Sunday, July 26, 2015

Travel knitting

I'm on the road with my kids. We drove up to New England to visit my brother and SIL and camped all along the way. It's been fun and look! I've even gotten a tiny bit of knitting in:

Sunday, July 19, 2015

sewing with kids: sunny day shorts and flashback skinny tee

My sewing mojo came back this summer, apparently. I strongly suspect it has something to do with the combination of me not really working (for pay) in the summer and my kids being old enough to let me get things accomplished while we're home. Sure, there are interruptions for snacks and card games and trips to the pool, but there have also been several mornings where they are content to read for an hour or so while I work on a project. I wasn't sure if this day would ever come, but it has.

Of course, after I use the machine for a little while, they get curious and want to use it too. There aren't simple requests for me to make them things, either. No, no. They want to do it themselves. This goes for both kids, mind you. And since I've learned to embrace these fleeting moments of creative interest as they come, I do pretty much drop everything and go with it - even if that means spending my entire Saturday sewing shorts in crazy colors instead of making something for myself.

Case in point: in the last week, Daniel and Anya and I have collectively made four pairs of Sunny Day Shorts, including three from start to finish since Friday. It's a free pattern from Oliver&S and it's a good one. (Let's not talk about how many not free patterns I have from that company that I have yet to make, a few of which only go up to size 8 so Anya will grow out of them lickety split...) 

It's too funny to see them choose fabric. They prefer knits, obviously since knits are comfy, but my stash of knit fabrics is really, really small. When this whole project started I had maybe five different pieces, including some leftovers from projects past and a couple cuts I got at a yard sale for a buck apiece. I also have two yards of zebra print (WHY??) that nobody wanted (imagine!). These kids, they love contrast. Bright blue shorts with a black waistband and yellow thread, please. 

Don't you just love those little knees??

How about another pair with red in the back, yellow in the front, and a green waistband? Coming right up!

The kids want to do a lot of the work themselves. I trace the pattern right on the fabric, piece by piece, and they cut it out. Would it be more accurate if I cut it out for them? Absolutely, but that would take out all the fun. Of course, they love using the machine, too. After a couple disastrous seams with Anya at the helm, I figured out that it works best if I take a chalk marker or fabric pen (actually, I prefer to use Frixion) and mark the seam so they can follow the line as they feed it through the machine. It's time-consuming, but again, it works and they're learning.

I also do all of the pinning and pressing (for obvious safety reasons), and I take care of the tricky parts, like feeding elastic through the casing and sewing up the waistband. But the rest, they can do.

This morning, Daniel asked if we could make him a t-shirt. That is a step up, but I have a pattern already (Flashback Skinny Tee from Made By Rae) so we went for it. This time, I did the cutting out (so much faster, so much more accurate now that I've figured out how to do it with a rotary cutter) but Daniel still wanted to do all the sewing.

Because it's a fitted tee that will endure more tugging than a pair of shorts, I wanted to try using stretch thread. I have Maxi-Lock stretch thread in a bunch of colors that I ordered a while back on recommendation from the Made-by-Rae blog. At the time I was probably being way too ambitious with my intentions of sewing knits, and sure enough, when I tried sewing with it, I ended up with a tangled mess. Stretch thread is tricky stuff. I put it all away in frustration. Fast forward a year or more and I found myself with a 9yo kid wanting to sew, a better machine...and the same problem. The bobbin stitches were all fine, but as for the top thread? Some stitches looked great, and some look like the thread was in the losing end of a fight with a giant strip of Velcro. It looked terrible.

More frustration. I took a little break, then did an online search. There's not a lot out there about sewing with stretch thread, but if you read through the comments on that MBR blog post linked above, there are some helpful suggestions (and several other people with the same problem, which was oddly reassuring). I went with the one where you leave the stretch thread in the bobbin but use regular sewing thread on top and lengthen the stitch to 3.0. It worked! I did a little happy dance.

Once we figured that out, Daniel's t-shirt was finished in no time. Some of the seams using all stretch thread look shitty on the inside, but they'll hold. He did the shoulder and side seams, and the bottom hem. I sewed the sleeve caps, hemmed the sleeves, and stitched on the neckband, along with topstitching it with a twin needle. By the way, hemming and topstitching with a twin needle is my new favorite trick for making things look polished.

As you can see, Daniel is pretty happy with his new t-shirt. He'll also be growing out of it next week, though, you think?

Tomorrow we leave for a road trip. I'm driving my kids up to Boston to see my brother and SIL. We're camping along the way and it's going to be a big adventure. Stuart will fly out next weekend to visit all of us, but he isn't coming along for the driving and camping part. Wish me luck! When I come back, I'll have more stuff to show you: a shawl, another Beatrix top, and socks. Oh my!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Finished! Beatrix top

My Beatrix top is finished! Despite all the problems I created for myself (as detailed on the last post), I really am pleased with how this turned out. I don't remember when I last finished sewing a project for myself that I will actually end up wearing, so that's a win for sure. 

Last evening I asked Stuart to take a few pictures with the nice camera so we ducked out to the back yard for that. You can see Daniel climbing around in the background.

Buttonband is the reverse side of this fabric. Nifty, eh?

The plaids DO NOT MATCH.

Sewing this top has restored, at least partially, my confidence in sewing garments. Most reassuringly, it fits me really well, and I know I can go ahead with another one without making adjustments for fit. I know not to deviate from the instructions and that it's worth spending the time hand-basting the tricky parts, like the set-in sleeve and curved hem, before machine stitching.

I want to cut out another Beatrix top as soon as I pick out the fabric from my stash for it. Maybe I will even do that tonight.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Beatrix: a learning experience

You know what? I'm ready for my garment sewing projects to stop being "learning experiences" and start being just plain successful. 

I'm 97% done with my Beatrix top, and while there are a lot of good things about it, there are a lot of ways I goofed up, too. 

I'll say here that all of the issues are MINE. Rae Hoekstra's pattern and instructions are excellent. I should have followed them more closely. 

First things first: fabric choice. I had a big piece of reversible double gauze I bought on clearance at Gayfeather Fabrics (no up-to-date website to link to, I'm afraid) this spring. It's purple, and on one side is a large-scale plaid with a smaller scale plaid on the other side. If you know me and my tastes, you'll understand when I say I wasn't afraid to use it to try out a pattern for the first time. Purple is not a color I'm drawn to, and while I like plaids in theory, the one plaid shirt I own my husband says makes me look like a farmer. 

If you've ever sewed anything using plaid before, you'll know how important it is to match the plaids. When I cut out the pieces, I was absolutely meticulous about matching the plaid lines...and then I promptly changed my mind about which side of the fabric I actually wanted to face out, and it wasn't until I had sewed the main pieces together that I realized the large plaid pattern doesn't match AT ALL. Oh well. Too late now.

This was my first time using double gauze, and despite all the raving about it I've read online, I found it difficult to work with. Sure it's soft and drapy and feels lovely, but this stuff slides around so much that I was anxious about tracing the pattern accurately. Sewing it felt like trying to stitch two pieces of cotton candy together; at one point my machine (which is a very nice Pfaff just over a year old that was serviced only last month) kept trying to chew up the fabric in the throat plate. Also, the double gauze will fray if you so much as breath on it.

Because of the loose weave and delicate nature of the fabric, it stretches out of shape rather easily. I was distressed to find that even after stay-stitching around the neckline (as per instructions, Rae knows what she's doing, yo), my facing pieces Did Not Fit and were coming up short. I ended up stitching a line of basting around the neck so I could more or less gather it back into shape before hand-basting the neck facing on.

Actually, I did a lot of hand-basting: the facing, the sleeve caps, the can't go wrong when you stitch things securely into place by hand before sending them through the machine, I say. This is especially true when your fabric is so delicate that it's too risky to rip and redo any seams.

Let's recap here: new to me pattern, unfamiliar fabric type, matching plaids...and to add to my problems, I decided to do the button band facings a little bit differently than the instructions state. You see, since the fabric is reversible, I thought, "Hey, wouldn't it be clever to do the facings inside out to showcase the different plaid on the button bands?"

This was all fine and good until I realized I had a bunch of raw edges that would not have been an issue had I paid more attention. In the end, I cut some pieces of grosgrain ribbon to cover the raw edges at the top of the facings (if you look closely at the picture below, you can see that).

The hem was an issue as well. I didn't do the hem edge of the facing right, for one thing (WAY TO FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS, SUZE) and then this *#&$ing fabric frays so easily I couldn't turn it under twice on those curves, so I used a stabilizing tape meant for using on knits, hand-basted the whole thing, then stitched it with a twin needle on the machine. It looks pretty crappy from the wrong side but okay from the right side.

I'm learning. It's okay. Right?

Despite all the issues I've outlined here in this post, I think this may be a successful top. My main worry at this point is that this won't hold up beyond one or two delicate laundry cycles, which sort of defeats the purpose of rejecting fast fashion, right? Anyway, as far as I can tell, the fit is spot on, and since proper fit is one of the biggest hurdles of handmade clothes, that's definitely a win. I'll be able to share more about that once I sew the buttons and buttonholes and wear it for real (rather than the held-together bathroom selfie I posted on IG a few nights ago!) I want to make another Beatrix top following the finishing detail instructions more carefully, certainly not in plaid!

Thursday, July 09, 2015

sewing clothes

If you're a reader of sewing blogs, I'm sure you already know that Rae Hoekstra released her much-anticipated Beatrix top a few days ago. In fact, you may have already bought a copy. I did. I basically live in t-shirts, and Beatrix is, for me, a perfect combination of the casual fit of a t-shirt that doesn't actually require sewing with knit fabric. So I'm making myself one. In fact, I'm already about halfway done! And so far it doesn't look shitty!! Rae is hosting a sew-along starting this Friday, but I got a head start because I was ready to get going and didn't see the point in waiting for The Internet to say it's ok.

Lately I'm interested in expanding my handmade wardrobe. I have a variety of reasons for this, none of them unique or surprising: I don't like clothes shopping, I can't find things I like to wear in stores, I have a lot of fabric to use up, and - this is a biggie - I find so-called Fast Fashion and the clothing manufacturing industry very problematic, and making my own clothes in some ways bypasses those issues.

If you didn't already watch the John Oliver segment I posted a few days ago, please take the 17 or so minutes to do so. He somehow takes Fast Fashion industry by the collar, scolds it, calls it out for its irresponsibility and the media and public for continuing to buy cheap clothes made with child labor, and makes it all scathingly funny and stomach-churning (literally, in the last 3 minutes) at the same time.

I know that making some (or even all) of my own clothes won't solve any of these problems, not really. Handmade clothing is a luxury enjoyed by people with the skills, time, equipment and interest to do so in the first place. I'm well on my way with knitting already, of course. When it comes to sewing I have a little bit of all those things (skill, time, equipment, interest), just enough for me to try my hand at making a few pieces of clothing. Some turn out, but most don't.  I can improve my skills, and I'd like to, but that won't do anything to change mass clothing manufacturing. It's just not practical for everyone to make all of their own clothes, or, for that matter, to grow all of their own food and build their own houses and fix their own get the idea.

The growing popularity of handmade clothing isn't a bad thing, of course. It's great for independent designers who can sell digital patterns online, and for shops who carry quality garment fabrics. Some people have embraced the idea of a smaller, well-made wardrobe, and while I am SO TOTALLY OVER the words "capsule" and "curated" by now I think I can get on board with the concept. Living in a small house with very small bedrooms and tiny closets has forced me to do that already, to a point.

But there is a problem with this high and mighty resolution to eschew cheap clothes in favor of a well-crafted handmade wardrobe. Two problems, actually: MY CHILDREN. Sure, I make them things occasionally, and every once in a while they actually appreciate it. But children need a lot of clothes, not in the way that Imelda Marcos needed a lot of shoes, but still. My kids spill yogurt and mustard and get in the dirt and wade in the lake and unless I'm willing to do a load of laundry every two days, they need several changes to get through the week lest they dress in mud-encrusted t-shirts in the morning. Children also have a way of Growing Out of Things, so if I made their clothes, that's all I'd be doing before they need the next size. And let's face it: kids reach an age where they don't want to wear anything handmade because it's embarrassing or uncool and they're happier in those $10 athletic shorts from Target, which are probably more comfortable anyway.

I guess I'll take this one step at a time. This week I'm making a Beatrix top. If it goes well, I might make another. I might sneak in some PJ pants for the kids (it's still ok to wear handmade PJ pants)...and then we'll see.

Saturday, June 27, 2015


Last evening I collapsed into bed before 8:00. Now it's 4:30 in the morning and I've been WIDE AWAKE for hours. I'll probably crash again mid-afternoon today. Jet lag can really be a bitch sometimes.

You may have gleaned from my most recent (and brief) post that in Scotland, sheep are everywhere. Particularly on the Isle of Skye, we noticed them roaming the hills and fields, grazing by the side of the road. We saw sheep along our hiking trails and tufts of wool caught in the heather on the hillsides and stuck in fences. It must be paradise to be a sheep on the Waternish peninsula on the Isle of Skye. The view! The grass! The freedom!

Despite the enormous number of sheep in Scotland (just under 7 million, according to this website), and despite the apparently thriving wool and textile industry, I came across surprisingly few yarn shops. Now, this was a family trip for us to hike and explore a new country. Shopping really wasn't a part of it at all. But after a quick online search, I came up with one yarn shop that I insisted we visit: the Skye Shilasdair Shop Dyehouse and Exhibition.

That's a long name for a little place, but it was charming and exquisite. To get there, we drove five or so miles on a single lane road, then down a long gravel driveway before arriving at this little stone hut by the sea.

When we walked inside, we saw this:

Hand knit products for sale.

And this:

Piles of beautifully hand-dyed yarn using natural dyes, many of them from plants and sources native to the island (yellows and oranges in particular). In fact, the name "Shilasdair" is Gaelic for the yellow iris flower, one of the plants used in her dye house. The yarn in the picture above isn't Scottish fiber; it's a luxury blend of alpaca, cashmere and angora. It feels divine and comes in a few different weights. She also had hand-dyed sock yarn, worsted weight merino and lace weight silk/merino. I spent a long time looking at the colors and petting the wonderful fibers and trying to decide what to buy. Decision fatigue.

Meanwhile, the "Exhibition" is really just a small room in the back of the shop with a few things on display and a video playing on loop about the sources and process of natural dyeing.

There was also a small garden outside with plants used in the dyes, but it didn't look like the owner has been keeping it up recently. The owner of the shop was away on vacation, so all of my questions were answered tentatively by the assistant working there that day.

I'm not sure what this little blue dugout is for. Storage, possibly. The dyeing all happens in that metal shed you can see in the background.

In the end, I decided I was most interested in wool from the region, not hand-dyed yarn. She had lots of Shetland soft spun aran yarn in about eight different natural colors, all of which were very tempting. In the end, I settled on a few skeins of wool from the basket below:

This is naturally colored wool from Hebridean sheep. In fact, the assistant working in the shop told me the very sheep this wool comes from graze just three miles down the road and we had passed them on our way there. It's not the softest yarn, but it feels warm and sturdy and perfect for a cardigan. I don't know what exactly I want to make with it yet, but I have a couple things in mind. I'll have to swatch and see how the fabric feels. I really want to make something with cables, but it's such a dark color I'm not sure how well they will show up.

Anya really wanted some souvenir yarn, which I find so endearing. She can knit and is eager to build on her skills, which at this point are still just at the basic level. We looked at lots and lots of yarn in different colors, and in the end she picked out two of the lace weight skeins, one in bright red and one in bright yellow. They were small and relatively inexpensive, but I hesitated because she is definitely not ready to knit when them yet. Lace weight yarn is not easy to work with, plus what is a 7yo girl going to do with lace? I offered to buy the same color yarn in a different weight, but that's not what she wanted. I even offered to make something for her out of it, but she just looked at me and said, "Mommmm what's the point of that? I want to knit with it." I suspect this yarn will sit in her own little stash for a long while until she has the skill to use it and figures out what she wants, and that's fine with me. I have little doubt she'll eventually get around to it. In fact, on the long flight to Chicago, when I asked Anya what she most looked forward to about getting home, she said, "Knitting."