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THE BEST...THE BEAUTIFUL...AND THE BIZARRE | 'It Started
to Consume Me.' | SO SOCAL

She's Fit to Be Tie-Dyed

November 22, 1998|Debra J. Hotaling

Underneath the rubber gloves, particle mask and goggles, Holland Millsap is busy cooking up a fashion statement.

"I often think the cops are going to be knocking on my door because it looks like I'm doing something illegal," she says, gesturing to her Buick-sized stove. It is the appliance that enables the 33-year-old designer to concoct sumptuous silk fabric colors that evoke Mexican beaches, Santa Ana sunsets and Lake Tahoe autumn afternoons.

Modifying an ancient Japanese dying process called shibori, Millsap takes silk pieces steeped to a deep hue in her bathtub, wraps them around PVC pipe--"Japanese artists used trees or, more recently, telephone poles," she notes--then binds the cloth with twine to create the fabric's precisely haphazard patterns. Shibori traditionally calls for the artist to dye colors into the fabric, but Millsap takes color out by cooking the wrapped fabric--PVC pipe and all--in a soup pot full of water-soluble chemicals, leaving color only where twine meets silk.

"It's not quite tie-dying," says Millsap, fingering one of the many pieces of silk draped over a pole that runs along her bedroom wall. "But it is part of the family. I guess it'd be the great-grandfather of tie-dying."

Her career started out innocently enough three years ago, just an amusing afternoon "dying up little fabric strips" at a friend's house. "Pretty soon, it started to consume me," Millsap recalls. Today, her pajamas and scarves, ties and sarongs, and even her quilted layettes, available by special order for the aesthetically discerning infant, sell at Uncle Jer's in Los Angeles, Sara on Montana in Santa Monica, Artwares on Melrose and, most recently, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's gift shop.

"I come from a long line of women who sew," says Millsap, who swears her great-grandmother's Singer still boasts the best straight stitch in town. "My great-grandmother used to say if it's going to look 'mammy' made, don't make it at all, and my mother wanted to dress us like little Kennedys, so everything these women sewed looked like it came straight from I. Magnin."

As Millsap excuses herself to coax a cat from the roof, I wander through the Altadena bungalow that is her grandmother's. Millsap's work fills each room like boisterous children: a tiny study bulges with fabric swatches, sewing machines and many-diametered sections of PVC pipe; the kitchen holds fabric chemicals, stockpots and even a few groceries; in the living room, two little girls' dresses pinned for hemming hang above a baby grand piano. She admits to some empty-nest-syndrome fears, knowing that success means her work must some day fly out on its own.

"It's impossible to duplicate an outcome, even with the same fabric, so I do get attached," she says. "It's kind of painful when your favorites sell."

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