Interview with River, Outfit Contest Winner

River's wildflower documenting outfit

Last weekend I got to do an interview with River, age 11, who won our outfit contest. I learned that her winning entry didn't come out of nowhere - she has been drawing, painting, and sewing since she was 2! This explains a lot, and inspires me to give my daughter as much freedom with art and craft materials as I possibly can. Here's our chat:

JANE: Hi! All right! It's nice to meet you; we loved your designs. So, you said in your entry that you love watercolors. Are there other crafts that you like to do? Oh, I see your sewing machine, actually.

RIVER: Yeah; I love to sew, that's like one of my favorite things to do. I've always loved to sew.

Oh, cool! So that answers my next question, I was curious if it's your first time designing clothes, or if you had done it before.

I actually have made a lot of doll and animal clothes, and human clothes. This year I'm in fifth grade, and my school only goes up to fifth grade, so I made a graduation dress.

Oh, no! That's so tragic! I mean that's really cool, but I'm sorry that you probably didn't get as much of a chance to wear it.

Well I haven't done it yet but I think we're gonna do it over Zoom!

Oh cool, so I guess that works.

It works, yeah!

I used to not like video calls, but now I'm totally used to them. You could even safety pin the back if you had to, and no one would ever know, so that's different. Okay, so you made a graduation dress, that's amazing! Tell me more about your graduation dress, I'm curious. Or, can I see it?

Yeah, I made some accessories to go with it. I take sewing classes, or I used to take sewing classes until...

The current troubles!

[Editor's note: River showed me the dress. I saw that it was very well made and was going to fit without needing any safety pins, and in hindsight I regret casting aspersions on her craftsmanship.]

Yeah, so, it's like this and then the straps cross in the back, and then at the bottom it has a lace trim.

Ooooo! Wait, how is that lace attached?

It's not attached, it's like part of the fabric.

Oh I see, so you made it in panels with the lace arranged in each panel of the dress. Oh, wow! Did you use a pattern?

I did, I wouldn't have been able to do that without a pattern.

That makes sense, but you engineered the placement of the pattern pieces so the lace would be centered? 

Yeah, and all the lace points would be on the bottom.

That's cool! Where did you get the fabric?

I got the fabric from the Jo-Ann fabric store, that's where I get all my fabric.

Yeah. When I was a kid there was this fabric store called Rag Shop, I don't think they exist anymore. But I used to make my parents take me, and they would sit and wait in the car, and I would spend as long as I could get away with in Rag Shop, just browsing.

Same thing. I just go in and... my mom is a writer, so we say being in a sewing store, or Jo-Ann, or a fabric store, is like how she feels being in a library.

So it's not still open now though, is it?

I don't think it is. I think it closed down.

Yeah I think they were open for a little bit, and then people got angry.

Yeah but I've stocked up on fabrics. I've gotten fabric from people who worked for my dad, and a person who had this sewing store, and I went to the workshop in her house and she gave me a bunch of yards of the fabric she uses. So I use some of that for sewing, and I have a bunch of fabric from my sewing teacher, and just stuff I've collected over the years.

That sounds good! I guess I remember always having such a stash of fabric, and... I basically never stopped, I still do. But I'm less sentimental about it now, like I will throw things out that I never...I would have hoarded so carefully when I was a kid - because otherwise I would go crazy, there's just too much. I keep wanting to find a way to share it somehow with customers who want scraps, but we haven't really figured it out yet.

Like, every dress, take a scrap!

Yeah! When people come to the store at certain times of the year when we're trying to clean up, then whenever someone comes into the store I'm like, [deranged goblin voice] "Do you want any fabric!!??" and then I try and send them away with all our extra fabric. I don't know that their parents appreciate it because it's a lot of clutter in the house....Okay, so you take sewing lessons. How long have you been taking them?

I started hand sewing at the school I went to in Primary, so I started sewing in Primary [editor's note: Primary is what River's school calls its nursery school program]. But no one would take me into sewing lessons! No one was going to take a risk with a two-year-old with a sewing machine!

You were two!? So you already loved it, but you were too young for any of the classes.

Yes, I started sewing lessons when I was five, and I had to take private lessons because no one would take me in a group lesson. I was already making skirts and stuff. I got a sewing machine when I was five, so my parents were like, now she has to take sewing lessons because she has to learn how to use this, so they tried to find me a sewing class but no one would take me, so I had to take a private lesson, but after I went to my first sewing lesson they were like, "how did you learn how to sew!? You're five!" 

You already knew. Because you knew from private lessons. Or you knew from figuring it out yourself?

Well my dad learned from work, he had someone teach him how to use a sewing machine. And then he taught me, off of what he knew, and then...

That's so funny, my dad also taught me how to use a sewing machine. Because he got really into making quilts when I was four or five, and then he would let us kind of play around with sewing. I wasn't really good at the sewing machine until seven or so, but I remember I would sew and sew and then I would have to change the bobbin, and his machine wasn't a drop-in bobbin, it was the type with a case. So I would have to call him back and he would have to fix it for me because I couldn't do it.

Yeah, I just have a Brother sewing machine, so one of the easiest to use.

Cool; usually as long as they have enough metal parts, they're pretty good. So when you are designing, do you start your designs with watercolors a lot, or was that a special move for the contest?

I don't actually do watercolors a lot, but I love watercolor art. But I usually just sketch it out on a sketch pad, and I pick the fabrics that I want that would look good with it. But with watercolor I thought I could give it a try and give it a little extra color.

I liked that it was really clear what you intended, I think using the color made it more clear what you wanted. And watercolor is always beautiful, this is the secret, right - it doesn't really matter what you do; it's going to look nice.

It's much more forgiving than oil paints.

Pretty much, yeah, and easier cleanup.

I used to always paint at my grandmother's, and they only had... my grandfather got me oil paints, but I didn't have any watercolors or acrylic paints. So every time I did a painting, my grandmother would have to clean up the brushes, which is almost impossible.

Yeah, kids and oil paint - that is a bold combination. Could be real messy! Wait, how old were you? Were you still a messy age?

I was still little, but we always had a towel and they said, just put down the towel and you can get as much paint as you want on it, just not on the table.

That's good. So you said you sketch first and then pick the fabric. Do you ever start with the fabric you know you want to use?

Sometimes I start with the fabric. If I find a fabric and I'm like, "Oh, I haven't used this in a long time, I want to use this, and then I'll find something that I can make with it, like if it's fleece I'll make... I like making baby clothes, so I'll make bloomers because I have...a bunch of my parents' friends have had kids lately, so I've made them all bloomers or stuff like that. I actually have this website that I've been working on. I've been thinking about starting a website where I sell baby clothes and toys and stuff, but it's just so hard to keep up with it.

Yeah, it's a lot of parts. I bet you can do it! If you have any technical questions I'll be happy to answer them. Make sure you charge enough! I never charged enough for anything until, I don't know, the past five years. It's scary to ask for a lot of money, but it's usually the truth of how long it took you, if you think about it.

So, are you more in the city or the country? I'm curious how quarantine has been for you, and home school.

Well, it's not like the city city, there's no big office buildings or stuff really close by. It's been pretty good because we're in a one mile radius to a store. Usually we have Zoom meetings for school, and Instacart hasn't been a problem for quarantine.

Are you going stir crazy, or are you okay with your projects?

I AM going stir crazy because right before this actually, I got pneumonia. So I was stuck in the house with pneumonia for a month, and then I got all caught up, and then coronavirus hit, and it was like, back in quarantine! So, I'm going a little crazy.

So you worked on your graduation dress. What are you working on now?

I do more small projects than big projects. I've been having school; school has been as normal. We've been doing two Zoom calls per day, sometimes three, so... and then they send us home with work every two weeks. So all the weekdays I have school, but in all my free time I sew something, or do a craft, or paint. I have to do something constructive with all this time!

Yeah, it's a lot of time! So what is the thing you're most proud of that you made recently - the graduation dress?

Probably the graduation dress, I'm really happy with how it turned out. And before the graduation dress, I made my Halloween costume. So I made a dress for my Halloween costume, without a pattern, so I just freestyled it. I had to use measuring, and I used... I'm not sure what it's called, a model....

Like a dress form?

A form, yeah, a sewing form, so I had to fit all the pieces, and that was fun.

Draping! That's called draping.


What were you?

I was a unicorn. I did a dress that was shorter in the front and really long and flowy in the back, and it was made of a really soft bright pink satin. 

That sounds like the dream gown of so many little kids. Like, pick any four-year-old and you made their dreams come true with that gown. It's a funny thing, we sell these dolls and animals, and we don't have that many things that are pink and purple, and we definitely get a lot of customers who want their kids to have earth tones, but when we see people shopping in person, if there's a four-year-old, lots of four-year-olds, all they want is the pink and purple one. There's no reasoning with them.

My aunt is really into earth tones, and my baby cousin hasn't known any pink and purple, and she's really into dinosaurs. She never really went through the princess phase.

But how old is she?

She's three, and she just started going to school, but she knows more dinosaur names than I do, or probably any paleontologist. [Editor's note: See how River used an actual example to shut down my gender essentialism here.]

Do you have any siblings or friends that you like to do projects with, or do you mostly like to do them yourself?

I mostly do them myself, I don't have any siblings, but I do have a couple friends who like to sew. I have a friend that just started sewing, and she's pretty good. And I have another friend who likes embroidery. She actually has a website called the Embroidery Emporium, she made her own website and she'll pick up your stuff, and you can send her a picture and she'll embroider whatever you want her to.

That sounds amazing!

She's really good at it! She used to be into sewing, and I used to go to sewing classes with her, but then she wanted to do baking, and rock climbing, and then apparently she got into embroidery.

Do you have any questions for me?

Yes, I actually do. Since I've been on your website I've seen a lot of pictures of little kids in the outfits and with the dolls. How old is your little girl? I heard you telling me she just started walking. 

She just turned fifteen months, and now I guess every once in a while she surprises us with a little walking, but she can't do it yet that much, or she chooses not to do it, most of the time. I wish I could show her to you, but she's out with her grandpa. She's one. She's pretty cute.

Also, how has it been starting your own business? That's been something I've always wanted to do, is to start my own Etsy business or something.

So I also was always doing businesses as a kid, with varying degrees of... the more you understand who your customers are going to be, the better your business goes. I used to not know or care who would buy the stuff, I would just make it and try to sell it because I always loved doing it, but this one, I kind of understood that people were looking for organic things, and cute little woodland things, and so I understood that there would be a market for it. But I didn't know, because it can make sense in your head, but you don't know until you try. But people just kept buying them so I got to keep doing it. And it's just gotten bigger and bigger. It's great, super gratifying.

Yeah, I think I've annoyed some of my friends by talking to the competition so much the past few weeks. That's been all I've talked about.

Oh, talking about the outfit contest?

I had to show my closest friend your website, and she thought it was just so cute. We agreed that it was... all my friends, they don't really like doing stuff like this, like sewing and crafts - that's my thing, is I'm the person who sews stuff. They're always really supportive in that way.

That's nice! I guess, one thing about making a business out of the thing I was doing for fun, people say, oh, it gets so it's not fun anymore and you're just doing spreadsheets all day. But I haven't really found that to be the case. I found that there are still whole parts of it that are fun. Sometimes it's less fun. But mostly it's interesting and I think because it keeps growing, it stays challenging enough that it holds my interest over many years. So that's been good. There's just a lot to learn. Like managing people. I'm still not very good at that. Turns out you need people skills, and I don't really have them. But it keeps me occupied, for sure!

Okay! I look forward to seeing your baby clothes business, and more paintings!

I don't know if I'll be able to finish it during all this. But every once in a while I'll be like, "I'm gonna go work on that now!" Just for fun, not really bothering about the business aspect.

That's okay - you're a kid! That's the idea! I don't have any more questions, but if you do, you can ask. 

I don't think I do either, but I just want to say how much I love your website and how amazing it is to have been picked out of 600 people.

It was so many people! And there were so many people that I wish we also could have picked - there were so many good ones. Really, a lot. So I'm glad we get to make your outfit. I wish we could clone ourselves and make a lot more of them!