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Q&A with Jamie Lau, author of BurdaStyle Sewing Vintage Modern

Jamie Lau at Britex Fabrics for book launch party (photo by Sarah Deragon)

Jamie Lau at Britex Fabrics for book launch party (photo by Sarah Deragon)

Fashion designer, sewing instructor, and BurdaStyle editorial and e-commerce manager, Jamie Lau is also the author of the new book BurdaStyle Sewing Vintage Modern: Mastering Iconic Looks from the 1920s to 1980s (Potter Craft). The book includes five master patterns from which you can create 19 different garments – including several dresses, tops, and two pairs of pants – that evoke the various styles of the decades. There are even a couple patterns for men.

From what I’ve flipped through so far, the book has very clear step-by-step instructions and plenty of nice technical illustrations to go along with nearly every step. After I’ve spent more time with it and made at least one garment, I’ll write about it in a separate post. BurdaStyle Sewing Vintage Modern book cover

Jamie, who’s based in Brooklyn, was in San Francisco last month for the Renegade Craft Fair and to attend the book launch party for Sewing Vintage Modern at Britex Fabrics (she also visited her family). While she was in town, she graciously agreed to meet with me at a cafe to discuss her book and her sewing experience. We chatted for nearly an hour so I’m breaking up the interview into two parts. This article will focus on the book and next week’s post will reveal how Jamie went from working full-time as a senior research analyst for the judicial branch in California to her fashion career in New York. –Chuleenan Svetvilas

Chuleenan Svetvilas: I noticed that you wore many hats for this book – co-author, lead designer, technical writer, art director -

Jamie Lau: Photo shoot producer. [Laughs]

CS: So can you tell me a little about each of those roles as you were putting the book together, how that worked out?

JL: Sure – starting with project manager, it was kind of like assembling your crew. We didn’t have a very large budget to work with, so a lot of my previous job experience came in handy. I had experience doing contract negotiations, understanding contracts and business, how to hire people, how to interview people and build a project management chart for a timeline and goals…

I was doing everything from finding a fashion illustrator, a technical illustrator, to handling the budget. It was like, “OK, this is how much we have left in the budget so let’s find a fabric partner to work with. B&J Fabrics, which is also very amazing just like Britex [Fabrics], was the primary fabric sponsor we worked with.

Jamie at the book launch party at Britex Fabrics in San Francisco (photo by Chuleenan Svetvilas)

Jamie at the book launch party at Britex Fabrics in San Francisco (photo by Chuleenan Svetvilas)

Sure – starting with project manager, it was kind of like assembling your crew. We didn’t have a very large budget to work with, so a lot of my previous job experience came in handy. I had experience doing contract negotiations, understanding contracts and business, how to hire people, how to interview people and build a project management chart for a timeline and goals…

I was doing everything from finding a fashion illustrator, a technical illustrator, to handling the budget. It was like, “OK, this is how much we have left in the budget so let’s find a fabric partner to work with. B&J Fabrics, which is also very amazing just like Britex [Fabrics], was the primary fabric sponsor we worked with.

As lead designer, a lot of my job was doing the research on what styles to include, so I spent a lot of time at the public library looking at image archives. They have stuff on everything including pets, airplanes and transportation, and then there are costumes. The costumes are broken into different time periods. What I liked best about it was that the collection didn’t only include couture fashions. There were actually a lot of clippings from old magazines and catalogs, so it gave a more realistic view of what people wore on a day-to-day basis. It wasn’t just editorial, it was also everyday wear.

I also looked at old patterns. Most vintage patterns featured fashion illustrations on the cover – no photography – and they mainly included flats, so you could really see the garment details. A lot of my design process was spent gathering information and editing what looks would fill up this book and what was the best of the best from these different time periods.

From there I then had to consider what would be the five patterns that come with the book. What five garments can give us another garment? That was the major challenge because we can want all these things like a cool asymmetrical blazer dress for the ‘80s. But you also have to think about which pattern will it come from and how much work will the reader have to do to change that from point A to point B.

CS: That’s how you eliminated some designs as well, right?

'50s dress from BurdaStyle Sewing Vintage Modern on display at the book launch party at Britex Fabrics in San Francisco (photo by Chuleenan Svetvilas)

’50s dress from BurdaStyle Sewing Vintage Modern at the book launch party at Britex Fabrics in San Francisco (photo by Chuleenan Svetvilas)

JL: Yes. And I did a survey [of BurdaStyle members] for this book to find out what time periods people were most interested in and what garment types people were most likely to sew. Dresses and tops were the top two answers. Then we also asked, “Are you interested in men’s projects?” because we have male sewers on the site, too. We also have women who sew men’s garments, so we didn’t want to exclude that population.

The first BurdaStyle book [The BurdaStyle Sewing Handbook] didn’t have any men’s projects. It had a unisex bag. So the results from the survey also informed the final decision. I also looked at member projects because there’s new content every day that’s posted on BurdaStyle. I looked at what patterns people were buying, too. Dresses, of course, are super popular.

Then it was on to level of difficulty and having a good range of things. A shift dress is great. I use a lot of shift dresses in my collection. I think it’s comfortable and easy to sew and you can wear it all year round in different fabric ways. So I was looking at different [skill] levels, but I also didn’t want to alienate people who are experienced sewers with excellent tailoring skills who may want a challenge.

CS: Did you pick all the fabrics of all the garments?

JL: Yes. David Leon Morgan assisted with some of the male designs, too. He used to be BurdaStyle’s community manager. I primarily worked on the looks from the ’20s to the ’60s and ‘80s and focused a lot on the dresses. This was the fun part. And then there was the photo shoot, and I held model castings with many different agencies.

We looked for diversity in body types and were looking for “real” people. We also had a girl who was a fuller model. Model casting took a really long time in order to get the look we were going for. We also wanted to find someone who had a good personality to work with.

Jackie Dress from BurdaStyle Sewing Vintage Modern (photo by Chuleenan Svetvilas)

Jackie Dress from BurdaStyle Sewing Vintage Modern (photo by Chuleenan Svetvilas)

CS: And then you had to make the clothes to fit the models.

JL: Right. We had a sample maker help us who had worked with BurdaStyle before. She’s an experienced seamstress who’s very talented. Getting the fabric and sample garments done was the fun part about working on the book and I really wanted to have a good photo shoot. And then came the writing of the book…

I had already drafted some of the sewing and patternmaking instructions by the time of the photo shoot, but there was so much emphasis on getting the photo shoot done by deadline that it was really hard to do all of these tasks at the same time. Once the shoot was finished, I was finally able to focus on the instructions again. And I’m very detailed oriented, so I was checking everything down to what direction people needed to press.

Our technical illustrator, Rachel Rymar, is amazing. She and I worked very closely together and she was with me until the very end. The writing of the instructions was extremely laborious, and there were certain points in the process where I just felt so alone. We checked everything together closely, like if an illustration had to be serged because the garment was already serged in a previous step. There had to be consistency and I had a lot of project management experience from other jobs and was accustomed to being detailed and analytical, so I was noticing everything.

I decided to add more technical illustrations compared to the first book because a beginner, for instance, may not even know what a certain term is when reading the written description. I think it’s important not to intimidate the reader. So I wanted more pictures, more visuals.

We also had a fashion illustrator, Sarah Jung. We were brainstorming some initial ideas around the time of the photo shoot. I made a lot of mood boards in the beginning, too, as part of the lead designer role. I wanted to give her a feel for the mood of the book so we could really nail down the right illustration style.

CS: So what was the biggest challenge in putting the book together?

A spread from BurdaStyle Sewing Vintage Modern (photo by Chuleenan Svetvilas)

A spread from BurdaStyle Sewing Vintage Modern (photo by Chuleenan Svetvilas)

JL: I held all the responsibilities and oftentimes felt like I was being tugged in multiple directions for various tasks though I’m only one person. I honestly think the hardest part was writing the instructions. The creative fun stuff happened early on in the process (picking the fabric, selecting the designs, and producing the photo shoot). But no one can make a project unless there’s a good set of instructions. It was getting that part down and perfect and making sure that things were consistent throughout the book. For instance, if I’m saying you sew a zipper one way that it’s the same in another chapter.

CS: Do you think that this book would be good for people who have never drafted a pattern themselves? You’re giving people a basic set of patterns and then you’re telling them where to make adjustments in the shoulders or whether to adjust the patterns for different designs.

JL: Absolutely. I’ve looked through many patternmaking books before, obviously, and sometimes I just want to give up when I get lost and wish there were more pictures. Sometimes you don’t have another visual until five steps later, and you couldn’t even complete the previous steps to get you to that point.

This book is so visual and a lot of the adjustments are pretty subtle, such as changing a neckline, lengthening or shortening a hem, or adding a button placket.

I think the pattern manipulations are pretty easy for some of the projects while others may be a little more challenging, like the tuxedo shirt for men because there’s a lot of stuff going on such as the ruffled layers. The geometric top is easy to adjust because you’re just adding style lines on the bodice. You’re basically making a big X to color block!

CS: What would be your advice to somebody who wants to start designing their own patterns?

JL: Well, definitely have a dedicated workspace for yourself and try to be as organized as possible. Ergonomics are very important especially when you’re drafting and sewing. Also, do a little research and look into what your personal style is. Think about who you are dressing.

A lot of people say, “I can’t draw, I can’t sketch.” I was one of those people. You don’t have to be a fantastic illustrator necessarily. You can also collage images together. You can compose mood boards and gather fabric swatches. Do little naive sketches so you can at least document what your idea was.

Fashion inspiration for me isn’t just in clothing or literal fashion objects.  I really like color photography like William Eggleston, for instance. The bold colors in his work really inspire me. When I’m planning a photo shoot, I’m not just thinking about the garment but also the mood I want to convey.

Visit C Sews next week for more of my interview with Jamie Lau.

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Author:Chuleenan

Chuleenan Svetvilas is a writer who sews and collects hats and shoes. She is a fabric addict and loves classic films and vintage clothes.

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