Material Girl

The Calico Toile

Sometimes it is not until something beautiful or revolutionary is delivered unto our consciousness, born from the commonplace, that we will appreciate what can be forged from a raw substance or material. Our instincts may remain muted, our intuition nestled in shadow whilst our daily lives are crosshatched with routine. Though our ability to detect potential and produce ideas may often lay dormant, there is little doubt that with the right stimulus, knowledge and skill, even the smallest idea may be brought to fruition. Freeing these ideas from our brains and watching others do so is like observing butterflies flutter from the cocoon, riding the breeze for the first time. Creativity is a form of liberation.

It might seem a little incongruous then, that I should then turn to the material calico as my particular source of freedom. Shouldn't I be contemplating jeans or the push-up bra to highlight the brilliancy of modern inventions and their emancipatory effects? Not necessarily so. Calico is a material used for constructing a toile; a prototype of a handmade garment in the art of dressmaking. It is raw, unyielding and holds an inherent beauty in its plain weft and weave. Most importantly it is impressionable; perfect for moulding, dying and scribbling on. It is an integral part of a creative design process and stimulates my obsession with bringing just a little more beauty into the world.

On a personal level, calico bears holds many different threads of significance. It is the means by which my mother was able to start her fashion emporium; her boutique Calico Casa, when she was twenty years old. Calico enabled her to hone her bespoke tailoring abilities; it was the means by which to produce 'first-drafts' of numerous silken creations. It was and still remains a trusted companion; for if a prototype fits in calico, you can be sure it will fit in pretty much any fabric you can possible imagine. It is partly the reason that I am able to sew; and furthermore give life and body to ideas that would otherwise be destined to lie silently in the damp recesses of my mind.

When I was but a little chocolate haired child watching my mother sew, I understandably could never grasp the importance of this hallowed fabric. But it is with the addition of wisdom, passion and skill that something so seemingly inconsequential such as calico can suddenly reveal the most amazing metamorphic capacities. By absorbing my mother's instruction and knowledge, I was able to produce tailored garments. I began to view the human form through a new analytical lens. I learnt how to flatter different forms, conceal bodily quirks; in essence, how to tailor to an individual frame. In a miraculous Copernican shift I saw when I worked alongside my mother that we were not simply producing garments for a body; rather, the body was inspiring and governing what we made. The seamless undulations of a slender waist, the majesty of the shoulder blades, even the delicate ridges of the ankle could fuse together in synergy with our creativity and of course, calico threads.

Though they might be unaware, I have watched calico impact upon many people's lives in my lifetime. This modest, creamy material permits designs once conceived in the imagination to become airborne. But these designs have to start somewhere. It is so easy to be swept along on the conveyor belt of fast fashion where all one ever witnesses are finished products hanging uniformly on silver rails. We may never know a shred of information about how that piece came into being. Fashion gives people the opportunity to live their lives in a majestic art form, which is wonderful. Though I like to view life from the seamy side, so to speak, and often ruminate on how a particular garment may have been constructed. We use and wear other people's creations everyday; but I think the mentality that we too possess the ability to think creatively and produce innovative designs is somewhat lacking in today's society. We don't have to aim for world domination with design either; but as Theodore Levitt once succinctly professed "ideas are useless unless used".  

The toile that I am showcasing here is part of a bespoke wedding dress I helped my mother design and produce. The bodice was panelled and boned (notoriously tricky) with decorative piping and hand turned loops and buttons; a nod to our individual sewing style. I think it is always important to show the real interior of a garment and how it has been produced. These stitches, seams, pintucks and pleats are all aspects that need to be duly observed just as a cartographer identifies hills and valleys on a map; and to some, hold infinitely more beauty than the perfect flesh of a garment itself.

The bride was married on a sunny September afternoon and the dress has been spirited away to sunnier climes. The toile remained hidden, until one rainy afternoon this summer I plundered a drawer in my mother's workshop full of old patterns and prototypes, and decided that the toile deserved to see the light of day once more. This is just one footprint; or more suitably, handprint in a trail of creativity I hope to showcase on my blog in due course.