As mentioned in the last post about Arielle’s hoodie, during the winter of 2012 I told four of my closest friends that I’d embellish an article of clothing for them as their holiday gift. This is the story behind the dress I embellished for Tsige.
I first met Tsige about three years ago when Arielle stopped by my work one evening with Tsige and said, “Anna this is Tsige. Tsige this is Anna. I think you two would get along great!” It was a classic case of one friend knowing each of us well enough to know that we’d hit it off. Arielle certainly was right – from then on we’ve all spent a lot of time together.
I particularly appreciate Tsige for her unique sense of humor and her sensitive nature. She’s incredibly and unabashedly quirky and has a depth to her emotions which I rarely see expressed in people. For those of you who know Tsige, you know what I’m talking about.
Arielle met Tsige a few weeks prior to when she introduced us to each other. They met through being mentors for Young Women Empowered (Y-WE) – a non-profit in town that works primarily with young women of color from immigrant communities.
I just realized through writing this that all four of the friends who I embellished articles of clothing for have at one time either worked for Young Women Empowered or volunteered as mentors in the program.
I lend a helping hand to the program by volunteering at Y-WE’s fall and spring retreat cooking food for the girls and mentors. There’s something I absolutely love about being on a team of people who prepare food for everyone at the retreat.
Not only do I value getting to assist with something as tangible as providing people with sustenance for the weekend, but one of my favorite things to do in general is chop vegetables while chatting with someone.
Whenever I work on creative projects, I snap pictures as I go. At the time, these photos usually feel useless – I assume I’ll remember the tiny details along the way. However, I keep being caught off guard by how much of my process I forget until looking back on it. I started piecing the hexagons well before I even thought of the idea to make my friends an article of embellished clothing as a holiday gift. At the time I was just experimenting with English Paper Piecing on a smaller scale.
That project has since been abandoned along the way and sits in a plastic bin underneath my bed, as my taste in fabric and composition have evolved. Isn’t it compelling to think about why we desert some projects in the pursuit of others?
While I used to feel guilty about having that half-finished hexagon quilt hanging around, now I’ve embraced that that project served a useful purpose – it gave me a ton of practice with English Paper Piecing. It’s a classic case of a project holding a lesson in process, rather than being a stunning finished product. It illuminated for me that I absolutely love to English Paper Piece, but prefer mixing English Paper Piecing with machine piecing.
With the smaller hexagons, I had a general idea that I would keep piecing units of three of the same fabrics together until I got to a point where it would grow into an intriguing amoeba shape. I initially had the idea of putting whatever shape it turned into on one of my own black t-shirts. However, as the hexagons grew and I’d hold it up to my t-shirt, it never quite looked right, so I just kept piecing away, assuming it would eventually sprout into something I’d like.
As I’ve learned more and more about myself lately, I’ll oftentimes start on a project and it’ll turn into something completely unexpected. It’ll go in a direction I never would have planned at the start, which is something I try to embrace. This is not only a good lesson for sewing, but for life. I never would have guessed when I started the paper piecing that what I was creating would end up on a dress for a friend.
While looking through photos of working on the English Paper Piecing which eventually made it onto Tsige’s dress, I was surprised to see the number of different locations where I worked on it. The primary ways I quilt suddenly became apparent to me – little pockets of time here or there, oftentimes with friends, and regularly outside of my apartment. Before seeing these photos, it hadn’t really registered with me how much I sew outside of my home.
With this specific project, I found photos of me working on it at a coffee shop with Arielle, outside the International District Branch of the Seattle Public Library while waiting for it to open with Arielle, and while camping with my parents in La Conner – even sewing with a headlight by the camp fire!
I was surprised to remember that I even worked on piecing the hexagons while sitting beside Tsige in bed at her old apartment while she worked on homework. That was at a time when Tsige was taking classes at Seattle Central Community College to get herself ready to transfer to a 4-year university. Guess where she is now? At The New School in NYC studying theater – she made it happen!
The New School is also where Parsons The New School for Design is located, which is where Project Runway is filmed. I appreciate the level of skill and creativity of the participants on the show, yet the person who keeps me coming back to the show is Tim Gunn, whose photo even holds a prominent place on my inspiration wall.
I’m continually impressed with his poise and how adept he is at providing the designers with critiques which help make them better designers and frankly better people. The way he approaches giving feedback is done in a compassionate and straight-forward manner, which impresses me because critique can so quickly turn into a setting for simply pointing out someone’s flaws. I appreciate that Tim Gunn doesn’t fall into that trap and instead brings a level of professionalism to reality TV. When Tsige told me that she got accepted into The New School, one of the first things she said was that she’d be on the lookout for Tim Gunn for me. What a friend!
We haven’t had any luck with her spotting him yet, but my fingers are crossed she’ll spot him one day before she graduates! It makes me smile thinking back on the day when I sewed beside her as she prepared to make it to another school – little did each of us know when that picture was snapped that she’d be in New York a year later wearing a dress I was unknowingly making her at the time. How much can change in such a short period of time!
I’ve found that in most cases people have very strong opinions on English Paper Piecing – most either immediately take to it or can’t stand it. The only way to find out which camp you fall under is to give it a try!
I learned the technique from family friend Marla (pictured above), who is a quilter extraordinaire, and immediately fell in love with this form of piecing. I often ponder what it is about English Paper Piecing that makes me like it so much. I think these are the top 4 reasons:
1. It’s super portable. I carry my backpack around with me almost everywhere I go. I’ve had the same backpack since 7th grade and although it’s falling apart, I keep it around because it fits my every need! I absolutely love how much can fit in it – groceries, projects, books, you name it. It’s easy to throw the necessary items for an English Paper Piecing project into my backpack and work on it on the go. I continue to be amazed that something as large as a quilt can be turned into a portable project when piecing by hand.
2. I am incredibly drawn to geometric shapes – particularly hexagons. Whenever I’m walking around or riding the bus, I’m constantly noticing patterns – in architecture, tiles, walls, sidewalks, bricks, clothing, storm drains, bus stops. Just about any geometric shape can be pieced using English Paper Piecing because Y seams don’t cause an issue like they do with machine piecing.
3. I enjoy not being tied to a sewing machine. Sewing by hand means I can sew just about anywhere – inside, outside, in public places, on the ferry, while waiting at the airport, etc. I particularly like the conversations I get to have with strangers when I’m sewing in public. While a conversation might start with someone walking up to me and saying, “What are you working on there?” or “I had a grandmother who used to quilt,” it oftentimes sprouts into a conversation about what that person is up to on that particular day or what type of handmade items they enjoy making. I’ve met many a knitter while hand piecing out in public! In today’s society I’ve found it so uncommon for people to strike up conversations with strangers, particularly when so many people are plugged into their own little world of headphones or a smartphone. English Paper Piecing is one small way that I make connections with people who I might not have ever met otherwise – folks who I get to enjoy having a brief conversation with and will likely never get to meet again beyond that initial connection. While English Paper Piecing out in public, a woman on an evening stroll came up to me at park bench at Alki Beach and told me all about the pillow she was making, a woman sitting beside me on a plane shared with me how she started a long distance quilting group as a way to stay connected with friends from high school, a retired professor’s eyes lit up as he told me all about the quilts his grandmother used to make, and a woman on the ferry chatted with me the entire way, telling me about the jewelry making classes she teaches. I find something special about those connections and it’s precisely why I oftentimes make a conscious decision not to listen to music through headphones or have my phone out while I’m piecing in public. Simply working with my hands while I’m out and about is a small invitation for people to come up and say hello. In the process, I get a little glimpse into their lives and I’m absolutely fascinated by the ways people open up about their creative interests or connection to handmade objects. It makes a city feel a little bit more like a small town.
4. I find piecing by hand to be incredibly calming. It’s a slow, steady, meditative process. Hand piecing gives me the time and space to reflect on my day, without the noise of a sewing machine. I continue to be amazed that by repeating a few simple motions over and over again, I’m able to produce something as large and intricate as an article of clothing or quilt.
Getting back to the specifics of Tsige’s dress, you might be thinking, “So I get that you like to English Paper Piece, but how did the amoeba of hexagons end up on the black dress for Tsige?” Some of my friends knew instantly which article of clothing they wanted me to embellish, while others needed some time to think about which article of clothing they wanted me to use as the base for their holiday gift. Tsige wavered between which article of clothing she’d give me to embellish. At one point she was debating between a purple dress with a unique cut and a simple black dress. I was at her apartment while she deliberated on which one to hand me. Inside I was secretively hoping she’d pick the purple dress, but I kept my mouth shut and instead waited until she made the decision. She picked the black dress and while my heart sank for a moment when she made that choice, I also trusted that she’d make the right decision for herself. Now I’m incredibly happy she picked the black dress. It’s a simple, blank slate. Literally almost anything could go on it. It provided the perfect canvas for the embellishments to stand out.
I originally thought I’d applique larger 2.5 inch hexagons down the back of the dress on point – almost like a spine of hexagons. While it’s an idea I still like, it felt a little too plain for Tsige, who has such a bold and bright personality. Come to think of it, I might end up doing a spine of hexagons down the back of one of my own black t-shirts – it’s more simple and my style, while the bright amoeba of hexagons is much more Tsige’s style.
This project was yet another reminder that creative ideas sneak up on me at the most unexpected times. One day when I pulled out a plastic bin labeled “Work In Progress” from my closet, I noticed that my amoeba of hexagons was in the same bin as Tsige’s black dress.They were already mingling together!
Seeing the dress and amoeba of hexagons, one on top of the other, I instantly thought, “That’s it! I’ll put the amoeba on Tsige’s dress!” Before that, I was at a standstill for how to proceed. I’d found the answer to both of my stalled projects – combine them.
I experimented with turning it this way and that and held it up to different parts of my body. Before I held the hexagons up to the dress, I thought I’d need to add hexagons to certain areas, so it would sit right on the dress. However, when I actually held the hexagons up to the dress, I felt like the amoeba of hexagons was already at a size and shape which worked well for the contours of the dress. I didn’t even need to add any more hexagons to it! Sometimes projects simply fall into your hands.
Other than sewing together the edges of some of the hexagons along the outer edge, the amoeba was complete. To work on the less satisfying job of sewing the edges (I say less satisfying because it doesn’t include watching the piece grow any bigger – it’s just a tiny detail which is necessary to keep it all together, but doesn’t change the final size), I met up with my friend and co-worker Gabe at his new apartment. We both live on-site at our jobs and I always enjoy seeing the ways live-in staff arrange their apartments to make it feel like home when technically home and work are in the same building. We chatted while he sewed a jumpsuit for the baby of two of his close friends and I worked on sewing the edges of the remaining hexagons. That’s one of the things I love about sewing – how it provides the perfect opportunity to catch up with friends while working on a project – in this case gifts for special people in our lives.
When it came time to actually sew the amoeba of hexagons onto the dress, I oscillated between pinning to sewing a section of the hexagons onto the dress to trying it on to looking in the mirror to sewing again.
As someone who rarely wears dresses anymore, I kept being surprised to see myself in the mirror wearing a dress as I slipped it over my gray tank top and men’s jeans. Gender expression – it’s a fascinating thing.
While the hexagons felt right on the dress, it still didn’t quite feel complete. One day I had the idea, “What if I put some studs on it?” I’d recently ordered a bag of 1,000 studs from Crustpunks.com and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to give them a whirl. I met up with Dev, Kaci, and Arielle one night at a coffee shop in the U District and brought along Arielle’s hoodie and Tsige’s dress as works-in-progress in my trusty backpack. They worked on homework for their various degrees while I sewed away. I oftentimes joke with my friends when I’m sewing beside them as they study that we’re all working on pursuing our life goals – at the moment mine are less academic and more closely rooted to working with my hands and that suits me just fine. I asked Arielle if she was okay with me working on her hoodie in front of her and she said she wanted it to stay a surprise, so that evening I kept Arielle’s hoodie in my backpack and instead focused solely on Tsige’s dress.
At the time I was finishing appliqueing the amoeba of hexagons onto the dress, but I still wanted to check on the placement near the bottom, since I’d only seen it on myself up until that point. I wasn’t so sure that I pinned correctly to make it flow with ease. I oftentimes say that quilting is so much easier to me than sewing anything to be worn on the body because at least quilts just lay flat – working on clothing includes so many added dimensions of needing to fit a 3-D object and flow in an effortless way – skills I’m still trying to develop. I asked Arielle, “Are you wearing a tank top under your shirt?” She said she was, so I asked her to strip down to the tank top in the coffee shop and try on Tsige’s dress – that way I could re-pin the amoeba of hexagons to the bottom of the dress while it was on a person other than me.Arielle became an instant live, moving, breathing dress form! This was the first time I saw the dress on someone other than myself. In that moment I felt confident that it would look good on Tsige – I knew the project was headed in the right direction.
While at the coffee shop in the U District, I also started putting studs on the dress. Having never put studs on anything before, I had to take the leap and just push one into the fabric. It takes a certain level of commitment and belief that it’s gonna work out somehow. I wasn’t quite sure at first how densely I wanted them to be placed, but once I got started, I naturally gravitated toward placing one stud in the middle of every clump of three hexagons made from the same fabric. It was the first time I’d used the studs on anything and I was grateful for how easily they pushed through the cotton hexagons and the knit fabric of her dress.
The ease of putting the studs on Tsige’s dress had me thinking it’d be much easier than it was to put studs on Arielle’s hoodie – which I later learned was much more difficult based on the thickness of the hoodie. Lesson learned – thicker fabric means sorer thumbs!
I already have fond memories of working on Tsige’s dress with my friends that night while at the coffee shop. It took me a moment to figure out why, but I think I’ve finally placed my finger on it. While working on these specific gifts, I didn’t work on them around the person who would receive the gift in order to keep the final product a surprise. This was such a foreign way for me to work – I’m almost always working on something by hand when I’m hanging out with my friends. Working on Tsige’s dress that evening was one of the few times I worked on any of these holiday gifts around my buddies and it was nice to be back around other people while creating. While I’m glad my friends got to experience the final reveal of their finished gifts as a total surprise, working on these projects in secret highlighted for me how much I thrive on working on creative projects around my favorite people.
I finished Tsige’s dress just in the nick of time. I placed it in a paper bag, wrote Tsige’s name on it, and brought it along with Dev and Arielle’s customized hoodies to the Binary Challenge Quilt Exhibit at Island Quilter on Vashon Island. You know you have true friends when they’re willing to go to a Seattle Modern Quilt Guild show on a Friday night!
While none of them are particularly interested in quilts, they are the type of friends who will step up to support me with things I’m passionate about. At this show, my quilt for Carl entitled “11:40PM with Carl” was on display. While at dinner after the show, I gave each of them the paper bag containing their outfit and it was a joy to watch each of them open their gifts. As I mentioned in the post about Arielle’s hoodie, she said while she liked everyone else’s gift, the one she received was her favorite. She said she was struck by how each article of clothing was made so specifically to match the style and personality of the person it was being given to. One of the things I love about homemade gifts is the level to which they can be tailored for a specific person. It provides an opportunity to manifest in physical form an object which includes small details I think they’ll appreciate.
We all headed back to my hometown of Sequim after the show to enjoy a weekend away together. Tsige’s boyfriend Chris joined us in Sequim the day after the quilt show and we were able to do all of the usual Sequim activities – take a walk on the Dungeness Spit, play A to Z (seriously one of the best games ever invented!), enjoy home cooked meals together, and sit on the porch while taking in the mountains. What could be better? My parents recently lived in Alaska for three years and during that period of time I didn’t take many trips out to Sequim. Once they returned to the Boenish family home in Sequim, I realized how much I’d missed visiting my hometown. Now I cherish my little trips back to the peninsula much more than I ever did before. With a gorgeous view of the Olympic Mountains from the front porch and good company, what’s not to love?
As you saw in the last post, Arielle chose to do the photoshoot in her hoodie around my family’s place in Sequim. Tsige picked to do her photoshoot on the ferry ride home between Bainbridge Island and Seattle. On the drive to the ferry, Tsige pulled out her iPhone and recorded the view as we drove across the Hood Canal Bridge – which hits at 30 seconds into the video. I didn’t realize she was recording this at the time and started talking about where Chris would turn once we got off the bridge – whoops! I’ve ridden in cars across the Hood Canal Bridge on countless occasions. Sometimes I haven’t bothered to look up if I’m reading a book or I won’t pay much attention to the view if I’m in an engaging conversation with someone else in the car. Seeing her video, which is perfectly accompanied by Common’s “The Sixth Sense” coming from the CD player, was the perfect reminder about the value in soaking in the sights around me – in particular the ones I’ve grown accustomed to seeing.
After we drove on the ferry, Chris headed upstairs, while Tsige, Arielle, and I geared up for the photoshoot. Tsige spent a few more minutes in the car getting prepped. Arielle and I waited outside the car on the already chilly car deck, brainstorming places to take pictures throughout the ferry. The woman in the car beside us was smiling as she glanced over at Tsige getting prepared – applying make-up and slipping into the dress. Once Tsige was ready, we bounced around the ferry taking photos near the fire equipment, in the stairwell, and on various decks. When on the lookout for opportunities to snap photos on a ferry, a surprising number of different types of settings appear.
I used my digital camera to take photos, while Arielle took pictures with Tsige’s iPhone. Using two cameras at the same time was an excellent way for us to get photos in the same location, but from different angles. Plus, Arielle snapped pictures I never would have imagined taking and vice versa. Arielle also jumped into director mode and gave Tsige suggestions for places and ways to pose. We were a three woman crew! It was an incredibly chilly and windy day, but Tsige was such a trooper and put up with it all in the name of fashion, even though by the end of it she was practically a popsicle! I’m so glad that we have these photos to not only capture photos of the dress, but of that particular time in our lives – when we all got to enjoy time together while living in the same city.
Fast forward to today and Tsige is back on the East Coast attending The New School. She’s a talented actresses and singer, who moved to the big city with a dream of getting a degree in acting. After a few months of attending The New School, she switched up her plans and decided to pursue a degree in directing, rather than acting. I couldn’t imagine a better, more natural fit.
I’m so happy that Tsige gets to be surrounded by such rich sources of inspiration. Her roommate Jamilla Okubo is even a talented emerging textile artist and fashion designer who made the crop top featured above.
Tsige’s passionate about community theater and being a catalyst for helping marginalized communities tell their own stories. I have no doubt Tsige will be a positive presence behind powerful shows which highlight stories that rarely see the spotlight – stories of immigrants, people of color, women, queer folks – people whose everyday lives so rarely get portrayed on stage in an authentic way.
Since moving to New York, she’s built herself a professional website – www.tsigetafesse.com – which showcases her work in modeling, acting, and mentoring. Remember the name Tsige Tafesse – I guarantee she’ll be one to watch for!
I’ve never been to New York before and am planning on taking a trip out to see her – what better way to see a place like New York City than with a friend who now calls the city home! While the details haven’t been nailed down, the trip will likely occur this spring, summer, or fall. Tsige recently made a surprise trip out to Seattle for a weekend. During our few hours together we chose to sit on the roof of the building where I live and work, nestled up against a wall near the solar panels, catching up about our lives and simply enjoying the evening together.
The sun was starting to set over the Space Needle and it was an evening which had such a “Seattle” feel to it. We started talking about my eventual trip to see her – places to see, things to do. While at first she said she didn’t think she could come up with many places to recommend for me to see, in no time her verbal list of “must sees” snowballed as one suggestion sparked an idea for the next recommendation. As she spoke, it struck me how well she’s beginning to know her new city.
When I first started sewing the little hexagons together, Tsige was at a point in her life when she was doing the legwork to get into a 4-year university where she could study theater. Now that’s precisely what she’s doing! While I oftentimes question whether crafting or blogging even matter, writing this post has provided me with the perfect opportunity to reflect on how much can transpire in such a short span of time – from the beginning of creating an article of clothing to the time it’s being worn. Now Tsige gets to wear this dress in her new city, studying what she loves. I’m so glad she got to take this little piece of Seattle with her.