- Deanna Isaacs
- Amy Taylor and a pair of underpants-in-progress
Yes, Donald Trump's in the driver's seat, and the world's careening like a bumper car from one potential disaster to another, but it's summer, glorious summer-time to turn our attention to something equally global in scope but more immediate and personal; something that is, in fact, at this exact moment, affecting you in a very intimate way.
It's not your cell phone.
I'm speaking here of underwear. Bloomers, boxers, tighty-whities, thongs—virtually nonexistent until the 18th century but ubiquitous now.
You're wearing, right? Then you ought to know about Lillstreet Art Center's five-week, Friday-night BYOB course, Sew Your Own Underwear, taught by self-proclaimed "underpants extraordinaire" Amy Taylor.
Sew Your Own Underwear
7/27-8/24: Fri 6:30-9:30 PM, Lillstreet Art Center, 4401 N. Ravenswood, 773-769-4226, lillstreet.com, $195, $190 members. The class will also be offered in the fall session, which starts Fri 9/14.
Taylor's an SAIC graduate and textile artist, practicing, she writes on her website, at "the intersection of art and science, as well as the female form." She also teaches dyeing and screen printing courses at Lillstreet Art Center and runs her own business, Ms. Amy Taylor, where she sells her handcrafted, Shibori-dyed cotton jersey underpants for a jaw-dropping $30 to $50 a pair.
- Amy Taylor
Which might be one reason why you or I—who can purchase a six-pack of Hanes hipsters online for $10.25 or splurge on a Victoria's Secret lace cheekini for $16.50—would shell out $195 ($190 for Lill Street members) to take her five-week course and learn how to make our own lifetime supply of something more special.
That's not the answer that sprang to Taylor's lips, however, when I asked her why anyone would pay so much for underpants or take the time to make their own.
People who buy them, she said, are supporting a local female-run business with an environmentally friendly product free of toxic dyes and made to last. They're opting out of the fast-fashion industry, where bargain prices depend on exploited labor in other parts of the world.
But people who take the class often tell her something simpler and deeper: "They've just had a desire to sew their own underwear for a long time," she said. "I get that response a lot. And it's specifically underwear that they want to make."
Besides fulfilling this instinctive urge to stitch your own dainties, underwear has another advantage: "It's really accessible," Taylor said. "You can put together a pair pretty quickly once you get the hang of it. And this class is a great way to learn some higher-level sewing skills: how to work with stretch fabrics, how to thread and sew with a serger."
If you've never come face-to-face with a serger, I can tell you that it's an intimidating brute of a machine, topped by four large cone-shaped thread spools and armed with a lightning-fast, razor-edged automatic fabric slicer. It does a great job on fabrics like the stretchy 90 to 95 percent cotton jersey that Taylor uses, but it's part of the reason that you need a few notches on your sewing belt before enrolling in this class.
The prerequisites for Sew Your Own Underwear are two lower-level sewing classes at Lillstreet or equivalent experience. If you're able to thread a home sewing machine and have used it for anything more complicated than a hem, you'll qualify. In any case, not to worry: "Everyone comes in with different levels of experience," said Taylor, who as recently as 2011 was a sewing newbie at Lillstreet herself.
Taylor provides the fabric for the first pair of underpants students make; after that, they can bring in their own material (which, I'm guessing, would generally be the point). She offers three basic patterns: bikini cut, hip hugger, and briefs (men are welcome and have enrolled). And if you've got a pair of undies you particularly like, she can show you how to re-create them.
I trekked up to Lillstreet's third-floor sewing room to meet with Taylor, and she whipped up a bikini cut as we talked, laying a butcher-paper pattern on a scrap of purple-and-gray striped fabric, holding it down with pattern weights, and carving the shapes with a rotary cutter.
If you're female, the undies you're wearing almost certainly consist of just three main pieces: a front, a back, and a liner for the all-important and somewhat tricky crotch. (Underwear's almost the only garment I can think of that's more complicated if you're male: the briefs require six pattern parts and the use of bias tape.)
- Amy Taylor
Threading a serger means mastering a maze of hooks and loops before applying some old-fashioned spit, but the rest of the project—at least in Taylor's hands—is a whiz: the right side of the liner gets stitched to the wrong side of the back; the liner's side edges get serged to the front; picot elastic, lightly stretched, is zigzag stitched along the leg openings. Then one side seam is serged, a lacy white elastic band is stitched to the waist, the second side seam is serged, and presto!—you've got underpants.
As for a tiny glitch on the back end of the liner? "If anyone's critiquing the stitching on your underwear while you're wearing it, they're focusing on the wrong thing," Taylor said.
Dutiful about research, I took that spiffy purple-and-gray bikini home and wore it the next day. I'm happy to report that it's most comfortable pair of undies I've ever had, almost as good as not wearing any.
I don't think Taylor wants it back. v