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Sewing with less stress Front
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I am a mother, a 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 book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge was published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon



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Saturday, July 12, 2014

McCalls 6885

One of my favourite bloggers, knitmachinequeen over at Smoking Needles made a golf dress recently from McCalls 6885 that really caught my eye.

As a golfer I was intrigued by the idea of a golf dress as opposed to shorts or skorts. Increasingly I am coming to the conclusion that dresses, particularly in the non winter months, are it for me.

They just are easy to grab and thrown on and pretty much more comfortable than any other clothing combination for me. I dawned on me recently that if a person had enough dresses for different occasions you pretty much would have a closet with everything covered.

I am definitely going to be trying out the golf dress idea myself and just think dress making, literally, may be my major focus for the next little while.

So I tried out McCalls 6885 myself in some experimental cotton.

Knitmachinequeen's assessment was right, this dress is nice, good collar, a placket that I am going to rewrite with easier instructions, but really wide, including the neckline. If I made it again, and I will, I am going to bring the sides in.

When I first saw myself in this I said "tent dress" in my head, for those of you who remember what those were. My husband had a similar reaction. He said "shift" which is a term he remembers from his mother, and then "housedress" when he saw shift didn't go over well, although housedress was worse.

I have decided to leave the sides the way they are with this one however because to be truthful there is a time and a place for a tent dress in the warm summer.

An item with space between it and yourself and it can be a good idea.

I suspect this dress will get a lot of wear for that reason. 

Perfect for taking the little girls with me on errands or as a ... housedress. Something I can wear and evoke memories of my mother and her friends sitting in tent dresses drinking instant coffee (remember that?) in lawn chairs and telling us to go play. 
Not my best posture but I was explaining camera operation to my cooperative nephew

On the dog front Miss Daisy had a full vet assessment yesterday. This was the first since all the remedial work we had done in Florida ridding her of things you pick up in puppy mills.

The good news is the vet said her condition was absolutely remarkable given her history. I walk her a lot, a couple of hours a day, owning to the fact I get such happiness out of seeing her happiness on walks - you never saw such joy, and he said she was a strong dog with the "heart beat of an athlete."

She has a lingering ear infection in one ear however that we are treating, but the bad news is her teeth which are showing the history of her past poor diet and care. Puppy mill teeth are always an issue because of crap food, dirty water, and no medical attention. Bottom line is she is going to have to have two dental surgeries to remove some of her back teeth at the cost of a damn fine sewing machine. But that done she should be good.

Worth every penny of course to keep her healthy and to rid her of the last of her past. She and I signed up for each other and this is part of the deal.

Now off we go for a walk. It is a fine day.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sending kids off to college : part three - where to go?

I should credit my nephew with these posts because they are a reflection of many of our current dining room table discussions.

One of our big topics is where to go, what college or university to choose.

Sending a kid off to school is not unlike that other big milestone, the first day of elementary school. It is one of those acute letting go moments where you as a parent are more aware than they are that this is life changing, that something is being let go that will never quite be recoverable.

It is hard and quite natural for parents to hope everyone will be nice, that the teacher will notice your shy child, or understand the sweet person under your busy one, that your baby will make friends.

You hope for a small caring school and small classes.

I think many of us revert to this when it is time to send them off to post-secondary education. Recruiters know this and the emphasis from the smaller schools on quality of student life, a place where everyone knows your name is big.

It has occurred to me however that what a young person seeking to find their unique place in the world needs is not always the same place as the soon to be ex pre-schooler, and that different environments offer different opportunities.

Here IMO are not good reasons for choosing a particular school:

1. Everyone in the family went there. Even more so that one or both parents had the "time of their lives" there. This is not a good reason on so many levels.

  • It goes without saying that this is about your kid and not about you. I know a young woman who went to the site of her dad's glory days as captain of the football team and didn't really like it at all. She felt he was taking over her experience.
  • Schools change too. Any honest academic will tell you that any department or faculty goes through cycles, they periodically decline and are rebuilt, and the great program you did may not be the same anymore. 
  • College life is different now, part-time work, debt, an uncertain employment future, make the experience far less carefree than it once was.
2. It is a nice small school in a small college town and therefore less dangerous, intimidating, or impersonal than a larger, or more urban school.
If this is your prime reason for pushing a certain institution think again. I once asked my students to name the region's famous "party schools" meaning more wild parties, drinking, drugs and missed classes. All of the schools they named were in the smaller "college towns." None were the big urban universities. When you think about it the reasons are obvious. In any smaller community if there is less to do it is easier to get into trouble, more pressure to conform to a certain stereotype, less room for the individual to be themselves or find like souls. Some are even culturally more like a big high school than a place to find yourself.

When you think of the news and the stories that periodically come out about drinking or drug related college scandals for instance where do they come from? My point exactly.

3. It is a big name school. Obviously getting into Harvard is a good thing but it really matters so much more at the graduate level than the undergrad. Many of the profs who give well-know institutions their reputation will never teach undergrad courses at all, or at least often and certainly only in the final years. A good solid undergrad with great marks is the sensible aim here.

Also, entirely my own view, here are things to consider when choosing a school:

1. An interesting program (see earlier posts) with good faculty. Look who the teachers are and what their qualifications are. Profs should have education from a variety of institutions (more than one degree from the same institution is often not a good sign) and locations.

2. A place your child would actually like to live in. Places are teachers too. An interesting environment is an education in itself. What will your child do outside of class? Hopefully there will be something more interesting than a string of drive-through restaurants and an on-campus beer bash.

3. Diversity. Whatever you child does in the future it will involve living and working in an increasingly global environment. Your sorority sisters might be a fine part of your life but going forward being comfortable with folks who do not come from where you did is like gold. When I was 16 my family moved from a small town in Manitoba to Montreal and I did my first degree there. I learned so much about life, other people, other cultures there. I have benefitted from that experience the rest of my life. And you have to experience it first hand. Knowing that that girl in the hijab has a great sense of humour or seeing someone else get through school juggling three jobs may is part of a real education. One thing education should do is broaden a person's comfort zone, it just makes the rest of life easier.

In short you want your child to find a place where there is room to be themselves. Variety is so important. In range of programs, student population. You don't want your child to just to find themselves but find other people like themselves, fellow travellers with interests, if not history, in common. Look for a place where there is room to be different, because finding your uniqueness is what this period of life is about.

Off I go now to my current students.

A little more sewing and then over the weekend life skills every first year student should have.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

On fewer patterns, more sewing

The more I go to New York to see my son and his girlfriend the more I am acquiring good fabric of the kind that I don't want to mess up by cutting into it with an experimental pattern.

This is elevating the importance of the tried and true pattern for me.

Of course I am and will be using new patterns but I am getting choosier about them. When I have something I really like I am going back to the patterns I know will work.

In the last little while I have made a few things from old patterns and liked them, in fact they are part of my wear a lot roster in way that my "on trend" garments, after a short while, are not.

Here they are. 

The first was this plain T shirt made in a cotton single knit. Nothing exciting and if I make it again I might bring in the sleeve seam for an update, but easy to wear. I used this old but still available Burda pattern:

In addition to attached dog, note rumpled sewing shorts and jewelled flip flops from Florida (can't buy anything like that here) the old legs need no introduction or explanation

My point here is that sometimes a good old plain pattern is pretty handy.

Which brings me to my most useful garment of the season, particularly now back in the province where fall passes for summer.

The fabric came from Elliot Berman in NYC and is sort of a knit quilted cotton/poly. A sharp eyed blog reader sent me good advice on how to sew this and that really helped.

I used an old pattern Loes Hinse's Sweater Coat that like many of her patterns is somewhat dated now, bringing up the shoulder/armhole seam and bringing in the sides so it had a more current fit. Next time I will also draft a back neck facing or apply tape over the collar seam - Loes always has you just serge this but that shows when the jacket is open.

For closures I used big snaps I got at M&J Trimming and they turned out to be a really good idea because the weight of them helps the knit front hang better, sort of a vertical version of a Chanel chain at the bottom of a jacket.

My favourite part of this pattern is the shape of the collar, which is flattering but not too high around the neck so it lies nicely, and the patch pockets set into the side seam.

Such a nice pattern, now it has been updated, why not use it again and again?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

One more thing

After I wrote the last post I drove over to feed my daughter's cat. On the way I remembered something smart I once read about career planning:

Don't do what you love, do what you are.

Think about that.

I feel we are not being truthful when we tell young people do what you love and the money will follow.

If that was true someone would be paying me $200,000 a year to sit at my dining room table and order fabric online. Or someone else would make a good living telling funny golf stories at family dinners.

In fact my own experience is that doing what you love is too important to let the demands of trying to make money too mess with it.

Instead if you do what you are - a bossy person, a person who likes to make people feel good about themselves, a person who likes to go off on their own and figure it out - and you can find an environment where you are able to be this person, then you will find a job you love.

The difference is important.

So the question the young person needs to ask themselves is who am, I not what do I want to do. And if they have no idea who they are yet (and who does) then figuring that out and how to discover that, what experiences might make that clearer, is far more important than trying to tick off a course box on an application form.

Sending kids off to college part two : how to choose a program

This really continues the theme of the last post on this subject, because to start with if your child hasn't a clue what they want to study they are not ready for college. It might be smarter for them to "find themselves" outside university before they consider it.

I say this knowing that many of my tenured colleagues would disagree, arguing that exploring interests and developing "critical thinking skills" are what undergraduate degrees are for.

I understand that point of view but to be really honest I think it comes from another time. When I was in university it was entirely possible to work for a summer and pay for a complete school year. Many people did that and as a result that time was sort of the golden age of the permanent student.

What we have now are kids who are working 1, 2, 3 part-time jobs while they study (something I never had to do during the school year) and still graduating with debts that will handicap them, postponing things like marriage, children, or buying a house, right into the years when financial planners say they should be well into putting together solid retirement savings.

For these kids getting through school is a struggle between deadlines, fatigue and work conflicts. The average debt my students graduate with from one undergraduate degree is $30,000 plus and this is often when they have had family help. The bill is many, many times that for further professional and graduate degrees.

We have to be careful that an education that is meant to open doors doesn't close them.

So before any parent panics and pushes a kid into a program, any program, because a university degree is a ticket to security, they need to be honest about whether that child is really ready or the program is really right.

After all my nephew came home from work the other night and told me he is bussing tables with a graduate with a B.A. and I know the manager of the local Dairy Queen has a B. Sc. How would you like to be working those jobs with the kind of debt I described? 

My thoughts on choosing undergraduate programs:

There are two kinds of under grad degrees. The ones that qualify you to apply to a graduate program with a specific outcome and under grad degrees that put you right in the work force.

Back to the B.A. and B. Sc. Many kids of course parlay these first degrees into something they can earn a living at, but to be truthful this is more often a case of their own innate hustle than anything they were taught in school. In most cases the B.A. will have to apply to a subsequent program, law, business etc. and the B. Sc. will have to go on and study further in say the health sciences to have a better career.

So in general I would say that unless your child is up for embarking on more than one degree the traditional first general degree might not make a lot of sense.

As to the alternatives, this is where it gets tough for parents.

The truth is that most of us have no idea what the possibilities are out there. Just like my dad who figured any girl had three options nurse, secretary or teacher. Many great possibilities exist, we, and often high school guidance folks are not much better,  just haven't heard about them.

What your student needs to do is look through university calendars in detail and be open to new programs, things they have never heard of.

And then, this is most important, go through the actual courses carefully to see if those courses are something worth getting out of bed on a Monday at 8:30 to go learn about. 

The course thing is really important. 

Over and over I hear students say "this degree isn't what I expected it to be, I never thought I would have to do some much (math, writing, biology, numbers) etc." All that would have been clearer if the student had gone carefully over the courses.

It is also useful and very relevant to ask the institution what per centage of grads are working in the field after graduation. Many don't keep track (which is a message in itself) but this might be interesting. I personally like undergraduate degrees of the qualifying kind that have a co-op or internship option. Those programs generally have a better track record with post graduation employment and tend to be better at making sure employable skills are taught for obvious reasons.

Finally this is my best career choosing advice.

Work backwards. 

Ask your child what their ideal adult work day would look like. Ask them about what they would wear, where they would live, how they would travel to work, what the work day feels like.

My nephew for instance said he wants to wear a suit and have a job where he knows what is expected everyday and where he has a clear idea when the work day begins and ends.

My youngest son, the one in the shirt, on the other hand regretted four years he spent doing business after one winter in an office. He knows himself better now and is so much happier out and about building and it now going back to school to do something technical. Why did we think the guy who never sat still, who could hardly stay at the table long enough to finish a meal before he ran off to some project, could live at a desk?

So once your potential student has this end day in mind work back to the kind of education that will get her or him there.

This idea came to me after a conversation I had with an animation designer. I will always remember him telling me, "I just thought I was creative, no one ever told me that would mean I would end up in a cubicle staring at a computer screen 14 hours a day six days a week."

Think that one through.

Tomorrow more sewing and the day after that thoughts on choosing a college.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sewing for big kids

When my children were little I sewed a lot for them. 

Sweat suits, outerwear, anything they needed really. When they were very little I taught sewing classes in some evenings and what I made for them also often doubled as my classroom samples. It worked out for everyone.

Then when the kids got older and developed their own taste, made by mom went out of style, except for my daughter who continued to have me sew special dresses. Of course as they got older I also got busier with my work too and my sewing sort of drifted to only for me.

However last summer I made my youngest son a novelty camp shirt with bungalows on it for his birthday. Surprisingly it was a hit. 

So this year I made another one with bridges on it.

There is a story to this. 

This kid was always, and still is, big into building things. The first thing he built was a wooden bridge to go over a small creek we had in the backyard. He was five and it took about 5,000 nails. Recently we had to retire that bridge because it was getting rickety. I was afraid the little girls would hurt themselves on it. Also I was in New York when I got this idea and as I was traveling across the Brooklyn Bridge everyday to the garment district and I could feel a theme developing.

Here is that shirt, on me in the fitting stage because this was a surprise:

Trying this on made me think I need a plain old loose camp shirt for myself, not all life was meant to be fitted.

And here is the shirt on my son, the thing on his head is a hat with a birthday boy badge on it, the little girls thought that was a good idea:

A real character this one, the king of the solar panel, the shirt suits him. I just noticed his border collie's head in the background. We all seem to have attached dogs in this family.

The pattern I used was this one from Vogue, but I think I am going to try Collette's Negori for the next one because that seems to be what hip young males sewers are making for themselves. BTW there are a lot more men's patterns around these days, just look at Vogue, which I find very encouraging. We shouldn't have half the population thinking they can't sew, or not being able to experience what sewing your own clothes offers.

I also made him some board shorts from this excellent pattern from Jalie. Very pro pattern with all the details exactly right:

The fabric for the shorts came from the Fabric Fairy . My surfer loved them.

So much so that my husband, son-in-law, and nephew have all ordered up a pair. In plaid, something conservative, and something that looks Greek respectively.

Then my son in Brooklyn heard about the shirt and informed me that loud shirts were very hip on the Brooklyn BBQ circuit. He even sent me this picture of one he was considering buying, except it is $230! which just goes to show the non-sewing world has lost its mind, I mean this is a cotton short sleeved shirt:

So he asked me to make him one too, with a button band and a button down collar (I figure this pattern will work) and I sent him a link to Hawthorne Threads which has outstanding prints and probably the best and fastest service in the universe.

The result of that little exchange was he sent me back this link to the fabric he liked best on their site, not having seen his brother's shirt at all:

All of which goes to show that what goes around comes around and after about a twenty year hiatus it looks like mom is back in business, starting with some bro shirts. They would have never let me sew the same thing for them when they were small - the lesson here to all those mothers out there with kids in that teenage thing, eventually you too and the family will be back in style.

Just you wait.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sending kids off to college part one : the kids who don't know what they want to do

For what these are worth, here are my observations on kids going off from high school to college and their families trying to figure out what they should do to help.

I have been talking to my nephew a lot about this and thinking of all the students I have advised coming in and in first year.

It is every parent's hope that if they can get their kid into the right four year program and get them graduated then that kid is set.

Hopefully in a career they like with a future and security.

Having been this exact person myself I understand that you just want your kid to be safe, happy, and successful however that is defined. None of us want our child to be that middle-aged person scrambling for work, or that old person adding up the cans at the checkout counter in the supermarket trying to calculate if they can afford it.

And to be truthful who we also want to graduate is ourselves. We want to know, we hope, that this degree will mean we can stop worrying and that we have one successfully launched - that we are done with the hard part.

Maybe at one point and for some generations that guarantee from a college was true but I can tell you it isn't any more.

This generation entering college, the research shows, will change their careers, not their jobs but their actual careers, a minimum of four times in their working lives. Very often this will mean total retraining and more education. Accountants will become nurses, turn into small business owners teaching yoga, become vet's assistants. I have heard for example that 30% of recent law school grads are not working in any area of the law five years later these days.

And this won't be because they have to but because they want to much of the time.

Let's be honest.

The main casualties of this economy have been those who worked in one industry for 20, 30 years and then saw that industry die. They were often those who had great skills, but single industry skills. Reinventing yourself at 50 is no joke, btw.

So the first thing we have to get our heads around as parents is that it is unlikely that they will be set for life after one college degree. Maybe started on an interesting career, maybe just introduced to one of the careers students will do in their working lives. 

This is not the one and only roll of the dice.

So what does this mean for your child's higher education?

First, and I am assuming that one of goals you and your child have is employment, you have to think of skills.

Remember that Darwin didn't actually say that the fittest survived, what he said was that it was the most adaptable that did. A lot of people don't know that.

Your child will only really have security and a satisfying work life if they have a really well-equipped tool box of skills that other people may need.

What I would say to any young person now is never turn down an opportunity to learn a new skill and get a certification. 

It doesn't have to be contained in one degree, and even in that degree try to get as many real skills as you can. 

In fact one of the issues is the kid who has no clue what they want to do and is pushed into university by parents who are desperate for that degree, so that kid is set. I have these kids in my classes all the time. These students are wasting their time and their parents cash in many cases because everyone at home is in such a panic. The worst outcome to me is that this scenario often puts kids off the whole idea of education long term, which is really unfortunate.

It takes nerve to think of the gap year - that year between high school and university - and in some cases I really think it is sensible. One year off to clear the head is a good idea and one year in your late teens does not mean that a kid is going to lose their grip on reality and the next thing you know they will be sitting on a sidewalk with a paper cup.

To my mind, and with what I have seen, a gap year where the student has gone traveling is a good idea (an education in itself) and so is a year spent doing other skill building. 

The main thing is to spend this time skill building.

A second language, first responders, nail art, web design, whatever, any thing useful offered at the community colleges as long as it is a real skill is fine. As far as I can see what a kid does doesn't matter just as long as it is done with some seriousness. You want them to keep learning. This generation has to get used to learning their whole lives, as should we all come to think of it.

A gap year spent in the basement playing video games however - not so much, and maybe neither is another year spent doing minimum wage fast food and hanging out with your friends.

In general get them out and about and keep them out of the basement if they don't want to go to school right away. The basement usually goes nowhere.

So be open minded about community colleges or other training if your child isn't sure about a four year college/university commitment. Many now have agreements where the credits are transferrable too. In fact some of my best students are grads who come to university after a community college diploma - they are organized, know how to study, and are highly motivated - the exact opposite of the crew who, often out of high school and in my classes because their parents want them to be, skip class, have late assignments, and show up hung over. These are the kids who flunk out and have a mother like one I know who called me up and said "I don't understand this all her sisters went to university and did so well, she has to do this." Yes, well maybe, but lady first of all you have to deal with the fact this daughter needs to get her desire to do hair out of her system, if ever.

The best thing you can do for the undecided child is keep them learning - that is what will move them forward and make the path to college one year later if that seems right so much clearer.

Tomorrow sewing shots and then the next day how to choose a program and a college, and where parents and students can go wrong.