The basement is a menagerie of color. On one wall sits a huge white cabinet. There is a drawer for each item she’ll need—multicolored zippers, thread, pens. Another wall is covered in shelving, making it easy for her to grab the rainbow of fabrics, beads, and patterns.
Around the room sit five sewing machines, the heart of the operation. A mannequin stands in one corner, bare, ready to be covered in whatever materials fall into junior Emily Collin’s agile fingers. These tools allow her to create her art: clothing.
“For me to design and create [fashion]… that nobody’s ever thought of, nobody has ever made before, that’s the best part,” Emily said.
Designing is part of Emily’s history. When Emily was eight-years-old,her mother, Karen Collins,began teaching Emily all she knew about the art of sewing. In Emily’s 4-H group, an organization focused on hands-on learning, she designed a skirt, a top, and a dress. She would also sew little things for her room such as pillows or stuffed animals. Karen enjoyed seeing her daughter develop a passion for something that had always meant so much to her.
Karen started sewing when she was seven after her great-aunt gave her her first sewing machine. Growing up, she would sew some of her own clothes. Twenty-three years ago, Karen began work as a professional seamstress at a custom bridal shop called the Lady Who Makes Dresses. Her designs include not only the custom bridal gowns, but also revamped old dresses and costumes for theater troupes.
“Her older sister sews a little bit but nothing to the extent Emily does,” Karen said. “I was very happy that she wanted to learn how to do it, but I didn’t push her into it.”
Emily’s skill comes only from what her mother taught her, apart from a futile day workshop at Harper’s, a fabric store that later closed, when she was younger. She and her sister sat, bored, as they were taught techniques they had learned before. Now, Emily relies only on her mom for help. Because of school and work, they don’t get to see much of each other. Hancock Fabric’s, where Karen works as assistant manager, has turned into a makeshift home for the two, where they can draft patterns or evaluate new fabrics together.
Emily’s design process starts with an idea, something she’s seen in a magazine or on one of her favorite shows, Project Runway. She’ll take one aspect of a design and tweak it to her personal style. Sometimes she thinks the designs get too complex, but Emily will work with it until it’s something she can manage. Color comes last. After that, it’s a whirl of trips to Hancock’s, using her electric sewing machine, and alterations with her serger.
The hardest part of creating a piece is starting, Emily says. She makes her own patterns, starting from a base, and has to cut out each swatch of fabric individually. It’s the most boring part of the process for her, but once she’s done, the real magic begins. Emily will work five hours on the clothing, using her sewing machine, until it is almost completed. That leaves only hand alterations and the finishing embellishments.
Depending on the project, the total amount of time working varies, but usually clocking in around 30 hours. Skirts take an hour. Pajama pants, 20 minutes.
“Fashion, for me, is an art,” Emily said. “A piece of art that people really identify themselves with so much that they decide to cover their bodies with it.”
At home, Emily will find something that doesn’t fit or she doesn’t like anymore and mess with it until she likes it again.
“[Junior Meagan Dexter] always makes fun of me, because she’s like ‘Oh, did you make something tonight to wear to school tomorrow?’ ” Emily said. “Sometimes I’ll do that.”
Now, Emily is designing and making two dresses for WPA—one for herself, and one for Dexter. Shopping for a dress that’s close to perfect isn’t appealing to Emily. She’d rather take matters into her own, capable hands and make something ideal.
Emily started her own dress over Winter Break, working on it for two days, until it was close to finished. Her dress is a brown, backless V-neck with woven straps. The girly and flowy gown is a complete contrast to the Homecoming dress she made, which was more structured. Emily doesn’t need to explain this disparity—she wears what she’s in the mood to wear.
“I really just like things that are a little different,” Emily said. “But I don’t try to make them different or ‘indie.’ I just do what I feel comfortable in.”
Later over break, Dexter texted Emily, asking for her own dress for WPA. Since Emily’s dress was close to being done, she was happy to start work on another dress. The two friends met at Hancock’s to look at some ideas Dexter brought for her dress.
Dexter was excited to have Emily design her dress, since they were friends and it would be one-of-a-kind. Dexter looked through fashion magazines to get ideas, and they worked on getting the right design, fabric, and fit.
“She has so much potential,” Dexter said. “I think they’re really intricate and beautiful, so I’m really excited.”
Dexter’s favorite —a purple, one shouldered dress with grey accents—was more complicated than anything Emily had made before, but she decided to step up to the challenge.
“I love to see some of my friends at school when they come and they’re wearing something that I made for them,” Emily said. “They chose that out of anything in their closet, anything in the stores, something that I made.”
Though Emily loves making clothes for her friends, last year she entered the National Art Honor Society fashion show to demonstrate her talent. Emily remembered when her sister had entered the fashion show and she was in awe of how the designs were lit as the models went down the runway. She entered six designs in the show, the most of any single participant. Most of her entries had a retro style, and some were dresses she’s already made.
But an idea was forming in her mind, something artistic, creative, and all together different. Emily designed a vinyl corset, each panel covered with magazine portraits. She crossed out all the mouths and eyes in the pictures, a representation of the fashion show’s theme, “Miscommunication.” Once finished, Emily was extremely proud of her design, but she didn’t expect it to win anything.
But, to her surprise, Emily’s corset won “Best Surface Design,” an award which goes to designs covered in another medium. According to Emily, other entries in this category were things like jeans and shirts from the store covered in paint. Being a sophomore, she was extremely gratified to be recognized for her talent.
“I had put in so many hours,” Emily said. “I’m really not a sports person, and I’m not exceptionally great in school. It was my one chance to be acknowledged as better at something than other people.”
Emily hopes to continue designing in the future. Her first choice for college, Pittsburgh State, would allow her to work on fashion design and her other passion, nursing. She doesn’t think the two will go together well in a career, but she wants to continue designing in the future, whether for her kids or for herself.
“I can make things that nobody else can understand because they’re not me,” Emily said. “I can create the thing that I love so much and that describes me in such a personal way.”