Pattern Recognition

Tracy Ma’s hat. [A diptych with a sketch on the left of a khaki canvas bucket covered with many differently sized pockets. On the right, the hat manifest.]

This piece was originally published in the 2024 Annual.

Laurel Schwulst: In your ideal world, everyone makes their own clothes?

Tracy Ma: Yes. Certainly it would solve a lot of problems. It would create more problems too, of course.

If everyone made their own clothes, people would have a renewed appreciation for time. There is a lack of muscle in going into a store and buying something. People assume everything is very mechanized now, but it’s actually very tough and time-consuming human labor.

Laurel: When did you start making your own clothes?

Tracy: I started when I was twenty-six. But most of the garments I made then are unseeable. It took me a long time to get the hang of it.

Silk/linen, 2020. All Images: Tracy Ma. [A pair of blue silk/linen shorts with a black draw string.]

Around that time, I was addicted to fast fashion. I was working at Bloomberg, where I didn’t feel like I fit in. So I used fast fashion as a way to blend into their very office-y, financial work culture. It was all a mirage. I would go to Zara after work. It was a very cheap form of creativity. It was also becoming a nasty financial habit.

Laurel: How long did it take you to start wearing your own creations to work?

Tracy: I wore my shitty tubular dresses to work almost immediately. They were hard to walk in. Ellen, my editor at the time, asked me, “You made that dress, didn’t you?” It was a complete tube. She knew right away.

Laurel: How does a piece typically come about? Do you have any particular source of inspiration?

Tracy: I love this Tumblr called—it’s a compilation of scanned photographs from old runway books, spanning from the late ’70s to the early 2000s. It features runway shows that have somehow been lost through the sands of time. It’s material the internet hasn’t really been able to cache.

I love these types of clothes because they’re completely unwearable. It’s why many of those brands ended up failing. The person who runs, Shahan Assadourian, was quoted saying they prefer fashion brands that last less than three years; these brands tend to make the most interesting stuff.

I’m inspired because it’s a lot of handwork. It’s truly unscalable. I don’t have means of mass production anyway. So why not make it?

When you’re learning a trade, it’s almost impossible to be patient. You have no idea how it’s supposed to go, so you’re often doubting yourself. You charge through and see what it’s like first. It makes patience impossible. But now that I know the process, I am able to take my time on details like sewing on a button.

Raw silk with added pleats, 2021. [A white silk short-sleeve button down.]

Laurel: Could I ask you a specific clothing project–related question?

Tracy: Sure!

Laurel: I have a favorite, uniquely patterned blouse from 2015 by a French workwear brand. It’s very special to me because it’s my favorite color, and it has a hidden pocket. The shirt is old now, though. Unfortunately, it has some staining and needs new buttons and so on. I’ve always imagined someday I would re-create it, since to me it’s my ideal shirt. Maybe it would be my “Steve Jobs turtleneck,” but I would want it in a handful of colors. Do you have any ideas of how I could go about re-creating it?

Tracy: That’s beautiful.

Laurel: I could also hire a tailor for this, right?

Tracy: You could, but the tailor will never love the shirt as much as you.

Laurel: Good point. I would want to treat this with care since it’s a long-term-vision kind of project . . . my uniform!

Tracy: Would you be down to take it apart?

Laurel: It’s quite existential. Destroying the original to create a copy! I do admit, it’s getting to a point where I don’t want to wear it anymore because it has so many stains.

Tracy: Perfect for destruction! You know, there is a respectful way to destroy something for creation. And then there’s a fast way.

Laurel: Tell me more.

Tracy: The respectful way is to take a seam ripper and rip out every stitch. It will take a long time, but the benefit is that you’ll get a very pure pattern. You don’t need to think about how much seam allowance you need to add. Sometimes, once you get going, you can take a razor blade and go shhhhh. I like to do that because I don’t have to do all this tracing and measuring. I can take these true patterns, plop them on my new fabric, use chalk to quickly trace, and then cut it out. You don’t need measurements.

Laurel: How often do you do this?

Tracy: I copied a work jacket I bought in Paris this way.

Silk organza, 2018. [Navy blue silk organza pants, loose-fitting and semi-transparent.]

Tracy: Did you know you can’t copyright patterns of clothes? So if you created these blouse copies, you could technically sell them.

Overall, there are few copyright protections because fashion or clothing is a utilitarian medium. Another important goal of fashion is copying, which is how trends are created. For the US especially, it makes economic sense for trends to come and go and for people to go shopping. One legal argument is that adding that copyright layer would hamper economic activity. I first  learned this from chief fashion critic at the New York Times Vanessa Friedman, and was later reminded of this listening to an episode of Avery Trufelman's podcast “Articles of Interest.”

Laurel: Wow, that’s incredible.

Tracy: On the other hand, trademarks (like logos) are intellectual property, so you couldn’t sell your shirt if you were also re-creating its logo.

Laurel: [Looking something up on phone . . .]  According to the Useful Article doctrine in US copyright law, “[if] an object has a practical or useful function, copyright protection applies only to the original, creative elements that can be identified separately from the utilitarian aspects of an object, but does not extend to the underlying design of the functional object.”

Pockets are interesting because they seem very functional. My favorite shirt has a secret, hidden pocket. I still don’t know what it was intended for, but it’s been quite useful to me. I’m almost surprised that all shirts don’t have this pocket.

Similarly, your hat with all the tiny pockets is able to carry your MTA subway card, lipstick, cash, chamomile tea, multiple types of miniature hot sauces, DHC deep-cleansing oil, a red pill, a blue pill, a cough drop, toothpaste, mouthwash, and extra film.

Cotton canvas, 2020. [The aforementioned khaki canvas bucket hat with all the pockets, this time filled with little bottles and vials.]

Laurel: What do you imagine keeps you making clothes?

Tracy: Sometimes I don’t know what to wear anymore. I feel out of step with the youth as I get older. Making my own clothes myself grounds me a little. You can save money on labor and invest in quality materials.

Laurel Schwulst is an artist, designer, writer, educator, and technologist.

Tracy Ma leads graphic design for Homer, Frank Ocean’s luxury brand.