The Opinionated Tailor:
Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”.
Well, today, I am literally going to “talk shop”. I’ve been on a little hiatus from podcasting due to the last stages of construction on my new workshop and my editors thought everyone might enjoy hearing how I came to design and build this new space.
When we moved this summer to be closer to our church, our new house did not have adequate workspace for me. We batted around several ideas like converting the garage or knocking together two bedrooms, but none of these seemed ideal—after all, where we going to put our bikes, or for that matter, our children as they grew older and needed some additional space? The house was absolutely perfect but for this one thing, so we spent a couple of weeks debating how to solve the problem. We were walking around the very large back yard during one of our visits to the house prior to purchasing it and I jokingly remarked, “Hey, this yard’s so big, you could put another garage back here!” Bingo! With that comment, I had my workspace.
The funny thing was, I was the most apprehensive about this plan. My husband spent over a week convincing me that this was a Good Idea. I worried about the expense, I worried about plopping a great big shop in the middle of our yard, I worried about designing a space that would adequately serve my needs over the coming years. Building something from scratch was serious business and I was more than a little afraid of tackling a project this big.
Over the years, I’ve worked in all sorts of cramped and less-than-ideal quarters. It started in seminary when I shared my sewing space with our futon and it seemed like we were always walking around hangers loaded with pieces of cassocks or plastic totes filled with brocades. Once we were assigned to our parish in our home town, we assumed finding a big house with lots of room would be a piece of cake since Portland was such a cheap place to live, but during the time we had been in seminary the housing market tripled and we found ourselves the proud owners of an 800SF house with a tiny spare bedroom in which I set up shop. The room was so small that I had to fold my cutting tables if I needed to get to the sewing machine and all my extra supplies were stored in the crazy attic that only I could stand up in (being short has its advantages).
When we looked for our next house, workspace was a top priority and we looked at older homes with basements since most basements were considered “bonus rooms” and didn’t add much to the overall price of the house. Plus, it would be cool in the summer since the boiler-type iron I use can raise the overall temperature of a room almost 10 degrees. This next house had the original 1940s knotty-pine “party room” in the basement complete with knotty pine bar and pool table. Thankfully, the owners took the pool table with them and a local youth organization was thrilled to give a home to the bar in their community room. This new space was truly thrilling, since I could actually keep my cutting table set up all the time! My father built me a new 6’ by 9’ cutting table that came apart in pieces so that we could maneuver it down the narrow stairs into the workroom, which was rather tricky since the ceilings were only 7 feet tall (shortness again has its advantages). He also made built-in, floor-to-ceiling shelving across an entire 13-foot wall and I felt as if I was living in a photo out of a “Beautiful Home Offices” designer book! Despite the fact it only had one window and was freezing cold in winter, I loved this workshop and have many great memories of working there. It was in this space I learned the value of enough, but not too much, space. By being fairly tight quarters, it was highly efficient—I didn’t waste steps crossing an overly large room to grab a pattern or a piece of galloon. But by the time we moved this summer, I had overflowed the 250SF area and now used the remainder of the basement and even part of my attic for storage of fabric and supplies and shipping boxes. It was definitely time to gain a little more space.
So, enter the new house and the great big back yard. Just after we signed papers, I got a roaring head cold and spent seven days on the couch reading books on architecture and design. My greatest fear quickly became that I would leave something out and regret it since every book seemed to have so many options and so many laundry lists of Absolutely Necessary Things. It was one thing to move into a house and “make do” with whatever space I could carve out, it was an entirely different thing to build a workshop from the ground up.
Workshops are evocative places for me, since my father practically lived in his during my entire childhood. He’s an aircraft machinist by trade and builds fine furniture as a hobby. The garage was his workshop and it was a fascinating place to be—he had a metal lathe and all sorts of unusual tools and measuring equipment and there was always leftover bits of wood or building supplies with which to play. There always seemed to be something “going on” in the workshop and as a child, I loved being there. I remember coming home from school one day and finding him somewhat woozily sitting at his workbench after having almost electrocuted himself while working on the engine of the 1927 Model A Ford he was rebuilding. I remember him building us shipping crate scooters using our old roller skate wheels that were the envy of all the kids on the block. I remember getting lectured about my grades in high school in the workshop. Yep, the workshop was definitely where things happened.
Workshops were adult territory and as I approached the design of mine, I felt more than a bit of fear and trembling—was I really adult enough to have my own shop? And, there was certainly a higher level of commitment that came with a shop—up to this point, I could always get grumpy after a long day cutting brocades and huff around threatening to throw in the towel—but with a bonafide workshop sitting in my back yard, this was hardly feasible hereafter. I was putting all my eggs in one basket and I was a little nervous.
Throughout the time of our move, I had found great consolation in the patron saint of our church, St. George. As a khouria, you would have thought I would have given St. George more consideration over the years, since as a family we served the parish he looked over, but I hadn’t really given him his due up to this point. As soon as this whole move and workshop opportunity came up, however, I decided to get to know him a lot better. I stood in front of his icon at church and said, “OK, if you want this to happen, you’re going to have to make it happen!”. I began lighting a candle at his icon and praying for his intercession that I would have the strength and wisdom for this new endeavor. He was a solider saint, after all, and I thought if anyone knew a thing or two about discipline and forced marches, he was the guy.
So, I picked up my Staedtler no.2 mechanical pencil and my fancy French “Clairefontaine” graph paper notebook and got to work. My original design was a basic rectangle based on plans for a garage, but I realized early on that this gave me a lot of wasted space in the middle of the room. For sewing, you need a lot of wall space for shelving and laying things out, so the more walls the better.
I switched to an “L-shaped” building, but this took quite a few rough drafts to get the proportions right. I had some basic ground rules: I couldn’t go over 500SF as this would exceed my budget and I needed to make all of my walls and dimensions multiples of either 4 or 8 since this would result in the most efficient use of lumber. The L-shaped building became an L that looks just like a typeset capital “L”, only backwards—the long vertical line of the “L” is my cutting and main storage area and the short base of the “L” became a little shipping and photography area.
I ran into a bit of a problem when I contacted my local building department and learned that all “non-dwelling accessory buildings” such as my shop had to be set-back from the rear property line by 15 feet. Suddenly, my workshop was getting real cozy with my house and while at first, this seemed problematic, in the end, it turned out to be a fantastic arrangement. I was reading Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language”, which is a quirky architecture book laid out like an encyclopedia, but consisting of the sort of items you would never see cataloged in an encyclopedia, such as “Light from Two Sides” or “A Place in the Sun”, when I ran across the entries about workshops and meaningful work. Mr. Alexander was positively effusive on the subject of work being integrated with one’s daily life and I found him a refreshing companion along the design journey. My L-shaped building began to look like something he’d envision since by snuggling up to the house it created a courtyard area between the house and the workshop. Rather than keeping the workshop at a healthy distance from our living space, it brought it up close and personal, which made sense once I thought about how many times I had paused after cutting a project to put a pot of soup on for dinner. It also allowed me to be an integral part of the backyard during the glory days of spring and summer, something I relished after being in a basement for so long. The L-shape created a domino effect of other great shapes, like the end of one of the smaller windowless walls which is just begging for a little bench to sit and soak up sunny days or the two 24-foot long walls which gave me all the shelving space I needed, but didn’t make the building feel cavernous. The windowless back of the building with its 15-feet of set-back became a messy area for the yard where our compost bins and firewood can dwell in invisible harmony.
Next came windows: to say I was absolutely besotted with the idea of windows is an understatement. I read, thought and dreamed windows for weeks. Having worked for eight years in a basement and lived in rather gray, drizzly Portland for almost 40, the idea of natural light in my workspace on a daily basis was exhilirating. Long ago, I learned to do home improvement on the cheap, but someone gave me the good advice to have one “splurge” per project. It’s kind of like wearing your grandmother’s pearl necklace with your thrift store duds—one well-made detail can make the whole outfit look terrific. I knew from the beginning that the windows were going to be my splurge. I wanted lots of them—six to be precise, three on each side of the cutting area since my other walls were windowless due to the necessity of shelving. Early on in my research into Byzantine art, I discovered that the Byzantines thought 6 was the number of perfection since it was divisible by 1—One God, 2—the Two Natures of Christ, and 3—the Trinity. My L-shaped building had six walls, which was working beautifully, so I decided six windows would be perfect. I agonized over panes or no panes and went with panes since Christopher Alexander mentioned the light from paned windows being more vibrant. The grid of my 2x3 windows created six mini-vistas per window and thereby added contrast and texture to the visual experience of the building.
Once I decided upon the number and the panes, I had to decide on how they would open, since this is obviously an important function of windows. About this time, I was in Pennsylvania for a conference and made my bi-ennial pilgrimage to Fallingwater, one of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous buildings. It’s a wonderful, amazing house, cantilevered over a waterfall. One of the most unique features of the house is a 3-story corner column of metal-clad windows, all of which open out from the corner, making the corner disappear. Michael Pollan, in his book, “A Place of One’s Own” talks at length about architecture’s need to provide both “prospect” and “refuge” and I can’t think of a better example of this than Wright’s corner windows at Fallingwater. There’s a heady freedom in a building with supposedly no corners but a paradoxically reassuring comfort in the rest of the room—stand near the corner and you’ve got your prospect; move back a few feet and you’ve got your refuge. If only in a very small way, I wanted my workshop to have this atmosphere. So, all of my windows open like Fallingwater—away from the corner.
Last came the roof, and this was important, too, since it needed to tie the workshop to the house and yet not overwhelm our back yard. Once again, I looked to Frank Lloyd Wright, but this time to his “Prairie” style houses with their low, hipped roofs which matched the roof of the house. The local building department let us go down to a 3-12 pitch hipped roof, which is pretty flat—my workshop sits low to the ground and despite its size, feels very complementary to the house. Once I saw the initial plans, which an architect friend of mine drew up, I fell in love with the roof—I had completely forgotten that hipped roofs create eaves and my building was now surrounded with 2 feet of eaves on all sides. The eaves provided excellent protection from our near-constant winter rains and transformed my rather functional workshop into a warm, inviting, cottage-style building.
Once the design and plans were complete, I was off to the building permit office. I was dreading this process, but it turned out to proceed quite smoothly and I had my permits in three days, an achievement I was later to learn from contractor friends was nothing short of a miracle. We found a contractor that fit our budget and our style, which I don’t know what kind of reflection that is on us because this contractor specializes in working with clients with senior dementia. The first day they were there, I drove up to my house to see a sign with their logo, which read “Helping you stay where you want to be”. Hmmm, I thought, well, I guess that about sums it up.
It was amazing to see how fast everything went up—the concrete floor and foundation was poured in a day and we suddenly got our first glimpse into what this pencil-and-paper creation was really going to look like. I began to worry again, “Was it too big?” “Was it too small?” Every church service saw me lighting more candles to St. George, praying everything was going to turn out. The walls went up and then the roof and the first time I went into the fully-framed building, it brought tears to my eyes. The carpenters looked at me like they’d done something wrong, but I was just incredibly happy. The space felt wonderful. Our electrician came on the scene, complete with Brooklyn, NY accent and his now-famous tag-line, “You can never have too much power.” Well, I certainly can’t now that I have almost 20 outlets in the building, including three in the ceiling. He looked pained when I suggested just pulling power from the house and insisted on putting in a dedicated electrical panel, even going so far as to check the UL listing on each of my sewing machines and iron to make sure nothing would blow the circuits.
The siding went up and then the sheetrock and texturing, and then it was my turn. My contractor allowed me to do some of the work myself to stay within our budget, so I did the interior painting and started work on the concrete floors. I wanted to keep the concrete floors because they were the most practical flooring option from a janitorial point of view—cutting over a thousand yards of fabric a year creates quite a lot of mess and I needed an easy-care floor. Acid-etched concrete floors are all the rage in Portland and I really liked the stone-like look, so I decided to try my hand at this. I read websites and checked with a friend who had done floors this way. I began with a $6 gallon of hydrochloric acid, a broom, and a shopvac and emerged five days later with bruises on my knees, a crink in my neck, and really fabulous floors. To acid-etch concrete, you have to apply a solution of muriatic acid, which is weakened hydrochloric acid. It reacts with the lime in the top layer of concrete and reveals the more stone-like look of the concrete underneath. Most people who attempt this, do so before they have walls and sheetrock so you can just hose down the concrete pad as you work. I did not have this luxury and so I spent five days sucking up bucket after bucket of rinse water with my shopvac. My extremely understanding and devoted husband even did two extra acid treatments once we realized I hadn’t worked the first treatment in thoroughly enough. Everything I read told me I’d have to stain the floors after etching, but once mine were etched, they revealed lovely crackle patterning and gold flecks throughout, so I was able to skip this step and just apply sealant. I really love these floors, partly because I have so much elbow grease into them and partly because it’s just so nifty that a big old blob of what is essentialy rubble can look so good.
My walls are a light gold, another nod to the Byzantines who associated gold with the Incarnation of Christ. I found a fascinating scientific tie-in to this when I learned that while most colors reflect light at only 40-60%, yellows and golds reflect light at 85-90%, which is almost the same reflective value as white. Yellows have also been shown in studies to be a motivating color in the workplace, providing a cheerful and warm atmosphere. And, since most of the projects I work on will eventually be seen under low, warm, candle-toned church lighting, a slightly gold backdrop is very helpful when matching brocades and galloons.
Everything else is simple—garage-style fluorescent fixtures and plain baseboard and window trim—to help the space feel very workmanlike. When I’m here, I need to work, not rest or reflect, so the space needed to communicate that through almost austere finishes.
Like all construction projects, ours would not have been complete without at least one major setback. We were scheduled to be completed in mid-October and everything was going swimmingly until the windows were supposed to show up. They took the scenic route from the factory in Wisconsin and didn’t end up being installed until mid-November. The day the windows were delivered was a day of rejoicing in our household as we had tired of looking at an almost-done workshop with sheets of plywood nailed up over the gaping window openings. When we first saw the windows in, we were amazed at the change. Up until this point, a few doubts remained in the back of my mind, since the building still looked a little out of balance with our yard. But the windows brought out all the charm of the building and I now delight to stand at my kitchen sink and look out on a warm, inviting workspace. And standing inside the workshop is a real joy—the room feels airy and light, yet very solid. I’ve got my prospect and refuge and it’s definitely working!
This week is Moving Week and I have never approached moving with as much joy and thankfulness as I bring to this week. My work as an ecclesiastical tailor is deeply satisfying, not the least from the fact that in today’s modern, automated, factory-driven world I am grateful to have my working life revolve around the continuation of an almost 2,000-year-old tradition of handcraft. To have the proper space to do so from now on, is a blessing beyond compare. With the building of this new workspace, I pray that I may continue to be blessed to serve the Church in this way that brings so much joy and beauty into my life.