On my bookshelf: The Art of Manipulating Fabric by Colette Wolff

The Art of Manipulating Fabric - cover

Today I’d like to share one of my absolute favorite sewing books: The Art of Manipulating Fabric by Colette Wolff, published in 1996.  Simply stated, this book is nothing short of a masterpiece.  It covers, in great detail, the full spectrum of fabric manipulation techniques from simple gathering and pleating to complex structural forms that combine multiple elements into works of textile art.  If you have any interest in learning about the world of fabric transformations, even if you only use it as inspiration or eye candy, I would highly recommend checking out Colette’s exhaustive manual.  Honestly, it blew my mind!

The Art of Manipulating Fabric - contents

Colette begins the preface of the book with this simple introduction:

“This is a book of ideas about sewing cloth.”

She goes on to explain that she wanted to present the techniques independently of their potential applications so that the reader can take the ideas and run with them.  I love this idea!  All the examples are presented on a square of unbleached muslin with pinked edges.  No garments, no home decor pieces, no quilts, nothing.  Just amazingly manipulated pieces of muslin that you can transform into anything your little heart desires.  She writes about the muslin:

“When sewn into samples, its plain, smoothly woven surface doesn’t distract from the main point, the manipulation.  Its bland color proved exceptionally receptive to the light and shadow of black-and-white photography.”

This book has all my favorite elements of a sewing book: a textbook-like layout, small text to fit in as much technical information as possible, clear line drawings, and no fluff.  By “fluff” I mean full-page, full-color, overly-styled photographs that take up valuable space and provide almost no useful information.  Modern sewing books are full of these, and it drives me crazy.  Call me a purist, but I don’t want to spend my hard-earned money on something that borders on a coffee table book.  I want technical instruction!

There are plenty of photographs in this book though, and they are phenomenal teaching tools.  There is a sewn sample and associated photograph for EVERY SINGLE TECHNIQUE that Colette describes in the book.  If it is in the instructions, there is a photo.  Period.  No omissions, no confusion.  I can only imagine how long it took her to wash, iron, cut, and sew all the samples.  It is truly mind-blowing.  In the foreword, editor Robbie Fanning describes her dedication in sample-sewing:

“Periodically, I would be in the same town as Colette and she would show me the samples.  Always, I would be staggered at the workmanship and the possibilities.  Who but Colette could have made darts into works of art?  I began to drag other people into the meetings, merely for the pleasure of watching their faces as she pulled out some samples.  At one point someone at Chilton [Book Company] asked her to ship her samples to Philadelphia for a meeting.  Colette politely asked, ‘All 23 boxes?'”

Wow.  I seriously want to give this woman a hug.

Anyway, enough of my gushing.  Let’s check out this amazing book!

The Art of Manipulating Fabric - instructions for making flounces 1 The Art of Manipulating Fabric - instructions for making flounces 2

The book is organized into chapters for each technique, and each chapter contains detailed instructions followed by photographs of the samples.  Above you can see the introductory instructions for creating flounces (which you might use for a peplum, for example).  The line drawings in the instructions are exceptionally clear and helpful, and I found them to be remarkably true-to-life.  As in, I wonder if Colette actually sewed a fabric sample and then precisely drew how the fabric behaved.  And yes, she drew all the line drawings herself!  Amazing.

The Art of Manipulating Fabric - gathered double-edged ruffles

Here’s an example of the photograph sections, in this case for gathered double-edged ruffles.  Who knew you could do such amazing things with a simple ruffle?!?!?  What’s great is that if you’re just casually flipping through the book and see a photo you like, you can flip back a few pages and find the detailed instructions on how to create it.  Colette uses consistent terminology throughout the book, so it’s easy to match a photo with its instructions.  Or, you could read this book like a novel like I did, drooling with every page turn.  You know, just saying.  🙂

The Art of Manipulating Fabric - ruffles detailHere’s a close-up of some of the ruffle samples – I’m fascinated by the bottom one!  Where could I apply this technique – maybe along the hem of a summer skirt?  As a brooch for a blazer?  On a purse?  So many possibilities!

The Art of Manipulating Fabric - contoured tucks

Here’s another technique that I found really inspiring – tucks with geometric notches cut out at regular intervals.  I can imagine making a boxy summer top covered in these tucks from shoulder to hem.  How cool would that be??

The Art of Manipulating Fabric - instructions for contoured tucks

And check out the instructions for them – you pin the tucks inside out, sew and cut out the notches, clip the corners, turn everything inside out, poke out all your corners, press everything, and then sew the tucks.  One by one.  This sounds amazingly labor-intensive and amazingly awesome.  Am I ambitious enough to give it a try??  (Hint: Probably not!)

The Art of Manipulating Fabric - chart of pleat types The Art of Manipulating Fabric - pleats

Check out this awesome chart of pleats and associated pleat samples.  I mean, honestly Colette, you had me at CHART OF PLEATS.  I had never even heard of half of these!  I don’t know how I would incorporate these intricate and structural pleats into a garment, but I can imagine some exquisite drapes for my future sewing room.  Imagine stuffing your pipe organ pleats with sewing notions.  Need an extra button?  Just reach into the built-in storage cubby in your drapes, LOL!

More drool-worthy samples:

The Art of Manipulating Fabric - creative combinations 1 The Art of Manipulating Fabric - pattern tucking The Art of Manipulating Fabric - creative combinations 2(Just ignore my foot holding the page open in that last one.)

I know this book may not be for everyone, but I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to share it with you and perhaps get your creative juices flowing.  The book retails for $29.95 US, which is not cheap, but not bad considering the wealth of information and inspiration it contains.  As always when buying books, I would recommend looking for it at your local independent bookstore and asking them to order it if they don’t have it in stock.  Yes, Amazon is cheaper, but nothing beats the experience of perusing your local bookstore and checking out the books in person — just like with fabric shopping!

(For the record, I purchased this book with my own money and am writing this review of my own volition.  I have no affiliation with the author or publishing company and just wanted to share a book that I enjoyed!)

Do you already own The Art of Manipulating Fabric?  If so, have you used any of the techniques in your sewing projects?  I’m dying to know!  🙂

31 thoughts on “On my bookshelf: The Art of Manipulating Fabric by Colette Wolff

  1. During the period I was destitute and unemployed and determined to learn how to sew and become a fashion designer, I checked out almost every single sewing/etc book the Boston Public Library had — this was one of them. After reading it cover to cover, I could not stop thinking about it.

    Eventually, I bought it. When it arrived to my house, I was so thrilled that I read it cover to cover *again*. This book is invaluable!!!! My favorite bit is the section on gathering, since it’s such a common detail in clothing. I often compare the amount of gathering in a pattern to her ‘rules’ for fullness, to get a sense of what the outcome would really read like in person with the fabric I intend to use.

    • Yes, I loved that part! There are so many great gems of wisdom embedded throughout the book. I’m glad you got a copy for your personal collection and can page through it whenever you want. Thanks for sharing this story, and I’m glad that you found your way out of a challenging situation – I have no doubt you are stronger as a result. 🙂

      Wouldn’t this book be a great starting point for a sewing challenge – everyone sews a garment using one of her techniques?? Someone should organize that!

  2. Our local bookshop has a copy of this that I’ve stopped to ogle at least twice. Like you say, the pictures are just breathtaking. I haven’t bought it – so many of the techniques are so much more … fussy? than I really go for – but I am very tempted to, just for the reference/inspiration potential. Even more so now …

    • I know exactly how you feel. I’ve had this book for about a year now, but I haven’t actually used any of the techniques in my garment projects. I want to though! I need to find something relatively simple and give it a try.

  3. Oooh, it seems beautiful! (Don’t you just love books which are set out this well?!) Think I may have to hunt this one down; thanks Carolyn!

    • I hope you enjoy it, Kathy! This is really like a dissertation on fabric manipulation. Sewing books like this are few and far between – I wish there were more of them!

    • Oh great! I definitely think it’s worth the investment. As Ebi mentioned above, there are some great tips scattered throughout the book, and it’s such a delight to read something and think, “Aha, I wish I would have know this years ago!”

    • Definitely! I hope you enjoy flipping through it whenever you get the chance. I read a few pages before bed each night and always wound up sleeping peacefully. 🙂

  4. Oh wow. I didn’t know I needed this book, but I do. Amazing!

    I always want to support local book stores, too, but it’s difficult with English books. I have to fall back on Amazon all too often, even though I don’t like ordering books from them. 😦

    • I know, it’s tough because Amazon really does have everything! Cambridge (where I live) is full of small independent shops, and the longer I live here, the more I appreciate them. Sometimes, though, they just don’t have what I’m looking for! It’s a balance.

    • Some of the techniques are really mind-blowing! I’m amazed that she even thought of all these different forms and shapes, let alone figuring out how to sew them.

  5. Holy wow! This looks truly incredible – I’m going to keep my eye out for one of these. Do you have plans to try any of the techniques out soon? Those notched tucks are amazing if daunting… It’s funny how much information can fit into a book; I’ve been seriously impressed by Susan Khalje’s Bridal Couture book. Even though it does have some full-page photos (arguably necessary for getting the full effect of a gown), it’s astoundingly dense! Agree on the objectionable fluff in some of the newer sewing books. Maybe there’s more money in accessible beginner books.

    • I hope you manage to find a copy so you can page through it and be amazed. 🙂 I haven’t checked out the Bridal Couture book but am adding it to my list – thanks for the recommendation. I can only imagine all the gems of wisdom and intricate construction techniques she explains in there. I haven’t tried any of Colette’s techniques yet, but I really want to give those tucks a try… even if it’s just on a scrap!

      As for beginner books and fluff, I definitely think there is an “ooh pretty!” effect that gets people to buy books, but I just don’t think I am one of those people. 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! This book was such a delight from cover to cover. I wish I could meet Colette in person and congratulate her on this astounding piece of work!

  6. I’ve been dreaming of this book ever since I started sewing 8 years ago. Since I can’t find it lockaly ( I live in israel) shipping prices always made impossible. But my sister is visiting from California in a month so… Thanks for that last push!

  7. Thanks for sharing this book. My sister has this book and a vaguely recall flipping through it years and years ago. I’ll have to ask to borrow it so I can go through it more thoroughly. It’s great having a sister who likes to collect sewing books 🙂

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