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Carla’s Opera Coat

Aug 16, 2010
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My sewing friend Carla Fracchia and I worked together recently at The Sewing Workshop in San Francisco. Her mother came to visit the class one day and brought along a fantastic gift for Carla–a vintage magenta silk-satin couture opera coat. It was magnificent and worth examining. Carla’s grandfather was at one time President of I. Magnin, a very prestigious San Francisco department store. As you might imagine, Carla’s grandmother wore the best of the best, including this beautiful coat. (Just to give you an idea of the company her grandparents kept, Carla’s godmother was the legendary Irish designer Sybil Connolly). The coat was made by Monte-Sano & Pruzan, a New York-based company known in the 50’s and 60’s for its fine workmanship and expensive garments. Carla’s quite petite, so the coat will have to be sized down for her, but it’s totally doable. What a beautiful (and inspiring) garment! My thanks to Susan Bertolli (another sewing friend!) for modeling the coat, and to Carla for the photographs. The front of the coat. . The back of the coat. The beautiful pleats at the elegantly-placed top back edge. And, I love the undersleeve gusset; the sleeves are on the bias, giving…

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  1. User avater guen September 21st

    I saw this coat while attend the class in San Francisco. It was simply beautiful, the color, drape and style. It was hard to imagine it was 50-60 years old, still in perfect condition. I guess you had to see it to actually appreciate it's beauty.

  2. coveredsnaps September 16th

    And this, my dears, is why we "all" love Mad Men (ABC Sunday nights.) Clothes were beautiful - once.Now only the very, very wealthy can have beautiful clothes like this cape.....unless we are lucky enough to do couture sewing. I was taught tailoring, pattern drafting.drapeing, French couture methods in the Home Economics Department of the University of Texas, Austin, by the women who had written the textbooks (1953-1956), Vogue patterns French couture models (still in my files) beginning in l951, years of Threads subscription and books and books of Claire Shaeffer et.al. whose couture instructions are priceless. As a social historian (MA, Trinity University, San Antonio) it has been interesting and sad that so few fine fabric shops exist today for the CAUSE is the decline in the type of woman I once was, a woman with the leisure to do fine sewing. As is said -THINGS CHANGE.......

  3. kathis August 24th

    I think some of the comments were quite uninformed. Obviously, this coat was not something that you threw over any dress- from the color and the style it had to have had a companion dress, designed with it. What hangs "shapelessly" would have gained structure from the right dress. The back looks like it could have been inspired by Watteau (if my art history memory is correct).
    Thank you, Susan, for letting us share and admire this lovely, and beautifully constructed garment!

  4. SewNancy August 24th

    Maybe it's not to your taste, but this is about the beauty of fabulous fabric and construction. I love seeing how the gusset give movement and keeps the sleeve unwrinkled when down. It's a wonderful reminder of why learning and practicing couture techniques are still relevant. I think too many people are used to the H & M mentality of disposable fashion. Thank you Susan for sharing this with us.

  5. User avater clothsurgeon August 23rd

    Judging a coat, alone ...without the gown underneath...is silly....imagine, a tulle gown with 20 layers of gossimer silk...pushing its way thru the front...while the gorgeous pleats in the back resemble an opera cape...TO DIE FOR....just gorgeous....flowing lines....flattering color for the right woman!

  6. User avater Annemari August 22nd

    This thing IS elegant, though some think opposite. Don't look at it so bluntly. Add some pearls, some heel, some elegant hairdo (and take off some hips - sorry for that, but this precious thing is not meant to hide the truth, but emphasize it!) - and voila.

    It is worth the pages treated on the subject. I am waiting for the article with much interest.

  7. rogue_cellist August 22nd

    Sadly what I read in the comments here was a bunch of women displaying their ignorance and complete lack of willingness to research something they were unfamiliar with when to do so would have required a google search in a second tab. Elegance is a thing long departed from our fashion world and what passes for fashionable and elegant now makes me want to cry. In it's context this coat would have been spectacular. In our modern scene it is out of context and so people see a garment they can't understand. Personally I wouldn't have chosen magenta as it isn't a colour I particularly like but I do appreciate the opportunity to see the fine detail close up and I only wish I had the opportunity to dress up in such fine clothing to attend the opera or ballet- instead I spend my evenings at home with my small children. I have enjoyed reading the stories of those ladies who did get to experience and wear these classic looks when they were the height of fashion.

  8. User avater TJSEWS August 20th

    I admire and appreciate the workmanship and attention to detail. But like some other posters, I do not like the style. It makes the wearer look frumpy and is not flattering to her at all. (Just my opinion.)

  9. SusanKhalje August 19th

    I think we'll try to do a future article (or at least another post)on that gusset. When I'm next in SF (which will be next month), I'll see if I can spend a little more time with the coat, and perhaps take a pattern off it.
    And didn't you love the opera-goer's tale!!!!
    Susan

  10. Billswife August 19th

    I , too, grew up in the 50`s and 60`s and miss the beautiful details and workmanship we saw on those garments. Thank you for giving us a chance to see this coat. It is truly work of art!

  11. Lizothelake August 18th

    Not only did I have clothes of this type; nowhere near as "Haute" or as "Couture", but a Coat specifically for wearing to the Opera, and dresses to wear too, during the early to mid 60's.
    I was going on a regular basis to Covent Garden; was a student up in Yorkshire and could JUST make it if I cut early afternoon class, went on the train, saw the performance, ran for a taxi as the curtain came down, and caught the last train back, caught the first bus out to college from town, and checked with the Porter's Lodge before the night shift and the day shift did change-over; so I was not technically out all night, but on a "Late Pass".
    I'd literally have my day clothes on to travel down, change on the train, m ake-up on, hair up, day clothes into a small suitcase, Opera Clothes on; off the train and over to Covent Garden by taxi, checked my bag into Cloaks, along with my coat. The one coat was a Dove Grey Upholstery Velvet; 3/4 sleeves, just two buttons, peter pan collar. Another was "Raw Silk" (Rayon actually), a collarless style, just one button, which I still have in my collection of old and odd buttons, and again, 3/4 sleeves.This was a darker shade of Grey. Both these were cut to flare to the hem, and were slightly below knee length.
    Underneath I'd wear a dress with short sleeves, one was a Black Velvet with Raglan Sleeves and a neckline that appeared to be cut very low indeed but actually it was just an illusion since it balanced just where ones shoulder line breaks into the upper arm. With that dress I wore my hair in a low sweep secured with a very large velvet bow with diamantes sewn across the ends of the 'tails'.
    During the last intermission I'd ask the people between my seat and the aisle if they'd mind moving across one seat so that I did not disturb them by leaving as "I had to catch the last train". People could understand that as the last one to places like Brighton left around Midnight so it was a stretch to catch it. By leaving as the curtain fell I could retrieve my coat and bag and be outside and into a taxi and to the station; tip the driver well, knowing he'd get back to pick up another fare, and run for my train. Do the quick change again, and snuggle down for the train ride home.
    Oh to be young and foolish again! But what memories.
    Liz

  12. oopsgramma August 18th

    My comments regarding the vintage opera coat were just an opinion - not intended to be rude, tho I stand by my comments. Rude is Heidi Klum. I wouldnt have worn that coat even in the 50s-60s. I notice that it has the same "tuck/pleating" that today's "fashion" has - I view that as a quick-end result to a finished garment. Im so sick of seeing front pleats to bring a neckline to a conclusion. I prefer TAILORING - using form-fitting darts to build in shape. Audrey Hepburn wouldnt be caught dead in this coat. I doubt that even Audrey Hepburn could pull this disaster off. Just imagine this coat coming down the Project Runway by today's standards. I suspect it would end up in the bottom three as "safe" or even be called "unimaginative". I refuse to be taken in regardless of the name on this garment. Granted the construction is good, but the design is non-existant. Its not a question of manners, - its a question of TASTE.

  13. porthavengirl August 18th

    I Magnin got sued for age discrimination (ref: Your time will come: the law of age discrimination and mandatory retirement By Lawrence Meir Friedman). They lost a lot of money in the settlements.

  14. jmcdesigns August 17th

    I made a jacket similar to that but with a rolled collar when I started to Berkeley in the 62. I think the inner structure would have made it easier to sew. wish I had known more about inner support.Still don't know enough about structure. It would have helped stay warm in the wind also. I cann't remember how many times I sewed the gussett until I could finally get it to lie flat. I made mine 3/4 length and wish I had made it full length. It would have been more comfortable in the cold rainy windy winters. It was so easy to throw on no matter how heavy the sweater. The pleats in the back gave ease in the back but the sides and front drapped close to the body. You want to have a coat that comes off easy in the crowd of the opera esp. if you have a guy helping:) Loved my black leather gloves too. I would say based on the difficulty of the gussett in the sleeve that it was a vogue pattern. I think I have a vintage vogue pattern that is similar and I think is still being published I've probably had it almost 10 years.

  15. User avater Zippylady August 17th

    Love this coat and love the I. Magnins in San Francisco, in the 60's and 70's. Fabulous store. It and City of Paris were my two favorite stores on Union Square.

    The coat is a very special piece. I two wouldn't mind making a coat like it but I have no idea where I would wear it. Just owning it would make one feel special!

  16. Skymom August 17th

    There's so much to admire in this beautiful opera coat! And although the style isn't one I have much use for in my mundane life, I rather like the drama of it, and knowing that it's intended as the outer wrapping of some even more stupendous ensemble. I hope Carla has someplace grand to go!

    Actually, I made a winter coat with a similar--though abbreviated--silhouette last year, and I love it. Bracelet-length, somewhat wide sleeves, with a full shape overall. It's perfect for throwing on over anything, from jeans and a bulky sweater to a nice dress. I just need some really good long leather gloves.

  17. NancySews August 17th

    Susan, this coat is beautiful. One of the other ladies asked about the gusset sleeve and if you knew of another pattern that might be available to the home sewer? I hope so, because this is a beautiful element to this vintage garment. Just stunning. Thanks to you and your friend for sharing and modeling for us. Love all of your classes, articles and books. Bravo!

  18. Bother August 17th

    I would very much like to see much more info on the exact way hair canvas was used in this garment. The front is semi-obvious, but how exactly was it used with the back pleats? Also, since you mentioned the sleeves being cut on the bias, more on that would be helpful. Was hair canvas used in the hem of the sleeves too? Lots more technical details, please.

  19. Beaudacious August 17th

    Love the article. I too worked at I. Magnin in the late 60's. The coat represents fine craftsmanship and is truly an inspiration. I appreciate the description of details, the pictures and analysis of closure. I would love to recreate the pleated back neckline. This type of article is what I remember from earlier editions of Threads, keep the articles coming.

    GG

  20. comocosews August 17th

    Add the jewelry and the high heels and the dusky night makeup and you've got elegance!!

  21. Beaudacious August 17th

    Love the article. I too worked at I. Magnin in the late 60's. The coat represents fine craftsmanship and is truly an inspiration. I appreciate the description of details and the pictures. I would especially like to recreate the pleated back neckline. This type of article is what I remember from earlier editions of Threads. Keep the articles coming.

  22. glovergrrl August 17th

    I am absolutely stunned at the lack of manners in posts about this coat!
    First, it is a piece of coture history. It is representitive of an era, and the quality is impeccable.
    Second, the pleats in the back are not only a design element, but many Opera Gowns of the era had full skirts (Or large bows on the back waist), thus allowing ample coat to cover the dress and not pull at the shoulders. Do your history study before you complain!
    Third, details such as these were what made this whole generation exquisite; the quality of product detail was available to the home sewer through Vogue patterns. I have one of their apron patterns from approximately the same time with piecing and pleats so complex I had to study for quite a while before construction---and it fit like a glove.
    It is sad that so many people today do not take the time to study how women were dressed and what social requirements were demanded of them. Exceptional clothing made the occasions, unlike the less than spectacular garments mass producted in the current era.
    Brava! An exceptional work of art!

  23. User avater TrophyWife August 17th

    Thank you, thank you for sharing this wonderful coat with us! I doubt a garment of this quality could be purchased at any price, in any store today. It makes me so HAPPY Threads continues to make these construction techniques available to us and the next generation of seamstresses. This is beyond craftsmanship, perhaps it should be called 'artisan' sewing.
    Thank you, agian, gail

  24. red_tulip August 17th

    Love this article & the lovely coat. I am a newbie and have learned so much from this one article. More, more! :)

  25. User avater MissPat August 17th

    I love this coat and this article! I used to alter garments that a flight-attendant friend bought off-the-rack in Paris. The construction was beautiful. Covered snaps, hand-made frog closures, hand-inserted linings, and wonderful labels. It was a joy.
    I, too, would love to have a pattern for this coat with the lovely 3/4 sleeves (I remember them well from the '50's. We wore long gloves with them.) The bias sleeve with the gusset is very interesting. Any chance someone might do a pattern?

  26. jennifercbrown August 17th

    Thank You for showing this incredible garment to us. I have never been exposed to such incredible workmanship and it is fantastic to see it so I can apply the techniques to garments I make. There was a past article in threads that told how to add gussets to a garment, if that helps. P.S. Thread girls, this is a piece of history, appreciate what it can tell us. What you don't care for you can do in YOUR OWN garments. Thank You again it is beautiful in it's own right. Jennifer

  27. User avater ALY August 17th

    Thank you for sharing the details of this coat. I always enjoy seeing and reading about the internal construction of unique vintage garments, even if the styles would not be worn today. The techniques can be used on garments I make now. I too was very surprised that hair canvas used to beef up silk satin.

  28. User avater Threads Forum August 17th

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful coat. I am 36 years old and I love vintage clothing. This coat is absolutely beautiful and I would wear it today. The love and care that has obviously gone into the making of this beautiful garment is plain to see. As for the construction techniques, we have a saying in the part of England where I come from that goes 'There is more than one way to skin a cat' which basically means that there is more than one right way to do something. The fact that this garment is still in such immaculate condition is a testament to the quality of the fabrics, materials and construction techniques used to make this garment. The article has given me ideas about how to use materials in less than obvious ways. To me, sewing is about being creative, not just the aesthetics of a garment, but also in cut and construction.
    Keep up the good work!

  29. User avater 65yearssewing August 17th

    Personall I love to see sewing detaila like this coat and it is such a pity that some of us miss the point. I remember strugging as a young girl to sew horsehair braid into a hem using Vogue patterns in the l950's. You can also see this kind of finish in clothes from the same era made in Hong Kong and maybe you can still find it there. The coat is 'supported' to prevent sharp edges and prevent unsightly creases developing in wear. These techniques preserve the beauty of the fabric and for me represent the tender loving care of the seamstress.

  30. phishnet August 17th

    What beautiful craftmanship......Susan, do you know of a pattern for the bias sleeves with gusset? I would love to make these for a blouse or jacket.

  31. User avater Snikwas August 17th

    I was a design student in the 60's at Portsmouth College of Art & Design, & I'm sure our design teacher would have had a fit using hair canvas on silk satin!! Hair canvas would be used for tailoring heavier fabric - I used it to structure my Harris Tweed coat for my tailoring project.

    The design of this opera coat is shapeless, pumpkin like describes it fully. Although not my taste it is always interesting to see how garments are constructed - but I don't think this has any subtlety in either shape or design.

  32. themotleymuse August 17th

    thank you for sharing this beautiful example of fine couture of the '50's/'60's era. my grandmother was an acomplished seamstress and made all of my mother's gowns during that time. my father was in politics in los angeles and there were many functions they attended with regularity. grandmother was always stitching up clothing for my mother and myself. i remember her taking me into tow and we would go to i magnins in the downtown area where she would observe whatever was the current high fashion. then, with me still in tow, we would travel to bullocks (also downtown los angeles) and she would purchase fabric and patterns for the dress, gown, coat or whatever my mother's or my social needs would require. i still have a couple of the gowns she made for mother and am amazed at the construction with so much attention paid to detail! she incorporated horsehair braid, gussets, buckram linings and the like to hold the drape just so. closures were also attended to with strict attention to detail. covered buttons, snaps, hidden zippers, and pleated or bound closures made the garments look perfect. my mother always looked like she had "just stepped out of a band box," as they used to say! thanks again for the wonderful demonstration of a dying art! (and shame on you who have little or no manners and have been so negative in your comments! grandmother used to say, "if you dont have anything nice to say. . . ")

  33. LadyDoxa August 17th

    I truly enjoyed the article. I am a recently graduated from college, receiving my degree in Fashion Design. I absolutely love the couture techniques used in this garment. I grew up in Chicago and remember going to I.Magnin with my mother. This rekindled the memory of seeing all of the beautiful garments. Thank you for sharing a part of fashion history with us.

    Most Graciously,
    LadyDoxa

  34. ElizabethRochester August 17th

    Regarding the opera coat, I enjoyed seeing it and reading about it. I find it elegant. In the era of the coat, garments were much more "constructed" than is the current practice.

    I'm disappointed some other readers didn't appreciate the coat and the article. No matter if not THEIR particular taste, but why enjoy reading about the coat the provenance, and so forth.

    Thanks.

  35. User avater RevDi August 17th

    The coat is gorgeous, obviously from another time, but classic. Alas, on my monitor it is more a fire engine red than magenta, but it is still lovely. And yes, magenta was a popular color at that time. My mother had a dress that color even thought it was not flattering with her coloring.

    I worked at I. Magnin my first summer out of college. Their clothing was impeccable, and even the "budget" line was beautifully made - everything was lined, though not by hand as was the couture line.

    Those without imagination need not waste their time looking at this coat and picturing with a gown fir for the opera. Those without grace need not offer an opinion. As my mother taught me, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

    Thank you for sharing the "inside story" of a beautifully made garment.

  36. SewTwisted August 17th

    I don't love the coat either but I love the article and the extraordinary talent of the person who wrote it. Seriously who cares if you don't like it - that wasn't the point of the article. No one cares what you think. This was a chance to learn something about the process and technique used years ago.

  37. VeraS August 16th

    Thank you Susan for sharing this garment. I appreciate seeing the construction of the undersleeve gusset, how the hair canvas is used to support the structure and the impeccable details that make this a fine garment (covered snaps, the loop closure, the perfect pleats).

    I love seeing quality craftsmanship, even if it's in a garment I would not make, to see how I might incorporate those touches in my sewing to take it to the next level.

    I can just imagine wearing this coat to a fabulous setting like the San Francisco Opera House - it would certainly be spectacular.

  38. User avater ppinnc August 16th

    I am appalled at the rude comments ! The idea was to show the couture details. Did you notice that the model had on flat sandals. She was just trying this exquisite garment on because it was too big for the recipient of this great gift. If she had on the proper shoes - you know, the ones you would, no doubt, wear with a fabulous opera coat it would have been perfect. I guess she didn't wear her spikes to the sewing workshop !! Thanks for letting us see this treasure. I loved it.

  39. knittingirl August 16th

    I enjoyed this article. I am in my fifties and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Opera House is so grand, I can definitely imagine this coat as a perfect coverup. What some readers may not realize, many opera goers dress up in very formal attire with big skirts. Also, San Francisco is often cold and foggy. I remember I Magnin. Beautifully made clothes and accessories. I still have a few items stashed away. Frankly, I loved the back of this coat. I always enjoy checking out the construction of vintage garments. Thanks for sharing.

  40. knittingirl August 16th

    I enjoyed this article. I am in my fifties and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Opera House is so grand, I can definitely imagine this coat as a perfect coverup. What some readers may not realize, many opera goers dress up in very formal attire with big skirts. Also, San Francisco is often cold and foggy. I remember I Magnin. Beautifully made clothes and accessories. I still have a few items stashed away. Frankly, I loved the back of this coat. I always enjoy checking out the construction of vintage garments. Thanks for sharing.

  41. sewing65years August 16th

    I agree with Lizziern - some of you people need to work on your manners.
    The coat is beautifully made. And it IS a coat, not meant to be worn fitted like a dress. Of course, there would be a full length dress underneath, hence the need for a little extra room. The 3/4 lenght sleeves were intended because women wore elbow length opera gloves, which was an elegant effect.
    I very much enjoyed the article and the focus on the details. i would like to see more of the construction inside of couture wear as it is not something I get to see very often.
    Thanks for your article.

  42. User avater nichan August 16th

    uummm...i think this design is making a body bigger and I don't know if that's the intention...I don't mind it's big but it's shapeless.
    The idea of pleats is good but i don't know why is on the back...I mean, it's like 'meaningless'...
    Too bad...the sleeves bias technique thing isn't too clear for me...
    I guess this article is also not too detail only 'telling' a 'story' but not describe it technically (may be except the closure)...

  43. User avater slportas August 16th

    This looks like a muu muu and not flattering to anyone. It is not deserving of an article on this website. And, just because it was from a fancy store does not give it magical powers! It looks like a giant mistake I made in Junior high except mine was red calico.

  44. User avater Jen_NYC August 16th

    Very interesting coat. It looks like it might be an early '60s design. Is that right? I wonder if Carla's grandmother wore it with a particular dress & I would be curious to see it in that context. Also, magenta seems like an unusual color for that time period.

    The gussets seem to create the nice fall of the sleeves-no creasing in the under arm area when the model's arms are down. I'd like to know more about the horsehair placement too. Does it lie inside each pleat? Or, does it form a smooth wall behind them?

    Thank you - good article!

  45. User avater Lizziern August 16th

    How rude your comments are about being, "Petite, hating it, wouldn't be caught dead in it, I am a little disappointed..." You women should be ashamed of yourselves. Obviously you missed out on etiquette lessons or altogether lacked mothers who taught this, the coat in and of itself is beautiful. So what if it is orange or pumpkin or whatever. Perhaps you need to adjust your color on your monitor? Color is beautiful! The model is hardly a large woman without curves. Obviously you've overlooked the part that read, " The coat will have to be sized down for her." For the woman who said the sleeves were too short, guess you've never heard of 3/4 inch sleeves?
    I appreciate your showing us this beautiful coat and it's detail, love the color!
    Would love to see those who were so critical top this! :)

  46. velmski123 August 16th

    Think svelt, Think a high Audrey Hepburn Collar and slim her down, she needs to have a waist coat and a loss belt. But, give your neckline a curve and present the jacket with a high neckline and a wonderful frame around your face and nice features. It would look nice or just slim it down it is too large looking and the negetive neckline looks too momo looking so give it a spin and give it a highneckline.
    Take care and have a great day!
    Velmski123

  47. User avater cojp580009 August 16th

    I also hate this coat. It is too big, has no collar,or shape at all, it looks "frumpy". If the designer used about half the fabric, had not design this coat for a pregnat person, it might be wareable. As it is----I wouldn't be caught dead in it.

  48. littlesewer August 16th

    I am a little disappointed with the coat as well.It would have looked wonderful on a tall woman with curves as in the 50's era.It's a pity that we have moved into an era of looking sloppy and comfortable for 2000 and beyond. Thank you for sharing the designer look as always interesting to see how garments of yesteryear were constructed. I can only aspire for such neat hand stitching.

  49. broderieanglaise August 16th

    I wasn't wowed by this coat, either. It looks orange on my monitor, and I'm surprised to read that the owner is petite, because the coat makes her look enormous. The sleeves look too short.

    The discussion about the technical details was interesting.

    Thank you.

  50. oopsgramma August 16th

    Seems as tho Im in the minority, but I absolutely hated that opera coat. It looked very dumpy to me. Its hard to believe that it was designed by a well-known designer. It looked especially bad from the front. My computer made it look more of a deep orange - and with those pleats, it resemnbled an oblong pumpkin. Oh for the days of real tailoring, styling incorporating darts which give defination to the human form. To me, it was a big zero - tho it was fun to see an older style garment. I miss the days of Halston, Fabiani, Christian Dior - the REAL designers of the 60s.

  51. User avater dreamie August 16th

    I totally agree with all the previous comments, with an emphasis on the first; we must preserve the craftsmanship. In sewing as well as almost everything else, where has the priceless craftsmanship gone; when people took pride in doing something even if it took time to do it.

  52. camara August 16th

    This is absolutely gorgeous, I am totally inspired by fashion from the 50's.
    Erma.

  53. rosb August 16th

    Wow. Thank you for sharing it with me. When one looks at the dresses of today off the peg but so many have little or no interfacing & what a difference it makes. Was the fabric a good weight to support the horse hair interfacing? Cheers Ros Tasmania

  54. jansquires August 16th

    This is absolutely beautiful. Thank you for the tips and articles from such wonderful educators...Susan did an outstanding job on this one.

    Jan

  55. pattyv August 16th

    Susan
    This is so beautiful, I wish you would publish patterns like this with your couture instructions.
    We must preserve the craftsmanship.
    Sincerely,
    Patty

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