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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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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Handy sewing hint of the day #10.2

O.K. marking.

I hope I have made the case for precise marking and I want you to make sure to read the great comments/advice under the last post. There are other methods and some good ones.

Myself I tend to old school, and that really hasn't let me down. It adds some character to your sewing, if that makes any sense to anyone else but me.

I should also self identify as someone who doesn't really like marking methods that involve lifting the fabric layers apart to mark on the wrong side, with pins or markers, but that is maybe me - I am never sure that location is not lost in that process.

The exception to this would be sometimes in using dressmaker's carbon paper (not real carbon paper, I tried that once when I was ten and used some of my dad's navy carbon paper on some orange fabric, it most definitely shows) and a tracing wheel to mark patch pocket placement.

The trick to using a tracing wheel of course is to pad under the fabric with say a magazine and use a layer of plastic wrap over the pattern piece so it doesn't shred the paper.

Of course the only value of marking lines on the wrong side of the fabric for something like a pocket you need to place on the right side, is if you then thread trace (this means make hand basting stitches along the traced lines - in effect transferring them to the right side) them.

I have to tell you it is pretty terrific to have those little pockets all made up and to be able to just lay them on the right side of the fronts fitting them exactly into shapes where they are meant to go. It turns a stressful and mistake prone job to a no-brainer.


So that's when I would use tracing paper and I admit it is limited. 

Like I said I don't like moving around things too much when I mark and you have to do that to slide the tracing paper in between the layers. For pockets and a few important stitching lines I will do it, but that's it. This, and it may be just me, is why I also do not use a rotary cutter and mat to cut out. I don't have a mat that covers my whole cutting table and sliding the mat around underneath a large project is not me.

So back to marking.

1. Clips. 

If the marks are anything that are located in the seam allowance I make a little clip. I know there are notches out too on the pattern but my serger cuts those off when I serge that edges to finish seams before I start sewing, so I make little clips. 

These would be the ends of darts for example, centre fronts and backs and construction notches that help you match pieces. 

BTW do you all know that single notches are for the front of garments and that notches are added as they move back? The front of a sleeve will have a single notch to match to the single notch of the front armhole, and the back will have double notches to match to the back of the armhole. Centre back seams have three notches for example too. 

Oh on the subject of random information do you also know that a standard North American tape measure is 5/8" wide (check yours to make sure) so you can use it to mark seam allowances.

I also have a few extra personal marking codes. 

For instance I mark every fold line with a tiny cut out V rather than a clip in the seam allowance. This allows me to distinguish between the front foldline on a shirt for example, and centre front (which is where vertical buttonholes are place BTW).

It also means that when I am making a pleat or tuck I can look at my in seam allowance marks and know that I have to fold the v clips to the small clips to make the pleats.

2. Sometimes I use masking tape on the right side. 

Masking tape goes on and off fabric without a mark. I put small pieces on the right side of fabrics where it is hard to tell the right from wrong side as soon as I cut out and I use it sometimes to make sure that details like flaps are on straight.

I also use it to mark buttonholes. 

I use a pen to draw my buttonhole positions on one long piece ( I often save and re-use these pieces of masking tape for several projects), the beginning and end of each buttonhole, and place these next to centre front where I am actually going to be stitching the buttonholes. 

Of course I sew beside and not through the tape. This is a pretty precise way to mark buttonholes and very easy.

3. Which brings me next to thread marks. 

Listen it may take a little time but not really once you get used to it. 

Thread marks have the enormous virtue of being able to be seen from both the right and wrong side of the fabric, can be made directly on the pattern piece without shifting anything and so are very accurate, and can be made in different coloured threads so you can distinguish different markings. 

For instance I use one colour to mark dart points and another to mark start and stop stitching points or pocket placements etc.

The traditional way, and the way engrained in me, to mark is with tailor tacks.

Now I have to tell you I am appalled by the sort of instructions you get when you Google tailor tacks. Nearly all the instructions are, IMO, just wrong because they tell you to clip through the loop and then pull apart the fabric layers. 

This will just leave you with short little pieces of thread that are going to come out and get lost, which will put you back to square one.

So here are my old school tailor tack instructions, improvised on a little fabric scrap I found in the rv and photographed on the picnic table outside. I didn't have a paper pattern piece to illustrate properly so you are going to have to imagine these tacks being made on a dot on the paper pattern piece.

Here goes, step one:

Thread your needle with a double thread and don't knot it. Imagine the above has a paper pattern piece on the fabric. Take a tiny stitch through the paper/fabric layers, in and out as above.

Pull the thread through and take another stitch over the last stitch, more or less like the stitch you just made above. Leave it loose so the loop is big enough to get your index finger through. Leave tails on either side a couple inches long at least. Cut the thread. In effect you are making a thread loop through your pattern/fabric that looks like a cursive "e"

Do not, repeat do not cut the loop open, you are going to want it closed so when you pull apart the fabric layers you have a good long tail of thread that won't come loose on the underside of the fabric and a secure loop on the upper layer of fabric. Off course you are going to want to eventually remove the pattern pieces from the fabric when you are done so use the sharp end of a needle to gently tear a slash in the pattern piece over the loop so you can liberate the pattern. When you pull apart the fabric layers, like I have done here, the loop will go flat against the fabric.

Here is what you will see on the right sides of the fabric when you pull the layers apart. Note the intact loop will keep the threads from pulling out when you do this.

Finally you clip the threads and there you have it, efficiently marked fabric with a tailor tack.

Hope this is helpful.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Handy sewing hint of the day #10.1

A few things here, a couple of questions to answer from the comments:

That striped top I wore with my Talia pants came from Joe Fresh at the Superstore, about $14 I think, in rayon. Probably the most commented garment in this sewing blog's history. Irony never escapes me and is always sent to keep things in perspective. Thank you.

When I say weight in pressing I mean lean into the iron. I used to have a press which was great but I went away and left water in it and after that it sprayed out rust. End of story.

To pre-treat silk it really depends on what kind of silk and what you want to live with afterwards. The thing you have to think about with silk, apart from shrinkage which really is a weave issue, is water spots. One good joke at a party and even if all you have in your mouth at the time is Perrier a drop of it on your silk top will look like a mark. Pre-washing silk prevents this as you have more or less turned your yardage into one large water spot already.

I personally pre-wash crepe de chine type silks in baby shampoo and tepid water, rinse it a lot, line dry it and then press it dry under a pressing cloth to completely dry it. If you let silk totally dry and then try to press it, it's too hard to get the wrinkles out.

Silk noil washes really well and will only be a bit softer afterwards.

Now silk duponi, one of my favourites, if not popular with Spellcheck. Some folks, probably the same ones who wash and dry their linens, pre-wash dupioni. I have done this myself a few times, again pressing it dry. The fabric softens so you lose the distinctive crispness and you lose some of the iridescence for sure. On the other hand it probably becomes a more practical garment because you can wash it again rather than dry cleaning it. My own rule is if this is a one of garment like the dress for my son's wedding I do not pre-treat, if the garment is going into real rotation I do.

Now onto marking.

There is a lot to say here so I think I will do it in instalments, note the hint 10.1 - this means it is fairly likely the next post will be 10.2 - that would make sense.

The first thing to be said about marking is that it is really not a should-do but a favour to yourself.

It is the exact conceptual equivalent is making a gauge swatch in knitting. Sure it seems like a waste of good knitting time to make a gauge swatch first but so is spending 30+ hours making a sweater that is way to big or way to small. 

Not that I haven't done exactly that.

Time you spend marking at the front end saves you about 5-7 X the time at the backend. Believe me, based on personal experience, this is an underestimation.

You know you need to think more closely about marking if you have ever pulled the pattern pieces back out of the envelope at least once to try to figure out where the large dot is.

Who hasn't done this?

Now you don't need to go all OCD about this, old style Burda patterns used to tell you to baste along all seam lines and I wouldn't do that, but the more really useful construction markings you make the faster your project will go together and the smaller the margin for error.

Before I go an further I have pretty strong opinions about marking. My mother taught me all of this and her mother was a Scottish trained dressmaker - not a short cut kind of sewer I suspect, verified by the breath-takingly careful work of hers I still have.

Sure there are lots of short cuts but IMO you lose a lot of the quality along the way. To my mind it is the difference between a cake mix and a cake, between Dream Whip and real whipped cream - sure there is some similarities but you just can't compare. Listen I am more or less a random sloppy person in many life areas, but marking carefully saves me so much time I believe in it.

Probably I should end this post with a description of what I don't do, and why:

  • The straight pin method. I have had sewing students who dot their projects with pins to mark the end of darts etc. as their only marking. The thing about pins is that they fall out, being thin and pointy, and then you have to get the pattern pieces out of the envelope. Secondly since pins don't talk and all look the same can you be absolutely sure that is the end of the dart there or the place where you are supposed to put the pocket?
  • Marking pens. I know, I know. First there are the air soluble purple ones that disappear before you get around to actually starting to sew, or in humidity fade away at top speed. Sometimes however they can reappear like ghosts after a wash or appear, permanently, under an iron. The blue water soluble ones can do the same and every once in a while for reasons that they are keeping to themselves will be resistant to removal or prone to reappearance. I trust them about as much as a trust that edible petroleum by products won't hurt you.
  • Chalk. Well there is chalk and there is chalk. The powdery kind blows away or wears off and the wax based kind, the only one I sometimes use and have a supply from a tailor, is fine for marking things like cutting lines but only in fabrics that truly will absorb the wax when pressed, like wool flannel - anything else and you have a nice ironed in permanent grease stain.

So what methods of marking do I use?

  • My own code of clips in the seam allowance
  • Tracing wheel and dressmaker's carbon sometimes to mark things like patch pocket placement
  • Thread of different colours, lots of thread
More on all of this next post.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Handy sewing hint of the day #10

Oh my goodness.

I had no idea how much random sewing detail is moving around in this head. When will this series actually stop?

We will see.


I know I promised marking, a huge topic, but some excellent comments have reminded me of fabric pre-treating issues and something old school called "straightening" the grain, which you probably shouldn't be exposed to but I am going to do anyway.

First pre-treating fabric.

This means, more or less, getting the shrinkage out of the fabric before you cut so you won't get your heart broken by bad surprises after the first wash.

The rule of thumb to do what you will do to the garment to the fabric before you cut. 

This means if you don't sort your colours and throw all your clothes in a hot dryer you might as well find out before you start sewing if your fabric can cope with that lifestyle future. If, on the other hand, you wash everything in cool to warm water only and always line dry, either outside in a good stiff Nova Scotia breeze (do you know fog takes stains out?) or down the basement on a long line demonstrating that no one is going to ever Pin your family room, do that to the yardage too.

One word about knits though. 

All most all knits have the degree of greatest stretch running crossways so if you fold you piece over the line (or shower rod I do that too in the downstairs bathroom) crossways, the weight of the fabric will stretch the knit out starting at this fold, and you will be dealing with wonky from then on in. 

Try, if you can, to hang a knit lengthwise along the direction of less stretch. 

I always, always pre-wash all knit before I evaluate them - so often they are stretched as they are wound onto the bolt and they definitely need a chance to recover from that. If I have time I even lay a knit out on the cutting table overnight so it can retract/recover before I cut, can make a difference.

For 100% cotton fabrics of all kinds I would actually pre-treat twice to get as much of the shrinkage out of the fabric as I can - cottons, particularly loosely woven ones or twills like denims, can lose as much as a few inches per yard in shrinking - over more than one wash.

For fabrics that you will dry clean, although for environmental and health reasons there is less of that happening these days, many folks are spot cleaning when they can instead, you still should pre-treat.

For wools, the largest category of fabrics like this, you would traditionally do something called a London shrink.

Translated into domestic application this means laying a wet sheet over the fabric, folding it up, putting it in a plastic garbage bag and waiting a number of days for the wool to absorb the moisture and pull in a bit. 

You can of course achieve a similar effect with steam pressing, holding the iron over, not on, the fabric and shooting it with steam, but doing that over 6 yards of 60" gabardine with a domestic iron is more than I can stand, although stronger women can and should.

My own method for sanely pre-treating wool is to run a tricot slip or something that picks up very little water through the rinse/spin cycle of the washing machine then put that damp item in the dryer with the wool. Ten minutes on a low heat will shrink the wool just enough without changing it perceptively.

When you remove the wool from the dryer lay it out onto the cutting table to cool right away though, so it doesn't pick up wrinkles.

Now back to fabric straightening. 

In the old days when I was a junior sewer my mother made me hold one end of the fabric and pull on it diagonally while she pulled on the other end - this was supposed to "straighten" the grain, although even at eight years old I could figure out that surely would not be a permanent solution. The idea was that the selvage edges would of course be on grain but the cut ends, and maybe the fabric itself, might not be true cross grain.

I can't quite figure out how you can weave a fabric with the cross grain not perpendicular to the selvages unless you were producing some A1 crummy fabric that no one should have been sewing with anyway, but the point about uneven cut ends is a good one.

I am sure if I ever worked in a fabric store I would not be doing exactly cross the grain cuts at all at the cutting table. So it is not unexpected for the cut edges not to match when you fold the fabric in half before you cut. This is not the end of the world if you can recut them with a straight edge, but to make sure all four sides of your fabric piece are entirely on grain you can, if you want, follow a cross thread right across and cut along it.

The way to do this is to make a small cut through the selvage and fray it a bit until you find a cross thread in the fabric. Once you have found it pull carefully along that thread (it may break and you will have to really look closely to find it again) right through to the other selvage. This will make a sort of puckery line along the fabric you can cut along to ensure you are in fact working with fabric that is as much on grain crosswise as lengthwise.

I always do this to each cut end if the fabric is really worth it to me and have never thought that it was not worth the trouble.

Marking will really be next up.