Kat: I always felt this magnetic attraction to textiles and sewing. I used to go into my grandmother’s sewing room and just soak up the good energy in there. When I was ten, I taught myself to knit and haven’t stopped doing textiles things since! My current practice focuses on pattern-making, sewing, natural dyeing, and mending.
I’m not sure what the most interesting thing is, but for my master’s thesis, I did recreate a 14th century doublet entirely by hand. That was a really wild journey, beginning with going to see the original garment in its museum in France. I only had a photocopy of a pattern taken by its conservator and my field notes, so I had to do a lot of problem-solving in order to recreate it. The most fun part was padding all the pieces with fluffy cotton batting, and the most difficult part was hand-sewing 75 large buttonholes with silk thread.
Gather: What are you working on during your residency with Gather?
Kat: I’m lucky that my day job is working as a curator of a museum clothing collection. I get to work with super cool examples of historic dress, and I’m using my residency at Gather to explore the cut and construction of some of these garments. Museum objects don’t get to be worn or even touched very much, so reconstructing them is a way to be able to do that. I’m also very interested in making as a way of knowing, which is basically the idea that there are things you can only know about an object by making (or re-making) it. This type of haptic knowledge is very interesting to me because it helps connect me to makers of the past.
When I remake a garment, it becomes a material conversation with the person (or people) who made that original garment. I really value these conversations as a historian because very often past makers are not represented in traditional history research (in the past, as now, those who make our clothing are often women and/or people with limited social and economic means).
Remaking a historic garment also makes it possible to learn about the garment as a wearer. I often come across the misconception that historic clothing was uncomfortable or restrictive. Wearing reconstructions has given me the opportunity to explore these assumptions and I’ve found that in most cases they’re not true. At best, I’ve learnt that comfort is contextual and that people in the past were just as interested in moving and being comfortable as we are!
I’m currently reconstructing an early 20th-century sleeveless camisole. It has very simple construction and was hand-embroidered, including decorative eyelets and cutwork. It also has a very adjustable fit. It’s very beautiful and was domestically made. I think it is interesting because it actually responds to a lot of current trends and movements in contemporary garment design.
These days, there’s a huge amount of interest in making garments that are size-inclusive that can also respond to natural changes in body shape and size, thereby enabling them to be used for longer. I really believe in designing clothing that helps people feel good in their bodies and that is more sustainable. I think that historic dress can help us do that.
To that end, I’ve been working on a contemporary re-interpretation of the original camisole that responds to the needs of contemporary sewists, and am planning on doing a more details-focused version that includes reproducing the original embroidery (which is more time-consuming that the typical sewist might be prepared to undertake). That being said, I’ve found that hand-sewing often goes faster than people think it will!
Gather: What's coming next for you on your journey with making? Any new challenges you're excited to take on, or plans for the immediate future that you want to share?
Kat: Yes! Most immediately, I will be starting the more faithful reconstruction of that camisole, with the embroidery and everything. I’m also an avid natural dyer, and will be embarking on a journey into indigo over the next month and a half. I am also beginning to learn to weave – since I’m working in a weaving studio, I thought that this was the perfect time to learn. So far, weaving has been both wonderful and humbling. It’s crazy to me that I’ve been immersed in textiles for decades now and I can still feel like an absolute beginner when introduced to a new technique. It’s a testament to how rich the world of textiles is.
Gather: I've obviously benefitted from your tutoring skills first hand! [Editor's note: this is Ali writing and Kat saved my bacon when I had a garment go very, very wrong. 10/10, highly recommend.] Can you say a bit about your approach to tutoring, why you like it, what you can offer?
Kat: I love tutoring! It’s an opportunity to share all that I have learned in my journey so far, and hopefully help others have a bit easier of a time than I did. I’m primarily self-taught, so I really value community, skill-sharing and just plain old talking with other makers. I’m also very aware that I am limited in my knowledge and that I have so much to learn also. When I am tutoring I see each project as a journey I am on with my learner and usually I also learn things alongside them.
I also try to really get to know what my learner’s goals are, with an understanding that not everyone wants the same things I do out of a project. I don’t really believe in a hard right or wrong way of doing something in sewing. I’m aware of many of the current conventions, but my sewing experience and also my time working with historic dress have shown me that there are actually so many different ways to approach a technical problem. Finding the right one is about understanding your values and vision as a maker.
I like to try and give my learners the tools they need to find that out for themselves, rather than assume I know what is important to them. Sometimes this is hard, for example when your value for quick progress conflicts with a vision for a specific end result (e.g. a very smooth, professional finish that requires hand-sewing). In those cases, I try to present multiple options, but I am also very careful to be as straightforward as I can. This way, my learner can make the decision that is most likely to give them the result they want.
See more of Kat's work on Instagram: @katelin.karbonik