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I am a mother, a new grandmother, and a teacher. But whatever happens in my life, I keep sewing. I have worked as a political communicator and now as a teacher in my formal life. I have also written extensively on sewing. I have been a frequent contributor and contributing editor of Threads magazine and the Australian magazine Dressmaking with Stitches. My first book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge will be published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon

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Sunday, March 17, 2019

Vogue 9253

This is a very popular pattern. I believe it has made it to the Patternreview hit list and there are a gazillion versions out there in the digital world.

It is a beautiful flowy dress with a major V neckline. Most of the reviews have been occupied with going with that look or trying to counter it will various modesty panels or neckline redrafts:


Interestingly when my DIL did our big Stonemountain and Daughter fabric shop in December and she picked out this fabric, a beautiful rayon batik:




Vogue 9253 is the pattern she chose for a maxi dress. She is tall and slim and can wear necklines like this, and I thought the fabric was perfect.

I cut this dress out at home and finally had the time this week to make it. Of course this is a dress that you really can't show on a hanger, definitely needs a person in it, but we are going to have to wait for that when I see her in a few weeks time.

I still wanted to show it to you though and decided that it would be a good idea to show you what was around me when I made this at the picnic table, definitely one of those now I really know I am not in Nova Scotia moments:


Of course to be right in location like this has its perils - prickles are fairly easy to extract from a dress, from myself not so much:

Now onto the pattern.

Really I made this one up just as instructed, the kimono sleeves have in a slighter way the issue of the River dress, but not too bad. I have to say though that having sewn kimonos from Japanese instructions that the underarm usually is left open a bit, forming a natural gusset, or in later patterns, a gusset has been added. That could still happen in a garment like this:






Now I realize that these shots are not particularly edifying, some dresses just don't show on a hanger, but hopefully have served to illustrate how nicely this extremely popular pattern works in a nice heavy rayon.

I will be very interested to see how this fits on Maddie and of course I am feeling some angst about the fit of that neckline. Last year about this time I altered a beautiful vintage dress for her with a remarkably similar style and at that time my job was to give her more room for her ribcage under the bust. That got a bit tricky without any extra fabric to work with but fortunately the dress had a very deep hem I was able to use to find that little bit of fabric in.

However as is so often the case we end up sewing the next project haunted by the last one (does anyone else ever experience this?) so I might have over compensated with what I have done here.

This pattern has tucks in both the bodice and the skirt at the front and these are very useful for fine-tuning fit in that very important under bust area. 

Maddie measured for me and I knew she had a 31.5" underbust and the pattern as it was designed was for a 30" in her size. Given the softness of the style in general as well as the fabric I was very, very wary of having this seam too tight - that would be a lot of strain on the zipper and of course this is not a style for a waist stay. So after many trial bastings, thinking, changing my mind, and finally considering that there was a big sash that would be tied under the bust anyway, I adjusted the tucks so this under bust seam was 34" long or 2.5" ease, figuring it could then be adjusted by the ties for fit and comfort.

This may or may not be a good idea, and it may or not mess up with the fit of the bodice over that V, but my mind was remembering the maneuvers I made last year to give her extra room in this area.

At any rate I can fit it finally on her when I am in Berkeley the end of the month and adjust as necessary then.

I am going to be sending a machine, one of my vintage Berninas ahead.

My husband is going to be going to Berkeley for a few days on his own to see the baby and I will give it to him to carry and negotiate through the airlines. So by the time he is back and I go myself for four days (we aren't going on a long drive this year and have decided Daisy wouldn't fly too well so we are doing baby visits in relay) there will be a machine waiting for me.

I just can't see having any of my kids anywhere without a machine for me to use when I visit.

On a personal note this trip is going really well.

After an intense fall I really needed to rest up a bit and settle down and see my other children. Both boys are in the US. People say to me a lot oh that's so hard and of course my first choice would be to have all the kids lined up in houses on my street, but seriously it has added so much to our lives to have them so happy in such interesting places. We have really been able to get in touch with the youngest's life here in Austin and of course being here makes hops out to the West Coast so much easier than from Nova Scotia.

They are all such good kids. In fact even after I am home I will be back down here again, in Nashville in May. My son and daughter-in-law are going to an annual Memorial Day weekend they do every year with friends and they are bringing my down to stay nearby with the baby for four days while they go off and do that. I mean how lucky am I?



Friday, March 15, 2019

The River Dress, the fabric makes it

One of my pleasures of my year was discovering that my daughter-in-law in Berkeley is a gifted fabric shopper. 

She has that wonderful ability to look at fabric and know what kind of pattern will suit it. This is a real talent and one I discovered in a trip to Stonemountain and Daughter in December.

Here is some terrific rayon challis, something I personally didn't notice on the bolt, made up this week in Megan Neilsen's River Dress



I was interested to try a Megan Neilson pattern. These patterns have a strong following and appear to be really well drafted.

We saw and liked the store sample we saw in the the store and the pattern was intriguing for several reasons.


  • It can be worn either side, the V neck for example at the front or at the back. I can't right now think of another pattern drafted to do this.
  • The construction appeared very simple, no closures, just pull on over your head. The V neck makes the neckline big enough to do this.
  • The sleeves are raglan, almost as high as a set-in sleeve. I was hopeful this would make the all important neck/shoulder fit not too sloppy or loose, something that often occurs in designs as simple as this one:



  • A lot of versatility in this pattern, a dress or top, to be made in a woven or a knit.

I made the woven version dress of course and made it exactly as instructed. No surprise here but I am often not as smart as I think I am and over time I have decided it is just courtesy to the designer to make up an new pattern exactly as specified.

Having done this first time out, here are a few construction details I would change up for what, in my mind at least, would be a better result.

Here they are.

1. The woven neck binding falls into the category of what I call seems easy is hard. The sewer is instructed to apply the binding in a ring around the neckline, stitched, turned and top-stitched, with a slight dip in the shape of the neckline at one centre (I guess front or back depending on how you will wear the dress/top). The instructions specifically say not to trim the seam allowances because the binding will be wrapped over it.

Fair enough.

The weird thing, to my mind at least, comes in how the mitre in the V is then formed.

The instructions basically tell you to pinch a tiny pleat in the binding and stitch right up through it, through all layers, which on the woven version would be, 5, contained within the binding, forming the miter line of the V.

Here is a pattern shot of that done, in the knit version I believe, on the website:


Looks pretty good but you and I both know this is not exactly a beginner's manoeuvre.

When it was time to make my own I looked at my fine rayon and the tiny space I had to execute this move and elected to do the stitching by hand:




 The trouble of course with this method too is that you are left with a tiny pebble of fabric behind the mitre and there is a very fine line between pressing it flat and over-pressing. This fabric is very loosely woven too and even though those aren't hand stitches showing in my mitre, but threads from the fabric, it looks that way and this bugs me.

I won't do this neckline this way again.

A really easy way to make a mitred corner involves stitching down to the point of the V, right side of the binding to the right side of the garment fabric, stopping with the needle in the fabric, right at the V and then fold the miter yourself. I like this method as you can use your hands to get it right before you commit to stitching.

This method is really well illustrated here.

The second issue I had with the instructions, which I know were meant to be as easy as possible but as so often is the case this can actually complicate matters, was that both the bottom and sleeve hems are meant to be 2" and, this is actually my point, the one continuous underarm seam along the sleeve and down the side takes a very sharp and definite angle at the armpit.

With such a small and high armhole this is inevitable but really makes for, in my view, a tight pucker under the arm. Go back to the picture from the pattern site above of the orange top. See that pulling under the arm.

The fact is that a high armhole really needs to be set in, have a gusset to release the strain, or to be clipped.

Here is a shot of one of the underarm areas (sorry pre pressing but I wanted to get a shot in right away) as it came out of the machine made as per instructions:



See that? This is the fabric talking to you saying I am grabbed in way too tight here, let me go.

Since the sleeves were already in and I didn't have any offcuts with me to make a small gusset I went in side and clipped almost to the stitching line, which was double stitched, good thing.


Here is the effect of that clip from the right side, on the other sleeve before pressing but you can see how much the fabric is sighing here in relief for being released:


I think we are often too afraid to clip. The key to knowing if it needed to be done or not is if, once the clip has been made, the cut opens up, displacing what was caught into air.

To keep the clip frozen you can do a couple of things, iron a small piece of knit fusible to the area before you cut for example, of if you don't have that with you to work with in the woods, you can go old school and simple overcast the raw edges of the clip by hand:



Notice how wide that clip spreads? It really needed to happen.

So final verdict.

Excellent fabric, I am so happy with this dress. It is going to look great on Maddie.

Interesting pattern but I am going to get into the instructions and customize them for myself next time so they actually are easy.

I will probably do that when I get back in my own sewing room, nice fabric in mind. 



Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Sew kraft-tex bags blog tour: caboose edition


When the very nice folks who published my book over at C&T asked me if I was interested in participating in a blog tour for a new book Sew kraft-tex bags  I said sure, 
I would love to.



Now this was not because I have actually ever sewn with Kraft-tex, or that I am a particularly crafty person, or even that I am a bag-maker. Sleeves, hems and zippers are more my end of the business.

No, I said yes because I got an advance look at this book and thought wow, I have to get myself into some bag-making.

Here's a taste of the projects in the books, all of which can be made wholly or in part with Kraft-tex, or alternatively in many cases also entirely in fabric:



I have been feeling an urge to start making some bags lately and have been thinking about materials. I like the idea of sturdy natural materials, but I have some thoughts on working with leather.

Years ago I once ordered an entire calf hide to make a skirt. 

The hide was huge.

So big that I spread it out on my double bed to have a good look at it. Then I noticed a hole.

Right in the middle. A bullet hole.

I felt terrible.

It's one thing to work around a flaw in fabric. 

It's another thing to be working around a death. 

(My kids claim I am prone to over dramatic statements - you can probably see why).

So the concept of vegan leather has its attraction for me.

But not vinyl, off gassing is a poor trade-off, in my opinion.

So when I heard about Kraft-tex, a paper type product made in Germany and distributed in C&T,  I just wanted to try it out. 

I had heard that it was tough and when washed and dried looked like leather, or at least like itself, interesting in its own way.

So I signed myself up.

When my roll of Kraft-tex arrived,  I began to have my doubts.  

Kraft-tex comes in two formats, plain and unwashed and dried (the basic colours like the Stone I ordered come like this) or pre-washed and pre-dried in multiple colours and therefore soft and leather-like.

My do-it-yourself selection looked a lot like a roll of construction paper when it arrived.

Is this going to hold up to my wild lifestyle I wondered? 

Kids climbing over my purses in the car, dog walking and poop bag carrying, stuff from the grocery store stuffed in because I forgot my reusable bags and am too cheap to pay for plastic. 

Around here an everyday bag is thrown and jammed into corners. 

I need an under the seat bag, a back of the restaurant chair bag, a full of library books bag.

That I would also take out for dinner.

I just wasn't sure that something that started out looking like construction paper was going to hold up to all that.

So my assistant or supervisor, depending on who you ask, and I decided to take the opportunity to do some material testing of Kraft-tex, before we committed our high priced time to it.

Here are three videos we made during the testing phase of this project. 

First the road tests:



Then the tensile strength test:




And finally the test results:



Pretty thorough lab we are running here. We even brought in an outside expert to ensure our results were objective - sort of a highly qualified peer view, by a representative of a larger group:



So we really established that Kraft-tex is very, very strong. Very durable. Probably even Babs proof, and that's saying a lot.

Next up was how does it sew?

  • Crumple, machine wash and machine wash a manageable section to prep the material. Iron it with a hot steamy iron but really some of the texture is really what you want - the pre-treatment turns it from construction paper to vegan leather and you can do it yourself. Even in a camp ground Washeteria with all your old messy campground clothes.
  • Use ordinary thread and stitch settings and off you go normally. However this is a fibrous material so I lengthened my stitch length a lot. The book covers all the sewing and prep issues in great detail.
  • Use clips instead of pins.
  • Understand this is stiff stuff so sew as much flat as you can. The authors of the book, and this is well-illustrated by the projects, suggest that a combo of Kraft-tex and fabric for many details, like bag handles, as the most effective way to put together many sections.
  • Oh and if you get your bag dirty, just through it in the washer and dryer. Apparently this is the same material they use to make the labels on the back of jeans so think of that as a point of reference.
So what did I make?

First off I made one of the projects in the book, the Stephanie bag, in which Kraft-tex is used as an accent almost, as one surface of the straps and as the band the straps fit into, on an otherwise fabric bag. I love this bag, and the Kraft-tex was so fun to work with:








In fact I had so much fun working with Kraft-tex that I decided to use the same pattern and a small piece of black cork, because I always travel with a bag of random scraps for obvious reasons, to make and entire Kraft-tex bag:




At this point, understanding completely how strong but stiff Kraft-tex is, I changed up the construction steps in the  pattern from the book.

First off I changed the darts used in the original pattern to add shape, to a boxed bottom. I also used a drop-in lining, which is what it sounds like it is, rather than a turned inside out lining used in the fabric version.

I really feel that I am just getting started in my Kraft-tex adventures. 

It is so easy to work with and such a hard wearing, cost effective, alternative to leather or vinyl. Even as a strip to apply to a fabric strap for body, or as the bottom of a fabric bag for stability, even small amounts of this material would be so useful.

Let's brainstorm. The book is an excellent place to start but what else can I make with it. I am thinking super class sewing machine/serger covers, nesting baskets, belts, could you make belts? Wallets? Cutlery holders? Hats could I make a brim for a hat with it.

What ideas do you have for me?

In the meantime make sure you go back to the C & T site  for links to the other wonderful bags made by other bloggers and for a chance to win a copy of the e-book here.https://ctpublishing.lpages.co/sew-kraft-tex-bags-giveaway/

*Update: since I wrote this blog post C&T has sent me an affiliate link as one of their offers. I haven't done this before but my understanding that if you follow-up through this blog I will receive a small compensation:

Here's that link





Friday, March 8, 2019

Book review: First time sewing with a serger: the absolute beginner's guide



This is the second of two books that Quarto sent unsolicited for me to review.

I have found I quite enjoy reviewing books, and will be doing another one next Wednesday.

Books are pricey. So I think it is worthwhile to read a bit more about the contents before you invest. I hope I was able to do that for David Coffin's book, that has a very clear and specific focus on custom shirt fitting, - a person would know right away if that was something they are interested in or not.

This next book has been very clear to set expectations about its content. 

First time sewing with a serger: the absolute beginner's guide makes it clear that this its audience is very specifically those who are staring at their new serger in the box (or the older serger still in the box - I still run into those ladies in my sewing travels) and not a clue what to do with it.

When I first started reading this book my mind went immediately to one of my sisters, Dawn. 

Now Dawn is an amazing quilter. She churns out quilts and wall hangings for the whole family that are completely faultless

I mean this. 

I couldn't do what she does, and don't.

Once many decades ago we decided to collaborate on an anniversary quilt for our parents. We were each supposed to make half the blocks. Dawn was going to put it all together and quilt it.

I made my blocks and sent them off.

Dawn mailed them back.

"You do know what a 1/4" is don't you?"

What?

This was me measuring.

With my most accurate and well-used measuring tools and that would be my own eyeballs.

I can do 5/8" in the dark.

Again I digress.

I am fairly certain, and she can back me up on this, that Dawn has been making the same New Year's resolution for a fair number of years now. 

That resolution would be to finally get over her fear of sewing with knits, and maybe even do something other than seam finishing on her serger.

Sure enough I got the annual text again this year.

My sister was about to embark on a T-shirt, but that facing something this scary in itself she was going to do it on her sewing machine, because she really doesn't trust her serger.

The operative word here is trust but what she really meant is that she doesn't really understand her serger, understanding of course being different than trusting.

When I go home this is a book I am going to send her.

Before I get into specifics I have to say in general I am not a fan of most how-to serge books. Maybe I am jaded by the rash of them that got published in the '90s in all their decorative thread glory. Outfit after outfit edged with metallic serving. Miles and miles of it.

I even got myself mixed up in the enthusiasm for a bit. Made a vest made of woven strips of decoratively serger edged strips.

I wore it once. Outside of the sewing workshop it didn't have quite the same allure. In fact I distinctly remember thinking "what the hell do I have on my body" before taking it off in the car.

To me that's what most serging books tell you - that you would look great with exposed lame serged edges on every thing.

Those books of that time also didn't tell you too much about sergers, just that they could do it.

This book is a totally different creature.

The explanation of what's going on in a serger, and the wonderful explanation of how it is different than a sewing machine, clear throughout the book, is just what people like my sister need.

Once you understand the mechanics of a serger the rest sort of becomes more manageable.

There is also a brilliant section on tension (I always say for the sewing community nothing causes tension like tension) and a very empowering explanation of why tension needs to be confidently adjusted and readjusted for variations in stitch length, stitch width, foot pressure, and differential feed.

It's all so clear and makes so much sense. 

The trouble shooting tips are terrific and would pretty much answer all the numerous "my stitch looks like this, what am I doing wrong?" posts that populate my Facebook feed every morning. 

And you have to love a section with the header "getting the hang of it."

There are of course projects too at the end of the book, which are useful to those who feel now they get their serger but what are they going to do with it.

Most of these projects are very practical, like a knit tunic up-cycled out of a knit dress, and a tiered broomstick skirt that shows how a serger can gather, one of my favourite functions.

The authors are both Singer related and their facility with a variety of serger products shows. 

Clearly they are able to comfortably talk about different features on different products. This is useful and helpful to a new serging person for example who needs to know that the stitch finger can be located in different places in different machines.

This great familiarity with the range of products however might have lead to the one weakness of the book, particularly given the intended readership serging novices.

There is a bit too much assumption that everyone appreciates that there is more than one kind of serger. You know this in the business, might not be true if you operate outside of it.

An explanation of the different types of sergers available, illustrated, would have been so useful.

Many new serger owners, or prospective buyers, have no idea of what the different capabilities of different machines might be, and what they actually need, or even what they have actually bought.

Many people purchase sergers without this information. Many first sergers are bought second-hand.

The difference between a 3-thread only, a 3/4 thread, a 2/3/4, a 2/3/4/5 thread and of course a cover stitch machine (two or three needles too), which may be a function of a combo machine, or a dedicated stand alone machine needs to be more fully explained.

To simply list the different stitches (the cover hem and chain stitches are listed as something some 5 thread machines can do - confusing as this can be done on both stand alone and combo machines) all together as serging stitches is strictly true but to my mind still confusing. This just might mystify some sew serger owners. I can see some folks looking to for the cover hem stitch on their 3/4 thread, or not understanding that the cover hem only machine they see on eBay can't sew seams.

I think picturing the stitches possible under the different classes of machines would have been really useful.

I might be over thinking this, but listen I have my sister to consider. I will still send her this book but will explain that part myself I think.

This one issue apart, I think this is still among the best serger orientation books I have seen out there. 

A frustrated new serger owner would most certainly find the solution to any issue that I could anticipate, and that is worth so much.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Book review: Sewing shirts with a perfect fit by David Page Coffin


A few days ago I received two books to review from the Quatro Group. The first David Page Coffin's newest shirt book, released by Creative Publishing, I will talk about today, the second, on serging I will review on Friday.

First some full disclosure.

David is a friend of mine. We got to know each other when I was a frequent contributor and later a contributing editor for Threads. David has stayed at my house and is long remembered by my children as an extremely cool guy. He was probably the first person we ever had visit to meditate in the living room, or to put a bottle of greens in the fridge. I noticed he was terrific at speaking to children as if they were adults - always a valuable skill. 

So I already know David as an original, authentic thinker of many talents (he is also a painter and musician) as well as one with a very clear eye for sewing and problem solving.

David Coffin is the real deal.

So are his books.

This is of course the third book David has written on shirts. 

The first one Shirtmaking: developing skills for fine sewing is an absolute classic.

His second shirt book, The shirt making workbook: pattern, design and construction resources expands the sewer's view of how a shirt pattern can be customized and developed. The pages of beautiful collar styles for me were particularly inspirational.

The current book however takes on the really hard part of shirt-making - and that's fitting.

When I read this latest book it struck me that all David's books, this one the most, were the opposite of what someone once said to me about the internet - that it goes wide but it doesn't go deep.

When David tackles a focused area of sewing, as in this case  fitting shirts, he goes deep, always goes deep. 

You are going to want to sit down and read this one carefully, re-read some sections to make sure you have taken it all in, and then re-read it again as you try his method all out.

But it will be worth it.

What is presented here is, as far as I can figure out, a totally fresh, interesting, and effective way of getting a great fitting shirt. 

To my mind no one else has quite looked at the problems of shirt fitting this way. It's an unusual way of looking at fitting shirts and it makes perfect sense.

Common sense.

The premise is this:

It all depends on nailing an excellent shoulder upper body fit.

That is built here around a yoke molded to the body, as a base for hanging rectangles of fabric that can then be draped, or adjusted, until the fabric fits individual, male or female, big or little, curves or shapes. Armhole shapes and sleeve caps are also added to this base and these two are adjusted, the fabric saying what to do, on the body.

Templates for the basic shapes, yokes, armholes and sleeve caps (fitted, semi-fitted and dropped) are included in the book as pattern sheets. 

If you have fabric, a body to work from, and these templates you are good to go.

For those of us who will be working on ourselves Coffin also gives some really quirky and probably effective instructions for making a personal sloper out of tin foil that can be transformed into an accurate dress form. This is absolutely the first thing I am going to do when I get home from my current trip. Looks like an interesting project.

Other resources of how-to information are also given in links to the Quarto site.

But the book itself is very instructive.The fine-tuning necessary to fit the shirt body, or refine the sleeves with the draping method, are explained carefully in an extensive series of photographs. The photographic approach is also helpful in illustrating the several projects, from a casual jacket to a fitted shirt and a shirtdress -  in step-by-step detail.


There are several reasons why Coffin's original approach appeals to me:

1. He is right, it all starts at the top. 

Get that right and then smooth out the fabric makes perfect sense to me. 

When I read this book I was reminded of the many women who have show me their fit issues with shirts. One lady in particular went through 12 muslins, tweaking from one area to another trying to eliminate some new wrinkle or fold as it appeared - each alteration seeming to produce just one more problem in a completely different area. When I looked at the photos she sent me I noticed right away that she had sloping shoulders that were not settling at all well in her straight edged yoke. This was the root of all her other problems nothing else was going to get fixed until this was dealt with. 

The fact that this book includes yoke, armhole and sleeve templates (I love the different choices of sleeve cap height - could have used this on a shirt pattern I struggled to adjust this week) gives you a great starting point for establishing that critical upper body fit.

2. It looks like an easy method to me

After all you are working only with your hands, your fabric, and your body. If there is a measuring tape in this book I didn't seem it, nor did I see any complicated full bust alteration instructions, or other flat pattern alteration ideas. Those kinds of formulas just aren't here, as Coffin says he would rather deal direct.

So finally who would I recommend this book to?

First off anyone who really wants to make a shirt that fits really, really well, particularly if the body is not symmetrical or in any other way a "standard" size.

Second I would suggest this book to anyone who is more or less down to their last nerve with trying to find a good shirt pattern that fits, or who is fed up with trying to get a pattern they have to work for them. When you get to that point in your fitting/sewing it's time to try something completely different and this book really provides that.

Who wouldn't I recommend this book to?

Obviously any one who isn't all that concerned about or really has problem fitting wouldn't appreciate the value here. If your just want to know how to make shirts, buy Coffin's first book; if you want to customize your shirts buy his second one.

And who needs this book right away?

My poor sewer with the 12 muslins for sure.