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Michael Masterson

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mr randal View Drop Down
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    Posted: 05 Feb 2013 at 9:03pm
Michael Masterson




Tell me your name and where you grew up and have lived up to now.


My name is Michael James Masterson.

I was born and raised in Phoenix, AZ, but being nomadic, have lived in quite a few different places across the globe, like Munich, Germany; Minneapolis, MN; Tulsa, OK; San Francisco,CA, Fairbanks and Girdwood, Alaska; Winston Salem, NC; NY, NY and, now, in Chadds Ford, PA.


You are a shirt-maker now- what were some of your previous jobs and passions?


 I've been in and out of the restaurant industry for most of my working life, briefly even co-owning a bistro in Girdwood, a small Alaskan ski town. 

Working in food and beverage has always been a fantastic way to bring in fast cash--a decent income, without a ton of hours--to stage other plans and interests (music, art, rock and ice climbing).

 The passion that's lasted the longest is my involvement in the music industry. For over 17 years, I was active in the underground dance music scene: Dj'in, recording music, publishing records, and of course, dancing...poorly.

 I've also always been silently fanatical about the documentation of culture at play: photographic journalism and the cinema, specifically.

 Also, from time-to-time, I enjoy these things called "books." Seems like many have forgotten what these things are.


When did you get your first inkling that you would like to design and create some form of clothing?


 This is an interesting question. I grew up around women on both sides of my family whom, I kid you not, all used machines to make clothing and quilts. I feel like I'm always hearing stories about folks and their "antique Singers," and have come to the awareness that most of us have memories attached to these machines. Looking back, fortuitously, I guess my first sartorial memory is piercing my left forefinger on my grandmother's Singer treadle machine. Go figure.

 The first time I wondered` "hmmmm.....how could I make......." was in 2000, in Alaska. My then girlfriend, now wife, was making me a pair of fleece pants, to brave the minus 40-60 fahrenheit Fairbanks weather. I asked her to make me a shirt.  Her response was, "Michael, you don't just make a shirt."  I didn't actually touch a sewing machine for nearly another decade.


What was your impetus to lay hands on a sewing machine again after your wife's pronouncement (and a widely held belief in America these days) that one simply doesn't sit down and make something complex with one's own hands?


 Wait… people still make complex things with their hands in America?

 Oddly enough, Nearly a decade later,  the initial push came FROM my wife, Brie. We were working together on a "craft project" over a holiday get-away in Vermont. Cutting one inch squares out of Goodwill sweaters and blazers, we pierced them onto wire to make wreaths. 

The wool shapes reminded me of my childhood Atari video game pixels. So, influenced by space invaders or whatever, I made an 11X7 inch robot of sorts, in jest, to pass the time. I was aiming for Maximilian from the movie The Black Hole

 Brie then suggested that I stitch the fabric squares together on a piece of material and make a bag of sorts. 

 My mother had a home machine with many embroidery features. Over two days, several hours a day, I fought desperately to stitch them together. 

 I was near miserable but driven by the work. Aside from my lack of any knowledge, thread broke, stitches dropped, needles broke, bobbins tangled and jammed in the hook, tension this--tension that. It was awful. Simply put, I fell in love.

I went home and made a few more bags. When people saw them, they asked to buy them.  It didn't take long--maybe a week or two of sewing, before a desire to figure out how to sew clothing crept back into my mind. I envisioned a Prisoner coat, or more appropriately, a liberator coat, a garment with many pockets, a Get Out of Town Fast coat, for obvious reasons.





               two views of Michael's workshop.



So the first garment you wanted to make (after the bags) was a jacket?


 Yes. At the time, my knowledge about "uniforms" (military and prison) and workwear was minimal, visually-informed, at best.

 After seeing an Australian film about Mark Reid set in a prison, I envisioned a coat -- more philosophically informed than historically-based, that spoke to the neurological war being fought for our minds. So many people are prisoners to culture.

 About a year later, I finally made my first garment: a hooded zip-up made from upholstery fabric. It was specifically designed for a graffiti writer, with internal pockets large enough to secretly conceal 6 cans of aerosol paint.


Upholstery fabric sounds difficult to work with- how did your machines (and you) handle that? 


 Sometimes, it's best not to know anything about what you're diving into. This was like that. Had I known more, I wouldn't have thought I could do it. 

 I'd never made a pattern before. Ever. I traced the hoodie from a sweatshirt. It was fun and painful.

 By this time, I had a new industrial single needle and a home-model overlock. The home machine wasn't going to cut and wrap the thread around the upholstery fabric, so I used the single needle.

 I really fell in love with the weight of the fabric. It was a lot heavier, and much easier to navigate and zipped through the machine much easier than the heavy wools I'd been using before.


Was this hoodie used for its intended purpose by any graffiti artists?


 Yes, It was made for one graffiti writer in particular. His name I must decline to reveal. However, if you are in the greater Philadelphia area, you'd see his work.. He is still using it to this day. He still has the only one……




                two more views from the workshop.




What was your next project, after the bags and hoodie. 


 After I finished the first hoodie I felt challenged to make a few more. Turns out, the same people who bought my bags, wanted hoodies too.

 I quickly realized I was in over my head, so I decided to focus on smaller things: I needed to learn how to pattern and also study various sewing techniques.  My wife's sister, Shari Trnka, was a designer and had her own clothing company for many years. I went to spend some time with her in Olympia, WA at "design camp." There was no sleep to be had. In 11 days, we designed the core essence for seven garments- my first "run".


So what skills did you glean from working with your Sister-in-law on this production run?


 Aside from learning about the (sacred) geometry of the human body, transformed from flat pattern to garment, it was also my first glimpse into building a time machine--not a time-traveling machine, but rather a machine that depletes time at a rapid rate.

 I also learned that wine and chocolate go hand-in-hand with patterning.

 And that nothing sucks more than cutting with shitty scissors.


How did this first batch of garments turn out?


 I made a line of four of the seven designs and Brie and I started a micro brand, selling only at indy craft shows.  That evolved into my desire to focus on one garment at a time...make one thing and do it incredibly well. Dare I say to polish it before moving on. This is where all things came full-circle, from the time I'd asked Brie to show me how to make a shirt--until  This moment. I had, by total accident  become a shirt maker.

 I didn’t actually make my first shirt for some time, although it was always in the back of my mind. I needed to learn so much before tackling it. I’d have these micro-panic attacks just thinking about it. Nightmares. Seriously!

 I kept coming up with “plans” for how to go about it: apprentice with a tailor; buy a Butterick pattern; copy something from the second-hand store. But I wanted it to be something that I had patterned and graded 100%, from the ground (bolt) up.

 Most of the goods I was making were nowhere near as fitted as the shirt needed to be, with the exception of the women’s pin dress (still my favorite dress). Most goods were certainly tapered on the sides, but were still boxy, meant to fit a wide range of body types, and also to be unisex.


So after making that batch of four-of-seven designs how did you go about narrowing your focus down on learning the intricacies solely of shirt making? 


 I destroyed several hundred yards of beautiful fabric through sampling, testing machines, theorizing size grades, cutting room errors, you name it, until I had something that was even close to being considered a wearable shirt. And that’s wearable--not produceable! From there, I patterned close to 30 variants of a men’s button down.

 From there, I had to refine the details--the construction, order of operations for production...if I told you the machines had the ability to communicate, would you believe me?

 Also, in between the cracks, I received a nudge that I translated into advice, from this fella in Oakland. It’s taken out of context, but reads as follows:


“...The real progress comes from examining your own work, studying about different techniques and creating what reflects your point of view.”


Sometimes, it’s the simple explanations that kick you in the ass.  These words changed everything. They gave me permission to do things my way. To further push the experimental process. 


Can you tell me about the type and acquisition order of your sewing machines during this process? 


 At an earlier phase I had replaced my newer industrial machines. Again by route of accident. 

 In the back of a small sample shop in Philadelphia, I’d noticed a handful of older machines. Chunky, black baked enamel, wood tables covered in oil and dust.  I asked about the machines and was told that they were en route to the Chesapeake Bay, to be used as boat anchors. I wasn’t sure what the going rate for boat anchors was, but I offered the guy a small stack of cash and the machines were mine.

 I quickly added up the cost of repair in my head; there was no way I’d be able to monetarily execute the salvation of these five machines.  So, I took the one that looked the most difficult and took it apart, piece by piece.  I’d worked on cars a bit, but that was really the bulk of my mechanical knowledge.  It took a bit of time--an hour or two every day for about two months. Then, rapture! Just as I was getting ready to thrown in the towel, the beast locked stitches! Turned out it was a Felling machine, a Singer 231-7. My first greasy love. I literally cried like a baby. I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.

 After fixing the rest of the units (I had one casualty), I discovered that I’m geographically located in a fantastic area for locating antique sewing machines.  Philadelphia and the surrounding areas were at one time a center of the US textile/garment industry. There are lots of old machines rusting away here.  I began collecting and obsessing. I soon became adept at visually figuring out what a machine does.

 The most challenging part of acquiring these machines is negotiating with the folks who own them, but it’s also the exciting part of the process.  It’s amazing what you can learn just by listening to someone who thinks you’re totally bananas! 65-90 year old mechanics.....they have a lot to share, and very few care to listen.

 There are some exotic-rare machines that I’d love to get my hands on, but for the most part, I currently have everything I need. For instance, it’d be cool to have a Bulldog (a union special 43200g hemmer), but what the hell do I need one for? I don’t have room for one (it’s time to move soon); I don’t make britches....yet.

 Currently, I have 17 active, running antique machines and a handful of others that I use for parts, or are just too obsolete to fix (affordably). Not all are used in the latest run of shirts, but most are.  

 I’m using antique machines made by Singer, Union Special and Reece.





                         mr. Masterson's machinist's assistant





Edited by mr randal - 05 Feb 2013 at 10:12pm
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mr randal View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (2) Thanks(2)   Quote mr randal Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 Feb 2013 at 9:07pm
 Part two of this interview will be conducted, transcribed and photographed at Inspiration LA, where Mr. Masterson will be presenting his wares.
 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (2) Thanks(2)   Quote mr randal Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 Feb 2013 at 9:13pm
A preview of Mr. Masterson's work:















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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote Snake Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 Feb 2013 at 10:01pm
Great interview. Really looking forward to see his work in person at Inspiration.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (2) Thanks(2)   Quote Bob Dale Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 Feb 2013 at 10:07pm
Deja vu ? I could swear I've read something remarkably similar to this. A guy
Obsessed with machines making things. :D

Consider me stoked !

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote Happy Hooligan Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 Feb 2013 at 10:25pm
awesome interview!   And really cool guy too.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Nonriveted Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 06 Feb 2013 at 2:34pm
cant wait to meet him at inspiration! awesome interview Mr. Randal
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote dkatz Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 07 Feb 2013 at 10:45am
Echoing all of the above - definitely plan on tracking him down this weekend!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (3) Thanks(3)   Quote Mr.6 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 12 Feb 2013 at 12:56pm
Mr. Masterson is an ever evolving master of chambray shirting material.
Get some when you can!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote dkatz Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 12 Feb 2013 at 2:34pm
^ seconded. STRONGLY. I'll be doing so as soon as I can.
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