Cynthia Guffey has been designing women’s clothing and teaching sewing for many years. She shares her effective, practical and simple fitting and construction techniques with students throughout the United States, offering seminars and workshops filled with information that results in beautifully fitted, custom-look clothing. She’s one of the most popular and sought-after instructors at the Original Sewing & Quilt Expo, and we’ve been lucky enough to have her teach in recent years at our School of Art Fashion Boutique events, too. In fact she’s teaching a fabulous Fitting Clinic: Fine Tuning for a Superior Silhouette class at our upcoming School of Art Fashion Boutique events in Fredericksburg, VA and Minneapolis, MN!
She’s also teaching our upcoming online course: Women’s Shirts: The Best of Everything with Cynthia Guffey. In this detailed, 8-part online series, she’s sharing her ‘everyday couture’ sewing techniques along with her mastery of pattern style and design. Follow along as she constructs two different women’s shirts – the standard shirt pattern, and one of her own, into which she has put her legendary, detailed attention into designing for better style, fit, construction and wear-ability.
We recently caught up with Cynthia for a little chat about all things sewing and style. Enjoy!
Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from originally, and where do you currently live?
Born and reared in rural northeast LA. Lived near very small towns, like 150 people … then a small town of 3,000 but we lived out in the farmland. I now live in Tennessee, still in a small town.
How and when did you start sewing?
Well, probably when I was between 4 and 5 years old – while Mother was sewing I’d sit on the floor next to her playing with my Betsy Wetsy doll, and she gave me a needle and thread … and I had a system to make diaper shirts for her. My mother taught herself how to sew – my grandmother sewed, but never taught her to sew. When she was married at age 17, my grandmother stopped sewing for her … and she was always interested in fashion … with three daughters, but I was the only one that was really interested in sewing. Made my first serious garment at age 11 – I remember it so clearly … it was a maroon wool shadow plaid, and I made a straight skirt and she bought me a pink oxford cloth tailored shirt – and I thought I had hit the big time.
And then my mother bought me a sewing machine when I was 13 years old – a Singer Featherweight. She sewed for me and I sewed, too … I had to learn to make French seams, and how to work with only a straight stitch. Mother would sew after she’d taught school all day and she’d say say “I can’t wait ‘til my sewing doesn’t please you …” and then at age 19 or 20, I told her that day had come. I sewed all through college, sewed for Mother, too. And then when I was about 25 or 26 I got a regular size home machine.
I never had a fabric stash, she’d buy me three pieces of fabric in those days, and when they were sewed up, then she’d buy me three more. We went to Monroe, LA, our nearest town, to look at clothes, then we’d change the pattern … We bought fashion magazines, kept up with what was out there, going on …
I had no classes in college related to sewing even though I was in the School of Home Ec … I studied food and nutrition. When they taught pattern drafting, I went to the bookstore and bought the textbook they were using to teach the class, and read it and studied on my own — started experimenting myself.
When I was 32 I bought a fabric store – an upper end fabric store. My mother mortaged the house to buy the store … so there was no giving up after a few months. At first I was given the names of dressmakers, and when I saw how awful some of their work was, I wondered why people would come buy more fabric after this sort of mess … So I decided I not only had to offer custom dressmaking, but I had to keep it under the umbrella of the store, and had to recruit and train dressmakers …. So I put an ad in the paper to find dressmakers, and what they came with was just awful!
But, the State Unemployment Office at that time had books of people looking for specific jobs and skills – and I told them what I was looking for … within a week or two my first dressmaker walked in – Jackie — she’d been in the navy, was a welder, was a draftsman and she brought in something she’s made – she had recently been married, and I could tell she cared about what she was sewing. She had an eye for that more technical approach. She just needed someone to tell her how to do it – she knew what she was going for.
She quit her job … I didn’t know if I’d had enough work to keep her busy, but she didn’t care … she hated her job. One day we were down to the last stitch on the last order we had … but before the day was over they had another order. She worked for me for 15 or 20 years. The store was in an upper end mall, people walked by and came in … I was adding dressmakers and so I had to come up with a system of measuring a body so that the dressmaker could know what that customer looked like … for years the dressmaker never met the customer, but she knew what she looked like from my measurements. She would make a mock-up, I would fit the customer in the store, tweak the mock-up, then the dressmaker would pick it up and transfer the alterations to the pattern and cut the fashion fabric. Two more fittings and the garment was done.
It grew from one dressmaker, some were part time – young mothers could work at home to be home with their children … at one time I had 15 dressmakers. Never advertised for a dressmaker again – they all came to me, because they’d heard about what I was doing. I was just blessed, and I had rules for my dressmakers – one of which was if I catch you gossiping about other dressmakers or one of the customers, you’re gone. We didn’t have any parties, none of that. They had things they needed to take care of with their families, and that’s what we did. One of those dressmakers works with me to this day, she handles my mail orders – Lucy. She’s been with me for more than 20 years … If ever I need Lucy, she steps up to the plate.
How would you describe your personal style?
They tell me I have two styles – the one when I’m working – like at my four-day retreats, or in a workshop at the expo, where I am without makeup and generally wear a tee and sweat pants. I’m old, I don’t multitask … and when you’re working with people — I might be sitting on the floor and it may be a nasty floor … Or if someone has not cut fabric in advance and I touch my face and leave makeup on the fabric … and so I don’t dress up for workshops. Not to mention I use markers and they get on my own clothes and ruins them. In my 4-day workshops, I’m in that room from 6:30 a.m, before anyone is in there… and I stay in that room until 6:30 p.m. And so I pull on sweatpants and a tee and I’m ready.
That also develops an atmosphere that we’re all the same – we’re working, focused on the task at hand, not our physical appearance. We need to be as comfortable as can be to address this kind of intense project we’re working on … In my old age especially, I am able to focus if I’m not distracted by my clothing.
I’ve been told I always precisely match my tee color to my eye color … and to that I say you’re able to buy the right color tee at Walmart as easily as the wrong one.
My other style is my own clothes – the pieces I’ve made from the patterns I’ve designed. Quality fabric, precision sewing, garments with a long life. I know my best colors and shapes, and use them for myself.
What are some of your favorite ready-to-wear brands?
This is what I do: there are three designers out there, that if you want to get an idea of what is coming in high fashion who can show us – I don’t necessarily love everything that they do, because their clothes are really pushing the envelope of fashion – but I believe the rest of the designers area also watching them – because they bring out designs in wearable fashion statements later on.
So they are: Marc Jacobs, Prada and Vivienne Westwood.
Armani can take the simplest detail and tweak it to create a beautiful fold, or a simple tuck in a sleeve and shapes it … He took the principles he used in creating men’s jackets and translated them to women’s jackets … he has an edge but it’s a soft edge …. I look at the small detail … like following a single thread up the center back of a jacket to the neckline, to see how he had to move it to create the garment. He doesn’t set the fashion statement, but he works with it in his own way.
It takes the fashion world one to two years to tweak the three leaders … Before we see effects they’ve shown come out in high fashion, in a wearable way.
What is a typical day like for you?
Well, this morning I got up at 3:30 – I slept a little later today. I’m trying to break my 1 a.m. – 2 a.m. habit of waking… I need to be functioning at 6:30 p.m. … I’m usually asleep by 7 .. but I’ll be on the road soon, and so I won’t have any problem staying with my classes that go until 9 p.m. if I can get those couple extra hours of sleep.
That time of the morning is a very creative time for me. I’m not sure why, but it is the time when I get most of my ideas, and there can be times when I get up and make coffee, and then grab my clipboard which stays right by my chair, and sketch the idea real quick. When I’m working I’m not sure if it’s because there is nothing else going on at that time of day that I feel I’ve got to be aware of, but that time of day I can be really focused. I can get lost in that focus from time to time …
My mind is clearer, ideas come quickly and readily to me at that time. It’s not the same at 6 or 7 a.m. …
What’s your sewing secret weapon?
I’m not sure what to say to that … I don’t use a bunch of gadgets …
I tell people that I have a gift – I’m not fooling myself about it, everyone has gifts, it’s about how we use those gifts, how to we develop and improve our ability to use those gifts. My gift is that I can look at a three dimensional body and interpret that body in a two-dimensional way. I can look at pattern pieces – those flat pieces of paper – and see them in a three dimensional way in my mind. When I’m sketching and working on people … I go through in my mind how all those pieces are going to go together and analyze them and see what sort of problems I am going to encounter and how I can alleviate them…
I am drawn to … I really like patterns with lots of details … and I’ve drawn it out, created the pieces, and put it together in my mind, and realized it would be too much for most of our sewers – too much time, too many details … too tricky.
When we talk about how I advise people about clothing … color, shape and so on …
I notice how people move … listen to the way in which they communicate about an occasion where they’d wear this garment, about their life and what is going on with them … they’re giving me a ton of clues about how to design clothes for them. And I kind of combine these ideas – because I’m talking with women all the time – people will tell you what they want if you’ll just listen. It’s important not to be in love with your own idea – it stops you from really understanding what others really need, and what they want …
Here’s something else, from when I had the store. I attempted to never say “no” on the telephone —
Here’s an example:
Caller: Do you have blue taffeta? (I did not.)
Me: Sounds like you’ve got an important occasion coming up.
Caller: Well, yes I do. And so the conversation begins …
I tried to come into their (the customer’s) awareness – that there are many ways to meet a need. And quite possibly we can improve on the original choice – because the choice was based on an image, and they are imagining it will transform their look into that image. We go for the final outcome but explore the possibilities – more flattering, better fitting, more comfortable … Helping people to become aware that they have many more possibilities than they perhaps were aware of.
For me, I think that’s loving people. Sharing enough information for them to make an informed decision with which they can feel totally comfortable.
When I’m thinking about a pattern or garment for another person … they should have a garment that they do not have to re-arrange while they are wearing it. Looking at how the body moves, I put fullness or the release of movement where the body is moving.
What has been your favorite project recently?
Well, for sewing … I am currently involved in a project in which, with no background, I have stepped up to say that I will handle making the draperies for the church. There will be a few ladies who will help me, but …
My non-sewing project: cooking. I’m always experimenting with recipes … working on new soup recipes these days, and my latest one is a caramelized onion and bleu cheese cream soup. My challenge is what meats can I add to that soup that are going to stand up to those kind of intense flavors … and I’m about to try corned beef. I think that or pastrami. My only problem is finding enough people who will taste it! It takes a special kind of person that likes bleu cheese.
Why does it need meat? Because I’m a maet-eater! I want that complete protein in there … it (the soup) doesn’t need it, but I need it. Soup can be so satisfying without overdoing the portion size.
Can you describe your brand in 5 words or less?
Probably not. I believe the majority of what I do has a traditional flavor with a tweaking of fast-forward fashion. I don’t want somebody to say they can’t wear something because it’s out of style – but something has to be there that gives them an edge — a design element that will transport traditional or contemporary to a more edgy, high fashion look.
What’s your current sewing soundtrack?
Nothing. I do not have on the television or radio or anything else. For me, it interrupts my thinking process, my analyzing process, or working on sketches … I feel I’m doing a better job and I’m more efficient in silence. Maybe that’s why I like the wee hours of the morning, too … I mean nobody is going to call you at 2 a.m.!
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Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Cynthia!
Visit Cynthia’s website at cynthiaguffey.com to learn more about her, and follow the links below to learn more about the upcoming classes she’s teaching with us:
- Women’s Shirts: The Best of Everything with Cynthia Guffey — a Martha Pullen Co. online course
- Fitting Clinic: Fine Tuning for a Superior Silhouette — at our School of Art Fashion Boutique event in Fredericksburg, VA September 26-28, 2016
- Fitting Clinic: Fine Tuning for a Superior Silhouette — at our School of Art Fashion Boutique event in Minneapolis, MN November 7-9, 2016