Thursday, May 22, 2008

this is: trista of sugardale

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, I worked as a freelance entertainment writer. It's something I've wanted to get back to on my own terms, interviewing people and checking out places I personally find interesting. There's no better time than the present (actually, there's no other time than the present), so today I'm kicking off a series of interviews right here at Purly V. I'll occasionally be talking to sewists, knitters, artists, writers -- makers of all stripes -- about whatever there is to talk about.
My first interview, which I am thrilled to present, is with Trista Roland, of Sugardale clothing. I was eager to talk to Trista because she is the maker of the Completely Magnificent Dress, so named in this post by Erin of A Dress A Day, and so agreed upon by me.

Truly, it's one of the most beautifully sewed dresses I've ever seen, and the fit is superb. This dress hasn't left my mind since the day I saw it, and it incited a burst of questions to ask Trista about her sense of personal style, how she developed her sewing skills, and how she views the art of sewing in the digital age. Luckily, she agreed to an e-mail exchange.

Trista is 22, anachronistic, self-contained, bright, eclectic, and irreverent. What she isn't is easily categorized, PC, or one to let the world go by unexamined. She lives in San Diego, but is looking to move to New York City. Even though she's a contemporary, if you mention the name Christian Siriano to her, she probably won't know who you're talking about. (But she will know Snooks Eaglin.) For her, sewing is not the latest trend; it's a vital creative endeavor, and beyond that, a tool for personal expansion and a larger life.

Through this meaty interview in which there is talk of bound buttonholes, Prince, and the aesthetics of the human foot, you'll see what I mean.

Without further ado, this is, Trista of Sugardale.

Give us the basics. When did you learn to sew? Who taught you? Have you done formal training?

I took home economics my sophomore year of high school, and that was the first time I learned how to sew a commercial pattern. Before that I would always modify my clothes (cutting off lace, adding buttons, using my mom's machine to make other various improvements). I was never taught by anyone, besides my college teachers. My mom did show me how to thread a bobbin, and the basic operations of her machine, but when my interest in sewing started, she wasn't sewing anymore, as she had a full-time job and 5 kids.

When I moved out, the first thing I bought was a cheap Singer. (I have since upgraded; I now sew on a Bernina Activa 210, and I also have a Baby Lock serger.) Not long after that I went to Mesa College and took an apparel construction class, and loved it. The next semester I enrolled in pattern making, tailoring, and any other fashion classes I could get my hands on.

Where do you want to take your sewing/design work?

I am not quite sure where I want to take my design work yet. I know I don't just want to design, because I love the sewing part of the process. So for now, just custom work. Costume design is always in the back of my mind, but I don't quite know where to start, and I am not finished with school yet, and doing custom work has just started for me, so I want to see how that goes.

Must someone with your talent be subjected to a "day job" or do you make a living off sewing/design work?

I do have a day job; I work at a coffee shop. In my spare time I sew and design. Currently I am making a wedding dress for my first client. She is having a wedding at the beach and wanted a cute dress she could wear again. It is a pretty simple dress made of white cotton with blue trim.

The thing I notice most when looking at your work is that you're a stickler for fit and detail. What's the worst fitting garment you've ever made, and what did you learn from making it?

The suit I made for my pattern making class.

It turned out okay. I love the design, but making and fitting the pattern for this was a nightmare. I tried to draft my own slopers using my measurements and the directions in my pattern making book. Slopers are the first and most basic pattern sets you use to design. For example, one of the slopers is the single-dart bodice front, which has one waist dart. From this you can close the dart and move it somewhere else, cut it to the shoulder to make princess seams, add gathers. Whatever design elements you decide to do, you start with a sloper. Anyway, I could not get this thing right! So I finally reached a point where the basic pattern slopers were good enough, so I used one to make my final suit pattern. I had to continue because I had to make the whole outfit for an assignment whose deadline was quickly approaching. So, the skirt doesn't fit me at my waist, it sits about 1" lower. The jacket was too tight in the waist and bust, not tight enough right above my butt, but then got too tight again right on my butt. The sleeve caps don't have enough ease. Basically I can't breathe if I wear this thing. Luckily all of the fitting problems were so small, and almost unnoticeable (as long as I was really sucking it in), that it won first place in a category at the Mesa College Fashion Show. I later found out in my Pattern Making II class, from a different teacher that I liked so much better, that the directions in the book had to be wrong or there had to be a mistake somewhere, because even she couldn't draft slopers from those directions and she has been pattern making for 20+ years.

Mostly, I learned patience. I don't know how long I spent on making those patterns, or how many sample garments I went through trying to get them right, but I couldn't just give up. I also learned a lot from that design, which I think with improvement (yes, I am going to remake this thing someday) will be one of my favorite designs that I've made. Seeing the completed suit, some of the design elements don't quite match in my opinion. The skirt is great, and I wouldn't change anything about it design-wise. I would make the sleeve cuffs look just like the skirt, I would change the collar, and I would add pockets (I wanted to put pockets on this one, but I didn't have time).

This is Southern California, and we are mightily influenced by Hollywood, whether we want to admit it or not. Do you have a favorite costume designer? When I see your work, I can't help but be reminded of Edith Head.

Richard Hornung, mostly for the Coen Brothers movies he has designed for, such as Miller's Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Barton Fink (I am a big Coen Brothers fan). I also like Milena Canonero; she designed the costumes for The Godfather, Parts I, II, and III, also she did A Clockwork Orange, and more recently The Life Aquatic, and The Darjeeling Limited -- I’m also a huge Wes Anderson fan. Speaking of Wes Anderson, Karen Patch was the costume designer for The Royal Tennenbaums and Rushmore. I really love the green velvet suit/gold shirt and bow-tie/red beret/Rod Laver Adidas shoes ensemble that Max Fischer wears in Rushmore. I actually want to make that exact outfit someday and be Max Fischer for Halloween, and then just have a really cool suit to wear for the rest of the year. And I also have to add Colleen Atwood, with such films as Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Big Fish, Sweeny Todd, basically all the stuff she has done for Tim Burton I think is great.

You do custom work. If I walk into your studio and want a dress made, what in particular do you hope I don't ask for?

A prom dress, or wedding gown.* Yards and yards of silk/satin/tulle, that is only going to be worn once? No thanks. I didn't even go to my senior prom. I am guilty, however, of going to my junior prom, which I was totally against attending, until the guy I had a huge crush on asked me to go. So I borrowed a dress from a friend, and went to prom, where I mostly just sat around all night. Bleh, what a disappointment that was.

*I know I am making one right now, but I don't want to make one again. First of all I don't want custom wedding dresses to become "my thing," when I don't even believe in marriage. And when someone wants a wedding dress made it is basically want she wants, so my design kind of gets lost in the making. So this one is the first and last. Luckily, she did want something she can wear again, and liked my designs in the first place, so I don't feel completely lost.

Also anything 1980s.

You're drawn to vintage styles. So am I. So I get it. But there must be something outside the clothes that attracts you to that aesthetic. What is it about that period in American life, 1940s through the 1960s, that you feel we're missing today?

1) Good music. I really just can't get into any post 60s artist, besides Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., Leon Redbone, and Prince. Everything out there just completely lacks soul. Give me Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Billie Holiday, Snooks Eaglin, Sam Cooke…. Music like that just doesn't exist anymore.

2) Even good literature. I can't think of a contemporary author that I really like. (Well I really liked the Harry Potter series.)

3) And good art. I hate contemporary art, except for the very, very, few rare pieces.

It comes down to 4) Quality. I just think this current world is so washed out, pre-fabricated, mediocre, too money driven, too nice, too politically correct, too laid back, and too unchallenged. I think that technology (Internet) is to blame, which ironically, I think is one of the greatest achievements of our time. Because of Internet technology, everything just moves and processes so quickly. News can make it around the world in seconds. I mean, why spend this extra money on quality, when, tomorrow, something new already beats it, and everyone wants that?

Take fashion, for example. We can look at an entire decade, say the 50s, and the styles are roughly the same from 1950-1959. Look at 2000-2008, styles have changed dramatically because these style changes can be seen right away, and people must have the latest thing.

And unfortunately, I don't think there is an answer, and it is only going to get worse. We people who still respect true quality are an endangered species.

What are your favorite vintage clothing details?

Functionality. I love that things make sense, not only aesthetically, but functionally. Claire McCardell's designs are a great example. Another example is the buttonhole at the top of a man's lapel. That was there so men could button their jackets all the way up when it was a little cold. Today, the buttonhole is still there, but there is no button on the other lapel for buttoning. And most of the time, the buttonhole is just sewn on, and doesn't open. It has lost all of its purpose.

What famous person do you want to rip the clothes off and replace them with something way better looking?

Scarlett Johansson. First of all she is gorgeous, and in many of her photo shoots she looks great, but I have seen some pictures of her on the street wearing trendy (uninteresting) clothes. I am thinking man, she has been working with Woody Allen (one of my favorite directors), she was in Ghost World, all these things I think are cool, but it doesn't carry over into her fashion sense. Is she really just another trendy star?

If you could romp around in a pile of fabric in your birthday suit, what kind of fabric would it be?

Cotton. I just love it. It's easy to sew, it drapes well, it's natural, it feels good on the skin, you can iron it on the hottest setting with all sorts of steam (I really find enjoyment in ironing), it comes in all sorts of prints, colors, and weaves, it is easy to care for. It's some good stuff.

Would you ever apply for "Project Runway"?

No. I hate reality TV. I don't have cable, but I did catch a few minutes of it at my parents' house. It was terrible! In the part that I saw, the designers designed some skimpy outfits for these models that the models had to wear at some bar/party, and one of the models ripped her -- well it was basically a bathing suit -- and she didn't really care, and the designer that made it was so upset that she didn't care about the dress/beach wear, and it was cutting to all these other designers that were all whining about something... I had to turn it off before I vomited. I don't know exactly how the show works, but I did hear that one of their "design projects" was making an outfit for the latest fashion accessory craze: the dog. Man if I were on the show, I would have voted myself off! Dog is man's best friend, not a dress-up toy.

When it comes to sewing, pattern making, and designing, what would be the pinnacle of creation for you? In other words, is there anything that you have yet to try because of its level of difficulty?

Suits. Particularly a three-piece custom-tailored suit for a man. It is just going to be so hard, especially the pants. I have made two pairs of pants: one pair of plain black cotton cropped pants with no pockets for a fashion show, that I have thrown away due to ill fit, and a pair of jeans (for the same fashion show), which didn't fit my model very well, either. I am keeping those for reference and sentimental value only. So a pants suit will be a really good challenge.

Also fashion sketching. I am terrible at drawing anything! I really need to take a class and learn how to do it. I have never sketched anything out before I designed it, unless I was forced to for an assignment. I can take a design straight from my head to my machine, but I would like to have sketches. Also, if I am going to make it in the fashion/costume design world, I am going to have to know how to sketch.

Do you think Heidi Klum has any right to tell us how to dress?

No. Has she been telling us how to dress?

What do you think was lost in the sewing decline that followed the feminist movement?

What was lost and is still lost is a creative outlet. Fortunately, I was one of the lucky ones that had a sewing machine in the house growing up. I also took that home ec class in high school where we had to sew. I think those types of classes are disappearing, maybe not in small towns like the one in Kansas where I grew up, and where the class probably still exists. If those things weren't available to me then, maybe today I would be just another person who goes to work then comes home and watches TV.

Unfortunately, if kids don't see something in use, then their interest in that thing won't have a chance. And that just becomes one less thing for them to do other than things like drugs/alcohol/TV/video games/other completely unproductive, unimaginative things. I do enjoy a video game and a TV show (if I happen to have it on DVD) every once in a while, and that is fine, but when that becomes the only thing someone does, its pretty lame.

That is the only thing good about “Project Runway.” At least kids are exposed to that creative outlet. Then again, they are watching crappy reality TV. Hopefully everyone who watched that show turned it off, and went out and bought a sewing machine.

I read on your blog that you were a tomboy growing up. What sparked your love of the fabulous frock?

Growing up, I was always paired with my younger brother, as we were closer in age than I was to my two older sisters. So I always enjoyed "boy" things. I wanted to be like them, be tough like them, play in the dirt, catch bugs, play with them at recess, but still appear available, so I had to be somewhat feminine. I think I realized this at a very young age, because I remember always wanting to wear dresses in grade school (with shorts under them, of course, so I could climb the trees with the boys). I think "dressing up" has always just stuck with me, even though -- especially in high school -- I'd get questions like Why are you so dressed up? What's the occasion? Gah! I hated those questions. Then, of course, I really got into vintage clothing (and music and dancing) and if you like dresses in general, what's more remarkable than a 1950s dress?

How much do you love sewing? Like, if you were handless, would you find a way to sew with your feet? You know, like Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot?

Yeah, basically. Although, I would really have to come to terms with my feet. I just hate them. In fact, I hate all feet. I don't even own a pair of sandals because I don't want anyone looking at my abnormally wide feet, and ugly toes. And I try not to look at and/or touch other people's feet.

I'm a beginning sewer and I want to sew my first dress. Being a beginner means that mama will be using a pattern. What are three things I should be prepared to tackle in order to ensure good fit? (Because, generally, even good patterns call for adjustments.)

1) Make a muslin sample first. Make all necessary adjustments on the sample, and transfer them to the pattern.

2) If you haven't chosen a pattern, choose one with a full skirt that fits at the natural waist. That way you can concentrate on just fitting your torso. Then, you can add the hips for a future project.

3) And choose a pattern with princess seams. They are more difficult to sew than darts, but once you get the hang of them, they are great. And they will follow the contours of your body beautifully.

I'm adding a 4th:

4) IRON your seams! First press them how you sewed them, then press them open before crossing them with another seam. Ironing just makes your dress look so much better. If your dress looks like it was sewed up in three hours, then what does the fit really matter, right? Also a tailor's ham works really well for pressing curved seams, such as the princess seams that I suggested.

Do you personally have to make adjustments to commercial patterns, based on your shape?

I always have to adjust for my long torso, usually adding an inch to the bodice. Also, if I am making something that is fitted for the entire body (bust, waist, and hips) I usually have to let the pattern out for my hips and butt. And I usually have to shorten the hems on pants or skirts. I've got short little legs, and I don't like skirts that go too far below my knee. I have, by no means, "a standard body" as I am sure a lot of us don't, which is why I think making your own clothes or having them custom fitted is so much better than buying from stores, especially something you’re going to spend a lot of money on.

I get the idea you're not much into commercial patterns, but for those of us who are, do you have a favorite or least favorite brand?

I've only used a few commercial patters in my life. Because of all the adjusting that I must do, I like to just start from scratch. I did just get a bunch of mostly 50s patterns from a friend of my boyfriend's, and they are all my size! They are definitely not going to waste. Of those that I received, I am going to make this pattern first, with the same fabric, too.

It is just so cute! So, currently this one is my favorite.

On your custom work, do you earn what you feel is a fair amount of money based on the time and effort you put into it?

Actually, with this wedding dress that I a made, I don't think I got paid enough. It was my fault, though. I just undershot how much time I was going to spend on it with all the fittings, and pattern making, and fixing mistakes. When I make something for me, I let myself get away with a few mistakes, but when I am making something for someone else, I can't just let stuff go, it has really got to be perfect, no matter how much I am getting paid.

This wedding dress was a good learning experience for me, though, especially with regard to how much I should charge someone next time.

I'm thinking there are a lot of women who would like to dress in vintage styles but are daunted by what it takes to develop an overall "look." You pull it off flawlessly. What goes into creating a vintage look for you?

I just like to keep it simple and classy. Also, with the 50s-style dresses that I love most, I wear a petticoat underneath. It just helps pull off the style. I think maybe my cat-eye glasses help, too.

I think sometimes people try too hard, and get caught up in the "vintage look" when they really should be thinking about what actually looks good on them, and what they enjoy wearing. There is a vintage look for everyone out there, and not all vintage looks look good on everyone. I, for example, can't wear gathers from the shoulder or from the neck (the really 30s looks that I love). I don't have a big bust, and anything like that just looks big on me. I am not saying that you have to dress for your body type, but if you are going to be self-conscious about what you are wearing, then don't wear it.

Some people just stink with talent. Look at Joni Mitchell or Billy Dee Williams, who paint as well as they perform in their respective fields. Do you do anything else as well as you sew?

I'd say that sewing is it. I would like to think that with enough practice I could get really good at the clarinet and swing dancing. I haven't gone dancing in such a long time though. I really do spend most of my time designing, pattern making, and sewing. I need to free up some time for my other passions/hobbies.

How is your clarinet playing coming along?

Oh, it isn't really. I just bought Benny Goodman's Clarinet Method, and have been practicing my scales, and other technical things, but I don't practice nearly enough. I think that when my roommate gets his guitar, and I see him playing a lot, it will inspire me to do so, as well. We want to try and form a little jazz band with a friend who plays piano, and sings. We'll see…

You're invited to a once-in-a-lifetime, pee-your-pants-upon-getting-the-invitation affair. What do you make to wear?

I will wear a 3-piece brown/tan hounds tooth suit: The jacket will feature peak lapels, a breast pocket, in which will go a red silk pocket square, bound buttonholes, covered buttons, cream silk lining with red trim, and functional sleeve vents. The vest will be just like the jacket (you can't go too crazy with a vest). The pants will have a flat front, back welt pockets, and wide cuffs. I will wear a crisp, white, high-collared shirt with French cuffs, a red silk tie, and red patent-leather heels. I would also like to have a matching fedora (which I would have to get made. I wouldn't dream of making my own hat). I think that is it.

Why not a dress you ask? Well, I think that all the other women there would be wearing a dress. So a suit on a woman would stand out. Plus, I think that a tailored suit is a really impressive outfit. I would enjoy boasting about how I made it, how long it took me, and that I even made the tie.

Is the black polka dot dress featured on A Dress A Day (and pictured above) your favorite of all the things you've made? I hope so, ‘cause I love it. If not, what is your favorite?

It was until I made my latest dress. A pouffy white dress with black polka dots, and red trim.

I tend to like the latest thing I've made the most, probably because I just spent hours on it and feel really quite attached. We'll see if this one stays the favorite after the attachment phase.

Who's the most stylish person you've ever seen (living or dead)?

Prince. He can look cool in outfits that I don't even like.

And my roommates: my boyfriend Mikey, and my friend Joey. They just know how to dress. They are the kind of guys who wear suits, ties, fedoras, sweater vests, wingtip shoes, cuff links, pocket squares, bold colors, and for no special occasion. They are a couple of good finds, I must say.

Is there anything -- sublime, ridiculous, or in between -- that you would like to add?

I don't think so, unless any of my answers sparked new questions…

If Trista's answers sparked questions for you, or if you're interested in having her make you a fabulous frock, she can be contacted at

Thank you, Trista. It's been a blast.

Bernina Activa 210
More on slopers
Just who is Snooks Eaglin?
Edith Head
Max Fischer

(All images courtesy of Trista.)


Adrienne said...

What a great, great interview! Loved it!

Kristy said...

What an interesting interview! I love the newest dress.

Anonymous said...

That first polka dot dress is so freakin' cute. I wish I was skinny so I could make one just like it and look that good in it!

Orchidophile said...

Great interview! Informative.

cam90066 said...

As a seamstress/tailor of 40+ yrs...and former Fedora wearer!...AND former Minneapolitan (home of Prince!)... I loved the interview!!! Trista's details for the vested suit really speak to what I was attempting to do at the height of my creative sewing days (many years back). The interview reminded me of how wonderful it is to be so passionate about one's craft.

Anushka said...

an incredibly insightful and innovative interview, which has made me feel incredible lazy and forced me to get off the computer and finish off my current sewing projects :) i really, really enjoyed reading this.

knititch said...

great interview. and i just adore when people mention joni mitchell who is constantly playing on the stereo and who i actually saw at a gig in 82. now my 26 year old nephew has found her and i am so envious that she isn't new for me. it must be fab to have all that lovely music before you. and then she is very very beautiful.

Denise said...

Great interview, just the right length and detail. The links at the end were a nice addition.

Anonymous said...

What a graet inteview! Loved the questions! And this young lady is absolutely charming and thoughtful. She will have the world at her feet, if she doesn't already!

Anonymous said...

I love this interview and now I want to take a construction class. How can I fit that in with my rigorous gardening schedule?

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