Legato :: Liesl Gibson of Oliver + S
le•ga•to :: in a manner that is smooth and connected
Liesl Gibson of Oliver + S
by Jenny Doh
JD :: First things first. Who is Oliver? And who is S?
LG :: Oliver + S started almost by accident. I was designing clothing and sewing for my daughter. One of my dear friends, who has a son the same age as my daughter, encouraged me to publish my patterns. So when it came time to name the new company I decided to name it after her son, Oliver, and my daughter, who we call S.
JD :: Tell me about your first sewing machine. What was it like? What did you sew on it? Who was by your side guiding you?
LG :: I learned to sew by watching my mom and asking a lot of questions. I wouldn’t let her teach me (i.e., actually let her help me make something), but I hung out with her and kept a close eye on what she was doing. I finally decided to jump right in one summer when I was in college and my family was away on vacation. I stayed home for a summer job, and I marched myself over to the fabric store to buy ticking and a simple jumper pattern. I loved every minute of it and never looked back! So I really started sewing on my mom’s Pfaff, and then I inherited my grandma’s old Singer from the 1940s. That machine got me through design school—barely. It had tension issues, and I was thrilled to upgrade just around the time that I started Oliver + S.
JD :: Tell me about the machine (or machines) you currently work on.
LG :: Now I have a couple of Janome machines and just love them. My fancy machine (Janome 6600) is big and computerized and does all sorts of delicious things like automatic buttonholes. It lives at our studio, but at home I sew on a little Janome Jem which is simple and lightweight and still very powerful. I’ve made all sorts of things on it, including winter coats. I also use a Janome serger, which saves lots of time and makes everything look professional on the inside.
JD :: These days when you sew, are you by yourself or are there people near you? What do they think about your sewing?
LG :: I don’t have as much time to sew as I would like, but I still sew through every pattern several times. I do most of my sewing at home, at night in our converted closet that we call “the workroom.” We live in a tiny one-bedroom in Manhattan, so space is at a premium and I often go into the workroom to sew when my seven-year-old is going to bed. She likes to know that I’m close by, and I get a little work done in the process. She loves it when I sew for her. And my husband knows that I need to be making things to stay sane. So everyone is supportive!
JD :: I LOVE dragging outfits onto the paper dolls on your site. It makes me remember the HOURS I spent playing with my paper dolls. Tell me about your memories of playing with paper dolls.
LG :: Oh, I loved paper dolls too! My sisters and I played with them for hours when we were growing up. And my mom was very patient and helped us to cut out the tricky bits. I’m sure all that time spent playing paper dolls contributed to my love of sewing and apparel. What’s better than being able to dream up a dress and then actually being able to go make it?
JD :: You recently taught at The Makerie. And there were students of yours who wore the muslins that they had created to dinner ... not the finished dress but the "practice" dress that you teach students to make before they make their final dress. First, how did you feel to see your students look so cute wearing their muslins ... and second ... tell us the definition of a muslin and what part it plays in constructing a final garment.
LG :: Wasn’t that great? I cried—it meant so much to me. I teach because I love what I do, and I want to share what I’ve learned with other women so they can make whatever they dream up. But it’s challenging to teach a one-day class because no one leaves with a finished dress. I wanted everyone to have a real sense of accomplishment, and I was afraid that leaving with a muslin would feel more like a task that still needed to be finished. So when Angela and Geanie wore their muslins to dinner (accessorized beautifully, by the way!) it really made my day. I could see that they were proud of what they had accomplished. And I hope that they went home excited to make the dresses, too. A muslin, by the way, is a test garment. It helps you to work out any fit issues and construction details before you cut into your “real” fabric. So, for example, we don’t finish the neckline or the seam allowances like you would on an actual dress. The muslin has lots of markings on it so can check how the dress fits and make adjustments to it to perfect the pattern for each individual, too. It’s like the rough draft.
JD :: You have so many wonderful things that you offer in your shop ... like patterns, books, and videos. Let's talk about patterns. Tell me about the process of creating a pattern. How does it start? How does it all come together?
LG :: I’m right in the middle of our fall patterns right now. It’s a long process that start with the design itself: the silhouette (shape), the details like collars, seams, pockets, etc. Then we make a test pattern or two (or three) to check the fit before we sew it to make sure it will come together smoothly. We often need to try a few methods to find the best way to sew it, the best way to get it on (buttons, zipper, pull-on?). That’s all the easy part. Then when the pattern if final and we’ve confirmed that we like the method of sewing we can grade the pattern into all the various sizes. And in the meantime we write the instructions, make the illustrations, and then I format the pattern so it looks pretty and each size can be used easily. It’s a very detailed process that takes about four months, with a couple of additional months for printing the patterns before they can be delivered. And then we start all over again with the next season!
JD :: You have a passion for accessories and toys for children, as evidenced by your book, Oliver + S Little Things To Sew. Can you share with us how you conceived of this book concept? What parts of it were easy? What parts of it were challenging?
LG :: Right from the start, I had been gradually assembling a list of ideas for smaller projects that didn’t feel like they merited a full-fledged sewing pattern of their own, so it seemed natural that those smaller projects could be combined into a book of patterns for accessories and toys. The book is called Oliver + S Little Things to Sew because that’s exactly what it is.
We eventually chose to work with a publisher that would allow us to bring our whole team to the project, and as a result the book retains the feel of our sewing patterns and brand. Dan, our paper doll illustrator, provided the paper doll illustrations. (There are paper dolls printed on cardstock at the back of the book and the dust jacket features little paper doll illustrations of the outfits and items from the book that can be cut up to dress the dolls.) My friend Brooke, who did our logo and package design, also designed the book. And I was able to use the same technical editor we use for our patterns. It was a lot of fun to work with the team on the book, and even more fun to work with our wonderful photographer, Laurie Frankel, to shoot the projects.
JD :: Think fast and say the first word (or two) that comes to mind when I say the following:
- ears: bunnies (S’s obsession at present)
- blanket: quilts
- stripes: my favorite pattern
- students: love!
- mothers: mine is awesome. I hope I can be half as good.
- children: adore them. I think someday I’d like to be a school teacher
- cotton: great to sew with, comfortable to wear
- oatmeal: my favorite breakfast
- apron: best when made from linen because it keeps getting better with age
- paint: doing all sorts of it right now as we get ready for our semi-annual trade show!
- dart: great for adding shape to a garment
- fathers: I’m married to a good one
- Sound of Music: no fair! Ok, yes. My name comes partially from the Sound of Music and partially from my grandma’s nickname. Her father was German, and Liesl is a German diminutive/nickname for little girls
- dolls: at our house we’re obsessed with Samantha, the American Girl doll
- bedtime: always a challenge at our house. I’m a night owl. So is my daughter, apparently!
- pinking shears: I rarely use them. I prefer to zigzag stitch a seam allowance
JD :: If someone were to give you an extra 10 hours to use this week, what would you do with those hours?
LG :: Sadly, I would use them to catch up on deadlines. I’m starting to fall behind, and I get a little panicky when that happens. I could really use some help right about now! But ask me again in a month or so and I’d be thrilled to go get a cup of coffee or hang out at the park or something. That sounds lovely right now.
LG :: That depends. When I’m completely overwhelmed and stressed out I often try to create order by cleaning out a closet. Sometimes it works, too! But when I just have time to myself and no stress I’ll either hang out with a book or a magazine (I have stacks of them) or start a new project. There are so many things I’d like to make, but I rarely have time to do something just for fun anymore.
LG :: I’m almost always at home with my husband (and business partner) and daughter. We try to have dinner together almost every night because evenings are our family time. It’s often hectic as we’re doing homework and taking care of regular life details, but I love it that we can be together. Back when I started Oliver + S my husband was working in finance, and we really only saw him on the weekends because his workdays were so long. I’m really glad we can be together for meals and evenings now.