From Flora to Fauna and Back Again

Posted on
Apr 22, 2018

My mother relocated a few years ago from Portland to Bellingham, WA, which is just two hours away from Vancouver by train and 90 minutes for her by car, depending on the wait at the border. It's turned out to be a nearly perfect little city for her—and we're talking about someone who's spent time in every US time zone, visited or lived in every west coast city with a population over 100K (including two in Hawaii). Back east, she's lived in Florida, Virginia, Maryland and Ontario, and many literal hot spots in between (Arizona, New Mexico, New Orleans, Texas). But anyway, Bellingham is what you would get if, back in the 80s/ 90s, Seattle's quaint hippie-artist neighborhood of Fremont had reacted to the gathering storm of "Californians" (investors, AKA "here comes the neighborhood") by packing up and moving to Canada (as Americans are always threatening to do), but then running out of gas 30 minutes from the border and deciding it was close enough.

And indeed it is. If you ignore the the recreational shopping attraction of the nearby Bellis Fair outlet mall, the city of Bellingham (pop. 87K) is a northwestern hipster oasis, more Portland than Portland. Its leafy residential streets overflow with west coast character: pastel-painted Victorian homes...

Farmer's markets, co-ops, breweries, street murals, electricity museums... shops, pot dispensaries and artisanal ice cream parlors with unisex bathrooms.

It's in this environment of community activism, creativity and sustainability that Ragfinery has been operating since 2014 as a "nonprofit training business and textile reuse center [which] collects unwanted garments and textiles and determine creative reuse value to keep them out of landfills." The store is a DIY designer's dream. Fabric is sold by the roll, bolt or small bundle; the latter sorted by color in rows of plastic bins. Used clothing is sorted by size and fabric content. They also sell all kinds of sewing stuff, vintage patterns, tons of yarn and racks of locally designed and upcycled clothing.

For the last four years, they've held a competition for amateur designers culminating in a fashion show that's open to the public, and every year it's been getting more and more popular. We attended the show twice, and when Ragfinery announced their 2018 theme—Flora & Fauna—and opened the contest to the first 25 entrants on the morning of February 14, my mother was there before they opened, waiting in line with a handful of other eager contestants in the freezing cold. (As soon as the store owners noticed they had people lined up outside, they invited them in to wait.)

They had 25 contestants within, I think, the first 36 hours.

(Blodeuwedd by jadenyc)

We quickly identified a character from Welsh mythology around which we could build an appropriate costume—Blodeuwedd, or "flower face," a Welsh goddess of spring associated with flowers and owls. Historically, her story was a poignant, cautionary morality tale but alongside those, you can now find numerous treatises reclaiming and reframing her narrative for a modern, feminist era. Seen in this light, she's almost a kind of Lilith character; a vilified symbol of female inconstancy—suggesting that the same could be said of nature itself (you know, these things we try our best to tame and how they inevitably betray us when we turn our backs, despite how good we treat them, or something... "we" being, of course, men). So we added an epilogue of sorts, bringing the "flora to fauna" story full circle.

The two months between registration and runway were intense. The first challenge for us was the fact that I'm in Vancouver while my mother and Ragfinery are in Bellingham. She called me from the store that first weekend and turned on her video camera so I could see their inventory and ask her to zoom in on anything that caught my eye.

She scanned the aisles with her phone held out in front of her like a minesweeper, while I fought off motion sickness as long as possible and directed her to various rolls of fabric, racks of clothing and bins of sewing accoutrements. (e.g., "See if you can find any feathers—or fake fur—or anything fuzzy like wool in... what color are owls anyway?? Can you ask if they have any rolls of knit fabric in a color that would go with that green? ...Or, you know, any flower colors?")

15 minutes in, our call was mysteriously disconnected ;) but my mother later called me from home to show off her purchases. What we ended up with was 10 yards (or ~meters) of slippery emerald green fabric, which I mistakenly assumed to be a stretch knit (more on that later), a sheath-style wedding dress, a full fluffy underskirt, a 10-foot train and yards of tulle netting in white, peach and teal. She quickly found some YouTube tutorials and filled two enormous Tupperware bins with tulle flowers in various colors and sizes.

My stepfather was happy to take up the challenge, too, juicing half a dozen beets in order to dip dye a batch of the tulle flowers a lovely pink, since the rules prohibit using chemical dyes.

They even found a length of twisty fibrous decorative trim to wind around a tall driftwood cane, which she could use as both a character prop and insurance against disaster, since she's still recovering from a recent knee surgery. Last but not least, she found a roll of sheer white fabric embossed with a pattern of leaves, which was also nearly 10 yards long. That proved fortuitous after I discovered that the green fabric was not in fact stretchy and could therefore not be made into a wrap dress, AND when I decided even later on in the process that the green fabric was wrong for the cape, since it didn't match the owl mask at all. The white fabric became the outer layer of the cape and the green formed the lining—and yes, for anyone doing the math, that made for a shit-load of cape, just shy of a full circle and clocking in at over 16 meters (or 48 square feet).

So, the two months spent on the project were full of excellent, heh, "learnings," e.g.:

  • how to make roses out of fabric ribbons, ideally 1" to 2" wide by at least a foot long
  • how to make felt feathers (felt and paint required; skip the molding wire and routing tools)
  • how to make ruffles (actually shockingly simple—no special feet or machine mods required)
  • warning labels and social pressure notwithstanding, that old wedding dress probably can be machine washed, dried, even ironed(!) and sprayed liberally with water
    • BUT it might enhance any lingering chemical smell from previous dry cleaning
  • how to make a motherfucking owl mask using only felt, fur, acrylic paint and sheer chutzpa

I also gained an appreciation for the show "Project Runway" over the last couple of months—since I don't have cable, I had never seen an episode until I found one on YouTube while searching for advice on upcycling—cleaning, ironing, dying, etc. etc.) wedding dresses... but don't even get me started on goddamn wedding dresses). Anyway, as much as I appreciate the artistry and grace under extreme pressure exhibited by the show's contestants, I am unbelievably glad this was nothing like that. I think I'd handle that kind of pressure, scrutiny and unvarnished criticism—to say nothing of backstabbing bitchiness and naked cutthroat competition—very badly indeed. Although, I think I'd do pretty well at the crazy challenges like making a dress out of a dozen umbrellas or three items from a thrift store sale rack or whatever (hell, that's how I taught myself to sew). Anyway, I had a number of challenges and changes of direction over the course of the project, but I'll leave out the details and instead share a slideshow that chronicles the ideas, design and construction process.

Anyway, it was a fun-filled project and it was great to see everyone else's creations and celebrate together last weekend. Tickets eventually sold out for the show at the Leopold Ballroom, friends and family came to cheer us on, and my colleagues were all dying to see pictures and hear how everything turned out when I got back to work. This article in the local alt weekly The Western Front estimates the audience at around 200, but Mr. Pink thinks it was more like 3 or 400, which seems closer to me (admittedly, I'm as bad at gauging crowds as I am at guessing ages). Here are a few pictures of some of my favorite outfits:

And here's the video of the fashion show—huge thanks to Mr. Pink, our dedicated cameraman, videographer, owl mask production assistant and emotional support animal. He shot video of the entire event (give or take twice having to change out the camera batteries, so if anyone has any digital video camera recommendations, get in touch!). He also edited the video and posted it for me, which as you know, takes hours, as well as adding all the contestants' names and costume titles. All that while somehow managing to mingle and charm more people in one evening than I could if you gave me an entire week, including at least one judge and a little girl who picked up and tried on the owl mask after my mother dropped it along with the the cape at the end of the runway to dramatically reveal her face and dress which were completely covered in flowers. I was talking with someone after the show—whose name I hadn't even caught by that point—when Mr. Pink came up to refresh my glass of champagne, prompting the person I'd been speaking with to smile, "Oh, how do you know Rodger?" (Seriously?!!) He really does complete me. ;)


Tags: Flora, Fauna, Fashion