Saturday, January 12, 2013

I recently watched Season 1 of the TV series ROME on disks from Netflix. The costumes and buildings were beautifully done, and I became curious enough about Roman fashion and architecture to do some reading on the topics. I was especially interested in building tools, since many of the tools shown in the series looked very much like modern tools -- the claw hammers, for example. It also occurred to me, of course, that the tools used in the TV series were from a local hardware store, or borrowed from on of the set crew. Still, there had obviously been a lot of research done for the sereies, so it would be strange if they didn't bother to make the tool historically accurate. I wondered if some of the tools I have in my own workshop are similar to those that would have been owned by someone in Rome in, say, 40 BCE.

Tonight I'm reading a book about construction methods used in Rome from 3000 - 2000 years ago -- ROMAN BUILDING: MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES by Jean-Pierre Adam. In order to test Roman surveying and building tools, the author made reconstructions based on reliefs found in graves and on actual tools, many of which were found in Pompeii.

On Page 66 there's a sketch of a mosaic found in a house in Pompeii that shows a leveling square. Turns out a representation of the mosaic is used in the opening of each episode in the ROME series, but it wasn't obvious in the picture on the TV screen, at least not to me, that the thing at the top of the mosaic is a leveling square, nor was it clear that the stuff hanging down from each side of the level represents clothing and accessories.

If you look at a photo of the mosaic, you can see the leveling square clearly, as well as the fine clothing on the left and rough clothing on the right. I could have guessed that the moth represents the soul and should have known that the wheel stands for the Wheel of Fortune. Death the Great Leveler.

I'd like to try to sew a Roman costume. I found  good book with illustrations of costumes taken from frescos, statues, and paintings.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Eleven Months Later ...

When I first took up sewing in 2011, I bought an inexpensive, basic machine (Singer 4423) and  promised myself that if sewing was still fun and exciting for me after a year, I'd buy a better sewing machine. A couple of months ago, I found a like-new Bernina Activa for sale on Craigslist, together with a cabinet, for an amount I would have been willing to pay for the cabinet alone. It was worth driving all the way to Canyon Lake to pick it up, and what a difference it's made! The Activa runs far more smoothly than the Singer, which makes it easier to get the stitches exactly where I want them. Top stitching was truly difficult with the Singer and amazingly easy with the Activa. I haven't yet tried out the Bernina invisible zipper foot, but I've heard it makes zipper installation a breeze. I'll be trying it out soon on a pair of pants. In the photo below, I've removed the extended wooden work table so I could sew cuffs on sleeves.

I also got the Necchi BU to run.

 I didn't have to take it to a repair shop after all, I was able to fix it myself. Comparing the Necchi BU with the Bernina Activa ... the Necchi is all metal, machined to very close tolerances. It runs very smoothly even after 61 years. The Bernina is made partly of plastic, which I expect will break down over the years. Its useful life may turn out to be only 20 or 30 years. On the other hand, it runs very smoothly and quietly, and I very much like the electronic features. It does more of the work for me, so I can concentrate on patterns and fabrics and fitting. I've retired the Singer, to be used as a spare, or maybe given away to another beginner sewist some day (sewist? well ... it sounds better than sewer, which brings to mind plumbing pipes and toilets).

The last time I wrote in this blog, I was making skirts. I made a few more, including this whimsical one made from a yard of home decor fabric I found in the remnant bin at Joann's, to go with a whimsical pair of shoes from the sale bin at Anthropolgie

Then I moved on to tops and shirts and learned how to match stripes and patterns.

As always, I started out with inexpensive fabric and worked my way up to more expensive stuff. I think my favorite shirt fabric so far is cotton lawn. It's so siky-smooth and light and cool -- perfect for our San Antonio climate.  Liberty of London have some beautiful prints, and I've found they can be had for affordable prices through UK shops on Ebay. You can find them by searching on "cotton lawn fabric."  Michael's Fabrics have beautiful shirting fabrics for more formal shirts. They're running a 50% off sale at this very moment. 

This past week, I began on pants. I've put off making pants, aside from baggy, unstructured ones and stretchy lycra exercise shorts and leggings, because I've never been able to find pants that fit properly, and I figured I'd need advanced alteration skills to make anything that would look decent. I finally decided I was up to trying it and made a shell using Vogue's # 1003, a special pattern made especially for fitting. I was truly astounded to find that from the waist down, I'm a perfect size 14, except for the upper thigh, which is 1/2 inch larger than standard; and the crotch depth, which is 2 inches shorter than standard (I have a relatively short torso and very long legs). All this time, all my life, I've thought I couldn't wear pants, and now I discover it can all be fixed with a couple of simple alterations!

Concurrently with pants education, I've decided to come back to jackets. With an incredible surfeit of ambition, I attempted to make a blazer when I first started sewing. The unfortunate result can be seen here: Why Learning to Sew Is Good For Your Brain. Luckily I used very inexpensive muslin and learned quickly that I needed to master some basic sewing skills before attempting anything more difficult than Very Easy ... and also to gain a basic grasp of the characteristics of various kinds of fabric, and at least a glimmer of understanding of style, such as figure types and which colors and styles are most flattering to my figure and coloring, and to understand how 3-dimensional garments are translated to 2-dimensional patterns and vice versa, and where to buy suitable fabrics, and how various kinds of interfacing affect the shape and movement of the garment, etc, etc.

I think I can say, at this point, after almost 2 years, that I have progressed from being a total beginner to the advanced-beginner stage. And maybe I'm finally ready to attempt a fitted jacket. Not a highly tailored garment, no, but at least a fitted jacket. Vogue 2554 has a version without a collar that looks to be a good starting point, together with Vogue 8817 for shoulder pads. I plan to make the shoulders and pads a bit smaller than the pattern. I've found that it's best if I make my own shoulder pads, since my right shoulder is a bit lower than the left, and if I make my own pads, I can take this into account and make the right pad a bit thicker than the left. I was going to use some wool gabardine I got on sale from Fabric Mart, but I've just this morning read that gabardine is "unforgiving." So I think I'll use wool crepe instead. I have a couple of pieces of wool crepe, one of which is a not-very-attractive color (looked better on my monitor when I ordered it). I'll save the beautiful light-blue wool crepe for later, after I've learned from the inevitable mistakes I'm sure I'll make on My First Fitted Jacket.

In June, 2011, before I had fully realized how much I had to learn before I could expect to make a blazer suitable for any purpose other than gardening or house-painting, I bought several men's suit jackets at a thrift shop. There's a photo of one of them here: Lesson in Deconstruction.

My original intent was to alter the men's jackets to fit me. Ha ha ha ha. Yeah. They actually fit OK in the hips but were GIGANTIC in the shoulders and arm holes, and they had lots of little pockets that interrupted the fabric, so it proved to be impossibly difficult (at least for me) to alter them.

I did actually end up making a vest from one of them and even got a couple of compliments when I wore it. But one of the arm holes somehow turned out quite a bit large than the other, so I had to keep one arm down all the time. Some possibilities for a comedy skit come to mind ... I think I'll just wear it around the house from now on.

Aside from the one that became a vest, the rest of the jackets have slept quietly in a plastic box these many months. I bought 6 altogether, I think, for something like $7 each. Well, now I've found a use for them, and I suspect they'll be worth every penny I paid once I go full-force into Jacket Making Mode. They all appear to have been constructed with layers of horsehair canvas. I've gathered from reading that fashion has moved toward lighter and less structured for a while, and is now moving back in the other direction. I hate the square-looking things I've seen in fashion magazines that look as though the models are wearing cardboard boxes. But fashion aside, from the un-fitted jackets I've made, I learned that one does want some structure in a jacket, else it will look limp & wrinkly when you wear it.

Horsehair, or horsehair-wool blends are used to shape garments. The hair holds the pose the tailor sets into it with moist heat -- like curling your hair using a curling iron. But horsehair fabric is very expensive -- $20, $30, even $60 or more per yard for fabric that's wide enough to use to structure a jacket. Considering this, it looks as though the price of each thrift shop suit I bought was worth it, for the horsehair alone. (they are very old suits, probably from the 1950's, when structured men's jackets were IN; I should probably be saving them as museum pieces rather than using them for parts). 

Well, that just about catches me up to the present time. Blazers and pants. And I should probably keep at least one shirt going too. I find that I enjoy having several things in progress at any given time. That way, if I feel like doing hand sewing while talking to my husband or listening to an audio book, I can do some button holes (I like to do buttonholes by hand -- they look so much prettier than machine-made ones) or other hand sewing.  When I have a longish stretch of uninterrupted time, I can do cutting out, and so forth. Oh! Another new thing -- up until now, I've only made things for myself. I didn't feel I could make garments worthy of being gifts. But now that I've gotten moderately proficient at making shirts, I've offered to make one for my husband, and while I can't honestly say that he's terribly excited about it (he's not a clothes kind of guy), he's interested enough to consider styles and fabrics. If the jacket I made for myself turns out OK, maybe I'll try one for my husband as well. I'm not sure, though ... I may be veering off into the overly ambitious again.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Navy Blue Skirt

Yet another Vogue 8606 skirt. This time I used navy blue woolen fabric. The fabric was rather loosely woven and thin. I knew it wouldn't hold up well at all unless I underlined it. I used a lightweight silk twill for the underlining and Bemberg rayon for the lining. It turned out a lot better than I'd feared, given the relatively low quality of the woolen fabric. I think it may even hold up pretty well.

So here's another conservative and not very exciting, but needed-for-work outfit (with my dog Rufus in the background). I did, in fact, wear this very outfit to work today.

Here are the underlining (I used the underlining for the facing of the yoke) and lining.

I like the skirt so much I'm going to make at least one more.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Wearing the Brown Skirt

I was pleased to wear the new brown skirt to work earlier this week. I've almost completed the navy blue version and am working on yet another sage green one. My wardrobe lacked skirts, and with the large size difference between my waist and hips, it's difficult to find RTW skirts that fit properly. It's great to be able to make as many as I want.

Keep in mind that I work as a tax and business lawyer in a city that's generally pretty conservative, so I have to dress conservatively at work.

What I'd really like to make and wear are garments more like this:

I should make some outfits like that to wear in the country, where I go to release my inner-Artemis. I am in the country as I write this. There's an almost full moon in a hazy sky, rings around the moon as though it's floating in a crystal bowl. What causes those rings, In wonder ... I read that the rings are caused by moonlight reflecting from ice crystals within cirrus clouds.  According to folklore, I read, rings around the moon foretell bad weather in the near future. Here in central Texas, cirrus clouds often appear shortly before a front moves through. I see that the meteorologists are forecasting a cold front that will likely bring rain Sunday night and Monday. This is good. We still badly need rain.

Sometimes I think this place takes too much of my time, scatters my energy too much, and I wonder if perhaps should sell it. But when I try to imagine how that would feel, I am filled with sadness and regret. I don't want to lose the country part of myself.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Effects of Obesity on The Brain

This post has been moved to my other, more eclectic blog, Altamira Garden, since it really does not belong in a blog about sewing.

A New Skirt and a Refashioned Jacket

I prefer yokes to waistbands on skirts. I used Vogue 8606 for this embroidered woolen skirt. Since the wool is fairly scratchy, I lined the skirt and used satin fabric for the yoke.

I didn't realize how much the wrinkles were going to show in the photo, or I surely would have ironed the skirt before snapping the pic. It had been to the country for the weekend, where I hemmed it by hand. I'm pleased with the skirt, except for the invisible zipper. The patterns calls for installing the zipper all the way to the top of the skirt (in the back), but the satin I used for the yoke is a rather bulky polyester (the wool fabric is nice enough that I probably should have used silk rather than poly, but even then I would have wanted to interface the yoke, so it still would have been relatively bulky), making it difficult for the zipper to go all the way up. I solved the problem by using hooks & eyes on the yoke. I'm now making the same skirt in navy blue wool. I extended one side of the yoke to overlap the other in back. I'll probably use buttons rather than hooks & eyes.

I found a tropical-weight wool blazer at a thrift shop in a color I wanted. I was feeling quite pleased with my purchase until I got it home and discovered tiny moth holes in the sleeves. It was not worth returning the jacket, as the price was less than the cost of gasoline and the value of time it would have taken. The moth holes were all far enough down the sleeves to allow for a short-sleeved jacket. I cut off the sleeves and used the lower parts of the sleeves to make cuffs.

One of the moth holes

First sleeve cut (I cut the fashion fabric first, then cut the linings to fit)

Finished Sleeve with Cuff

Finished Jacket

I have started out the new year with a cold.  If I have to work when I have a cold, I'm a very unhappy person, but if I can hang around the house feeling pleasantly lazy, I don't mind too much, long as my immune system can get the upper hand within a few days. In addition to napping a lot, I spent some of my down-time sufring the Internet. One of my primary topics was weight loss. In reading blogs of people who have lost lots of weight or are trying to lose lots of weight, or who have decided not to try to lose weight, I gained more understanding than I had before of what it feels like to have a large body. I also read some interesting explanations of why it's so hard to keep weight off once one has lost it. The gist is that when we've lost a significant amount of weight (for example, 10% of our highest weight) our bodies produce several  hormones that put tremendous pressure on us to eat and replenish the lost weight. Our culture bombards us with enticing foods. both in reality (such as when well-meaning co-workers bring cake for our birthdays, and when we are served meals rich in carbohydrates and fats) and in images (I seldom watch TV, but I believe many of the ads involve unhealthy food).  Something like 97% of people who lose weight end up gaining it back within a year. It's heart-breaking to see the blogs that were started, hopefully, and apparently abandonned. A year or so ago, I went from 165 to 145, mainly because I wanted to avoid knee surgery. It's been rough keeping the weight off -- even though my own weight loss was trivial compared with that of some of the bloggers out there who've lost 50, 100, 150 pounds of more, it was still more than 10% of my body weight, and I've been dealing with the hormones and cultural attitudes toward food (it's really diabolical when you think about it -- our culture glorifies thinness, yet treats food as a reward and focus of special events). My young-adult weight was 125. As I recall, when I was racing bicycles and was in the most athletic condition of my life, I was at 130 - 135, presumably because I had more muscle mass. That was my original goal for 2009 - 2010: 130 - 135. I got stuck at 142 and then gained 3 pounds (these are all approximate numbers, since the weight fluctualtes from time to time -- I always try to measure my weight in the morning before breakfast), but they capture the directions and relative amounts. So now I'm down to 140, heading to 130 - 135. 

I eat much better when I'm "on a diet" than when I'm not. I actually prepare meals rather than grabbing fast food or snacking on crackers or potato chips. The trick will be to find ways to make preparing healthy meals fun. 

And what about the clothes I've made for my 145 pound body? These yoked skirts should be fine, as they can easily slide up & down a bit. The jackets and blouses will be fine. My upper body is mostly muscle anyhow. Most of the fat is in my hips, stomach, and thighs.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Stockings

My daughter thought of a wonderful thing to do with fabric scraps -- she made these cute Christmas stockings. She has promised to provide a step-by-step tutorial.

My seemingly interminable batman top project is finally coming to an end. After all that work, I'm not thrilled with the results, but I learned a considerable amount. The jacket is made of poly moleskin on the outside and poly satin on the inside. It is meant to be reversible, but I don't think that's realistic with the fabrics I used, since the front edge is meant to fold over and expose the lining. Neither of the fabrics fold easily, so I had to steam the edge to get it to fold over.  Both fabrics feel smooth and soft against the skin. The jacket covers up the batman godet in the back of the top, so to that extent, I succeeded at what I set out to do. But the outfit as a whole seems sort of dull and depressing.

Maybe some beads would help ...

I dunno ... I'm sure I'll wear the jacket, and I'll probably wear the top too, but not often. So here's what I learned from this project:

-- when making a new pattern that involves transitioning through several sizes (eg from size 14 bust to size 18 hips, which pretty much describes my pear-shaped torso), it will save time in the long run to make a muslin.

-- if a garment has a finished edge that goes around the corner from front to bottom, hand baste first, to make sure the facing and hem will mesh properly.

-- when sewing two slippery fabrics together (such as the poly moleskin and satin), hand baste critical-fit areas such as the arm openings on the jacket. It saves time in the long run, because you don't have to rip out and re-do seams, and the basting thread is very easy to remove.

-- when a project isn't turning out well, sometimes it may be best to quit sooner rather than later.

Aside from these specific things I can list, I became more skilled at sewing in a way that's difficult to describe. In the past, I've never paid too much attention to the learning process. When I was first learning to fly single engine aircraft as a kid, I noticed that practicing landings in my mind had a positive effect on my actual performance; and when I studied for school exams I found that writing things helped me to remember them better than just reading them; and the only way I could really learn the stuff for engineering, physics, and math classes was to understand it and work it our for myself, rather than just memorizing formulas. That's about the extent of my prior analysis of the learning process. I'd never before paid attention to unconscious processes that go on when one is learning a skill such as sewing or carpentry. I still have no idea how it works, in the sense of the mechanics; but I notice that specific tasks get easier each time I do them. Threading a needle, for example, or holding the fabric exactly the right way as I feed it through the sewing machine or serger. I'm amazed and delighted to observe these new skills developing, without any particular effort on my part, other than to go through the motions of doing the tasks.

Likewise, I'm improving my understanding of the Spanish language without any conscious effort in the sense of saying "Now I'm going to sit down and study this." I had to replace my computer a few months ago, and when I set up the new one, I chose Spanish as the language, rather than English, which is my mother tongue. Since the computer's set up to use Spanish, all the "help" pages are in Spanish. When I go to my home page, the news is in Spanish. I can get most of the news stories in English if I want to, but if I just want to read the headlines, it's easier to just read them in Spanish than to go searching for English versions. I was amazed one day recently to notice, while reading a news article in Spanish (the headline was interesting, so I clicked on  it to learn more), that I was halfway through the article before it occurred to me I was reading Spanish.

Here's something even more interesting: when you stimulate your brain to learn one new thing, it's as though you've given it a shot of growth hormone or something. Shifting the brain into learning mode seems to make it easier to learn anything, not just whatever is it you're concentrating on. I'm not sure if there are certain things that are, as it were, taboo for the elderly brain. Certainly I would have major problems if I tried to learn, say, ballet, because my knees are shot. So there are clearly limits imposed on physical learning by the condition of the body (but if one had a sophisticated enough avatar, could one learn to be a virtual ballet artist?). But are there intellectual limits? I don't feel especially motivated to study math-related topics at the moment, although my undergraduate degree was in math. But I think I could probably get into learning to play a musical instrument. Is this because I'm afraid I can't do math anymore? I almost feel compelled to do it just to see if I can. If only I could live to be 150 or 200! Then I might have time to do everything I want to do.

Last year I studied Hebrew just to see if I could. I signed up for online classes with It was really cool. The instructors were in Israel, and the students were from the U.S. and Australia and France and the Phillipines -- really all over the world. We used AT&T meeting software. I noticed that after working on Hebrew lessons, Spanish seemed very, very easy. I reluctantly made the decision to work on Spanish rather than Hebrew, since Spanish is a language I need to know every day, living in San Antonio.