Tuesday, September 30, 2008

how high?

Last Saturday as class was starting, Sit walked over to where I was stretching and says, "Holly. You going to compete at Legends of Kung Fu?" (That's the new name of the same tournament we've been to every year of the last many.)

I blinked. "Well, sure. I had figured I would."

"Ok. You need to send a email to [the organizers of the tournament] and ask them what are the qualifications for Grand Champion in Internal styles."

"Ok," I said, around the terror and exhilaration in my throat.

"That way it give you something to work for. It don't matter if you win. You have something to train for and you learn more."

"Sure," I agreed.

"So next spring I need you to house-sit for me again. I give you some free lesson."

"Ok," I said. Arguing, even if I had been inclined to do so, is futile. It's like telling Yoda the ship's too big.

"And you need to work on your sword form, too," Sit said to the SP.

The tournament, I may remind you, is next July. And I'm stoked. Partly I'm eager to be looking at something beyond October, and sewing. Also I've learned a lot in the last year and a half--a lot of awareness of what I am doing and what I could/should be doing differently--and I'd like to put it to use. Also, I watched some YouTube videos this week of the winner from two years ago and frankly I'm no longer that impressed.

Also, it makes me feel good to have the master encouraging me like that. I know he wants his students to do well because it reflects well on him, but he's not the kind to push. In his way, he's asking for a favor, but doing it in a way that makes me feel capable and challenged.

Maybe it's time to really put some effort into this baby.

In order to qualify to compete for Grand Champion you must win first place in three events:

• 1 of the 5 major Taiji Barehand events (Chen, Yang, Wu (Hao), Wu, Sun)
• 1 Internal Barehand (different Taiji or other internal form--for me this would mean Chen style or, more likely, Tai Hui form as an "other" style)
• 1 Internal Weapon (sword or other weapon; I plan to do sword and fan both, anyway)

I understand now why so many of the advanced-level students do the same form in different categories; they're stacking the deck. Also they're hoping to win more medals. I personally feel it's a bit dishonest to do the same form in three different rings, but the rules permit it--and anyway, who has time to police that?

The really difficult one to win is sword form, because all the 5 styles get lumped into a single event. Last time I think there were close to forty competitors. It was awful; it went on for hours. The SP and I didn't even stay to watch all of it, but if we compete next year I guess we'll have to. I can't imagine being a judge and trying to weigh all the infinitismal scores to come up with a clear winner.

Actually I don't feel too nervous about competing this time. I have a better idea of what to expect and I have an attitude of I'm just going to go in there and do what I do every Saturday. Also I like the sword form and I think doing it has made a big difference in my understanding of body movement.

It's expensive, though. Registration is $65, which includes one form, and I will probably do at least four more, at $20 apiece. That's quite an increase from last time. I'm not complaining, mind you, because Jimmy Wong runs a great tournament and they deserve all the support they can get. I'll just have to sew more, I guess.

Speaking of sewing, I wonder if I'll have time to make a new uniform...?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

getting soft

My husband made a remark the other night about us "living soft" of late, which is certainly true. I've been sewing constantly, and so we've been eating a lot of carryout food. Even though we choose the best of what is available, it's still too starchy and lacking in nutrients, and we eat too much of it because it's plentiful and easy.

I've been a little better this week about getting in some tai chi practice every day, partly because I'm stiff and partly because I'm weary of the constant drive to sew and want to resume my better habits. My body feels soft and heavy.

Also I think the tunnel-vision is affecting my mind's alertness. Last night I had a couple of alarming mini-dreams.

In the first one, I dreamed that the new mattress I bought arrived on Friday, as scheduled, but it was alarmingly thing and cheap. "This isn't the one I ordered," I protested, but the delivery guys insisted it was.

The second dream was more alarming. I was being menaced by some thug, and although I had a gun with me, it jammed and wouldn't fire--repeatedly. I pulled the trigger four times but it didn't fire. I went to rack back the slide and the guy was on me, so I hit him with it. I think I jerked myself awake with the dramatic movement, but the sense of frustration and fear stays with me.

Clearly I need to start training again.

Friday, September 19, 2008

bernina geekery

When I bought Vera Bernina I unknowingly bought membership into a bizarre underground subculture--the world of sewing machine groupies. All the major brands have their little enclaves--the Berninuts, the Pfaffsters, the Janomites. There are a few really hard-core users who will only use Industrial models, but they even scare ME.

All kidding aside, I am so in love with this machine that the cat has gone into a decline and even my husband has been dropping hints that maybe I should turn off the machine and come to bed.

I used to shake my head in bemusement at all the crazy specialized sewing accessories available, particularly the assortment of presser feet for higher-end sewing machines. Who could possibly need all those? I thought. There's not anything here that I can't do with a few pins, a pair of scissors, and a couple of feet.

Ah, but this was ignorance speaking. And perhaps a little envy, too, because for the last eight years, spending even $30 on a presser foot (most of the Berninas are $50 or more) was more than my budget would allow. Plus there weren't that many options for my crappy $100 White. But now I am selling to support my habit, I am the proud owner of "the best sewing machine Bernina ever made," and I find, to my delight and amazement, that those feet really do what they claim; they make everything faster, neater and easier than I could ever do the old way.

Bernina's website shows 66 different presser feet available for their high-end machines (some of them are too modern to work with mine) and they sell big expensive pornogr--ahem, manuals (for $60 and up, IIRC) that describe all the feet and how to use them.

My old 930 came with 11 original feet, I think, and for the first year I got by as I always had--with the 000 standard zigzag and the zipper/edgestitch foot doing all the work. In the last 3 months, however, increasing knowledge, decreasing time, and better expendable cashflow have prompted me to acquire:

  • A ruffling foot--I figured I'd use this on the roccoco dresses, and I did a little bit (on the green one), but the result was a bit more mechanical than I wanted. I didn't want them all to look alike. The foot I got is actually an aftermarket knockoff, and not as precise as it should be; the Bernina-made model is about $90 and I will get it some day. Still, it's cool to watch it work. I didn't touch the thing for weeks after I got it, because I was intimidated by it. But now I just zip the fabric in there and go. Shoddy piece though it is, it opened my eyes to the possibilities.

  • As I mentioned some weeks ago, the next major tool I got was a serger. This is the ultimate in sewing accessories. I call it an accessory because it cannot replace the sewing machine, but the few things it does, it does way better. It's ideal for handling the long stretchy seams in the Harley Quinn costumes; no longer do I have to worry about a seam popping because the client pulled the legs on too fast. The serger was an unplanned purchase. We happened to find an old Bernette at a good bargain at our local Bernina store and the SP got it for my birthday. The thing is a little tank. It will probably outlive me.

  • Although I was delighted to find the serger, it scared me even more than the ruffler had--I was completely ignorant and needed some instruction. So I did something I haven't done in years--I went to the library. I got a library card. I checked out two books--"Getting to Know your Bernina" and "Creative Serging." I felt like a real person again. And yes, I consider those books tools.

  • Once I had the serger running, and I was rolling my chair back and forth between it and Vera, I had no room or patience left for my old White. I had been using it only for installing zippers. Invisible zippers need a special kind of foot, and I didn't have one for Vera. I had a cheap plastic one-size-fits-all for the White, but it felt very sloppy and imprecise (though I must admit it was better than the one that preceeded it). So I called up my local Bernina dealers (miraculously there are two that I have access to--one is two blocks from my work and the other is maybe two miles from my house) and found out there WAS an invisible zipper foot for my older machine. A little pricey, but oh lord, what a dream it is. No adjusting the centerline. No wiggling presser foot. No creeping seam allowance. No fighting the zipper coil to keep it upright. Just stitch/stitch, zip/zip and I'm done.

  • Since I had agreed to make more PVC costumes I decided to invest in a non-stick foot to handle the topstitching on the hood and appliques. An ordinary metal foot sticks to the PVC and distorts it while you're stitching. So I bought a special foot with Teflon coating , which is supposed to glide like an eagle. I haven't tried it yet, but given the results to date I am optimistic. UPDATE: This thing ROCKS. It makes sewing over the vinyl as easy as sewing over muslin. The thing just GLIDES. One caution, tho, and they do say this in the instructions--you must not let the feed dogs contact the underside of the foot or they will scrape off the nonstick coating. I thought I was being careful about this, but then I realized, while turning tight corners, the center rear feed dog was scraping off the back end. The damage is slight, but I pass on my mistake for your benefit! Put a scrap piece of fabric behind your work and under the foot to protect it.

  • Prior to the Teflon foot I bought a leather roller foot, assuming I would use it on both the PVC and the heavier vinyls. It didn't hold tight enough for the PVC and I haven't had time to do any more vinyl or leather work lately, but it's still a very cool foot and I'm sure I'll have use for it in the future.

  • As I got more comfortable with the serger, I figured I'd better look around for the attachments that would let it do a rolled-covered hem (a/k/a a French rolled hem). My Bernette 234 is old enough it didn't come with a built-in attachment, and the research I have done about what the attachment looks like and how to use one has been inconclusive. I can do this type of hem on Vera, and I had been faking it for a while until I got the library book and learnt how to do it properly (using one of those original 11 feet I had been ignoring for a year). The serger, however, should be able to do it faster and with better-looking coverage because of the additional looping thread. Besides, by this point it has become a personal crusade to find the damn rolled-hem attachment. They are no longer being made, but I bought one on Ebay this week, complete with instruction sheet. Stay tuned.

  • Another thing I got on Ebay this week--a blind-stitch hemming foot for the serger. Again, Vera can do this, but the serger can do it faster--it can bind the raw edge of the seam and tack up the hem all in one pass. I have been extremely lucky to find these attachments for my very old, but still very reliable machine. The Bernette 234 is the one everyone describes as a "workhorse." Even after people buy a new one with more features, they tend to hang onto or hand down the Bernette. They stay in the family until someone dies and the person who cleans out the house has no interest in sewing.

  • My latest acquisition, as of yesterday, is a zigzag hemmer foot, for putting a fine, double-turned hem into a garment. I have been trying to fit a little black dress into my sewing schedule, using some fine black silk I got at a steep discount, and putting a hem into a bias-cut silk is a nightmare. To do it the old way, I used to baste a straight seam about a quarter inch from the bottom edge, turn twice, pin, use the basting seam to ease out the fullness, and press. With this truly amazing foot, you just run the hem edge into the metal curl of the foot, and stitch. Done. Clean. Professional-looking. Awe-inspiring. (The SP, by the way, is totally keen on these heavy little metal feet. He loves tools, and when he saw this new foot sitting on my sewing table he started pushing it around, making humming noises. "What's this one do?" he asked. He's thoroughly enjoying my geekery.)

  • The last new tool I ought to mention, though not machine-related, is still a minor miracle: a Dritz rotary cutter, and the largest cutting mat I could find. It hurt me to do it--those mats are expensive, but I'm already glad I did it. Cutting through spandex with shears is awful--the stuff is slippery, tough and dulls your scissors. You have to pin it like crazy to keep it from creeping while you cut, and every time you move the fabric it distorts the pattern. I used to cut a single layer at a time to save the wear on my hand and avoid nasty surprises--like a bizarre crescent cut out of the lower layer of fabric where it decided to bunch. A rotary cutter, however, will cut easily through both layers at once, and since I don't have to move the pieces around or slide anything under them, there's no layer shift. The rotary cutter actually works better if you keep pinning to a minimum, which saves all kinds of time. Plus, all the straight pieces can be cut against a ruler. Imagine cutting an 18-inch line in the time it takes to do one squeeze of your shears! Things got even better after a bought a plastic French curve, which is not only useful for marking pattern adjustments, but I can turn it against the cutting line as I go and never have to lift the rotary blade from the fabric. Worth every penny; I estimate this tool package reduced my cutting time by 40%.

So, that's my brag book. There are at least 6 other feet I'd like to have, but for now I need to catch up on the work I've already got, and maybe learn more about the tools I already have. A little learning is a dangerous thing--once you get a taste of how fine machining can make your life easier, you want one of everything. You find reasons to need one of everything. I now completely understand why my husband has so many planes and chisels.

And which leaves us with my final and best new tool--my sewing room is very nearly done. There's just a bit of trim work left to be done around the door, then another coat of shellac, and I'm in. I can't wait to organize. I may never come out!

ETA: Just when you thought it was safe to go in the Bernina store! Bernina Geekery II: The Addiction

Thursday, September 18, 2008

she never bothers with people she hates

Breda had a post today that put me in mind of certain recent events.

There are a couple of females I see every day. Both younger than me. Both seem to dislike me heartily. They're not overtly rude, but they tend not to look at me when I speak to them, and give rather arch replies, with the attitude of "you're a crazy freak, but I'll condescend to speak to you this once." In short, they treat me like I treat fanboys who invade my personal space. I don't know what this stems from, but I recognize it; I don't force myself into their space, but I find it bemusing. Unlike the fanboys who approach me, these young women can't possibly expect me to hit on them, so the only other thing I can deduce is that I make them uncomfortable for some reason.

Like Breda says in her essay, I've never found it easy to get along with women. I often find out, after I've become friends with a woman, that she was initially intimidated by me. So I've made attempts over the years, to be more positive and pleasant, to sweeten my tone of voice, and smile. I'm not sure it helps--I probably come across as a poorly adjusted schizo. I'm still too abrupt, too inclined to sarcasm, and too interested in strange subjects.

Women connect with each other through conversation and sharing--if you're not willing to listen to a woman go on at length about personal minutiae, she'll think you don't like her. And I'm hard-pressed to hold an indepth conversation with anyone these days, since I have no pop-culture references to fall back on and the other things I like are fairly esoteric: weapons and kung-fu and motorcycles; cooking and sewing and writing.

Of course I could be reading too much into this. There are plenty of women who are hostile toward other good-looking women just on principle. And these two chicks I'm thinking of have strong flirtatious tendencies toward their male supervisors that make me think they are of the type to be threatened. It doesn't hurt my feelings--I'm too self-absorbed to be offended by anything but a deliberate attack--but it's rather fatiguing to deal with day after day.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of my-kind-of-women out there. The Sparring Partner and I took a motorcycle rider-training class last weekend--remarkably, there were four women, two guys in the class. Two of the women were older, one of them was a bit younger than me. She was a cop, and quite out-going. During our breaks we stood around and talked about the best methods of concealed carry for women. Cop chick also got the only perfect score in the class on her riding test. High-fives all around.

I did all right, myself. The balance part was easy for me (I probably was the best at slow-riding through a narrow path) but I'd never driven a manual transmission and it took me a while to get the braking/throttle/clutch combination down. I killed the engine a lot. I tipped the bike a couple of times, although it was always while stopping so I had it under control--I just didn't have the muscle to hold the damn thing up. Plus it was a fast-paced, physically demanding class; almost seven hours riding the first day, using muscles I'd never used before. My whole body ached afterward. Also, it rained for the first 4 hours we were out there, and my rain gear was not as waterproof as the salesman had assured me it was.

Still, I did okay. Better than okay--I got 99 out of 100 on my test. And the SP's praise was worth all the discomfort. "You're so cool," he kept saying. "Even when I could tell you were tired or frustrated, you didn't quit and you didn't throw a fit or pout or anything. I don't know any other woman who would keep at it the way you did."

I'd like to tell him he's been associating with the wrong type of woman, but I'm fairly sure he's right. There aren't many of us.

On the flip side, there's a guy I work with, one of the motorcycle editors, who I've become friendly with. He's heavily tattooed, gentle, intelligent, well-spoken, into heavy metal and bodybuilding, creative and capable with his hands. He's a published writer and well-versed in obscure cinema, especially horror and martial arts flicks. He used to re-upholster cars and does his own cooking and ironing. I talk to him about weapons, kung fu, motorcycles, cooking, sewing, and writing--and he generally has worthwhile things to contribute.

He listened patiently the other day while I gushed about my new motorcycle jacket, even though he's probably seen them all before. He hefted the weight of it, examined the pockets where the body armour goes, complimented me on getting a good deal, congratulated me on completing the class.

"He's like your grandma, or favorite aunt or something," I told my husband, who has met the guy, and trades emails with him about motorcycles. "Even when I know I'm going on about things he's already heard a million times, he just smiles and says all the right things to make you feel validated. He's like a really supportive girlfriend."

"Like a big cuddly tattooed chick," the SP agreed.

We're not too gender-concerned around our house.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

circle of creative life

I find this neat: the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, which makes perfumes and candles with Gothy-leaning scents and themes, has concocted a new scent line inspired by the works of Neil Gaiman. All proceeds go to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

I've thought Black Phoenix Alchemy was a class act since I first learned about them--they put together a stunning website with high-quality visuals and dreamy descriptive text; they do performance art with ephemeral scent as the main attraction. Gaiman is a class act all his own. It's nice to see those two kids get tgether.

It's been a cool, overcast week here in Mid-America. I'm thinking ahead to Halloween, and this discovery beautifully suited my mood.

Every year about this time I start thinking I'll go a groovy old-tyme Victorian Halloween party, but every year I'm too busy. Ah, well. Here are some more Old-Fashion Halloween links, courtesy of another nifty store in the same vein.

In the plus column, though, last night I cut out the vinyl for my Black Cat costume. I don't know why; I know I won't want to wear it. But I'll get some damn fine pictures out of it.