Bonny Carmicino, who lives in Cold Spring, is president of the Association of Sewing and Design Professionals.
Did you sew as a child?
I learned when I was 4. I made my first dress when I was in kindergarten from fabric my mom had given to me to make a tablecloth. I grew up on a farm in Walla Walla, Washington; my parents said they would only pay for me to go to a local college, but I wanted out of Dodge. So I told them I wasn’t going to college. There was an announcement at school that the local congressman was looking to hire a page, so I applied. It turned out you had to be a rising senior, so I didn’t get it, but on the Monday after I graduated, his office called and offered me a job as a staff assistant. So I moved to Washington, D.C., to work for Rep. Tom Foley, who was the majority whip.
How did you end up at MIT?
I was always good at math and science, and a person I worked with in D.C. suggested I apply. Do you know any philosophy on the concept of possible possibilities? Nobody from Walla Walla had ever gone to MIT. I had thrown away the brochure. I got in and I went. After a few years, I was tired of engineering, so I took a year off and worked in the fabric store, then came back and got my degree in philosophy. MIT put together resume books of graduating students organized by major and I had a tab all to myself. Morgan Stanley hired me for a program to train programmers who could communicate with their front-office people. After a while, I felt like I was just helping people make lots of money. I decided I wanted to study legal philosophy, so I went to NYU law. I was disappointed in that legal philosophers seemed to define themselves by being incomprehensible. At the same time, I was taking classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology on nights and weekends. The sewing kept me sane.
So now you’ve found balance between your left and right brains?
So much of my life has been alternating between them. I knew what I wanted to do with my life when I was 7, and it haunted me when I didn’t do it. If you’ve lost your passion in life, consider what you liked to do when you were 7. My life’s work is creating a new method of pattern drafting — to work from body scans to create patterns that fit a particular body, not just the average body. I have a patent on a fit prediction algorithm from my time at Ezsize earlier in my career. Unless you have custom garments, they are not going to fit perfectly — they’re not even going to fit great. People minimize the complexity. When I was working at Ezsize, they were using a German military size chart from World War II. I asked, “What if a woman has a size 8 waist and size 12 hips?” And this bunch of guys said, “Does that happen?”
That’s why there are so many returns on mail-order clothes, especially with women’s clothes. Men’s clothes are designed to hang off the shoulders and the waist and camouflage their shape and there is room for alterations, whereas women’s clothes are designed to accentuate their shape. Women have more curves, and distinct curves. Designers are working with body scanners trying to recreate the experience of an experienced tailor taking topical measurements. The system that I’m coming up with embraces the three-dimensionality of the data.
Have you done any unusual sewing projects?
Sure. Threads magazine has a challenge each year. I have a bit of a history here, trying to make the strangest possible entries. For instance, for the transformation challenge, I made an outfit that went from hiking to formal wear. The pants became an evening shrug. More recently, you had to upcycle a work outfit, so I put a call out for worn-out socks and sewed them — after washing them with Borax — into a wrap. I think it’s fabulous but the judges said they couldn’t imagine wearing it to work — fuddy duddies [laughs]. What I love — my specialty — is couture lace work, where you piece it together like a puzzle so you can’t see the seams. I like working with guipure lace, which has heavy threads in it.
Should sewing be a required course?
Absolutely. When my boys were in Scouts, I volunteered to help with the sewing merit badge. I was surprised to learn there isn’t one. It seems to me that the first merit badge you earn should be how to sew on your merit badge. Everyone should know how to sew on a button and hem pants. There has been a renewal of interest in sewing partly because of thrift culture. Younger people are not buying into fast fashion; they are more interested in sustainability and aware that it is much better for the planet.