Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tank Top Take Two

So I made a second attempt at the tank top, and would you believe it? The straps came out too short this time.

This one is at least wearable. Sort of. And I am pleased that my technique has improved. The neck and arm bands, for example, look pretty good.

I'm going to put this tank top away for the present and work on things for which I have commercial patterns. I will come back to the tank top when I have a bit more experience with knits. It's not the most flattering style for me, given my relatively narrow shoulders and large hips, and I just can't bear to make it again right now.

I stitched the neck and arm bands with twin ballpoint needles. There's a hole in the top of the machine in which a second spool holder can be inserted. You run the thread to the second needle exactly the same way as you'd normally thread a single needle. Only the needle on the left pulls up the bobbine thread, but both threads must somehow loop around the bobbin, because they both form a chain of stitches. I wish my machine were completely transparent so I could see exactly what's going on under there.

I learned tonight that if you install the needle backwards the machine skips stitches, and the thread gets all wadded up around the bobbin case. I'm the sort of person who only reads instructions as a last resort. I'd been kinda wondering if there was any certain way the needle was supposed to be inserted. Now I know, having perused the instruction book that came with the machine. The flat part of the shaft goes at the back.

From time to time, I take the position of an observer, watching myself as I learn an unfamiliar task. It's fascinating to see the way my hands seem to learn by themselves, without conscious effort on the part of my brain. For example, I hemmed the tank top by folding a quarter inch over at the bottom edge, then folded over again an inch. I sewed a double row of stitches (using the twin needles) an inch from the bottom of the hem. I didn't mark the hemline, but I found that I knew exactly where to run the stitches, because my fingers could feel the edge of the hem through the front of the top. My hands are learning to exert just the right amount of push and pull on the fabric to get it to run smoothly over the feed dogs (why are they called dogs, I wonder ...)

So I guess I can call it a successful lesson, even though the straps came out too short.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Infinity Dress Part 2

My daughter Kat and I have both developed an interest in sewing. In a way, it seems a pity that this didn't happen when she was young, still living with me. But then again, it's nice to have this common interest to share via text messages, emails, and phone. Kat got me interested in convertible dresses. One of her childhood friends is getting married in a few months, and Kat is going to be the ... matron of honor doesn't sound right, somehow, not as a description of my daughter. But Kat's a married woman these many months now, since April.

Anyhow, Kat's friend picked out a convertible dress for her brides maids and matron of honor. The idea of a single dress that one can drape into many different styles was intriguing. Great for travel, when one wants to go light but not wear the same thing every day. Great for experimenting, to see the different things one can do with fabric, and for testing different styles to see which ones are flattering and which are not.

Kat did some research on convertible dresses and discovered a couple of tutorials that made the construction of one of these dresses look pretty easy. Here are the two we liked the best:

Rowena's blog, Rostitchery and Kristina's blog, Knuckle Salad

Kat picked out a silky black polyester fabric, and I used a ribbed cotton jersey. Kat's fabric was ideal, and mine was all wrong for this project. Kat made a circle skirt for her dress, as in the tutorials. I didn't turn out to have enough fabric to do a circle dress, so I used Kwik Sew pattern # 2956 and chose the slightly flared version. For the relatively bulky fabric I was using, it was probably a good thing I made a less full skirt.

Here are some of the different ways Kat and I found to drape the fabric, once the dresses were made:

is this cool or what? I think these dresses look fantastic on young women. Unfortunately, the mostly open back is not so good for an olde farte like me. Mutton in lamb's clothing and all that. So I decided to make a tank top to wear under my dress. I have an old, stained one that I like a lot, although it's become a little small since I've been doing pushups regularly. I decided to use it as a pattern and make a new tank top out of the same fabric as the infinity dress. Easiest thing in the world, I thought (like I said in my first blog entry, I tend to be an optimist). Yeah. 

What I found out was that you can't cut the straps and neck band the same size you want them to be when you're finished sewing them onto the top. The fabric s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s.  When I started out, the straps and neck bands were exactly the same as those on the original top. Now look at them:

The staps fall off my shoulders, and the neckline gapes. Absolutely unwearable, except maybe under something that's pretty bulky. Hmm ... like that infinity dress I made. 

Unfortunately, I don't have enough of the cheap blue fabric to make another shirt, and it's just hellish trying to rip out seams with that fabric. I know from bitter experience, because I sewed one of the skirt panels wrong side out. How could I have done such a silly thing? But I did. 

So I'll have to move up a step to some other cotton jersey I got at Joann's Fabrics (the "cornflower blue" cotton-poly jersey I ordered online from Sew Sassy Fabrics; they have a wide selection of fabrics for lingerie and swim wear). The cotton ribbed knit from Joann's was very inexpensive. I think it was probably something like $2.99 per yard on sale. But it is a somewhat higher quality fabric than the other, so I wanted to save it until I felt confident of producing a wearable garment. I think I'm there with this tank top. The one I made looked fine, except for the size of the straps and neck band. Well ... and if I'm honest, the sewing technique was dreadful. The straight seams (for which I used a double zigzag stitch) were fine, but the edge stitching meandered all over the place. I did get better as I went along, though, so I have high expectations for the next tank top I make. 

Will I make another infinity dress? Yes, I think I probably will. Next time I'll use silk or rayon knit (I live in a hot, humid climate, so polyester and other synthetics are not so comfortable). I think I'll make the slightly flared skirt again, rather than a circle skirt. 

Here's a discovery I've made: if I plan to work much with knits, I must have a serger. I'm studying up on them to find out which kind would be most suitable. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Infinity Dress

I've been very busy at work, so I had a choice between using my free time to sew or to write in the blog. Naturally, I chose to sew. After all, the blog is about sewing, so the sewing has to happen to provide subject matter for the blog.

This past weekend my daughter and I both made versions of the Infinity Dress. This will have to be a 2 or 3 part blog entry, because I should already be in bed. Just time to upload a photo of the one I made. The fabric I used was a cotton-poly jersey whose one redeeming feature was its $3.49 per yard price. It was really too bulky for this dress. I would never wear the thing in public, but I do like the Grecian look for private viewing. My daughter used a silkier fabric, and her dress looks a lot better. She sent me photos (she was sewing in Austin and I in San Antonio), but I don't want to upload them until I get her permission.

So here I am in the basic sleeveless style:

The Infinity dress provided an excellent lesson in pattern-drafting and sewing knit fabric. One thing I learned was that it's very, very hard to rip seams out of this fabric. More about that next time ...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Another Wondrous New Thing

The lesson I set for myself today was to learn about using silk organza as interfacing for a waist band. I've been using fusible interfacings, because they're easy. But the texture of most of them is sort of yucky, and what's the point of using breathable fabrics such as cotton and silk if one is going to slather a fusible interfacing onto them?

The organza is silky and floaty and gives even the cheap cotton fabric I'm using for the skirt a luxurious feel. I kinda wish I'd used organza as interlining for the entire skirt. But that would have been carrying things too far.

The skirt is flared, lightly gathered at the waist. I find it works better for me to hand baste the waist band to the gathered edge before sewing the final seam. It allows me to arrange the gathers exactly as I want them to fall. Maybe when I'm more experienced I will not need to do this, but I don't mind really. I first learned to sew when I was a small child, maybe 7 years old. My great grandmother, who was born in the 1880's and probably made entire garments by hand (I never thought to ask her this), gave me scraps of fabric and showed me how to make them into dresses for my dolls. One of the things she showed me how to make was a gathered skirt. I was too young to use a machine, so of course I made everything by hand. That may be why I don't mind hand-sewing and feel quite comfortable with a thimble on the middle finger of my right hand.

I've been surprised, when reading sewing blogs, to see people writing that they cannot bear to use a thimble.

Here is the skirt, unhemmed as yet, with the gathers basted in.It has in-seam pockets at the sides, which will be convenient.  It will be a cheery thing to wear while working in the garden or around the house. I think I'll make a yellow top to wear with it.

A Lesson in Deconstruction

A blazer was the first thing I attempted to make when I decided to learn how to sew. For reasons that will be apparent if you look at a photo of the sorry results of my first attempt ( I decided to take a break from blazers and try something easier while learning more about tailoring. I bought a book with step-by-step instructions, published by Creative Publishing International:

There was a very sensible suggestion early in the book to make the garment in an inexpensive fabric with the same general texture and weight as the fabric one intends to use for the final garment. I'd been using old sheets for that purpose, but this clearly would not do for a jacket. What to do? Even the least expensive woolen and silk fabrics are expensive, so I decided to buy a jacket at my local Goodwill Store. In addition to using the fabric to make a test garment, I could also learn how the thing was constructed by taking it apart.

I bought a silk jacket several sizes larger than I'd need. I reasoned that if the original jacket was on the large side, there would be room for alterations. Here's a "before" photo:

So far, I'm still working on taking it apart, but I've already learned something useful -- how to make shoulder pads. See, I have one shoulder that's lower than the other, and both my shoulders slope down, and my hips and thighs are huge compared with my shoulders. Some of the books on fitting advised altering the pattern to accomodate the sloped or uneven shoulders, but I wanted to build my shoulder up, not cut the pattern down. Since one shoulder pad has to be a bit thicker than the other, it makes sense to make the pads myself, which is what I did for the third thing I made, which is a top. I was very pleased with the results. It would have been far more time consuming the figure out how to make shoulder pads through trial & error. What a lucky thing to have found hand constructed shoulder pads in that suit!

Here's the pattern I'm going to use when I rebuild the jacket. It was the only one I could find that has pieces similar enough to the Goodwill jacket to work:

I love all the little compartments inside the jacket. Why don't they put these into women's jackets? I shall have them in mine!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Second Thing I Made

The first thing I made went into the rag bin, but the second thing is definitely a keeper/wearer. One of the things that appeals to me about sewing is that one is not confined to whatever style happens to be on the rack or in the catalogue at the moment. One can pick through all of recorded history for comfortable and/or flattering styles.

I like designs by Perry Ellis. He died in 1986, so the only way to get fresh  Perry Ellis patterns is to go back in time (figuratively speaking). The second thing I made was  the skirt from Vogue 1052. I found the pattern for sale on ebay.

I used linen purchased at Joann Fabric & Crafts Store. The selection of fabrics at the store I first visited was woefully limited. I since discovered a second Joann's in my city (San Antonio) with a more extensive fabric inventory, but it's closing. They'll be opening again north of their present location, but the new store will be a "super store" which probably means the focus will be on crafts with a limited slection of fabrics, as at the store I visited first. The store that's closing is having a liquidation sale, which has been great fun (patterns for 25 cents each), but it's sad to observe that offering a wide selection of fabrics appears not to be profitable. I recently read that Hancock Fabrics is in bankruptcy. Not that their seletion of fabric was ever very good. I remember Hancock Fabrics from when I was young. One reason I stopped sewing was that I couldn't find any exciting fabric to work with. If the Internet had existed then, I don't suppose I ever would have given up sewing. I wonder to what extent the Interent is responsible for the demise of the bricks & mortar fabric stores. Another factor would be the amount of labor required to cut fabric for customers and re-stock the bolts after cutting. Internet fabric stores make a lot more sense, except for the fact that the sense of touch is so important in fabric selection. My favorite online fabric stores are the ones that will send swatches they think their customers will like, sometimes even without being asked. Michael's Fabrics is like that. I've bought a couple of beautiful pieces of fabric from them, to save until I'm a little better at sewing. I find that having nice fabrics to look at and touch provides inspiration.

Anyhow, among a lot of really ghastly fabrics, I found this linen at Joann's and chose it to make into the Perry Ellis skirt. The pattern did not include a lining, but I wanted to line my skirt. I used the same old sheets I've been using to make practice garments. They have a high thread-count and are very soft and silky. One of the things I especially like about the skirt is that it has in-seam pockets, one of which provides the opening for putting on and taking off the skirt. There is no zipper, just the pocket opening with buttons (I found that I also needed a hook & eye to keep the pocket closed properly when I'm wearing the skirt). I couldn't be more pleased with the skirt if I'd spent $400 on it. The soft cotton lining feels luxurious and give the linen fabric a nice drape. I must apologize for the photo. I probably should have asked my husband to take the picture, but he always makes too big a production of it, and it would have ended up taking half an hour. I either need to use the timer on the camera or get a better mirror and better lighting. Here I am wearing the skirt:

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Marvelous Invention

This evening I learned to install an invisible zipper.

When I used to sew as a young person, I found zipper installation a real pain. This may have been in part because my skill and care levels were decidedly low, but it was also because the zippers on the market then were relatively bulky and not very attractive even when installed properly.

Recalling my youthful struggles with zipper installation, I approached this evening's lesson with some trepidation, but invisible zipper installation turned out to be ever so easy, and the result is lovely to behold. Here is a photo of the zipper opening with the zipper closed (pull tab is on the left of the photo):

You wouldn't even know there was a zipper, except for the small pull tab.

Here is is with the zipper open:

Before installing the zipper, I found an excellent blog entry: with easy-to-interpret illustrations. I also purchased an invisible zipper foot, which has a groove into which the zipper coil fits so the needle stays exactly where it needs to be.

I read somewhere that in order to be really good at sewing, one must put in at least 10,000 hours. I don't know whether this is meant to include reading and talking about sewing, or if it's 10,000 hands-on hours. Even if I can only find a couple of hours a day to sew, I should have enough of my lifetime left to get really good. If it keeps being as much fun as it is now, it will be a most pleasant way to spend 10,000 hours.

So far, I'm only using cheap fabric to learn on (except for a linen skirt with which I am greatly pleased). So if I don't get something quite right, it's not the end of the world. I've been wearing the muslin practice garments to work in the garden, and I love them. They're so light-weight and cool. It's actually cooler to work in the garden wearing a long-sleeved white muslin shirt that to have bare arms.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Why Learning To Sew Is Good For Your Brain

How I Decided to Learn to Sew ...

A couple of months ago I was listening to Andrea Kuszewski talking about keeping one's brain supple by constantly learning new things ...

No, wait, I have to back up to 2010, when my husband and I began restoring an old house that had once been the home of  Julian Onderdonk, the American impressionist painter (and his father Robert before him, and his sister Eleanor, both talented aritists of lesser fame than Julian). The house was in terrible condition -- every time I talked to the contractor there was more bad news. We ended up going more than 200% over budget, which meant there was no money left over for curtains or blinds. Ever the optimist, I said, "Don't worry, my grandmother showed me how to sew when I was a kid. I'll make curtains. It will be easy."

So I dragged out my grandmother's old Necchi BU that I hadn't touched in more than 20 years. Amazingly, I was able to get it running. But I couldn't get it to sew a tight stitch. The top thread didn't seem to be looping over the bobbin thread the way it should. The closest repair shop I could find that works on antique Necchis was 150 miles away. I didn't want to drive that far, and I didn't want to ship the machine. One day I will, or I'll find someone closer. But meanwhile, I did a little research on basic sewing machines, went over to JoAnn Fabrics, and bought a Singer Heavy Duty Model # 4423. I promised myself that if I enjoyed sewing and was still doing it after a year, I'd consider buying a nicer machine. For my present purposes, the Singer 4423 is perfect. To master basic sewing skills, I don't need a machine with two hundred computerized stitches. In fact, I'm not sure I'll ever need such a machine, but I would like to get one that runs a little more smoothly. The 4423 is pretty rough compared with the Necchi BU.

Making the curtains turned out to be a dreadful experience. I was using a synthetic upholstery fabric that was very heavy and also sort of slippery. So even the straight seams were kind of a pain. But what was really hard for me was trying to do blind hems. Even after purchasing a blind hem foot and watching several videos, I still had a terrible time. The curtains are atrocious up close. I'm too embarrassed to post a photo of them. But long as you don't look too closely, they're OK, and the do their job.

For some reason, instead of being discouraged by the curtain experience, I was inspired to try sewing clothes. Thoughts of beautifully tailored suits and cute casual dresses were floating around in my mind when I heard Dr. Kuszewski's talk about how good it is to get outside one's comfort zone, learn new things. Sewing would be an ideal new thing to learn, since it involves the intellectual exercise of translating a flat pattern into a 3-dimensional garment and also hand-eye co-ordination. So I rummaged around through a box where I thought I might find some sewing stuff, and lo! there was a pattern for an unlined suit -- Butterick # 4616. I have no idea why I had that pattern, or how it came to be in the box, but there it was.

Since I had not attempted to sew clothes for more than 20 years, I thought it would be best to make a few trial garments before cutting into expensive fabric. So I made the suit from an old sheet. Good thing, too, because my first efforts were pretty bad. Here's the first thing I made. I've saved it so I can look back at it later and see how much I've improved.

I altered the pattern, as instructed in the Vogue Sewing Book, and the fit wasn't too bad. But my technique was appalling (although that's probably to be expected from a beginner). For example, look at all the puckers in this sleeve cap:

I'm very pleased to say that the second set of sleeves I made turned out much better:

So I'm making progress, and far from becoming discouraged, I've become obsessed. Fortunately, there appear to be others who share this obsession with sewing. I've been able to find all sorts of inspiration and practical knowledge by looking at videos and sewing blogs. Much more on this later ...