How I got to be this way

One of my favourite authors, Giovanni Guareschi, of the wonderful Don Camillo tales, titled his autobiography How I got to be this way.

In his honour, and inspired by the fantastic Metropolitan Housewife, who asked how I learned to sew, and how long I have been sewing, here is a little background on my sewing life, and why I apply this skill to creating elaborate historical costumes.

I have always liked dressing up:

Exhibit A: 1st birthday party


History and crafting are both in my blood. My grandfather was an archeologist and made all sorts of awesome and important discoveries about Native Americans and the California Gold Rush. My grandmother (on the other side) sewed amazing clothes and did every craft ever invented. We know, because she still had massive stashes for every single one of them when she died.

By the time I can remember anything my Mum was too overwhelmed with 4 daughters and a farm to sew, but she did have a beautiful antique treadle machine in a carved oak cabinet, and she had made her own wedding dress.

I don’t know who, if anyone, first started teaching me to sew, but I do remember being about 8 and figuring out that if you put the wrong sides of fabric together and then sewed, your seam got hidden on the back. Eureka! I was hooked from then on.

When I was 12 a friend’s mother gave the two of us sewing lessons together. I made a enormously full circle skirt and a blouse to match out of lilac fabric with roses on it. That was my first real outfit, but from then on I made a lot of my own clothes. And a lot of my own costumes:

At 12 I was a Victorian lady for Halloween:


The next year I was a Revolutionary war lady, and I made a jester costume for my little sister:


The year after that I dressed up as a crazy and colourful bird to hand out candy for the littler kids at the Baha’i holiday of Ayyam-i-ha:




I made both of my prom dresses (but only have pictures of one):


And made an elaborate Nefertiti costume for a student council event (yeah, I was that girl on the student council):


In college I really got into historical costuming, with my first fairly accurate costume, a 16th century Flemish dress:


And it has only grown from there!


  1. Laurel Parker says

    It was delightful readig this. Your mother ( my sister, who is 4 years older) got me started sewing at the age of 8 as well. Our mother was in the hospital for months at a time with both TB and cancer. I remember Robin writing her and asking permission to use the sewing machine, and how extremely excited I was at the prospect, and again when permission arrived. I had such an emotional attachment to that sewing machine, which was an old White, that I kept it long after I’d moved onto Bernina’s ( my first major purchase, with money I inherited from my own Nana – your great grandmother). I’m sorry to say it gave it;s life in the Oakland Hills firestorm – one of the worst fires in US history. I’d loaned it to a friend, who lost their house. I want to add however, that it was one of the three things to be recognizable in the debris – it’s skeleton, along with a weber grill ( because it was outside, in less intensive heat) and a corning ware bowl, into wich the entire oven melted. Corning ware was designed for, and is still used, to protect rocket ships from intense heat. The Columbia disaster was caused by Nasa having used what I’m tempted to call a knock off product instead of corning ware.

    At any rate, that old White was a trooper and went down a hero, in my book. I remember it as a friend.

    As you know I went on to become a millinery designer, and logged in thousands of miles on sewing machines ( and with my hands) too. Before that I did some historical costuming mostly through the San Francisco Design network.

    I’ve only met you once and then through bad circumstances ( my father’s death) but I’m continually struck by how similar our perspectives on fashion and how we approach our work are. My belief in the old tenants of fashion (“Harmony and balance in all things” is a favorite quote of mine) and quality workmanship drove my work and I can see it drives yours too. And other things – your post on fur and leather – even though I am a vegetarian only in spirit (I’ve never been able to keep my energy up on a strictly vegetarian diet) I agree with every word you wrote.

    So interesting. I’m so impressed with where you’ve taken this interest we share.

  2. I was linked to this site from another. I feel a common bond with you when I see your dresses. I have sewed for years, but I have two children, so my time is limited now. I used to design my own clothes, not historical things, just whatever was in my head. Now I’m designing something for my sister. Something unlike anything I’ve ever seen, but similar to the styles of 1910 or so. My husband does reeinacting and leather work, and I would love to get started making historic costumes for poeple. Thank you for sharing your lovely pictures!

  3. Wow! Leimomi, you are truly a sewing savant – so knowledgeable, talented, prolific, and so young! Thank you for sharing your skills on your blog. I love sewing and vintage fabric and thought I knew a little something, but you humble me! You’re an inspiration.

  4. Rajrupa says

    I am a prospective MLitt: History of Art , Dress and Textile History student at the University of Glasgow. I am so delighted to stumble upon your fantastic site. I just gave a random search for textile history and VIOLA! 😀 . I do not know how to be a seamstress but I hope to learn. My interest in textile was inspired by the several old 80’s Hong Kong TVB prime time series, which were quite popular in those days … However I am at my wits end as to how I would go about starting this course, when it begins in early September this year (2012). After visiting your site I doubt whether I would ever be able to execute all that I would learn as passionately as you do. I wish to pursue my knowledge and career in East Asian textile . Being an Indian by birth and ancestry I have an acute attraction towards silk both Chinese and the typical Indian kind known as Assam Silk. Assam Silk is an indigenous wild silks produced in Assam a state in India and are of three kinds Muga White Jute (Pat) and Eri Silk and are used to make sarees usually of one color with delicate designs on the borders. However India’s silk varies from region to region. The southern part of the country is popular for its elaborately decorated brocade and silk sarees. I know this sounds silly but your passion for fashion and textile makes me want to meet you in person. I would like to see you create something beautiful on East Asian fashion trends, especially Chinese or perhaps Indian.

    • How wonderful to hear your story. I’d love to gain more in-depth knowledge of Indian silks. The history is so fascinating, and I only know the barest bit. I’d love to meet you too!

  5. Thanks for sharing your skills and stories! I am a self taught seamstress and now, sewing teacher, worried how to encourage students who start with a range of skills and interests. I rely on my library of sewing and costume books, and on the Web, and share an interest with the reader above in East Asian textiles. My favorites are Indonesian batiks, Thai silks, Indian cottons, and printed Chinese and Japanese silks. Fortunately for my budget these are all hopelessly out of reach in rural Ohio, but I have some treasures in my stash.

    You said two(?) years ago that you were pursuing a Ph.D. in textiles–is that still the case? Could you tell us what kind of classes and studies are involved in such a project?

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