owned her own fashion salon) with the broader context of the war and more specifically the fashion industry just before and during the war.

The fashion salon at Auschwitz, called The Upper Tailoring Studio, was the idea of Hedwig Hoss, the camp commandant’s wife. She, like most other SS wives, appreciated fine clothing and that was something hard to come by at the time since the SS had completely decimated the fashion industry, largely run by Jewish people, in every country they occupied. Marta was the first seamstress to start making clothing for Hedwig and as other SS wives also wanted bespoke clothing, Marta insisted that she needed help and so one by one she was able to save twenty-five women from hard labor and probably death.

In telling this story, Ms. Adlington is also pointing out the value of clothing – clothing as identity, as historical documentation, as memento, as comfort. When people first arrived at Auschwitz, they were forced to strip down to nothing. Every last stitch of clothing removed and put into a big pile. The SS knew what they were doing – take away identity, take away the familiar, take away dignity. Most of the work at Auschwitz was hard manual labor, like tearing down brick buildings, but some of the work was less physical, yet no less harrowing. One of the jobs was to sort through the clothing of the newly arrived. Digging through coats, dresses, shoes, even undergarments of people who were likely dead. One young woman found clothing that had belonged to her sister.

So what was done with all this clothing? After it was sorted into categories, the SS wives chose what they wanted and sent the pieces to The Upper Tailoring Studio for alterations. Some of it was sent to Germany to be sold (sold!) while the more tattered items were moved to another camp where slave labor wove the fabric into rugs. Shoes were repaired, if necessary, and also sent on to Germany. (While many camp laborers had no shoes or wore wood clogs that didn’t fit.)

The Dressmakers of Auschwitz is full of disturbing facts like these I mention and for me it was slow going, as I just couldn’t take too much in one sitting. But I appreciate knowing the story of these remarkable, courageous women as well as the central role clothing had in the Holocaust. The photos of the six women throughout the book make the story less abstract and to see their pre-war smiling faces is heartwarming. There are also magazine adverts images to show what fashions Frau Hoss and her ilk would have requested.

Ms. Adlington has done an impressive job telling a complicated story. Can I say I enjoyed it? I don’t know that “enjoy” is the right word. I would say it was a difficult but fascinating read and anyone who is interested in fashion history will want this book in their library.

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nipar-bonnie-370wNot a believer in idle hands, my grandmother presented me with a small sewing box when I was nine years old. She taught me rudimentary hand stitching, cross-stitch, embroidery, and how to darn holes in socks. Soon, I was making clothing for my dolls out of her old aprons. A year later, she announced we would move on to the sewing machine. I felt a thrill of adventure as she pulled down the hideaway ladder in the upstairs hallway and we climbed to the attic sewing room, complete with a large cutting table, bins of fabric and patterns, and nestled close to a dormer window, an old Singer sewing machine with a knee pedal. This room became my haven growing up. My grandmother was the first person to recognize my passion for clothing and design, and foster my creativity. I will always be grateful to her for teaching me how to sew.

Bonnie Nipar, Hollywood costume designer.

Ms. Nipar shared her story with the recent edition of The Costume Designer (the official magazine of the Costume Designers Guild, Local 892). Her work can be seen on television shows Grace Under Fire, Dharma & Greg, and recently Are You There, Chelsea?

 

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IMG_20170325_143802082As many regular ODFL readers know, last year I embarked on a journey learning to sew. I took four classes and made a pair of pants, a knit dress, an a-line skirt and … ta da … a cape!

It’s not a superhero cape but, I am a superhero for finishing it!

Yikes what a challenge. I started the project in November and just now finished. Full disclosure – I had my seamstress do the buttonholes. But I cut and stitched (by machine and by hand) every inch of the rest of it and let me just say, it was a challenge.

There were some starts and stops, thanks to the holidays and winter maladies. As well as me just not wanting to work on it. I do think this project was cursed. Right from the start I had problems – cutting the fabric took me twice as long. (I like to blame Trump because I was so upset and distracted by his presidential win, I found it hard to concentrate.)

IMG_20161103_084014163The cape came about in the first place from my visit to the UK last fall. At  Cordings in London, I saw some lovely capes in tweed and got inspired. Convinced I could make my own, once I arrived home I found a Vogue pattern and brownish tweed in a lightweight wool.

IMG_20161209_133847477_HDRThe project offered several new tasks for me: lining, a collar, and buttonholes. Undaunted was I!

Turns out the collar was the easiest. The lining was a pain because I bought traditional lining fabric, which is nice now that it’s in, however, it slipped and slid and made sewing tricky.

What frightened me beyond reason was the buttonholes. I practiced over and over, getting the hang of it but also realizing that these holes had to be spot on or the cape would be ruined. Also, as my friend pointed out, home sewing machines don’t make very nice buttonholes. After many weeks of avoidance and lots of guilt-tripping myself I decided to let it go and contacted my seamstress.

She did the buttonholes (so nicely), I sewed on the buttons (vintage glass, BTW) and the cape made its debut on a Saturday evening out.

This was the hardest project so far and it feels like a big accomplishment, even though I outsourced the buttonholes.

Sometimes the lesson is: Call the seamstress!

 

 

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It’s free, it’s easy, it’s very informative, it’s a tour of Britex Fabrics! I recently took this tour and it was even better than I expected.

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Lizzie works on first floor of Britex and is your go-to gal for all things fancy and bridal.

Britex employee Lizzie, donning one of her own creations and with infectious enthusiasm, guided us through all four floors of exquisite wools, silks, velvet … you name it. As she pulled out particularly beautiful and unique bolts of fabric from the French Lace collection (usually sectioned off by a red velvet rope), Lizzie shared with us the history of the store which opened in San Francisco in 1952. Martin and Lucy Spector owned a fabric store in NYC but while visiting here on vacation the couple fell in love with our city and relocated themselves and their shop. Since then, Britex has become a local treasure attracting brides, designers, society ladies, and lovers of textiles.

Today Britex is run by the Spectors’ daughter Sharman, who travels the world looking for the best quality in fabrics for her customers: wool from Italy, lace from France, linen from Japan. Among the curated selection are fabrics used by designers such as Chanel and Gucci, unused bolts that may be a season or two old but just as beautiful.

Did you know that:

  • Lace from France is made with ancient machines?
  • Velvet has to be stored hung on tiny pin-like hooks so as not to crease and flatten the nap?
  • Every bolt of fabric on the shelves of Britex has been tested for its content?

I learned all that and more.

Britex Fabrics store tour happens every other Saturday, 11am (Next one is June 25th.) One full hour, questions are encouraged as is feeling the fabric, which, I warn you, can be addictive.

Reservations are a must: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/four-floors-of-fabulous-a-britex-fabrics-tour-tickets-23841887728

Britex Fabrics, 146 Geary St. SF.

 

 

 

 

 

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Make your own Mega-Hoodie designed by Emily Payne. Photo courtesy of The Sewing Room.

Make your own Mega-Hoodie designed by Emily Payne. Photo courtesy of The Sewing Room.

One of the many things I enjoy about attending Gatsby Summer Afternoon is all the creative and interesting people I meet. This year I crossed paths with Jennifer Serr when she and I stood next to each other on the dance floor waiting to parade for the costume contest. (Later we commiserated that neither of us made the first cut. Ha!)

But no matter, my prize was chatting with Jennifer who with her mother set up a charming picnic table for two. Turns out that Jennifer is an accomplished seamstress and proprietor of The Sewing Room in Alameda.

The Sewing Room offers sewing classes, camps, and workshops, particularly for kids, but for anyone new to sewing. Interested students can learn it all from how to use a machine to hand sewing to alterations to how to work with a pattern and much more.

There are also special workshops and one coming up on October 18, 2015 is The Mega-Hoodie Drape with Emily Payne, Project Runway Season 13 contestant. Students will drape and sew (time allowing) the best-selling Mega-Hoodie with fabric provided by Britex and with the guidance of Ms. Payne.

Jennifer says of the workshop, “Emily simplifies the process of fashion draping, allowing the student to access a system more often limited to those in the fashion industry. She is a gifted instructor and designer and is very excited to work with new students!”

What an opportunity to meet and work with Emily Payne and Jennifer Serr. The Sewing Room, 2434 Webb Ave, Alameda. October 18th, 2015, 1-4. Fee is $125 and includes fabric from Britex. Click here for more information.

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