Sweet Lizzie Salk Design DiscoverY: Tammie Pontsler & Pam Maher

In April 2017, I was selected as one of 13 designers from San Diego Mesa College to collaborate with a scientist from The Salk Institute to create a gala gown inspired by scientific research. This began an incredible journey that I have been honored to experience.

I was paired with Dr. Pam Maher. As we began to collaborate, she gave me a tour of the lab, let me observe cells through a microscope, showed me the technology used to analyze data and showed me the office where papers, peer reviews and grants were written. We shared ideas over email and in person throughout the course of the design process.
Pam's study selected for the design collaboration dealt with diet's impact on the expression of autism. These are some of the images that were associated with her research. Pam describes her research, "in this study, we looked at the impact of diet on the development of autism in BTBR mice, a model of the disorder. We found that compared to mice fed a high glycemic index diet, mice fed a low glycemic index diet showed both reduced autism-like behavior as well as lower levels of brain inflammation and other markers of autism. These results are important because they suggest that in the presence of a predisposition to autism, diet can make a large difference in the expression of the condition."
From the first meeting with Pam, hearing the in-depth background of the scientific study and learning about The Salk's rich history, the design concept developed. The main dress would symbolize the low glycemic diet with no inflammation and the overskirt would express the high glycemic diet and high brain inflammation. Included in the design would be silk dupioni dress with a hand beaded bodice and statement necklace and LED lights in the 'inflamed,' ice-dyed overskirt. In honor of The Salk's opening year in 1963, the silhouette of the gown would reflect popular fashion in 1963.
Amara Carey was selected to model our gown. She was the perfect choice for the design!
Pattern drafting began to create a strapless gown.
A muslin of the dress and a fitting muslin of the bodice were made and fitted to Amara. This would be the first of 3 fittings. The bodice was contoured tightly to her body to ensure a perfect fit.
While the dress was being drafted and fitted, panels of silk organza were ice dyed using the high glycemic imagery to guide the dyeing process. Each piece of fabric was kept in the dye bin for over 24 hours to allow the sun's heat to activate the black dye.
Once all of the adjustments were made to the pattern, each piece of the dress was cut. The dress is made from silk dupioni underlined in silk organza and lined with haboti silk. The texture of the dupioni resembles the texture of the brain cells. Then the hand beading process began to paint the healthy brain cells on the front of the bodice.
Bodice construction complete with custom made bust cups and bra back.
The structure of the dress was created through 6 layers of fabric and strategically placed boning. This was necessary to hold the weight of the overskirt, which would contain heavy battery packs for the LED lights.
Once the dress was completed, the overskirt construction got underway. It consists of ice dyed organza that was hand pleated at a 17:1 ratio in the back, lined in haboti silk, underlined with silk organza and 2 layers of tulle. Because of the bulk, the skirt was hand-sewn to a piece of grosgrain ribbon. Then a silk dupioni waistband was attached by machine.
While planning the LED lights in the overskirt. Pam informed me that this image was the most important in the study in that it showed the activated immune cells, thus depicting the correlation between high a glycemic diet and brain inflammation. Because of this, her recommendation was to light the overskirt with green lights!
Battery pack holders were sewn and created out of premium felt and grosgrain ribbon.
The final touch was hand beading the statement necklace inspired by the healthy brain cells. I am so excited for you to see it all put together at the gala on October 4!
What's in a name? Team 'Sweet Lizzie' was named in honor of Elizabeth "Lizzie" Tillman. Liz is a Home Economist, like myself, who spent her career helping people with special needs. Liz is also an accomplished seamstress and spent most of her life making garments for herself and her husband Robert. This past year, Liz decided to pass on the creative mantle to the students at San Diego Continuing Education and myself. From her generous fabric, notions, tools, and bead donation, I was able to obtain the some of the silk used in the dress and some of the beads used in the necklace. I am deeply grateful for her donation and the sweet friendship we developed over this past year as we went through her rich history of creating. "Sweet" corresponds to the study of the impact of high/low glycemic diets.

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