Saturday, December 31, 2011

Kuspuk Making: The Pattern

Several years ago, a co-worker had offered to teach a class in kuspuk making and I bought fabric to make one. The class didn't happen. I've had three or so yards of lovely batik fabric just waiting. The color is sort variegated blue and gold and reminds me of tundra in August.

A kuspuk is a traditional Alaskan woman's summer parka with a hood and, around the bottom, a sort of ruffle or peplum. A kuspuk is to Alaska what an aloha shirt is to Hawaii. They're usually made out of calico with commercial braid used for trim. The hoods are usually close fitting to keep mosquitoes off. Even though they are called "summer parkas," they are often worn indoors year round and are used by Native dance troops. They're easy and inexpensive to make and cool enough to be worn inside while engaged in vigorous activity.

I remembered buying a pattern as well and went through every one of my sewing drawers.

Nope. Had to buy one. I went to four stores before I found a kuspuk pattern available. Apparently kuspuk making has been a popular activity this Christmas and "Kuspuk Pattern by Lois" put out my Alaskan Patterns seems to be the one and only pattern in usage.

Unsure if I should make myself a size 16 or size 18, I made a preliminary muslin out of an old sheet. A muslin is to writing what a draft is to a novel, or a white-build to making cardmodels. A jewelry maker once told me first make it out of copper, then silver, then gold. So I made part of the kuspuk out of an old sheet. Good thing I did. The fit is horrid.

A shirt, jacket, or other such covering can be imagined as three elliptical tubes with the arm tubes intersecting the torso tube at an angle. Imagine that we've got the tubes intersect this way. We cut an arm tube open and flatten it out. The top of the arm shape now looks a bit like a sinusoidal curve. It might even be a sinusoidal curve--I'm unsure of the mathematics.

The sleeve on the kuspuk by Lois is cut nearly strait, no hint of that lovely sine wave. To make it worse this sleeve is going into an armhole which resembles a slit. This would work if she'd gone back to the old peasant method of construction with everything made out of rectangles and putting gussets under the arms. This works better with hand-sewing than machine sewing. It is nice for ironing, however, and so good for undergarments. The chemise for my regency gown is constructed in the old peasant method. This old method can be done without a pattern and without cutting. Fabric can be ripped into rectangles or woven initially as rectangles.

Some computer programs convert 3-D shapes to 2-D shapes but I use the paper, scissors, and tape method. I make a guess as to the shape, cut it out of paper, and tape it together. I make adjustments with scissors and tape until I've got those nice elliptical tubes. Then I cut it apart and retrace what I've got onto a new piece of paper. Voila a pattern.

I buy readymade patterns either when I want to understand how something is made or when I want to jump ahead in the process to the interesting parts. So with the kuspuk pattern I spent 20 dollars for Lois to figure out the shape of sleeves and hood. Very disappointing that she had skipped this crucial part of the process herself. The pattern is worthless, everything else I can easily do without any help.
I'm not sure way Lois had such a poor understanding of tailoring. I learned about sleeves by making doll clothing. I made some truly awful miniature shirts. Fortunately they were made out of scrap and so didn't cost me anything.

I looked at pictures of kuspuks on the Internet and found that this sleeve fit problem is endemic. Whole dance troops are performing with badly fitting sleeves and probably accidently ripping out the underarm seams. Lois recommends double stitching the seam under the arm, so it seems she was somewhat aware of the problem. We all seem to be camouflaging the bad tailoring by making kuspuks out of fabric printed with flowers and the like. "Tailor" is the right word since the word originates from French and means "cut."

Lois may have been a good seamstress but she was a lousy tailor.

I am now fantasizing about designing and publishing better kuspuk patterns. I can't decide if I want to do raglan or in-set sleeves.

Structural Unemployment

Listening to NPR I heard about "structural unemployment." At last! Someone talking sense about the current state of the economy. We've been looking at the economic problem wrong. It's not that we need more jobs created; we need the right jobs created.

Here is how I see the situation. We had the real-estate bubble with too many resources (labor hours) going into building houses, houses which were too big and expensive for people to pay (work) for. So the market crashed. We needed to move construction workers, real-estate agents, and mortgage brokers into jobs producing things we actually need.

That crash brought the rest of the economy down as we cut costs (labor hours) from things we actually need such as education and scientific research. Exacerbating the situation we are undergoing a shift in retail, more goods bought on the Internet and less in actual stores. We must move retail workers into new jobs.

To get back to deploring resources effectively, someone has to decide how to what we need, then borrow money to for it. We've got three groups who could make the critical decisions and take the risk. Consumers could take out loans to buy things which will make their lives better, but consumers are already carrying too much debt, and they can't buy things unless the stuff is available.

Businesses could borrow and make guesses about what consumers might. But business, like government, has been cutting costs and reducing both risk and inventory, making wanted and needed goods unavailable.

Where are you Steve Jobs? We need men and women with vision, those who understand what customers will want and are willing to take risks, take out the loans, and hire people.

That leaves the government taking the risk, but government barrowing will only work if it's backed up by vision, the understanding of what sort of investment of labor will pay off in the long run. Here is opportunity. Some necessary services can only most effectively provided by the government, services such as: education, public health, mass transportation, research, and job retraining.

But as I see it the bottom line, the things we most need as a nation are vision and courage. With these, we can put people to work doing jobs which need to be done. I think all of us: consumer, businesses, and government, should stop agonizing over cutting short term costs and instead consider long-term investment.

I'm doing my part. I went out and bought a new refrigerator. In the short term, I'm spending--gasp, pant, pant, panic--more money, but I hope in the long term it will save me money in energy costs.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Baby Seeds

When I was a small child, a friend of my mother's was having a baby, so my mother and I went to the store. She picked out the correct packet, envelope and card, to send to the expectant mother, making sure the packet was for a girl. Unable to read, and knowing that daddys putting seed in mommies, I believed my mother was buying baby seeds. The pictures on the cards clearly showed the contents of the envelopes: baby boys in blue, baby girls in pink, and babies of uncertain gender in yellow.
This didn't entirely make sense to me. Why would my mother be asked to casually purchase such an important item? Surely, the expectant mother and her husband would desire to choose the variety of their own child.

And wouldn't such seeds be sold in catalogues the same as seed for our garden? It also occurred to me that if baby seeds were purchased and marriage was for when two people loved each other, a woman should be able to marry another woman. The baby would have two mothers.

In a few years I developed a better understanding of the difference between plants and animals. But the idea of a catalogue for baby seeds still intrigues me. I now believe that the moral arguments against a woman marrying another woman might be more properly applied to the purchase of baby seeds because, with such a purchase, moral and ethical issues compound. For a science fiction writer like me, such issues are fodder for stories.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Brain Cravings

I'm thinking a lot about why people become interested in things, not just novels but also food, music, and games. Children who have autism tend to be come rigid in their interests, playing the same game or eating the same foods over and over again. As a teacher's assistant working with such children, I often struggle to get one kid to name the letters instead of lining them up by color, or to get another to recognize whole words instead of just repeating the names of letters. Hopefully these kids will someday enjoy reading whole stories.

And then I go home and write fiction for adults. I'm facing the same sort of problem. Some readers insist on the same story and type of story told repeatedly. I work at enticing readers into something new.

Here is what I think is happening. Brains are prediction machines, having evolved over time to analyze patterns and predict what will happen next. They are driven to find out what happens next. Brains which are good at predicting pass on the ability, producing babies with similar brains.

This prediction isn't conscious analysis, but an instinctive drive. Our brains crave patterns and prediction of patterns the same way we crave food, or sleep, or affection. If these patterns aren't available, we create them. Brains with neurological problems blocking their development go after whatever patterns are accessible. The results are often amazing. People missing huge parts of their brains can still adapt and function well. I stand in awe of the brain, particularly the brain of a child, and what it can do.

I believe that a baby playing with a rattle and an adult reading a novel are both engaged in pattern prediction and for the same reasons; brains crave a combination of expectation and surprise.

The baby shaking the rattle doesn't know exactly what will happen, but she has an idea of what will happen and the result delights her. As she goes through the sequence of muscle movement, visual effect, and sound, her brain adapts, rewiring itself to better-coordinated hearing, movement, and vision. It's fun and feels good because it's what the brain needs. When the child gets older, she loses interest in rattles or her interest in them changes. She might move on to exploring rhythm. At this time, her brain has already made the changes and no longer craves the simple pattern of rattle-shaking.

Young brains crave easily predicted patterns. Children are usually picky eaters, liking foods with simple textures and flavors. A baby may like basic rice-cereal but, as a toddler, moves on to various dry cereals or to plain pasta. Children are generally interested in basic flavors--sweet or salty--and like predictable shapes and textures. Good luck trying to convince a toddler that a broken cheese-flavored cracker tastes the same as a whole cheese-flavored cracker.
Children generally dislike complex textures such the texture of broccoli. The buds on broccoli make for texture which is difficult for a developing brain to decode. The texture doesn't make sense.

As a child I preferred my spaghetti sauce to be served separately from my noodles, "next to" not "on top of." The meat as it browned smelled delicious, but when the ingredients were put together, I couldn't taste either the meat or the noodles. Hash still tastes this way to me. I also pulled appart sandwiches, eating baloney separate from bread. I'd lick the frosting off cupcakes before eating the cake. These preparations simplify the flavors of food. Now we call this type of preparation food "deconstruction." Apparently it's the hot new trend in cooking, but children have done it since time immemorial.

As an adult I detest plain noodles. They're just too boring. I don't eat cake unless it's got something unusual-- fresh fruit, mocha filling--or I'm hungry and it's the only food available. I want something interesting on top of my noodles maybe some anchovies or some capers. Definitely some garlic. Maybe fresh garlic sautéed in olive oil until it just starts to caramelize. My brain already knows the taste of noodles. There is nothing else to be learned from eating bland pasta. It wants combinations of flavors and textures: bitter and sweet with smooth. Salty and sour with crunchy.

For the brain to make sense of sensations--hmm similar words--it has to encounter the same pattern repeatedly. The brain will seek to repeat the pattern until the activity becomes boring. How often it needs to encounter a pattern varies from individual to individual. A person who has autism needs to encounter the same pattern many more times than does a person with a typical brain. But whose brain is typical anyway?

I only read one Nancy Drew mystery before I became bored with it. Yet I'm still fascinated by Rudyard Kipling's Elephant's Child. The line "The great gray-green greasy Limpopo River all set about with fever-trees," still tastes good to my brain.
In writing novels I'm attempting to feed the brain a really tasty pattern. I've got to get the mix between expectation and surprise just right. If it's too unusual the story tastes like hash. If it's too predictable it's boring. The same mix won't work for every reader because of variation in individual brains.

Enjoyment of food and of novels isn't entirely alike. Food must feed both the body and the brain. If nothing else is available I'll eat plain noodles, eat them without complaining. But if a novel fails to fulfill the cravings of my brain, I will stop reading.

As a writer, I have a dilemma. Should I limit my writing to simple easily understandable patterns, the equivalent of plain noodles, or should I write patterns which take more sophistication to understand? The blockbuster model of publishing says write plain noodles, make the story understandable to nearly everyone. But that leaves an entire range of readers starving. Simplistic writing isn't adequate to their needs. It's not adequate for my needs as a writer.

I believe if I trying to write plain noodles I should do it with pride, but when I'm driven to write pasta with puttanesca sauce I shouldn't forego the anchovies and capers.

There are those who insist that fiction must follow similar restrictive and arbitrary rules, similar to saying spaghetti can only have marinara sauce. These rules are basically codified personal taste, similar to an autistic toddler announcing that broccoli is yucky and throwing it across the room. Many adults also dislike broccoli, but it's not the fault of the farmer who raised the broccoli, the cook who prepared it, or even of Mother Nature who packed it with vitamins, nutrition, fiber, color, and all that. Broccoli isn't inherently yucky. It's a matter of personal taste, meaning it’s a matter if neurological development.

What can I say to them when they gag on my offering? Yes, people do gag when they expect one flavor and get another. This doesn't indicate that, for example, puttanesca sauce is poorly made. It merely has been tasted by a diner has never encountered red spaghetti sauce other than marinara, and that diner's brain isn't yet ready for that pattern of sensation.