The Girl is Crafty like Ice is Cold

By Julianne Dalcanton | November 1, 2007 12:53 am

Juggling work and family, there are lots of corners one cuts. Beds go unmade, underwear is bought in bulk so that laundry never has to be done, and 8+ hours of sleep a night is the impossible dream. But, the one thing I cannot ever, ever scrimp on is Halloween. I could skip Christmas without shedding a tear, but Halloween must be celebrated full-on. It’s the one holiday that comes without obligations. No family rifts have ever sprung up over Halloween-related issues. No one has ever shed a tear because you forgot to get them a Halloween card. No, your only obligation is to have as much frivolous, pointless fun as possible, kind of like Spring Break without the puking and STDs.

For me, one of the pleasures of Halloween is getting to geek out on costumes. I have pretty much always obsessed about costumes, and tend to sink a huge amount of time into constructing them.

jd_sews.jpg dolphin_costume.jpg

This kind of craftiness tends to be considered women’s domain, and I have absolutely no idea why. People who do not do crafts have no idea how interesting and technical these projects can be. When one of your kids announces they want to be a dolphin, and you need to figure out how to take a few square feet of fabric and notions and make something that looks like a dolphin (a dolphin, mind you, not a shark, though they are both greyish sea creatures with pointy snouts), you practically need a degree in astrophysics to figure out how to do it. And you know what? There are probably millions of women out there effortlessly carrying out what is in essence a complicated engineering task, and they, unlike me, don’t actually have degrees in astrophysics. It kills me that a large fraction of them have no idea that they’re demonstrating all the spatial reasoning and innovation and using-of-complicated machines that scientists and engineers use every day. Likewise, I don’t know why most guys tend to miss out on this. A well-crafted dolphin costume is immensely satisfying.

  • Supernova

    You rock, Julianne! That dolphin costume ranks right up there with the unicorn costume my mom made me in fifth grade.

  • Nonnormalizable

    Indeed. On a more personal note, you have the same tomato & strawberry pin cushion my grandmother used to! Is it a heirloom, or do they still make them like that?

  • Domenic

    Indeed, that is really impressive.

    On a speculative note, maybe the lack of interest that guys have in such things stems from not sharing the viewpoint that “a well-crafted dolphin costume is immensely satisfying”? I personally, at least, would probably just think of it as a chore—a chore with pretty impressive results, as your photos show, but still not “satisfying” like winning a computer game or writing a paper.

  • Carl Brannen

    Actually, guys sew, but I think you’re right that they don’t sew Holloween costumes. Instead, we build them. My dad taught me, more or less inadvertantly, by making me assist in projects (mostly frostline ) that required four hands to sew up. His specialty was foam sleeping bags and down coats.

    I haven’t done it in years, but I loved to tailor wool, the distinction implying the use of steam to shape a garment. Even starting with a Burda pattern requires a lot more thought than those who haven’t done it realize. The topology of a suit pocket with lining is intense.

    But as for sewing a costume, not a chance. The problem is that it’s a one-use thing. Next year it’s too small, and out of fashion or desire. But an adult’s wool overcoat, that is something that is very special. It lasts a long time, and unless you’re Barbie or Ken, you will never be able to buy clothes at the mass stores that will fit you as well as something you tailor to your own measurements. And you get to pick out the buttons, choose the lining, etc., etc., etc.

    When I moved to Seattle I was freezing so I made a long overcoat. That is, it’s a man’s overcoat that is very long (and therefore very warm). One of my buddy’s said that it looked like what a German field officer wore on the Russian front in winter. I used Pendleton wool. Back then there was a law that the consumer had to be provided with a free little patch that told what kind of wool it was, so I sewed that in too. As a result several of my friends would not believe that it was home made until I started wearing my handmade suit jackets to work. A fun thing to do with men’s suit jackets is to give their sleeves buttons that work. Then in meetings, you absentmindedly button and unbutton them. If you do this, you will meet other guys that sew.

    If I were going to sew myself something right now, like if I had a life, it would be an extra long terry cloth bathrobe. The ones I see in stores are way too short — obviously for people who heat their house in winter. I want one that hangs the hem 3 inches off the ground.

  • Quasar9

    In a shark infested world, we forget that dolphins are pretty voracious little critters. But hey one can’t play with sharky like one can with cute “flipper”

    I guess for halloween, sharks are the witches (or ghouls) of the sea world, and those in dolphin costumes are the fairies (or white witches?)

    PS – does making ships out of matchsticks, or making model airplanes out of hundreds of moulded plastic bits glued together count?

  • Jason Dick

    Well, I think this is a really interesting question. Clearly there are a subset of activities (such as sewing) which are traditionally considered more feminine, and a subset of activities which are traditionally considered more masculine.

    Some of this is obviously cultural in nature, and despite the stereotype, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that either set of activities are more challenging than the other. It really is a sign of something wrong with our culture when we assume that women’s activities are inherently not as hard as men’s.

    That said, I somewhat wonder if any of our different likes and dislikes, as far as activities go, are inherent in our biology. Consider, for instance, sexual selection. With peacocks, a big, colorful tail with lots of “eyes” is attractive to the female. With humans, the woman’s breasts are attractive to the male. Frequently, there just isn’t any good reason for this. In humans, for instance, a woman with large breasts is typically no more capable of producing milk than one with smaller breasts.

    Clearly, also, members of the same sex are usually not sexually attracted to other members of the same sex. What makes for an attractive female is decidedly not what makes for an attractive male. So at least part of our desires are not only inherent, but are also different between the sexes.

    I have to wonder, then, if there is any component of the activities which men and women typically enjoy that is inherent in our biology? That even when a man whose desires are decidedly “masculine” in nature does something like sewing, does he approach it differently than your typical woman would? Does he have different goals in mind, gain satisfaction over different aspects of th craft? Clearly there can be nothing inherent in sewing that would be either masculine or feminine, but perhaps the activity itself lends itself to certain goals or sorts of satisfaction that happen to be more appealing to women than men. Or maybe our culture just screwed up, and men are more likely to enjoy it, but women do it more just because of our history.

    Well, I think that’s enough rambling for now.

  • Amara

    Dear Julianne: Halloween doesn’t exist with the same emphasis in Europe as it does in the States, and I kind of miss that. My favorite costume I made was 10 years ago, six months before I left the US. In October 1997, there were a number of protests against the NASA Cassini mission launch because of the on-board RTG units, so I had an idea to dress up as an RTG unit for a large Halloween bash. I couldn’t find a big tube-like thing in the local Palo Alto dumpsters to crawl into however. So instead I found an aluminum tube large enough for one arm. The rest of me I decorated as a kind of fluorescent-green, radioactive fairy. I thought with the large letters: “RTG” printed on my aluminum arm tube that my geeky (and mostly male) friends would understand the costume, but almost everyone missed it. I had fun time explaining it though. :-)

  • Åka

    Some people, like my grandmother, always say that women are less suited for technical and engineering things, while still effortlessly deciphering very complicated knitting instructions — and constructing patterns for clothing. They don’t consider it technology, to them it’s not the same category as circuit boards or carpentry.

  • TomC

    The fact that the same person (regardless of gender) is sewing kids’ Halloween costumes and quoting Licensed To Ill-era Beastie Boys makes me feel old, old, old, old, and old.

  • TomC

    The fact that the same person (regardless of gender) is sewing kids’ Halloween costumes and quoting Licensed To Ill-era Beastie Boys makes me feel old, old, old, old, and old.

  • TomC

    Not to mention the fact that I can’t figure out how to post onto these Internets right.

  • NB

    At first I thought you meant Hillary … 😉

  • citrine

    My typical Halloween costume is Schrodinger’s Cat. Wear a black outfit, stuff an old pantyhose leg with old socks and pin it at the back, draw alert whiskers on one side of my face and droopy ones on the other. Complete the outfit with a tag – return dead or alive to E.Schrodinger.

  • peter

    well done, if there is one holiday still worth having fun with, it’s halloween. far too few parents take it seriously any more…

  • citrine

    Great job, Julianne! Yes, an Astrophysics degree does come in handy when mentally rotating a 3D image and converting it into 2D components. Your daughter looks adorable in the get-up :)

  • Moshe

    Beautiful costume, I am jealous, wish I was able to make such costumes myself. Alas, operating heavy machinery may be hazardous to the safety of myself and those around me , I’d have to stick to smaller projects, just sheer altruism in my case.

  • Sean

    Like Moshe, I contribute to the equilibration of gender roles by not building anything, whether it involves nails or stitches.

    Next year, maybe you can make a Doppler Effect costume?

  • Stu Savory

    I prefer sewing a black Dracula costume . . .

    It’s the only chance I get to manipulate dark Matter 😉

    man, even the holes in it are black 😉

  • jeebus

    I found that covering your whole body with white yarn and walking around with a vibrator in your hand always makes for a great (and easy) “String Theory” costume.


  • Jeff

    great stuff, and great Beastie Boys quote!

    At an astronomer party the other night someone (not an astronomer, but a clever gal), came all dressed in black with two huge diamond earings.

    No one could guess what she was:

    Dark Matter — with two twinkling starts.

    The groans… and the applause!

  • Julianne

    The most groan-worthy costume I remember is a guy who came with a potato swinging from his belt buckle at crotch level. He claimed he was a dictator.

    And yeah, that strawberry pincushion is the industry standard. The little dangly strawberry contains something like chalk that you can use to de-burr your needles. I’m sure the origins of the strawberry pincushion go way way back, and will be the subject of a wikipedia entry sometime soon.

    The coat project sounds facinating, Carl. I am actually terrible at tailored clothes for people, and am duly impressed.

  • The AstroDyke

    So true, so true! Knitting a sweater requires real math skills: 3D–>2D projection, scaling relationships, and the ability to think algorithmically (knitting patterns use subroutines.) Sewing requires more dimensional translation and less scaling.

    I refused to learn handicrafts in my youth b/c they were too girly. Thankfully I got over it, and now find that making curtains or a sweater uses the same part of my brain as reparing a surfboard, or indeed, designing a set of observations.

  • citrine

    I read somewhere that when Dirac visited one of his friends, only the wife was home – knitting in the living room. Dirac sat across from her and intently watched the knitting for a while. (Remember that he’s seeing the pattern from the reverse side.) Then he had asked “could you do it this XYZ way?” Well, there are two basic knitting methods – knitting and pearling – and he had figured out the alternate method.

  • Hectora

    “I’m not a shark, I’m a dolphin.”


  • JoAnne

    NOw, that is a great looking dolphin!

  • Helen

    @ jason: I think it is well established that the biology and brain function of men and women is fundamentally different, though of course all humans exist on an amazingly wide spectrum of behavior, so one can’t make assumptions about an individual. It is a fascinating topic – I’d love to study psychology!

    I used to go rockclimbing with my husband – and will again when the kids are a little older – and he likes the big, long, expedition climbs, and short, scary, exposed climbs. Endurance or strength. I prefer short, elegant climbs – actually I like toproping, because you don’t have to interrupt the flow to unclip pro – for me climbing is an aesthetic pursuit, not a sport.

  • humble humanist

    Very cute costume!

    On the relative apparent technical prestige of sewing vs. astrophysics or even a circuitboard: Maybe it’s because with the former, you can actually *see* or *touch* everything involved, but with the latter two, you have to assume the existence of phenomena that can’t be perceived by the naked eye (electricity, dark matter, etc.). So even though the spatial reasoning is just as complicated for carrying out a sewing project, it’s not as mystified.

    Yay, sewing geekery!


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