A Tale of Two Pillows, Part 2: A Wedding Anniversary Gift For One of My Brides

frog-closure-2My last post was about the first pillow I ever made. This post is about the last pillow that I made (perhaps latest is the better word to use, since I’m sure I’ll make more in the future). It also involves a mother—this time not mine, but one of my brides’— as well as a surprise gift: a first wedding anniversary gift for her daughter. And, thankfully, the craftsmanship of this pillow is markedly improved over the first one!


Cecilia, my bride’s mother, got in touch with me around the holidays wondering if I could make a pillow with the same frogs I had made on her daughter Sarah’s wedding dress. Her  first wedding anniversary was approaching and she wanted to surprise her daughter with a special gift and thought this would be something unique that her daughter would really appreciate.



They had all loved the wedding gown I made the year before, especially the front frog closure on the jacket which referenced their Chinese heritage from the mother’s side of the family. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a tangible reminder of that element of the gown, instead of just photos or having to take the dress out of a box to see?

frogs-wedding-jacket.jpgI thought it was a great idea, and was flattered to be looped into another important milestone in this wonderful family’s life. This is what I love about my job: that I get to do this thing that I absolutely love to do which creates something with so much meaning and significance for my clients and their families.

good luck knot frog-closures

I happened to have enough fabric left over from making her dress that I could do it, so I got to work, replicating the frogs and ball button closure that I had initially created for the front of the jacket that went with the wedding gown, this time, for the front of a pillow.

wedding-jacket-frogs-frontWhen designing the original gown (which I’ll devote an entire post to in the future—for now I’ll just stick to the frog parts) I researched Chinese knots and chose a good luck knot to recreate in the same Italian silk duchess satin as I made the rest of the gown. The button is a monkey’s fist knot.

The whole point of this pillow was to have the exact frog closure on the pillow as the wedding dress, but as I was making the pillow I got carried away, thinking of all the even more complex and elaborate frogs I could make; I had to restrain myself! There now exists in my head an entire suite of frog embellished couture throw pillows! I started daydreaming of all the other pillows I could make, inspired by all my other brides’ dresses. I loved this project and hope to make more wedding gown inspired pillows for my brides, whether as a reminder of their wedding gown, or ring pillows for the ceremony.

frog-closure-pillowIf you’re one of my past brides and you’d like a keepsake pillow made with the leftovers of your fabric, or if you’re a future bride and you like the idea of a ring pillow made made to match or compliment your dress, let me know!

good luck knot monkeys fist.jpg

Mother’s Day Tribute: A Tale of Two Pillows, Part 1.

Last Christmas was the best Christmas ever; not only because I got to decorate like a fiend, but because while I was home I finally found—after a fruitless eighteen year search!—a bunch of things I had sewn when I was a child and teenager that I’d long worried had been accidentally thrown away. I burst into happy tears when I pulled this from a box and held it for the first time in probably more than 20 years.

pillow-frontIt’s a pillow I made as a Mother’s Day gift for my mom when I very first started sewing. It was the first non-Barbie-clothes thing I ever made, and it is The Most Important Thing I Have Ever Sewn because it taught me the importance of craftsmanship and construction in relation to design.

I had secretly taught myself how to sew when I was 6 or 7 years old and once my mom realized I had been sewing on my own, and I had her real permission to use the sewing machine, I decided I would make her something special for Mother’s Day. 

pillow-closeupI put a lot of thought into the design, but even more heart; both literally and figuratively, as you can see! Limited by what fabric was available in the scrap drawer, I chose white felt, which was leftover from when my mom made me lamb’s ears to wear as a three year old when I was one of the stable animals in the Christmas party nativity scene; pink corduroy, from a pair of old pants I had grown out of; and denim that had most likely been my dad’s yard-work pants, or at least used to patch my dad’s yard-work pants, I’m not sure.

To stuff the pillow I used a bag of cotton balls that I had pilfered from the cabinet under my mom’s bathroom sink, because what else would you stuff a pillow with when you’re a little kid? The bag was half empty, though, so my pillow ended up being a little bit flat.

pillow-edge-3Sewing multiple layers of denim is a pretty ambitious task for anyone, let alone an 8 year old novice, but I wasn’t going to let my inexperience get in the way of making a sumptuously ruffled edge for my pillow. You can tell that I constructed the top and bottom ruffle first because, a) they’re sewn inside the seam, and b) there is actually some semblance of a ruffle; by the time I got to the vertical sides of the pillow I had run out of fabric and there was just barely enough to cover the last side, with not a single pleat and no folded edges to hide the frayed raw edges of the denim.

pillow-backWhen I had it all finished I was so proud of this beautiful thing I had made to show my mom how much I loved her and I just knew she would love it too! She would think it was the best gift ever and be so proud of it and show it off to all of her friends.

I decided that the best way to give it to her would be to place it on her bed (where I was sure she would display it for the rest of her life!) so that when she walked into her bedroom she would see it and know that it was obviously a gift I had made for her. I waited anxiously all Mother’s Day for her eruption of surprise and gratitude, but it never came.

pillow-edge-1What did come, however, was the pillow— right back into my bedroom! My mom put it in there, assuming I had accidentally left it in her room, as if it was one of my toys I’d forgotten to clean up. I was devastated, and brought it back to her, telling her that this was my Mother’s Day gift and that I had made it for her to put on her bed.

I don’t think she really knew what to do at that point, and we are an honest bunch of people, my family, so she told me the cold hard truth:

“But Colette, it doesn’t match my bedroom.”

(SIDENOTE: In the mid 80’s my mom redecorated the main floor of our house with peach carpet, and peach everything everywhere, so of course this pink and blue pillow did not match, but Mom, that wasn’t the point!)

She also delicately tried to explain to me that my sewing and craftsmanship might not yet be good enough for permanent display. She had every right to make that call; the tailored wool jacket that she made in her university sewing class in 1965 was the most perfectly crafted thing the professor had seen in all her years of teaching (another blog post for another time), and Jane’s Peach Palace, as my parents’ house eventually came to be called by my older siblings, had certain aesthetic standards to uphold!

Now, if you’re worried that my mom is some sort of cold, unfeeling aesthete because my pink and blue pillow wasn’t good enough for her, to her credit, she kept a bouquet of tissue paper flowers (with bright green pipe cleaner stems!) I made for her, probably when I was even younger, in a vase on her bathroom vanity for years. Of course, the tissue paper was peach, though…

pillow-cornerSo the Freudian subtext of this story is that I’ve spent the rest of my life sewing maniacally to prove to my mother that I can make something worthy of her praise and adoration, but the more accurate take-away from this experience is that I learned at an early age that it’s not enough to have a great idea, or to be well intentioned in your creative endeavors—you also have to be able to execute your idea at the requisite level.

That is the bedrock principle of my design philosophy, creative process and aesthetic, and as devastating an experience as this was as a little girl—adding insult to injury, a few days later I heard my mom yelling out from her bedroom, “Where’d all my cotton balls go? Who took my cotton balls?” To which I, deflated, had to confess—it served a much greater purpose than if she had showered me with compliments and kept the pillow on her bed like I had hoped.

pillow-edge-2.jpgI love my mom and everything she’s done for me in my life. She’s my biggest fan and greatest champion, and I owe so much to the many wonderful things she’s taught me, the sacrifices she’s made for me and my four older siblings, and the constant love and support she provides for our family.

It’s impossible for me to look at this pillow all these years later and not smile at the earnestness with which I created it; every stitch reads like a journal entry to me of my best effort at the time. I love it and wouldn’t change any of its frayed, un-mitered corners for anything.



My 34th Birthday Cakes

I love using my birthday as an excuse to spend an inordinate amount of time making some kind of fancy/crazy/funny/delicious cake to share with my friends and family. I don’t do it every year because of how elaborately involved a process it always becomes, but the years when I’m able to I have so much fun!

I decided to throw myself a birthday party this year. I haven’t had one for a few years, and after renovating my apartment last year I never had a house re-warming party, so this introvert was long overdue to have some friends over for a celebration. The only problem was that I couldn’t figure out what kind of cake to make!

It would need to represent something relevant in my life or be personally significant in some way; that’s what makes the process fun for me. Like in 1998 when i made my 16th birthday cake with a silly fashion illustration of myself as a cartoon wearing an outfit I’d designed (but hadn’t yet made) out of fabric that I had just bought on my very first trip to New York with my home-ec sewing class that month…

16th birthday cake

Or in 2005, when I was obsessed with Napoleon Dynamite and made a Pile of Giant Tater-Tots cake (I baked yellow cake in tomato paste cans, covered them in yellow icing and tossed them in toasted coconut with yellow food dye) and wrote “Happy friggin’ birthday!” in icing “ketchup”…

napoleon dynamite tater tot birthday cake

I wanted this year’s cake to say something about me in the few years since I last made myself a birthday cake. The obvious idea was to do a renovation themed cake but my renovation involved a lot of sleek, high-gloss white cabinets, and a sleek, glossy white cake would be boring, and not enough of a creative challenge.


So I thought about making a cake version of Space Girl’s Jetpack (part of the Halloween costume I made for myself last year), but I couldn’t accurately recreate it without it being incredibly unappetizing, what with ALL THE GLITTER!

jet pack

I was at a loss. My last idea was that I could make a baby animal cake, inspired by the drawings and paintings of baby safari animals I’ve made over the last few years for my now two-year-old nephew’s bedroom, but I wanted to do something a little more adult to go with my newly “grown-up” apartment!

rhino drawingA week before the party—after a fruitless brainstorming phone call with my out-of-state best friend— I went to bed, catastrophizing that I would have to cancel my birthday party on account of not being able to come up with a suitable birthday cake idea. But around 1 A.M. the inspiration hit, and I was wired until 4 A.M., mentally constructing the perfect birthday cake(s), amazed that the combination of frustration and sleep deprivation had conspired in my favor. Not only did I suddenly have a solution, but it incorporated all of my possible ideas!

zebra curtains and chair

Instead of my white, glossy cabinets, the inspiration I took from my renovation was the beautiful tone-on-tone silvery/pinky/grey zebra striped fabric that I had made curtains, throw pillows, and re-upholstered my chairs and bar stools with.

I would make two zebra striped cakes and each of them would have significance beyond the renovation. The first, a vanilla and chocolate zebra striped cake would recall the baby zebra I painted for my nephew.

painting zebraAnd the second zebra striped cake would be strawberries and cream, with the pink strawberry stripes hinting at the pink from my Space Girl costume.

space girl earrings

For weeks I’d had in mind two different back up desserts in the event that I never came up with a cake design. Serendipitously, those recipes were perfect for the technique I planned to use to articlulate the zebra stripes!

I had to alter the recipes quite a bit to get them to express my vision for the final cakes, but the original recipes I started with were both vintage Komm family favorites that I’ve long wanted to revise and turn into something new and luxurious. This added another layer of significance to my birthday cake project; with any of my creative projects, whether it’s someone’s wedding dress, a drawing, or a cake, having a meaningful back-story to the final creation makes it so worthwhile and immensely satisfying. Finding a connection to my inspiration is an inextricable component of my creative process; creativity can’t happen in a vacuum.

strawberry zebra cake1The frozen strawberries and cream cheese cake started with the recipe for what my family has always called “Favorite Dessert,” but a google search of the ingredients will tell you is actually called “frosty strawberry squares.” It’s a really fluffy frozen strawberry meringue with candied walnuts on the top and bottom. It’s delicious, but whenever I eat it I think how the best part is the candied nuts and there needs to be more of them. It’s also extremely airy—as in, not dense enough to turn into a “cake”—so I added a few ingredients, changed some of the ratios and made the strawberry meringue differently to turn it into a cheese cake while still keeping the distinct meringue-y taste of the original dessert. I added more flavor dimension by adding pecans to the walnuts, and—since it was a cheesecake—threw in a recipe of graham cracker crust to make the most delicious crumble that went between the strawberry and cream layers. OMG, it was soooooo good!

frozen strawberry cheesecake

The chocolate zebra cake was a mousse cake. The recipe I started with is my own tweaked variation on “easy chocolate cream torte,” a recipe I found as a teenager and have made for all kinds of special occasions and birthdays. This time around I turned it into “complicated chocolate cream torte” (make that KOMM-plicated chocolate cream torte!). In its original form it’s alternate layers of chocolate mousse and giant chocolate cookies which soften between the mousse. This time I used more chocolate in the mousse to get darker zebra stripes, a firmer consistency, and deeper chocolate flavor to offset the vanilla cream, and I crumbled up the cookie part to layer in the cake the way I did with the nuts and graham cracker crumble on the strawberry cake. Unfortunately I never got a picture of the inside of it, so I guess I’ll just have to re-make it!

chocolate zebra cake
The white parts of each cake are variations on a recipe I developed in 2003 as a pie topping. It’s a whipped cream and cream cheese combination that pipes very nicely and tastes better than ice cream on a pumpkin pie! It complimented both the chocolate mousse and strawberry meringue perfectly.

cake stand testTo actually make the cakes, first I had to decide how big to make them. I experimented with different sizes by cutting the plastic lining that I would pipe the mousse into and taping it into circles until I’d deterimined the sizes I wanted. Since the strawberry cake had to be frozen it could only be as big as I could fit in my freezer, but the chocolate mousse cake could be larger and multi-tiered since it only needed to be refrigerated.

pastry ring 2I fiddled around with the zebra fabric scraps to choose the direction I wanted the stripes to go on the cakes.

pastry ringsWith the pastry rings lined with the plastic sheets I piped the zebra stripes from piping bags filled with the different fillings and didn’t finish until about 6 A.M. the day of the party. (I had to stay up all night to make the cakes so they had enough time to set up before being un-moulded.)

piping mousse

I can’t even tell you how immensly satisfying it was to turn over these cakes, remove the metal rings and peel off the plastic lining sheets to reveal perfect zebra stripes and crisp 90° edges! An OCD person’s ultimate fantasy, I tell you.

zebra stripes closeup

chocolate zebra cake 1

The cakes were a massive hit with my friends, and I was so pleased that my hair-brained middle-of-the-night idea worked out exactly how I envisioned it. My only regret is that I didn’t have enough time to write down the recipes and steps as I went along; but hey, having to make these again (for science!) would not be such a bad thing. These recipes definitely need to be documented and enjoyed again… and again!

zebra birthday cakes




All the Stuff I Made for Christmas

My mom asked me to come home a few weeks early for Christmas to help her get the house ready for our entire family (10 adults and 4 kids under 2) to be there for the holidays. She gave me free reign on decorating and baking. The prospect of having all the resources of her house—and yard—at my disposal to decorate with was the best Christmas gift she could have given me.

My parents, who have lived in their house longer than I’ve been alive, have a yard with lots of beautiful, mature evergreens, which I never appreciated as a child; I had always wanted flowers like Grandma and Grandpa Komm’s, which they planted from seed each spring in their little greenhouse on the prairie. But Mom was—and still is—all about evergreens and conifers: the shapes, textures, and shades of green that thrive so abundantly in the temperate rainforests of coastal British Columbia.

evergreenAlthough my love for flowers has never waned, I’ve grown to appreciate what my mom sees in her evergreen gardens. Living in New York for 15 years, where everything is grey all winter long, has helped me see what I really had growing up.

As soon as I got home—and it stopped raining—Mom and I walked around the yard with our pruning shears and she pointed out all the best trees and shrubs. I was fascinated to learn all the names and defining characteristics of these plants I’d seen all my life but never really paid attention to. We collected giant buckets of blue spruce; three or four types each of juniper, cedar and pine; and cotoneaster with beautiful red winterberries. What few deciduous trees there are in the yard seem to have been chosen for how exceptional they look with no leaves; we collected twisted hazel and red twig dogwood on subsequent trips.

greens-in-the-garageUsing the garage as my workspace, I made so many piles of different branches that I had to park one of the cars in the driveway for a day or two to make room for all the organized chaos. A garage has never smelled better than this one, full of freshly cut evergreen boughs. You’d actually want to go sit in there because it smelled so good!

I spent hours and hours walking and foraging in the woods nearby. I can’t believe this was the first time in 33 years that I’d really paid any attention to the things that grow—even in the dead of winter—right where I grew up! Walking beneath the forest canopy, even though it was the end of December, you could have easily thought it was summertime; everything was green and lush.


Along the way I collected some amazing specimens: salal, a native evergreen bush that makes excellent filler and which you’ve probably seen or bought in flower arrangements; European holly, an invasive species, whose utility in Christmas decorating goes without saying, and, most serendipitously, a rogue boxwood shrub, bushy as can be with long, long stems of shiny little scooped leaves—perfect, because the boxwood in my mom’s yard are all trimmed into meticulous little pom-pom topiaries and were off limits to my clippers.

hollyMy original plan had been just to make some table centers for Christmas dinner and a wreath for the front door. Especially a wreath.

But Spoiler alert: I never got around to making that wreath. When I get into my creative zone I let it take me wherever it wants to go and there were too many other exciting things for me to make…

christmas-tablescapeI started with the dining room table. I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do: a 21st century send-up of the classic 1980’s table centers my mom used to make at Christmas when I was little and which would be instantly recognizable to my brothers and sisters: 3 staggered candles sticking up from an oblong display of carnations, chrysanthemums, baby’s breath, and evergreen foliage from the yard with those little glittery miniature wrapped presents on a stick poked in here and there for accent. (Which was the inspiration for what I made for Thanksgiving dinner at my sister’s.) But that was before I rediscovered just what a treasure trove my mom’s house was. (It’s quite amazing what you can store in your home when it’s not a tiny Manhattan apartment!)

IMG_6456While my mom decorated her tree in the living room I walked around the house to take inventory of the kind of vases and containers I could use to arrange stuff in. I kept finding candlesticks—gold ones, brass ones, silver ones, crystal ones—hidden away in my old bedroom closet, the basement, and random cupboards; some of them I could even remember being in the living room from my earliest memories and each set brought back memories of what room they had originally been displayed in and what the house had looked like at the time.


After setting them all on the dining room table to see them all in one place, I threw out my original idea for the table center and decided that 40 years worth of accumulated candlesticks should trigger sufficient nostalgia amongst my siblings. It was then obvious to use the gold china, flatware and rimmed goblets, which meant I didn’t have to polish the silverware. I carefully set the full table with all the place settings to see how much space was left for the greens: just enough to run a garland in between all the candlesticks.

gold-place-settingI worried—but only for a moment—that a table completely covered in gold might be a little much, but then decided if there was ever an excuse to go completely all-out and over-the-top it was this Christmas and I was going to do it! 2015 was the biggest year ever for our family; my parents got two new grand-babies and a son-in-law, so we had plenty of reasons to celebrate.

gingerbread-name-tagsFor the place cards I made each person (even the brand new babies) a gingerbread cookie “gift tag” attached to a Christmas cracker. I did this years ago but with a different lettering style. This time around I stayed up late the night before designing and practicing the capital letters in ink before piping each name in icing calligraphy.

christmas-tablescape-2I made about 8 or 9 feet of garland that ran the length of the table and snaked and curved around all the candles, and a matching 12 foot garland that I draped around the chandelier above the table. I love making garland, it’s like knitting with greenery. I get into my happy OCD repetitive zone for a while and all of a sudden there’s this big long ribbon of something beautiful to show for it.

chandelier-garlandOnce I’d completed the dining room, I went to work on that wreath I’d been dreaming about. But this is what I ended up making for the front door instead:

winter-foliage-1I discovered this bizarre pile of tree branches hidden outside, which used to be some of the Austrian pine topiaries in the front yard that died a few years ago and my dad cut down. He saved some of the horizontal branches in a pile—which he proudly called modern art—and left it exposed to the elements. I knew I had to use them in my decorating; they were covered in delicate, lacy lichen and their shape was a perfect arboreal approximation of antlers.


The large scale of the Austrian pine branch necessitated another trip to the yard, this time with bypass loppers instead of pruning shears to get long enough branches to work with it. The final arrangement was huge—about 5 feet wide and over 5 feet tall—but it fit perfectly in the alcove next to the front door, making a wreath unnecessary. (I’ll save my wreath idea for a year that I go home and don’t have an extra week-and-a-half to deck the halls.)


With the two biggest decorating objectives out of the way I turned my attention to the rest of the interior stuff. My mom saw how much fun I was having and remembered how much fun she used to have doing the same thing and wanted to get in on the action, so I let her decorate the mantle in the family room—for old time’s sake. (Who am I kidding, what really happened was that she said, “Colette! You’ll never finish all this by yourself and you still have all those cookies to bake and all this mess to clean up before everyone starts showing up!”) Regardless of whose side of the story is told, she wanted to decorate the mantle and had a lot of fun doing it; we both get our jollies out this kind of stuff.



While mom did the family room I worked on the arrangements for the rest of the house.


The arrangement I made in the hallway gave you a glorious whiff of cedar every time you walked past it. That is what Christmas is all about!


I enjoyed making the garland for the dining room so much I made more for the wall candelabra above the staircase. And given the number of candles on the dining table, opted to fill it with Christmas balls instead.




After we thought we were all done and I was taking photos of the orchid in the living room I discovered the best of all the vases hiding on the bottom shelf of the tea cart: a brass Persian teapot. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t it found on my initial reconnaissance trip around the house; it’s one of my favorite things of hers and it was the perfect vessel to hold my last sprays of holly and boxwood.

persian-teapotOh, and one more Spoiler Alert: We got all the Christmas baking done on time too.


I even made time to class up the cranberry salsa by serving it on a china plate and piping the cream cheese!

cranberry-salsa-2And no matter how fancy the house was decorated it wouldn’t have been Christmas without me making my gingerbread snowflakes. I had to stay up all night to make them and polish the silver serving platter, but it was well worth it. It was our best family Christmas ever and certainly the most creatively fulfilling one for me!


Gingerbread Cookie Collaboration 2013!


If you know me you know that I love making cookies and I love Christmas, which naturally means that I really love making Christmas cookies! Over the last few years it’s become a tradition of mine to make snowflakes out of gingerbread, and pipe them rather ornately with royal icing.


I like to call them Rococo snowflakes, but they could just as easily be Baroque snowflakes, and some of them could even pass for Art Deco snowflakes, but I digress. What’s more important is that it’s kind of like doing embroidery but with something sweet and edible and I have way too much fun doing it!


I’ve been hearing for years from the ecstatic recipients of these cookies (I’ve only ever made them for my family and friends) that I need to make them available to the rest of the world, so this year I asked my friend Amy Noelle, who owns Sugar Flower Cake Shop and makes wedding cakes decorated with beautiful sugar flowers, if she would like to team up and help me bake, decorate, and sell my gingerbread snowflakes this holiday season. She thought it was a great idea!


Now everyone will have a chance to find out for themselves if these cookies are indeed too pretty to eat (trust me, they are not–they taste just as good as they look)! You’ll be able to pre-order our first batch of cookies through Amy’s website by the end of the month, so stay tuned for details.


And be sure and follow both of us on Instagram, as we’ll be posting lots of photos as we go… Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Spring is here!

Today is my 30th birthday and it was 72 degrees and sunny, which is the best gift I could have gotten since winters are no fun for me and I’ve basically been hibernating for the last two months! Yesterday I saw some beautiful crocuses in Central Park so I went back today with my camera to take some pictures of them and whatever else I could find that’s starting to bloom. I get so excited in the spring when all the bulb flowers start popping up, it’s like, if those bulbs can survive under ground all winter and then somehow push up all these beautiful, perfect, vibrant flowers, I can do the same thing!

Grandma’s Tatting

I recently went to my aunt’s house in Florida to get some much needed sunshine in the middle of winter. In one of her guest bedrooms she has a framed, shadow-boxed piece of unfinished tatting that my grandma was working on before she passed away (in 1963). A year ago I blogged about my paternal grandfather, Grandpa Komm, who was a tailor and who I like to say I got my sewing genes from. But my mom and her mother, my maternal grandmother, gave me some sewing genes too.

According to my mom, Grandma Inez would sit down and tat lace whenever she had a free moment. She could never just sit still; she always had to be doing something, even when she was “relaxing.” She tatted only this particular pattern and used it to edge handkerchiefs and pillow cases that she would give as wedding gifts.

I never met my grandma, so having this beautiful piece of her handiwork makes me feel a special connection with her. And the fact that it’s unfinished, that the pearl cotton is still wrapped around the bobbin in the shuttle, ready for her to pick up the next time she had a spare moment, seems to make it that much more personal. Sometimes the most inspiring works are the ones that never get finished.

My Birthday Cake

A few weeks ago when I was figuring out what I wanted to do to celebrate my 29th birthday — dinner with friends? a weekend trip? — I decided that I wanted to spend the entire weekend (and an unlimited budget for Callebaut chocolate!) decorating a really fancy cake to share with my friends and family on Sunday night, my birthday.

The cake is four tiers of my absolute favorite chocolate cake. A  client of mine gave me the recipe after I tasted it at a dinner party she hosted; it was the most delicious cake I’d ever had and I was practically drooling in between bites as I asked her where it had come from. She told me it was her mother’s recipe and a family secret but a few days later I received a hand-written card in the mail from her with the recipe for both the cake and the icing! It is seriously one of my most favored possessions, and every time I make it people go nuts for it. And of course, every time I make it I tweak it slightly so it gets bigger, better, and fancier!

I’ve always loved making cakes and cookies, and I especially love piping icing and playing with chocolate, so I couldn’t have picked a more exciting way to celebrate my birthday. I started out on Thursday night by making the dark chocolate roses. Each rose is shaped by pressing a tiny ball of chocolate clay (made by mixing melted chocolate and corn syrup, letting it set up and then kneading it until it’s pliable) into the shape of a petal and clustering a number of them all around each other. It’s a labor-intensive and tedious process, especially when you are making three dozen of them, but I’m weird like that and think it’s fun! It’s hard for me to explain just how intensely satisfying this kind of thing is to me, but there’s really nothing I enjoy more.

In spite of said enjoyment, however, by Friday night chocolate wasn’t the only thing melting down… I wound up despondent and on the phone with my sister, lamenting the fact that (and wondering why) I can’t just be a normal person and be satisfied with, like, a Duncan Hines funfetti sheet cake, or something… Why do I feel so compelled by these profound urges to create the complex and extraordinary?! Why do I turn almost everything I do into an elaborate make-work-project? Thankfully, though, my existential crisis was short-lived; Saturday was a blur of creative rapture and by the time I finished the cake at 6 p.m. on Sunday — barely an hour before my guests would arrive — I was jumping up and down, laughing almost maniacally at having pulled this off. I was so excited; nothing makes me happier than creating something beautiful — especially if it tastes delicious, like this cake, or feels exquisite, like one of my dresses — and sharing it with people that I love!

Silk Ribbon Embroidery

These are some photos of a silk ribbon embroidery sampler I made once when I was home sick and bored out of my mind. I didn’t plan out what the final piece would look like; I just took my ribbons, thread, and beads and started stitching together a bouquet, so to speak, one ribbon flower or leaf after another, practicing as many different stitch techniques as I could.

Beneath the flowers I made something of an abstract flower pot — or maybe it’s a trellis? — by couching the silk floss and ribbon. Couching is a technique where a thicker thread or ribbon is affixed to the top of the fabric by tiny stitches of fine thread from the back of the fabric. I love the juxtaposition of the rigid geometry of the couched silk thread with the organic, voluminous shapes and textures of the floral embroidery.

Call me crazy, but I fantasize about embellishing a whole dress with this stuff! I think it’s the most beautiful type of embroidery, not just because it’s so delicate and enchanting, but also because it cannot be duplicated by machine, making it extremely rare.

Cristóbal Balenciaga: The Master

A velvet cape on display at the exhibit, as photographed in the accompanying book, "Balenciaga: Spanish Master," on page 40. I love the collar.

Two weeks ago, my parents were in town visiting and I took them with me to see Balenciaga: Spanish Master, at the Queen Sophía Spanish Institute on Park Avenue. I’d been wanting to see it for a while, but decided it would be really meaningful to bring my mom, who loves beautiful clothes and who would probably remember some of the ones on display from the 1950’s and 1960’s.

For obvious reasons, I loved the exhibit, but there was one particular part of it that will stick with me forever. There was a display of 3 black dresses with the accompanying placard below listing the provenance of each garment and two paragraphs about Balenciaga and his black dresses. As I read the text and got to the second paragraph I had one of my I’m-so-excited-about-sewing-and-fashion-that-it’s-almost-pathetic moments and yelled at my mom — in the loudest whisper possible, of course — to come and read the placard:

“In each of Balenciaga’s ninety-three collections there was always one black dress cut and sewn entirely by him. Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel described her friend as ‘the only couturier. He is the only one who knows how to cut a fabric, and mount and sew it with his own hands. The others are just draughtsmen.'”

My mom smiled and looked at me and said, “Well, that’s exactly what you do!”

And it is; all of the gowns on my blog and website were created with my own two hands. I think it’s so important as a designer to really understand not just how to sketch a pretty, idealized, elongated croquis and hand it off to an atelier or sample room to create, but how to turn it into a real garment on a real body, without help from anyone else. I love that Balenciaga fundamentally understood this, and lived it throughout his entire career, even though he was Balenciaga, and didn’t have to. He was as dedicated to the craft of dressmaking as he was famous for defining fashion and I believe there is a correlation between the two. His conviction and reverence for the actual act of dressmaking are part of the reason that we collectively refer to him as “the Master,” a moniker coined by Christian Dior, a genius by anyone’s standard, who declared Balenciaga “the master of us all.”